Tag Archives: The Public Theater

Burton’s Ghost is Happy

Concerning the current production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet now playing at The Public Theater, here is the short version the review: See it. Just see it.

Ok, for those who need more…

Among theatre geeks, the 1964 production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton and directed by John Gielgud has achieved legendary status. It gets copious mention in the first season of Slings & Arrows. It moved us past the Olivier interpretation onto fresh new ground. As best as I can piece together, what Oscar Isaac and Sam Gold have crafted here is the closest we are ever going to get in the 21st century to that landmark production. I was in London in July, and I had the chance to see the Andrew Scott take on the role (which, by all measure, is also superlative). I did not go because I felt like I have seen my definitive Hamlet.

Eschewing sets, costumes, and pyrotechnics, Gold just focuses on the language, the narrative, and forming on ensemble that will fully inhabit the world of the play. He succeeds. I had seen his Othello at New York Theatre Workshop, and he exceeded the high bar he established there. The claim of this production is that you get the full text. That is not quite true. Anything having to do with Fortinbras and Norway has been excised. Still, that’s 95% of the script, making for an evening long in hours (but far from an endurance test, at least for the audience).

Given his work in indie films (Inside Llewyn Davis) and major studio releases (the new Stars Wars trilogy), Isaac is known to have considerable acting chops. He lives up to that reputation. This is fully as realized a performance as we are likely to get. He embodies grief and the feeling of being completely at sea. When Hamlet feigns madness in Act II and III, one wonders here how much he is actually feigning. As Hamlet plunges into torment and guilt after killing Polonius, Isaac ably communicates the rawness of what the Prince of Denmark is experiencing. The final duel with Laertes is a welcome escape from the ever-mounting pain.

Isaac is surrounded by a cast equal to his talents. Keegan-Michael Key is an extraordinarily dynamic and funny Horatio; for once, I felt the necessity of Horatio in the play beyond serving as a sounding board for Hamlet. Ritchie Coster is an able (finally!) Claudius and sorrowful Old Hamlet. Peter Friedman offers the wiliest Polonius (plus Grave Digger) in a long time, and he has able support from Gayle Rankin as a bulimic Ophelia and Anatol Yusef (Boardwalk Empire) as a cooler-than-usual Laertes. If there is a link weak in the chain, it belongs to Charlene Woodard’s Gertrude; she just did not seem to get into the swing of the proceedings.

Throughout Gold makes bold choices, and even if they do not always quite connect, you have to admire the invention and love of the play that never once wavers. Foremost, this is a celebration of Hamlet and so, even given the play’s elegiac turns, the evening never turns turgid. We are on a journey and glad to be on it.

This production closes Labor Day weekend. It needs to be seen.

Link

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/16/shakespeare-plays-and-civic-strife-the-julius-caesar-fiasco-is-nothing-new

Link

http://www.playbill.com/article/annaleigh-ashford-stephen-adley-guirgis-nikki-m-james-set-for-shakespeare-in-the-park

Nostalgia is a Disease

How much did I love Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s new play making its Broadway debut? I first saw it at The Public Theater about three weeks before the election. It made such a profound impact on me as an audience member, playwright, and American citizen that I had to see it again in its new digs at Studio 54. Even though I was fully aware of its gut-wrenching conclusion this second time, I still shed a tear when it arrived. Sweat should be required viewing for anyone living in our republic – it is that important.

The lion’s share of the play takes place at a bar run by Stan (James Colby fully embodying the moral conscience of the play) in Reading, Pennsylvania. This is a working class bar where Bud and Michelob are on tap, and the patrons come to unwind from long days on factory floors and to bitch about management. It move back and forth in time between 2000 and 2008, the advent and the twilight of George W. Bush’s administration. Jason (Will Pullen) and Chris (Khris Davis) have done something that has landed them in prison in 2000, and in 2008 they are released. It is not until the end of the play that we find out what that something is. The inciting incident of much of the drama is the decision by management of the local steel mill to move operations to Mexico and play hardball with its employees (demanding severe cuts to pay and pensions, a lock-out when they refuse).

Much has already been said of Nottage’s compassionate and perceptive depiction of the Trump voters. Like Stephen Karam with The Humans, she chronicles the fall of working-class families from economic security into an ever-churning chaos. Nottage centers on the anxieties of those who once were prosperous and have since fallen on hard times. She shines a light on how quickly they can find themselves in poverty, addiction, and shame. We see how anxiety quickly transforms into anger and then into rage. The promises of a return to greatness – though clearly hollow – would have instant appeal.

And if that is all Sweat just did that, it would be a good play for the moment and fade from memory come 2020 (hopefully) or 2024 (not so hopefully). What Nottage has constructed, though, is an American play for the ages, a tragedy of the American dream that would be appreciated by the likes of Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets. “Nostalgia is a disease,” says Stan. Part of what is destroying these workers is their attachment to a way-of-life that, while it had some rewards when times were good, is ultimately destructive. Even before the troubles at the plant start, Chris desires to leave the line and study to become a teacher. For this, he is mocked by his friend Jason. What matters most is tribal loyalty. To want something better is seen as a betrayal – as contempt for the life they all lead. Adding to the stew is the racial mix. Jason and his mother, Tracey (Johanna Day) are white. Chris and his mother, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) are black. So long as times are good and everyone marches to the same drummer: all is well and good. Cynthia, however, is like her son and has ambitions for something other. She applies for a position as a supervisor. When she earns the new job, charges of the hiring process being rigged for affirmative action are inevitable. Outside from the start is Oscar (Carlo Alban), whose family is from Colombia. That he was born here does not halt the charges that he immigrated illegally to take our “jobs”.

The tragedy here is that many of the characters feel that they deserve a job at the plant, even though they hate it. They are limited by a lack of imagination, by shortsightedness, by a sense of entitlement. When the workers are locked out, Oscar is hired as a temporary worker. The $11 an hour he is paid is a windfall, but it is an insult to Tracey. Rather than direct anger at company management, Tracey and Jason train their fire on Oscar exclusively. Again, one of the historic tragedies of American history rears its ugly head: those who should be united against those in positions of power and privilege are divided along racial and ethnic lines. Stan tries to remind his friends of this, but that his voice of wisdom gets silenced points to greater tragedies that will overtake this community.

There are no monsters here, though we may despise many of the characters’ decisions and actions. Nottage’s genius is apparent in that it is possible for, say, Tracey, to be both right and wrong at the same exact moment. Yes, she is right to be angry and frustrated and to want to continue to work (she is no looking for handouts) as she always has. But she is wrong to place the blame on Cynthia and Oscar. She is wrong to think she is entitled to a place further up the line because her people have been in the country longer. She is wrong not to understand Cynthia and Oscar’s history. And, at the end of the day, despite the hostility both verbal and physical, it is Oscar who fares best. Again, it is part and parcel of American history, that more recent arrivals respond best to adversity, adapt, survive, and thrive. That Oscar is the ultimate voice of compassion further highlights those core strengths. It is a dazzling achievement.

Nottage is part of a Renaissance of American playwriting. At the end of the twentieth century, it seemed that playwriting dying as talented writers went to film and television. Plays seemed small, concerned with the inchoate longings of clueless yuppies. Nottage like a number of other playwrights is utilizing the stage to tell powerful, important, and provocative stories that will have enormous impact – both on the personal and political levels – far beyond their initial presentations. Nottage’s Sweat deserves to be in the same conversation with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America or August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.

For right now, though, see it. Simply see it.

Link

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/27/the-first-theatrical-landmark-of-the-trump-era

Joan of Arc Not Inspired

I take no pleasure in writing this review. I admire the work and mission of the Public and have been attending productions there since the final years of Joe Papp’s tenure. This is a company that still takes risks, that pushes envelope, that supports its artists. And sometimes the risk pays off with dividends (see Hamilton). Even their failures, such as Party People, are often noble efforts. Alas, there is nothing noble about Joan of Arc Into the Fire.

I was glad to see David Byrne’s name on this season’s roster; Byrne wrote the music, lyrics, and book for Joan of Arc. The pre-set offers great promise. Hung across the stage is a banner with Mitch McConnell’s now infamous line about Elizabeth Warren, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Then the show begins, and that promise is abandoned. Over the course of roughly 90 minutes, the entire sweep of Joan’s meteoric rise and fall is chronicled. There is great dramatic potential here as both George Bernard Shaw and Jean Anouilh have discovered; indeed there is much for a musical to dive into. For instance, Joan (Jo Lampert) is known for her visions of the Archangel Michael and Saints Margaret and Catherine. The structure and language of musical theatre offers a great number of possibilities here of bringing those visions fully to life and providing each figure his or her own musical theme; of course, it could be an open question as to whether Joan was imbued or insane. But that rich vein, like so many others, was left untouched.

The show often feels like an endurance test. Musically, the first 45 minutes are repetitive. Most of the songs are exposition. The production seems to be unsure of what it wants to do. Does it want to follow Brecht’s strategy and utilize the historical figure for the purposes of contemporary political commentary? Which would be great. That makes a great deal of senses. But the creators never commit to that. Instead we get tired tropes of the freedom-loving French (really?) against the tyrannical English (again, really?). Other aspects of the Joan legend are rushed over. She took an arrow at the Battle of Orleans. This should have been a momentous moment, musically epic. Instead, it was meh. She also ferreted out the Dauphin in disguise when she first arrived at court. Another opportunity for a beautiful moment — a complicated duet between the two perhaps — was just left sitting there. Imagine what a Sondheim or Miranda could have done with that. One had the sense that the events of Joan’s life – whether history or legend – did not have narrative momentum or impact but were rather just a bunch of stuff that happened.

Alex Timbers offers uninspired direction with a combination of slow-motion fight choreography under a strobe light and the Les Miz turn-table (now with stairs!). And, out of nowhere, we get Mare Winningham as Joan’s mother in the last five minutes. We are told that she is important, but it all seems so extraneous at this point. During the trial, supertitles flash onto the wall telling us that what we are about to hear is actually from the transcript at the time. We should not be told these things. Done well, musicals have the ability to make us feel what is important, to know what is important without being told.

David Byrne’s work – whether as a member of the Talking Heads or in his solo career – is something I long admired and enjoyed, but his distinctive style and voice was very much MIA throughout the proceedings. Neither his albums or films (True Stories) are strong on narrative propulsion, but they do paint intriguing vignettes and character portraits. That strength, though, was not in evidence. No doubt a separate librettist should have been hired to provide structure.

The cast performs herculean labors to overcome the deficiencies in writing and directing. Lambert, Terence Archie (as Warwick), and Sean Allan Krill (Bishop Cauchon) all resonate on stage. If there is a weak link in the cast, it is Kyle Selig as a drip of a Dauphin.

Sadly, Joan of Arc Into the Fire is simply not worth your time. “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” Jefferson says in Hamilton. And so, apparently, for every Hamilton there must be a Joan of Arc.

 

Sweat Opening Soon on Broadway

Lynn Nottage’s Sweat is beginning its previews in a few days. This is play is a must-see as it explains like no other artistic work Trump America. I think it is so important that I saw it for its off-Broadway run at the Public and purchased tickets for the Broadway run. I will post a more complete analysis after I see it again, but for now my advice is this: go see this play.