If there's a constant in Jordan Harrison's body of work, it's his ability to surprise. For more than a decade, the 40-year-old Brooklyn-based playwright has conjured an amazing range of theatrical worlds: a house that shrinks around the characters in the mystery thriller Finn in the Underworld; the seemingly serene 1950s gated community to which a stressed-out contemporary couple retreat in Maple and Vine; and the near-future world of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist Marjorie Prime, where artificial intelligence has been harnessed to help overcome ageing and loss. For his latest, The Amateurs, currently at the Vineyard Theatre, Harrison ventures back to Europe in the Middle Ages. The play follows a valiant troupe of players as they tour medieval morality plays across a continent being decimated by the Black Death. We talked with Harrison recently about The Amateurs, as well as his forthcoming Log Cabin, which will premiere in New York this summer.
Theater (#1–10 of 173)
Since 1980, performance troupe Split Britches has been gifting the world with its unique brand of feminist political theater. Today, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver—original co-founder Deb Margolin is no longer with the group—are still devoted to their queer-eyed vision: a mix of vaudeville comedy, music, poetry, and pop-culture appropriations that draws incessantly from their personal lives and politics. Their latest work, Unexploded Ordnances (UXO), plays through January 20 at La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, ahead of a forthcoming tour to England, Ireland, and Wales. I recently sat down with Shaw and Weaver to discuss the production and why it remains so important for them to keep the spirit of the Split Britches alive.
When we last chatted with Michael Urie, the genial and charismatic actor was enjoying the success of Buyer & Cellar at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Playing a fictional version of Barbara Streisand in that solo comedy, he now says, prepared him for his latest venture Off Broadway: the lead in Harvey Fierstein’s celebrated Torch Song Trilogy. Urie plays Arnold Beckoff, a drag queen in search of love and family life in New York City. Now re-titled Torch Song, the hit from the early 1980s is getting its first major revival at the Second Stage Theater (now through December 3). The production, directed by Moisés Kaufman, also stars Mercedes Ruehl as Arnold’s loving yet crushingly disapproving mother. We talked recently to Urie about the return of the seminal gay play and what it was like taking on the role originally made famous by the playwright Fierstein himself nearly four decades ago.
Lear deBessonet’s passion for her work is infectious. Just listen to the 37-year-old director speak and you can sense how she’s been able to harness the disparate energies of 200-strong mixed casts of professional and non-professional performers for her vibrant community theater projects. The Louisiana native has also garnered acclaim for her Obie Award-winning production of Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan, starring a transcendent Taylor Mac in the gender-shifting lead role, and this past spring, her exuberant revival of Suzan-Lori Park’s thought-provoking Venus at the Signature Theatre.
I recently sat down with deBessonet at the Public Theater to chat about her journey as a director and her latest project, the Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring, among others, Phylicia Rashad, Richard Poe, De’Adre Aziza, Annaleigh Ashford, and Danny Burstein.
Theatre for a New Audience
As the crowd waited in the lobby of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center for the curtain to rise on Simon Godwin’s production of Measure for Measure, a voice on the loudspeaker said that the bordello was now open. This isn’t the way Shakespeare productions typically begin, even in Brooklyn. Theatre for a New Audience built a passage from the lobby to the theater, with simulated acts of sadomasochism in the occasional opening on either side, separated by a hallway lined with rows of sex toys on small shelves, more boutique retail than museum. Guests were greeted at the entrance by a bored woman with a thick Slavic accent. “Nice to see you again,” she muttered to my wife.
It’s hard to pin Martin Sherman down. His work as a playwright ranges across a wide variety of styles and subject matter, and getting him to talk about this work isn’t exactly easy. As I learned from several conversations with him over the past two decades, Sherman can be friendly without being revealing. Now a sprightly septuagenarian, he hasn’t exactly changed his tune.
Sherman’s best-known work, of course, is Bent, arguably one of the most influential gay-themed plays in theatrical history. That 1979 triumph is in large part responsible for raising awareness of the persecution of gay men in Nazi-occupied Germany, and the adoption of the pink triangle as a symbol of gay activism may be traced to Bent’s cultural impact. The American-born writer made London his home nearly four decades ago, shortly after the 1980 Broadway debut of Bent. Today, as Sherman himself ruefully acknowledges, his subsequent plays are better known in London than in New York.
Among those plays that still managed to cross the pond and find success in America: When She Danced, a comedy about Isadora Duncan; A Madhouse in Goa, an apocalyptic satire about art and commerce; and Rose, a one-woman show (starring Olympia Dukakis) that chronicles the life of a European Jewish émigré. In addition, Sherman also wrote the book for the Broadway version of The Boy from Oz, the musical which starred Hugh Jackman as the Australian composer and entertainer Peter Allen.
Sherman was recently back in the United States for the world premiere of his latest work, Gently Down the Stream, which is currently in previews at the Public Theater in Downtown Manhattan. When we sat down to chat, I set out to draw him out enough to learn something about the current play, which is publicized as a funny and moving love story about Beau (played by Harvey Fierstein), an expat pianist living in London who meets an eccentric young lawyer, Rufus (Gabriel Ebert), at the dawn of the Internet dating revolution.
Martin McDonagh is best known for plays like The Pillowman and films like In Bruges, which mix over-the-top violence with laugh-out-loud banter. But he began his career writing very Irish plays about Ireland, starting with the first in his Leenane trilogy, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a funny and crushing production of which is now at the BAM Harvey Theater (through February 5).
McDonagh famously drafted seven plays in nine months in 1994, which formed his entire oeuvre for the next decade (until his Oscar-winning short Six Shooter, in 2005). Since then, his work has dealt with other topics, especially the function of violence in art and society, but at first McDonagh’s Tarantino-reminiscent interest in the ways people hurt each other seemed pegged specifically to his heritage. (He was born and raised in London, but his parents were Irish immigrants who returned home after he was born.)
I’ve never seen a Broadway theater look like the Imperial does now. For Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, a catchy, silly and profound new(ish) musical, the 45th Street playhouse has been reimagined by set designer Mimi Lien as a lavish nightclub, in Metropolitan Opera style: There’s lots of red plush and Sputnik chandeliers—what you wish Tatiana’s in Brighton Beach looked like. It’s also multitiered, with stadium and counter seating, four-seaters, and end tables in the orchestra seats, all cut through with runway stages. There are at least three bars just in the orchestra.
This production recreates the spirit of the unique layout of the show’s Off Broadway runs, which were hosted for four years in small downtown theaters and a custom-built popup venue in the Meatpacking District. The biggest difference in the move to Broadway isn’t the scale of the production, the price of the ticket, or the demographics of the audience; it’s that Pierre, once originated by the show’s creator, is now played by a big star, adult-contemporary singer Josh Groban, making his Broadway debut.
Heather Phelps Lipton
Over the course of the past two decades, Leigh Silverman has spent most of her time as a director working on new plays, collaborating with writers and helping shepherd their work through years of development. Her partnership with playwright Lisa Kron led to her directing Kron’s quasi-autobiographical Well, which marked Silverman’s Broadway debut 10 years ago. At age 31, she joined that extremely exclusive club of female directors working on Broadway. That group has grown larger in the intervening years, and Silverman herself went on to direct the Broadway premiere of Chinglish by David Henry Hwang, with whom she enjoys an enduring collaborative relationship.
Under Silverman’s sure-footed directorial guidance, several actors and writers have received Tony recognition, but it was for her direction of the 2014 revival of the musical Violet that she finally garnered her first Tony nomination. Now Silverman is directing Violet star Sutton Foster in the New Group’s Off-Broadway revival of the 1966 musical Sweet Charity, playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center. We talked recently to the director about her current production and her relatively new foray into the world of musicals.
For over two decades, Cirque du Soleil has made a living by gussying up the circus, leaning on their French-Canadian roots to transform the American big top into their more pronounced “grand chapiteau.” The steampunk aesthetic of Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosity provides a clear and winning way in which to wring magic from the old, and features several stunning illusions, many of which—like a whimsical cardboard cutout of a train that weaves through the aisles before chugging onto the stage as an elaborate, gigantic costume—seem like a live-action homage to Georges Méliès.