Monday, September 12, 2022

Nothing But Thunder - Gods Behaving Badly

Review by Byrne Harrison
Photo credit: Duncan Pflaster Photography and Graphic Design

Dionysus.  God of theatre and wine.  Son of Zeus.  A man who can drive women to the heights of ecstasy or madness.  And a complete spoiled brat.

In Duncan Pflaster's latest classically-inspired romp, NOTHING BUT THUNDER, Dionysus (Spencer Gonzalez) has a chance to fulfill his greatest desire - to finally ascend to Olympus and become a full god.  To do so, all he has to do is find his dead mother in Tartarus, where she is being tortured for sleeping with Zeus and offending his wife Hera, and bring her back to the land of the living.

A difficult feat, to be sure, but one that other demigods have accomplished.  The only thing standing between him and his goal is his own hubris, and a burly shepherd, Prosymnus (Kenny Wade Marshall), with an eye for beautiful men, who knows exactly what Dionysus needs to become the god he is meant to be, instead of the self-serving hedonist that he has always been.

Kenny Wade Marshall (L) as Prosymnus and Spencer Gonzalez (R) as Dionysus

Helped by his loyal, sardonic slave Xanthias (Matt Biagini), his former wife Ariadne (Olivia Kinter), and eventually his mother Semele, (Alyssa Simon) Dionysus travels a road to self-discovery that leads to an unexpected, but ultimately fulfilling climax.

NOTHING BUT THUNDER once again demonstrates playwright Duncan Pflaster's talent for making modern plays in classical styles.  As he did with his Shakespeare-inspired sequels, THE THYME OF THE SEASON and MALVOLIO'S REVENGE, or his Chekhovian comedy THE STARSHIP ASTROV, Pflaster demonstrates his gift for comedy, his talent for capturing the spirit of the genre or playwright, and especially in this play, his gift for raunchy and extremely witty humor.  There is plenty of X-rated wordplay in NOTHING BUT THUNDER, and a fair amount of nudity, too.

Spencer Gonzalez as Dionysus

The cast does a marvelous job, with most of the actors portraying multiple characters and serving as the chorus.  Biagini hits just the right notes as the often put-upon servant of Dionysus.  With a sly smile, he often scores a point or two on his master, not that Dionysus is self-aware enough to realize.  Gonzalez, as Dionysus, shows remarkable range as his character develops.  The Dionysus he presents in the final scenes is such a far cry from the callow youth he starts out as. His portrayal of Dionysus's sinuous sexuality, and his utter bewilderment when it that sexuality doesn't seem to work on Prosymnus and his down-to-earth sister Adelpha (played with sly wink by Katrina Dykstra), is a delight to watch.  Kenny Wade Marshall's Prosymnus is more than what he first appears, and Marshall does a great job portraying the man and the mentor that Dionysus needs, as well as Hades in later scenes.  Alyssa Simon is a stellar Semele, especially in her quieter moments of the play when she starts to realize the pitfalls of being alive again and where she might finally fit in.  Olivia Kinter likewise does a great job as Ariadne, as complex a woman as would be expected for someone like Dionysus.

Rounding out the cast is Eric Hedlund who plays Hermes, Zeus and a scene-stealing Sisyphus (with rock).  A dynamic physical actor, he add movement and drama to his many scenes.

As is typical both for festivals and opening nights, there were some technical issues and the timing seemed a bit off, but frankly nothing that won't get evened out as the performances move forward.   Director Aliza Shane goes big with her direction, the play is full of movement, both in terms of utilizing the space, and in how the actors perform.  They bend, they move, the come together in posed portraits, and when they are still they command attention.  It is kinetic and fascinating to watch.

NOTHING BUT THUNDER is another worthy addition to Plaster's body of work.  Presented as part of the Dream Up Festival at Theater for the New City, remaining performances are Wednesday, September 14th and Sunday, September 18th.

NOTHING BUT THUNDER
Written by Duncan Pflaster
Directed by Aliza Shane
Assistant Director/Stage Manager Roberto Alexander
Intimacy & Fight Consultant Sharon Litwinoff
Photography and Graphic Design by Duncan Pflaster

Cast
Matt Biagini - Xanthias
Katrina Dykstra - Adelpha / Chorus 1
Olivia Kinter - Ariadne / Dryad / Chorus 2
Alyssa Simon - Semele / Chorus 3
Spencer Gonzalez - Dionysus
Eric Hedlund - Hermes / Sisyphus / Zeus / Chorus 4
Kenny Wade Marshall - Prosymnus / Hades

NOTHING BUT THUNDER is a phone-free performance.  Yondr provides secure pouches for mobile devices.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Belfast Girls - Hope, Hypocrisy and Grim Reality

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

In the late 1840's the colonial government of Ireland, in the face of a severe famine and resulting economic crisis, came up with the Orphan Emigration Scheme. Capitalizing on the severe shortage of woman in Australia, the Irish authorities shipped over 4,000 women there with the promise of a better life. These historical events forming the basis of Jaki McCarrick's involving drama Belfast Girls, now at the Irish Repertory Theatre.

The story takes place in 1850 on board the sailing ship Inchinnan, which is transporting approximately 200 women to the land down under. As the ship makes ready to sail, five women find themselves sharing a partitioned space for the journey. Judith (Caroline Strange), originally from Jamaica and the de facto leader of the group; Hannah (Mary Mallen), whose father sold her to a pimp; Ellen (Labhaoise Magee) a refugee from the prison workhouses who likes to draw; Sarah, (Sarah Street) a country girl whose brother has preceded her to Australia; and Molly (Aida Leventaki) who yearns to perform on the stage and is constantly reading books. Over the course of their three-month voyage friendships will be formed, tested and torn apart as these women are forced to confront secrets they've desperately tried to keep hidden.

(L-R) Caroline Strange, Labhaoise Magee & Mary Mullern in Belfast Girls. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Belfast Girls is first and foremost, a tale of second chances. Where each of the five has the chance to remake themselves into anything they wish and become "mistress of their own destiny". At least on the journey. Some of the girls using this time to broaden their intellectual horizons. Such as Judith, who secretly yearns to be a teacher, and finds herself infected with Molly's passion for learning. Or Molly, who talks about women’s rights and how things are changing in the world; and also how they now have the chance to be a part of that change.

At the same time the play continually calls forth a feeling of cynicism. One lurking just beneath its hopeful surface. For example, exactly how were some of the women able to secure passage on the ship? Many of the 200 older and far less innocent than what the government advertisements were supposedly seeking. There’s also the ultimate realization that these woman weren't so much escaping Ireland, but actually "spat out" by those who used Australia's need as a chance to empty the workhouses and poorhouses so they could become someone else's problem. The story also takes a swipe at the "rose-colored glasses" effect nostalgia brings forth when the women talk about missing the beauty of Ireland. Even though most of them experienced far more suffering, misery and heartbreak there than anything else.

                     (L-R) Aida Leventaki and Sarah Street in Belfast Girls.  Photo: Carol Rosegg.

It's also interesting to see how, during the voyage, the women become part of a closed-off world. They dividing themselves into different cliques and gangs, each wary and untrusting of the others. Which is why, even before the play begins, Judith, Hannah and the rest have positioned their luggage to create a barrier in their space to separate themselves from the others. All in an attempt to remain isolated and safe. Yet even among the group of five, class and economic prejudices begin to show as the girls wonder just who exactly is to blame for the miseries that have brought them to this point. Eventually these hatreds come bubbling to the surface, as those seeking someone to blame begin to lash out.

Although some of the women come off as more fully formed than others, each character has an clear individual personality and back story. Any one of which could be the basis for a play of its own. Strange gives Judith a nice world-weary and dangerous quality. Leventaki projects just the right amount of wide-eyed hopeful innocence as Molly. Magee, Street and Mallen show their characters to be well-versed in the practices of denial and forgiveness, though as one comes to find out, their efforts can be misplaced at times.

Also key to the story is director Nicola Murphy's careful pacing, which realistically imparts the impression of a long and claustrophobic voyage. The women suffering through everything from seasickness, sweltering heat to violent storms as they try to get along while not getting on each other’s nerves. Yet through it all, there are some on the boat who never want the journey to end. For once it does, all that will be waiting for them is an uncertain future. The use of traditional Irish songs also adds a nice touch.

(L-R) Labhaoise Magee, Mary Mallen, Caroline Strange, Sarah Street and Aida Leventaki in Belfast Girls. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Belfast Girls, the title taken from the place the five ladies embarked on the voyage, tells the story of women who risked everything for the hope life would be better on the other side of the world. By the time the journey is over, one's feel like they've taken the entire voyage with them, and can't help but root for them to find the peace and happiness they've been seeking.

Featuring: Aida Leventaki (Molly Durcan), Labhaoise Magee (Ellen Clarke), Mary Mallen (Hannah Gibney), Caroline Strange (Judith Noone), Sarah Street (Sarah Jane Wylie).

Belfast Girls

by Jaki McCarrick

Scenic Design: Chika Shimizu
Costume Design: China Lee
Lighting Design: Michael O'Connor
Sound Design: Caroline Eng
Music Consultant: Gregory Grene
Properties: Brandy Hoang Collier
Fight & Intimacy Director: Leana Gardella
Movement Director: Erin O'Leary
Dialect Coach: Julie Foh
Hair & Wig Design: Rachael Geier
Production Stage Manager: Avery Trunko
Assistant Stage Manager: Mary Garrigan
Press Representative: Matt Ross Public Relations
General Manger: Lisa Fine
Directed by Nicola Murphy

Presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or www.irishrep.org
Running Time 2 hours, ten minutes, with one intermission
Closes: June 26, 2022


Judd Hollander is a reviewer for the Epoch Times and a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.

 

Saturday, November 27, 2021

The Lehman Trilogy - A complex tale made breathtakingly clear

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Told in what can best be described as a continual stream of consciousness, the Broadway play The Lehman Trilogy recounts the rise and fall of what would become a global financial institution. As seen through the eyes of those who made it possible - for better and for worse. 

Winningly adapted by Ben Power from Stefano Massini's sprawling novel, the tale begins in 1844 when German immigrant Heyum Lehmann (Simon Russell Beale) steps off the boat in New York. Heyum, now Henry Lehman thanks to some confusion with a customs officer, makes his way to Montgomery, Alabama where he operates a dry goods shop. It's there he's joined by his younger brothers Emanuel (Adrian Lester) and Mayer (Adam Godley).  All different in temperament, the three form a sort of cohesive whole as they find ways to grow their business by learning to adapt to changing times and circumstances. Their can-do attitude and willingness to consider new opportunities enables them to survive economic upheavals caused by the Civil War, the Great Depression and the beginnings of the computer age, among others.


(l-r) Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, and Adrian Lester; photo by: Julieta Cervantes.

However the stronger and more diversified the entity that will eventually be known as Lehman Brothers becomes, the more tentacles are required to keep its fingers on the pulse of its ever-increasing endeavors.  Dry goods, cotton, computers and railroads being only a few of their involvements.  The ever-increasing need for the company to deliver huge profits and continually be on the cutting edge of the next big thing eventually becoming its undoing.

Examining the idea of capitalism at its most basic, The Lehman Trilogy is a tale of the American Dream and it what can represent. A premise explored through those who first become successful, and then do whatever is necessary to retain everything they have achieved. Also present is the innate desire for one to do better than those who have come before. Something visible not only in the Lehman family, but in the offspring of a Greek diner owner and a Hungarian lamp maker. Each determined to reach as high as they can and find their own personal pot of gold. At the same time, the play also shows the bitter reality that no matter how much one may have earned – either in capital or respect - a new generation will always replace the old. A reality that becomes laced with more than a little irony when those who cast the original Lehman founders aside eventually find themselves in that same situation.

Also evident is an ever-growing cynicism about how one must operate in order to continue to succeed. Especially when the concepts of marketing and public relations are introduced. Along with the premise of getting people to buy what they don't need. This truth is also mixed in with humor when one of the family begins to question concepts others have long accepted as tradition. As well as when one of the Lehman clan comes up with a long check list of items necessary in a potential wife. (Love not being on the list.)

(l-r) Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, Adrian Lester. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Told with just three principal actors, each playing multiple rules and alternating as the narrator, the performers are not only able to bring to life their various characters, but also the eras in which they inhabit. Beale, who along with Godley came over from the original London production, is particularly striking as Henry. The scene when he first sets foot in America is particularly emotional. Lester is fine as Emanuel, a man determined to make his own mark and who is more excited by seeing first-hand the results of his efforts rather than a concept someone is describing; but at the same time quick to realize the potential profit in something new. Godley makes a good fit as Emanuel, the quietest of the bothers yet just as smart and determined in his own way.

The actors are helped tremendously by the strong use of Luke Hall's video design. Images which range from the cotton fields of Alabama to the concrete canyons of New York City. All of which serve to enhance the story rather than distract from it. Just as important is Nick Powell’s meticulous sound design, offering music which moves faster and faster as the story heads to its final denouncement. Jon Clark’s lighting work also perfectly compliments the production. Sam Medes’ direction is completely on-target, nicely handling a mix of dramatic, comedic and introspective moments. All helped by Es Devlin’s minimalist (and revolving) set. with just enough scenery to do the job.

Taking a complex multi-generational tale and stripping it down to its bare essentials, The Lehman Trilogy is magnificent as it highlights elements of pride, determination and a person's insatiable need be a part of something bigger than themselves.


                         Adrian Lester. Photo by Julieta Cervantes


Featuring: Simon Russell Beale (Henry Lehman), Adam Godley (Mayer Lehman), Adrian Lester (Emanuel Lehman), Aaron Krohn (Janitor)

Pianist: Candida Caldicot

Alternate Pianist: Gillian Berkowitz

Associate Music Coordinator: Kimberlee Wertz


The Lehman Trilogy

by Stefano Massini


Adapted by Ben Power

Costume Design: Katrina Lindsay

Video Design: Luke Halls

Lighting Design: Jon Clark

Composer and Sound Design: Nick Powell

Co-Sound Design: Dominic Bilkey

Music Director: Candida Caldicot

Movement: Polly Bennett

Associate Director: Zoe Ford Burnett

U.S. General Manager: Wagner Johnson Productions

U.K. General Manager: Jack Bull

Casting: Wendy Spon CDG & Jim Carnahan CSA

Press Representative: DKC/O&M

Production Manager: Aurora Productions & Jim Leaver

Production Stage Manager: David Lober

Associate General Manager: Megan Curren

Company Manager: Deirdre Murphy

Scenic Design: Es Devlin


Directed by Sam Mendes

 

The Nederlander Theatre

208 West 41st Street

Tickets: www.ticketmaster.com

Running time 3 hours, 25 minutes, with two intermissions

Closes: January 2, 2021

Saturday, November 28, 2020

"Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon" - An Enlightening Journey Into Darkness

Reviewed by Judd Hollander
 
In the closing narration of the classic Twilight Zone television episode "Where is Everybody?" series creator Rod Serling talks about isolation, the barrier of loneliness and the vastness of space. The U.K.-based Original Theatre Company extrapolates on these same elements by tying them to an event which riveted the entire world, with their online production of "Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon".
 
The film opens in 2020 where former U.S. astronauts Jim Lovell (Philip Franks) and Fred Haise (Geoff Aymer) talk with a Researcher (Poppy Roe) about their ill-fated space mission of 50 years earlier. When, approximately 56 hours after launch, an explosion in one of the ship's oxygen tanks forced the cancellation of their journey to the moon and thrust Lovell, Haise (played in 1970 by Christopher Harper and Michael Salami respectively), along with fellow astronaut Jack Swigert (Tom Chambers), into a desperate effort simply to stay alive. For much of the next four days, the men lived in an almost totally frozen and dark spacecraft - it being shut down to save power - as they hurtled through space. Their travels taking them around the dark side of the moon before starting their trajectory home. During the 25 minutes it took their craft to traverse the back of the moon Lovell, Haise and Swigert were cut off from all communications from home as they traveled farther away from Earth than anyone has ever gone, before or since.
 
(L-R) Michael Salmi as Fred Haise, Christopher Harper as Jim Lovell and Tom Chambers as Jack Swigert in "Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon".

One of the film's greatest strengths is its ability to place the audience directly into the story. The use of grainy archival footage in the beginning, such as showing the liftoff of the Apollo 13 spacecraft, helps bring home the enormity of the entire project; and the realization of just how dangerous space travel is - both then and now. The different technical elements of the film are all the more impressive when one learns that, due to the pandemic, much of the action showing the astronauts in space was filmed separately. The actors shooting their own footage, guided by their technical counterparts looking on via various monitoring devices. Co-Directors Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters showing a strong understanding of the storyline they are ultimately putting forth.
 
The most effective parts of the film are its emotional aspects. Lovell showing, more in expression than words, the great disappointment he still feels at never being able to set foot on the surface of the moon. Additionally, there's a clear combination of wistfulness and deeply remembered exultation when describes the Apollo 13 liftoff process, in a rocket "a shade taller than the Statue of Liberty". One can also hear the irony when Lovell and Haise talk about a film they made for broadcast while on the way to the moon. A film no network initially wanted to air because, by 1970, space travel had become pretty much old news. Of course when disaster occurred, then everyone was interested. There was also the feelings of fear and frustration when the three space travelers suddenly find themselves in a situation they could no longer control. All they could do was work to mitigate the accident's effects as best as they could. A similar situation to what's happening now as the world attempts to navigate the ongoing pandemic.
                  Geoff Aymer as Present Day Fred Haise in "Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon".

The time the astronauts spend on the dark side of the moon constitutes the emotional heart of the film. While the conversation depicted may be fiction - something explained early on - the elements explored are quite real. Much of this is tied into writer Torben Betts' decision to make Haise an African-American. This is not an instance of color-blind casting, but rather a way for the character, by calling attention to his skin color, to ask questions and comment on issues a non-minority could not. At least not with the same level of passion or cultural believability. The back and forth between the astronauts - particularly Haise and Swigert - force the audience to take a long hard look at racial and political events going on at the time, with clear parallels to what is happening in the world today. The 2020 Haise noting how the entire experience made him feel far more connected to the world and how "we're all in this life together". The film also offers a sobering glimpse of reality in its the final moments when Lovell and Haise put on their face masks after they have finished speaking to the Researcher and get ready to leave.

                 Philip Franks as Present Day Jim Lovell in "Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon".

Franks and Aymer nicely show the gravitas of two old men who have been repeatedly asked the same questions time and time again, yet still manage to keep their answers fresh and non-condescending. Even if there are certain moments of their time in space they still won't talk about publicly. Roe does well as the Researcher, a woman who attempts to guide the conversation along while trying not to sound too far out of her depth. Harper, Salami and Chambers are fine as the 1970 astronauts, while Jenna Augen does a good job of always keeping things professional as the voice of CAPCOM.

Apollo 13: The Dark Side of The Moon

Featuring: Christopher Harper (Jim Lovell), Michael Salami (Fred Haise), Tom Chambers (Jack Swigert), Philip Franks (Present Day Lovell), Geoff Aymer (Present Days Haise), Poppy Roe (Researcher Patricia Cooper).

Written by Torben Betts

Directed by Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters
Designed by David Woodhead
Edited by Tristan Shepherd
Sound design by Dominc Bilkey
Original music composed by Sophie Cotton
Movement direction by Simon Pittman
Casting by Ellie Collyer-Brisow CDG.
 
Produced by Original Theatre Company.
Tickets: Starting at ₤20
Available through December 31
Running time: approximately 75 minutes
Reservations: originaltheatreonline.com

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Book Review: The Understudy


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

If you're looking for a complicated dissertation on what it takes to be an actor, then The Understudy, a novel by Ellen Tovatt Leary, is not for you. Though if you happen to prefer something which combines elements of a Harlequin romance ("her heart plunged like an elevator that slipped its cable") and a virtual love letter to the theatre, get set for an enjoyable read.

                                                The Understudy - Cover Artwork: Harrison Houlé

Nina Landau, a 32 year-old New York actress, has toiled for more than a decade in stock, regional and Off-Broadway venues, but has yet to make her Broadway debut. However this may all change when she lands an audition for a new comedy set to open on the Great White Way. Trying out for the female lead, she is instead offered the chance to understudy the role; along with playing a minor character with only one line. At first Nina is hesitant about taking such a part, which she see as beneath her, but after fervent urging from her close friends, she agrees.

Leary toiled for years in the theatre trenches and clearly knows of what she writes. She taking the story, with the starting point the terror that comes from an important audition - a process Nina refers to as being led to the gallows - to the frantic yet controlled chaos of the rehearsal process, all the way to a Broadway opening night and beyond. Each step along the way filled with dozens of details about the theatre. Such as insights on theatrical superstitions - i.e. never quote from Macbeth or even say the title aloud - to an exploration of the different techniques actors use to understand their characters. As well as a discussion of just how important the job of an understudy is to the production at large. All of this information delivered in an easy, conversational manner, without ever feeling tedious or overly descriptive.

Hand-in-hand with this intricately crafted atmosphere is Nina's budding romance with Matt Ryland, the show's leading man. A known name in television circles, he and Nina are instantly attracted to one other. While Nina has a string of failed love affairs behind her, and recently turned down a proposal from her on-again, off-again boyfriend, she begins to see Matt as the person she is truly meant to be with. Now if she could only get over her phobia of commitment, and the fear that just when she has everything she's ever wanted, it will all be taken away. It doesn't help that Matt is bringing his own emotional baggage to the relationship. Including having a girlfriend in California.

The Understudy takes place in the 1970s and the material gives off just the right nostalgic feel. Though there are some items that will probably have to be explained to younger readers, such as bus tokens and answering machines. The book also offers a loving salute to New York City, with vivid descriptions of places ranging from Central Park and Broadway - complete with traffic patterns - to Chinatown and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

                                                 Ellen Tovatt Leary. Photo Credit: Gene Klavan

One can also find certain moral lessons present in the text. In particular, the realization no relationship is always filled with fun and passion. The author pointing out how everybody has their own personal issues to deal with and, in order to make things work, one must take the good with the bad. As Nina's best friend remarks, "pain is the price we pay for love... [b]ut it doesn't mean it isn't worth it". Another avenue explored is what can happen when one is unprepared to deal with sudden success, and the resulting turmoil that can occur. Leary also includes several harsh theatrical realities in her tale. Including the need for a show to have a star as the lead in order to draw ticket buyers, and the importance of receiving a good review in The New York Times.

While a good portion of the plot, not to mention many of the characters, does play out along predicable lines (yes, Nina eventually goes on for the star; and yes, the show's company includes a temperamental actress and a womanizing director), Leary takes the overall tale much further. The story exploring what happens after "happily ever after", when it comes time for both Nina and Matt to move on to other jobs. These changes causing Nina to wonder if she and Matt can manage a long-distance relationship. Tied in with this is a detailed account of a summer theatre tour which does not go at all well. The company traveling by bus from one motel to another, and where what passes for a good meal is often whatever food can be had at a local bar.

Though the story itself is quite engaging, the characters themselves are a little thin. Other than Nina and Matt, none of the others come close to being three dimensional. Even much of Matt's backstory is revealed in a way that feels just a bit too contrived. Still, the overall tale works well enough to hold the reader's interest.

Part theatrical love letter and part romance novel, The Understudy shows that while true love is never completely perfect, it can come pretty darn close if all parties involved are willing to work at it.

The Understudy
Written by Ellen Tovatt Leary
Published by Hansen Publishing Group (www.hansenpublishing.com)
$16.00 (USD)
258 pages
Copyright 2020
ISBN: 978-1-60182-344-1

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Woman in Black - Where Innocence Meets The Unexplainable


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

(Originally scheduled to run through April 19th, The Woman in Black, as well as all other live performances at the McKittrick Hotel have been suspended until further notice due to the coronavirus pandemic.  Please check the McKittrick website - noted below - for updates.)

Any good writer knows the true power of a ghost story comes not from what is written down, spoken aloud, or even presented for all to see; but rather from the ominous silences and pregnant pauses that fall in-between. These suggestive moments used to further stimulate the already overactive imaginations of those immersed in the tale. Thus making any coming revelation all the more terrifying. So it is with Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, The Woman in Black. A stage version of which has been running in the U.K. for over 30 years. After making a brief off-Broadway appearance in 2001, the play has finally returned to these shores and can now be seen at the McKittrick Hotel.

Englishman Arthur Kipps (David Acton) is a bright young man with an even brighter future. He's an up-and-coming solicitor at a London law firm, and has a fiancée he loves dearly. One day he's called into his superior's office and given an assignment which will take him to the remote town of Crythin Gifford. Once there, he will begin dealing with the estate of the recently diseased Mrs. Drablow, and represent the firm at her funeral. 

Initially seeing this as just another responsibility handed off to a junior member of the firm, upon his arrival Kipps is surprised to find himself treated as something of a pariah. The townspeople giving him strange looks and quite unwilling to talk to him once his purpose becomes known. It's as if they're all hiding something, which they absolutely refuse to discuss. Such is the case with Mr. Jerome, the local estate agent. A seemingly innocent question from Kipps at the funeral being enough to send the man into a fit of terror.
      L-R) David Acton and Ben Porter. Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson for The McKittrick Hotel

Determined to do the job to which he has been assigned, and with no patience for any apparent local superstitions, Kipps heads out to the Drablow home, an isolated place known as Eel Marsh House. Kipps describing his first sight of the structure as if it was "rising out of the water itself. A tall gaunt house of grey stone with a slate roof.” The entire area surrounded by marshland and accessible only by a long narrow causeway at low tide.

While sorting through the endless papers Mrs. Drablow left behind, Kipps soon begins to feel a strange, ominous presence. A sensation followed soon after by a series of unexplainable noises. Sounds which lead him to a mysterious locked room. Shaking Kipps even further are sudden screams of terror coming from the marshes. It's not long before this once firm believer in the logical and explainable begins to fear for his very sanity, as an oft-repeated horror which stretches back more than a generation begins to unfold about him.

The Woman in Black is told on two parallel tracks. The first reveals a now-aged Kipps trying to tell his story about that long ago experience. One which haunts him to this day. The second is Kipps' tale actually recreated, thanks to an Actor (Ben Porter) who is determined to inject some passion into what Kipps has put down on paper. During this process, The Actor assumes the role of younger Kipps, while Kipps himself takes on the various secondary roles his story calls for. The two men occasionally breaking character to converse with each other as these events play out.

                             Ben Porter. Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson for The McKittrick Hotel

Adapter Stephen Mallatratt wisely mixes the earlier moments of the production with bits of humor, as we see Kipps, the lawyer by trade, having no idea of the difference between simply speaking a story aloud and actually presenting it to an audience. Something The Actor, due to his trade, is quite well-versed in. Mallatratt, director Robin Herford and the rest of the creative team also taking full advantage of the “show, don’t tell” adage when it comes to actually putting forth Kipps’ tale. They jettisoning much of his various descriptions and substituting sound-recordings, lighting effects and some nicely atmospheric props. The methods used to suggest a “pony-trap” (horse and carriage) being particularly amusing. 

The story, already foreboding in the beginning, turns much darker in act two as Kipps finds himself increasingly left to his own devices as he stumbles from one horror to the next. His own terror projected out into the audience as they wait for the next shoe to drop. Or the next door to open, or flash of light to illuminate what lurks in the shadows.

The material also offers a stark warning about the danger of obsession. Be it a determination to do one’s job, the love one has for another, or the fear of avoiding a scandal. Holding too tightly onto anything, as the show ultimately points out, has a tremendous potential for tragedy. The story also shows what happens when one is so deeply immersed in their own pain, they lose the ability to forgive. So much so that even those who had nothing to do with the original circumstances are now forced to pay the price.

                           Ben Porter. Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson for The McKittrick Hotel

Acton does a wonderful job as Kipps. Purposefully awkward and ill at ease when trying to tell his story aloud, he later comes brilliantly alive when assuming the various different personas in the tale. Porter is excellent as The Actor. He perfectly portraying the younger Kipps with just the right amount of enthusiasm and naiveté during his ill-fated trip, and later breaking down completely when faced with the ultimate truth.

The program bills the show as “a ghost story in a pub”. The Club Car space at the McKittrick nicely set up to project that initially relaxed atmosphere. However, the way the show is staged is not always conducive to the work.

Just as the proper use of silence can be used to heighten tension, too often here it provokes laughter. As evident during a sequence where Kipps is seemingly roaming about the Drablow house in a desperate search. This process taking too long and would have worked far better had Porter been slowly approaching something on stage, rather than walking between the rows of tables where the audience is sitting.

The show would have also been better served without an intermission. Breaking the work into two sections only serves to halt the buildup of growing terror, and also somewhat dilutes the overall effect. The use of Herford’s direction clearly off at points, with a definite need for things to be played much more sharply. This is especially true in the initial going, where the early banter between The Actor and Kipps could easily have been pared down a bit. Designer Michael Holt’s sets are fine, especially the aforementioned locked room and what is eventually found there. Also completely essential to the show, each in their own way are the excellent lighting effects by Anshuman Bhatia, and the sound design efforts by Sebastian Frost.

                            Ben Porter. Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson for The McKittrick Hotel

There’s no doubt The Woman In Black is a powerful story. Although there is certainly a lot to experience with the McKittrick production, its actual presentation falls a bit short of the mark.

Featuring: David Acton (Arthur Kipps), Ben Porter (The Actor), Guy Balotine (Standby for Arthur Kipps), James Evans (Standby for The Actor).

Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story in a Pub

Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt
Director: Robin Herford
Production Stage Manager: Carolyn Boyd
Designer: Michael Holt
Stage Manager: Emily Roth
Lighting Designer: Anshuman Bhatia
Assistant Stage Manager: Deidre Works
Sound Designer: Sebastian Frost
Vision Productions: Imogen Finlayson
Original Sound Design: Rod Mead
General Managers: Tim Smith & Martin Platt
Associate Director: Magdalene Spanuello
Casting Director: Laura Stanczyk

Presented by The McKittrick Hotel
Address: 530 West 27th Street
Tickets: www.mckittrickhotel.com
Running Time: Two Hours, including one intermission


Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Dana H - Portrait of A Real-Life Nightmare


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Playwright Lucas Hnath unveils a very personal tale which examines one of humankind's deepest fears. Being held captive by another person while you pray for your very survival. A terror magnified one-hundred fold when freedom looks to be just a few steps away, but being able to cross that threshold seems impossible. Such events, which happened to Hnath's own mother, presented in the documentary theatre piece, Dana H.  Featuring Deidre O’Connell, this work is now at the Vineyard Theatre.

                                         Deidre O'Connell in 'Dana H."  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Dana is someone who cares about helping others. A chaplain who works in a Florida psychiatric ward, she listens to the patients while trying to help them deal with their various issues. Patients such as Jim. A tattooed ex-convict and member of the Aryan Brotherhood, he has a history of mental issues and drug abuse. Someone who can cry like a child one minute and lash out violently the next. Jim establishing a strong emotional connection to Dana during their time together. He eventually becoming so attached to her that, after a suicide attempt, he insisted that unless she came to talk to him, he would not obey the treatment center's protocols.

Jim's firm belief of how much he needs Dana finally spins out of control when, one day in 1997, he breaks into her home and kidnaps her. During the next five months, he physically abuses and psychologically terrorizes her while they travel from place to place, staying in various hotels in the Florida/North Carolina area. Her son, who was away at college during this period, didn’t learn the full story and its subsequent ramifications until years later. Hnath using the audio tapes from a series of interviews his mom gave to Steve Cosson in 2015 to recreate Dana’s experience for the audience. O’Connell telling this story to an unseen interviewer in a non-descript hotel room, while lip synching to Dana's own words. 

Told by someone still trying to fully come to terms with what happened, Dana’s tale is the stuff of nightmares. Especially terrifying is the fact that, due to Jim’s apparent standing in the criminal community and his relationship with the local authorities, almost no one is willing to help her. Any members of law enforcement they happen to come across either recognize Jim straight off and turn a blind eye, or can do little more than buy Dana some time so she can flee. Dana’s time with Jim not a consecutive five-month period, as she was able to escape at least twice. Only to have Jim track her down and force her to come with him again.

                                               Deidre O'Connell in 'Dana H."  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Particularly affecting is Dana’s description of Jim. A charismatic figure with a hair-trigger temper, he continually repeats to Dana how she must always stay with him as only he can protect her. Jim’s involving her in his criminal activities - at one point he sends her to buy guns for him - as well as his continued paranoia about people watching his movements, exacerbates Dana’s own fear about who can she trust to help her. At the same time, a sort of paralysis begins to settle around her where the prospect of escape battles with that of survival. Indeed, one gets the clear feeling Dana hasn’t quite gotten over the thought there might be those from Jim's world that are still watching her.

The work itself is broken down into three separate sections. The early minutes filled with a sense of foreboding as, thanks to information contained in the show program, what is about to happen is clearly explained. Watching those first recollections, one can't help but wonder what Dana might have done to make later events turn out differently. Or what we would have done, were we in that situation.

It’s initially a bit jarring to have all the dialogue presented via lip synch, but O’Connell is so able to immerse herself into the character, you quickly forget she is not the one doing the actual speaking. Steve Cuiffo, billed in the program as an Illusion & Lip Sync Consultant, doing a fantastic job in that aspect. He and director Les Waters working with O’Connell to make sure her every movement, gesture and facial expression perfectly fits with the dialogue. Thus allowing an extra dimension to Dana's words. In effect, both it is Dana and O'Connell who are telling this tale.

                                          Deidre O'Connell in 'Dana H."  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

There are a few technical problems present. Such as the continual beeps heard during the sound recordings. They either meant as cues for O’Connell or to indicate a different point in time during Dana's actual interviews. Necessary as they may be, they quickly start to become distracting. Also, there are two occasions when Dana describes certain objects, such as a photograph of a crime scene where there’s a huge amount of congealed blood, and a piece of silverware with Nazi markings. However the objects in question are so small that when O'Connell displays them, they are impossible to see unless one is seated almost directly in front of her. Either using a projection screen to make these items clearer, or simply not showing them at all, and just going with Dana’s descriptions, which are all quite detailed, would have worked far better.

Andrew Boyce's set of the hotel room, with its pink walls, drab bedspread, twin lamps and ceiling fan, perfectly calls to mind the thousands of such rooms across the country. Waters directs the entire piece with a sure hand. He not having to worry about ratcheting up the tension as it were, but simply allow Dana’s story to play out in her own words.

Dana H tells one woman’s harrowing tale of terror, survival and the beginnings of recovery. It’s a story both powerfully and painfully told.

Dana H.
by Lucas Hnath

Adapted from interviews from Dana Higginbotham conducted by Steve Cosson

Featuring: Deidre O’Connell

Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce
Costume Design: Janice Pytel
Lighting & Supertitle Design: Paul Toben
Sound Design: Mikhail Fiksel
Illusion & Lip Sync Consultant: Steve Cuiffo
Production Stage Manager: Clarissa Marie Ligon
Production Supervisor: Adrian White
Production Manager: Conor McCarthy
Press Representative: The Press Room
General Manager: DR Theatrical Management

Directed by Les Waters

Presented by the Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street
Tickets: 212-353-0303 or www.vineyardtheatre.org
Running Time: 80 Minutes, No Intermission
Closes: April 11, 2020

Monday, February 24, 2020

Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice - Trying Too Hard To Be What One Is Not


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. Such is the message of the new musical Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center, this earnest take on the 1969 film of the same name has much to say about four thirtysomethings who try to become part of something which they have no real understanding of. Sadly, the show ultimately fails in its execution.

Documentary filmmaker Bob (Joél Pérez), lawyer Ted (Michael Zegen) and their stay-at-home wives Carol (Jennifer Damiano) and Alice (Ana Nogueira) are the best of friends. Bob and Carol being the freer thinkers of this California foursome, while Ted and Alice are more conservative. Bob and Carol for example, would think nothing of suddenly singing at a crowded restaurant. Something which Ted and Alice would never do. 

One thing both couples have in common is their complete love for their respective spouses, and total commitment to them. Things change when Bob and Carol go on a spiritual retreat to “get in touch with their feelings” as it were. Bob also interested in seeing if there’s enough material there for a new project. However, by the end of their stay, the two find themselves completely immersed in the sessions they've participated in. Ones which allow them to give voice to inner emotions and personal regrets they never realized they had. Or at least ever admitted, even to themselves. This newfound awareness beginning to cause cracks in their marriage.

                           Jennifer Damiano and Joél Pérez . Photo Credit: Monique Carboni.

Soon after, Bob, who at the age of 35 finds himself in a midlife crisis, travels to Berkley in order to shoot some footage for his latest documentary, and winds up sleeping with a 24-year old (Suzanne Vega). His feelings in the wake of his indiscretion, as well as Carol’s reaction when she learns the truth, threaten not only their own relationship, but Ted’s and Alice’s as well. Bob and Carol having decided to freely share this information with them without any advance warning.

A work filled with contractions, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice takes a swipe at the sexual mores of the time as it shows four people all seemingly prepared to talk the talk when it comes to free love and lack of inhibition, but not quite ready to actually practice what they preach. Bob’s initial reaction when it comes to finding out Carol has had sex with someone else – she doesn’t call it an “affair” or “cheating” - is quite different from the understanding by him which Carol feels is called for. Understanding she previously showed him when the situation was reversed.

 (L-R) Jennifer Damiano. Joél Pérez,  Michael ZegenAna Nogueira. Photo Credit: Monique Carboni.

Book writer Jonathan Marc Sherman certainly has a lot to work with here. Unfortunately, the different characters come off as so vapid and one-dimensional, one is hard pressed find a reason to care about them. The only one of the four who really gets a chance to break out is Ted when he sings a solo number about his own marital issues. Ted seeing Bob and Carol’s relationship changing while feeling ever more suffocated in his own.

Ted’s solution in his regard, and the reactions by the others to it during a trip to Las Vegas, lead to an pivotal and quite effective moment of understanding between the four. Band Leader Vega hitting the proverbial nail squarely on the head when she sings "that maybe there is a limit to desire".

However the very strong final 20 minutes of the show cannot compensate for all the squandered efforts that have come before. Especially when the individual sequences often feel completely disconnected with one another - as if they don't quite belong in the same play. Such as a quick scene with Alice talking to her therapist (Vega) or Ted chatting with an attractive woman on an airplane. Director Scott Elliott not really able to being any of these moments together into a cohesive whole.

(L-R)  Michael ZegenJennifer Damiano, Joél Pérez, Ana Nogueira. Photo Credit: Monique Carboni. 

One must be also very careful when setting a show in a specific era. Especially one available to the audience either through their own memories or television shows and movies from the time depicted. A connection Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice is unable to establish. Neither the costumes, hairstyles, or the various commercials - the latter spoken either by the cast or members of the onstage orchestra – really evoke memories of the time in question, much less any strong feeling of nostalgia.

The score by Duncan Sheik (music, lyrics) and Amanda Green (lyrics) also doesn’t work as well as it should. The different numbers, at times more snippets of songs rather than full pieces, feel either awkward dialogue-wise, or repetitive when it comes to the music. The few exceptions to this being noted above. Though it must be said the onstage musicians all to a great job. Likewise, the actors all warble their respective tunes nicely, and even get to show off their own musical talents on the instruments. Good work by Kelly Devine in regards to the musical staging.

While Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice quite profoundly depicts the foibles that come with being human, the show ends up lacking the crucial spark to make the audience truly care about what unfolds on stage.

Featuring: Jennifer Damiano (Carol), Jamie Mohamdein (Ensemble), Ana Nogueira (Alice),  Joél Pérez (Bob), Suzanne Vega (Band Leader),  Michael Zegen (Ted).

Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice

Book by Jonathan Marc Sherman
Music by Duncan Sheik
Lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green

Based on the Columbia Pictures motion picture written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Jeff Mahshie
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Jessica Paz
Orchestrations: Duncan Sheik
Music Supervision, Vocal Arrangements and Additional Orchestrations: Jason Hart
Music Coordinator: Antoine Silverman
Consultant: Jill Mazursky
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Casting: Telsey + Company/Rachel Hoffman, CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Associate Artistic Director: Ian Morgan
Development Director: Jamie Lehrer
General Manager: Teresa Gozzo
Marketing Director: Stephanie Warren
Production Manager: Lay Hoon Tan

Music Staging by Kelly Devine

Directed by Scott Elliott

Presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 917-935-4242 or www.TheNewGroup.org
Running Time: 1 Hour, 45 Minutes, No Intermission
Closes: March 22, 2020

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Mack & Mabel - The Perennial Bridesmaid


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Watching Douglas Sills sing “Movies Were Movies”, the opening number in the recent Encores! production of the 1974 Broadway musical Mack & Mabel, one can understand just how wonderful this work has the potential to be. Sadly, the show falters almost immediately as Jerry Herman's powerful score is undone by a number of issues. Including the problematic book by Michael Stewart. While's Stewart's efforts have since been revised by Francine Pascal, the end result is still too unfocused to allow this fictional look at the romance between director Mack Sennett (Sills) and actress Mabel Normand (Alexandra Socha) to really take off. Though thanks to the boundless energy of the cast, it's certainly not for lack of trying.

After setting things up via a sequence in 1938, the story jumps back 26 years to the title characters' first meeting at the Sennett film studios in Brooklyn, New York. Normand inadvertently ruining a climatic scene of the director's latest silent comedy short when she walks through a door at the wrong moment. Seeing something special in Normand, and her reactions to the chaos she causes with her entrance, Sennett offers her a part in his next film. Mabel, after some initial hesitation, soon finds herself bitten by the acting bug and accepts. She quickly becoming the latest and most important star in the Sennett comedy stable.

                                      The cast of "Mack & Mabel". Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Mabel's subsequent success enables the director to attract enough financing to transplant his entire base of operations to California. The state quickly becoming a Mecca for the burgeoning film industry. Mabel and Mack also beginning a personal relationship during this time. Even though, as the rather volatile Sennett is quick to point out, he is definitely not the romantic type.

What eventually causes a break between Normand and Sennett is Mack's desire to control Mabel creatively. He refusing to loan her out to other studios and directors, such as William Desmond Taylor (Michael Berresse) who sees a bigger future for Mabel than starring in an endless string of comedy shorts. Something Mabel only finds out about by accident. Sennett meanwhile remains completely resolute in his certainty that he always knows what's best when it comes to making movies.

Mack & Mabel is a musical one wants desperately to enjoy, but there is no getting around the inherent problems of its structure. A main one being that the character of Sennett is a complete bastard. He endlessly putting his actors and staff through their paces, concerned only about getting the next take completed and the next film in the can. It's hard to root for a character who's so unlikable, even when we are given a reason for his being the way he is. The relentless pressure of working for Sennett also taking a toll on Mabel, who begins using pills to help her get through the day. A dependency that only increases as time goes on. Sennett, who also serves as the show's narrator as he looks back on events from years later, finally admitting how he simply didn't want to know about Mabel's problem.

                   Alexandra Socha and Douglas Sills in "Mack & Mabel".  Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

While we do get the chance to understand Sennett, the show doesn't offer nearly the same incite on Mabel. Clearly funny, outgoing and initially star-struck, her ever-increasing booze and drug problem, as well as her involvement in a full-on scandal, all feel almost a tacked-on afterthought. None of this really explored until the final section of the show and by then, it's too late to effectively work it into the story.

While the show is also meant to be a homage to the silent film era, there are too many sequences filled with deliberate, over-the-top acting which all too quickly start to become annoying. In the same vein, a succession of big production numbers also starts to feel rather repetitious, though the songs themselves are certainly nice to hear.  The problem being not only the show's internal structure, but also the direction of Josh Rhodes, who continuously fails to sharpen the various scenes in order to make them more interesting. The result being that too much of the show is played at the same level. An issue that becomes increasingly more apparent whenever things start to veer into more dramatic territory.

Sills does a great job as Sennett. He playing the character as a driven, bull-headed sort who is unable to accept his own failings, or his share of the blame for anything. His one constant underlying drive, the desire to be able to make people laugh. A need he brings beautifully home in the haunting "I Wanna Make the World Laugh".

                           Major Attaway and the cast of "Mack & Mabel". Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Socha is perfect as Normand. A woman filled with the desire to succeed in whatever she sets out to do. Whether it's collecting 15 cents for the sandwich she delivered to Sennett's studio, becoming a top film star, or making Sennett fall in love with her. Her best numbers being the infectious "Look What Happened to Mabel" and the determined "Wherever He Ain't." The rest of the cast do a great job, but other than Sennett and Normand, none of the characters really break out from the pack. Though Lilli Cooper and Major Attaway come closest as respectively, Lottie Ames and Fatty Arbuckle.

The Jerry Herman score, as performed by the Encores! Orchestra, works beautifully. In addition to those songs mentioned above, highlights include the touching "I Won't Send Roses"; the wistful "Time Heals Everything", and the joyful "When Mabel Comes in the Room".

Scenic designer Allen Moyer does a wonderful job in recreating the world of silent pictures. The various costumes by Amy Clark and the sound design by Kai Harada - the latter's efforts quite pivotal here - also work very well.

Volumes have been written about the problems with Mack & Mabel. This latest effort by Encores! is admirable indeed, but ultimately, it can't hide the flaws in the basic makeup of the show.

Featuring: Kevin Ligon (Eddie), Douglas Sills (Mack Sennett), Lilli Cooper (Lottie Ames), Evan Kasprzak (Freddy), Raymond J. Lee (Andy), Ben Frankhauser (Frankie), Janet Noh (Ella), Major Attaway (Fatty Arbuckle), Alexandra Socha (Mabel Normand), Jordan Gelber (Mr. Kessel), Allen Lewis Rickman (Mr. Bauman), Michael Berresse (William Desmond Taylor).

Ensemble: Alex Julian Aquilino, Matt Bauman, Maria Briggs, Julian R. Decker, Sara Esty, Paige Faure, Haley Fish, Leslie Donna Flesner, Garett Hawe, Leah Horowitz, Matt Moisey, Madison Stratton, Diana Vaden, Jacob Keith Watson, Kristen Beth Williams, Joy Woods, Darius Wright, Richard Riaz Yoder.

Mack & Mabel

Book by Michael Stewart
Music and Lyrics by Jeremy Herman
Revised Version by Francine Pascal
Based on an idea by Leonard Spigelgass

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Amy Clark
Lighting Designer: Ken Billington
Sound Designer: Kai Harada
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Original Orchestrations by Philip J. Lang
Production Stage Manager: Peter Hanson
Casting by: Binder Casting
                    Jay Binder, CSA & Mark Brandon, CSA
Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Music Director: Rob Berman
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes

New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Tickets: 212-581-1212 or www.NYCityCenter.org
Running Time: 2 Hours, 30 Minutes, with one intermission
Closes: February 23, 2020