Review: Bernhardt / Hamlet

As a director, I have always practiced diversity in casting, and have long been persuaded of the justice of gender parity in casting, which, more often than not, means that women will be playing men. So the idea that a great actress should play Hamlet seems quite natural to me. I’m very much looking forward to Glenda Jackson playing King Lear later this season. However, I still feel that I’m in the minority here – a growing minority, to be sure, but I find I have to defend that line of thinking more than I’d like. More than feels right.

So just imagine, then, when well over a century ago “The Divine” Sarah Bernhardt let it be known she’d be playing Hamlet. It wasn’t 100% unheard of – Bernhardt herself had already played Lorenzo de’ Medici. But this was, you know, Hamlet! Ever-agile playwright Theresa Rebeck has fashioned a highly entertaining portrayal of the struggle Bernhardt faced in bringing her Hamlet to life.

Rebeck illuminates why a woman is an ideal choice to play the role, while also giving us insight into the artistic challenges facing Bernhardt in particular in making the role align with her decidedly majestic approach to acting. She also looks at the broader social situation in which playwrights offer Bernhardt roles that treat her as some ideal, rather than a complex human being – roles which would of course be a complete bore to play. Thus, Hamlet. As Bernhardt, Janet McTeer is scintillating and mesmerizing, just like you would want “The Divine Sarah” to be. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Head Over Heels

It’s an ancient and powerful idea that the ultimate “safe space” for queer people is the wilds of nature, the “pastoral” landscape. We can go all the way back to the Idylls of Theocritus around 300 BCE, which are rife with shepherds falling for pretty boys. In Shakespeare, the meeting of love and gender fluidity often happens in the forest. For the pastoral’s continued power, you only have to look at the way that queers have latched on such sentiments in Bernstein & Sondheim’s “Somewhere”: “There’s a place for us / Somewhere a place for us / Peace and quiet and open air / Wait for us somewhere.” To say nothing of Dorothy telling Toto: “Somewhere, over the rainbow / Skies are blue / And the dreams that you dare to dream / Really do come true.”

Well, the ever-witty Jeff Whitty (bookwriter of Avenue Q and Jake Shears’s Tales of the City) had the bright idea to take one of the most event-packed pastoral romances ever written in the English language, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, and pair it with the music of one of the greatest all-female rock bands of all time, The Go-Go’s. Sidney’s romance takes its name from a bucolic region from Greek mythology – where, incidentally, all of Theocritus’s horny shepherds frolicked. Whitty has taken considerable liberties with Sidney’s intricate plot, generally to the purpose of giving the winning hand to the women, the transgender and the androgynous.

You can take it all as a silly, happy, perky joyride, and have a perfectly good time. Whitty is a master of both satisfying theatrical structure and the one-liner, and the Go-Go’s spiky guitar pop hits just the right tone. But it’s deeper and more subversive than that. Classical comedies always end in marriages. While some couplings at the end of Head Over Heels are nominally heterosexual, none retain classical or even traditional gender roles. Plus the chorus boys are encouraged – by the way they are styled and Spencer Liff’s fleet-footed choreography – to be just as pretty, fey and gay as the ones in Theocritus.

The cast is consistently superb. The most plum roles in the show are the ones that have the richest gender story, and the people in those roles make a full meal of them. Bonnie Milligan is a hoot as buxom beauty Pamela finding her hidden desires. Andrew Durand, as doofy shepherd Musidorus, is both hilarious and touching when he dons Amazon garb to pursue the hand of his aristocratic lady love. Rachel York is every inch the fierce ruling royal as Queen Gynecia. Most fabulous of all is Drag Race Peppermint as the oracle Pythio. She is the first trans woman in a lead on Broadway, and the way Whitty plays Pythio’s story out gives her ample opportunity to be both over-the-top and moving. She handles it with all the sass and grace which made her such a fan favorite. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Straight White Men

This play is never less than fascinating. When I think of the phrase “straight white men” my first thought is the awful old straight white men who pull the levers of government and business in this country. Or the too-loud, too-cocky douchebags that infest New York City streets, wearing their blue shirts and brown shoes directly from work to the nightclub. Smartly, those aren’t the “straight white men” playwright Young Jean Lee has chosen to focus on. Instead, we spend time with an apparently more virtuous set of liberally-mind brothers, who gradually reveal their true, um, colors.

Lee fakes us out in several ways. She gives everything the appearance of a naturalistic family drama, but really the structure of the play has more to do with Beckett than with late O’Neill. In place of the vaudeville routines in Waiting for Godot, we have stylized roughhousing and the performative traditions that siblings create with one another.

The quiet engine of the play is the character Matt (Paul Schneider) who does temp work for a social service organization and then does the cleaning-up “women’s work” that neither his brothers or father will do. The moments when the action stops so we can watch Matt doing these jobs in real time are some of the most riveting moments of the play.

You see everybody’s worried about Matt, who doesn’t seem worried about much, but has an unexplained crying jag during Christmas celebrations. Novelist brother Drew (Armie Hammer) thinks Matt should see a therapist to treat what he perceives as Matt’s depression. Banker brother Jake (Josh Charles) admires what he understands to be Matt’s ideals, but encourages him to sell them better. Father Ed (Steven Payne) thinks throwing money at the problem of Matt’s student loans will solve things.

Lee seems to be driving at the idea that, in the United States, straight white men’s value is largely measured by capitalist success. This point she explores quite intelligently. But all Matt is doing, from his point of view, is trying to stop solving the unsolvable and do little things that would be immediately useful to others.

The biggest problem with Straight White Men is that I have just stated Matt’s POV more clearly than ever happens in the play. I understand trying not to provide easy answers for an audience, but I think Lee has landed closer to murkiness than the provocative ambiguity she was aiming for. The end of the play both leaves too much hanging, and, structurally speaking, ties thing up too neatly, straining for a symmetry that the subject and play both resist.

These are quibbles, though, with a thought-provoking and brilliantly acted play. I should also mention that transgender legend Kate Bornstein and two-spirit writer Ty Defoe have roles to play as well (though they were way too underused for my taste). Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Boys in the Band

Director Joe Mantello has uncovered something important about Matt Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. At its base, it is a drama about an alcoholic dysfunctional family, much like Long Days Journey into Night. Unlike that play, however, there is much humor and hope in this chosen family, so much so that a character who has drunkenly said the most venomous lines, exits with a truly affectionate “Call you tomorrow!” See, the play, contrary to its reputation, portrays gays as better than straights. Boys is, at its root, about a group of exciting, vibrant men fighting like hell – against heavy opposition – for self-respect and love.

Michael (Jim Parsons), a recovering alcoholic, hosts a birthday party for his friend Harold (Zachary Quinto) in his Upper East Side apartment, with six of their closest friends. The evening begins with this group of friends celebrating, singing and dancing; when left to their own devices these guys are happy. But when the world comes knocking in the form of Michael’s straight college friend Alan (Brian Hutchison) — or the form of toxicity between Michael and Harold that emerges when Michael falls off the wagon — staying happy seems like a steeper climb.

The big news for this production is a cast packed with movie and TV stars who are all openly gay, something that would never have happened in 1968 when the play premiered. Quinto’s performance as Harold is astonishing – he completely disappears in the role, and gives us a Harold with a greater sense of fun then I’ve every seen before, something that gives depth to the role. Parsons is terrific as guilty Catholic Michael. Matt Bomer, as Michael’s handsome friend with (occasional) benefits Donald, is his usual charming self.

I would be remiss if I didn’t report that Bomer gives us full backside nudity early in the show. It’s a testament to the high quality of his and Parsons’s performances that we’re able to get the important exposition that’s happening while Bomer’s fully or half-nude. The other standout performance is Robin de Jesús, who gives us a breathtakingly heartfelt interpretation of flaming queen Emory.

This is a revelatory production that casts an insightful eye toward both gay history and plain old human psychology. Essential gay viewing, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: My Fair Lady

Bartlett Sher directing tasteful yet thoughtful revivals of “Golden Age” musicals at Lincoln Center’s Beaumont Theatre – by this point it’s definitely “a thing.” This time Sher has turned his sights on Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady. Based on Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the plot goes like this: When self-important phonetics expert Henry Higgins bets his colleague 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.

This astutely executed My Fair Lady is yards closer to Shaw’s witty spirit and proto-feminist point of view than any other production I’ve seen. Pygmalion presents a much pettier Higgins than is found in the My Fair Lady book, and a much more self-possessed Eliza – and Sher leans toward that every chance he gets.

The excellent Harry Hadden-Paton (Bertie on Downton Abbey) is central in this approach: his Higgins captures all of the man’s childishness and prejudice, which makes his rare moments of kindness all the more startling. Lauren Ambrose is a fittingly strong-willed and vocally expressive Eliza. The most showstopping performance, however goes to Norbert Leo Butz, who fills Eliza scoundrel father Alfred with pointed glee. He really brings the house down with his delivery of “Get Me To The Church on Time” positively bursting with kinetic energy.

There’s always a great danger that My Fair Lady might play as romanticizing what essentially is a manipulative, borderline abusive relationship – that certainly happened in the film version. That is far from Shaw’s original intention, and Sher has largely succeeded in saving My Fair Lady from its worst impulses. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Travesties

The plays Tom Stoppard wrote in the 1960s and 1970s are too clever by half, and Travesties is no exception. I mean that as only half a compliment: Stoppard spends so much time showing off his erudition and technical skill as a writer that it’s quite easy to lose the thread of his characters and themes. And those themes are often so compelling on their own that you wish the man would, I don’t know, take a breath. What Stoppard actually has to say – in this case about art, war and revolution – is very intelligent, so it’s worth the effort. But, really

Thank goodness, then, that director Patrick Marber has engineered a production that leans heavily on fun, visceral, and visual excitement. Travesties examines Zurich circa 1916 though the eyes of a dilettante working at the British consulate named Henry Carr. Zurich was the largest city in Switzerland, which remained neutral in the World War then raging everywhere else in Europe. As such it was a magnet for expatriate artists like Irishman James Joyce and Romanian Tristan Tzara.

The cast is uniformly terrific, the best being Seth Numrich as Dadaist poet Tzara. He thoroughly embodies both the smirking suavity Tzara displayed socially, and the feral charisma he brought to performing his poetry. Dan Butler is an appropriately steely Vladimir Lenin (also in Zurich at the time, plotting the Bolshevik revolution), and Butler’s fellow Frasier alum Patrick Kerr is acidly hilarious as hyper-intellectual butler Bennett. Tom Hollander as Carr ably carries the majority of scenes with marvelously nutty brio. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Saint Joan

When I first read Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, it gave me the impression of telling the story of Joan of Arc as if she were another thoroughly modern young Shavian heroine, like Major Barbara Undershaft, Vivie Warren or Eliza Doolittle. The characters portrayed in Saint Joan may have been French folk of the Late Middle Ages, but they sounded like early 20th-century English business people talking on the street. I enjoyed this quality, as it made the story crisply accessible, and signaled that Shaw (as usual) had social commentary on his mind, not just history.

Director Daniel Sullivan wisely has these medieval French people speak in American or Mid-Atlantic accents, except for the handful of characters who are actually English, like the Earl of Warwick, played with oily charm by Jack Davenport. Sullivan also understands that, although Joan met a tragic end, Shaw never stopped writing comedy, and applies a needed light touch.

Of course, the actress playing Joan defines any production of Saint Joan, and in this case we have Condola Rashad who does solid, thoughtful work. I’ve seen far too many bad puns about fire in reviews of Saint Joan, so believe me when I say I mean no such thing when I tell you Rashad gives her a slow steady burn. She is aided by a superb supporting cast, particularly Patrick Page as a terrifyingly calm and methodical Inquisitor, and John Glover as an archbishop as politically cunning as he is theologically astute. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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