Theater reflects who we are in broad strokes and microcosms. Our identity as a people can be seen in the diversity on our stages.
This year we’ve been introduced to many American families. The Profanebrings us two Muslim-American families in a powerful version of the old theme of star-crossed love. Zayd Dohrn’s play depicts conflicts between secularism and adherence to religious traditions. It also reveals how practitioners on either path are ultimately assimilated into America. It is who we are, a nation of many different faiths and backgrounds.
If I Forgetpresents a similar dilemma of identity for a Jewish-American family, for whom the crisis centers on an allegiance to Israel.
Bella: An American Tall Tale casts a look backward at the role of African-Americans have held in our culture. Unsung contributions loom large in this musical celebration from playwright Kristen Childs. (Bella…plays at PHnyc through July 2nd.)
Napoli, Brooklyn shows an Italian-American family at a time of social flux with the matriarch admonishing herself to speak English even in her talks with God. (This Roundabout production at the Laura Pels Theatre runs through September 3rd.)
Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s take on the working classes, gives us another glimpse at what defines America. The Pulitzer Prize winning drama, which closes today at Studio 54, focused on laborers in a Pennsylvania factory; united by work, but still divided by race. America still has not found its post-racial moment; perhaps now more than in the previous nearly dozen years, it is less likely to reach that ideal.
Politics and drama are disparaged, especially by those who feel the sting of the tragedies presented.
Sometimes, even if the message is on point, the admixture has an oddly inappropriate tastelessness.
Nonetheless, as I have often said, it is the role of art to clarify matters and comment on our foibles and the errors of our ways.
We are often led astray on the roads of life, so we should be grateful to plays, playwrights and the traditions of our theatrical history for helping to put us back on track.
Here is a plot I propose:
Tamburlaine in triplicate or triptych: played alternately by North Korean President Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin and the US President, with Benjamin Netanyahu coming in as a pinch hitter.
In the movie version of the shenanigans surrounding the recent election– the movie from my youth– the big guy is carted away in cuffs. Also, the good people of Montana go to the homes of every single Jewish family that was targeted by Richard Spencer’s crew to make sure they are protected. This is so because in 1950’s America Americans played by the rules, were patriotic and did the right thing.
June 25th addendum: The toddler in big boy pants whose got DC as his playpen may be onto something. He doesn’t care for poor folks (note to those who helped elect him–be careful what you wish for is a real thing). Is there a reality show called Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown?
Theatricality is a fraught concept. It can just be dramatic and thought-provoking, or it can be over-the-top, dramatic and thought-provoking. Kristen Childs has written a musical that is theatrical to the nth degree. Bella: An American Tall Talealso gives us a little slice of African-American history mixed in with the fable.
Politics and theater are getting a bad rep. Actually politics and their practitioners have had a reputation for honesty meaning any means that is necessary, aka I’ll lie if I have to, and theater has always been a forum for exposing truths. Ms. Nixon stirred the political pot a tiny bit in her acceptance speech at the 2017 Tony Awards Ceremonies. Now, it is the mixing of politics into theater that has caused quite the controversy (see what is happening with The Public’s Julius Caesar for instance.) It is unwarranted. Art is meant to comment on our realities.
At any rate, one of those realities, Lost and Guided, a play by Irene Kapustina about Syrian refuges in their own words, is on view at Conrad Fischer and The Angle Project, at Under St Marks (94 St. Marks Place, from August 3 through 27th. For tickets, click here.
A similar but perhaps more intitmate project is The Play Company’s Oh My Sweet Land another look at the Syrian refuge crisis. The play is due to launch this fall in private homes and communal spaces where people have been invited to host this multi-sensory experience. Those wishing to participate by providing a venue can do so by filling out the questionnaire here. Nadine Malouf stars, perhaps in your own kitchen, in Oh My Sweet Land, a play developed by Amir Nizar Zuabi with German-Syrian actor Corinne Jaber.
Shakespeare wrote plays reflecting timely events, for his time and all times. This may explain why The Public is in such hot water over their production of Julius Caesar. The brouhaha, perhaps like the staging, is way out of proportion. In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare also explores issues to do with power and justice. Theatre for a New Audience is presenting a new modernized staging by Simon Godwin from June 17th through July 16th. Tickets for this show which will be held at Polansky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn are available at TFANA’s website.
Henrik Ibsen had his own take on both the personal and the political. For instnace, Ibsen’s drama, An Enemy of the People is a play about populism and its discontents.
An Enemy of the Peoplecomes to us from the Wheelhouse Theater Company under the direction of Jeff Wise, at the Gene Frankel Theater, beginning June 9th and running through June 24th is conceived as a meditation on the “tyranny of the majority.”
Following on the success of Ibsen’s feminist tale as revisited by Lucas Hnath in A Doll’s House, Part 2, see the US Premiere of Victoria Benedictsson’s 1887 Swedish original, The Enchantment in a new English translation and adaptation by Tommy Lexen. Ducdame Ensemble introduces us to the woman behind Ibsen’s Nora; Benedictsson, who wrote under the pen name Ernst Ahlgren, was not only Ibsen’s inspiration but also Strindberg’s for Miss Julie. The Enchantment opens at HERE on July 6th, with previews beginning June 28th.
Dystopia is the normal atmosphere of an Ibsen play. It is poignantly a main event in the classic 1984. George Orwell’s novel in which Big Brother government controls its citizens has been turned into a play by the same name. The play by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan was first performed in 2013 at England’s Nottingham Playhoouse. 1984 , a place where mind control involves convincing us that up is down, “freedom is slavery,” is now at Broadway’s newly renovated Hudson Theatre, with an opening on June 22nd, and starring Olivia Wilde and Tom Sturridge.
The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, properly named the World Columbian Exposition in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the Americas, hosted 46 countries and over 25million visitors.
The 690 acres it occupied was a city of industry that represented and presented progress to the world: Juicy Fruit gum, Cream of Wheat and Pabst Blue Ribbon were introduced at the Expo.
A Ferris Wheel, a moving walkway, an electric kitchen that included an automatic dishwasher and printing press for Braille were also innovations first seen at the 1893 Fair.The Colunbian Exposition was also home to a sprawl of original architecture.
In The Light Years, co-written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and directed by Oliver Butler of The Debate Society, this and the subsequent Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 provide the background for a very unusual play. The Light Years is presented with The Debate Society at Playwrights Horizons where it is playing through April 2nd.
Steele MacKaye (a wonderfully bombastic Rocco Sisto), envisioned an ingenius theater to celebrate the arts at this grand historic event. His 12,000-seat Spectatorium, was designed by the now forgotten theatrical impresario to harness the mechanical and electrical marvels of the time.
The Light Years is, in part, a love story, highlighted by technology and wonder and spun over 40-years. In it, we are transported to more innocent times, when novelty could inspire and awe was not an unsophisticated or naive response.
In 1893, the story centers on the progress of building and wiring MacKaye’s theater.
Hillary (Erik Lochtefeld in a star turn) and his assistant, Hong Sling (the charismatic Brian Lee Huynh) are the electricians in charge of making the Spectatorium shine. Hillary’s wife, Adeline (the appealing Aya Cash) is a very modern woman, cheerfully pedalling both iced tea and a bicycle.
When the scene shifts to 1933, it’s Ruthy (Aya Cash, again) who has to keep her family afloat, flipping pancakes and inspiriting her husband Lou (Ken Barnett, in an excellent awe-shucks mode) through the writing of musical ditties for this Fair’s many commercial enterprises. Their son, Charlie (the already accomplished young Graydon Peter Yosowitz) is smitten with the sensations the Fair promises.
The scenic design by Laura Jellinek and costumes design by Michael Krass rise beautifully to the majesty of the occasion.
Every part of the theater space is treated to a bit of the performance. There are lights and things that go poof as well as narratives to explicate the drama. The ensemble engage, entertain and instruct.
The Light Years uses some of the devices Steele MacKaye introduced to turn this small-scale production into a grand spectacle.
World’s Fairs are theme parks for progress. The 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, named in honor of Columbus’ landing in the Americas 400 years before, offered marvels never before seen.
Naturally it was commerce that drove the innovation. Technology was well represented by the likes of Nikola Tesla (exhibit pictured.)
Spectacles and the arts also set the stage for novelty and inspiration at Chicago’s great fair. One feature of the 1893 Exposition was theatrical impressario, Steele MacKaye’s visionary Spectatorium which proved to be a costly and extravagant project. (Spoiler alert, don’t click on the link above if you prefer to be surprised.)
The Light Years presented at Playwrights Horizons through April 2nd (opening night is March 13th) finds the personal in this grand historic event. T and B will be there so look for our review of this new work by the experimental troupe, The Debate Society, next week.
For more information on the production (and tickets), please visit the @PHnyc website.
Leaps and bounds
Acrobats, gymnasts and trapeze artists might be dismissed as circus performers, but their skills are undeniable. Those talents when put in the service of thought-provoking materials rise way above. They are often on display in a Paul Taylor season, and we are fortunate to have the 2017 one starting at Lincoln Center today, March 7th, and running through the 26th.
Taylor’s dancers (and the dances he devises for them) thrill and jump with all their heart and soul. There is abandoned precision in every move. Some of the highlights T and B will share this season are Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal); The Weight of Smoke; Lost, Found and Lost; Syzygyand the new The Open Door, among others.
In 1940, George Davis (Julian Fleisher), had a dream of creating a communal hothouse for brilliant talents in a ramshackle Victorian on a Brooklyn hill. Davis,having published a novel to some acclaim, went on to a very luminous career as an editor.
“February House,” at The Public Theater through June 10th 17th, will appeal to lit. nerds and English majors. The musical by Gabriel Kahane (music and lyrics) and Seth Bockley (book), and direction by Davis McCallum, is based on Sherell Tippins non-fictional 2005 exploration of life at 7 Middagh Street, Brooklyn and the ragtag assortment of famous and accomplished intellectuals who resided there.
The group included Gypsy Rose Lee (Kacie Sheik) who worked on a best-selling murder mystery while boarding with George.
Carson McCullers (Kristen Sieh), just 23 and fresh off the success of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” left her husband, Reeves (Ken Clark), and took up residence. W.H. Auden (Erik Lochtefeld), in a moment of abandon, took a room with his young protege, Chester Kallman (A.J. Shively.) Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek) and his lover, the singer Peter Pears (Ken Barnett) reluctantly decided to join the experiment.
At “February House,” Davis coaxed and coddled his charges. He exerted a flair for the dramatic and decorative, sometimes at the expense of the practical. Life at 7 Middagh Street was never dull, but often it was far from comfortable. There was plenty of booze, but not enough heat; frequent partying lead to missed deadlines.
George Davis’ little experiment in communal artistry did not fare well. Gypsy Rose may have been the only one of his tenants to have produced a successful work while boarding with George. Erika Mann (Stephanie Hayes), Thomas Mann’s daughter who was married to Auden, adds a little political gravitas to the house on the hill when she shows up. It is after all the middle of World War II.
A highlight of “February House” is the song “California,” sung by the endearing Bengy and Peter; the score successfully blends the post-modern with California pop when the pair of resident Brits announce their departure for Hollywood.
The tone of the musical is often wistfully alegiac. Among the charms of this production, along with the cast of fine young performers, is the fact that the characters are both icons and ordinary folk.
“February House” is the first commissioned musical as part of The Public Theater’s Musical Theater Initiative. To find out more, visit www.publictheater.org
Repressive regimes– like the communism that the journalist and “Cold Warrior” Joseph Alsop detested or the equally unsavory home-grown witch-hunting of Joseph McCarthy– breed secrecy and fear.
In David Auburn’s “The Columnist,” at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre extended to June 24th again through July 1st, Joe Alsop (John Lithgow) hides the open secret of his homosexuality in a marriage to his best friend’s widow, Susan Mary Alsop (Margaret Colin.)
Alsop is as guarded about his personal life as he is aggressive in his professional activities. Joseph Alsop’s was a liberal’s conservative, anti McCarthy, and as excited by the Kennedy presidency as he was hostile to LBJ’s good ole boy politics. He called both the Cold and Vietnam Wars all wrong but stayed the course even as his patrician accent and bespoke wardrobe went out of fashion. His gleeful quest for power and influence made him a much less reliable witness to history than his brother and one-time writing partner, Stewart (Boyd Gaines.)
Everyone in the cast of “The Columnist” is excellent, with John Lithgow in the lead giving an affecting portrayal of the work-aholic newspaperman. Grace Gummer, as Susan Mary’s daughter Abigail, makes the most of her role as a foil to her stodgy stepfather.
While “The Columnist” has a steady foothold in the machinations of Washington politicking, Matt Charman’s “Regrets.” at MTC’s NY City Center Stage I through April 29th, takes a regrettable detour into McCarthy-era politics.
TONY NEWS: or is it? John Lithgow is a nominee for 2012 Best Actor in a Drama!
In “Regrets,” a group of men camp out in a Reno bungalow colony to establish residency. They are each bruised by their broken marriages. Mrs. Duke’s (Adriane Lenox) cabins are a way-station for their lost souls.
“Regrets” delves into a different kettle of secrets than those of “The Columnist.” The twist that turns “Regrets” onto a political pathway is either inspired or unnecessary– depending on your point of view. The horrors of hiding from McCarthy are real enough, but in this reviewer’s opionion, they lend an air of unreality to this pleasant and interesting drama about the relationships of unmoored men. Ben Clancy (Brian Hutchison), Gerald Driscoll (Lucas Caleb Rooney), and Alvin Novotny (Richard Topol) welcome the newcomer, Caleb Farley (Ansel Elgort) with the wariness of those trapped far from home.