Archive Review: Prometheus Bound

From March 2007:

Not much happens in the ancient Greek tragedy “Prometheus Bound” (long thought to be by Aeschylus, but now the center of a major authorship debate). Despite the lack of action, it is a starkly powerful piece of literature, full of defiance in the face of tyranny.

The play shows us Prometheus, a rebellious god, shackled to a mountain at the ends of the earth (Zeus has ordered him chained there to punish him for giving fire to the human race). Mostly Prometheus rails about the necessary suffering of life, and hurls proud insolence at the absent Zeus.

Aquila Theatre Company uses a stunning combination of austere spectacle and verbal and athletic pyrotechnics to illuminate classic theater texts, and that vibrant approach is in full effect here. The sight of David Oyelowo, the black actor who portrays Prometheus, in stage-spanning chains and a loincloth immediately brings to mind the horrors of the “Middle Passage” of the slave trade.

This powerful image isn’t overdone, but it does add extra muscle to lines like “I am a god, and gods have done me evil.” Oyelowo’s passionately committed performance also does much to bring this often static play to pulsating life.

Review: The Pitmen Painters

2010 has turned out to be painting’s year on Broadway. In the spring we had the Tony Award winning Red, which looked into the brilliant, arrogant mind of American master Mark Rothko. Now we have The Pitmen Painters, which looks at a much less famous group of artists from the mining town of Ashington in Northern England. It was written by Lee Hall, author of Billy Elliot in all of its incarnations, and to my taste, it’s a more engaging and provocative evening of theatre than Elliot is.

The Pitman Painters follows a group of miners who take an art course that alters the course of their lives. When their instructor suggest they make art as a way to understand it, he unwittingly unleashes surprising fonts of imagination and sheer artistic talent. The painters themselves represent the full range of English labor: there’s abrasive Marxist Harry Wilson, bean-counting Union man George Brown, brooding diamond in the rough Oliver Kilbourn and naïve yet visionary Jimmy Floyd — as well as an unnamed “Young Lad”.

Much of the more compelling drama comes from the tension between their individual artistic visions and their deeply felt sense of community. Do you strike out on your own and become a “proper artist” or do you commit to helping out the men in the group that supports you? In the end, neither end of this debate wins out, which allows Hall to explore the issue with greater depth.

The terrific cast brings each of these men to vivid life, and director Max Roberts energetically captures the immediacy of these men’s excitement about art’s possibilities. The second act is weaker than the first, but I think that’s a natural consequence of dramatizing a true story; life very rarely works out as neatly as fiction does. The Pitmen Painters is easily the most stimulating and thought-provoking night in the theatre I’ve spent since—well, Red!

For tickets, click here.

Archive Review: Betty Buckley

From March 2007:

The last time I saw Betty Buckley in a cabaret, she did a ballad-heavy show of obscure songs by Texan songwriters. That show broke what I consider to be two important rules about building a solid cabaret act: A) Go easy on the ballads (you want an audience that is in love, not asleep); and B) Give the audience at least a couple of familiar things as signposts. Miss Buckley’s new cabaret show “Singin’ for My Supper” pays strict attention to those rules, featuring a winning blend of classic standards, theatre tunes and popular contemporary songs. 

She and musical director Kenny Werner have put together an act that uses Buckley’s voice as one more instrument (a very powerful one) in an ultra-tight jazz ensemble. Werner’s arrangement of “Cry Me a River” is particularly original, complex and dynamic, and Buckley’s delivery is as smart, big and powerful as Werner’s approach demands. In general, Buckley’s return engagement at Feinstein’s finds her in strong voice and fine frisky fettle!

Review: John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molasky

At the very height of the jazzier side of cabaret, you’ll find the gifted husband and wife team of John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molasky. They’ve rather randomly titled their new show at the Cafe Carlyle “The Heart of a Saturday Night” after a Tom Waits song of the same name. In it, they mix familiar standards and contemporary pop-rock tunes, often pairing the old with the new in ingenious medleys.

One of the most effective and moving pairings brought together romantic “counting” songs by Irving Berlin and Jonathan Larson (I think Irv and Jon would have loved the mash-up). It made me think about the similarities between the two: both took a relatively new form they didn’t invent — the American pop song in Berlin’s case, the rock musical in Larson’s — and gave it new solidity with the depth of their craft.

I don’t know if such musings influenced the Pizzarellis’ choice of songs, but it is clear in any event that a profound musical intelligence is at work. This show in part celebrates the release of John’s CD Rockin’ In Rhythm: A Tribute to Duke Ellington, his first ever Ellington recording. In one of the evening’s most startling moments, Pizzarelli pairs Ellington with Ellington, singing the words of the Duke’s hit “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” to the music of his less-known “East St. Louis Toodle-oo”. The combination is more than apt, it’s positively elegant.

A couple other medleys, using a “fire and ice” approach that’s very satisfying, display Jessica soulfully singing Joni Mitchell opposite John coolly crooning Sondheim or bossa nova. And then there’s the “C Jam Blues” (otherwise known as “Duke’s Place”) in which John and the band solo with vigor, verve and virtuosity. Overall, the singing’s smart, the music’s deftly swung and the atmosphere sparkles. Cabaret doesn’t get much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

Archive Review: Our Leading Lady

From March 2007:

One of our leading gay playwrights is stretching a bit, with mixed results. In “Our Leading Lady,” Charles Busch tells the story of Laura Keene (Kate Mulgrew) as she prepares to perform her greatest hit “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre on the fateful night when Abraham Lincoln is in the audience (assassin John Wilkes Booth was not in the show, as has often been misrepresented—he just got his mail at the theater).

Busch has created a backstage drama that will thoroughly entertain a backstage audience. While there is much to entertain your average theatergoer, the deeper you are into theater the more you’ll laugh.

Mulgrew is every bit the stage diva as Keene, raising the roof where the scene calls for elevation, but not afraid to head for the gutter when that’s where she’ll find the payoff. As you might expect in a Busch play, there’s a solid gay subplot, where an older, married homosexual actor initiates his understudy into his secret world.

Busch falters, but doesn’t totally stumble, when faced with the subject of assassination. The scenes that follow Lincoln’s death are, by today’s standards, slow and overlong; post-9/11, Americans will get the gist of a national trauma in the space of two lines of dialogue. Scenes that would have been shattering in 1999 feel overextended here.

Bless Charles, though, for daring to get so serious — he does it better than most.

Archive Review: Bill W. and Dr. Bob

From March 2007:

For anybody who knows anything at all about twelve step programs, “Bill W and Dr. Bob” will feel like a prequel. “Oh, that’s where ‘one day at a time’ comes from,” you’ll think, or “boy their wives talking sure reminds me of Al-Anon.” It’s no surprise that the first line of the play “Hi, my name is Bill and I’m an alcoholic,” gets a rousing “Hi, Bill” from the audience.

It’s a new play about Bill Wilson, a failed stockbroker, and Dr. Bob Smith, a surgeon, two “hopeless drunks” (their own words) whose sometimes stormy friendship, driven by a common desire for relief from their chronic and crippling alcoholism, led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935.  “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” is also quite worthwhile simply as a period piece that successfully evokes the feel of the ‘20s and ‘30s, while telling a gut-wrenchingly compelling story about two deeply flawed men who found the ability to shake their demons in each other.

Archive Review: Talk Radio

From March 2007:

The underlying subject matter of “Talk Radio” is obviously not as timely as it was when Eric Bogosian wrote it in the 1980s. At the time, Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh had yet to bring the titular radio format to the zenith of its popularity—and the nadir of its quality.

Today, some radio hosts are worshiped by masses much larger than are imagined in this play. They’re treated like movie stars, and have exerted a broad political influence that would have been impossible to predict—none of this is yet in play at the time “Talk Radio” takes place.

Still, in show host Barry Champlain, Bogosian created a character for the ages. Barry tells it like it is—or at least as he honestly sees it—with blazing directness, intensity and caustic humor. Barry’s radio show “Night Talk” is about to go from its local Cleveland market to national syndication—if the powers that be are impressed by the show that the play “documents.”

Champlain’s ambitious enough to want the change, but he also realizes over the course of the night the limits that both he and his audience face—they are all too human (for better and worse). The details of the world Bogosian portrays may be a bit dated, but the sad state of the human condition he portrays still rings dreadfully true.

In the hands of the right actor, Champlain is both a tragic hero and a totally believable human being. There couldn’t be an actor more right than Liev Schrieber—as Champlain he delivers one of the most electrifying (not to mention broodingly sexy) performances of the season.

Archive Review: Jackie with a Z

From February 2007:

One of the city’s best comic actresses, Jackie Hoffman has often used her cabaret acts at Joe’s Pub—which consistently outsell any other show at that venue—to tell hilarious self-deprecating jokes about the sad state of her career. Now that she’s doing well enough to escape her love/hate relationship with unpaid benefits, she focuses more on the downside of working at institutions like Manhattan Theatre Club. She’s a bit taken aback by audiences in which 95-year-old socialite Kitty Carlisle Hart is the junior member. 

Better still, she tells of “trading up” to her first regional theater production—Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosensweig” at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. While she describes that production as generally a good experience, it’s a bit surreal for this downtown New York diva. For one thing, the Globe people inexplicably house Jackie at a hotel that is obviously primarily a gay hook-up joint.

The topic that gets the most stage time in this hilarious, wide-ranging monologue is Hoffman’s medical problems—most particularly a growth on her uterus. For a while it seems like it might be cancer, which you wouldn’t think would be funny. Thanks to Hoffman’s fantastically twisted sense of humor, though, she has the audience quivering with laughter as she sings about tumors and childlessness.

She claims she doesn’t fear death because she has already faced a fate worse than death, namely bombing at a Long Island Jewish old folks home. Plus, its not like she was planning on using her womb anyway—one of the funniest recurring themes in all of Jackie’s shows is her strong dislike of small children.

While she isn’t above making jokes at her own expense, Jackie seems more confident than ever here. Perhaps the most shocking thing in the show is a moment of humble seriousness towards the end. Hoffman sincerely acknowledges the courage of women she met while in Mount Sinai hospital, who were in much worse shape than she was. 

Acid humor that never gets all the way to self pity, a great character actress who—in spite of her raunchy jokes—looks more glamorous than ever; I don’t doubt that “Jackie with a Z” will be Jackie’s biggest solo hit yet!

Archive Review: Sweet Bird of Youth

I’ve decided to spice up this blog a bit by releasing archived reviews of mine, not currently visible anywhere else online.

Here’s my review of a sturdy off-off-Broadway revival of Sweet Bird of Youth from 2007:

Hallelujah! The string of strong Tennessee Williams revivals continues unabated! Everybody please notice, these productions feature no stars and are the work of inspired and hard-working non-profit companies. Following a glowing take on “Summer and Smoke” at Paper Mill Playhouse, and a eye-opening edition of the rarely-revived “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel” from the White Horse Theater Company we now have a “Sweet Bird of Youth” from T. Schrieber Studios that hits more exciting high notes than you would expect in such a small-scale production.

Tennessee described ”Sweet Bird” as “a play in which the careers of Chance Wayne and the Princess Kosmonopolis provide complementary illustrations of America’s adulation of youth and the collapse that ensues for people who follow this dream once the youth has fled.” Chance returns to his home town with a faded movie star, Princess Kosmonopolis, hoping she will help re-unite him with his childhood sweetheart, Heavenly Finley. Chance has no idea that his past actions have injured Heavenly or that her father, the Mayor of their small-town home, has sworn out a racially-charged edict against him.

The highlight of this production is Joanna Bayless as Princess Kosmonopolis. From the moment she screams and sits bolt upright in her hotel bed–almost falling out of her champagne-colored slip—to her exit accompanied by a state trooper, Bayless finds every note of hope and despair, monstrosity and compassion that Williams wrote into this bravura role.

Her co-star Eric Watson Williams doesn’t appear to have gotten fully under the skin of beautiful loser Chance Wayne. He has the dissolute good looks Chance needs, and plays with clarity on all the levels the role requires, but his performance feels a bit pushed, not quite natural.

The supporting cast is uniformly strong and designer Hal Tine’s flexible set creates a sensual atmosphere. Christopher Rummel’s sound design reaches for that same sensuality, but his over-reliance on hushed jazz underscoring quickly grows more annoying than evocative. Williams’ speeches are musical enough in and of them themselves—scoring them this way is numbing overkill.

Still, these are small quibbles when you consider that this “Bird” more successfully captures Williams’ sensibility and dramatic intelligence than any Broadway production of a Williams play in recent memory. Another successful Williams revival—Hooray! 

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: The Divine Sister

They don’t make ’em like this anymore, and there’s only one Charles Busch.

In the most recent play Busch wrote before The Divine Sister, called The Third Story, he experimented not only with the serious theme of McCarthyism, but also with highly sophisticated plotting and complex shifts in tone. In contrast, The Divine Sister isn’t serious at all, it’s pure, hilarious pop culture parody.

Happily, Busch hasn’t left the sophistication of The Third Story completely behind, he’s simply using it for much more lighthearted fun. If The Third Story seemed to be a harbinger of a transitional period for Busch, The Divine Sister finds him regrouping and applying all he’s learned to what he does best. What a great gift for us!

The Divine Sister pays screamingly funny homage to nearly every Hollywood film involving nuns, up to and including Doubt. St. Veronica’s unconquerable Mother Superior (Busch writing another fine high drag role for himself) will do anything to build a new school for her Pittsburgh convent. She faces a stunning array of complications including temptation from an old beau, the schemes of a harshly Sapphic visiting German nun, the needs of a queerling schoolboy, and unexpected trouble from all branches of her secular family tree.

He is among our very best comic writers, elevating pastiche into high art, much like his idol (and mine) Charles Ludlam. The Divine Sister finds Busch at the top of his form, and director Carl Andress, as always, gives it a corker of a production. It’s Busch’s campiest, funniest and most entertaining play in years, deliciously queen-sized, quintessential Busch.

Busch knows intimately how to write for himself and his Mother Superior is another in a long line of deliciously complex hard-boiled dames. Busch sincerely and sentimentally loves artifice and invests every moment he has on-stage with substantial style.

So does Julie Halston as the Mother’s pugilistic wiseacre sidekick Sister Acacius. This is the first time in many years that Halston, who was in Busch’s very earliest plays, is reunited with Charles for what will assuredly be a long run. She’s every bit the comic powerhouse that he is, and watching the two of them go is the purest pleasure. As is just about every moment of this oh-so-gay not-to-be-missed laugh riot.

Go get your tickets here. DO IT NOW!