“I’m not one of them storybook characters,” a charismatic young man assures his girl of the moment. As the plot develops, we watch the girl be seduced and then disillusioned by the man she thought was one-of-a-kind. Her hard lesson captures in microcosm the appeal of adapting John Cassavetes’s 1959 film Shadows to the stage, a project taken on two years ago by the ensemble company Hoi Polloi and now in revival at the company’s new theatrical home, Jack in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Cassavetes’s film, his first, is a barely plotted, hyper-naturalized slice of life in the “shadows” of New York City’s jazz scene. The film’s credits call it an “improvisation,” a typically coy claim by Cassavetes to make his audience feel they’ve witnessed an authentic experience rather than a carefully crafted representation. (The film was made without a script, and most of the characters were given the same names as their actors, but that doesn’t mean the scenes were unplanned.) Bringing the film to theatrical life—scene by scene, line by line, gesture by gesture—is to be wiser than the girl. It is to be charmed but never tricked by those who claim to be “real,” but are, in fact, characters from a human imagination.
The story Shadows tells is of three African-American siblings, two of whom are light enough to pass as white. One’s a third-rate jazz balladeer, one’s a virginal girl seeking adventure, and one’s a troubled dropout who goofs off with his buddies when he’s not fiddling his trombone. Shameful but barely enunciated racism, misogyny, and homophobia curdle their dreams and their trust in human connection, producing an angry undertone for which the plot offers neither resolution nor relief. Hoi Polloi’s adaptation conveys all this, but with an analytical distance. The satire feels more biting, and the exposé more reflective. Less the self-pronouncement of a lost generation, this Shadows stages a confrontation between today’s young urban artists and their parents’ world, one pocket of frustrated urban energy finding its mirror image in an older New York.
Thankfully, the result is never nostalgic. It’s exhilarating and deeply playful, a lively dance between art and reality. See the film before you see the play, so you’ll appreciate the cast’s commitment to its every nuance: Improvisation becomes choreography, making the actors more virtuosic than their filmic counterparts. But because director Alec Duffy refuses to hide his company’s necessary compromises (actors playing statues in a museum sequence, men and women cross-dressing to play minor characters, a giant spotlight that the actors manipulate to simulate “close-ups”), we watch as theater’s vitality defeats film’s documentary coldness. And we watch up close: Jack’s playing space, a large warehouse not unlike the Collapsable Giraffe in Williamsburg, places spectators in every corner of the scene, exposed like extras in a film shoot and able to sniff the actors’ sweat.
All the performers are captivating to watch, though in a couple of cases they bring a confident swagger to roles that are more fragile and internal in the film. Among these are Dustin Fontaine, who cuts a dashing figure and a Casanova smile as the lady’s paramour; Alexandra Miller, as the lady; and Julian Rozzell Jr., as her jazz-singer brother. Their confident energy adds to the play’s vitality, but slightly dulls its emotional impact. The boisterous and petite Samantha Debicki takes particular pleasure in a set of character roles, and the live band (the night I saw it: Emile Blondel on piano, Ezra Gale on bass, Steven Leffue on sax) is as hot and inventive as anything the 1950s could have coughed up. But it’s the collaborative achievement of the Hoi Polloi company that’s Shadows’s real spectacle. If you can get the smoke out of your eyes, you won’t be able to turn them away.
Shadows is running at Jack in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn through June 1st. For tickets, click here.
In Ivo van Hove’s Hands, West Side Story’s Actors Are Mice in A Cinematic Maze
With this version of West Side Story, van Hove seems barely interested in the show itself.
Warm and riotous, with heartbreaking, unfinished cadences of promise and hesitant, exploratory rhythms bursting into sun-red brass explosions, the West Side Story score is the apex of musical theater composition. And the best part of Ivo van Hove’s highly anticipated production of the musical is that the superiority of the music is fully apparent. Conducting a 25-piece orchestra, Alexander Gemignani ensures that his players wring out all the tension, tumult, and tenderness in Leonard Bernstein’s compositions. And, even if this staging comes off as cold as the rain-soaked actors must be by show’s end, you may feel chills at the opening orchestral lick and find yourself with real tears coming to your eyes at the start of “Maria,” Tony’s (Isaac Powell) paean to the way three syllables feel on his lips.
Van Hove’s (in)famously metamorphic approach to staging classic works (The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, Hedda Gabler) might lead audiences to expect a West Side Story that entirely reimagines the show. But West Side Story hasn’t been so much transformed as toyed with: Performing in the shadow of a ceiling-to-floor video projections wall, which towers above the actors, the cast suggests mice in a vast, cinematic maze. Occasionally, when live video is projected from around the stage, often via handheld cameras wielded by the gang members, the effects are impressive, as in the “Mambo” dance-off sequence swirls thrillingly above the dancers’ heads. Scenes that take place partially off stage in little film sets behind that back wall allow for moments of unnecessary but unobtrusively detailed realism.
More often, though, the sprawling video is ridiculous. During “The Jet Song,” pre-filmed clips of each gang member sticking his tongue out at the camera while jumping around outside supersede whatever the live actors are actually doing on stage. For “Gee, Officer Krupke,” there’s a slideshow of shots depicting a process of racial injustice in the courts system; it’s as if van Hove has glommed on to a headline, skirting around engaging with the specific experiences of the characters whose stories he’s been entrusted with telling. And then there’s all those long, long panning shots of city streets in which shadowy figures pirouette far off in the distance. Those look like they might be doing Jerome Robbins’s original choreography and they, like the remnants of those classic dances in this new production, can scarcely be seen.
De Keersmaeker’s dances, angular and sometimes kickboxing-infused, rarely seem central to the storytelling. (There’s more patterned movement than real dance in this West Side Story, which sort of misunderstands the ways in which dance works alongside song to heighten and elevate the characters in the show as written.) In “America,” the dancing doesn’t have a chance of competing with the video wall. When Anita (Yesenia Ayala) sings, “Always the hurricanes blowing,” we see a hurricane on screen. And when she sings, “Immigrant goes to America,” footage appears of migrants on a rope line crossing a border stream. Even if flashing line-by-line literal illustrations wasn’t already tacky, there’s a bigger problem here: “America” is a song about the experiences of Puerto Ricans who move to the mainland, and Puerto Ricans don’t have to travel internationally to find their way to U.S. soil. Anita’s very next line is, “Nobody knows in America/Puerto Rico’s in America.” Apparently nobody in Belgium does either.
Audiences familiar with van Hove will be unsurprised with the invasiveness of the video in this production, as cameras abound in much of the Belgian director’s churning reinventions, from last year’s Network at the Belasco Theatre to many of his earlier Dutch-language productions with his own repertory company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam. Van Hove is nothing if not consistent: In addition to those projections, he’s big on getting his actors wet (in other productions, it’s been car oil and condiments; here, thankfully, it’s just endless rain water). But deep below those giant screens and downpours (which, at one point, left Powell’s mic crackling and soggy), the actors are putting on a pretty normal, pretty strong performance of West Side Story. They don’t seem particularly connected to the overwhelming, overwrought images above them, but they also aren’t usually able to steal back the focus.
While Daniel Fish’s grim revival of Oklahoma! on Broadway last season never entirely coalesced around a cogent interpretation of the classic musical, it was riveting from start to finish. That production’s faithfulness to the score and script created the sensation of losing your footing, of constantly questioning whether lines delivered with fresh ominousness were really authentic Rodgers and Hammerstein. (They were.) With this version of West Side Story, by contrast, van Hove seems barely interested in the show itself. He hasn’t discovered anything new or made anything clearer. It’s probably the first production of West Side Story that audiences new to the show may find hard to follow from start to finish.
There’s one strikingly poetic image at the climax of “Tonight,” the soaring duet that Tony and Maria (Shereen Pimentel) share. Although the projections are perplexing (are the young lovebirds sitting on the ground in the middle of an intersection?), van Hove offers a staging that makes theatrical sense: The full company enters at the start of the scene but vanishes as the couple sings, “All the world is only you and me.” At song’s end, the rival gangs reappear, attempting to physically, balletically pry apart the lovers. Still, while this moment works emotionally, it also distracts by shifting focus from the lovers to the unexpected stage picture.
Powell largely manages to escape unscathed, commanding the audience’s attention for his two early numbers, the churning “Something’s Coming” and the overflowing “Maria,” which features some surprising, contemporarily illuminating readings of the name of Tony’s new love. In some ways, Powell’s potent performance is the antithesis of this production: His version of Tony grows out of an embrace of what’s best about West Side Story yet blooms with inspired individuality that never overshadows his collaborators.
Pimentel is new to the spotlight, but, by chance, I heard her shimmering voice last spring in a production of the opera Dido and Aeneas at Juilliard, where she’s still an undergraduate. She offers a sassiness reminiscent of Shakespeare’s original feisty Juliet, the inspiration for Maria. The contrast between her flashes of insouciance and her lush, tender soprano allow her to mold a Maria that’s richer and fuller than most. But she’s also underused, as van Hove has cut Maria’s only solo, “I Feel Pretty.” It’s an unwise excision since Maria’s effervescent optimism, soon to be crushed, sets up the tragedy that steals her imagined future away from her.
Outside of the two romantic leads, who have the space to acquit themselves nicely, most of the characters—Anita, Riff (Dharon E. Jones), Bernardo (Amar Ramasar)—get lost. The erasure of Anita, at least, seems systematic. While impressions of Anitas past have been indelible (Chita Rivera on the original cast recording, Rita Moreno in the 1961 film, Karen Olivo in the 2009 bilingual revival), Ayala is underwhelming in the role, dwarfed not only by her predecessors, but by van Hove’s insistence on distracting the audience from everything Anita does.
First, he’s replaced the original, all-female version of the Anita-led “America” with the girls-versus-boys revision from Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s film adaptation; she has half as much there to do now. Meanwhile, every time she sings—whether in “America” or in “A Boy Like That,” her searing, transcendent duet with Maria—footage from elsewhere flashes across the stage. Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim meticulously shaped “A Boy Like That” to show how Maria convinces Anita to abandon her angry melody, quite literally, and join Maria’s prayer-like counterpoint line. For the entire song, Tony sprints through the street, dripping blood and sweat, in a never-ending slow-motion, zoomed-in shot. Did Sondheim write sharp, searing lyrics and did librettist Arthur Laurents carve this complex relationship between complex women for us to watch an action movie instead of listening?
Van Hove also errs by turning the scene in which the Jets attempt to rape Anita into a weirdly visceral, voyeuristic video frenzy. There’s a discomfitingly dismissive attitude toward women that runs throughout, especially given the production’s checkered backstory. Outside the theater, protests continue over the casting of Ramasar, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet who was reinstated by the company after charges of non-consensually sharing explicit photographs of female dancers. Ramasar is a fine Bernardo (Maria’s brother and Anita’s boyfriend) but not so special here as to justify the controversial casting.
The best productions of West Side Story have always throbbed with propulsiveness, even with an intermission and a lot of dialogue (much of Laurents’s script has been tossed out here). Van Hove’s initial assessment that West Side Story required compressing down to 90 minutes in order to feel gritty and urgent was wrong, but I can imagine a more worthwhile production that used van Hove’s cuts yet engaged more seriously and meaningfully with the show’s treatment of race and gender. Both this material, and this cadre of performers, would be up for the task. The score still soars, and the principal cast, mostly, offers stellar performances of challenging roles that would be impressive in any production. Van Hove is the only one caught with egg on his face—or, if not egg, a whole lot of rain.
West Side Story is now playing at the Broadway Theatre.
Review: Hamlet at St. Ann’s Warehouse Is a Triumph of Production Over Performance
It’s hard to think of too many other productions that strive to stretch a Shakespeare play so far beyond its natural course.
“This is too long!” exclaims Polonius about halfway through Hamlet when a visiting theater troupe offers a poetic reenactment of the death of Priam, the king of Troy. Prince Hamlet, who’s much more into this sort of thing than the less sophisticated Polonius (“He’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps”), commands the players to cut the scene here—“It shall to the barber’s, with your beard”—and skip to the next part of the play.
Audiences might benefit from the presence of an imposing royal to speed things up at St. Ann’s Warehouse, where the transfer of a new, three-and-a-half-hour production of Hamlet from the Gate Theatre, Dublin is, well, to quote Polonius, too long. Yaël Farber’s staging of the show seeks to create some sort of definitive über-Hamlet with the blunt instruments of running time and incense. Except for compilation Shakespeares, like Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies, or, closer to home, the National Asian American Theatre Company’s Henry VI, which emphasize epic sprawl by stringing multiple plays together, I can’t think of too many other productions that strive to stretch a Shakespeare play so far beyond its natural course.
And Farber doesn’t do so in the name of Folio fidelity. In fact, some sizable cuts were made, but with the invading Fortinbras and all reference to the world outside of Denmark excised, where are all these extra minutes coming from? It’s partly the transitions between scenes, as the ensemble has been tasked with constantly moving furniture with ponderous stateliness. But for the most part the running time emerges from the actors’ uniformly protracted speech.
Pacing, though, is a director’s tool like lighting and sound and haze and fog effects. Any storytelling pace can be effective if there’s some real variety; I’ve reviewed unsuccessful takes on Hamlet that moved too briskly. Here, though, the tortoise-like crawl, like the fog that pours in from all directions, is ubiquitous. If the hope is that slow-mo Hamlet will allow audiences to pick up on lines or ideas that are passed over at more recognizably conversational tempos, there’s no such revelation here: Without any sense of momentum or acceleration or sudden pause, it’s hard to pinpoint any moment or motif that Farber intends to accentuate.
This Hamlet also takes itself tremendously seriously, sometimes to a preposterous extent. Tom Lane’s ominous soundscape of suspense strings, wistful piano licks, and distantly threatening booms underscores almost the entire play, a melodrama of unsubtle monotony unto itself. Ensemble members sometimes walk in aimless circles around the stage, as if partaking in a ritual with which they themselves are unfamiliar. At one early point, Ophelia (Aoife Duffin) stands portentously in a grave flooding with rainwater, hollering Hamlet’s name.
That gray triumph of production over performance does a grave disservice to the talented ensemble of Irish actors, led by Ruth Negga as Hamlet. (The Oscar-nominated actress played Ophelia opposite Rory Kinnear in the National Theatre of England’s production of the play a decade ago.) Instead of having the space to craft individual portraits with their own rhythms and surprises, the cast seems to become cogs in the machine. At moments, Negga transcends her environment. She’s at her most arresting in the pair of scenes that open the play’s second half. Her Hamlet drapes his legs over the side of an armchair, lazily making demands of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Barry McKiernan and Shane O’Reilly), the petulant epitome of a pampered prince. But Hamlet’s just playing the part, and he gleefully morphs into a ferociously commanding figure as he reveals the true meaning of his banter: He sees his companions for what they are, agents of King Claudius (Owen Roe) sent to spy on him. As he dresses his former friends down, Hamlet seems, suddenly, like a canny manipulator.
In the scene that follows, Hamlet attends upon his mother, Gertrude (Fiona Bell), greeting her with a slumping, adolescent, “Now, mother, what’s the matter?” There’s seething, familiar tension in their mother-son battle, which boils, too, with the sense that they’re learning how little they really know each other: Gertrude actually believes for a few seconds, at least, that Hamlet might murder her. A relationship, for once here, comes sharply into focus.
That exchange ripples with the sort of clarity that Farber denies Negga from developing throughout her performance. Though some banter with Polonius (“Words, words, words,” etc.) lets Negga show off Hamlet’s verbal agility, her monologues embrace the general ethos of sluggishness. Part of the lasting interest in Hamlet comes from a sense that Shakespeare’s only letting us experience the tip of the iceberg: The character’s soliloquies are simply snapshots of thoughts surging through a brain in perpetual motion. If this Hamlet’s mouth works a mile a minute when he’s bewildering Polonius, why don’t we witness his mind do the same? Negga’s longer speeches carry a certain pre-packaged heaviness; Hamlet seems to have already considered every word before he starts talking so we seldom see thoughts spark in real time.
Farber opts for the most old-school, clichéd vision of the ghost of Hamlet’s father (Steve Hartland), all disembodied echoes and ambience; most of his scene with Hamlet is played from behind a white plastic scrim, which allows Hartland to make his way onto the stage from within the audience, where he first appears. As such, there’s no real sense of Hamlet’s relationship with his deceased namesake. Farber’s staging swallows up any sense of specificity about what Hamlet’s really lost, how he really experiences his grief, and who he really is.
By casting only the two Hamlets, the eponymous character and his ghostly father, with actors of color, this production hints at a color-conscious narrative about a majority-white country—and a white queen—that replaces its black leadership with dictatorial whiteness, sidestepping its biracial heir. Farber doesn’t ever engage with that strand of Hamlet’s isolation and ostracization in the wake of his father’s death—and if it’s not an intentional gesture of storytelling through casting, why isn’t there a more robustly diverse cast?
Shakespeare isn’t colorblind—at one point, Hamlet writes Ophelia a letter praising her “excellent white bosom”—so is this production trying to follow suit? The fact that Hamlet is played by a woman here doesn’t impact Farber’s storytelling (Negga clearly plays Hamlet as a male prince), but it’s hard not to take notice of the racial constellations of past and present power that shape this austere vision of Denmark. I’m also not sure why only Negga’s casting plays against gender. Lead performance aside, this is the most male-dominated cast of Hamlet I’ve ever encountered, featuring 12 male and three female actors.
With few exceptions, Farber drains the play of its humor, but Nick Dunning’s Polonius manages to score a handful of well-earned laughs. Dunning also nicely, unexpectedly shades Polonius’s contrasting treatment of his son, Laertes (Gavin Drea), and daughter, Ophelia. When he’s talking to Laertes, Polonius is all smiles and speaks with a jovial lilt, but his voice turns to a bass growl when he confronts Ophelia alone about her dalliance with Hamlet. (Duffin, a would-be impressively impetuous Ophelia, is particularly ill-served by the production, especially in a final scene in which she twice exposes herself, apparently in order to demonstrate that Ophelia is very definitely mad. I found Farber’s use of nudity in her 2017 adaptation of Salomé at the National Theatre in London similarly gratuitous.)
Most surprising about this Hamlet, though, is how unsurprising it is, how little of its running time is used to take risks or reinvent or explore the text in fresh terms. The most startlingly different moment comes with Claudius’s soliloquized confession, here delivered not to himself or the audience but to a priest who sneaks into the throne room, while Hamlet listens in behind that omnipresent armchair, and then absolves Claudius with a sung Latin prayer. For one thing, if Claudius has only just finished establishing his own fascist surveillance state teeming with spies, would he really risk confessing the double sin of regi-fratricide aloud, let alone without checking the room for eavesdroppers? He should know better.
But the bigger problem is that Farber continues to peel away at characters’ relationships with the audience. The subversive potency of Claudius’s soliloquy is that Hamlet cannot hear his uncle’s thoughts—only we can. Replacing our active presence as confidant diminishes the play’s engaging power. And it’s not only here that Farber does this, as Ophelia’s on stage for most of Hamlet’s first monologue, reacting to each line and then making out with him when he’s done speechifying. And once we’re shut out, once we lose our way into the minds of faraway figures who somehow seem more distant than ever, how can we hope, like Hamlet, to give into an actor’s “dream of passion?” To lose ourselves once again in that state of shared secret understanding between audience and actor is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Hamlet runs from February 1—March 8 at St. Ann’s Warehouse.
Confessions of a Drag Legend: Charles Busch on The Confession of Lily Dare
Busch discusses his latest comic tearjerker, an homage to a rather unknown spate of movies from the early 1930s.
When we last caught up with Charles Busch almost a decade ago, the playwright, actor, and drag artist was starring in The Divine Sister, a vehicle he created for himself to emulate a Rosalind Russell-like star of Hollywood’s “golden” era playing a mother superior. “There’s actually this marvelous fantasy element to my career, and I’ve been very lucky the way things have worked out,” says the 65-year-old as we chatted once again in his West Village apartment, which is decorated, as he once famously put it, “like an elegant 19th-century whorehouse.” Over the past 35 years, Busch has sustained a unique and idiosyncratic career, every so often creating over-the-top roles for himself and gathering a bunch of his actor friends to put on shows just for the fun of it. On this occasion, the topic of conversation is The Confession of Lily Dare, which began life in 2018 and is now being presented at the Cherry Lane Theatre by Primary Stages.
How would you describe The Confession of Lily Dare in a nutshell?
It’s a comic tearjerker, an homage to a rather unknown spate of movies from the early 1930s. There was this brief period where things were kinda loose and creative—the so-called Pre-Code cinema—before the severe Production Code made many restrictions on morality in American film. There was a bunch of movies—all variations of the same plot—about a young girl led astray, who has an illegitimate baby who she gives up, and then, many years later, the child comes back into her life. And, because she has led this very sexual renegade life, she has to hold on to her great secret, that she never wants the child to know.
Who’s Lily Dare?
A survivor. I’ve always wanted play a role where I went from a young girl to an old crone. In a certain sense, I play four different characters, because she makes some wild transformations from innocent young girl to Marlene Dietrich-type cabaret entertainer to bordello madam to worn-out waterfront saloon singer. I morph using different character voices as she changes personae. I think in some ways it’s a metaphor for what we all go through in real life, as we change and our personalities adapt to our circumstances. I have noticed, as my contemporaries have gotten older, sometimes we become almost parodies of ourselves; we get so much more exaggerated in our idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. What I’m doing as Lily Dare is on a much more stylized level, but I think it has a basic truth to the way we do adapt as we get older.
This show was originally meant for a limited run off-off-Broadway. What changed?
I’ve had this very long relationship, going back to 1981, with Theater for the New City, which is a kind of funky downtown multiplex of a theater on the Lower East Side. Every other year we—that’s me and Carl Andress, the director I’ve worked with for 25 years—make a call to Crystal Field, who runs that theater, and say, “Can you give us a space?” It’s a fun thing to do for a couple of weeks and usually I get it out of my system. We did Lily Dare there a year and a half ago and the audience response to it was so lovely. But, really, more importantly, I wanted to do more. I loved the variety of emotion that it stirred in the audience. With comedy, I like when there’s a roller coaster of tone; it can be very outrageous and bawdy, but then there are genuine moments of tenderness or suspense. I really wanted to test this and, you know, go for big laughs but also see whether a rather jaded, cynical contemporary audience could lose themselves in the tearjerker elements of the story and be genuinely moved. So, when Primary Stages—a theater I’ve had a relationship with, going back to 1994—said it wanted me to be part of their 35th anniversary season, I suggested Lily Dare.
Mother-and-child relationships are central to Die Mommie Die! and The Third Story. Does that have something to do with your losing your mother at an early age?
I’ve always been a sucker for anything about mother love, and it’s a wonderful experience to play my obsessions night after night. I think I can speak for anyone who’s lost a parent. It’s something that marks you and influences probably every aspect of your life, whether it’s personal relationships or, if you’re a creative artist, your work. I write them into the play so I can tap into those emotions endlessly. Thank God for self-pity, because it can be very rewarding! This play, particularly, is all about the search for a mother, the search for a child.
You’ve said before that your plays come about because there’s a role you’d like to play.
Yes, I’d get an idea like “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to be Rosalind Russell in a 1960s nun comedy,” or “wouldn’t it fun to be Norma Shearer in an anti-Nazi war melodrama.” In this case, it was “Wouldn’t it be fun to be Barbara Stanwyck in her early-1930s tearjerkers?” I’ve just been very fortunate that I’m in a position that I can get these fantasies to come true.
The other thing I do, usually after I get my idea for a play and a character that I’d like to do, is write a list of actor friends of mine that I just like to hang out with, and then I try to figure out roles for them within the context of the story. Sometimes I feel like I have my own old-time movie studio and my contract players and I have to figure out new ways of presenting them. I’m so fortunate that I’ve been working with the wonderful Jennifer Van Dyck for quite a few years now. She was a classical actress without a camp bone in her body when I got hold of her. Her range is so marvelous. I can use her in so many different ways; as an elegant lady, sometimes I write old-fashioned trouser roles for her because she has kind of a Katherine Hepburn quality. In my Cleopatra, I think she’s the only actress who’s ever played Octavian and his sister, Octavia. And in Lily Dare, she ranges from playing my bordello madam to my opera singing daughter, a doctor’s wife and a mysterious baroness.
What’s it like writing roles for yourself?
It took me to the age of 19 to figure out I could write roles for myself. It becomes harder as you get older, although, for the most part, I’ve aged into my roles. In the late ‘80s I was playing Norma Shearer in The Lady in Question, who was a great star at the peak of her beauty, let’s say in 1940, and then years later I was playing a mother superior, which would have the part that an actress would have played as she’s approaching her late 50s. It’s always important to me that when I look in the mirror, I look like the character I’m playing. Perhaps what I’m seeing in the mirror isn’t what the audience is seeing. I hope that’s not true! I may be deluding myself, but I’ve never thought that the source of the comedy of my performances was the differential between what my intention is and what the audience’s conception is. I think a big part of camp is that space. There are so many different kinds of drag performers that come from so many different points for view. For me, it was important that I physically looked as close an approximation that I possibly can to an actress from Hollywood’s golden age. In this play, I’m taking a little bit of a detour. I end up there, but I just start off with as a young convent girl of 16. With the help of my wig stylist and costume designers and lighting designer I hope I give some kind of an illusion. I’m telling you this might be the last time that I play somebody quite that young. I’m getting kinda tired being all trussed up in corsets!
Do you rely on your memories of the old movies for your parodies? Did you have to do research for Lily Dare?
I just absorbed it watching all those movies on television. I’ve been doing it since I was eight years old and I think the bulk of my research was done by the age of 12! When I do a new play like Lily Dare, I try to see some of these movies that I haven’t seen, that I know are in the same genre. But I’ve always loved Madame X, which is really the prototype for that kind of movie. It’s not for me to do the spoof of film noir; that’s really for the ordinary folk, you know. I choose obscure movies that nobody could care less about! And, in a way, that’s kind of good because I don’t really approve of something where an audience’s enjoyment is based on their knowledge of the movie. With something like Lily Dare, the assumption is that 99 percent of the audience has never seen Frisco Jenny or The Sin of Madelon Claudet or—they all have similar titles—The Secret of Madame Blanche. It doesn’t matter, you can just enjoy it as a good yarn. And thank God for Google—to be able to look for restaurants in San Francisco that were open before 1906. Because if I’m going to use an anachronism it is very deliberate.
What about the plays that didn’t feature a role for yourself, notably The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife?
I’ve written a number of them and, honestly, it’s frustrated me that my only Broadway play was that. And it’s not for lack of trying. A play of mine that we did at Primary Stages a few years ago, Olive and the Bitter Herbs, got some of the biggest laughs in my career, but critics didn’t really care for it. I don’t know, I sometimes spend useless time in rumination of “Did I make the wrong choice, did I take the wrong path there?” And where is it gonna get you? The thing about my career is that I’ve earned a nice living just by doing exactly what I wanted to do and had fun doing it. And I guess it is too late to start bitching about what might have been.
Is the movie version of Allergist’s Wife still happening?
Oh, that movie project has dragged on. I can’t say it is not going to happen, but there’s certainly no activity at the moment. I have several plays that I’d like to write in different styles—always a million notions for film parodies. There’s an Irish parody that I’ve been intermittently working on, and another autobiographical play that that I’ve done research on. What I do get excited about is being in movies. Some of the most creative experiences in my whole life have been making movies like Die Mommy Die! So, Carl and I have a new idea for a movie that we hope to do next year. It’s a zany contemporary caper movie starring Julie Halston and me, and that we hope to shoot in my apartment!
Is it true you’re writing your memoirs?
Oh, I have been working on it for so many years! The idea was that it will be more memoir than celebrity autobiography, because I’m not that well known. But I think I have a very interesting story. My aunt who raised me was a fascinating figure; I think she’s very much in the tradition of aunt literature from Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly to David Copperfield’s Aunt Betsey Trotwood to Travels with my Aunt and Auntie Mame. And, of course, there are the different worlds that I’ve been a part of—the East Village of the ‘80s—and there’s this story of a young person wanting so desperately to be in the theater and realizing that there’s no was no place for him in a traditional career and having to just invent one. I think I’m rather fearless as a dramatist—I just keep going and nothing seems to stop me—but I’m much more vulnerable as a prose writer. So, it’s dragged out a lot, but finally I think I see the end is near.
Do you think that your work has influenced artists of succeeding generations just as Charles Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theatre inspired you?
I guess so. Seeing Charles Ludlum when I was at such an impressionable age, it was cataclysmic the way it changed my perspective of the possibilities of who I could be. And I meet young people who say that I have that effect on them. With this play—Carl was just saying the other night—it was great to see young gay people in our audience who just seem overwhelmed. I think it is a lovely thing—it doesn’t happen too often it seems—that we have a new generation of young gay kids being exposed to the kind of humor and see generations of gay men sitting together and sharing a laugh.
Is there a confession of Charles Busch?
Really, it took me a while to understand that everything you write is personal and that even though it would seem like just a spoof of an old movie genre it is actually very autobiographical, and I’m often the last person to realize it. I think this play is a confession of Charles Busch, maybe you have to look a little deeper.
Review: Timon of Athens Takes Arms Against the Ravages of Wealth
The singular nature of this play, brought to life by Kathryn Hunter’s exceptional lead performance, is reason enough to see this production.
As Timon, re-gendered as female for Simon Godwin’s Timon of Athens, the diminutive Kathryn Hunter is all sharp elbows and shoulders. Throughout, she enriches her expert handling of Shakespeare’s language with extraordinary physical expressiveness. When she dances on a banquet table, beaming in a golden gown, you’ll be rapt. And you may never forget the moment where, scowling and given over to hatred, her Timon drags a dining chair as big as her onto the stage, her snow-white garment doused in blood.
Timon, a rich Athenian, lavishes gifts on her friends until she goes into terrible debt. No one helps her, so she turns her back on humanity, taking to the woods to live as a misanthrope. In an unsubtle reversal, her golden world of opulence and excess gives way to a barren anti-Arden where she will die alone in a cave, cursing mankind. In Timon’s prime, Hunter throws her long, slender arms wide in absolute welcome and seems always on the verge of an embrace; later, in the forest scenes, those same arms seem wretched: They have to dig, scratch, and fight, turning all her elegant gestures into disturbing movements worthy of Andy Serkis’s Gollum.
Another highlight of the show, now playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, is the production design (the sets and costumes are both by Soutra Gilmour). The early scenes take place in a great banquet hall, chandeliered and blazing golden light. Before the performance begins, the audience is treated to a lively mini-concert while Timon’s household staff brings around trays of hors d’oeuvres, fun little perks that charm us, drawing us into her largesse. Timon and her guests dress all in black and gold, in outfits ranging from the glamorous to the absurdly gaudy. The rad, ridiculous feathered shrugs worn by Sempronius (Daniel Pearce), for example, perfectly capture the decadence of the group that hangs around Timon’s house.
The play’s forest scenes, where a column of black stage curtain makes up the trunk of a great, dark tree, leave that golden world behind. From the rafters, an immense, menacing bough hangs on chains, its bare branches extending toward the audience like a terrible, misshapen hand. And in the front of the stage is a pit, like a grave, for Timon, now dressed in filthy rags, to dig, fight, and rail against the world in. Rarely has it felt so exciting to first enter a theater space, and rarely so foreboding to return after intermission.
Timon of Athens can be a slog, so Godwin is to be commended for a streamlined production that’s consistently engaging. Repetitive scenes that are separate in the text of the play are braided together, yet kept distinct by clever lighting effects and the way the actors simulate slow motion and being frozen. But there’s a tradeoff here, as these effects, while clever, can also be corny. More importantly, the production cuts an early scene where Alcibiades (Elia Monte-Brown) pleads unsuccessfully for the life of a comrade who’s been sentenced to death. For her persistence in the matter, she’s banished from Athens. While it’s admirable that the production casts female actors as both Timon and Alcibiades, particularly since this is the play with the fewest lines spoken by female roles in all of Shakespeare, the streamlined nature of the production has the unfortunate effect of flattening out Alcibiades’s character and underutilizing Monte-Brown, who brings a fresh and angry fervor to the role.
Timon of Athens has been called Shakespeare’s strangest play. Believed to have been written in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, a contemporary with a darker, more cynical sensibility, it has a nastier tone than you might expect, and, while in many ways a tragedy, it withholds, in the end, the relief of tragic catharsis. Certain Shakespearean hallmarks, such as an emphasis on family relationships, are absent as well. The play’s design is conspicuously schematic, and the rough state of the text has led some scholars to believe that it’s unfinished.
The paradox of Timon of Athens, however, is that the strangest Shakespeare play, which seems so unlike him, somehow also seems like the ultimate form of his literary expression—uncut Shakespeare, so to speak. In his classic 1949 study The Wheel of Fire, G. Wilson Knight set this ostensible outlier at the center of the canon, and, more recently, Kiernan Ryan’s Shakespeare’s Universality found in Timon’s misanthropic detachment the key to what he considers Shakespeare’s defining literary quality: his radical, as opposed to reactionary, universality. Absent the usual trappings—the complications of romantic love, cross dressing and mistaken identity, multiple plot strands to untangle—there’s nothing here to distract us from Timon’s brutal speeches late in the play, and some of the darkest lines in all of Shakespeare. Take, for example, the twisted epitaph Timon writes for himself: “My long sickness, of health and living now begins to mend, and nothing brings me all things.”
The singular nature of this play, brought to life by Hunter’s exceptional lead performance, is reason enough to see this production. Another is the wonderful music: For much of the show, from the back of the stage, a live trio (Chris Biesterfeldt, Philip Coiro, and Joshua Johnson) performs a generous number of slinky Greek tunes arranged for drums, clarinet, guitar, and bouzouki. As the Greek Singer, Kristen Misthopoulos joins them on several numbers and also delivers a memorable rendition of the mysterious, metaphysical Sonnet 53, set to music by Michael Bruce: “What is your substance,” it begins, “whereof are you made, that millions of strange shadows on you tend?” In a nice touch, a copy of the poem is provided as a program insert so that, after the show, you can replay the musical performance in your mind and ponder the intertext between the sonnet and the strangest Shakespeare play.
Timon of Athens runs from January 11—February 9 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
Under the Radar 2020: The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, Not I, & More
Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder.
Most of the plays I see in New York City are created by able-bodied, Anglophone playwrights. (More often than not they’re men, and more often than not they’re white.) For most New York theater critics, most of the time, “international” means “imported from London.” If it doesn’t, it probably means “directed by Ivo van Hove.” But at the Under the Radar Festival, the Public Theater’s 16-year-old annual international theatrical extravaganza, the thoughtfully curated program of new works blasts apart the predictable comfort of knowing what you’re getting yourself into.
Despite the relentless pace, marathoning in a festival setting like Under the Radar works against the critical impulse to get in and get out. Lingering in playing spaces beyond the curtain call to soak in the experience and seeking threads of connections between plays before cementing my verdict on any are rarer opportunities than I’d realized.
Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival—especially taking in shows at high quantity in quick succession—replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder. I haven’t adored every offering at this year’s festival, but, in each theater space, I’ve been keenly, refreshingly alert to my presence and my perspective as an audience member, to the ways in which I hear and watch and engage. I’ve looked sideways as well as dead ahead, and over the weekend, I saw two performances that required lengthy, committed conversations with the strangers sitting next to me. (And that’s especially valuable for critics, who sometimes need the reminder that other people’s opinions coexist alongside ours.)
This year’s lineup of plays has been particularly successful in making audiences acutely aware of themselves as a whole, as people who lug assumptions and anxieties and uncertainties into their seats. Take The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the first play I saw this season and the festival’s most rewarding in its complexity. Throughout its hour-long run time, I had occasionally taken note of a long strip of yellow tape at the front of the playing space. During the play, the four actors, all of whom are neurodivergent and play characters who are neurodivergent, frequently step up to that line to speak to the audience. I imagined the line as a necessary, neon beacon for the performers to find their way forward.
Yet, in the final moments of the play, actor Simon Laherty (who also co-wrote the script with his castmates and other members of the Back to Back Theatre, an Australian company), tears the tape off the floor and exits. The gesture reads as a direct rebuke to the very ideas I’d been holding for the play’s duration: It seems to ask, ”Who are you to assume that the world of this play was built for its performers instead of for the characters they play? How can you, sitting there, decide what we, putting on a show for you up here, need in order to perform?” And I wondered, not for the first time: How did they read my mind?
Directed by Back to Back’s artistic director, Bruce Gladwin, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes stars four performers with disabilities playing characters (with their own first names) who host a sort of town hall meeting to educate the people in attendance about what it’s like to have a disability. The shared names between characters and actors are a red herring. These actors have disabilities, yes, but that doesn’t mean the characters with disabilities they play are them, any more than neurotypical roles match the neurotypical actors playing them. Again and again, through moves so subtle I’m not sure I didn’t imagine them, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes sets graceful, invisible traps for the audience’s assumptions about the capabilities of the performers and the distance between performer and character. And while I’m not entirely sure of the title’s meaning, it might have something to do with the play’s constant shadowy evasion of comforting resolutions: Never once is an audience member allowed to feel like they have mastered the art of empathy.
An early sequence seems deliberate in putting an audience on edge, as the long stretches of silence as actor Sarah Mainwaring prepares to speak made me wonder whether it was the actor or the character who had forgotten her lines. Was this discomforting silence performed or real? It’s part of the play, of course, just like most of neurotypical theater’s long pauses. But I feel sure that The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes anticipated my discomfort and my doubt. That dark cocktail of emotions following the clarifying moments—relieved admiration for the performers, guilt for the assumptions I had made, embarrassment that I had been caught feeling uneasy—stayed with me for the rest of the play’s rich hour.
In that regard, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is very much about the audience, and there’s nimble, layered playfulness as the characters obsess around whether the imagined audience at the town hall meeting are understanding their message. And while some of the sections of the text work better than others (I’m not sure about the suggestion that everyone will be deemed disabled when artificial intelligence overtakes human thought), the actors also engage brilliantly with the supertitles, which are supposedly transcribed live at the meeting by Siri. Supertitles seem at first like a tool for us, the audience, to understand the performers’ speech. As Scott Price laments, “I have autism, and, unfortunately for me, I also have a thick Australian accent.” But the projected text also doubles as a symbol for the dehumanization of people on the spectrum. “You can tell we have disabilities as everything we say comes upon a screen,” Sarah notes with disdain. “The subtitling is offensive.”
This point of view leads to a heated argument about language and representation, with Scott claiming the label of disability: “I’m a disabled person here and I’m proud and I don’t want to weave my way around language.” But there’s no unified front in how these four characters perceive themselves and seek to be perceived.
Perhaps the play’s sharpest touch is that Michael and Scott talk down to Simon, describing him as “very childlike” and insinuating that he can’t understand what’s going on or fully participate in the meeting. Sarah calls them out on this (“You’re talking like Simon’s not even in the room”), and it’s not just an indictment of how individuals with disabilities can be dehumanized to their faces but also an illuminating glance into how internalized measures of normalcy have permeated the disability community. This quartet of characters doesn’t include heroes or victims or saints and the play relishes in catching the audience in the act of attaching such labels to the performers. It’s a play I want to see again in order to try again, to use what I’ve learned from my first encounter with Back to Back to do better the next time.
If The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes invites us to project imagined limitations on to the performers and then to watch those assumptions crumble, the creator of Samuel Beckett’s Not I at BRIC (the Brooklyn venue hosting this show) wants us to know exactly what to expect from the beginning. Yes, this is a performance—and an exhilarating one—of Beckett’s 15-minute, stream-of-consciousness monologue, first performed in 1972, but this production positions the piece at the center of a conversation with the performer, Jess Thom.
Thom, who’s best known in the U.K. for Touretteshero, an alter ego aimed at educating and spreading awareness of Tourette’s syndrome, has a number of repeating verbal tics that spark from her speech: Among the most frequent are “biscuit,” “sausage,” and “I love cats,” plus a few words and phrases that aren’t quite so “cute,” as Thom describes them. Unlike The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the sense of unpredictability here is shared by the performers. A few times throughout the day, Thom explains, she will lose control over her body and speech, and this possibility creates a space of “genuine jeopardy.”
Such pre-show disclaimers are neither warnings nor apologies but a crucial aspect of Thom’s central work here: envisioning a truly inclusive performance space and then co-creating that space with her audience. There are no surprises in Not I. Thom explains, in detail, that her wheelchair will be lifted eight feet into the air atop a hydraulic lift; that only her mouth will be lit (as in all productions of Beckett’s monologue); that an ASL interpreter (the warmly expressive Lindsey D. Snyder) will sign every word of Beckett’s explosively high-velocity text, plus each unexpected tic along the way; that the post-performance experiences will include watching a video, discussing the monologue with a stranger, and participating in a Q&A.
The audience sits on padded benches and pillows on the floor, and Thom invites people to move and make noise during the piece as needed. An online guide to the performance even includes a sound map, alerting audience members to patches of loud noise, like applause and a section of the monologue featuring terrifying screams. With its shrieks and terrorizing, relentless intensity, Not I certainly defies expectations for the sorts of theater pieces that tend to offer relaxed, inclusive performances. But by reclaiming the character of Mouth through the lens of disability, Thom has made the jumbled thoughts of the character suddenly specific and, if not quite understandable, accessible through empathy.
Though Beckett meant for Not I to unnerve its auditors with its impenetrableness, Thom uses the text to grant entry into her own experiences of losing control over her own speech and movement. Thom’s tics remain present throughout the monologue, absorbed into the labyrinthine, spontaneous stitches of Mouth’s words. In fact, as Thom explained in the Q&A section, the tics actually multiply to fill the spaces between breakneck sections of monologue; the speed with which she articulates the text temporarily displaces her tics, “like a stone in water,” but they flow back in during Beckett’s indicated silences. “My version of silence,” Thom clarified, often sounds like eight or 10 “biscuits” in a row. If we can embrace and understand the charismatic, wisecracking Thom, we should be able to extend that compassion toward embracing and understanding her version of Mouth too.
After the performance of Beckett’s monologue, Thom sits on the floor as a short video about the making of this piece plays. In the video, Thom attributes her emergence as a performer to the exclusion and isolation she experiences as an audience member: on-stage seemed to be “the only seat in the house I wouldn’t be asked to leave.” And even as we hear her words, their truth immediately confirms itself: It’s only during this section of the performance—a few minutes in which Thom herself is not visible as she sits in the dark—that I reverted to experiencing Thom’s tics as disruption or interruption. At the exact moment I was nodding along with the video’s celebration of inclusive theatrical spaces, I was simultaneously sensing my own flashes of concern or maybe frustration or maybe fear that someone sitting beside me in the darkness was breaking the sacred rules of stillness and silence. With love and warmth and unvarying good humor, Thom manages to shine a glaring, pointed spotlight on our own limitations as compassionate stewards of the spaces we strive to co-inhabit. Then she asks us to look around the room and gives us the chance, right then and there, to change.
The limitations of the human intellect—and the human spirit—are put to the test in Grey Rock, an English-language commission by Palestinian playwright-director Amir Nizar Zuabi which premiered at La MaMa a year ago. Zuabi’s play, besides being performed in English, boasts an instantly recognizable form: It’s a family comedy, actually one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while, with a bittersweetness that calls to mind, in a very different geopolitical context, Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.
Lila (Fidaa Zaidan) is perplexed that her father, the widower Yusuf (Khalifa Natour), has suddenly started working out vigorously. Why the sudden focus on getting in shape? At first she thinks he’s seeing someone new—it’s been three years since her mother died—but that doesn’t explain why he’s also spending hours assembling mechanical parts in his shed with a brilliant young engineer, Fadel (Ivan Kevork Azazian). Yusuf’s plan, it turns out, is to build a rocket to the moon, a feat that will put Palestinian fortitude and ingenuity on the map.
It’s in Yusuf’s very insistence that his rocket-building is about humanity rather than political conflict that Zuabi’s play becomes, in fact, forcefully political. Much like The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes foretells the audience’s expectations of the performers’ failures, Grey Rock anticipates the need for viewers to see conflict and war in every image and line of dialogue with Palestine attached to it.
Israel is a reality in the world of Grey Rock, of course, and one which diminishes what some of these characters think they can become: Fadel describes the Israeli forces as “stop signs for the imagination” and Yusuf later tells Lila’s ill-matched fiancé Jawad (Alaa Shehada), “You have the occupation [as] your excuse for your lack of creativity.” But Zuabi seems less interested in using the play to protest the Israeli presence in Palestine than in advocating for a Palestinian uprising of imagination and creativity in the face of dehumanization. There’s an aspect of 21st-century fairy tale to Grey Rock’s structure and plot twists, but the play remains grounded enough to suggest real-world pathways forward for oppressed peoples to dream big. (The fact that these performers, who all identify as Palestinian, have overcome complex visa hurdles to perform in New York twice in the span of a year, is a dream realized already.) Except for the final scene (a tonal shift that doesn’t entirely pay off), Grey Rock keeps the darkness at bay. The Israeli occupying forces are a constant off-stage presence, an invisible menace that the characters must sometimes ignore in order to live and shape their own stories.
Most of the story careens through amusingly familiar tropes, but it’s a familiarity that seems to be there by design. I think I would have found Grey Rock just as absorbing in supertitled Arabic, but there’s something appealing in the transparency with which it draws us in. The play was written for English speakers, with the intention of exposing the ordinary vibrancy of quotidian Palestinian existence. Knowing some of the well-trodden arcs of the plot in advance narrows the space between Anglophone audiences and the world they encounter.
Zuabi is a far nimbler writer than director; the play’s magnetic energy only diminishes in its awkwardly staged moments of physical comedy and occasionally rudderless transitions between scenes. But his dialogue briskly fleshes out his five characters, who also include the village’s anxious imam (Motaz Malhees). There’s a particularly delightful rapport between Natour’s gruff stargazer and Azazian’s overeager yet tentative assistant.
Beyond the crisp comedy, the relationship between Yusuf and his beloved, aspiring daughter Lila feels almost operatic in its balance of tenderness and tumult: Lila harbors years of resentment that her father allowed himself to be jailed for anti-occupation propaganda, leaving her mother to raise Lila independently for five years. When Yusuf leaps to his feet jubilantly upon hearing that Lila’s broken off her engagement, and then tries to backtrack his demonstrativeness, it’s both hilarious and sweetly moving.
I’m not sure if Zuabi deliberately snuck in one particular idiom for this festival run: “I order things in small quantities so I go under the radar,” Yusuf says, explaining his rocket-in-progress to an ever-expanding community of supporters. But to go Under the Radar, the Public has ordered up a series of shows which are anything but small in their expansive commitment to transforming audiences, preparing them to be more perceptive, empathetic people, perhaps even in time for the next performance.
Under the Radar runs from January 8—19.
The Best Theater of 2019
This was the year of playwrights saying what they mean.
This was the year of playwrights saying what they mean. Of writers like Heidi Schreck (What the Constitution Means to Me) putting their own stories, or some version of themselves, right up there on the stage. Of writers like Stephen Adly Guirgis (Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven) and Donja R. Love (one in two) demanding that audiences take note, listen, and do something. Of writers like Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play) and Jackie Sibblies Drury (Fairview) putting it all out there, all of it, and leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces and make sense of what they’ve seen.
Even if that brutal honesty made it all the way to Broadway, it didn’t permeate musicals with the same lucidity yet. The deadly parade of jukebox musicals continues, and most new scores, especially on Broadway, have also been dismayingly shallow. Much of the best—and most honest—theater in New York this season came from playwrights and directors of color, with texts both present and past (with powerful revivals of Ntozake Shange, Anna Deavere Smith, Lynn Nottage). Yet, despite the more diverse programming of the city’s leading nonprofits, there are the same number of new plays premiering in the 2019-2020 Broadway season by Tracy Letts, one individual person, as by playwrights of color (it’s just Jeremy O. Harris and Matthew Lopez). (The same goes for female playwrights as only Bess Wohl and Rona Munro have new plays premiering.)
If Slave Play’s appearance on super-safe, hit-me-baby-with-one-more-jukebox Broadway, in all that play’s harrowing, shocking glory, is the transformative, theatrical event of the year, the persistently white forecast for 2020’s biggest stages is a painful twist worthy of Harris. What’s most promising about New York theater is also what’s most frightening: As Harris himself told Playbill this year, “we’re also not doing the work of social justice if we pretend that there wasn’t a history of immediately erasing the hard work of putting women and people of color on stages—there’s always a renaissance and then it disappears.”
As this list of the best New York theatrical productions of 2019 suggests, it’s up to nonprofits like the Public Theater, the Signature Theatre, the Atlantic Theater Company, and Theatre for a New Audience to ensure that this renaissance leads to an extended enlightenment.
The American Tradition (New Light Theater Project)
The other anachronistic “slave play” this year, The American Tradition largely slipped under the radar at the 13th Street Repertory Company, where it ran briefly in February. But Ray Yamanouchi’s biting play, staged with breathless momentum by Axel Avin Jr., was just as caustic and challenging, even if it lacked some of Slave Play’s haunting ambiguity. Surrounded by language dripping with satire, light-skinned Eleanor (Sydney Cole Alexander) disguises as a white man to get herself and her husband (Martin K. Lewis) to freedom. Without abandoning its Antebellum setting, The American Tradition makes some of the same deep cuts at 21st-century white wokeness that Slave Play does, with its send-up of an abolitionist who insists he doesn’t see color. Danie Steel’s seething performance as an enslaved woman forced to memorize a speech of praise for her master has especially stuck with me throughout this year. There’s room for more than one play in New York City about the relentless legacies of slavery, and The American Tradition continues that conversation with chaotic clarity.
Buried (New York Musical Festival)
Sometimes extraordinary things come in small packages. Buried, written a few years ago by undergraduates at the University of Sheffield, boasts a darkly gorgeous folk score and a charmingly creepy romance between two serial killers who give up their mutual habit of offing their blind dates once they find each other. It’s a bonkers Bonnie and Clyde-like premise, but Cordelia O’Driscoll’s haunting melodies (bolstered by Olivia Doust’s lovely orchestrations) transform psychopathy into sweet, wry romance. And it’s a nice surprise to encounter smart lyric writing, a collaboration here between O’Driscoll and Tom Williams. Let’s hope Buried, which had a five-performance run at the New York Musical Festival, doesn’t stay underground for long.
Choir Boy (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)
For Tarell Alvin McCraney, Broadway has been a long time coming. An Oscar winner for Moonlight and the author of the acclaimed Brother/Sister Plays, he’s also the chair of playwriting at Yale School of Drama (from which Slave Play’s Jeremy O. Harris just graduated). But Choir Boy, in its at-last Broadway iteration, was an unsettling and playful examination of queerness at a historically black boarding school. Animated by wrenching and exuberant singing (arrangements from Jason Michael Webb) and exhilarating step routines (choreography from Camille A. Brown), Choir Boy may well have had the most effective musical moments of any play or musical this year, including a heartbreaking locker room chorale of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” But the story itself—anchored by Jeremy Pope’s defiantly beautiful central performance and Trip Cullman’s intense direction—paints a deeply compelling picture of what it takes to survive.
Coriolanus (Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater)
After reading it a couple times and seeing one burdensome production outside New York last year, I’d all but written Coriolanus off as a Shakespeare play too philosophically knotty to be staged coherently or compellingly. I was proven wrong by Daniel Sullivan’s breathless, crystalline production. Jonathan Cake’s performance in the title role of a would-be consul of Rome who can’t hide his disdain for the common people made psychologically legible each of Coriolanus’s politically incomprehensible choices. Kate Burton made Coriolanus’s mother a ferocious powerhouse of a match for her firebrand son. And as the cunning tribunes, Jonathan Hadary and Enid Graham laid bare a hypocrisy that’s all too familiar: Even the politicians who claim to value the voices of the citizens are still manipulating the people they claim to serve every step of the way. One of four Public Theater productions on this list, Coriolanus’s insightful, incisive reifying is a perfect example of the Public’s grippingly relevant output.
Fairview (Theatre for a New Audience)
Perhaps Fairview, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, shouldn’t count for a 2019 roundup, since it premiered at the Soho Rep in summer 2018 before transferring to Theatre for a New Audience with the same cast and creative team a year later. But every performance of Fairview—a play as much about the audience as the characters—is a different experience. What seems at first like an undemanding comedy about an African-American family morphs violently, first when we watch the opening scene again from the perspective of four white viewers and then when those white bodies invade the stage, enacting their fantasies of black existence. For the play’s final monologue, the white members of the audience are asked to switch places with the actors of color on stage, to feel themselves being watched and surveyed. In the months since Fairview, I’ve wondered whether participating in that physical act lets white audience members off the hook too easily, especially given how few people of color were left in the seats the night I saw the show: Have the tables really turned or only the angle of observation? But in its provoking structure and its thoughtful transgression of the norms of performing and being an audience member, few shows this year struck as deeply as Fairview.
Fires in the Mirror (Signature Theatre)
Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman recounting of the 1991 Crown Heights riot, the apex of a conflict between the black and Jewish communities, received its first major New York City revival at the Signature Theatre, 27 years after its debut. In this incarnation of Smith’s verbatim drama, with text taken from dozens of interviews, it wasn’t a one-woman but a one-man play, with Michael Benjamin Washington shape-shifting between the many characters, ranging from a Hasidic mother to Reverend Al Sharpton. Vocally and physically, Washington breathed new and humanizing life into two worlds of strangers staring at each other over a great divide. Smith’s masterful dramaturgy (and extraordinary story-gathering) still stuns, and the sense of these testimonies passing from voice to voice—from their original speakers to Smith and now to Washington—provided the production with an added layer of poignancy.
Gary (Booth Theatre)
From the moment blood started spurting from her neck in the prologue, Julie White stole the show in Taylor Mac’s shocking, delicious Gary, a madcap sequel to Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy. Even though Nathan Lane was an amply amusing headliner, White and co-star Kristine Nielsen elevated Mac’s farting-corpse comedy to dizzying slapstick heights. And, somehow, amid the blank verse and zippy zaniness, Mac also unfurled a pointed pacifist message about the meaningless messiness of war. Perhaps Mac, a celebrated performance artist and playwright who uses the pronoun “judy,” asked a lot from absurdism-wary Broadway audiences in judy’s most mainstream outing to date, especially with the deep-cut Shakespearean in-jokes. But Gary, despite its naysayers, achieved its goal of giving gas its own grotesque gravity.
Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven (Atlantic Theater Company)
One of the year’s saddest plays, and also quite possibly its funniest, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is a brutal, big-hearted landscape study of a New York City halfway house from Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Motherfucker with the Hat, among other attention-getting titles). What’s most impressive about Guirgis’s sprawling play, which also features a cameo by a live goat, is how he gives full life and rich, specific language to each of eighteen characters. His gift for using large-scale ensemble scenes to instantly, meticulously develop characters and shade in relationship histories is unrivaled. And what a cast, with particularly shimmering performances from Elizabeth Rodriguez as the dauntless director of the residence, Liza Colón-Zayas as a hurting, harassing veteran, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes (also excellent in New York Theater Workshop’s runboyrun and In Old Age earlier this fall) as a long-forgotten film star. With unafraid humor, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven serves a generous helping of humanity.
King Lear (Cort Theatre)
This was a production more sinned against than sinning. Though I may be in the critical minority for adoring Sam Gold’s abstract, perhaps overly academic King Lear, I found it to be an eye-opening vision for Shakespeare’s most engulfing tragedy. Hard to follow for newcomers to the play itself? For sure (I don’t begrudge the King Lear neophytes sitting near me who left at intermission), but what a collection of performances: Ruth Wilson’s heartbreaking dual portraits of Cordelia and the Fool (a mainstay original casting theory from King Lear scholarship working wonders in action); the sometimes-justified charismatic cruelty of Elizabeth Marvel and Aisling O’Sullivan as Goneril and Regan; John Douglas Thompson as a cantankerous, devoted Kent; and the deaf actor Russell Harvard as the Duke of Cornwall, accompanied by an interpreter (Michael Arden). Gold’s casting choices tightened the dramaturgy: When Cornwall killed that servant, he lost his “ears” in the same scene that Gloucester (Jayne Houdyshell) literally lost her eyes. And, most centrally, having seen Glenda Jackson play Lear in an utterly incoherent production (not directed by Gold) at London’s Old Vic in 2016, I was astonished by the newfound wit, anger, and ferociousness in Jackson’s second look at the role.
Little Shop of Horrors (Westside Theater)
Unlike the revisions and reinventions of other musical revivals this year (Kiss Me, Kate, Oklahoma!, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish), Michael Mayer’s giddy production of Little Shop of Horrors is just a really, really good staging of the show that heightens everything you’ve always loved about it. Jonathan Groff gave a delightfully nerdy performance as Seymour Krelborn (he’s soon to be replaced by Gideon Glick) with Tammy Blanchard a tender and tenacious Audrey. Mayer’s direction reveals, much like Seymour’s own transformation, a diamond in the rough: Little Shop of Horrors is a magnificent mixture of ridiculous dark comedy and, somehow beneath the carnivorous leaves and thirst for blood, sweetness. The cast’s superb rendering of Alan Menken’s score (and Howard Ashman’s witty lyrics) has also been captured on a recently released recording, and if you can’t make it to the tiny Westside Theater before the show closes in March, it’s worth the listen.
The Michaels (Public Theater)
The eighth play in Richard Nelson’s Rhinebeck Panorama detailing episodes in family’s lives in the Hudson Valley, The Michaels is as gorgeous, subtle, and quietly perfect (or perfectly quiet) as any production staged in New York this year. Calmly riveting, the play takes place basically in real time as the glued-together fragments of a family (plus a visiting friends) cook and eat dinner. On the one hand, it’s a glistening portrait into the world of modern dance: Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell) has come home to recreate the legendary choreography of her mother, the ailing Rose Michaels (Brende Wehle), for a tribute performance. Nelson beautifully weaves patches of dining-room dancing into the play. But the play’s tensest conflicts lie between the present and the past, as Rose battles her once-buoyant body, and her girlfriend Kate (an astonishing Maryann Plunkett) contends with the ever-present memories of Rose’s longtime partner. Nelson masterfully delivers the richness of whole lives wrestling with the passage of time, distilled into the duration of a single dinner.
Mojada (Public Theater)
Luis Alfaro’s Mojada migrates the Medea myth to present-day Queens in a terrifying, literarily inevitable unspooling of an undocumented woman’s battle to preserve her family and her dignity. In the Public Theater’s production, Chay Yew’s fluid staging intermingled Mikhail Fiksel’s vital sound design with Alfaro’s poetic text, brought to life especially by Sabina Zúñiga Varela in the title role and Socorro Santiago as a wry Greek chorus of a domestic worker. A flashback sequence to the family’s frightening escape across the border was probably among this year’s most horrifying, tense stretches of drama (along, perhaps, with the final scenes of Slave Play and Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!). In Alfaro’s assured hands, the mythical and the modern meld powerfully, yet another win for the Public’s superb track record of marrying the classic and the contemporary.
Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater)
Shakespeare’s seldom made this much sense. In Kenny Leon’s glorious production of Much Ado About Nothing, Messina is transformed into 2020 Georgia at the height of Stacey Abrams’s (fictitious) presidential campaign. Leon’s resetting felt so special not just because of its all-black cast or potent use of music throughout, but because each line of Shakespeare’s text blossomed as if dug out and replanted in a brand-new garden. I’ve rarely seen a Shakespeare production that felt as freshly explored, and I’ve also never seen an audience allowed to receive a Shakespeare play with such total comfort and confidence in the language’s accessibility. Leading the phenomenal cast in conversational clarity was Orange Is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks, a sweet, salty, stunning Beatrice. And the best news for fans of Shakespeare (or strangers to Shakespeare) who missed the show: It was filmed for PBS’s Great Performances and is available to watch here.
Native Son (The Duke on 42nd Street)
The Acting Company moved into the Duke on 42nd Street this summer, running Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son in repertory. While Measure for Measure was uninspired, and the repertorial combination didn’t add much to either play, Native Son triumphed. A tense, taut terror ride, directed with careening force by Seret Scott and centered around two major performances—Galen Ryan Kane, seething and sorrowful as Bigger Thomas, and Jason Bowen as the violent spirit of the Black Rat that Bigger feels society pressuring him toward—this production never let up in momentum. Despite the 1940s setting, this adaptation distills the distancing near-century of racial oppression into a shocking 90-minute thriller that felt, in this fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat staging, bracingly immediate.
one in two (The New Group, Signature Theatre)
Written during the height of Donja R. Love’s struggle with depression as he approached his 10th anniversary of living with HIV, one in two is a work which rends its author’s identity apart into three figures, all queer black men tasked with telling the tragic—but does it have to be?—story of an HIV-positive man. At each performance, audience applause selects which actor will take on which role, bringing to life the lottery of being a queer black man in America, the unimaginable statistic that one in two gay or bisexual black men will contract HIV in their lifetimes. That’s the only chance for applause the audience gets: In an arresting dramaturgical move, there’s no curtain call, just a silent exodus from the theater as the actors stare up at the ever-increasing tally of diagnoses. It’s a riveting, riotous play that pierces with its sense of vital urgency and its unwillingness to follow the rules.
The Rose Tattoo (American Airlines Theater)
For audiences familiar with Tennessee Williams’s best-known classics, Serafina Delle Rose’s happy ending seems hardly likely to happen. But Marisa Tomei’s take on the young widow Serafina refuses to succumb to her loneliness like Tom Wingfield or Brick or Stanley Kowalski, the tragic heroes of other Williams works. If The Rose Tattoo is a tonal rollercoaster, it relies on its central actress to prevent the play from riding off the rails: Tomei delivered, offering a shape-shifting performance oscillating from joy to grief and back to passionate hope. Partnered brilliantly with the Scottish actor Emun Elliott, Tomei transformed The Rose Tattoo into a spirited, deeply funny tour de force. Director Trip Cullman (Choir Boy) decorated this production with healthy dollops of physical comedy and a warm mist of candle-lighting and Italian song.
Slave Play (Golden Theatre)
I haven’t stopped thinking or talking about Slave Play since I saw it nearly three months ago. And that’s very definitely the point. More than any play I’ve seen this year—maybe ever—it’s come up in conversation again and again, not just because I want to recommend it (which I do), but because I’m still wrestling with it. Jeremy O. Harris’s unanswered questions have also burrowed deep, unsettling the norms of theatergoing: A viral video of a white audience member screaming at Harris as he calmly hears her out in a post-show talkback pretty much sums up the revelatory detonation this play has become. But what’s most admirable about Slave Play remains that, stripped of all the noise outside and around the play, it’s still a thoughtful, honest story about four interracial couples learning how to listen to their partners and taking terrible risks to be heard.
The Sound Inside (Studio 54)
Though The Sound Inside is a play that doesn’t demand a Broadway-sized house, it certainly deserves one; a mesmerizing miniature, it’s perhaps the best new play on Broadway in 2019. Starring Mary-Louise Parker (in her first of two Broadway lead roles this season), this small-scale gem tells the story of Bella Lee Baird, a Yale professor who asks for a shocking favor from a student. Both teacher and students are novelists and their fiction works blend blurrily into their lives. This is as much a play about writing as a play about people, and I was wholly won over by the sense that Bella is shifting and shaping the story the audience receives. Parker is devastating as an unreliable narrator wrestling with the power she alone has to reveal or conceal the truth.
What the Constitution Means to Me (Helen Hayes Theater)
When the national tour of What the Constitution Means to Me takes off in January, it will be the first time playwright Heidi Schreck hasn’t also performed the central role. It’s hard to imagine the piece without her. After all, this play is her, as Schreck recounts her experience as a teenager entering constitutional debate competitions for college tuition cash and then describes, through scintillating monologue and conversations with onstage companions, how her understanding of the constitution’s impact on women and American identity has evolved. The play peaks with a face-off between Schreck and a real-live NYC high school debater (I saw the brilliant Thursday Williams) before asking each other questions provided by the audience. A moving model of what it looks like to listen deeply to other people’s stories, in a season filled with painful questions, What the Constitution Means to Me was the rare play that softly started to offer answers.
Review: The Inheritance Is a Radical, If Short-Sighted, Take on Howards End
The Inheritance’s attempt to speak for everyone muddies its ability to speak clearly to anyone.
“Helen’s one aim is to translate tunes into the language of painting, and pictures into the language of music,” Margaret Schlegel complains of her sister in E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End. “If Monet’s really Debussy, and Debussy’s really Monet, neither gentleman is worth his salt—that’s my opinion.” And—to take Margaret’s argument a step farther—if Forster is really Lopez, and Lopez is really Forster, are either of those gentlemen worth their salt? The Lopez in question is Matthew Lopez, an American playwright whose nearly seven-hour adaptation of Howards End, The Inheritance, took London by storm last season, capturing the Olivier Award for best play.
Lopez told Vulture last month that he considers his radical adaptation to be “the ultimate in fan-fiction, basically.” And, considered purely as a work of fan fiction, The Inheritance is a daring feat: Honoring Forster’s queerness (expressed explicitly only in Maurice, a novel published posthumously), Lopez has transformed pretty much every single one of Howards End’s characters into gay men living in New York City before and after the 2016 election.
And, after spending many hours sitting in what feels very much like a theater, we find out at the end of The Inheritance—I saw the play’s two parts back to back in a single day—that we’ve apparently been inside a novel the whole time. A novelist character presents his finished debut draft, and, wouldn’t you know, it’s called The Inheritance. “And this is the book I wrote” may be a familiar conclusion to the coming-of-age story of a would-be writer. However, the mixed-media revelation of the play-within-a-novel structure helps to draw back the curtain on why The Inheritance struggles with its theatricality throughout its overripe running time.
The large all-male ensemble often jovially takes on the roles of narrators, delivering exposition (often with text lifted directly from Howards End) as if they were opening chapters of their own novels. Even after E.M. Forster (Paul Hilton), who self-referentially helps a gathering of young gay men to tell their story in the first half of the play, departs, encouraging the men to tell their own stories, they keep clinging to Forster’s language and style. And while director Stephen Daldry’s staging is simple but consistently attention-holding, with some scattered poetic images, it’s also usually doubling the words of that whirling narration: Daldry wants to show us, but Lopez has already told us, usually more than once.
Howards End is a substantial book, but it’s not an epic, and nothing about this story demands seven hours of storytelling. The size and subject matter of The Inheritance set it up inevitably in conversation, and almost in contest with, Angels in America, even though the two plays have very little else in common. And while I preferred the plottier, less manipulative second part of The Inheritance to its stringier first, I often had the sense that I was seeing the same play twice in one day: Each part has its own over-involved dinner-table political debate where it doesn’t seem to matter which character makes which point; its own 15-minute monologue about the AIDS era, though both are delivered potently and written compellingly; and even its own winking aside about audiences sitting through very, very long plays. Reading Howards End, there’s seldom the same sensation of Forster padding out his pages.
Lopez’s revisionism of Howards End itself is convincingly provocative: If Forster had felt free to write people like him (or, to be more accurate to that time in the author’s life, if he’d felt free to live as someone like himself), what might their stories have been? But part of the novel’s magic is the omniscient narrator’s rigorous empathy: The women in Howards End pulsate with realness more brilliantly than do any of the men, and the novel’s protagonist, Margaret Schlegel, finds her voice and strength wholly unaided by the gentlemen who seek to guide and control her. Reading the book feels less like Forster has gifted his heroine these commanding qualities and more like he’s gotten out of her way so she can display them.
The Inheritance, however, in making up for lost time on behalf of the gay men whose stories Forster failed to tell, doesn’t open the gate any wider. It’s a totally unnecessary shame—and a shock, to be honest—that all five of the principal characters are white. The ensemble of friends who pitch in to tell the story and take on cameo roles is more diverse, but they spend most of the play sitting around the edge of the platform upon which most of the action plays out, handing props to the principals and offering one-line exclamations in response to the scene above them. At one point, the entire stage at the left edge of that platform is populated by actors of color, their perspectives literally sidelined.
In a play that prides itself on letting its characters speak for themselves, it registers as an egregious oversight that the characters of color are required to speak in statistics and taglines for their entire communities. (Even Angels in America, nearly 30 years ago, seems to do better in this regard.) HIV/AIDS matters a lot here in the past tense when its victims are white but not so much in the present when, as one character points out in what feels like a footnote, African-American men who’re gay or bisexual have a one in two chance of contracting the virus. Several characters promise each other to do better and focus on fighting for trans people and people of color, but the play makes no such promises itself.
The absence of women from the stage here, at least, registers as far more deliberate, if not entirely convincing. When the lone female actor, 89-year-old Lois Smith, who made her Broadway debut in 1952, appears in the final half hour of part two to offer her moving (if, by that point, superfluous) monologue, there’s a poignant surprise in seeing the real world reflected again on stage. As a result of these exclusions, The Inheritance’s central exploration is the legacies left between generations of white, cisgender gay men, and the labyrinths through which these men can hurt each other and help each other and love each other.
The Inheritance also focuses entirely on men who feel free to express their queerness openly and unapologetically. Their sexuality isn’t confronted by the outside world, both because the outside world doesn’t seem to exist (except as represented by the unnamed specter of Trump) and because these men are fortunate enough to have constructed lives where the outside world can’t get in. (Dashed-off references to contemporary tragedies—like “Tell that to the kids at Pulse” —resonate more bitterly than silence.) For most of the characters, with one compelling exception, the most serious challenges they face are ones of their own making.
The Inheritance keeps insisting over and over again that the Margaret stand-in, Eric Glass (Kyle Soller), a well-to-do social justice activist, is “remarkable.” Forster himself says so. So does Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey), the middle-aged billionaire (and—shock!—gay Trump donor), whose transposition from the novel works most smoothly, as he falls for Eric. But Soller’s amiable performance fades into the background here; Eric’s remarkable only so far as the other characters insist he is. Why this activist seems to have less agency or power over his own life than the turn-of-the-century woman he’s based on is never explained.
Eric’s also dwarfed by the more extreme men around him. There’s Eric’s monstrously self-absorbed boyfriend, Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap), on his own ill-fated journey of adapting his novel into a play. Toby, a sort of gay Gatsby, is everything Forster couldn’t be, an author who tells stories proudly grounded in his sexual identity (at one point he even calls out the spirit of Forster for his cowardice in staying closeted and keeping his early 20th-century queerness off the shelves). But, Toby discovers, his writing is also superficial and false, and he struggles to drink and drug himself toward honesty. Burnap’s boisterous careening and biting cycles of spiraling are among the play’s more engaging trips, but Toby doesn’t stand still long enough for the end of his storyline to come across quite as tragically as Lopez intends.
Shining brighter than either Eric or Toby, though, is the diptych of Adam and Leo, the filthy rich college student and the homeless sex worker, each played rivetingly by Samuel H. Levine. The introduction of Leo, the one character whose story haunts and never feels excessive, also introduces a real difference in life experience—and, therefore, real dramatic tension—that heats up the play’s second half. In one fleeting scene, Levine’s two characters meet, and the actor grippingly pulls off a conversation between them: Levine’s posture, voice, and affect transform so completely that his one-man dialogue is completely seamless.
That moment also sheds The Inheritance’s novel-like stretchiness, as it’s the rare patch that demands a stage to support it. The other truly theatrical moment arrives at the end of part one, the culmination of the play’s study of how the loss of a generation of gay men deprived gay millennials of mentors and father figures. As Eric steps for the first time into a house that represents that gaping hole in history, something mesmerizing and heartbreaking occurs. Since it’s the main reason to see the play, I won’t spoil it here and just say that its emotional impact would have hit just as hard after 90 tightly wound minutes, rather than three-plus hours. Nor does that impact expand as the play continues for three-plus hours more.
The Inheritance left me with a greater appreciation for a smaller, shorter play that ran earlier this fall, Rattlestick Playwright Theater’s Novenas for a Lost Hospital, which began with an opportunity for audience members to write their memories of the AIDS era on blue butterflies hanging above the stage and ended with a pilgrimage to the New York City AIDS Memorial, where audiences and actors could share stories together. The acknowledgement that one author couldn’t tell every story alone made Novenas a moving, human experience.
Conversely, The Inheritance’s attempt to speak for everyone muddies its ability to speak clearly to anyone. As Margaret tells her sister at the end of Howards End, “Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong forever.” Unlike his most voluminous fan-fiction writer, Forster knew when it was time to scrawl “The End” and move on to the next project.
The Inheritance is now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Review: Slave Play Is a Searing, Satirical Takedown of White Supremacy
In the wake of Slave Play, immediate answers might sound neither comforting nor honest.
Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play simmers in sound: the penetration of anachronistic contemporary music into its early, disturbing pantomimic scenes, the repetitive thrusts of a violin, the climaxing crescendo and acceleration of vibrating, overwhelming electronic noises. It’s a play that demands you never look away—from its floor-to-ceiling mirrors to its graphic depictions of sex acts—exists maybe most profoundly in its aural landscape. (Lindsay Jones is the impactful sound designer.) And if nothing else, it’s one about listening.
That’s not to say that audiences can watch Slave Play with their eyes closed. Coming to terms with what we see when we look at one another—and the impossibility of colorblind connection, even with your most intimate partner—is one of its themes. It’s also a show where you may be drawn to look at those around you. To the extent that that giant full-stage mirror inserts itself into Harris’s play, it’s a useful tool for checking in with the audience: Are they laughing? Are they squirming? And who exactly is doing the laughing or squirming? The mirror doesn’t feel like a metaphor as much as an acknowledgment that Slave Play has become an event—its been slandered, protested, lauded, slammed, idolized—and the experience of attending it feels like being part of a watchable drama in its own right.
But what’s most surprising about Slave Play, given all the hype around it, is what an effective gut-punch of art it is all on its own. In Harris’s debut Broadway outing, the 30-year-old playwright has constructed a searing piece of political theater from the flesh of eight fascinating, fully realized characters. Slave Play teems with the author’s ideas—about race, about relationships, and most centrally about how race shapes relationships—but Harris rolls his thoughts across and off the tongues of his octet so that we seem to see complex, frustrated, oft-insufferable people wrestling with these grand concepts through their own unique despairs. Each unhappy couple in the play is unhappy in its own way.
What each of the three central couples do share, though, is that they are interracial. And Slave Play begins, shockingly, with a trio of scenes which seem to depict enslaved people in the antebellum South engaging in seemingly mutually pleasurable foreplay—and eventually beyond—with their owners or overseers. (Claire Warden is the indispensable intimacy and fight director.) Slave Play dares us to listen—with growing squeamishness—to the vilest of passionate duets, grunts and sighs mixing with horrific epithets.
But—major spoiler ahead—it’s not what it sounds like. When overseer Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) cracks his whip toward Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango), he recoils from the snap himself as if terrified. Characters seem to respond to Rihanna songs playing in the distance. And one couple suddenly starts laughing, as if breaking character. That’s because they are. These aren’t antebellum figures at all, but three contemporary interracial couples, acting out their most warped desires and anxieties in an experimental therapy role-playing session: This is “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy,” designed to restore a sex drive to black partners who no longer respond to the touch of their white significant others. And when one unsettled husband in the role of the master gives the safe word, these unsettling scenes grind to a halt so that Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) can lead a debrief.
Once again, Slave Play offers a listening challenge, and his time it’s for audience members to keep one ear open, even in the midst of a bracing satire of an overly sensitive group therapy session, to the frightening truths the characters struggle to express. The almost saccharine PC-ness of the debrief clashes impossibly and often hilariously with the violent anarchy of the experimental role play that’s come before. “You are heard, you are affirmed, and I see you,” Jim, who’s really a posh Englishman, is reassured, pro forma, when he expresses his upset about the whole premise of being asked to treat his wife like a slave.
That harrowing antebellum role play permeates the debriefing session in sometimes startling ways. As an indentured servant, Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) mocked Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), as the overseeing slave, for acting white. Once they’re back in the real world, Dustin, who’s white but insists that he’s not (yet refuses to identify himself racially), adds a more crisply heated tone to his taunting of Gary, attacking his black boyfriend for playing white, “constantly bathing in…gentrification.” Blankson-Wood’s Gary demonstrates a supreme calm while quivering on the edge as he measures his response.
And it’s unsettling to trace overeager Alana (Annie McNamara), who’s been taking copious notes and can’t stop raising her hand to call out the two white men for talking too much, to her clumsily aggressive performance as the horny wife of a slavemaster dead-set on bedding Phillip (Sullivan Jones), apparently a self-impressed airhead in real life.
Robert O’Hara, a formidably jaw-dropping playwright himself, stages Slave Play with bold clarity. Those early scenes provide memorable, intimate, frightening stage pictures, but the later ones also stick, too, for the haunted way that Kaneisha looks at Jim as if seeing him for the first time or the vacuous lack of self-awareness with which Alana leaps forward to participate. Each of the performances tingle with specificity—we’ve met people like these before (though maybe not Dustin, who’s a tad over the top)—but these individuals, working hard to define themselves on their own terms and not just as part of a duo, transcend the types they seem at first to represent. Each actor possesses a profound, particular loneliness.
For the white audience member, the second section of Slave Play may bring an uncanny initial feeling of respite. Just like the characters try to absolve themselves of the unsettling emotions that surfaced during the role play, most audience members will probably sigh with relief at the discovery that what’s most discomfiting hasn’t been real as they step away from the experience of watching—nauseously? analytically? voyeuristically?—the opening scenes. It almost seems possible that Harris’s sharpest-edged satire will be directed at the jargonistic psychobabble of Teá and Patricia, played as a brilliantly bantering couple by La Tour and Lucio.
Thank goodness that this performance therapy is as nutty as it sounds, right? There’s surely nothing to this outrageous method but big words and Kleenex (on hand just in case some excess emotions should bubble up). But then, in one of Slave Play’s subtlest turn of events, ever-so-slightly the therapy does take. Kaneisha, Gary, and Phillip gradually find themselves better able to verbalize how they have existed, and continue to exist in the world, and, in seeing themselves more clearly, they see their relationships and partners in a starker light too.
That sense of possible relief slips away as the debriefing session loses its ironic tinge. While we’ve probably been hearing our thoughts in Jim’s incredulous reactions (“This is insane,” he insists, angrily), is he still the voice of reason, a voice that’s increasingly talking over others, still the “sane” one with whom we identify once wrenching truths start to surface? Are we meant to condone the role play itself, to revise our responses to those opening scenes and find some sense of reconciliation with our immense discomfort? And do white audience members deserve to flee their discomfort any more than Jim or Alana or Dustin do? It’s increasingly significant that this therapy has been designed, as Teá and Patricia remind the patients repeatedly, for the black partners to restore their own sexual fulfillment while their white lovers support them in the process. While Slave Play deals with the trauma of interracial relationships with precision, how can we extrapolate its methodology to a more general dissection of race and white supremacy? I’m not sure and I don’t think I’m supposed to be. There’s no bite-size moral here because Harris doesn’t try to break down slavery—its historical legacy and the way it still pulsates today—into bite-size lessons or takeaways.
And when, finally, Slave Play’s characters stop talking over each other for Kalukango’s fiery cadenza of a closing monologue, it’s immediately evident how carefully Harris has woven his strands together. The last 20 minutes of the play justify and necessitate everything that’s come before, and some of those minutes are almost unwatchable as Kalukango and Nolan give themselves over fearlessly to their roles. Harris has crafted a collection of characters from whom it’s impossible to turn away, but those final moments suggest that to listen, really listen, requires uncharted vulnerability and unexplored risk. That initially powerless refrain, “You are heard, you are affirmed, and I see you,” takes on a new tsunami of meaning as Jim responds to Kaneisha’s voice for the first time. The final, raw moments of Slave Play seem to ask audiences—especially white audiences—to consider what they would do if they really heard black voices. In the wake of Slave Play, immediate answers might sound neither comforting nor honest. But listening to its story is one risk that feels entirely necessary.
Slave Play is now playing at the Golden Theatre.
Review: Broadbend, Arkansas and Soft Power Are a Mixed Bag of One-Acts
Two twists on the typical range of possibilities for the musical theater writing process are playing out in two recent musicals.
“Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?” is a question that musical theater collaborators have been asked since time immemorial, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Pasek and Paul. The answers have varied, of course, from partnership to partnership: Rodgers penned his melodies first with his earlier collaborator Lorenz Hart but waited for Hammerstein’s words before setting out to compose. Pasek and Paul, of Dear Evan Hansen fame, have said they trade off musical and textual phrases.
Two twists on the typical range of possibilities for the musical theater writing process are playing out in two recent musicals: the pair of one-acts that comprise Broadbend, Arkansas at the Duke (a Public Theater co-production) and the Public’s own Soft Power. But only one of the two—well, one of the three, given the former’s atypical structure—is fully successful.
Inspired by Paulette Haupt’s annual (hit-or-miss) Inner Voices program, for which librettists write monologues which are then handed off with well wishes to composers, Ted Shen asked two playwrights, Ellen Fitzhugh and Harrison David Rivers, to create a diptych of connected monologues for Broadbend, Arkansas. Shen then decided which parts of each libretto lent themselves to song and occasionally added his own more music-friendly but sometimes clunkier words while composing his score. What’s emerged is an uneven but ultimately satisfying show, staged on a bare platform by Jack Cummings III, that illustrates the impact of good (and bad) libretti on a single composer charged with setting them.
Rivers’s Ruby, the show’s second act, is a gripping meditation on identity and parenthood, gloriously performed by Danyel Fulton as the eponymous mother, whose son has just been viciously beaten by the police. She’s fled from his hospital bed to seek sanctuary by the grave of the white woman who raised her, and Carol’s hopelessness and fear for the future intermingle with her bittersweet, tainted childhood memories.
Rivers’s poetic text explodes intermittently into Shen’s surging music. As rendered monumentally by Fulton, each time the monologue flowers into melody, that heightening seems necessary. For Ruby, the movement from speech to song becomes a kind of coping mechanism, the only possible way to express the inarticulable sorrow of her son’s suffering as it merges with the visions she’s imagined of her father’s death. Shen’s vocal lines are varied and organic, as if they emerge spontaneously from the character.
Not so with Just One Q, the first act, in which Ruby’s father, Benny (Justin Cunningham), an orderly at a nursing home, mediates a fight between two white women who happen to be the first and second wives of the same man. Here, while Shen’s compositional craft is apparent, he’s uninspired by Fitzhugh’s distracted libretto. Instead of sounding like a specific character, the music adopts the distinctive, imitable quality of Stephen Sondheim’s later scores.
Bizarrely, instead of speaking in his own voice, Benny mostly acts out the argument between the women, the substance of which is pretty dull until it turns out that one of them neutered her husband with a hot iron. Perhaps that unwillingness to engage fully with Benny stems from Fitzhugh’s discomfort with writing the words of an African-American man, which is odd considering that she makes him so comfortable speaking for, and as, these two women.
Just One Q ends up at odds with its narrator, whose late-in-the-game suggestion that “Since I helped those women change/With truth that they fin’ly shared/Now I can seek out/Who I’m supposed to be,” as he drives to Memphis to join the Freedom Riders, rings rather hollow. But that’s no fault of Cunningham, who animates Benny appealingly and crisply transforms himself vocally and physically to play the two sparring women.
It’s hard to believe the two halves share a composer, so voluminously do Shen’s gifts unspool in the second act. The other constant collaborator is legendary orchestrator Michael Starobin, whose six-piece arrangements shimmer throughout as conducted by Deborah Abramson.
Further downtown at the Public, another bizarre collaborative enterprise is on full display. David Henry Hwang began writing Soft Power as a non-musical play before two shocking events—his random stabbing on an NYC street in 2015 and Donald Trump’s election—set him on a different course. In Soft Power, a stand-in for Hwang, DHH (Francis Jue), slipping out of consciousness following his stabbing, imagines a Chinese musical about Hillary Clinton’s election loss from the perspective of a Chinese immigrant who’s come to America to make a musical. The real Hwang ultimately enlisted Jeanine Tesori (a Tony winner for Fun Home) to write the largely pastiche tunes for the musical inside the play.
While Hwang has a lot to say about a slew of important topics that rarely get examined on stage, there’s also the sense that the show has gone off full steam ahead in several directions and never reached fruition in any of them. The show-within-a-show is set up as a fever dream—yes, one that hazily combines DHH’s anxieties about each portion of his Chinese-American identity, his discomfort about The King and I (and how it still makes him cry despite its Western prejudices), and his awareness of the Chinese mission of soft power (the government’s attempts to assert the Republic’s dominance through cultural exports). But while all of those strands show up, none of them cohere, not even enough for a fever dream. The satire of American politics is particularly uninspired, as in a number featuring a post-election Hillary (Alyse Alan Louis) consoling herself with pizza dipped in ice cream.
Soft Power’s endless musical production numbers (including one where Hillary dances in different styles to woo varied constituencies and one Trumpian paean to “a good guy with a gun”) work against Hwang’s strengths: needle-pricks of irony that last no longer than a line but which expose uncomfortable truths. Hwang’s biting humor makes the early scenes—the ones about some version of himself—engrossingly promising, and Jue, in a 180º from his all-business recurring role on Madam Secretary, is a delightful avatar for the playwright. But Hwang’s lyrics aren’t sharp enough to have the same effect as his prose, and Tesori’s score, best in a few intimate moments, is seldom specific enough to suggest Chinese composers mimicking Golden Age musicals (and also Hamilton) as it’s meant to. There’s one lovely song, though, in which Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora) tries to teach Hillary how to differentiate Chinese tones; it’s a gentle fusion of “Do Re Mi” and “Shall We Dance?” Though the 23-piece orchestra is a nice touch, the music seldom merits that extravagance.
Soft Power, however, matters most in its casting. The final number is a moving, metatheatrical celebration of the opportunity to assemble a cast that is almost entirely Asian American. And the ensemble is excellent, gamely executing Leigh Silverman’s lively staging and Sam Pinkleton’s madcap choreography. Early on, the significance of how the show tells its stories is hammered home when DHH muses, thinking about that frustrating Rodgers and Hammerstein title, “Why does the white character always have to be the I?” A Chinese would-be-producer responds, “Because this is America.” From a cemetery in Broadbend, Arkansas to an emergency room in Fort Greene, Americans are seizing their chance to tell their stories with their own voices. But only some of them will require musical accompaniment.
Review: The Speed Is the Rub at Classic Stage Company’s Macbeth
On an almost bare stage, the scenes bleed into each other with little sense that the setting or situation has changed.
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play that can be quite powerful when done at a fast pace. There’s a breathlessness, an off-the-rails feeling, to Macbeth’s descent into hell that’s well suited to brisk direction. Still, in a new production at the Classic Stage Company in Manhattan, director John Doyle may have pushed the pace too far.
On an almost bare stage, the scenes bleed into each other with little sense that the setting or situation has changed. The bodies of characters murdered in one scene remain on stage for the next, lying around while a new scenario develops. This can be effective, even elegant, but it’s often incoherent, particularly if you haven’t looked at the play in a while—and you may want to, as there’s no paper program for the show and the digital one doesn’t include a synopsis.
If the high speed of this production, while frustrating, is at least apt, it’s harder to get on board with what Doyle has done with the weird sisters. Instead of three witches, we get a whole squad of them, often speaking in off-putting unison, and always in solemn tones. Neither mischievous nor sinister, as may be expected, they’re like a troop of dreary druids.
We also don’t get to hear enough of the weird sisters’ language, and we don’t get to experience the creepy sound of their short lines (“He shall live a man forbid”) against Shakespeare’s pentameters, because the extraordinary opening of the third scene from act one—the tale of one weird sister’s revenge against a sailor’s insolent wife—has been cut. Indeed, if you look forward to the witchy opening scenes of Macbeth, to discovering how the director has chosen to represent these legendary literary figures, you’ll likely be disappointed.
Macbeth (Corey Stoll) isn’t only a great warrior, but also a man with a wild imagination. He conveys, for instance, the idea that everyone is going to find out about it when he murders King Duncan (Mary Beth Peil) by evoking a bizarre image of a tattling baby, riding the wind. It’s in these moments that Stoll’s performance comes alive: In the dagger speech, he gives the impression of someone who really cannot tell, so vexed is his mind, what is real and what is fantasy, not just someone deciding whether to go through with an evil deed.
In the “sleep no more” exchange with Lady Macbeth (Nadia Bowers), there’s an urgency to Macbeth’s words that goes beyond existential dread, as though he got a supernatural warning about an emergency and wants desperately to tell his wife about it, except she won’t listen. But while Stoll possesses the stature necessary to get across Macbeth’s warrior dimension, the actor’s take on the character is more invested in the excesses of his mind. In the final soliloquy, with its “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” Stoll slows down his delivery and lowers his voice to an incredible degree. What should be an incredible moment is, instead, rather awkward, as you may wonder if something went wrong with the sound.
Among the highlights of the show are the costumes by Ann Hould-Ward: Every actor sports a green or tartan cloth, like a blanket, that they wear in different ways in different scenes. Sometimes they look like togas, sometimes chic scarves—like druids’ cloaks, or those of thieves. That small changes to the folds or draping of a cloth can convey such drastic alterations compounds the play’s eerie impression that people aren’t who they seem and that character, in every sense, can change in an instant. It’s perhaps a little ridiculous how Macduff (Barzin Akhavan) wears his clothes in a sad, un-thane-like pretzel, and that, for a stretch in act four, we get to watch Malcolm (Raffi Barsoumian) folding laundry, but for the most part the costumes are effectively employed throughout. (It is, incidentally, a small piece of white cloth that gives the show a moment of real horror when Macbeth dashes it on the floor.)
Two of Doyle’s tableaus are liable to stay with you long after the curtain has come down on the show: The first is the unnamed wounded soldier (also played by Akhavan), that “bloody man,” lying prostrate before the king, straining through his pain to report on the battle and Macbeth’s valiant deeds. His blanket over him like a shroud or a covering for a fallen fighter, Akhavan delivers this production’s finest speech, allowing us to vividly grasp the feeling of the weary, desperate armies, like “two spent swimmers,” each unable to take the upper hand.
And the second sees Macbeth on a huge wooden throne, flanked by the murderers he hires to kill Banquo (Erik Lochtefeld), his friend and brother-in-arms. Here, in a production that rushes through nearly everything, the actors linger in a terrible stillness, with Solomon Weisbard’s lighting shifting until the image takes on the quality of a disturbing old painting. There may not be enough memorable moments in this Macbeth, but the few we get do stick deep.
Macbeth is now playing at the Classic Stage Company.