July 2018 Summer Offerings

What happened to the “summer lull”? New York theatres keep generating exciting, edgy, and entertaining work.

 

Carmen Jones at the Classic Stage Company

If only Oscar Hammerstein were alive today to see the Classic Stage Company’s thrilling revival of his Carmen Jones! Like the rest of us, he’d marvel at the red-hot passion packed into that tiny theatre.

Carmen Jones (photo by Joan Marcus)

Hammerstein’s compact English-language adaptation of Bizet’s opera preserves the highlights of the gorgeous score and adheres to the skeletal plot, while offering new lyrics. He transplants the setting from 19th century Seville to a town in the American south during World War II, site of a parachute plant (cigarette factory, in the original) and a base for soldiers about to be shipped off to war.

Doyle’s choice to remount Carmen Jones as the culmination of CSC’s 50th anniversary season is inspired. First, Carmen Jones hasn’t been seen on a New York stage in 75 years. Second, it’s a perfect match for John Doyle’s prodigious talent as a visionary director of musicals (witness his groundbreaking work on Sondheim). Third, it allows Doyle’s skill as a director of ensembles to shine – this time, with a superb troupe of ten African-American actors.

Designer Scott Pask has made marvelous use of the small CSC space, serving Doyle’s signature minimalist style. He’s reconfigured the seating into a rectangle, with audience on all four sides of a bare stage floor. A balcony hangs over one block of seats, housing an orchestra of seven.

The ensemble is marvelous. Anika Noni Rose is a charismatic Carmen. Although of small stature, she commands the stage, unleashing her seductive powers. Her voice is rich and honey-smooth, and she delivers the famous arias with skill and confidence. Clifton Duncan cuts a deeply moving figure as Joe (Don Jose in the original), whom he endows with aching vulnerability and well as decency. As Cindy Lou (Micaela in the original), Lindsay Roberts is radiant, and her voice is angelic. As the boxer (Escamillo in the original), David Aron Damane delivers the famous toreador song with authority and panache. The rest of the acting/singing ensemble shines, costumed in brilliant color by Anne Hould-Ward. (The dynamic choreography is by Bill T. Jones).

This is one of those productions where all the artistic planets are aligned, and the results are glorious. In such an intimate space, with the performers only a few feet from you, the results are electrifying.

 

Everyone’s Fine With Virginia Woolf at Abrons Art Center

Elevator Repair Service, that devilish New-York-based company, is up to its tricks again – namely, hijacking existing written works and turning them into theatrical gold.

Everyone’s Fine With Virginia Woolf (photo by Joan Marcus)

This time, ERS’s literary heist is Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee’s 1962 masterpiece on the tragedy of marriage and sterility. Albee’s play has unleashed the unbridled imagination of actress/playwright Kate Scelsa, one of ERS’s members, who has turned it into a hilarious parody called Everyone’s Fine With Virginia Woolf, standing the play on its head and lampooning its male and female stereotypes.

Scelsa loosely follows Albee’s plot in Act I, featuring the two childless academic couples (George & Martha, Nick & Honey) while substituting Albee’s dialogue with her own. In this absurdist version, George and Martha are gay. George (who teaches Tennessee Williams’s plays) assumes the roles of Blanche (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Maggie (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) alternately, while Nick fantasizes about carrying a baby in utero (in Albee’s original, Honey was the one with the hysterical pregnancy). There’s story-telling, role-playing, role-switching, couple-swapping, till you don’t know which end is up (nor should you).

And that’s only Act One. Act Two spins wildly out of control. (If I described it, you wouldn’t believe me. For starters, there’s a vampire…)

In sum, Scelsa’s wild and wonderful romp is a self-parody on the current obsession with genre – including trends like “fan fiction” and “flash fiction.” There are numerous random references to authors (Woody Allen), plays (Miller’s All My Sons) characters (Ibsen’s Hedda and Nora), and my favorite – Harry Connick Jr. (what’s he doing in this play?!)

Scelsa wrote the play expressly for ERS ensemble members, whose roles fit like kid gloves. As Martha, Annie McNamara is hilarious with her “big hair” and foul mouth. As George, Vin Knight wears a perpetual expression of surprise (do you blame him?!) and performs Williams’s female roles with relish. Mike Iveson is deliciously nerdy as Nick, and Honey (April Matthis) is the one voice of reason (she’s smart to leave at the end of Act One before the trouble really starts). All this mayhem is directed with panache by the adventuresome John Collin, ERS’s Artistic Director, who fuels the production’s boundless energy and unpredictability.

 

Cyprus Avenue at the Public Theatre

Brace yourself for a traumatic ride. Cyprus Avenue is one of those deceptive dramas that begins with a stock situation – a man in a psychiatrist’s office – but soon goes off the rails and crashes like a horrific train wreck.

David Ireland’s explosive new play concerns Eric Miller (the amazing Stephen Rea), a seemingly mild-mannered middle-aged man who has lived his whole life in East Belfast. A staunch Ulster Protestant and British loyalist who hates the Irish Catholics, he’s internalized his country’s identity crisis, and can’t seem to shake off the historical/political conflict that has rocked Northern Ireland for 400 years.

Cyprus Avenue (photo by Ros Kavanagh)

So Eric’s obsession has turned into a full-blown psychosis. He’s convinced that his baby granddaughter looks like Gerry Adams, the leader of IRA’s Sinn Féin. That absurd conviction has driven Eric to do something about it –– and that terrible “something” is what his psychiatrist (Ronke Adékoluejo) is trying to get him to discuss, in this play’s taut 100 minutes.

This is a play that keeps pulling the rug out from under your feet. The series of flashbacks, in which we see him holding his baby granddaughter in his arms, are both harrowing and at the same time hilarious. To the shock and disbelief of his daughter Julie and wife Bernie, Eric has taken a black magic marker and drawn a beard on the baby’s face (it’s a doll, by the way), to determine whether the likeness to Gerry Adams is accurate and his suspicion is justified. The absurdity intensifies when Eric and his new associate, a terrorist named Slim, plot an unspeakable act of violence. This can’t be happening – can it? – we think, laughing at the outrageousness of it all, just as we did in Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, wherein an IRA terrorist goes on a killing spree to avenge the murder of his cat.

But this playwright’s intentions are dead earnest. He’s writing about prejudice, bigotry and racism – irrational mindsets that drive people over the cliff and into the chasm of psychosis. Like McDonagh who explores the absurdity of terrorism, like Sarah Kane (Blasted) and Edward Bond (Saved) who write about senselessness of violence, Ireland is a dramatist who commands our attention, despite the price we pay.

Director Vicky Featherstone choreographs the mounting tension with skill and precision on Lizzie Clachan’s exposed, corridor-style set. Stephen Rea is riveting in the role of Eric – alternatingly paranoid, witty, cunning, tortured, and tragically irredeemable. The rest of the company is excellent – including Ronke Adékoluejo as the clear-headed psychiatrist, Andrea Irvinea as Eric’s wife, and Amy Molloy as his daughter. Chris Corrigan is priceless as Slim, the Plato-quoting terrorist.

It’s a dangerous play and a hard one to watch, but it will stay with you long after its shocking ending. The plaintive Irish song that daughter Julie sings will still be ringing in your ears.

 

Love and Intrigue at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Every generation brings a new director to the world stage who changes the way we view the classics, whether it be Euripides, Shakespeare, or Moliere.

Love and Intrigue (photo by Stephanie Berger)

Such praise belongs to the world-renowned Lev Dodin, artistic director of the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg, Russia since 1975. We’ve been fortunate to experience his groundbreaking interpretations of Chekhov here at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with his recent productions of Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard.

This spring, Dodin sheds new light on the work of another great playwright. He brings his stellar company to BAM in his arresting version of Friedrich Schiller’s Love and Intrigue, an 18th century German masterpiece that couldn’t be more timely to revive.

Watching Dodin’s masterful interpretation of this dark tale of love and power, you’ll be reminded of Romeo & Juliet and Les Liaisons Dangereuses, with the political machinations of Richard III thrown in. The plot concerns Ferdinand (Danila Kozlovsky), whose father (Igor Ivanov), a powerful President, wants his son to marry the Duke’s mistress (Ksenya Rappaport), for political reasons that will benefit both his boss and himself. But Ferdinand has fallen in love with a music teacher’s daughter, the lovely Luise Miller (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) – someone far below his “station”, according to his father. The tragedy is two-fold – two lovers torn apart, and a father-son relationship fractured.

The twisted plot advances through the Machievellian maneuvering of Wurm (Igor Chernevich), the President’s appropriately named secretary, who ensnares the tragic lovers in a political net too intricate to untangle here. Suffice it to say, it all ends badly (no spoiler, since you know it’s a tragedy already). But it’s spectacular to watch, thanks to Dodin’s distinctive directorial hand.

Dodin, a director in the Peter Brook minimalist tradition, offers a spare, bronze-lit stage (designed by Alexander Borovsky) with a majestic back wall slashed by vertical beams of gold (designed by Damir Ismagilov, mirroring the slashing of familial and romantic ties). The company is costumed severely in black and white. A corps of political aides (who also double as servants) bring in long wooden tables that serve as platforms for love-making, dancing, drinking, and, ultimately, acts of violence.

As the conflicted Ferdinand, Koslovsky cuts a dashing romantic figure, and Boyarskaya’s beautiful Luise radiates a courage and nobility that matches Shakespeare’s doomed heroines (Juliet and Desdemona).

A master interpreter of Chekhov, Dodin understands the farcical elements embedded in tragedy. By infusing Schiller’s tragic tale with moments of ironic humor and stylized movement, Dodin underscores the dark theme of the abuse of power and how it reduces people to puppets and pawns.

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