November Notables 2018

The season is already in high gear – and it’s only November!
So much to choose from, including the following compelling offerings:

Oklahoma at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn

“You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma!” – that is, for two-thirds of Daniel Fish’s radical interpretation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 classic.

Daniel Fish’s vision is fresh and provocative – so much so that you can forgive his directorial detours that sabotage the production’s basic strengths.

Oklahoma (photo by Teddy Wolff)

Fish’s fundamental directorial choices are both striking and exciting. First, there’s the mise en scene. Where’s “the bright golden haze on the meadow” that R&H romanticized in their vision of Oklahoma, set in 1906? Here, it’s been replaced with a stark, spare, sweeping expanse. The St. Ann’s space has been reconfigurated into a rectangular, bare auditorium, with stadium-style audience seating on either of the long sides. On one end wall, there’s a faint sketch of a farmland; on the other end, there are rows of rifles. Along the audience seating there are rows of IKEA-like folding tables. Clearly, the stage is set for a different vision of Oklahoma than the original – and the anticipation is “high an elephant’s eye”.

Then, there are the casting and musical choices. Curley (Damon Daunno) and Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones), the romantic leads, are actors of color. The comedic role of Ado Annie is played by an actress in a wheel chair (the marvelous Ali Stroker), and the love scenes between her and Will (James Davis) are ingeniously choreographed by John Heginbotham. They are part of an eleven-member ensemble that remains on the stage floor for the entire time, like a Greek chorus. An eight-piece bluegrass/country Western band is seated onstage throughout, too – playing the original score, which (thankfully) remains intact. (Daniel Kluger did the orchestrations.)

These are all bold, invigorating choices – infusing this classic with renewed vitality, as the play charges forward. The cast and musical ensemble are superb. Unfortunately, the production veers sharply off-course toward the end of the first act, never quite regaining its thrilling momentum. The first jarring sequence comes in the confrontation between Curley and Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill), rivals for Laurey’s hand. Fish imposes a sudden, extended black-out – so we’re hearing the entire scene in the pitch dark. At one point, a video camera projects close-ups of their enlarged faces on one of the end walls. The result is eerie and alienating, and impedes both the flow of the story and the cumulative energy of the production. Even the chili and cornbread that is served to the audience during intermission can’t lift the mood of confusion and impending doom.

A second jarring choice comes when – instead of the traditional overture at the top of Act II – Fish inserts a modern dance sequence, accompanied by a deafening hard-rock version of the score. Clad only in a metallic t-shirt, the dancer (Gabrielle Hamilton) is accompanied by ten other in similar costume, who occasionally dart across the stage.  What is this interlude doing in this play?! My guess: the solo dancer’s jerky movements reflect Laurey’s inner turmoil over the rivalry for her hand. Still, the effect is startling and alienating.

In the play’s final moments, Fish makes an unexpected, radical plot change that goes too far. The cumulative effect is a dark and angry Oklahoma –a bleak and violent vision too heavy for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original to bear. Yes, there are tragic elements in the seminal story, but they emanate more from human nature than from the political statement that this director seems to be making.

 

The Thanksgiving Play at Playwrights Horizons

“Let’s put on a play!” Rarely have these familiar words delivered the kind of mirth to be found in The Thanksgiving Play, Larissa FastHorse’s scintillating screwball satire. A new voice in the theatre is exciting, especially when it inspires laughter and at the same time tells the truth.

The Thanksgiving Play (photo by Joan Marcus)

The scene is an elementary school classroom. A quartet of so-called “theatre artists” have assembled to put on a play. There’s Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), a serious-minded grade-school theatre director. There’s Jaxton (Greg Keller), a street performer and yoga enthusiast. There’s Caden (Jeffrey Bean), a history teacher and aspiring playwright, who dreams of hearing his words uttered by actors over the age of nine. And finally, there’s Alicia (Margo Siebert), a self-proclaimed stage and screen actress who specializes in “being simple” and playing any role whatsoever.

This motley crew has been given a grant to develop a play in honor of National Heritage Month, specifically for elementary school children. So they launch into a series of earnest (and hilarious) theatre improvisations to inspire the collaborative muse. The suggestions flow, fast and furious: Letters of apology from the grade-school students to the Indians? A game of “frozen turkey bowling”? A puppet show featuring Pilgrims and Indians? Row of turkeys who get their heads shot off by a giant rifle? A song that goes: “On the first Day of Thanksgiving, the natives gave to me….”?

The brilliance of The Thanksgiving Play is that it functions on two levels – both as a sharp satire on political correctness and a serious farce that lampoons the hypocrisy of American mythology and exposes the true exploitation of Native Americans. At the same time, this playful play is poking fun at the theatre and the creative process.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel directs with the same wicked sense of humor and mischief that he brought to the hilarious Hand To God two years ago on Broadway. The ensemble is terrific. Above all, kudos to Ms. FastHorse, a unique and marvelous new voice (of Native American descent), one that we hope to hear from again and soon. She knows the secret that Oscar Wilde, master of satire, guarded so well – entertain the audience, while at the same time show them the folly of their ways. But without malice – and all in good fun.

 

School Girls: Or The African Mean Girls Play at the Lucille Lortel

You won’t be able to resist those five spirited high school students at Aburi Girls Boarding School in Ghana. Their charm, their banter and their ebullience will win your heart – and then break it, when you see them fall victims of “colorism”, a internalized prejudice as cruel and complex as racism itself.

School Girls (photo by Joan Marcus)

In Jocelyn Bioh’s moving drama, School Girls or The African Mean Girls Play, the stakes are high. The school is gearing up for the selection of their candidate to the Miss Ghana beauty pageant. The front runner is the beautiful Paulina (the “mean girl” of the play’s title) – selected by Headmistress Francis because Paulina’s skin color is deep ebony. That’s how Ghana should be represented, according to the headmistress.

Then along comes the pageant’s recruiter, upsetting the apple cart. Eloise, herself an Aburi alumna and a former Miss Ghana, prefers Ericka, a new girl to the school, born in Ohio of a wealthy businessman who has just relocated his family to Ghana. Why the preference? Because Ericka is light-skinned, and Eloise – who know the politics of the next hurtle (the Miss Global Universe Pageant) – is determined to win.

This choice pits the girls against one another, as divisions between them deepen and the conflict escalates to a traumatic conclusion.

As directed by Rebecca Taichman, the cast is superb – including Maameyaa Boafo as Paulina, who plays the “mean girl” role to perfection, and Joanna A. Jones as Ericka, the light-skinned winner who herself becomes a victim of racism in the end. Myra Lucretia Taylor plays a powerful headmistress, and Zenzi Williams is a forceful Eloise. But the star of the show is the ensemble, and the youthful energy they exude.

There are some wonderful comedic moments (especially as they practice solos of “The Greatest Love Of All”), but the cumulative effect is one of sober realism. “The world’s already decided. You’re better than me,” Pauline tells Ericka. But – as the ironic end of Bioh’s moving play indicates – maybe not….

 

Apologia at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre

Every once in a while, you see an overpowering play that kicks you right in the gut. Such was the experience I had in watching Apologia, the powerful new drama by Alexi Kaye Cambell, starring the formidable Stockard Channing.

Maybe it’s because it’s a play about a mother and two sons (I have three, so I know whereof this author writes). But whether you have sons or daughters, this play will hit home. It’s about parenting and (not) forgiving – and it hurts.

Apologia (photo by Joan Marcus)

The plot follows the homecoming formula – two sons have returned to their mother’s home to celebrate their mother’s birthday. Correction – they’ve come to tell her what a terrible mother she’s been, and that she’s ruined their respective lives. The trick is that both sons are played by the same actor – the impressive Hugh Dancy. So they don’t appear in the same scene together – but they equally excel in their dreaded intentions.

Ms. Channing plays the professional and preoccupied mother whose husband took the children away from her when they were very young. She sought refuge in her career as an art historian and now she’s famous. But it’s a bitter success, since she in effect has lost the love of her sons. Watching Stockard Channing give her riveting performance reminded me of how much I’ve missed seeing her on the stage (not since Other Desert Cities, in 2011). She commands the stage absolutely – and yet manages, in the play’s final, silent moments, to project her complete devastation.

Daniel Aukin directs with focus, and drives the stake of this powerful play right into our hearts. Dancy gives sharply etched performances as each son – one who hides his wounds, and one who is damaged beyond repair. Telene Monahon and Megalyn Echikunwoke give compelling performances as the respective partners of these two sons – and Monahan’s final gesture of kindness and compassion for the devastated mother is a delicate moment that will move you deeply.

 

Mother of the Maid at the Public Theater

Whether she’s descending a grand staircase (Sunset Boulevard) or boiling bunnies (Fatal Attraction), Glenn Close is charismatic. You just can’t take your eyes off her.

Mother of the Maid

And now she’s back on stage– playing (of all people) Joan of Arc’s mother in a new play by Jane Anderson, called Mother of the Maid. It’s an unusual role for an actress who typically portrays women of glamor and stature. At first you barely recognize her as a poor country peasant woman who runs a sheep farm with her husband in Domremy, France, circa 1425. But soon you see that the feisty role of Isabelle Arc is a perfect fit for this formidable actress.

In Anderson’s script, we see the story of Joan through Isabelle’s eyes. It’s a fresh new take on a historic story: the fascinating perspective of an ordinary mother who at first challenges her teenage daughter’s outlandish claims (“voices?!”), then eventually recognizes that “she’s special.” “I raised an extraordinary young woman!” Isabelle exclaims proudly, and supports Joan through her dramatic rise and fall until the tragic end.

Though the characters are dressed in Jane Greenwood’s period costumes, the dialogue is startlingly modern. This produces mixed results. The contemporaneity of the language (with words like “OK” and “wonky” and phrases like “this house is a s—hole” and “this is scaring the s— out of me”, plus frequent use of the “f” word) is jarring and ultimately works against the gravity of the drama, at least for me.

The supporting cast is strong, especially Grace Van Patten, as Joan the rebellious adolescent, who crumbles and clings to her mother at the final, horrific end. Matthew Penn directs the cast with a swift and sure hand.

But in the end, it’s Close’s show, and she plays with the steely determination of Brecht’s Mother Courage, who appears to be a model for this role. The play’s final scene offers a moving historical coda, as Isabelle, old and ill, tells of her arduous journey to meet the Pope after Joan’s death. “My daughter was no heretic!” she cries, in defiance.

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