Archive Review: Edward II

From December 2007:

Edward the Second is one of the greatest tragedies written by Christopher Marlowe, the only playwright in Shakespeare’s day who could write as well as him (and sometimes better). It is, without a doubt, the most forthright play written about the passion of one man for another man written before the 20th century.

In this very stimulating play, King Edward the Second of England (Marc Vietor) asserts his royal right to live his life as he deems fit, in the company of his lover Gaveston (Kenajuan Bentley). The gentry, resentful of Gaveston’s influence, seek to have Edward’s love, his king-ship, his very life destroyed.

Marlowe is amazingly subtle in sorting out a shifting sense of who is right and wrong in this story. At first the rebellious knights seem justified in their grumbling at Edward: He lets the kingdom fall into terrible disarray as he spends all his time and energy seducing Gaveston.

However later, when, a much more king-like Edward shifts his affections to another lover, Spenser (Randy Harrison of “Queer as Folk”), the lords immediately condemn Spenser as well – making clear that all their high-minded carping against misgovernment is a thinly veiled excuse for viciously persecuting the king simply for his sexuality.

Red Bull Theater’s Artistic Director Jesse Berger directs this premiere production of Garland Wright’s adaptation with great clarity and precision (if with a love of lurid violence that doesn’t quite jibe with the play’s palace intrigues, which are mostly verbal until the final scenes). He and Vietor make Edward’s failings abundantly clear – his tragic flaw isn’t his love of Gaveston, which truly is an overwhelming irrational force he cannot resist, but rather his inability to distinguish between his public and private responsibilities. This sexy, inky-black, Victorian-styled production is one of the more satisfying and thought-provoking evenings of classic theater in recent memory.

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Archive Review: August: Osage County

From December 2007:

Tracy Letts has successfully tapped into the rich mainline tradition of American dysfunctional melodrama in August: Osage County. And I’m not using the term “melodrama” as an insult; while Letts clearly has been influenced by such great American tragedies as O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and Williams’s Cat On A Hot Roof he largely avoids the almost habitual tragic fatalism that is those plays’ weakest point.

Life, Letts lets on, is much messier and unresolved than any pat tragic pessimism would allow for. In August, with a great affinity for the language of America’s “Great Plains” and occasional dazzling comic zingers, Letts paints a vibrant picture of an Oklahoma family violently imploding when their patriarch disappears.

This play is in many ways thoroughly traditional, but it does just as thorough a job of reexamining those traditions from a distinctly contemporary point of view. It’s undeniably an “important” play that, nonetheless, could still use some hefty cuts to its three-hour-plus length.

Archive Review: Black Nativity

From December 2007:

There’s a whole lot of black gay tradition going into the joyous Black Nativity, now playing at the Duke on 42nd St. Originally staged in 1961 Black Nativity is one of the most beloved works of Langston Hughes, the prolific gay leading light of the Harlem Renaissance. The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s new adaptation is loosely set in 1973 Times Square, telling the story of the birth of Christ through the traditional music of the black church with vibrant gospel, R&B, soul and funk arrangements by Kelvyn Bell.

In the first couple of scenes, against a backdrop of lost souls and hustlers on Times Square’s “forty-deuce,” a street corner preacher (out actor André de Shields) rails against the evils of the world he sees around him.

Suddenly we make the transition into an indoor church service on “the deuce,” led by a colorful, charismatic pastor (also de Shields) who popcorns and jives his way through the story of the nativity, with a passionate singing and dancing choir behind him. A series of roof raising songs, dances and sermons deliver Hughes’ non-denominational message that hope and spirituality are ever present and never failing.

There is so much talent on display here it’s almost obscene: every member of the choir could carry a show by themselves. The cast also includes members of the Shangilia Youth Choir from Kenya.  Shangilia (which means “rejoice” in Swahili) is a very successful program which helps Kenya’s most needy children find hope and meaning in their lives through the arts.

But if there is a single reason to see this production of Black Nativity, it’s de Shields –  he’s one of the most dynamic, charismatic and supernaturally gifted performers in musical theater, and that gift is on deliciously abundant and shameless display here. His timing is magic, and he seems to perceive other performers with eyes in the back of his head. One of the best performers alive today at the top of his powers, in a vehicle worthy of his talents.

Archive Review: Chita Rivera

From November 2007:

At the very beginning of her current cabaret act at Feinstein’s at the Regency Chita Rivera, probably the most beloved living performer of Broadway’s Golden Age, opened by singing “I Won’t Dance” and proceeded to shimmy and shimmer her way through a very hot show. This is razzle-dazzle in the service of a great theatrical presence.

When she made her cabaret debut at Feinstein’s a few seasons back, Chita was holding back a bit, saving some stories and material for the Broadway show Chita Rivera: A Dancer’s Life. Since that show has finished its run and inspired a successful tour, this diva is free to cut loose, and that she does as only she can.

This edition of her cabaret show is one of the most sophisticated and developed acts of its kind. Her Broadway vehicle featured first-rate Broadway craftsmen giving Broadway royalty a vehicle that purred like a kitten. For this new club act, the always-canny Chita has taken the best of that show and combined it with the strongest elements of her earlier Feinstein’s experience.

She almost launches into “All That Jazz,” the most spectacular of her many signature numbers, no less than three times. When she finally does it as an encore, it’s more than satisfying, it’s positively gratifying.

A positive review is often the the hardest to write – the language of extreme dislike is much richer than the language of praise. If I’m falling short, it’s because this show almost never falters. About the worst I can say is that she didn’t sing the entirety of “America” from West Side Story. I am a Leonard Bernstein fanatic and “America” is one of my most beloved Bernstein songs. Chita sings the hell out of her “America” fragment, leaving someone like me begging for more. What can I do but spout critical clichés? At least I’m not lying!

Archive Review: A Bronx Tale

From October 2007:

The charismatic stage presence of Calogero “Chazz” Palminteri grips you from the very first moments of his one-man show A Bronx Tale; that presence is a major part of this show’s success. The titular tale is also gripping in its own right: a Mafia story of the 60s Bronx that avoids most of the worst stereotypes, coming as it does from Palminteri’s own childhood.

The character at the center of the tale is C, a stand-in for the young Palminteri. His loyalties are divided between his father Lorenzo (who is raising his son in the tough streets around 187th Street and Belmont Avenue) and the gangster Sonny (who “owns” those streets and is largely responsible for making them so tough). Lorenzo offers his son love and a sense of the worth of hard work and talent. Sonny offers him the lure of easy money, and the respect of those who fear him.

In the end, though, things aren’t so simple: Lorenzo has some old-fashioned prejudices, and Sonny is a very smart man with many positive things to teach C, towards whom he feels some genuine paternal feelings. Palminteri brings these three characters, plus some 15 others, to dramatic life in this absorbing evening of theater.

Palminteri vividly evokes the real Bronx of his youth, not some “movie” Bronx. He gets it, right down to the neighborhood’s obsession with hometown doo-wop heroes Dion & the Belmonts (who took their name from Belmont Avenue) and the racial tensions that face C as he falls in love with a black girl.

A Bronx Tale was first mounted off Broadway in 1989 and made Palminteri’s career as a writer and actor. It didn’t go to Broadway at the time; rather it became a multi-character feature film – the first ever to be directed by one of the all-time most acclaimed Italian-American actors, Robert DeNiro. In the film, Palminteri played Sonny, a performance that led to a substantial film career.

In Palminteri’s long detour into cinema, it’s clear that he lost none of his feeling for live performance. He engages the audience very directly and warmly, and gives his all with unflagging energy. I also can’t emphasize enough that the appeal of this show extends far beyond fans of The Sopranos and the Godfather saga. I’m not a particular fan of the “wise guy” genre, and I truly enjoyed this Tale.

Archive Review: Die Mommie Die!

From October 2007:

Die Mommie Die! is the fourth New York premiere of a play by playwright Charles Busch I’ve seen, and the second to feature him acting a leading drag role. Saying that it’s the most predictable isn’t that serious a criticism: it’s predictably campy, funny and entertaining.

I know from the Drama Dept. production of his Shanghai Moon the complexity he brings to a drag role he’s created for himself. In comic 1960s Hollywood noir Die Mommie Die! that role is Angela Arden, a fallen singing star trapped in an insufferable marriage to film producer Sol Sussman. Desperate to find happiness with her younger lover, Angela gruesomely murders her husband with the aid of a poisoned suppository, leaving her two children to avenge their father’s death.

The plot is very clearly cribbed from the ancient Greek trilogy Oresteia by Aeschylus –  one the characters even says “mourning becomes this house,” a sly reference to Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O’Neill’s adaptation of Oresteia – but it’s Greek tragedy through the prism of 60s Hollywood, right down to an intentionally absurd tacked-on happy ending.

The play is set in 1967, and Busch is very precise about his pop culture references. He successfully catches the sensibility of an entertainment industry trying to keep up with confusing changing times, all the while relying on tried and true techniques. Busch’s own acting style – simultaneously sincere and gleefully artificial – is perfect for capturing the
spirit of “the summer of love.”

Busch sincerely loves artifice and invests every moment he has on-stage with substantial style. He may, for example, deliver a line in the manner of Bette Davis, but it’s not that he’s kidding or parodying Davis. We also take pleasure in the effortless ease with which he moves from one glittering camp archetype to another. They don’t make ’em like this anymore, and there’s only one Charles Busch.

Archive Review: Pygmalion

From October 2007:

Goddess bless the Roundabout, indeed, since their other Broadway space currently hosts one of the best George Bernard Shaw revivals I’ve ever seen. Certainly this astutely executed Pygmalion is yards closer to Shaw’s witty spirit than their heavy-handed revival of his Heartbreak House last season.

In case you somehow missed the play’s famous musical adaptation My Fair Lady, the plot goes something like this: When self-important phonetics expert Henry Higgins bets his colleague Colonel Pickering that he can teach a Cockney flower girl to act and speak like a lady, he gets more than he bargained for: Eliza Doolittle provokes his interest, his anger, and ultimately, his passion.

As her lessons progress, it becomes obvious that it is Henry who has the most to learn about what good manners really mean. My Fair Lady, however, romanticizes Higgins, making him a likable rogue, especially in Rex Harrison’s film portrayal. Pygmalion presents a much pettier Higgins, and a much more self-possessed Eliza (she leaves him in the play, but not in the musical), making the play decidedly protofeminist (while Lady is suffused with Higgins own cryptomisogyny).

The amazing Jefferson Mays (of I Am My Own Wife fame) spares no quarter: his Higgins captures all of the man’s childishness and prejudice, which makes his rare moments of kindness all the more startling. Mays has audaciously chosen to lean on everything unpleasant about this character, a choice with dazzling results. Claire Danes is a fittingly strong-willed Eliza, but Mays is without a doubt the reason to see this Pygmalion.

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