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Bam Harvey Theater (#110 of 6)

Theater Review: Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane at BAM

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Theater Review: Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane at BAM

Stephen Cummiskey

Theater Review: Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane at BAM

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.)

Interview: Peter Brook on Battlefield and His Return to The Mahabharata

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Interview: Peter Brook on Battlefield and His Return to The Mahabharata

Colm Hogan

Interview: Peter Brook on Battlefield and His Return to The Mahabharata

It’s no exaggeration to claim that Peter Brook is one of the most influential theater directors of the latter half of the last century. The English-born theater maker, and established filmmaker in his own right, is internationally hailed, revered even by some, as a kind of guru whose work is a constant search for the essence of theater. His 1968 book The Empty Space is a seminal work of theater analysis, and his productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s and 1970s (Marat/Sade, King Lear, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are celebrated for their groundbreaking innovation.

Since then, he’s developed and staged a series of adventurous productions around the globe. In New York City, Brook’s experimental staging of The Tragedy of Carmen re-lit and revitalized Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater in 1983, and in 1987, his elemental nine-hour production The Mahabharata, based on the ancient multi-volume Sanskrit epic from India, restored life to a long-defunct movie theater in Brooklyn.

That venue, now the BAM Harvey Theater, has been an integral part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s arts programming ever since. It’s to this same stage that the 91-year-old director brings his latest, Battlefield, a small-scale production featuring four actors and a drummer, which is also based on the classic Indian text that inspired him three decades ago. When I reached Brook by phone earlier this month, he spoke from his office at the Théâtre Bouffes du Nord, his home base in Paris since the mid-’70s.

Like a Harp String Breaking The Cherry Orchard at BAM

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Like a Harp String Breaking: The Cherry Orchard at BAM

BAM Harvey Theater

Like a Harp String Breaking: The Cherry Orchard at BAM

Anton Chekhov’s characters have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees. They fill their field of vision with fever dreams of passion or progress, which blur their ability to get a clear-eyed view of anything else. In The Cherry Orchard, Lyubov fritters away the chances she has to control the fate of her family’s estate and finances by acting globally, with plans to rejoin a wastrel in Paris, and thinking locally, by mooning over memories of ecstasy and tragedy. Even former peasant Lopakhin, who fixes on a smart and ultimately successful business plan for the estate, muffs his promising romance with Varya, Lyubov’s adopted daughter, due to a crush on Lyubov herself, set in motion decades earlier when he was just a child.

Scenes from the Elemental Antigone at BAM

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Scenes from the Elemental: Antigone at BAM

Jan Versweyveld

Scenes from the Elemental: Antigone at BAM

Sitting through a production of Antigone can be agony—especially when it’s good. There’s a tale of fratricide at the top, and news of suicide after suicide after suicide for the finale. The events in between—dominated by grieving, geschrei-ing, and debating—can also be grueling, which is entirely on point. From Aristotle and straight through the ages, extreme emotions on stage have been described as a purgative, overwhelming an audience member’s psyche and then rebooting it to a long-lost balance.

At BAM, high prospects for catharsis are tied to the pedigree of both the Sophocles play and the new production’s director, international phenom Ivo Van Hove. His version of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, seen off-Broadway last season, moved the audience from living room to bedroom to surreal head space to get us up close and personal with the truth that no one can hate like a life-long love. His Angels in America made a scarifying void of the near-empty BAM Harvey Theater stage, spurring the characters to cling to and repel each other in an exultant dance of death and life. And his West End revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from a Bridge, which transfers to Broadway this month, proves the play, more than maybe any other in the modern era, deserves comparison to Greek tragedies like Antigone.

A Mellower Pinter: The Caretaker

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A Mellower Pinter: <em>The Caretaker</em>
A Mellower Pinter: <em>The Caretaker</em>

Audiences accustomed to thinking of a Pinteresque evening as family members getting at each other’s throats, unleashing hidden spite and anger, may be surprised by the current Theatre Royal Bath Productions incarnation of The Caretaker. The play speaks in quieter tones, its muted pitch matched by the stage setting, in which grays and browns, ochres and tarnished beiges predominate. That isn’t to say that there’s no slow-burning rage or testosterone in evidence. In Harold Pinter’s work, emotional violence is always only a note away; it may emerge suddenly, in what you may otherwise see as a casual conversation, or idle joking. A fatal mistake, as this play illustrates.

Creditors at the BAM Harvey Theater

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<em>Creditors</em> at the BAM Harvey Theater
<em>Creditors</em> at the BAM Harvey Theater

Actor Alan Rickman’s staging of playwright David Greig’s adaptation of Creditors is striking for the way that it both softens the edges of and preserves the problematic acidity of August Strindberg’s original piece. Creditors is probably one of Strindberg’s most complex one-acts, a stinging tragicomedy that is every bit as troubling in its philosophy as it is remarkable for the inventiveness and ferocity of its convictions. This is largely because Strindberg’s plays are notoriously never truly sympathetic toward their female protagonists and Creditors is in large part about an individual woman’s role in a failed marriage. Exciting and engaging as a drama, yes, but also deeply troubling.

A large part of what makes Strindberg’s plays from this period (roughly 1887 to 1889, the short but definitive years when he dabbled with “naturalism”) so problematic is that they are not simply concerned with the elusive human condition, but rather in relating and enforcing the moral code that governs it. Inspired by Zola’s writing, the “naturalistic” philosophy that Strindberg subscribed to when he wrote Creditors emphasizes a concept of human nature that’s almost entirely divorced of a theological imperative. As no one governs his protagonists’ actions, men and women (but let’s face it, mostly women) that do not uphold their responsibilities to another and are not mindful of how to hold their worst behavior in check are, to use the work’s prevailing metaphor, accountable for their transgressions. As such, Tekla, played by a striking Anna Chancellor, is essentially a self-serving vampire and is described as such by both her ailing husband Adolf (Tom Burke) and Gustav (Owen Teale), his friend, along with other choice epithets like “snake” and “cannibal.”