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Men Behaving Badly: Mistakes Were Made, Ghosts in the Cottonwoods, and Devil Boys from Beyond

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Men Behaving Badly: Mistakes Were Made, Ghosts in the Cottonwoods, and Devil Boys from Beyond

Those who just can’t get enough of ace actor Michael Shannon can now get nothing but him, flying solo for about 93 of the 95 minutes of Craig Wright’s new play Mistakes Were Made. Even better, you get to have both versions of the magnificently tuned-in thesp: the quiet, contemplative, soulful guy and the bug-eyed, frenetic, intense one that has secured his status as cinema’s top dog for disturbed male behavior. Diving way deep into the recesses of his character Felix Artifex, a harried producer juggling a project involving a big-name Hollywood star, a failed relationship, and some unusual dealings with overseas politicos, Shannon band-aids the man’s flaws in Wright’s text, which never seems to know if it wants to satirize Felix or deify him, the whole affair often seeming like a one-act, expanded version of Roy Cohn’s phone barking in his first scene in Angels in America. Also, would any Hollywood star ever want to do a stage play about the French Revolution? Isn’t Wright keeping any tabs on current Broadway? But Shannon is as thrilling as they come, masterfully modulating the tone of the piece to suit his unending skill. Mistakes may have been made in this play’s execution, but its star can never be guilty of such a thing.

Playwright Adam Rapp, while exciting and much-needed in our community, has execution flaws too, but those who find his work typically too overlong might seek solace in the fact that Ghosts in the Cottonwoods—his first ever writing effort now brought to life by downtown darlings the Amoralists—is merely 95 minutes, most of them fairly lean. But it might have been a more illuminating experience many years ago, before many of us got too used to his obsessions, nearly all of them to be found in this unsettling backwoods gothic drama. Unusually intimate mothers and sons, visceral rape, gonzo male nudity, vomiting, and strangely woven pop-culture oddities all co-mingle and play out in ways we’ve come to expect from Rapp, which gives the work a slightly more rote quality and lacks the delicacy we’d end up seeing in later works like Red Light Winter and this year’s The Metal Children. But his collaboration with the Amoralists proves to be a fruitful one overall; released of their screaming shtick in favor of Rapp’s spring-trap buildups in narrative, the cast more clearly reveals what accomplished actors some of them are, notably the gritty, vivid Sarah Lemp, who has always shined in the Amoralists’s other work, and now gets to take a much-deserved spotlight.

Devil Boys from Beyond enjoyed a notable spotlight in last year’s New York International Fringe Festival as the go-to play for good, cheap laughs. Pity then, that many of those said laughs seemed to fall into a void on its way to Off Broadway. Buddy Thomas and Kenneth Elliott’s gleeful drag takeoff on ‘50s sci-fi B movies and winking drag theater has the very unfortunate luck of playing within the same season as Charles Busch’s sterling return to form with The Divine Sister, and Devil Boys from Beyond just doesn’t compare. Despite a game, spirited turn by Ridiculous Theatrical Company vet Everett Quinton (who sadly gets less face time than the much-blander leads), the result is leaden and not nearly as taut as a piece like this should be; the cast seems to stretch lines out until they break in order to generate laughs it’s not always getting. The sight gags are most effective (a surprise appearance by a well-placed wind puppet is good for a belly laugh), and the production is obviously crafted with some affection for its subject, but when you have to trot an eye-rolling discourse on how outer-planetary same-sex unions are superior to our planet’s experience with same (but only if you’re a six-pack visible muscle boy though…hmmm, so much for harmonious inclusion), you’ll be mentally hunting down Charles Busch in a wimple with the quickness.

Mistakes Were Made is now playing at the Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow Street) in New York City and continues until February 27. Schedule: Tue -Sat at 7:30pm, Sat and Sun at 2:30pm. Running time: 1 hour and 35 minutes, no intermission. Ghosts in the Cottonwoods is now playing at Theatre 80 (80 St. Mark’s Place) in New York City through December 6. Schedule: Mon, Thu-Sat at Sun at 3pm. Running time: 1 hour and 35 minutes, no intermission. Devil Boys From Beyond is now playing at New World Stages (340 W. 50th Street) in New York City through December 30. Schedule: Wed-Sat at 8pm. Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes, no intermission.

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Review: Agree or Disagree, Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie Keeps Us at a Distance

The play’s always-at-arm’s-length subtext makes it hard for us to appreciate or connect with the material on an emotional level.

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Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie
Photo: Ben Arons Photography

Six parents of varying demographics take part in a focus group. It’s 1979 and they’re there to answer questions about a popular children’s television show, Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie. The play, the mastermind of the Mad Ones theater company, shares the same title as this much-discussed show within a show, but the lessons taught to its adult audience are much less obvious, so much so that they’re likely to be missed entirely. The structural choice of following a focus group largely in real time limits the emotional range of the production, distilling too much to the instructions given to the focus group: “Thumbs up is agree, thumbs down is disagree; thumb to the middle is neutral, somewhat agree.”

Dale (Brad Heberlee), of the data-collecting company Blue Horizon, is an anodyne presence. His intentionally bland moderation makes for a problematic focal point for the play, since his task is to avoid conflict. In this way, he serves to turn moments that would make for entertaining drama into dry data. His lightning-fast questioning dredges up only the most superficial of responses, a process so dull that the production plays it for laughs, with Dale’s assistant Jim (Marc Bovino), always struggling to keep up as he hastily transcribes all of the notes onto a chalkboard. Dale’s not interested in these people, and only slightly more so in their answers, as shown by the way he parrots things back with queries that aim to get everyone on the same, easily digestible page: “Can you distill that down to one word?”

Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie succeeds only by showing the struggle against such reduction: the subtle ways in which these parents, sometimes with only the choice of a single word, manage to maintain their humanity in the face of such aggressive neutrality. We learn a lot about June (Carmen M. Herlihy) not by her negative gut-response to a mouse puppet, but by the way in she psychoanalytically draws a distinction between the speaking and non-speaking puppets on the children’s program. Elsewhere, the hardscrabble divorcee Gloria (Stephanie Wright Thompson) is fleshed out less by what she says than by the way in which she’s desperately trying to impress and emulate her more successful female counterpoint, Cici (January LaVoy).

Ernest (Phillip James Brannon) is perhaps too straightforward, serving as the play’s conscience, but at least his refusal to bend on certain moral issues is rooted in a real sense of him as a father. Blue-collar Wayne (Michael Dalto) is particularly fascinating: When he describes a character on the unseen show within the show as “soft,” he’s being inadvertently homophobic, and yet when he’s called out on it, he’s also the most sincerely apologetic.

It’s in the slight pauses and earnest fumbles that these characters show themselves to be exceedingly human. This is an interesting, albeit subtle and attention-demanding conceit, because if you blink then you’ll miss what’s really going on beneath the surface. But it’s not always theatrically effective. Lila Neugebauer’s direction and You-Shin Chen and Laura Jellinek’s set can’t help but partially obscure some of the cast; they’re sitting at a round table, which inevitably leaves their backs to some of the audience.

It’s easy to respect Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie on an intellectual level, but its always-at-arm’s-length subtext makes it hard for us to appreciate or connect with the material on an emotional level. The drama exists in a negative space, by dint of what doesn’t happen in this focus group, a too-clever reflection of the group’s pivotal discussion around the role of consequences in a children’s television show. You can appreciate the play’s period-specific craft, the accuracy of Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costuming, or the precise rhythms of an ensemble-penned script that brings to mind the hyperrealism of Annie Baker, but it’s at a distance.

The play’s most direct arc is the most relatable. Roger (Joe Curnutte), one of the six parents, at first appears to be a fairly decent guy—so long as he’s being heard. Over time, as focus shifts to the others, he relaxes his genial salesman façade, revealing the smug and fragile man underneath. When he’s lightly ribbed for his disagreeability, he unleashes the entitled asshole lurking beneath that smile. For a while, he parrots Gloria, antagonizing her in plain sight; later, he goes a step further and places his hand on Cici’s leg as he makes sexual insinuations about her. He’s got a transformative arc, one that’s intentionally left incomplete, given that he faces no consequences for his actions. (Difficult, too, not to read into Dale’s humoring of Roger’s bad behavior as Trump-like: “I want to take a minute to reiterate that both of your opinions—both of your viewpoints—are valid and absolutely essential for our discussion.”)

This is another instance of the way in which the play uses negative space, and a marked delineation between the fairytale children’s programming that’s being discussed, and the grownup reality these participants are living in. But does having a solid thesis protect against narrative bloat or the subdued emotions? You are left to decide: Agree, disagree, maybe.

Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie is now playing at Ars Nova at Greenwich House.

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Review: What the Constitution Means to Me Is a Perfect Union of Past and Present

The play is positioned as a coping mechanism for Heidi Schreck and, by extension, the audience.

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What the Constitution Means to Me
Photo: Joan Marcus

Thirty years ago, What the Constitution Means to Me playwright and performer Heidi Schreck toured around the United States, participating in speech competitions about the Constitution so as to raise money for college. She spoke excitedly—so much so that her voice would sometimes crack—and fancifully, describing the Constitution as a “witch’s cauldron” and the founders as “a bunch of magicians.” She idealized Amendment Nine, and William O. Douglas’s use of the word “penumbra,” and long before she understood what a negative rights constitution was, before Castle Rock v Gonzales, before Trump, she really and truly believed in the Constitution. So much so that, in these dark times, she enlisted the aid of scenic designer Rachel Hauck to reconstruct the American Legion Hall in Wentachee, Washington, returning nightly to a simpler time where there were clearer rules.

More than a memory play, then, What the Constitution Means to Me is a coping mechanism for Schreck and, by extension, the audience. It’s a way to confront the very real present traumas of America through the veil not just of a hopeful (and naïve) 15-year-old, but through her emotionally guarded younger self. This non-naturalistic recreation is designed to be a safe space, and though the production could have functioned as a series of monologues, Schreck explains that she’s brought actor Mike Iveson on stage to counterbalance all the violence in her life: “I really wanted some positive male energy up here with me.” Of course, despite some improvisational flourishes in the play, this itself is also part of the gimmick, a side-door into a meaningful conversation about the Constitution, a living document that’s grown up—or is it aged poorly?—right alongside Schreck and the audience.

Ironically, to better show that aging, there’s theatrically no difference between the two versions of Schreck: “I’m going to be 15, but I’m not going to do anything special to make myself 15. So here I am. I’m 15.” At first, director Oliver Butler seems to be helping to separate the two, calling upon moderator Mel Yonkin (Iveson) to freeze each time Schreck interrupts her own play within a play to add some modern context or clarification, and using physical cues like the ringing of a judge’s bell or a pivot back to Schreck’s speech-giving dais to “tag” young Heidi back in. But as the asides and tangents grow longer and more complicated, those lines break down, giving way to Schreck’s modern-day weariness. That sharply sunny yellow blazer she wears courtesy of costume designer Michael Krass? It is respectfully laid to rest over the back of a chair once What the Constitution Means to Me abandons the childhood conceit.

The show’s casual appearance is weighted with intent, and Schreck doesn’t need to lampshade nearly as much as she does when she asserts that “I know some of you think I’ve gone off on a tangent but I promise you I haven’t.” What, really, isn’t shaped by the Constitution? Whether Schreck speaks of the penumbral privilege accorded to her 15-year-old self’s Ninth Amendment-protected right to have an imaginary friend (because rights not enumerated cannot deny or disparage those others retained by the people), or of her present-day affection for a sock monkey, these things are all linked by the promises of our country’s urtext.

Moreover, the stream-of-consciousness-like tone of What the Constitution Means to Me and its shifting between past and present allows Schreck to potently invert the traditional way in which comedy cuts the tension of a tragedy. Here, the comic tangents and light digressions are stabbed to death by the constant and casual acknowledgments of a woman’s reality: “Neither of us were having sex yet, but we wanted to be on birth control just in case we went in a hot tub and the sperm swam up and attacked us.” You start to chuckle, perhaps, at such an absurd and childish belief, before she adds: “Or, you know, in case of a real attack.”

Just as Schreck describes the two versions of her mother that once screamed at her about the possibility of being pregnant—one a proud feminist, the other a woman terrified from personal experiences—there are two conflicting versions of the play. There’s the young and idealistic one that the play comes full circle to, as it gives over the last 15 minutes to a mock debate between Schreck and a 14-year-old student (Rosdely Ciprian). But there’s also the harried, put-upon older one that can’t ignore the reality of a world that routinely ignores constitutional protections, or keeps redefining them, as with Scalia’s quibbling over the meaning of a word like “shall” or the Constitution’s inability to outright qualify everyone as a “person.”

Ultimately, in giving control of the outcome of the show to one audience member—a representative democracy, after all, however unfair that might sometimes be—Schreck liberates audiences of their passivity, arming them with pocket copies of the Constitution. In the end, there are just two people on stage, and though they’re huddled together in the near dark of a single spotlight, you can see them, all the illusions and artifice momentarily stripped away. How you treat them depends now on what the Constitution means to you.

What the Constitution Means to Me is now playing at the Helen Hayes Theater.

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Review: Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men Is a Deconstruction of Privilege

Despite some realistic touches, Straight White Men, as directed by Anna D. Shapiro, goes to lengths to call out its artificiality.

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Review: Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men Is a Deconstruction of Privilege’
Photo: Joan Marcus

The four main performers in Young Jean Lee’s provocative and hilarious play Straight White Men are precisely attuned, like the members of a string quartet, playing off each other to create something richer than the sum of their parts. They’re a true ensemble, though some are stars in their own rights: Josh Charles plays Jake, a divorced banker; Armie Hammer plays Drew, an acclaimed novelist; and Paul Schneider plays Matt, one-time valedictorian, Harvard man, and hardcore communist, now a temp living back at home, crushed by student-loan debt. All three are brothers, home for Christmas to see their widower father, Ed, played with gruff joviality by Stephen Payne.

Right off the bat, Todd Rosenthal’s set is a marvelously nondescript suburban home that looks like it hasn’t been redecorated since the 1990s. Case in point: the chrome-face speakers atop the bookcases and the Raymour & Flanigan-style furniture that occupies the sunken living room, where the play—the first on Broadway by an Asian-American woman—is set.

Despite such realistic touches, Straight White Men, as directed by Anna D. Shapiro, goes to lengths to call out its artificiality. The stage is literally framed with handsome wood, a brass plaque at its bottom etched with the name of the play. But the theater is also improbably decked out like a club: seats upholstered in crushed velvet, a stage curtain of shiny silver strands, and, before the show, contemporary dance music blasting from the sound system. Emcees Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe, both gender-nonconformist performers, explain in preshow remarks that this is intentional, to make the typically square Broadway audience uncomfortable—the way that people such as Bornstein and Defoe are often made to feel in normative spaces.

The two actors also appear between scenes, supervising the stagehands as they shift props and furniture, then literally positioning the other actors before the action begins, giving them—the typically marginalized—literal power over the straight white men. But Bornstein and Defoe’s presence mostly seemed to serve as a reminder to the audience that, despite the play’s stars, not everyone fits into the category that gives the play its name, providing a little diversity to a work that otherwise would have none.

The cisgender male actors on stage spend most of Straight White Men’s first act establishing a deep rapport, making their characters seem like a close group of guys, reliving past embarrassments and pushing each other’s buttons as only those intimate to us can. But every outrage would be quickly followed by a smile—as if true love means never taking offense or intending to cause it. The three younger actors especially engage in a seemingly infinite series of choreographed antics and practiced call-and-response, as if they’ve really lived their whole lives together, establishing infinite routines.

Mere description will fail to illustrate just how funny these can be. A scene in which Schneider squawks like a bird and Charles hysterically screams while Hammer recoils with a hangover will likely reduce you to tears of laughter. And in another equally uproarious scene, after all the characters have just walked away from each other following a fight, Jake blasts Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and dances rigorously, joined one by one by his brothers and then father.

There are often deeper emotions at work throughout Straight White Men. What at first appears to be a hard-earned, easygoing bonhomie between the four main characters soon looks more like a mask, obscuring their hurt and sadness. While eating Chinese food with his family on Christmas Eve, Matt starts crying, and afterward no one but Drew wants to talk about the moment. When they all finally do, Matt becomes a canvas onto which the other characters project their own worries and desires, as they fight over him by proxy, seeking to identify his problem with their own.

To Jake, Matt’s seeming failures are principled, the noble act of a privileged white guy sinking to the bottom so that other, more marginalized people may rise. (The brothers are steeped in the language of social justice, a remnant of their dead mother, who, for example, left behind a rejiggered version of Monopoly called Privilege, in which white people lose money for passing Go.) To Drew, Matt is psychologically damaged and in need of therapy—to focus on and repair himself in order to find happiness. And to his father, Matt has given up and needs a kick in the pants to rediscover his ambition.

Matt, however, says he’s happy with his simple life and the simple pleasures it affords him, and this is the drama’s lingering provocation: Can a person—especially a straight white man, with all the privileges that affords—really be happy without striving for greatness and professional and romantic successes? Most of the characters need to recast Matt’s ambitionless satisfaction as an outrageous tragedy of unrealized potential.

The play presents four possible prisms through which to view the ambiguity of Matt’s situation, and many in the audience are likely to choose one, consciously or not, that fits in best with the preconceptions with which they’ve entered the theater. But the play’s rewards come from instead embracing uncertainty and admitting, as few of the characters will, that the secrets to living a fulfilling existence are impossible to name.

Straight White Men is now playing at the Hayes Theater.

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Interview: Kate Bornstein on Their Broadway Debut in Straight White Men

It’s clear that at 70, the trail-blazing author of the seminal work Gender Outlaw is still a formidable force to be reckoned with.

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Interview: Kate Bornstein on Their Broadway Debut in Straight White Men

When Kate Bornstein, self-described as a non-binary femme-identified trans person, talks about their remarkable life journey, it’s clear that at 70, the trail-blazing author of the seminal work Gender Outlaw and subject of the documentary Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger is still a formidable force to be reckoned with. Bornstein isn’t content on resting on their laurels as a pioneer in transgender rights and acceptance, acknowledging that positions they once held are always subject to reassessment. As the reader will learn from our interview, Bornstein, who’s debuting on Broadway in the new Second Stage production of Straight White Men, is uniquely positioned to broaden our vision on gender in a rapidly evolving world.

What is your preferred gender pronoun?

For many people it’s very important to be acknowledged for a hard-won identity. I’ve been blessed with living my weird identity for so long that I don’t mind anymore. Your editor will probably be upset if I say, “Whatever you want,” but I think it would be fun to alternate “they” or “them” and “she” or “her.” Those are the two sets of pronouns that give me the most tickle. But if we need to be consistent, “they” or “them” is great. It’s an accepted way of saying this person isn’t revealing any particular binary gender. If you insist on “he” or “him,” that tells me more about you than it does me. My own view on pronouns: Is it that we want to know a person’s pronoun or that we want to know a person’s gender? I think it’s the latter. I’m Kate Bornstein. I’m a non-binary femme-identified person. That says it.

What can you tell us about the play Straight White Men? That’s certainly not a title one would associate with you!

Young Jean Lee wanted to write this play about straight white men from the point of view of someone who wasn’t one. It’s a beautiful, well-crafted play about three grown sons visiting their dad on Christmas eve. She doesn’t make fun of straight white men. She holds them to task, but she isn’t mean. And because she’s so subtle, very few people got it. So she invented a device whereby the play is framed by a performance piece. There are now these two performers—Person in Charge #1 and Person in Charge #2—and wherever it’s been done since the play was revised, these two roles have been written for the performers playing those roles. In my case, I get to say, “Hey, I used to be a straight white man.” And then I say, “Well I tried. It didn’t work!” The other Person in Charge is played by Ty Defoe, a Native American trans man. So, we’re two trans people framing this show. Young takes two different forms of theater—performance art and traditional theater—and breaks a binary that as far as I know hasn’t been broken to this degree on Broadway.

Is the performance-art section based on your own words?

When you come into the theater, we’re there to greet you. Our job is to make you comfortable, so we talk with you. We think people will have questions and we’ll be adlibbing for about half an hour before the show. Then we climb up on to the stage and have an introductory moment and [for that] we have a script. The way we wanted to talk about the show was more like docents.

So we get to look at the straight white men in the play with an anthropological eye?

Yes, but not a straight white male gaze. There’s no mistake that [these characters] are the insiders, that they have power and that the pressure in the culture on everybody is to either be a straight white man or be like a straight white man. Or, if you can’t do either those, at least be liked by straight white men. If you can’t be any of those three, then you’re totally on the outside. We’re looking at a group of insiders in their natural habitat if you will. And they are good guys, they really are. Each of the four characters, they’re lovely. They’re as liberal as you could be. You wouldn’t expect this.

Tell me a little about the journey that’s brought you to the Broadway stage?

Acting is what I trained for back in college at Brown. I went to Brandeis graduate school for acting, but then my journey took a major detour when I joined the Church of Scientology before I graduated. These were the days when hippies were trying to save the world and this was the way I thought I could do it. Twelve years later I hadn’t saved the world and found out that L. Ron Hubbard was embezzling the money we were making for him and so I left.

Soon after that I came to terms with what I had been living with all my life: that I am not a man. In those days, there weren’t many choices. You were a drag queen, a closeted cross-dresser, or a transsexual. I didn’t think I was fabulous enough to be a drag queen and a closeted cross-dressing route was just heartbreaking. So, I took a deep breath and moved for a sex change. Doctors told me, “Well, if you aren’t a man you have to be a woman.” Non-binary was not a word, let alone an option. So, I called myself a woman by default. I had been lying and pretending to be a man and acting like a man.

Then I discovered that I was repeating the same kind of behavior, only this time acting out as a woman. I had given up acting when I decided to go through the gender change, but this is when my theater stuff kicked back in for me and I wrote a play about that. This was the 1980s, the heyday of performance art and solo performance. Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, Karen Finley were out there. So, I started writing my own work and started acting again. But then the NEA was defunded by Jesse Helms and our venues dried up.

So, I cast around, wondering how I was going to pay the rent. I had been writing for the Bay Area Reporter, and that led to Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. I said I wrote it to pay the rent, but it didn’t. But because the book did well and was taught in colleges, I started to get hired as a speaker and a performer on college campuses. That paid my rent for years. But when the offer came through for Straight White Men, I thought I could put my college speaking on hold a little bit for Broadway!

Has your thinking about identity evolved over the past couple of decades?

I first wrote Gender Outlaw to explain the idea of my identity as not a man and not a woman. But my great joy is to walk through the room as a woman. We didn’t have any word for it back then, but my “gender expression” is woman. And that I wasn’t able to express in the first edition of the book. Also—I use today’s language for it—there were binary identified trans people and non-binary identified trans people. Because I was just staking out new territory, I made the big mistake of creating a new binary by saying non-binary is good and true and binary is bad and false. This laid in an enmity with binary-identified trans people which lasted 20 years.

That first edition of Gender Outlaw, while it was very eloquent about a non-binary identity, partially did so by putting down a binary identity. Thank goodness Vintage asked me if I would be interested in revising and updating the book. They thought it would be just a few words here and there. I said, “Please let me correct this,” and it became a lot more inclusionary. I think it will last another 25 years before it becomes cringe-worthy. I think I said in the first edition that I can’t wait ’til this just becomes history and people will go, “Wait, in the old days you mean there were only two genders? Really?”

And sure enough, here we are to the point where people who aren’t men and not women are performing on Broadway. Ty Defoe, Peppermint, and myself are on Broadway. Justin Vivian Bond was the first non-binary trans person on Broadway. It fills my heart. It makes me cry happy tears that I had the opportunity to say all this stuff 25 years ago and that now I’m able to benefit from having said it. I’m very, very lucky.

Why do you think knowing a person’s gender is important for people?

Straight White Men doesn’t address this directly, but it does address the fact that it’s the gender “man” who’s in charge. And it’s not just man, it’s straight man. And it’s not just straight man, it’s straight white man who’s in charge—who has got all the money, who has got all the power. So, gender becomes an indicator of “Have you got power? How am I supposed to react to you, power-wise? Am I supposed to bow to you, or am I expecting you to bow to me?”

There’s also a completely different way. There used to be this heteronormative imperative: If you said you were a woman it was assumed you were attracted to men, and if you said you were a man it was assumed you were attracted to women. When I went through my gender change in the 1980s, in order to qualify for surgery I had to say I was attracted to men, that I wanted to get married and that my regret was that I’d never be able to give birth. In fact, I saw two different doctors and they turned me down because I didn’t say that. I went to a third who said, “I can give you some depth here in your vagina,” and I said I didn’t need that. And then we went around and around. It was like a little vaudeville routine until he went, “Oh, yeah, you’re a lesbian, oh, okay!” But he was in the minority.

So, for reasons of sexuality and for reasons of power, gender has been important. Not so much anymore for sexuality. But still for power. This play Straight White Men examines how very deep that goes and what it does to straight white men who think about it.

What’s coming up next for you?

I’m working on two books. I have the title and subtitle for one of them: Trans Just for the Fun of It: Compassionate Gender Strategies for a Divisive Age. But, honestly, it’s acting that I love. I’m involved with two other shows that are aimed at New York. They’re both in different stages of development.

There seems to be more of a call for trans actors. I think we’ve passed the age where we need Jeffrey Tambor to play us. More people are writing trans characters and writing them respectfully, with as much love and care as they would any other character. This is a change. It’s no longer all Silence of the Lambs. We’ve been through that phase and someone doing that today would be called out. So, we’ve entered a new phase and I’m just glad I’m alive to do it.

In 2012, when I found out that I needed chemo for my lung cancer, I didn’t have the money for it or that kind of insurance. My girlfriend and a dear friend put together one of the earliest crowd-sourcing campaigns and within a week people who knew me and people who didn’t know me raised $100,000. I went through two years of chemo and radiation and came out on the other side. My lung cancer and leukemia are both in remission. I owe each and every one of those people my life. And I’m dedicating my performance and my writing now to those people who helped me stay alive for this.

As an elder in the trans community, how do you see your role today?

My role today is, once again, informed by what I claim my identity to be. Chemo therapy basically poisoned my bones—and as you get older they collapse anyway. I was close to six feet tall and I came out of it five-foot-eight. You wouldn’t call that little, but in my mind I’m a lot littler than I used to be. And, certainly, I’m old. People tell me 70 is the new 50. No, 70 is the same old 70. Believe me, it is! So, I’m old. What I have always wanted to be is the gender that my mum modeled for me: a lady. My two favorite genders are gentleman and lady and I think neither has a damn thing to do with biology because they are just elegant ways of dealing with others. So, I aspire to lady and I’m little and I’m old. I’m a little old lady! This is how I define myself these days.

Well, usually little old ladies are helped across the street by others. In your case, you’ve been helping other people across their lives.

That’s very sweet of you to say that. People just think I’m a little old lady—maybe feisty because I have tattoos all over my arms. There’s an invisibility that frankly I’m grateful for. And here’s where there’s a difference between a non-binary identity and a gender queer identity. Gender queer is mixing it all up in both identity and expression. My identity isn’t man or woman and that’s why I overlap with gender queer, but I’m not gender queer. My expression, my great joy, is walking through the world like a little old lady. I don’t mix it up very much, but in this play I will. When I was asked what type of costuming I wanted, I said I’d like the audience to know that I’m non-binary. I said, “I’d like it to be reminiscent of some non-binary. Oh, I know, Bowie!” So, I’m pretty damn Bowie in this show! That’s very cool.

Straight White Men is now playing at the Hayes Theater.

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Interview: Ivo van Hove on Adapting Visconti’s The Damned for the Stage

We spoke to the Belgian-born titan of the theater about the experience of bringing new life to Visconti’s provocative The Damned.

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Interview: Ivo van Hove on Adapting Visconti’s The Damned for the Stage
Photo: Jan Versweyveld

There are no half measures with Ivo van Hove. Whether he’s revisiting modern classics like Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and The Crucible, or premiering David Bowie’s musical Lazarus, you can expect riveting—and in some instances controversial—theater fare from the Belgian-born director. So there’s great anticipation for his latest New York production: an epic staging of The Damned at the Park Avenue Armory, which runs from July 17 to 28.

The production, created for the Comédie-Française theater in Paris, premiered two summers ago at the Festival d’Avignon and is adapted from the Oscar-nominated screenplay for the 1969 film by Italian auteur Luchino Visconti. An operatic tale of decadence and greed, The Damned recounts the internecine struggles and disintegration of the powerful von Essenbeck family as they collude with the rising Nazi regime in 1930s Germany.

Hailed as a visionary, and sometimes dismissed as a provocateur, van Hove is currently in great demand in theater capitals across the globe. His upcoming international projects include the world-premiere stage adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, opening in September at the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, van Hove’s home-theater base; a new adaptation of All About Eve, set to premiere next February in London’s West End; and Électre/Oreste, a combination of two Euripides plays that will be presented next Summer at the ancient Epidaurus theater in Greece. And it’s just been announced that van Hove will helm a new interpretation of the classic American musical West Side Story, slated for Broadway at the end of next year.

Recently, I had the chance to sit down with van Hove and talk about the experience of bringing new life to Visconti’s provocative The Damned.

What drew you in the first place to Visconti’s film?

The first thing that was important for me when I read the screenplay is that it talks about the venomous alliance between the industrial world and the political world—in this case the steel industry and the extreme right-wing Nazi regime. They need each other for some reason. And that’s the great shocking thing, because this family is based on the Krupps, the world-famous steel industry family. There’s a wonderful moment in the beginning where the patriarch says, “I hate this man”—he doesn’t even mention Hitler by name—“but for the good of the company, for the prosperity of our family we have to do this.” So that’s how people make alliances—things to think about.

As you know from my work, I like a big family story. So that’s the second reason. But this is also a terrible family. The mother has a very complicated relationship with her son; the son doesn’t feel loved by his mother. I call it a nest of vipers. Is that a good English word for it? There is no tenderness, or if there is, it’s manipulative. This is a family that’s everything you don’t want your family to be. They are the anti-family. At the same time, it was one of the most influential and powerful families in Europe at that time.

Then I discovered during my preparations, and even more during rehearsals, that there was also a story about two young men: The famous one is Martin [grandson of the patriarch], but there is also [his cousin] Günther. Günther wants to be an artist and play music and Martin just doesn’t know what he wants in his life. He’s searching and he wants some guidance; he has no parents taking care of him so he’s like an adolescent kicking around and making provocations. These two young people are totally in this minefield of politics and financial interests, which they couldn’t care less about; they are totally apolitical. And then you see, step by step, how these two young people develop into Nazis. They turn into destroyers—people who are going to destroy other people. Even if they think the Nazis are going to change the world, these two join the Nazis purely for personal reasons. One does it for revenge on his mother and the other to avenge the killing of his father.

Was it difficult to recreate that period of German history?

I not only hesitated but refused to bring Nazis on stage [before this] because it is so difficult. Nazi ideology is the most terrible you can imagine so I don’t want to make fun of it; I don’t want to make it kind of a freak show. I wanted to have a “Heil Hitler!” moment that really frightened me and gave me goosebumps. I think we found a theatrical solution to do that. But when I read the story, I think it was much more. It almost becomes emblematic for what is still going on. We must not forget people really believed that this was a change for the better and Hitler was democratically elected. The people of Germany at that moment wanted him. Of course, he used them all for his goals, which was the exclusion of a lot of people.

There’s a chilling line in The Damned where an SS officer talks about channeling the young man’s hate.

Yes, obviously the Nazis use Günther. I thought about the system of radicalization. You see that a lot now. You see that these young people are used because they have a frustration against society. They have a grudge against society because they don’t feel accepted, they don’t feel assimilated, and they have a hard time finding the right education and finding a great job. These things are connected. A lot of ideologies feed on this frustration.

Does it feel like The Damned has become very timely?

More timely now, I dare to say it. Visconti was a visionary you can say, but in his time it was more like looking back to a period. Now we are living in it.

In recent years you’ve adapted many film scripts for the stage. What is it that attracts you to the movies?

When I do a movie on stage I do an adaptation of the movie script, not of the movie. In this case I didn’t see the movie again. I saw it when I was young, and of course there are many images that are so strong in your mind. You can’t avoid them. But for me, it was very easy when I read the script to find my own aesthetics. If I don’t feel that immediately then I don’t do it. Because it makes no sense to repeat the aesthetics of a movie that has been made already.

Is it difficult working with a text that wasn’t intended for the stage?

One of the reasons why I started doing movie scripts on stage is because of the themes. And when you do a movie script on stage, most of the time it’s a world premiere. It’s as if you are doing Hamlet for the first time. That is for me a huge challenge: how to invent the theatrical world for this material. It pushes me further in my thinking about theater.

You seem to be a fan of Visconti. You previously adapted three other of his movie scripts: Rocco and His Brothers, Obsession, and Ludwig.

I was a movie freak when I was young. Actually, I didn’t go to the theater because I didn’t have much money. Movies were cheap, and I lived around the corner from a movie theater, so I went to the movies three or four times a week. I’m a child of the ‘70s, and so I lived in the great times of American directors like Cassavetes, Scorsese, Coppola. Also, Italian movies were at a very high level as well as French movies. Then, German movies were just emerging. This was also a time when it was very normal for a theater director to be an opera director and a movie director. Fassbinder did it, Bergman did it, and later on Patrice Chéreau. And, of course, Visconti did it. His movies are like huge canvasses of cruelties of humanity, of cravings of humanity, of despair. As I said, I love family dramas, but not in itself. It has to be telling something about the world: the family as a kind of metaphor for the world. This is something Visconti always found in most of his movies. He has these very personal stories about very recognizable people against the bigger cosmos. He didn’t make very many movies, but every movie that he made dealt with something really specific and was different from the other. He was very much politically engaged.

Would you say there’s also a Shakespearean element to The Damned?

Visconti was a big classicist. The Oresteia is clearly there, a family drama with someone who is killed. Then there’s Macbeth. At a certain moment, this woman marries her lover. He’s not the normal successor, but he’s pushed by her into the kingdom [to become the head of the firm]. There’s a sexual energy between them that pushes them toward evil. That’s justified for total victory and for power—actually not to do anything with that power but just to own it. It’s a great script, really very well written.

Will the staging at the Park Avenue Armory be different from the original that you staged at Avignon two years ago?

It will be close to the original. We opened at the Festival d’Avignon at the Pope’s Palace, which is a huge space, about the size of three Broadway theaters. We have the same width at the Armory. The Pope’s Palace is open air and seats 2000 people. It’s a hard space. I had seen many productions there, so I knew what I had to do and also what not to do. We will have the same feeling here in New York. The Armory does productions that come alive in that space; the space has to give something extra. The Damned is a big production with a lot of actors on stage and it’s very interactive with video and music. The set is more like an installation. When you first see it, the set doesn’t mean anything, but when you start using it—it starts to mean everything. For us, the whole production is always what we call the ritual of evil—so there are a lot of ritualistic moments. This family starts killing each other, and they are killed by the Nazis. A lot of people get killed.

What was the biggest challenge you faced with this production?

To make all these rich themes in The Damned come alive and be visible, and hopefully to create something that also moves people. It’s not about making a historical document—the ending is a very specific thing that’s not in the movie. I won’t say too much more.

The Damned runs from July 17—28 at the Park Avenue Armory.

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Awards

2018 Tony Nominations: Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants Lead Field

The Band’s Visit, Angels in America, and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel snagged 11 nominations.

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2018 Tony Nominations: Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical Lead, Followed by Angels in America
Photo: Helen Maybanks

Nominations for the 72nd Tony Awards were announced this morning by Katharine McPhee and Leslie Odom Jr. Leading the pack with 12 nominations each is Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical, followed by The Band’s Visit, Angels in America, and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, all three with 11. And with 10 nominations is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two and the revival of My Fair Lady. The awards will be broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall on Sunday, June 10 on CBS.

See below for a full list of the nominations.

Best Book of a Musical
The Band’s Visit, Itamar Moses
Frozen, Jennifer Lee
Mean Girls, Tina Fey
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical, Kyle Jarrow

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre
Angels in America, Music: Adrian Sutton
The Band’s Visit, Music & Lyrics: David Yazbek
Frozen, Music & Lyrics: Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
Mean Girls, Music: Jeff Richmond, Lyrics: Nell Benjamin
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical, Music & Lyrics: Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler & Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper & Rob Hyman, John Legend, Panic! at the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants, T.I., Domani & Lil’C

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play
Andrew Garfield, Angels in America
Tom Hollander, Travesties
Jamie Parker, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Mark Rylance, Farinelli and The King
Denzel Washington, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play
Glenda Jackson, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women
Condola Rashad, Saint Joan
Lauren Ridloff, Children of a Lesser God
Amy Schumer, Meteor Shower

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Harry Hadden-Paton, My Fair Lady
Joshua Henry, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel
Tony Shalhoub, The Band’s Visit
Ethan Slater, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Lauren Ambrose, My Fair Lady
Hailey Kilgore, Once On This Island
LaChanze, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
Katrina Lenk, The Band’s Visit
Taylor Louderman, Mean Girls
Jessie Mueller, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play
Anthony Boyle, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Michael Cera, Lobby Hero
Brian Tyree Henry, Lobby Hero
Nathan Lane, Angels in America
David Morse, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play
Susan Brown, Angels in America
Noma Dumezweni, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Deborah Findlay, The Children
Denise Gough, Angels in America
Laurie Metcalf, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Norbert Leo Butz, My Fair Lady
Alexander Gemignani, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel
Grey Henson, Mean Girls
Gavin Lee, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Ari’el Stachel, The Band’s Visit

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Ariana DeBose, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
Renée Fleming, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel
Lindsay Mendez, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel
Ashley Park, Mean Girls
Diana Rigg, My Fair Lady

Best Scenic Design of a Play
Miriam Buether, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women
Jonathan Fensom, Farinelli and The King
Christine Jones, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Santo Loquasto, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh
Ian MacNeil and Edward Pierce, Angels in America

Best Scenic Design of a Musical
Dane Laffrey, Once On This Island
Scott Pask, The Band’s Visit
Scott Pask, Finn Ross & Adam Young, Mean Girls
Michael Yeargan, My Fair Lady
David Zinn, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Best Costume Design of a Play
Jonathan Fensom, Farinelli and The King
Nicky Gillibrand, Angels in America
Katrina Lindsay, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Ann Roth, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women
Ann Roth, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh

Best Costume Design of a Musical
Gregg Barnes, Mean Girls
Clint Ramos, Once On This Island
Ann Roth, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel
David Zinn, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Catherine Zuber, My Fair Lady

Best Lighting Design of a Play
Neil Austin, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Paule Constable, Angels in America
Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh
Paul Russell, Farinelli and The King
Ben Stanton, Junk

Best Lighting Design of a Musical
Kevin Adams, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer, Once On This Island
Donald Holder, My Fair Lady
Brian MacDevitt, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel
Tyler Micoleau, The Band’s Visit

Best Sound Design of a Play
Adam Cork, Travesties
Ian Dickinson for Autograph, Angels in America
Gareth Fry, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Tom Gibbons, 1984
Dan Moses Schreier, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh

Best Sound Design of a Musical
Kai Harada, The Band’s Visit
Peter Hylenski, Once On This Island
Scott Lehrer, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel
Brian Ronan, Mean Girls
Walter Trarbach and Mike Dobson, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Best Direction of a Play
Marianne Elliott, Angels in America
Joe Mantello, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women
Patrick Marber, Travesties
John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
George C. Wolfe, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh

Best Direction of a Musical
Michael Arden, Once On This Island
David Cromer, The Band’s Visit
Tina Landau, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Casey Nicholaw, Mean Girls
Bartlett Sher, My Fair Lady

Best Choreography
Christopher Gattelli, My Fair Lady
Christopher Gattelli, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Steven Hoggett, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Casey Nicholaw, Mean Girls
Justin Peck, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel

Best Orchestrations
John Clancy, Mean Girls
Tom Kitt, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
AnnMarie Milazzo and Michael Starobin, Once On This Island
Jamshied Sharifi, The Band’s Visit
Jonathan Tunick, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel

Best Play
The Children, Author: Lucy Kirkwood
Farinelli and The King, Author: Claire van Kampen
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two, Author: Jack Thorne
Junk, Author: Ayad Akhtar
Latin History for Morons, Author: John Leguizamo

Best Musical
The Band’s Visit
Frozen
Mean Girls
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Best Revival of a Play
Angels in America
Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women
Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh
Lobby Hero
Travesties

Best Revival of a Musical
My Fair Lady
Once On This Island
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel

Recipients of Awards and Honors in Non-competitive Categories

Special Tony Awards for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre
Chita Rivera
Andrew Lloyd Webber

Special Tony Awards
John Leguizamo
Bruce Springsteen

Regional Theatre Tony Award
La MaMa E.T.C. New York City

Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award
Nick Scandalios

Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre
Sara Krulwich
Bessie Nelson
Ernest Winzer Cleaners

Tony Nominations by Production
Mean Girls – 12
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical – 12
Angels in America – 11
The Band’s Visit – 11
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel – 11
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two – 10
My Fair Lady – 10
Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh – 8
Once On This Island – 8
Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women – 6
Farinelli and The King – 5
Travesties – 4
Frozen – 3
Lobby Hero – 3
The Children – 2
Junk – 2
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical – 2
Children of a Lesser God – 1
Latin History for Morons – 1
Meteor Shower – 1
1984 – 1
Saint Joan – 1

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Features

Revisiting the Past: An Interview with Master Puppeteer Basil Twist

Twist discuss his work, new and old, and the direction he’s going in as we approaches 50.

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Revisiting the Past: An Interview with Master Puppeteer Basil Twist
Photo: Richard Termine

Twenty years ago, Basil Twist wowed audiences with his mesmerizing abstract fantasy Symphonie Fantastique, presented in a small basement space at the HERE Arts Center in Soho. Twist, then 28, conjured up a beguiling and phantasmagoric world inspired by the evocative music of Hector Berlioz’s 19th-century composition of the same title. Aided by lights, dyes, and bubbles, he created his magic by manipulating pieces of fabric, feathers, plastic, vinyl, and fishing lures—all suspended in a small tank filled with water.

In the two decades since, Twist has come into his own as a master puppeteer and international theater artist, continuing to make his own distinctly individual works while also collaborating with other artists both on and off Broadway, as well as in the ballet world. He also made a small foray into the world of Hollywood, contributing to Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. His dazzling creativity has been honored with Obie, Drama Desk, and Bessie awards, as well as a 2015 MacArthur “Genius” grant.

Proving you can go back to the past, Twist has returned to HERE to recreate his original 1988 career-making triumph. This time, Symphonie Fantastique is presented at the theater’s main stage, with five puppeteers working in a water tank double the size of the one featured in the original production and with the Berlioz score performed live with dramatic flair by pianist Christopher O’Riley (host of NPR’s From the Top). As an additional perk, Twist pulls back the curtain to allow audience members to visit backstage after the show to meet the puppeteers and discover how the magic is created.

Recently, I got to sit down with Twist to discuss his work, new and old, and the direction he’s going in as he approaches 50.

Symphonie Fantastique seems like a major turning point in your career.

I went to puppetry school in France and then I had five years of playing in this soup of New York City in the ‘90s. I was performing in nightclubs and working as a puppeteer for other people like Theodora Skipitares and Roman Paska. I had also made a show of my own—a small one-person show that was part of the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater—and I got on the cover of The Puppetry Journal. I thought that it was about as far one can go and that I had made it! After Symphonie Fantastique a whole other life started for me.

Take us back to when the piece first came together for you. I understand it was triggered when you discovered a cracked aquarium on a sidewalk.

At the time, I was living with my boyfriend in a small studio in the West Village. I needed my own space to work so I got another little studio that I found through an ad in the back of the Village Voice and that’s where I just played. So yeah, I saw this aquarium and brought it back to my studio and I played with it. I used to get everything for my work from Materials for the Arts, which is still an awesome organization. And I also used to get lots of stuff from the street. It felt like there was better garbage on the street back then!

Did you start with the intention of creating something abstract?

When I was in France, there was a festival of puppetry and music. It was provocation to explore the relationships between puppetry and music and it immediately made me think that I want to see something abstract relating to music. I know I’m not the first. Hanne Tierney, who I worship, was doing it before me. Her abstraction was always related to text—actual drama—and then she’d abstract the characters. I wanted to just have the music. Although with Symphonie Fantastique a narrative always comes in. It’s inescapable, as you just project things into it. When I watch the show now, there’s this particular moment where I always see a face. And I didn’t intend that. It’s just the fabric and the light. I wonder how many people can see it.

So, I wanted to do an abstract piece and I knew that it would have a relationship to music. Again, it was something from the street. I was walking past a record shop that had milk crates on the sidewalk and I saw an album of Symphonie Fantastique with this weird psychedelic cover. It had the image of sunflower with two faces. So I bought the record. I also remembered the title from my childhood because my parents had it in their record collection. I listened to the record and then I had these fantastic dreams.

The piece has five movements and I had this really ambitious idea that I was going to do each movement with a different element—smoke, fire. I’d already played with water [in the aquarium], so I decided I was going to do the third movement underwater. Then I got my first grant from the Henson Foundation to develop something and I bought a larger aquarium. But it was so heavy and hard to move that I decided to do the whole piece underwater. The main thing was the idea of abstraction, and then the water thing was just a cool way to achieve that. It was just very carefree the way it came about.

What was it like recreating the show 20 years later?

Well, this is essentially the same production that I opened in San Francisco, soon on the heels of the success of the original show but just a little bit bigger. I thought of changing things, but as we were getting into it, I realized that it would be impossible because it’s so densely knit together. The props had been in storage so I decided to just try to get it back the way it was. To a degree, it became a bit of a museum archival effort. I needed to replace certain things—like this purple plastic thing. But then I couldn’t because that store closed on Canal Street 15 years ago and you can only get that stuff now if you order it online from China. I was so frustrated because I’m such a tactile person and I used to go to Canal Street and just touch stuff. If you can’t see how flexible it is you don’t know if it will work in the same way.

What about the lighting? Hasn’t that technology changed over the years?

This new stuff is better overall but there were these moments which we created with those old tools and whatever limitations or qualities that they had got integrated into the choreography of the show. We used to use color scrollers for color changes. The wet environment was not friendly to any mechanical thing so those things would foul a lot. But I miss this one moment in the show where you would see the movement of the scrollers when the lights changed colors. It was a physical thing because light in this show is a physical thing. Now we use LED lights, which just change from one color to another without that magic color wipe. Also, incandescent lights are able to get really low, and I use a lot of darkness in the show. The LED lights just pop off and pop on and we can’t get dark in the same way.

Was it difficult to train others to work the show? Is it scripted now, so you don’t have to be present backstage yourself?

It’s very scripted to a degree. The water has its improvisation, but the puppeteers have a very severe track—the choreography between themselves. Over the years all these wonderful artists have gravitated to me, so I have this great community and family of puppeteers who have worked on many of my shows. This really is the A team. It’s amazing for me to be able to now watch the show and to actually give notes—especially to the guy who’s doing my part. Because I know I would get by a lot on some indescribable feeling that I have that I can’t translate into words. Even when I was teaching him I would have to do it and show him. Now I can give notes. Not everybody can take the notes I give, but they make sense to us in that world. I can say, “Can you make your flashlight more lonely?,” and they are all game to receive it.

You mentioned the water as something you cannot control. Does it behave differently every night?

To a degree. But I understand the wildness of the water, and that wildness is choreographed in. The best example of that is the moment in the third movement where I put this silver stuff in and it just falls. That’s the moment where I tell the puppeteers, “Don’t mess it up. Let it do exactly what it’s supposed to do.” I can always tell if they have hit it or they’re pushing it or they put it in the wrong way. Their job is to get it all ready, put it in, and then stand back. It’s a little different every night and it’s always perfect. Because it’s like physics: it’s water currents, it’s gravity, it’s buoyancy, and it’s reflection and light—and it just all comes together with this exquisite music playing. It’s one of my favorite parts of the show.

How did your career develop after the initial run of Symphonie Fantastique?

I never went back to water. I did Petrushka immediately after because I really wanted to do something extremely figurative with high-level technique. There’s an incredible ensemble of puppeteers who came out of that show, and they’re great New York puppeteers who I rarely see because they’re so busy. Then I did these wonderful collaborative shows, where there’s a whole other gesture that’s trying to happen and I’m just supporting it. I was lucky to work with Christopher Wheldon and started to do a few ballets. It’s an enchanting world, but that world has its goals and its purpose and I’m like the little sprinkles on top. I also still work with Lee Breuer, bringing my magic to his incredible force. I think we have a great synergy there. In between, I would make the Basil Twist shows and try to make them be really different from that last one. So Dogugaeshi, the Japanese piece I made at the Japan Society—it was all sliding screen doors and I got to go to Japan. I actually came back to the work of Symphonie Fantastique with the Rite of Spring [in 2014], although on a totally different scale. It took me that many years to get back to that.

What exactly was your involvement with Alfonso Cuarón’s film version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban?

Cuarón came to see Symphonie Fantastique 20 years ago and he was very taken with it. He hadn’t even made Y Tu Mamá También at the time. When I see that film, which was the sensation, I actually see water things in there too. Then he got asked to take on the Harry Potter franchise. They hadn’t even released the second movie yet and were already changing gears with a new director. When he was revving up he was insistent that he didn’t want to be stuck only using computer graphics. He wanted to have some real magic and he asked that I be a part of it. So I made the dementors underwater. It was like a Symphonie Fantastique puppet, but it actually had a head and hands and we just moved it underwater. We did lots of film tests but in the end, of course, they did it with computers, but the stylistic model you can see looks like Symphonie Fantastique. It was small, but it’s a nice thing.

To get back to this current celebration of your career milestone from 20 years ago, how do you feel about revisiting Symphonie Fantastique?

I’m still processing it. I was worried that it wouldn’t go well and I’m glad that it obviously is. There’s a shape to the two decades and this production of Symphonie Fantastique is a lovely bow to have—all these things that fed in between the bookends. It’s the same show, but it feels fresh and still alive. Coming back to HERE also definitely has a shape. I love this institution and I’m so grateful that they’re behind this and so happy that it’s happening. This is the artist that I wanted to be 20 years ago and I’m so glad that it’s still true.

What’s coming up next for you?

I got the Rome Prize so I’m going to the American Academy in Rome in the fall. It’s a weird thing because you can’t actually plan for this. You need to make alternative plans, and then this thing shows up. My alternative plan was to make a new show in the smaller space downstairs at HERE—a piece called Grandma’s Russian Painting, which is very much inspired by my grandmother Dorothy Williams. I was calling it a performative installation. It’s a very personal thing. Anyway, I’m postponing it because I’m going to Rome.

Aren’t you also approaching your half-century?

Exactly. I will turn 50 in Rome. So it will be a year there, like an artist retreat. You can use it as a specific time to focus on something. I did propose a subject to them: a show that I’ve been talking about for 10 years. It’s an erotic show—dangerously erotic and not in the comedic way of puppets having sex—that’s maybe abstract in way, taking the inanimate and giving a vital sensuality to it. So hopefully that will happen. But they made it clear that the time may also be spent to recharge, a time to seek inspiration, a time to reflect. And what more poetic place to do that than in Rome.

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Theater

Review: Joshua Jackson Soars in Children of a Lesser God at Studio 54

As a performer, Joshua Jackson is sober and endearing, projecting goodness.

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Theater Review: Joshua Jackson Soars in Children of a Lesser God at Studio 54
Photo: Matthew Murphy

On paper, Mark Medoff’s 1979 drama Children of a Lesser God might sound like an outworn issue play, tackling the way the hearing impaired were treated in the Jimmy Carter era by their loved ones as well as institutional systems. For better or worse, however, it’s still relevant, as revealed by its first Broadway revival (now at Studio 54), not only in regard to its portrayal of the deaf community, but also its more general depiction of people who challenge cultural norms and get encouraged to conform.

In the play, a deaf woman, Sarah, and a speech therapist, James, fall in love, get married, and break up. When they meet, he’s teaching the deaf to speak and read lips at the institute where she works and studies, and she refuses to do either. James has outmoded ideals, about helping those who are different to adapt to the mainstream, while Sarah just wants to be herself. And these conflicts, between the hearing and the non-hearing, divide Sarah and James culturally and thus push them apart romantically, ultimately proving irreconcilable. Almost 40 years after its publication, Children of a Lesser God remains an excellent drama, with knottily human characters navigating realistic relationships amid complicated circumstances.

According to the show’s Playbill, it all “takes place in the mind of James Leeds.” Derek McLane’s set is thus appropriately abstract: There are several door frames, some against the wall and others in the middle of the stage, as well as several vaguely arboreal poles. A change of lighting or the addition of a bench or a blackboard allows for a fluid transition between short scenes, swiftly transforming the stage’s almost blank space into a classroom, then an Italian restaurant, then a duck pond, then a character’s apartment, and so on. The actors use very few props, instead miming with their hands, which are already in overdrive from all the sign language.

Lauren Ridloff, as Sarah, signs balletically, employing her whole body to express herself through movement. Ridloff plays Sarah with a gruff, principled, and impenetrable intelligence that obscures a deeply buried warmth. The way she shatters emotionally during a climactic fight with James is devastating. (That Ridloff, who was born deaf, is a woman of color suggests an extra layer of difference and separation from her on-stage husband.)

But Children of a Lesser God belongs to Joshua Jackson, as James, thanks to his performance but also how the play is structured, as we move through his character’s memories. Jackson and Ridloff’s signing isn’t translated in supertitles—though the spoken dialogue is projected above the stage, for the benefit of audience members with auditory issues. It’s translated in real time, aloud, as in Jackson not only speaks all his own lines, but also those of his partner. The actor rarely stops talking in this epic part.

In his television work, Jackson has masterfully depicted the tension of navigating rocky relationships, from Pacey Witter’s adolescent affair with the mentally ill Andie McPhee in season two of Dawnson’s Creek to Cole Lockhart’s failing marriage to, and ultimate divorce from, Alison in The Affair, after the death of their son. As a performer, Jackson is sober and endearing, projecting goodness; the people he plays make mistakes but also overcome them by remaining decent, malleable, and open. You root for him even when he’s in the wrong. He’s a warm actor, given to playing characters with strong opinions who also recognize their own faults by listening to others. Those characters can ask forgiveness for various wrongdoings, from both Jackson’s scene partners and the audience, with just a tone of voice, evoking such sincerity that it’s hard to reject them. Jackson demonstrates an alluring self-awareness that’s as rare in actors as in real people.

Which is finally what makes the drama in Children of a Lesser God sting so much: the awareness by the lead characters that two people can love each other, can recognize their differences and try to overcome them, remaining candid and receptive, yet still fail. The cast, production team, and playwright leave the audience with the uncomfortable understanding that some issues are bigger and more complex than either person in a relationship can deal with, and not every marriage can be sustained by love alone.

Children of a Lesser God runs at Studio 54 through September 9.

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Theater

Review: Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo at the Signature Theatre

At Home at the Zoo, the last name Albee picked for one of his works, carries as much weight as one can ask of a name.

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Theater Review: Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo at the Signature Theatre
Photo: Joan Marcus

“I’ve been to the zoo.” This curtain-raising line from Edward Albee’s first play, 1959’s The Zoo Story, launched his legendary career. It could also serve as a reasonable response to much of his work over the next five decades, as beasts, wild or caged in privilege, were the playwright’s characters of choice. In The Zoo Story, the untamed Jerry strikes up a conversation with—and then violently strikes—a buttoned-up textbook publisher, Peter. When push inevitably comes to shove for Peter and most of Albee’s well-heeled characters thereafter, the animal within them gets unleashed.

Albee also wrote for four-legged creatures, who can be tender in comparison to their human counterparts. Two leading roles in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Seascape are lizards. And he won his second Tony Award, at the age of 74, for The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?: Its ruminant title character, who makes a brief and shocking appearance at the bloody climax, is revealed by a suburban patriarch on his 50th birthday to be the new love of his life.

The most cultured environment, in Albee’s hands, can become a “gobble, gobble” survival-of-the fittest jungle. In The Zoo Story’s prequel, titled Homelife and written by Albee in 2001, Peter and his wife, Ann, share a climactic fantasy in which a tornado knocks over the birdcage in their Upper East Side apartment, freeing their pet parakeets, which are eaten by their cats, which in turn are eaten by the couple’s daughters, who are then eaten by the couple themselves. Peter asks, “But who would eat us?” To which Anne proffers: “We’d eat ourselves all up. A fearful symmetry.”

The Zoo Story and Homelife, first paired in 2004 in an unprecedented act of theatrical symmetry, have returned in Lila Neugebauer’s incisive production at the Signature Theatre (they were first performed on a double bill in 2007). Playwrights have often revised or expanded their work, but At Home at the Zoo is the first time that a prequel has been paired with an established original to create a new two-act play. If there’d been just a few years’ break in composition, the resulting unity of style and characterization would count as a remarkable achievement. When one considers the 42-year gap between the composition of Albee’s first one-act and his last, the flow established through parallels in structure and theme qualifies as a near-miracle.

Each act opens with Peter (Robert Sean Leonard), alone and at ease, reading a textbook that he’s publishing. In Homelife, Ann (Katie Finneran) intrudes on his solace, with “We should talk,” which lands on us with as much dread as The Zoo Story’s first line. But Peter is so absorbed in the book that he doesn’t hear his wife. Ann, like The Zoo Story’s Jerry, has a mission: to bridge the distance with Peter or at least get his nose out of that book. He needs it. This is someone who’s recently observed that his penis is retracting.

Neugebauer uses the Irene Diamond Stage’s wide proscenium to mirror her protagonist’s well-bred remoteness in the physical distance between him and his foils. The gap also serves as a reminder of the production mission to bridge the gap between the two one-acts. From a distance of nearly half a century, Albee wrote Homelife to flesh out the role of Peter, who was only a “half-character” in The Zoo Story. The publisher seems much the same in the newer work—he’s a bit of a stick—except for a surprising confession: During a frat hazing, Peter was paired up for sex with a sorority sister who urged him to play rough. Young Peter enjoyed letting loose, but the painful result sent the girl traumatically to the emergency room with an anal fissure. Peter’s been in retreat from his animal side ever since. Now we understand why, as Ann says, he’s “good at making love” but “bad at fucking.”

Ann isn’t interested in pain, but she does want something wilder than their comfortable life. Finneran’s warmly precise performance finds a pinpoint accuracy in Ann’s conflicted desires. For example, she slaps Peter hard in the face and then kisses him. She wants to wake her husband up but without changing things too much: “I’m taking about being an animal—nothing more.” Finneran gives much more, with a full-bodied grace and febrile intelligence.

After their shared fantasy of dog-eat-dog chaos, Ann goes back to cooking, while Peter goes out to read in Central Park, where he sits on a bench and is given an even bigger slap in the face, compliments of Jerry (Paul Sparks). The context provided by Homelife, with some emendations in The Zoo Story, makes Peter seem three quarters of a character in the latter piece. This is an improvement, but like Ann’s mission with Peter, Albee doesn’t try to change things too much. The character still takes a back seat for most of The Zoo Story, serving largely as an audience to his scene partner.

Despite Sparks’s formidable prowess as an alpha dog losing his grip on power, the curtain raiser does the actor no favors. The addition of Ann, whose actions and conversation topics mirror so much of what’s later provided by Jerry, makes the role seem more of a deus ex machina than when The Zoo Story stands on its own. With a first act of heterosexual comfort, and the connection between the men devoid of any sexual component even when tickling comes into play later in the production, the turn to violence seems driven more by thematic than by psychological or primal urges.

Neugebauer emphasizes that abstraction through Andrew Lieberman’s Cy Twombly-esque set, which is dominated by a floor and walls of charcoal squiggles. This is a world of growing disorder through a decidedly literary lens, which aligns the physical production with Peter the publisher. Leonard’s performance, though, isn’t possessed of chaos. There isn’t a glimpse of the young man who enjoyed getting out of his cage. In the actor’s performance, the title At Home at the Zoo doesn’t describe its central character for a moment. Perhaps that’s the point. Even as a participant in something beastly, Leonard’s Peter can’t own it. He’s like that sorority sister, whimpering on a hospital gurney as a victim to someone else’s animal act.

An effective title is a marketable window into a play’s soul. Peter and Jerry, the original name of this pairing, was neither enticing nor insightful. At Home at the Zoo, the last name Albee picked for one of his works, carries as much weight as one can ask of a name. It delivers the work’s key theme by evoking both Ann’s desire to have her home be a comfortable zone for animal behavior, Jerry’s natural milieu, and the possible change in Peter by the show’s finale. By quoting part of each act’s name, it also helps to unify the work’s patchwork construction through a playful symmetry.

The contractually mandated title even puts a rare positive light on the current trend in possessives. Those tend to turn a project into a product, just the latest example of a writer’s brand, as in the imminent Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, and even Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. The inclusion of the creators can stand in the way of our view of the work and its characters. Here, though, with the full title playfully making sense as a complete sentence, Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo serves as a worthy capstone to the playwright’s entire career.

Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo runs at the Signature Theatre Company’s Irene Diamond Stage, 480 W 42nd St, through March 25.

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Features

Interview: Playwright Jordan Harrison on The Amateurs and Log Cabin

If there’s a constant in Jordan Harrison’s body of work, it’s his ability to surprise.

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Interview: Playwright Jordan Harrison on The Amateurs and Log Cabin

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.

You’ve said that you hate being asked where your plays come from, so instead, can you tell us what interested you in 14th-century Europe as a setting for The Amateurs?

Ah, yes, I have neutralized your question in the play itself! But, you know, maybe I will tell you where the play came from because that will make things easier. Like a lot of writers, I start by resisting, or running away, from the last thing I did. The play before The Amateurs was Marjorie Prime—where people stay on the couch and there aren’t a ton of production elements—so for my next outing I wanted to go back to my epic instincts, and maybe even try a three-act play, which I hadn’t done for a good 10 years. It was not the 14th century, rather the idea of the first flicker of humanism. I knew that there was this morality play of Noah’s flood. A famous thing about it was that the character of Noah’s wife behaves in this unexplainable and, I think, mainly unmotivated way. She doesn’t want to get on the ark. I felt interested in that in the same way that I’m interested in looking at a Giotto fresco and seeing this thaw from a world in which only God matters to a world in which human beings had choices. So it was more the circumstances of the 14th century. What was it about experiencing the Black Death that made humans more interested in humans?

Did research into the period inform the play?

It was helpful to be reminded that magic was real to these people—that a firefly was an unbaptized soul still looking for God, which is something that made its way into the play. They were constantly looking for explanations for the unexplainable. I think it was also useful to be reminded of their familiarity with death. People often wouldn’t name their children for a year or two years because they were just expecting them to die. They were very matter of fact about it, which isn’t to say that they didn’t feel it, but it played a different role in their lives than it does today.

Do you draw parallels in the play to AIDS in the 20th century?

It was a helpful allegory, for sure. This is tricky for me, trying to talk about act two and the parallels with HIV and AIDS without completely giving it away. I really did get to the end of act one, and it was going as I wanted it to go, but I had this impulse to get extremely frank and to hew out the subtext—to write about my own engagement with the play. Because there was a very real plague in my lifetime.

How do you see your engagement with the subject in the context of previous playwrights’ responses to the AIDS crisis?

I was 15 or 16 when Angels in America came out and that was one of the most indelible playgoing experiences I had as a young person. I had to sit sandwiched between my grandparents, who had bought us the tickets, and watch two men get it on. In a world where that wasn’t possible or wasn’t spoken but watch it be possible on stage—it was an incredible thing. It’s true that many generations have different responses to a crisis. You have The Normal Heart as one of the great first plays [to address the AIDS crisis], and then you have Angels, which introduces a little more magic and explodes the representation of that outwards. Now here I am many generations beyond. I will let other people say how I fit into that. But admittedly, as we get further and further from a tragedy or a crisis we respond to it as artists in different ways. I probably finished the first draft of The Amateurs in 2014 and there’s a crisis of another sort that has come along since then. So there’s ways in which 2017 and 2018 vibrates with the play in ways that I maybe can’t even control.

When talking about your work you’ve said that there are plays with furniture and plays without furniture. Can you elaborate on that?

The classic play with furniture is Chekhov. People have the chair, the samovar, and things around them to remind us of the nuances, the intimacies, and disappointments in their lives. [In these plays] time tends to move slowly in a world of naturalism. Marjorie Prime is probably the biggest example of that. Plays without furniture—the classic example would be Shakespeare. You can crush a month or a year from one scene to the next.

So is The Amateurs a “play without furniture”?

It’s certainly a play without furniture. We travel all the way across Europe and we jump 500 years at one point. You can actually do that because there isn’t anything specifically confining us to one time or another. On the first day of rehearsal, the [scenic designer] David Zinn said to the assembled cast and staff, “the plan is simply to fill the Vineyard Theater with dirt.” And that’s what he did. He’s given us this marvelous pile of dirt. I guess there’s also a twist in that there’s this one piece of supreme furniture at the center of the play—the traveling cart, the pageant wagon. Basically, I have asked David and our amazing props designer, Raphael Mishler, to create this box of wonders. It has to be something that the actors can move around on the space, but it also unpacks an entire world of the Noah’s flood play.

Since we are talking about set design, I should tell you that there’s something special for me about working with David Zinn on this production. David is probably the first time I was aware that there were other gay people in the room. I think I was maybe 13 years old and it was at the end of a show on Bainbridge Island [in Washington]. That’s where I grew up, and where David grew up. He had already been spoken of as the boy who made good in the big city and designed sets on Broadway. We had never even met before, so given the subject matter in act two, it’s special to me that he’s designing The Amateurs. He’s somehow threaded through the actual Jordan Harrison history that’s being discussed on stage.

What can you tell us about your next play, Log Cabin, which premieres this June at Playwrights Horizons?

To follow our analogy to its logical end, Log Cabin is a play with furniture again. It’s mostly one location—there’s books on the bookshelves. The furniture in this case is important because it’s the trappings of being upwardly mobile. Basically, the play is about a very close-knit group of friends—a gay couple and a lesbian couple—and the problems of gay assimilation. Essentially, it’s about how when you get your rights, when you get your foothold in society, how quickly we can forget about the rights of people that are coming immediately after us. It’s about [the characters’] stormy and problematic relationship with a male trans character. And the growing pains of this century.

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