Deck the Halls in December

Four new productions of striking form and colorful content deck the December stages.

A Room in India at the Park Armory

A French company is traveling the world, seeking to create relevant political theatre.   They find themselves stranded in India where their artistic director has had a breakdown (he’s climbed to the top of a Gandhi Statue naked, and is arrested and imprisoned, awaiting trial).  Left in charge is Cornelia, a self-deprecating assistant who has never directed a play in her life – let alone a scene.  Given this awesome responsibility, she agonizes over what to do with the stranded theatre company and its stalled mission.

That’s the seminal idea for the remarkable theatre work called A Room In India, a so-called “collective creation” by the indefatigable Ariana Mnouchkine and Théâtre du Soleil. her fabulous Parisian company.  It’s a vast work of ideas and numerous theatrical forms, performed – appropriately – in the vast Park Armory.

A Room in India at the Park Armory

The play takes place over one long night, as Cornelia (Hélène Cinque) lies in her bed in a room in Pondicherry (a city in East India), desperate trying to dream up a topic for the company’s next production.  While she sleeps fitfully, Cornelia is beset by dozens of feverish visions, interrupted by urgent calls and faxes from Paris about the company’s funding.  Meanwhile, the enormity of India –its culture, energy, and history – is teeming outside her windows.  It pours through the windows of David Buizard’s set, and floods the room with colorful, exotic images.

A Room in India is a clever piece of meta-theatre – a play that happens while trying to dream up an idea for a play.  In her feverish mind, Cornelia is aspiring to create a work in the great tradition of Indian theatre.  So whole scenes from the Mahabharata (the Indian epic poem) are performed in traditional dance/song/storytelling format and full traditional costume, staged in the Terukkuttu style of Southern India.  But those scenes are interspersed with Cornelia’s nightmares about what’s going on today – in Syria, Iraq, Africa, indeed all around the world where terrorism is making its violent mark.  These nightmarish scenes, along with the tradition Indian ones, are enacted by a passionate company of thirty actors on a vast stage that represents Cornelia’s room.

The result is a four-hour, epic production scope and size rarely seen by Western audiences. It’s a dazzling mixed bag of a theatre experience, featuring traditional Indian song and dance along with terrifying contemporary political interludes. Oh – and did I mention the occasional appearances of Shakespeare, Chekhov and his “Three Sisters”, and a Japanese No Theatre artist?

The themes are far reaching – from the role of women in society and history to the purpose of theatre itself as a humanizing and unifying force.  What will the theatre mean in a hundred years, the play asks?  Or even in ten?

During her fitful night, poor Cornelia is invoking the great world theatre traditions, trying to find the suitable form to express the agonies of the contemporary planet.  The result is a stunning work of epic theatre by a visionary theatre artist.  Mnouchkine and her distinguished company, the Théâtre du Soleil, have been creating groundbreaking works for over fifty years at the company’s home at La Cartoucherie, east of Paris, and taking them around the world.  A Room in India is their crowning achievement.

Describe The Night at Atlantic Theatre Company

It’s a challenge to describe Describe The Night, Rajiv Joseph’s ambitious new work at the Atlantic Theatre Company.  It functions on so many levels.  On one, it’s a play about several historical figures in imagined circumstances – namely, Isaac Babel, the famed 20th century Polish/Jewish writer and Nikolai Yezhov, head of Stalin’s secret police.  On another level, it’s a sweeping epic about Russian history – specifically, the era from 1917 to the present, including the Soviet period and its aftermath.  On yet another level, it’s about “truth and lies” – or “fake news”, as we call it in our times.  And yes, there’s still another level – the task of the writer to write the truth.

Describe The Night at the Atlantic

What ultimately kept me in my seat for this overly-long 2 ¾ hour show was how it works as an intellectual puzzle.  In a series of a dozen (or more) scenes, the play jumps back and forth from 1920 to 1937 to 1989 to 2010 back to 1940 and so on, defying chronology. As characters age and then regress to youth again, we try to figure out who they are and what they want.  The playwright mixes historical fact with fiction, so it’s hard to know what to believe (or is the whole play a purposeful put-on?!)  Still, you feel a sense of accomplishment (and relief) when the story threads finally come together in the end.

Holding this overly complex plot together is a diary, written by a young Babel in 1920, that passes from character to character and ultimately ends up with a woman who dies in the fatal crash that killed most of the Polish government in 2010 – and then is retrieved by a clerk in a car rental agency (don’t ask me to explain).  True event (the crash), fictitious circumstances (the diary’s journey)…

From time to time, this sprawling play veers into absurdism – for example, when Yevgenia, Nikolai’s wife serves a Polish soup called qureshi (made of live leeches and fresh human blood) to her granddaughter (again, don’t ask me why). These absurdist forays are more jarring and distracting than amusing.  Thanks to an able cast, featuring Danny Burstein (Babel), Zach Grenier (Nikolai), and Tina Benko (cook of that dangerous soup), we’re engaged throughout.  Giovanna Sardelli moves the action along on Tim Mackabee’s set, and Daniel Kluger’s original music crescendos to a deafening climax.

Rajiv Joseph’s play reminds me of Travesties (1974), in which playwright Tom Stoppard seizes on another obscure historical fact (that Lenin, Tristan Tzara, and James Joyce were all in Zurich in 1917).  He turns their hypothetical interconnection into an absurdist romp. Adventurous attempts like Stoppard’s and Joseph’s are to be commended for their originality, their imagination, and their playfulness (pun intended).

The Parisian Woman at the Hudson Theatre, Broadway

This is not the first time Donald Trump’s name has been heard on the stages of West 44th Street recently.  This summer at the Belasco, Michael Moore dedicated his entire one-man show (The Terms of My Surrender) to trying to take Trump down.  Now, at the Hudson Theatre on the same block, author Beau Willimon is setting his new play in Trump’s Washington.   Entitled The Parisian Woman, Willimon had written it before Trump’s election, but felt he had to update it to reflect what he calls “this cataclysmic shift in the country.”

The Parisian Woman (inspired by the eponymous 19th century farce) is a drama of political intrigue – a hybrid of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (power moves in the court of Henry VIII) and House of Cards (Willimon’s Netflix series on the “Underwood” administration, starring Kevin Spacey & Robin Wright).  It’s also a satirical comedy of manners – Washington manners, to be precise.  The title refers to Chloe (the gorgeous Uma Thurman), a town-house-bound wife, who finally finds her calling when her husband Tom is placed on the short list for a seat on Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Uma Thurman as The Parisian Woman

Chloe turns out to be a master manipulator, as she maneuvers several pawns around the Washington chessboard to aid her husband’s nomination. They include businessman Peter (Tom’s best friend and her lover, played by a malleable Marton Csokas), Jeanette (the newly appointed head of the Federal Reserves, played by a charming Blair Brown), and Rebecca, Jeanette’s attractive Harvard-grad daughter and upcoming political star (played by a fetching Phillipa Soo).

There are some catchy exchanges, like:  “If you’re not a Democrat when you’re young, you don’t have a heart”/“If you’re not a Republican when you’re old, you don’t have a brain.”  These and other bon mots (like “Presidents are assets to be bought and sold”) keep the audience engaged and amused, while Chloe spins her web, a sleek spider-woman clad in Joan Greenwood’s elegant costumes.

The problem, ultimately, is that real political events, as they unfold every day, are far more dramatic, not to mention traumatic.  As they say about our current reality:  “You can’t make this stuff up.”  So it’s not Beau Willimon’s fault.  Truth is stranger than fiction – and far more dangerous, too.

Farinelli and the King at the Belasco Theatre, Broadway

Mark Rylance is the best present New York audiences has received this holiday season.  This wonderful actor is the gift that keeps on giving, with his remarkable skill and range.  He wowed us in 2011 as the explosive  “Rooster” in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem; he dazzled us again in 2013 as Olivia in Twelfth Night and the title role of Richard III, in rep on Broadway.  Last year, he played a philosopher/fisherman in Nice Fish at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Mark Rylance in Farinelli and the King

And now he’s back to play another eccentric role (his specialty) – that of King Philippe V of Spain, in Farinelli and the King, a new play written by his wife, Claire von Kampen.

The year is 1738.  King Phillip (grandson of French King Louis XIV, played by Rylance) is suffering from bi-polar disorder, rendering him dysfunctional as a monarch.  But his wife Isabella thinks she’s found a cure – in the form of Farinelli, a celebrated castrato (male soprano) whom she has recruited to join the Spanish court and heal her husband with sublime music.

It’s a gem of a show.  Originating in Shakespeare’s Globe (where Rylance was artistic director), they’ve adapted Jonathan Fensom’s original design and recreated it for the Belasco. The result is a glowing jewel-box-style set, with two levels of gallery seating on either side, and an ensemble of period instruments on the balcony over the stage.  Act One features the ornate Spanish court, embellished with Paul Russell’s sumptuous costumes and wigs, where we find an inert Philippe (note: Rylance is a master of understatement, and has great fun playing “depressed”).  With the arrival of Farinelli (Sam Crane), he comes alive.

In Act Two, the set morphs magically into their forest retreat (foliage is lowered from the flies).  There, Philippe seeks solace in nature and Farinelli’s’ music to ward off his madness.  A brief side plot develops (Farinelli has fallen in love with lovely Isabella, played by Melody Grove), but the king is blessedly unaware.  Ultimately Farinelli returns to Italy and Philippe to the Spanish court.

Meanwhile, the music, ah, the music!  Singer Iestyn Davies doubles as the singing Farinelli, and his voice is angelic and transporting. As accompanied by the virtuosic musicians in period dress, Handel’s arias – written for a male soprano and selected from various operas –  soar to the heavens.  Director John Dove intersperses these musical interludes throughout the two acts, and there’s a marvelous moment where a singing Farinelli is lowered from the flies.   As Isabella predicts, the music – and Rylance’s wily, witty, wonderful performance –  will cure you of the past year’s many ills.

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