Review: The Great Society

Robert Schenkkan compellingly told how Lyndon B. Johnson won the 1964 election in his play All The Way. After Johnson won, he passionately articulated a bold plan to build a just society for all Americans, an agenda of several acts he collectively called “The Great Society.” In the play The Great Society, Schenkkan’s sequel to All the Way, we explore how LBJ went from his landslide victory to his exhausted decision not to run for re-election just three years later.

“The Great Society” was one of the most ambitious reform programs in American history, but would eventually be derailed by ruthless Republican stonewalling, as LBJ himself sank into the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. The Great Society‘s inventive creative team brings this very troubled period of history to vibrant life. Director Bill Rauch deftly arranges the frequent shifts in locale and mood with deceptive simplicity. It also helps that playwright Robert Schenkkan successfully conveys a strong sense of time, place and stakes in every line of his jazzy dialogue.

Playing LBJ, Brian Cox brilliantly captures that president’s tireless energy and ruthless political gamesmanship being worn away by circumstances out of his control. The Great Society has the heft of a Shakespeare history play, which is unsurprising given the play’s origin as a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Cox’s almost tragic performance as Johnson is the real heart of this production, a moving portrait of a man’s ambitions and dreams rapidly evaporating. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: The Height of the Storm

In Florian Zeller’s delicately surreal new play The Height of the Storm, Zeller investigates grief for the passing of a beloved spouse, as well as the difficulty of dealing with dementia in a spouse or parent. In the last few years, there have been a spate of excellent plays on Broadway dealing with many varieties of dementia – among them Zeller’s own The Father. While there are echoes of that play here, The Height of the Storm emphasizes the complete loss of your life partner, not you memories.

The play bounces back and forth between different narratives. In one, famous writer André (Jonathan Pryce) is grieving for his wife Madeleine (Eileen Atkins). In another, Madeleine is grieving for André. In yet another both are still alive, but André is slipping into dementia – actually this is happening in all of the narratives.

The play is complex enough that one can interpret it several ways. One person I spoke with perceived that this was all in André’s confused mind, as happened in The Father. I prefer to think that we are seeing several different realities play out, perhaps even more than the ones I described above. In one, André had an affair, in another it was a student of his that had the affair, etc., etc. Certainly Zeller keeps us on our toes with his imaginative and precise writing.

I have never seen Jonathan Pryce better. He moved me with his performance, which he has never done before. Eileen Atkins is also exceptional, and the supporting cast uniformly excellent. Director Jonathan Kent and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone help us track the shifting reality with intricately calibrated lighting changes working hand in hand with thoughtful, rigorous staging. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Galas

Diva! Here we have one diva (in the most positive goddess-like sense) playing another diva (in both senses). Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. We have a man with goddess-like acting gifts (Everett Quinton) portraying a fictionalized version of opera diva Maria Callas. Drag doesn’t get much higher than this.

The play is Galas by the late great Charles Ludlam, Everett’s partner in art and life – and the greatest playwright to come out of the Ridiculous Theatre movement. Now Quinton is directing and playing the lead role in Galas in its first New York revival since its original 1983 run.

As director, Everett fills the play with truly “Ridiculous”detail, as well as lots of warmth and romanticism, appropriate to the story of a diva with such great skills at singing Romantic Era opera. As an actor, Galas confirms Quinton as the greatest living actor in the Ridiculous tradition – and among the best in any tradition, as far as I’m concerned.

He attacks the role with great precision, and the almost supernatural conviction that is the hallmark of great Ridiculous acting, expertly playing the deep seriousness of this tragicomedy as well (its actual subtitle is “A Modern Tragedy” but it’s far too funny for that). Everett is the ideal interpreter of Ludlam’s plays, knowing when to be loyal to what Charles had already done, and when to push things even further into preposterousness to keep it fresh.

This is above all a star vehicle for the actor playing Galas, but there is one other fantastic performance in this production, as well as someone who shines in a smaller part. On the fantastic side is Jenne Vath as the diva’s mad maid Bruna. The role is nutty as hell and Vath plays it to the hilt. And, as Galas’s romantic rival Athina, Maude Lardener Burke leads you to believe – in a very few lines – that she is every bit as formidable as the great singer.

The production’s venue is the acoustically unforgiving main hall of St. John’s Lutheran Church, and its biggest flaw is lack of vocal projection equal to the echo-y space. That is for sure, a mere quibble when you are seeing such a great artist as Quinton vigorously at work. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Interview: Everett Quinton in “Galas”

I have had the great pleasure of directing Ridiculous Theatre legend Everett Quinton twice, in the New York premiere of Tennessee Williams’s Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws and a staged reading of Charles Ludlam’s Medea. The Williams play got some terrific reviews, which you can read here (and you can see some lovely photos here). Charles Ludlam was perhaps the greatest playwright to come out of the Ridiculous Theatre movement, and Everett was his partner in art and life.

Now Quinton is directing and playing the lead role in Ludlam’s fictionalized tribute to opera diva Maria Callas, entitled Galas, in its first New York revival since its original 1983 run. I sat down with this humble genius to talk about it.

So how did this revival of Galas come about?

It was suggested last fall. I’ve been working with the Yorick Theatre Company. Chris Johnson, who is the Artistic Director of Yorick, talked with Pastor Mark Erson who is the Artistic Director of Theatre at St. John’s Church on Christoper Street, where Yorick performs. They came up with the idea of doing Galas – because of the Stonewall 50th anniversary and World Pride – suggested it to me and I said “good.”

Is this a role you’ve wanted to do?

Yeah, people over the years have suggested it, but there was never the opportunity to do it. Now that it has, I’d be a fool to say no; its a terrific part. I’m having fun with it. When you’re directing it and you’re in it, like I am with this, there are so many pots on the stove. But now me and the other actors are starting to cook! [Laughs] I love the actors in this group, they’re a wonderful group and we’re finding our way.

There’s humor in everything Charles wrote, but am I right in thinking this is one of his more serious plays?

It does play as more serious, yes. That’s the beauty of it. It starts out one way and it flips midway, which is not accidental on Charles’s part. You carefully study the script and he sets up the flip early on. I’m really enjoying exploring that. When I was in the original production, for which I also did the costumes, I didn’t worry about the big picture. So that’s a joy of this production for me. It’s around this time that Charles blossoms from a good writer into a really fabulous one, so skillful. We all improve as we go along, right?

Funny thing is, this big play was originally supposed to be a two-hander for me and him, about an actress and her maid. I don’t know what was going on at the time that provoked him to turn it into a life of Maria Callas. Because usually that’s the way he worked, something in the air tweaked him.

I know this is fictionalized – she’s named Galas not Callas – but I recall that it actually tracks pretty closely with Callas’s life.

Pretty closely, except there’s a couple of things I couldn’t make sense of and then I realized that’s the fictionalized part. I thought I knew from the original production that the last act takes place in Paris – and it doesn’t [Laughs], that’s the fictional part. But it is a close tribute, and I’m using her speaking voice. All of the scene changes are her singing.

I love that Callas demanded a dollar more than all her contemporaries – she would say “so-and-so’s getting so much so I want a dollar more.” I love her arrogance, and when you realize who those contemporaries were, you realize oh my God she had cojones, she had ovaries. [Laughs]

Are you an opera fan yourself?

A fan, yeah. I have no intellectual conceptions about it, I just love it. Tony Randall called it the greatest of art forms, which is arguable. Those singers just do so many wonderful things. I mean I walk around the apartment pretending to be one. When I got the costumes for the original production, I had a decent budget and I found this beautiful green dress for Charles to wear as Galas. But when I first got it home, I wore it and went around the apartment pretending I was soprano Shirley Verrett [Laughs]. So I’m a lip synch opera queen. Charles liked opera but there were bigger opera queens in the company and our chatter could annoy him. I called it “gay baseball,” we talk about opera and musicals like straight guys talk about baseball.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Ink

Playwright James Graham has crafted a Faustian story based solidly on real events. It’s 1969 London, and a devilish thirtysomething Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) is expanding beyond his Australian newspaper empire by acquiring English daily The Sun. He enlists Larry Lamb (Jonny Lee Miller) – at the time editor for a Manchester paper – to take over the underperforming Sun and turn it around by any means necessary.

Lamb is the biggest, showiest role in Ink and Miller goes for it with gusto. At the performance I attended, a printer’s mallet fell off the stage and without missing a beat Miller lept off the stage to retrieve it. He totally blazes through the role. Murdoch is a smaller but pivotal role, and Carvel gives him a oddly powerful, evil slouch.

But Ink is much more than a two-hander, and director Rupert Goold weaves a dazzlingly theatrical tapestry from Graham’s play. Mod dancing punctuates the scenes, and projections whizz and pulsate. It’s this kind of surreal sizzle that makes Goold one of my favorite directors, and he’s at the top of his game here.

Graham and Goold cool things off in Act II to take time examining two key moments in the Sun‘s history: the kidnapping of Murdoch family friend Muriel McKay, and Lamb convincing Stephanie Rahn (Rana Roy) to “take it all off” for the first installment of the notorious “Page 3” pictures. When we first meet Rahn in Act I, much is made of her changing her name from Kahn to Rahn for her modelling work – maybe this had a foreshadowing effect for British audiences, but it falls flat here. It is one of very few hiccups in this otherwise riveting show. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Burn This

I heard a rumor that playwright Lanford Wilson intended Burn This to be a satire of straight people. Whether that’s true or not, the current revival is the strongest production of the play I’ve ever seen because it’s the one that comes closest to satire. A gay dancer dies in a boating accident in mid-1987, bringing together his dancer roomate Anna (Keri Russell) and his older brother Pale (Adam Driver), who begin a tempestuous relationship. The key performance in this revival, however, is the terrific Brandon Uranowitz as Larry, Anna’s gay roommate. The self-possessed yet compassionate way Uranowitz plays the role moves the play’s center of gravity so that we get a clearer picture of the absurdity of how the heterosexual characters comport themselves.

While part of this conception belongs to Uranowitz, director Michael Mayer definitely helped steer him in this direction – Mayer is always very smart about carefully working through ideas about sex and gender in his productions, and you can feel that same intelligence at work here. It has the side benefit of skewing the whole play to be played more comically, which, if my sources are right, is what Wilson was going for.

The role of Pale is a big juicy piece of actor meat, and the big, meaty Adam Driver makes an appropriately full meal of it. Here again, I can feel Mayer urging him to consider the contrast between what Pale really feels and what he thinks he’s expected to feel. Burn This will never be my favorite Lanford Wilson play – his cycle of plays about the Talley family and his early masterwork The Madness of Lady Bright are far superior – but this is the best rendition it’s likely to get. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist

I don’t know how familiar playwright and actor Byron Lane is with the legendary Ridiculous Theatrical Company and Charles Ludlam’s approach to playwrighting and acting, but his Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist is Ridiculous Theatre to a “T.” To wit: we are presented with absurd, campy and ridiculous situations (about serious themes) which the actors deliver with real emotion and total commitment. The themes are as serious as can be: suicidal tendencies, finding your place in the world; the situation is completely preposterous: suicidal gay man Walt (Lane himself) finds that his ex has put out a “roomate wanted” ad on Craigslist that is answered by the titular Tilda.

Swinton promptly takes over the place in both physical and spiritual ways. Lenk’s virtuouso portrayal is the evening’s centerpiece, playing to Swinton’s other-worldly persona with deliciously shameless flamboyance. According to this broadly satirical version of the film star, she was in Dances with Wolves as all of the wolves, and what she was in Die Hard is just way too fun to give away.

Lane, for his part, knows exactly when to under- and over-play Walt’s simpering despair for the best comic effect. Jayne Entwistle and Mark Jude Sullivan clown expertly in multiple roles – mostly Walt’s demanding, judgemental family. While there’s a whiff of a message about self-esteem, this is largely a surreal lark played for the laughs, which it delivers in marvellous, hysterical abundance. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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