Thursday, February 14, 2008

!EXTRA, EXTRA!: Commonwealth Shakespeare serves it up as we like it...

...with more then just five performances (we're going to get spoiled if they're not careful!). For their annual free Shakespeare offering, the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company (under the artistic direction of Steven Maler) will present Willy's As You Like It at the Parkman Bandstand on the Common from July 18th-August 8th. That's right folks, a whole three weeks of delightful comedy chock full of anachronisms and imported actors! In a quick attempt to squelch any remaining hard feelings from last year's Midsummer schedule scandal, the press release for this summer makes it all-too-clear just how much of the Bard they are providing. They front load their release with a description of the Common schedule as "in Extended Run", as well as informing inquiring minds that it will also be "Touring to Springfield". All obvious overcompensation aside, it appears as if they have decided they have wrung all they can out of the cannon, choosing As You Like It (which was CSC's 1998 season) over as-of-yet unperformed tomfoolery such as The Comedy of Errors, The Merry Wives of Windsor, or even the recent Boston favorite, Love's Labour's Lost.

They started this trend last year when they selected the rarely performed problem play, A Midsummer's Night Dream (where else would Boston audiences ever get a chance to see this gem?), which was also coincidentally their debut in 1996. Although they have cherry-picked most of the "greats", with some carefully o'er leaping of The Merchant of Venice (too topical!), Othello (too small!), and King Lear (too tragic!), I find it odd that after only 12 years the company justifies repeating itself. This is not to say I am not looking forward to As You Like It; I actually greatly enjoyed the shiny and bratty Hamlet Mayer delivered three years ago. My question is, "What good is an annual Shakespeare offering if its just going to be the same 11 plays?" Although I have no doubt that they will eventually branch out (The Comedy of Errors? Come on, its fish in a fucking barrel...), I also shake my head at their fear of the "lesser" works. If we've learned anything from recent Shakespeare productions, it's that the more a work is called "lesser", the more popular and mainstream it actually is. Just as brown may be the new black, Cymbeline could be counted as the new Tempest, and Titus Andronicus for Macbeth. What's so great about those high school reading-list titans anyway (besides cohesive plots)?

With the Publick Theatre (who are gearing up for what I hear is to be another Bard-free season) waning as a source for a summer Shakespeare fix, and even Boston Theatre Works dropping its usual winter William spot this year, it would seem as if Boston regional theater is losing interest in such old things. How would I really like it, CSC? How about letting one of the less popular kids bat for you next year? Sometimes those runts sure can surprise...

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

!EXTRA, EXTRA!: Gold Dust Orphans announce first NEW show of the season...

...and they're cracking open the vault for this one. Landry and his rag-tag group of orphans have, of late, focused primarily on icons of the modern film and stage. From Williams's faded glories to the old Hollywood mavens of melodrama, Gold Dust shows are often cunning creations which pay obsessive homage to their subjects while they, at the same time, slowly twist the knife. For Valentine's day this year, Landry is resurrecting the original hot mess of the stage, and a queen to end them all- Medea. Can you say date play? The press release informs inquiring minds that this was actually their first work, but has been trussed for a high-class, high-concept ART-caliber showing (A show that skewers Greek drama and the ART? Well call me lovestruck... ).

Landry will be hiking the veritable Everest that Medea is (in heels to boot, no doubt), with Penny Champagne (of Silent Night of the Lambs acclaim) and Afrodite (resident goddess) completing roll call. I personally think that there has never been a more relevant time to revisit the first celebrity train wreck, what with the sad excuses for divas that have been gracing our tabloids of late. Although I am the last person who wants to shell out for a B. Spears-reference fest, hopefully our 'ole girl Medea will remind all those coked out pop stars that if you want to get even, do it right. And don't forget your plastic ponchos- empowerment can be messy!

Friday, January 25, 2008

I saw something, and I'm saying something: Divine Intervention

Angels In America: Millenium Approaches
by Tony Kushner
directed by Jason Southerland and Nancy Curran Willis
presented by Boston Theatre Works

As I entered the Roberts Studio for Boston Theatre Work’s presentation of Millennium Approaches, I did a double take at the headshot-strewn bulletin board; surely that was not the whole cast! I panicked, running through the possibilities of BTW cutting one of the play’s beloved characters, or some other editing horror, but was calmed when I opened my program. All the players were accounted for, and everything seemed in order. For all of the hype (including, I realize, my own) of the epic scale and sweep of Kushner’s two-part Angels in America, the truth remains that it employs a modest cast of eight. Instead of looking to meet staggering expectations, and in the same vein of modesty as the cast size, Jason Southerland and Nancy Curran Willis (in a nifty co-directing scheme) keep their production of Tony Kushner’s Angels In America: Millennium Approaches utterly human and down-to-earth, grounded in their mostly solid ensemble. Instead of looking to transcend limitations (of both their company and budget), they accept and integrate them, making for a “fantasia” (as Kushner subtitles it) that is much more skilled in delivering mortal dealings than flights of fancy. Although this approach may not give its climax the wings to soar, the rest of Millennium does have the heart to captivate the audience in the entangled web of characters and relationships it details.

And oh, what a wangled teb it is. Kushner orchestrates a series of what are mostly tightly scripted dialogues between his characters, bringing together disparate strands of his far-reaching story in surprising ways. In Millennium, we are introduced to two couples whose deterioration Kushner sets against the onset of AIDS in 1980s New York. The first is Prior (played by recent BU graduate Tyler Reilly with perfectly acid charisma) and Louis (Christopher Webb), who are most directly touched by the epidemic as Prior has recently been diagnosed. Louis’s fidelity strains as he is faced with the fragile mortality of his partner, much to the disgust of their mutual friend, the fiery and no-nonsense Belize (Maurice Parent). The second duo is the distant Mormon marriage of Valium-dependant Harper (Bree Elrod) and closet-case, law clerk Joe (Sean Hopkins) whose boss, Kushner’s conjuration of the real-life Roy Cohn (Richard McElvain), has urged him to move to Washington. Joe’s mother (an achingly clinical Susan Nitter) eventually flies from Utah for support, only to find she may need some herself. And in his own scenes, Cohn towers over the other characters as he flails to maintain his reputation and position as he, as well, succumbs to the ravages of AIDs, a product of his own closeted lifestyle. Intermittingly, above the domestic arguments and political debate of Millennium’s characters, an omnipresent voice (belonging to Elizabeth Aspenlider) calls to the weakening Prior, compelling him to prepare for….something. As the play hurdles towards its maddening “end”, Kushner’s New York is overrun with ghosts of the past as some kind of day of reckoning approaches.

When describing the characters, it can sometimes read like a rag-tag parade of tired stereotypes that we’ve all seen before and are bound to see again; The drag queen with a heart of gold, the closeted conservative, the uptight mother of sed closeted conservative, ect. But what is so immediate about Angels is the ways Kushner uses his unapologetically beautiful language with incomparable economy, exploding what we think we know in a matter of scenes. No persona get predominantly more stage time than another, yet by the end we feel as though we know each intimately. The specificity with which he conjures their desires and fears cuts right to the heart, which is perhaps a main reason for his success. Although Angels is undoubtedly a political play, the individuality of the characters is never put on the back burner in favor of preaching from pastor Kushner; instead, we are engaged in a delicate cross-section where gender, race, and sexuality brings together and shifts apart the characters. Most of the events and devices of the script would fall flat as amateur dramaturgical tricks if Kushner did not have the full-blooded people he populates Millenium with to bounce them off of, and in this sense his ideas fly.

Even with a somewhat manageable cast, both parts of Angels are no less a challenge to stage; the cast all do double-, and triple- duty (including Nitter, left, who can now add Drag King to her resume) to populate the Roberts Studio with all of the aforementioned principle players, as well as some assorted nuts and phantoms. The story also location-hops without abandon, taking place in the parks and apartments of the city, as well as the dreamscapes and tundras of its character’s imaginations. Directors Southerland and Curran Willis, aided by the unfussy work of their capable design team, manage to keep Millennium moving at an admirable pace. Laura McPherson’s industrial wasteland of a set facilitates all of the necessary simultaneous staging (which often bothers me, but didn’t here), but seemed a little flimsy for the physicality of the production. More impressive were sound designer Nathan Leigh and lighting designer John Melinowki’s nuanced contributions. Melinowski clearly delineates all of the different locations of the play, and baths all of the more fantastic scenes in a hallucinogenic black light glow, and both Leigh’s musical compositions (dark sliding saxophone against plinking piano) and soundscape (the warm din of restaurants and the dry rhythms of hospitals) provides lucid backing for the actors. The directors thoughtfully block the transitions using their cast as stage hands (which Paul Melone tried to do in last year’s Fat Pig on the same stage, and didn’t quite succeed), making the in-between scenes a dream-like extension of the show. These same actor/stagehands (smartly trussed up like homeless people by costume designer Rachel Padula Shufelt) also manipulate some of the supernatural forbearing of the Angel, unseen by the characters on stage. In Prior and Harper’s joint hallucination, it is a raggedly dressed man who places a white feather in Prior’s lap, instead of it falling from the heavens. In a hospital during one of Prior’s checkups, a similarly clad Susan Nitter storms up the aisle, opens a large book above her head, which accompanied by flourish of light and a heavenly chorus substitutes for the book bursting through the floorboards, flaming (as the script indicates). These moments epitomize the production’s key strength; here the directors not only found a method to bring Kushner’s ideas to life within their means, but added to absurdity of the action with the modesty of the effect. The show is rarely overwhelmed by the script’s technical demands, and instead gives the actors’ capable, and often captivating, characterizations the floor.

Tyler Reilly’s performance is an easy highlight, a captivating but completely mugging-free one that epitomizes the play’s cocktail of deadpan camp and human tragedy. His control over Prior’s harshness and vulnerability allows him to nail some of the play’s funniest and most somber moments. Maurice Parent, as Prior’s fiercely protective compatriot, is able to match Reilly’s charisma, and makes his own character’s barbs fly. Less apparent, but equally distinguished, is the subtler work of Bree Elrod and Susan Nitter as Harper and Hannah Pitt. Elrod’s unabashed instability conjures a jaded sadness that gave the character a refreshingly light presence. Nitter, in contrast to Elrod’s child-like Harper, lends Hannah Pitt a grounded world-weariness. Her crumbling response to the late-night coming out of her son was one of the more vivid moments that, in my mind, blew its miniseries counterpart out of the water (no small task considering it employed no less than Meryl Streep). And perhaps even more impressively she endows a secondary role of hers, the quietly grudge-holding ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, with an electric intensity.

Christopher Webb as Louis certainly did his role justice, giving Louis’s political tirades the dexterity and arrogance they need. Unfortunately, he takes the easy road in the latter half of Millennium, emphasizing Louis’s horniness in lieu of his emotional desperation, making the already selfish character even less likeable. Sean Hopkins is unobtrusive as Joe (which may very well be written into the role) but one does wish for a few more heart-grabbing moments to texture the low-key interpretation. Richard McElvain, however effective, seemed all too quick to indicate his character’s failing health in a sub par vocal delivery, often swallowing Cohn’s muscular phrases, which de-clawed the political titan too early to show any visible descent.

Lastly, there is Elizabeth Aspenlieder who, other than in brief appearances as Prior’s nurse and an engagingly neurotic homeless woman, is only heard in voiceover and seen fleetingly in the conclusion as the Angel. This conclusion is, both understandably and troublingly so, the weakest moment of an impressive show. Kushner’s demand for an angel to burst through an apartment ceiling would be a little much for any theatre company, let alone to the little-engine-that-could BTW has shown themselves to be thus far. So it makes perfect sense that it would be this high-flying moment that they fail to bring convincingly down to earth; besides whirling colored lights and some sliding panels, the entrance of the Angel offers little earth-shattering spectacle. This is completely expected, although the quick glimpse we get of the Continental Principality herself was enough to makes me hesitant of the Angel-heavy Perestroika. In Shufelt’s least savory costuming choices, Aspenlieder looks ready for a senior prom, and even her delivery of her one line seemed a little humble. I wonder how the company will fare with Perestorika, which is rich with these absurd flights of fancy, the least of which is a wrestling match with the angel. But all worries aside, this misstep did, it anything, allow me to reflect on how few there were before it.

I will be the first to say that this is a production that feels good to praise, which could undoubtedly have influenced my enjoyment of it. Boston Theatre Works is a company making a visible effort to expand, and Angels is an admirable effort in doing so both in terms of the financial and artistic risk it requires. Could the presentation be slicker? Undoubtedly so. Would it have made the overall experience much better? Questionable. Although a sleeker showing may have given Kushner’s prose the room to breath (without worrying about how a bench was going to make its way offstage), the rough-around-the-edges feeling of BTW’s Millennium works, as it just made clearer the flesh and blood lives its character lead; some of the transitions may have been clunkier than intended, but it seems almost fitting. Why should a play that has struggle in its blood be effortless (a word that I am sure will never be used to describe this Angels; on the contrary, from the scene changes to the scenes themselves, this production is fueled by an unrelenting effort)

Perhaps the main lesson Boston Theatre Works has taught us by airing out Angels is how far from dated it is. The feelings of personal and political alienation, the sexual politics of relationships both gay and straight, all of these elements read stingingly true to our lives today. The component that would most obviously date the play would be its roots in the rise of AIDs, which in actuality causes little to no distraction, and even makes us question how far we have come in that struggle. My fellow theatre-goer pointed out to me how she hoped that this part of the play would eventually become dated, a far-away relic of a sad past. But the truth is, with AIDs on the rise again among my generation, both gay and straight, the fear, but also the courage, of Angels is probably more relevant than many want to acknowledge. But I also have a feeling that long after the disease cured, we will still be fighting the insanity and absurdity of everyday life- angel not included.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

I saw something, and I'm saying something: Five For Fighting (?)

Henry V
directed by Normi Noel
presented by the Actor's Shakespeare Project

The Actor's Shakespeare Project, in its original mission, sought to give the Bard center stage as they presented his words with the “voices, bodies, and imaginations of our actors, audiences and neighborhoods". As the seasons have gone on, and the fledgling company has developed a taste for the addictive nectar of sold-out runs, they have increasingly relied on staging gimmicks a means of hawking old William's wares. This has yielded an uneven crop of shows, ranging from their rough and tumble all-male Titus Andronicus (which will probably remain a highlight of my Shakespeare-viewing) to their text-skimming and wig-swapping six-actor Love's Labour's Lost. As I obligatorily roll my eyes whenever I explain that this production of Henry V is performed with (it even embarrasses me to type it) five actors, after seeing what it has to offer, I must curb my cynicism. In its obvious, pun-like casting, the ASP's production has, in a rather counter-intuitive manner, reconnected the company to their original mission of voices and bodies.

The company returns to what has become usual haunts for them, the basement of the Garage in Harvard Square. I think the space is an inviting one, and although it has its drawbacks (namely a big-ass column smack dab in the center of everything), the minuscule cast of this show work it. When Ken Cheesman asks "Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?", the cramped, low-ceilinged Garage earns every breath of doubt. Eventually, though, it shows itself to be an ideal clean slate upon which the five players piece together a sweeping story right in front of our eyes.

Skipp Curtiss sets the stage with a splintered wood platform around the Garage's aforementioned center piece, covering the rest of the concrete floor with faded Oriental carpets. This raw simplicity is soon joined by the cast, each bedecked in their own neutral color, making hesitant, wide-eyed entrances. As they shyly congregate under flat light, Ken Cheesman breaks the silence with the famous opening plea ("O for a muse of heavenly fire..."), savoring each phrase before releasing it. The fivesome size up their audience, take in each other, and this deliberate and ritualistic prologue cleanses both actor and audience member alike; preparing them for the flood of language that is to overtake them for the next two and a half hours. For when this prologue is over, the five performers immediately mobilize, embodying all of their roles with a rich commitment which held captive my attention through the ebb and flow of the story.

Henry V picks up where (wait for it) Henry IV leaves off; a little "last time on Henry 90210..." would have been helpful, but Henry V does stand on its own for the most part. The only story that really suffers is the B-plot, which concerns our title character's old lower-class drinking buds and eventually, the death of Falstaff (which means nothing to you if you haven't read Henry IV. Or seen Orson's Shadow, in my case). What the program notes won't tell you is that freshly-crowned Henry V was once Prince Hal, an unwieldy court brat who only recently sobered up to his title in the face of his quickly dying daddy. When the freshly-crowned Hal meets up with his bad-influence bros in the streets, he publicly disowns them. This play picks up in the tentative beginning of Prince Hal (now officially King Henry V)'s reign, as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely counsel Hal to claim his right to rule over France based on a convoluted inheritance involving his great grandfather's mother. The French Dauphin sends a messenger to scoff at Hal's claim (with a diss so weird I first mistook it for an anachronism), and the eager new king decides to invade France. On the opposite end of the social scale are Hal's down and out ex-acquaintances; Bardolph, Pistol, Nym, and the Boy. As Falstaff (their paternal ring-leader) grows closer to death, they squabble over women, and eventually, war. Death is certainly unappealing, but the prospect of free loot quickly exorcises any discussion of mortality. The band decides to enlist all together, and Shakespeare contrasts Hal's conflicted leadership with those most affected by his decisions throughout the rest of the play. Before shipping off to battle, Hal coldly nips a little assassination plot in the bud by executing three scheming Englishman, and the unnerving ease at which he sentences them to death is never forgotten by both the play or the production. These rash streaks of brutality lend a slightly uncomfortable edge to his gung-ho patriotism and the twisted morality is given center stage. Once in France, the English army's speed gains it the unprepared port of Harfleur, and they eventually find their way to the field of Agincourt, where they are met with a French force that outnumbers them five to one (can you say underdog?). Cutting between the French courts and the English war camp, the private discussions of strategy and the open camp fires, Henry V is a patchwork of conversations and characters that accumulate to an engaging portrait of the mess and chaos of war.

The Actor's Shakespeare Project's production, guided with clarity and purpose by Normi Noel, sidesteps any visualization of the actual fighting (except for a brief stylization of the English's conquering of Harfleur), preferring to hover on the outskirts of the great battlefields and in the closed quarters of the courts. Noel and her top-notch cast leave any panoramic details to the Chorus roles, which periodically pop up to key the audience on the literal big picture, and let the scenes stand together as a series of smaller interactions, finding greater illumination through seemingly insignificant encounters. This is a refreshing, and unusually moving, treatment of what is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s more epic histories, as it keeps the focus tightly on the relationships portrayed, giving ample opportunity for the sparse ensemble to show their skill. Seth Powers leads the bunch, lending the title character an appropriate mix of uncertainty, harshness, and hope. He rarely falls into any kind of "headstrong young king" actor-traps, although occasionally finds himself bellowing his lines, which not only makes unintelligible the language he is otherwise so good at delivering, but also leaves him no place to go vocally. He balances Hal's moments of ruthlessness with a sweet and docile Bardolph; the double-casting, which in its abundance, provokes a multitude of thought about the similarities and differences between the characters and events. Ken Cheesman, whose roles include the ruffian Pistol and the ailing French king Charles VI, has a rich, deliberate way with Shakespeare's words, and he imbues all of his stage time with grounded honesty. Paula Langton excels at both swaggering pants roles as well some courtly (and one not-so-courtly) ladies, and has an impressively fluid physicality. Her soldiers are believable, and her Mistress Quickly's farewell to her hubby turns a slightly bawdy scene into an immediate and touching one. The quicksilver Doug Lockwood creates crisp, separate characterizations, and the variety of lords and common folk alike he embodies buffers the more primary turns of his costars with something of substance. Lastly (but certainly not least) is Molly Schreiber, whose quiet, dignified portrayals of the lowly Boy, the French Dauphin, and of the French Princess Katherine all anchor the louder, brasher moments of Hal and of the war in keen observation.

Seth Brodie's costume scheme clothes the Brits in red and the French in blue, keeping the sides clear, but does so with a tasteful eye for details. The cast constantly transforms themselves with an array of brocade capes, sashes, and bonnets almost as "vasty" as the fields of France the play takes place on, and Steven Rosen's lighting and Dewey Dellay's sound design keeps the pace moving and the locations distinct. All of these elements work strongly together to present Shakespeare's story, which Noel and her cast are much more interested in than their own superimposed ideas of it. The puffed-up patriotism that Henry V is largely known for (and Laurence Olivier's film highlighted) is made bitter by the various brutal acts committed by its characters out of both cowardice and rigid honor codes. Seeing an imminent defeat, the French army invades the British camp in the night and kill the page boys guarding the luggage (a gross violation of the standard code of chivalry, we're told). Prince Hal reinforces an order to kill all the French prisoners, and this tit-for-tat bloodletting contrasts with the miracle overthrow of the French army. The end scene takes a turn in the opposite direction as Hal first meets the French Princess, Katherine, and proposes marriage as a union of the two countries. It is a shy and tentative conversation, and a more youthful and clumsy side of Hal is revealed. This somewhat uncomfortable switch from his earlier scenes as a heedless war lord shows Shakespeare's view of Hal is as ambivalent as his view of war.

The greatest virtue, and greatest relief, of this production is that all casting gimmicks aside, Shakespeare's voice is the one most clearly heard. For a lesser company, it seems as if it the temptation would be all too great to slap on some contemporary references to make "clearer" the parallel between Henry V's hesitant leadership and dubious motivations and that of our nation's leaders. The Actor's Shakespeare Project, Normi Noel, and all of the actors trust the audience to continue the thoughts of a leader's responsibility to his public after the performance is over, without being shepherded by an unnecessary "modernization". Shakespeare's Chorus members entrust the audience's imagination with the realization of sweeping battlefields and sieged fortresses. Perhaps similarly, the ASP's Henry V trusts its audience's intelligence to make the leap from prop swords and sashes to more current ravages, fulfilling the opening plea as we eventually see the entire world as one big stage, with our modern-day princes acting and monarchs beholding an ever-swelling scene...

Sunday, January 13, 2008

I saw something, and I'm saying something: (Last) Time's a Charm

by Wendy Wasserstein
directed by Richard Seer
presented by the Huntington Theatre Company

When a playwright dies, so often reviewers of their final work are left with the uncomfortable task of making gentle allowance for what may be, at the end of the day, not a very good play. The Huntington started off their 06-07 season with August Wilson's Radio Golf, his last play and the final in a cycle depicting the African American experience throughout the 20th century. For me, it was an incredibly thought-provoking script in a solid production, but many critics found that it paled in comparison to some of his more muscular works, missing the musical vernacular that he had become known for. It is somewhat appropriate, then, that the Huntington present Third this season, the last work by the late Wendy Wasserstein (who died a mere four months after August Wilson did), and I am all too happy to report that it is a play which serves as a true example of a "swan song".

The show, which opens with the freshness and vigor of the first day of class, centers around Laurie Jameson (Maureen Anderson, in fine form), a literature professor at one of those elite, east-coast liberal arts schools (If Wendy was going for imitation, my friend pointed out that it could really only be Brown by name-dropping process of elimination, but I figure she was shooting for some kind of amalgam). She begins by lecturing the audience (aptly cast for a moment as her students) on the kind of classroom she runs; an open intellectual ideal that she promises is not only "hegemony-free" but also encouraging of questioning. She then precedes to render this unnecessary as she asserts upon the class her impeccably thought-out revisionist view of Shakespeare's King Lear, in which Goneril and Regan are the heroes (as opposed to the "girlified" Cordelia) who have learned to play with the big boys of Shakespeare's plot. The contradiction on display, where Laurie welcomes new opinions while being fixed in her own, pervades Wasserstein's text, and becomes a larger question for its predominantly liberal audience.

Laurie Jameson is a woman who has reached a point where she feels secure. Her daughter Emily (Halley Feiffer), is back home on a break from her separate-but-comparable Swarthmore education, her husband is starting to lift weights, and her father (warmly portrayed by Jonathon McMurty) , although slipping deeper and deeper into a mental fog, is generally docile. She feels in control, in a way that both satisfies her feminist sensibilities as well as her own taste. That is, until she meets her match with what may be her worst nightmare; an honest-to-god, red(state)-blooded, white, heterosexual student, brought to life with integrity by a perfectly-cast Graham Hamilton. Woodson Bull III ("Third" to his friends, "Woody" to Professor Laurie) is everything that Laurie does not expect in her cozy little collegiate nest, and when a paper of his on Lear rings untrue for her understanding of his breed (and too true for her understanding of the text), she accuses him of plagiarism. This opens up a horror house of re-examination from all sides, as Laurie fights to keep herself from being unsettled and Third struggles to find his niche in a frustratingly close-minded environment. The first act deals largely the college's examination of Third's academic integrity, with a "he said, she said", whodunit tone that keeps the audience guessing while evoking shades of John Patrick-Shanley's Doubt. This story swept me up with surprising force, and its fully-realized characters grounded the seemingly trivial conflict, but Wasserstein (as always) has bigger fish to fry. After intermission, the play opens up its scope to portray the repercussions of Laurie's heat-of-moment actions on all the characters as an autumnal chill passes over it. Nancy, a colleague of Laurie's, has lapsed from breast cancer remission, and Laurie's father's health is worsening. But make no mistake; Third does not disintegrate into a Lear-scale tragedy, as Wasserstein's signature wit and pointed insight has different aspirations. The play moves from its bright beginning through a colder, sharper place and deposits us in the end in the fresh possibilities of spring. Set against this seasonality is the question of Laurie's (and our own) ability to change at such an established point in her life.

Third is at times warm and cozy, and at others chilly and sobering; sweet, as well as bitter. It is this balance, composed by Wasserstein and sensitively presented by the entire Huntington cast and crew, that make this such a cleansing and refreshing experience. Wasserstein has written, above all, a deeply mature play, one that is appropriately forward-looking, as opposed to her reflective Heidi Chronicles. Laurie at one point muses to Third, "I was your age in 1969. My thinking has become as staid as the point of view I sought to overrule.", and this revelation haunts Third with a challenging question for women, and any struggling minority, who have achieved their goals for visibility and equality; what next? The play also confronts the knee-jerk liberal double standard where all opinions are tolerated, except for those that are not agreed with. If the older characters (and older audience members) are left to question these issues, Third does not necessarily look to them for an answer. Wasserstein instead symbolically hands off the torch to the next generation of men and women through her committed inclusion and development of Laurie's daughter, Emily, and Third in the play. For a playwright who has so dutifully captured the ambivalence of the "have it all"-generation female, it is refreshing to see that she was not restricted to characters of this age. Emily, although played by perhaps the weakest link in the cast (which is still pretty good), is a capable woman confronted with the imperfection of her mother and the feminist philosophy that she has been raised under. Third is a bright and passionate man who finds himself alienated from a supposedly progressive institution for his privilege (of both the white, male, and heterosexual persuasion), and must constantly defend his right to attend. I was reminded of a friend's lackluster attitude towards the Heidi Chronicles as he described, "There is just not much there for a heterosexual man. I just wanted to see more of that Scoop fellow." I only hope that he eventually gets to experience this truly all-inclusive story. It is unfortunate, then, that Wasserstein saddles these otherwise compelling characters with the play's most unsubtle moments; Emily when she too-baldly explains how Laurie "needed" Third to have plagiarized because of her beliefs, and Third in an awkward cafeteria address that literally has him standing on a table and accusing a thinly constructed student body soundscape of close-mindedness. But these headstrong moments (which do stick out in an otherwise seamless production) are hardly representative of the showing the Huntington is giving Third. Maureen Anderson and Graham Hamilton ground the play in performances that are alternatively passionate and vulnerable. Anderson strikes a perfect tone of self-satisfaction and comfort in Laurie's environment for the beginning, and makes her journey of self-examination both hilarious and touching. Graham Hamilton invests Third with a slight cockiness that made me question his presence at a small liberal arts school as well, but that eventually gave way to a genuinely sweet earnestness to fit in for a character who has never had to. The real treat is Robin Pierce Rose's Nancy, Laurie's ailing acquaintance, whose stark bitterness is moving on its own, but is one character whose impact has been only heightened by Wasserstein's passing. Nancy's progression from fatalism to empowerment gives the audience not only closure on Wasserstein's death, but on the play as a whole.

And how much of a whole it is. Under the assured and unobtrusive hand of director Richard Seer, Third flows beautifully, supported by impressive work from the entire design team. Ralph Funicello's hallowed halls of learning stand proud as classrooms, kitchens and dorms slide effortlessly in and out, all orchestrated to dignified strains of string-driven classical that sound designer Bruce Ellman sends wafting over transitions. Costume designer Robert Morgan rises to the difficult challenge of a contemporary college setting and never strikes a false note. From the calculated rebellion of Laurie's high, leather boots to the presentably generic vests and button-ups of Third's wardrobe, Morgan's work always supported the characters, and never meandered in clueless trend-dropping.

As Wasserstein once said, "Being a grownup means assuming responsibility for yourself, for your children, and - here's the big curve -- for your parents", and Third never loses sight of that terrifying truth. As Laurie's father lapses into senility (more than echoing, but not quite imitating the aforementioned Lear), Emily breaks away from the narrow view of success that her mother has raised her in. In so many way, Wendy acted as a mother to her viewers, and the production’s audience must now take responsibility for the disappointment and self-realization that Third is steeped in. The ambivalence of Wasserstein’s tone is echoed in the bittersweet experience of watching a beautiful play by an author whose life was abruptly cut short, not even letting her see the final third of her life that the show ultimately take its title from. But, as opposed to merely being dampening, her death has elevated the work's conclusion, making the question of "what next?" even more pertinent as she leaves her audiences, both old and new, to forge ahead without her help.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

I saw something, and I'm saying something: A Little Less Conversation (A Little More Action)

by Michael Frayn
directed by Scott Zigler
presented by the American Repertory Theatre

Copenhagen is a strange choice for the ART. Usually, a "strange choice" for a regional theater would constitute a play that was too experimental or esoteric, perhaps too large in scale. But for the good 'ole ART, Copenhagen is strange for its sheer normalcy. Who would have thought that the current ART regime (under the shaky hand of "acting", aka stalling, Artistic Director Gideon Lester) would be caught dead producing something that actually (you should be sitting down for this one) won a Tony! But in a strangely hollow season, the ART seems to be focused on taking as few risks as possible. Every production of this season carefully hearkens back to a success (financial, mind you) of recent years; Don Juan Giovanni and Figaro to Carmen, Donnie Darko to the Onion Cellar, No Child to the Syringa Tree, and so on and so forth, creating a "best-of album" of an 07-08 season. Copenhagen seems to be trying to bait the fans of their down and dirty 2006 No Exit, pitting Will Lebow and Karen MacDonald against an outsider (here John Kuntz, there Paula Plum) in a limbo of sorts.

And they got me. Not that I only went to Copenhagen because I enjoyed No Exit; I make a point to keep tabs on any show that passes through the ART. But I couldn't help but hope this show would be some sort of theatrical breath of fresh air...and fresh it was not.

Frayn's bizarrely vague script begins with Niels and Margrethe Bohr (Lebow and MacDonald), of introductory Physics fame, discussing themselves, and more specifically, one night in the fall of 1941. Are they ghosts looking back on their lives? Are they in hell? These questions (which tantalize in a plot description) remain painfully un-illuminated (along with much of the play's story and physical production) throughout the evening. Soon the first couple of Physics is joined by their dinner guest, Werner Heisenberg, who completes the triad needed to reenact that troublesome evening. The Nazis have Germany in their political grip at this point, and the German Heisenberg is visiting Copenhagen to give a lecture. While in Copenhagen, Heisenberg decides to pay a visit to his old mentor Mr. Bohr. Long out of contact, Niels wonders (both in 1941 and in retrospect) why Heisenberg is visiting him, and what information or guidance he will invariably ask for. Heisenberg rings the door bell, the Bohrs invite him in, Heisenberg and Mr. Bohr go on a post-dinner walk about the grounds, and the rest (as they say) is history.

Only trouble is, none of the characters can come to a consensus on what actually occurred that night. Afflicted with some form of collective fogginess, Niels, Margrethe, and Werner come together (somewhere...) to piece together the discussion that occurred between the two men on their old-time's-sake walk. Margrethe insists that it must have been Heisenberg trying to get information out of Niels, and then eventually accuses Heisenberg of just coming to show off his success under Nazi sponsorship. Heisenberg posits that he was visiting Bohr for guidance on the dubious moral question of a physicist's responsibility when it came to manipulating atomic experiments. Niels waxes nostalgically on the Golden Age of physics, and fiercely questions where his once-protégé’s loyalties now lie; with his friends or his country. The fact that Heisenberg led the German effort to create the first atomic bomb, and Bohr moved to America to work on the like-minded counter project that first bore fruit escapes none of them. All three characters discuss, debate, and defend their actions on that last walk, which acts as a culmination to the successes and failures of their histories together.

Even as I write this, I begin to dupe myself into believing that the content of Frayn's play is rich and interesting, but that is the very problem. The intricate monologues and spitfire back-and-forths all contain fascinating pieces of information and difficult questions, but the play and production never mines these for anything further, making it an ultimately unsatisfying dramatic experience. Amidst countless furrowed brows and frequent pondering, I was largely unmoved and unchanged by the end of its considerable running time.

Which is not to say it was without its high points. John Koontz, although often too stiff to demand my attention, became a highlight of the show in the latter part of the first act as he recounted hearing the success of the American atomic bomb over the radio. Heisenberg's deep conflict between his international friends and identity as a Jew with his loyalty to his country was one of the more deeply affecting stretches of Copenhagen, acting as an oasis amongst a dry desert of fact and theory. It struck the perfect balance between larger concepts of history and science, and one man's private ambition and regret that I think was aimed for, and missed, by both Frayn and Zigler in the rest of the show. The content-heavy dialogue, although mostly comprehensible in the moment, registered as flat drama because it was rarely connected to any relatable human terms.

Zigler's direction (and all three performances from the usually solid actors) seemed to suffer from this same flatness. When Niels, Margrethe, and Heisenberg changed perspective from their ghostly selves to the flesh and blood of the 1941 present, there was no effort made to indicate this, or stylistic choices to distinguish the two. Although some blame can surely be attributed to Frayn's static script, there was no resonant arc for these people, and never did the ensemble raise the stakes high enough to sustain interest over the length of the production. For a show that reenacts one night three different times, I never fully grasped why that night was so important, as the character's fixation on it never rose above the mere curiosity of a guessing game. The indifference that Lebow, McDonald, and Koontz gives us is passable at first, but grows tiresome, and eventually, frustrating. At the end of the 2 hour and 20 minute run time, I was expecting the three to be at each other's throats, blood boiling, in desperate attempts to confront the past, but they consistently relied on a detached, conversational style to get their points across. This un-textured acting and direction was matched by David Reynoso's clunky set and Kenneth Helvig's first dim then gimmicky lighting. The grey floor was divided into a grid, and the back wall consisted of three interlocking panels, black and reflective. This harsh-angled geometry (which Zigler bases his blocking around, having the characters follow the straight lines and 90 degree turns of the floor) seems completely counter-productive to the images of free-wheeling electrons and orbiting particles that the play so proudly spouts, and takes no creative point of view on the gauntlet that the play's vagueness throws down. Helvig perhaps tried to reckon this by placing three giant LED-strewn rings above the playing space that can sequentially illuminate, giving the appearance of one light traveling a circular path. The concept is intriguing, but the execution is woeful, and ends up looking like a cheap Las Vegas approximation of "science". To cap off a night of wishy washy choices, he baths the stage in a dim glow, occasionally highlighting it with mossy greens and subdued oranges. If you are looking for illumination of any kind, you will find none here. Both potentially harmless elements eventually distract; the set as it melts away to an upgraded Dying City (who did it better) coup when Heisenberg describes his bomb-ravaged homeland (only to blow its surprise-factor wad in the middle of the first act), and the lighting as it blinks away pitifully during one of Lebow's more watchable moments.

Koontz, as mentioned, did have his moments, but failed to recapture any kind of passion in the second act. This may very well be attributed to Frayn's structure, which actually becomes less and less interesting as the play goes on, eventually meandering in the moral implications of a lazy miscalculation (I know I always fuck up my labs- why can't Heisenberg?). But that doesn't let Lebow and MacDonald off the hook, two actors whose chops are known throughout the town. Lebow fares better, probably because he actually has a substantive part, and is generally quite grounded and distinguished. MacDonald get the short end of the triangle, as a lay witness who can add comparatively little to the boys-only debate club of most of the show, but does get to interject a few dry witticisms as the thankless wifey. Even if they were sort-of passable, I couldn't shake the fact that they were playing themselves. What began as subtlety soon revealed itself to be boring, and in the end their characters seemed to have as much dimension as Reynoso's "I'm not there" set.

Without reading Frayn's script, I honestly don't know how much I didn't like about the show I can contribute to his writing. However, even if Frayn's script is the practically dead horse on display now, Zigler's dusty, dim production makes no case for it, and instead takes painstakingly care in giving it all the fervor of a lecture hall. I practically yearned for some of the usually abundant edgy art flourishes; come on, this is the ART, with a reputation to protect! Let's get those Bohrs getting it on in the middle of the floor (how raw!)! Let's get a news clip of George W playing in the background (how relevant!)! It even made me excited for their next production as the ART returns to its Euro-twisted classical roots with Julius Caesar, directed by French import Arthur Nauzyciel. Who cares if it's bad? At there's no uncertainty there- simulated sex and anachronisms ahoy!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

On the Horizon: January

My school work has unfortunately (for me and you both) taken precedence the last few months, leaving this little blog to fend for itself during the cold winter months. Reviews will be popping up to fill you in on the details; saw Cymbeline in New York (Broadway does not always do it better), Streamers at the Huntington (did I ever expect to be shocked by a Huntington show?), and No Child at the ART (didn't catch it? don't worry- you've seen it all before).

This week I'll hopefully be getting up my reviews from the post-holiday fares from both aforementioned companies, with Michael Frayn's Copenhagen holding down Cambridge, and Wendy Wasserstein's Third starting off Boston's busy season. Looking ahead, it seems now that the glut of Christmas Carols and hip, counter-productions have dragged themselves back into hibernation for a year, all of the local companies are putting their best foot forward to start off the new calendar year with a mid-season boost.

Next weekend, our own Actor's Shakespeare Company returns yet again to Harvard Square's Garage with their five-actor adaptation of (drum roll, please) Henry V. I enjoyed their enthusiastically (but maybe too broadly) acted six-player Love's Labour's Lost, and wonder how this method will serve one of the Bard's histories. I would think that the cast would be dwarfed by the Garage (in the arena configuration they introduced with Titus Andronicus), but the ASP will undoubtedly pull out some design trick that I will undoubtedly fall for.

After that, Boston Theatre Work's continues their 10th anniversary season after a long break (the last we heard from them was their season opener, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) with both parts of Tony Kushner's Angels In America. This is more of a treat than it may seem; a sound designer I met this summer has seen Millenium Approaches (the first, and more tautly written, play) about six times, but Perestroika (its companion) only twice. It would seem that with the ridiculous cliff-hanger that Millennium leaves its audience with, Perestroika is a no-brainer. Or not, as it stands. I'll be seeing the two plays a week apart, and plan on reviewing them separately, as I consider them to be two different works, but also because they will be directed separately by Artistic Director Jason Southerland and Nancy Curran Willis (unless they are deciding to co-direct two plays...and that makes no sense to me). Although I generally enjoy BTW's shows, my expectations are (admittedly) obscenely high. Angels was the first play I read that really excited me about contemporary drama, and still surprises me with its depth. Mike Nichol's solid gold 2003 HBO miniseries adaptation (which offered engaging performances from Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Jeffrey Wright, Mary-Louise Parker, blah, blah, blah) does no help, but BTW does seem to be stepping up its usual game. For Angels (as well as their upcoming Crucible), the company moves from their longtime home, the BCA Plaza Theatre, into Speakeasy's usual stomping grounds, the Roberts Studio Theatre. Hopefully the nearly doubled seating capacity (and rigging that is more than four feet above the audience's heads) will allow BTW to give Angels the showing that it deserves.

Bumped out of the Roberts Studio, Speakeasy Stage Company gets upgraded big time to the Virginia Wimberly Theatre just in time for the Boston premiere of last year's off-Broadway (and to a lesser extent, Broadway) hit,The Little Dog Laughed. Doulgas Carter Bean's showbiz comedy of manners pits a confused up-and-comer against his own dog-eat-dog agent in the show that earned Julie White a Tony. I do wonder if it will be able to stand on its own in the largest venue the company has worked in and without the J.W.-factor that seemed to garner so much praise in its big city run. All doubts aside, I am excited to see Maureen Keiller (with whom I have only been recently introduced to as Eunice in New Rep's Streetcar this fall) take a (stiletto-in hand) stab at a seemingly juicy role that will most likely find me using words like "divine" and "delicious".

Far, far away, in a land called Watertown, the New Repertory theatre will be opening their third mainstage show with a little mid-winter Moliere inThe Misanthrope. I've found I always leave New Rep shows with one too many bones to pick, but it seems that every production I see there improves upon the last. I have no idea how they handle classics, but am always down for tittering a matinee away at those naughty, naughty aristocrats

ps-As an aside, Zeitgeist's latest, Blowing Whistles (directed by the blogosphere's own Thomas Garvey) lands in the Plaza Black Box on January 18th, and completes a homo-tinged BCA trifecta with Angels and Dog that offers "mature" themes and nudity all around- think of the scandal ! It must be something in that South End water...

It looks like I won't be collecting them all (much to my dismay), but the gays on stage marathon takes over the Boston Center for the Arts (with unrelenting wit and self-deprecation, no doubt) for several weeks. Can you say quadruple-bill?