Archive for March, 2010|Monthly archive page

A Plug for Passion Play

In Uncategorized on March 26, 2010 at 8:56 pm

Buzz has been circulating nonstop around Sarah Ruhl’s latest project Passion Play, which started rehearsals this past Tuesday.  After attending a preview reading Monday night, this new venture’s success rate looks mighty promising.

The play is set in three distinct time periods, (Elizabethan England, Nazi Germany, and the Reagan-era United States) and chronicles the production process of three theatre  groups trying to put up a Passion Play.  The same actors play in all three acts, reincarnating parallels to their characters’ personas in each new era. The show is an ode to theatre of sorts, and pokes fun at actors and theatrical stereotypes with witty dialogue and intelligently crafted comedy.

The show is being produced by the Epic Theatre Ensemble at The Irondale Center, 85 South Oxford Street at the Lafayette Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.  It runs from April 27th – May 30th, with a “College Night” on April 30th featuring $10 tickets(!)  The production especially wants to attract and inspire young artists, and after the reading, I can confidently predict that this show will be a hit with all creative audiences.  I’ve already made my reservation!


The Essence of Hamlet

In Best of the Best, Downtown NYC Theatre on March 23, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Although this show closed March 6 after an all-too-brief two week run, I feel compelled to preserve its memory in writing.  Simply put, this show blew me away.  I can say with absolute confidence that it was the best Shakespeare production I have ever seen.  Director John Kurzynowski stripped the show of all scholarly pretension often associated with Hamlet, leaving us with a rendition that honored the most fundamental element of a play–the words.  Gone were the academic, philosophical hypotheses that all too often cloud what the words actually mean.  It was Hamlet in its purest form.

Now, any stiff “Shakespeare purist” who saw the show may want me thrown in the proverbial bin for making that claim.  How could this experimental, East Village  production be “Hamlet in its purest form?”  Kurzynowski threw all theatrical and Shakespearean conventions out the window with this show.  As the audience walked in, the actors were already on stage warming up, dressed in hipster street clothes and chatting vibrantly amongst themselves.  They even greeted friends in the audience, committing theatrical taboo by breaking fourth wall.  And if that didn’t ruffle some highbrow feathers, one look at the program would have probably caused a heart attack.  “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, to be played by….Stacy Jordan?  And Ophelia a man?! What is this blasphemy?”

All I can say is that I don’t know why Hamlet isn’t played this way every time.  Hamlet as a woman and Ophelia as a man makes so much more sense–the switch completely averts the problem of these characters’ musings becoming annoying, as I have often found myself thinking in other experiences of the play.  Jordan’s Hamlet was brilliant, and she endowed him with a sense of strength and groundedness that I had never seen before.  She delivered her soliloquies in such a way that expressed exactly what the words meant; there was no convoluted subtext, no “I’m saying this but I mean that.”  This made the character so much more accessible, so much more real, and allowed the audience to connect with her instead of being dragged through the show by the reigns of some unpredictable gelding.  Tommy Heleringer’s Ophelia was heartbreaking, and he played the character with a refreshing sincerity.  He did not indulge in a typical fit of madness, as Ophelia is often portrayed, but again let the words speak for themselves, evoking a profound sadness from deep within himself that emanated throughout the audience.  Ophelia’s death scene was beautifully done, as flower petals were scattered throughout the entire scene, and as he signified the drowning by dipping his face in a water basin downstage center.  When he lifted is head up to the light, the effect was intensely moving, as droplets of sparkling water trickled down his face.

Another aspect of this production that I greatly appreciated was how it embraced Shakespeare’s bawdy humor.  The hilarious Kyle Williams, who played “the Clown,” would echo words like “cock” through stifled snickers, acknowledging them as the innuendoes they are.  The show also epitomized the meaning of an ensemble.  The cast remained on stage the entire time, and when actors were not in a certain scene, they would watch from the sidelines with genuine interest and enthusiasm for their fellow actors’ performances.  Claudius was portrayed by almost every cast member, denoted by a red beanie.  While each actor gave the character his or her own distinct flair, there was a remarkable sense of continuity throughout each incarnation, which also speaks to the company’s sense of ensemble.

I cannot end this review without mentioning the stunning Tina Shepard.  As Hamlet Sr.’s ghost, the nucleus of the play, her omnipresence guided the show through its paces.  Shepard bestowed the character with amazing depth, portraying him with eternal wisdom and solemn dignity.  She transformed the character from an obsessively vengeful spirit to a piteous soul who had been profoundly hurt by betrayal.

This show, despite all of its eccentricities and innovations, depicted the core essence of Hamlet.  By rejecting theatrical conventions and abstract theories surrounding the play, Kurzynowski brought the focus to the core elements of the show, allowing the actors to express the essential meaning of the text.  This show was the quintessence of progressive theatre–creative, experimental, fearless, risk-taking, and most importantly, truthful.  I only wish that this show were still running and that it received more widespread recognition for its brilliance.  Not only was it Hamlet in its purest form, but also theatre in its purest form.

Vote for War Horse

In London Theatre on March 22, 2010 at 1:55 am

In planning our trip to London, my friend and I succumbed to the whirlwind of hype surrounding The New London Theatre’s War Horse.  Emphatically urged by trusted family friends, whose passionate gushing was backed by glowing reviews, we figured that this play  must not be missed.  But a common problem with highly recommended shows–restaurants, movies, anything–can be that the surrounding enthusiasm rouses expectations that far exceed  what the experience can actually offer.

This was not the case with War Horse.

Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, this theatrical adaptation by Tom Morris is a true testament to that primitive, spiritual bond between humans and animals.  It recounts the story of a boy, Albert, and his beloved horse Joey during World War I.  But let’s be honest.  Tear-jerking narratives about the unshakeable love between a kid and his one-of-a-kind animal friend are all too familiar (Lassie, anyone?), and War Horse is no different, following the recycled formula of boy grows up with horse, army buys horse, boy dedicates his life to finding horse.  With all this in mind, one may rightfully assume that this show treads dangerously close to sickening cliché.  However, this production portrays the story so purely and so sincerely that one cannot help but become completely enthralled.

What sets this show apart from anything I’ve ever seen is the use of puppetry.  And mind you, this is no Sesame Street, Avenue Q ordeal.  These sculptural works of art, created by the Handspring Puppet Company, were utilized brilliantly, elevating the art of puppetry to new standards.  The puppeteers were outstanding, and they completely embodied the spirit of their charges, breathing life into the wooden framework.  It required three puppeteers to operate one horse: one in a forward bend, the back legs attached to his; another manning the front legs and upper torso; and the third maneuvering the neck and head.  Their motions were flawlessly in sync, and each one produced various grunts and whinnies that all together created a living, breathing being.  Every detailed movement–a twitch of the ear, a cock of the head, a flit of the tail–revealed the puppets’ personality and emotions.  You could read the animals’ feelings both on the faces of the lead puppeteers as well as through the gestures of the puppet; it was a remarkable osmosis of feeling, the humans and puppets blending seamlessly.  One favorite character of mine was a cantankerous goose, whose mischievous personality (enhanced by the puppeteer’s facial expressions) offered much needed comical relief .  I have never seen such a beautiful portrayal of puppetry, and this show has altered any doubtful preconceptions I may have had about that art form.

Another praiseworthy component of this show was the ultimate sense of ensemble, not only among the trios of puppeteers, but also between the puppets and live actors.  The relationship between Albert, (portrayed brilliantly by Luke Treadaway), and Joey is so pure that as an audience member, I completely forgot that Joey isn’t an actual horse.  Treadaway’s performance was very convincing, and he interacted with the puppet as he would a fellow actor, reading the horses’ emotions and responding to them truthfully.  In all honesty, I feel that it was one of the strongest relationships in the whole show, surpassing those established only between humans.

The deceptively complex set design was also very effective.  Stop-motion-animation sketches of horses and landscapes were projected onto an overhead screen, paralleling the emotional action of the play.  The black box set up called for a number of portable set pieces, which catered to the versatile settings in the show (from rural England to the battlegrounds of World War I), and offered a variety of stage pictures.  A spotlight of a horse on a bare stage beautifully contrasted a shrapnel-ridden war zone, and a rotating platform infused certain tableaux moments with dramatic impact.

Overall, this production is a rare breed.  It defies the curse of over-hype, as my expectations were not only met, but surpassed, and breathes new life into a tired story line.  It is a fine example of how theatre can touch an audience, as half of the people around me (including myself) were discretely sniffling at one point or another.  The innovative puppetry broke new ground for the art form, redefining the emotional range of a manipulated wooden creature.  As we left the theatre, we were handed postcards printed with a picture of the cast, holding a banner that reads “Vote For War Horse.”  It refers to the 2010 Olivier Awards, for which the  play is nominated for Most Popular Show, and the public votes to decide the winner.  Well, after watching the show, I feel that they have no need to campaign for the win–with a performance like that, they’ve sure secured my vote.

Love Never Dies…or Does It

In London Theatre on March 20, 2010 at 6:05 pm

“Phantaaaasma.” Uhh…huh. If the opening word of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Love Never Dies” is any indication of the calamity that ensues, lovers of the original “Phantom of the Opera” (or respectable theatre in general, for that matter), run for the hills now.  This musical soap-opera-on-steroids is melodrama reborn, thanks to the preposterous writing and histrionic “acting.”  First off I must say that this production sacrificed all acting talent for the singing and dancing, which were more or less commendable.  Set in early 20thcentury Coney Island, the carnivale setting warranted performers of all kinds—contortionists with the impressive flexibility of overcooked spaghetti, acrobats, and the main attraction, the Oo La La Girls.  It is now a decade after the original “Phantom,” and our main man is the producer of this summer extravaganza.  We are re-introduced to the Phantom (Ramin Karimloo) in the throes of his longstanding withdrawal from Christine (Sierra Boggess), whom he has not seen, or more importantly heard, in these ten years.  The tortured soul growled his opening solo with seismic vibrato (I swear Karimloo was even warbling on consonants), his dramatic behavior ranging from threateningly holding a gun to his jowl to groping a Christine mannequin that he keeps in a cage.

The real Christine first appears in an angelic halo of white light, stepping off the boat from England with her now-husband Raoul (Joseph Millson) and son Gustave (a multi-cast role).  She has been hired as Phantasma’s newest star, unaware of the Phantom’s influence behind the scenes. Conflict predictably unravels throughout the show as Christine supplants Phantasma’s previous (and comparably inferior) star Meg (Summer Strallen), resulting in an ever-consequential bout of jealousy, and as Raoul and the Phantom both vie for Christine’s, sigh, undying love.

I must say that despite the show’s many faults, its production values made it worth sitting through.  The costume, lighting, and set design all merged into a cohesive, symbiotic force, producing an exceptionally stimulating spectacle.  The special effects were also sensational, capturing a sense of illusion and wonder with swirling, sometimes cinematic projections layered on multiple scrims—from cityscapes of the Manhattan skyline to translucent animations of the Coney Island ferris wheel. However, it seemed to be a common theme throughout the show that the technical aspects far outweighed the musical’s actual substance.  In one visually dazzling (though psychologically puzzling) number in the Phantom’s chamber, the Phantom seems to be getting off on Gustave’s inherent musical talent, when in a fervent frenzy he commands his minions to break into an 80’s metal rock out.  Again, the spectacle is amazing, as a chandelier of Medusa-inspired singing heads descends from the ceiling while a creature that can best be described as a quadrapus bangs out chords on a futuristic organ.  However, despite these impressive technical elements, instead of compensating for the show’s emptiness, they only magnified it.  In all honesty, the show’s gaudy style seemed like a knock off of Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!”; a “Spectacular, Spectacular” that comparatively amounted to all show and no substance.

But the most disappointing part of this show for me was undoubtedly the acting, which seems to have been taken directly from the gestural handbook of melodrama.  Every movement, particularly from Boggess, was stylized with affected grace—presenting, not emitting, the emotional action of the characters.  But to the performers’ credit, I don’t think that even great acting could have saved the show, with its laughable lyrics and cliche dialogue (though there were approximately three minutes of actual talking in the total two and a half hours—the rest was back to back song).  One thing that I feel is essential to a good musical is that each song has to be motivated—the music has be a vital component of the show, without which the characters’ needs, wants, and desires cannot be fully expressed.  This particular musical failed miserably at that, cutting from song to song with no purpose other than to flaunt the performers’ voices.

However, despite the multitude of problems I had with this show, I am surprised to find myself concluding that it was not a total waste of time.  It was actually quite amusing, though presumably not for its intended reasons, and the intermission snacks were admittedly delicious. “Love Never Dies” is scheduled to arrive on Broadway in fall 2010, and I would only recommend going to see it if you happen to be presented with a free ticket.  And though my love for this show was dead to begin with, I am honestly able to say that I learned some valuable lessons from this theatrical experience.  It confirmed for me that overly obsessive phantoms do not ideal lovers make, and that even the deepest creative rut is no excuse to mess with an already established masterpiece.