Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Simon Callow Stars in Tuesdays at Tesco's

Simon Cowell in TUESDAYS AT TESCO'S.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Even as a child, Paul knew that he really was a girl “inside” (notwithstanding the external physical evidence to the contrary) and, as an adult, he rectified the mismatch by becoming Pauline, a transsexual woman.  Andrew, his selfish and cantankerous father, never could come to terms with Pauline’s transition to womanhood and, despite his daughter’s most valiant efforts at establishing at least some semblance of a loving relationship between the two following the death of her mother, it was all to no avail.  Although she visited her father every Tuesday, washing and ironing his clothes, cleaning his house, preparing his meals for the following week, and accompanying him to Tesco’s (the UK’s leading supermarket) to do the week’s shopping (all in her mother’s stead now that she was gone), Andrew persisted in rejecting and belittling his “domestic goddess,” consistently addressing her as Paul rather than Pauline and mocking everything from her facial stubble to her broad shoulders.

Simon Callow is an extraordinarily talented British actor, justifiably acclaimed for his past solo performances, and it is he who brings Pauline to life on the stage in Tuesdays at Tesco’s, now enjoying its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan as part of the theater’s annual Brits Off Broadway program.  Written by Emmanuel Barley, the play was originally produced in France as Le Mardi a Monoprix, before being translated into English and adapted for the British stage by Michael Hurt and Sarah Vermande in 2011.  It debuted that year at the Edinburgh Festival before coming to America.

To be sure, there is no denying Mr. Callow’s considerable talent and there are moments in which his solo rendition of Pauline’s plight is evocatively moving.  But his comical galumphing about the stage in high heels and graceless dancing, intended perhaps to merely break up the monotony of a less than memorable soliloquy, comes across as less of a paean to femininity than as a mockery of it.

Mr. Callow shares the stage with Conor Mitchell, a pianist who stands off in a corner, plinking from time to time on his instrument but mostly looking bored.  His performance does nothing to enrich the play, only distracting from it and, for the life of me, I have no idea why he’s there at all.  (This is not meant as a criticism of Mr. Mitchell’s musical ability.  Indeed, in light of his extensive resume, I’d imagine that he is quite talented.  But based on the minor role he’s been given to play in this production, there’s just no way to tell.)

The play begins as a tragic-comedy and concludes as a full-fledged tragedy.  But the greater tragedy is the waste of Mr. Callow’s enormous talent on such a trivial enterprise.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Retro Productions' Dazzling Revival of The Butter and Egg Man by George S. Kaufman

The cast of THE BUTTER AND EGG MAN.  Photo by Kyle Connolly.
Although The Butter and Egg Man may be viewed as something of a precursor to Mel Brooks’ The Producers, the fact remains that it was written by George S. Kaufman and first staged at the Longacre Theatre nearly a century ago, so it really ought come as no surprise that the play may seem quite dated today - what with its flappers and bootleggers, its vaudevillians and blue laws.  The play debuted, after all, in the “Roaring Twenties,” a time that was in many ways quite unlike our own, a time when hotel managers looked askance at a single woman’s visiting a man’s room, and a time when the police were more likely than not to shut down a theatrical production if it included a scene in a brothel.  And that, of course, may well be the very reason that Retro Productions selected this particular play to revive for its Tenth Anniversary production since Retro takes it as its mission to “tell good theatrical stories which have an historical perspective – with an emphasis on the 20th century – in order to broaden our own understanding of the world we live in.”

And we all may be very glad that they did because this is one helluva revival – or to use the vernacular of the 1920s: “This show’s a pipe.”  (No, I didn’t know what the phrase meant either until I read the definition provided in the play’s program: “It’s a cinch, easy as pie, sure to succeed.”)  For that is just what this revival deservedly is: a pipe, a cinch, and sure to succeed.

Joe Lehman (Brian Stillman) is a sleazy theatrical agent and wannabe theatrical producer.  Together with his equally sleazy partner, Jack McClure (Matthew Trumbull), he hopes to stage a production of Her Lesson, a convoluted mess of a story featuring the aging actress, Mary Martin (Shay Gines), in the lead role.  There is only one problem: the partners lack the funds to finance the production and Fanny Lehman (Heather E. Cunningham), a one-time vaudeville performer and now Joe’s wife, who could afford to finance the show herself if she chose to, refuses to do so.

Not to worry.  Along comes Peter Jones (Ben Schnickel), a wholesome lad who lives with his mother in Chillicothe, Ohio and who has just arrived in New York in the hopes of parlaying the $20,000 inheritance he received from his grandfather into a large enough sum to enable him to buy the hotel at which he works and return to Chillicothe not merely as one of its employees but as its owner.
Voila!  Peter encounters Joe’s secretary, Jane Weston (Alisha Spielmann), and is immediately smitten.  Jane is as wholesome as Peter but the two are no match for the likes of Joe and Jack.  Predictably, Peter is prevailed upon to invest his $20,000 in Her Lesson, the play opens in Syracuse, and it bombs.  Peter, it seems, is the quintessential “butter and egg man” of the play’s title (defined in the play’s program as 1920s slang for “a na├»ve but rich investor, a sap, a mark”).

But things are not always as they seem.  Peter buys out Joe’s and Jack’s interests in Her Lesson and the apparent flop goes on to become an unlikely hit on Broadway.  Peter has turned the tables on Joe and Jack, he has won Jane’s hand, and he is on top of the world.  Until, that is, it all comes crashing down upon him with the arrival of A. J. Patterson (Seth Sheldon), an OCD attorney whose client contends (with considerable supporting evidence) that Peter never owned the rights to Her Lesson in the first place.  It looks as if Peter may be nothing more than a “butter and egg man” after all.

Or is he?  The play’s not over yet and you’ll have to see it to find out.

The cast is wonderful across the board with several terrific standouts.  Brian Stillman plays the role of Joe as a loud, trumpeting, cigar-chomping alpha male – something of a cross between Zero Mostel, Jim Belushi and Jackie Gleason – while Matthew Trumbull acts the part of his sidekick, Jack, in truly reptilian fashion.  Shay Gines channels Gloria Swanson in her portrayal of Mary Martin and both Ben Schnickel and Alisha Spielmann are the fresh-faced innocents, Peter and Jane, that any mother would be proud to call her own.

Ricardo Rust, the play’s director, also deserves a special shout-out, not only for his overall success in eliciting such fine performances from his very talented cast but also for his remarkably creative choreography of the play’s scene transitions.  It is all too often the case that audiences at off off Broadway plays must suffer through distracting and time-consuming scene changes that not only do nothing to enhance the theatrical experience but actually detract from it.  Quite the opposite is the case here.  In this revival of The Butter and Egg Man at the Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower Manhattan, the scene transitions themselves are entertaining as the entire cast acts in concert, rearranging and transporting furniture and props in a delightfully choreographed dance straight out of the “Roaring Twenties.”

Monday, May 11, 2015

One Hand Clapping by Anthony Burgess at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Eve Burley and Oliver Devoti in ONE HAND CLAPPING.  Photo by Emma Phillipson.
Anthony Burgess wrote the novel One Hand Clapping under the pseudonym Joseph Kell in 1961.  The book subsequently was adapted for the stage by Lucia Cox and was first produced at the Bolton Octagon Theatre in Lancashire, Burgess’s birthplace, last year.  The play has since crossed the pond and, in a House of Orphans production and under the direction of Lucia Cox, is currently enjoying its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan as the second production in this year’s highly regarded annual Brits Off Broadway program.

The central character in One Hand Clapping is Janet Shirley (Eve Burley), a 23 year old ordinary housewife and supermarket clerk, content with her simple lot in life and relatively happily married to Howard Shirley (Oliver Devoti), a 27 year old sleep-walking, obsessive-compulsive, used car salesman, who appears to be rapidly descending into full-fledged madness.  Nor is Howard simply OCD and somewhat loopy; he also has a photographic memory and may even be clairvoyant (or perhaps just very lucky) as well.

It is Howard’s photographic memory which enables him to win 1,000 pounds on a British television quiz show and his clairvoyance (or plain dumb luck) that results in his parlaying the 1,000 pounds into 79,000 pounds by betting on the horses – enough to bring about a really substantial change in the Shirleys’s lives.  Or so they thought.

Their new-found wealth could just be used to buy stuff – a mink coat for Janet, for instance, or fancy dinners – but as they quickly discover, that doesn’t really work.  Indeed, Janet finds that she much prefers “something nice to eat, beans on toast and some corned beef….a welcome relief after all that fancy muck…duck in some horrid orange sauce and fancy Champagne when a cup of tea would have done just as well.”

Well then, how about using the money for some good cause?  At one point, Howard does donate “1,000 pounds to support a starving artist” and later he suggests contributing to such causes as “Guide Dogs and Starving Chinese Children and things like that.”  But his donation to Redvers Glass (Adam Urey), a presumed “starving artist,” doesn’t go well at all: for starters, the journalist who Howard authorizes to make the donation on his behalf skims 100 pounds off the top; then Red, himself, turns out to be something of a charlatan; and finally, apparently finding that 900 pounds isn’t really such a big deal, Red turns his attention to the seduction of Howard’s wife instead.  And as for the “Guide Dogs and Starving Chinese Children,” those ideas never even get off the ground.

But if buying stuff and donating to good causes don’t make the Shirleys any happier, what might?  Howard’s answer: travel and experiences.  Or, as he puts it: “The time for buying things of a permanent nature is all finished….The money is to be spent on living and not to be saved at all or converted into ornaments or furnishings or things of that nature.” And so Howard arranges for them to travel – to New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and San Francisco.  But when they’ve been there and back, they find that they’re no happier than before (in fact, maybe even less so).  And Janet concludes: “I suppose the only real reason for traveling is to learn that all people are the same.”

Eve Burley is terrific as Janet, clinging to the world she knows and understands and comfortable in the subordinate marital role she has chosen to accept in a pre-feminist time, but realizing that a line must be drawn short of her total sacrifice to her husband’s insanity.  Oliver Devoti is as tightly wound up as a cyborg in his role as the rapidly disintegrating Howard.  And Adam Urey contributes just the comic relief that the play requires in his dual roles as Red and as Laddie O’Neill, the talk show host.

Anthony Burgess being Anthony Burgess, of course, One Hand Clapping is meant to be a direct attack on America’s capitalist free enterprise system and its leading to – horror or horrors! – consumerism run amok and the danger that Great Britain might follow the US down that sordid path to hell.  But it is even more than that: it is an existential and nihilistic tirade against life itself, questioning the very morality of bringing new lives into a world threatened by nuclear weapons or the ethical calculus involved in measuring the value of lives lost against those newly created.  And as such, despite the stellar performances of the entire cast, the play itself really was not my cup of tea. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Rare Revival of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore by John Ford

L-R: Amelia Pedlow and Matthew Amendt in 'TIS PITY SHE'S A WHORE.  Photo by Richard Termine.
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the bloody, complex tragedy written by John Ford circa 1630, has been staged far less frequently than one might have expected, given that it’s been around for nearly four centuries.  Indeed, its current revival by the deservedly acclaimed Red Bull Theater at The Duke on 42nd Street in Times Square marks the play’s first major off Broadway production in twenty years.

And yet there is, in fact, considerable justification for so little attention having been paid to this play over the years: its primary theme – that of an incestuous love affair between two siblings – apparently deeply offended the more tender sensibilities of earlier generations.  Moreover, our theatre-going predecessors seem to have been much more disturbed by Ford’s sympathetic treatment of the play’s male protagonist as an admirable, studious man who just happened to be in thrall to emotions beyond his control rather than as a despicable sexual pervert deserving of nothing more than our absolute contempt.  In our more “enlightened” age, the play has come to be viewed in a much more understanding light and we are especially fortunate that Red Bull Theater, the only company in North America committed to the exploration and production of the Jacobean plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, sees it that way.  If not, we might never have had the pleasure of seeing this truly terrific revival of this long-ignored work.

The setting of the play is Parma.  Giovanni (Matthew Amendt) and Annabella (Amelia Pedlow) are star-crossed lovers with a vengeance: they are passionately in love but they are also brother and sister which, contrary to what one might expect, doesn’t necessarily create an insurmountable impediment to the consummation of their mutual desires.  Putana (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) is Annabella’s tutoress and is not only aware of but comfortable with the illicit relationship.  Friar Bonaventura (Christopher Innvar), Giovanni’s tutor and confessor, is also aware of the relationship but, unsurprisingly, as a Catholic priest, he is clearly disapproving.  Other than Putana and Friar Bonaventura, however, no one else knows what is going on between the siblings – at least not at the beginning.

Certainly their father, Signor Florio (Philip Goodwin), is unaware of the situation.  He very much loves his children and is especially eager to assist his daughter in arranging a marriage to a good man whom she truly loves.  To that end, he agrees to allow Bergetto (Ryan Garbayo), who is something of a simpleton and the nephew of his friend Signor Donado (Everett Quinton) to attempt to win his daughter’s hand, albeit to no avail.

Nor is Bergetto Annabella’s only suitor.  She is also being wooed by Lord Soranzo (Clifton Duncan), a nobleman, and by Grimaldi (Tramell Tillman), a Roman gentleman and soldier.  Annabella indicates that if she were to marry anyone (which she’d prefer not to do since she is so in love with her brother), it would be Soranzo, although he is, in fact, something of a cad: after carrying on an adulterous affair with Hippolita (Kelley Curran) and leading her to believe that he would marry her if only she were to be widowed, he unceremoniously dumps her when word arrives that her husband Richardetto (Marc Vietor)  actually has died while away on a dangerous journey (a journey that Hippolita had encouraged with Soranzo’s approval in the hope that Richardetto’s death would, in fact, ensue).  Finally realizing that she must eventually marry someone other than her brother, Annabella reluctantly agrees to marry Soranzo.

Spoiler Alert!   As it turns out, Richardetto hadn’t really died at all but, suspecting that his wife might be having an affair, faked his own death and returned to Parma, disguised as a doctor and accompanied by his niece, Philotis (Auden Thornton).  Eager for revenge against Soranzo for having slept with his wife, Richardetto convinces Grimaldi to attempt to kill Soranzo, in order to eliminate Grimaldi’s primary competition for Annabella’s hand.  Grimaldi tries but fails, accidentally killing Bergetto (who, in the wake of his rejection by Annabella, had become betrothed to Philotis) instead.

Annabella realizes that she is pregnant with Giovanni’s child and, under the circumstances, is convinced by Friar Bonaventura to marry Soranzo forthwith, before her condition becomes apparent.  A wedding is planned and all are invited.

Meanwhile, Hippolita also plans vengeance against Soranzo, in her case for his having left her to marry Annabella, prompting her to conspire with Vasques (Derek Smith), Soranzo’s Spanish servant, to poison Soranzo.  But, as is often the case, betrayals may beget double-crosses: Vasques remains loyal to Soranzo and poisons Hippolita instead during Annabella’s and Soranzo’s wedding festivities.

Inevitably, Soranzo realizes that Annabella is pregnant and conspires with Vasques to take revenge upon his wife and her as yet unknown lover.  Vasques learns the truth from Putana and wreaks vengeance on Putana for her complicity in Annabella’s sin by leading a group of bandits in constraining her and blinding her.  Annabella writes a letter to Giovanni in her own blood, alerting him to the danger that awaits him now that Soranzo knows that he is the father of her unborn child but Giovanni, who is too hubristic to believe that any harm might ever befall him, rejects advice to decline Sorenzo’s invitation to his wedding feast and attends anyway.

At the feast, all hell breaks loose.  Giovanni visits Annabella in her room, kisses her, then stabs her to death.  He returns to the feast, wielding Annabella’s heart skewered on his dagger, and informs everyone present of their incestuous relationship – at which point Florio dies immediately from shock.  Soranzo attacks Giovanni but Giovanni gains the upper hand and stabs Soranzo, killing him.  Vasques joins the fray, wounding Giovanni and ordering his bandits to kill him.

By the time the play ends, the stage is covered in bodies and blood.  Poggio (Ryan Farley), Bergetto’s servant, has survived, and so has Richardetto (who has revealed his true identity), and Donado, and Friar Bonaventura (who skipped town after delivering Annabella’s bloody letter to Giovanni in order to avoid any further involvement in the situation).  Grimaldi, Vasques and Philotis have survived too, but they have also all left town: Grimaldi has been sent back to Rome by The Cardinal (Rocco Sisto); Vasques has been exiled to Spain (also by The Cardinal; and Philotis has been sent to a convent by her uncle, Richardetto.  And they, together with The Cardinal, are the lucky ones.

All of the others are dead or soon to be.  Giovanni, Soranzo and Bergetto have all been stabbed to death.  Florio has died of shock.  Hippolita has been poisoned.  Putana is to be burned at the stake, also on orders of The Cardinal, even after having been blinded.  And Annabella, as if to add insult to injury, has not only been stabbed to death but literally “disheartened.”

The play has everything one might expect from a Jacobean drama, ranging from impediments to true love to murder most foul (including stabbing, poisoning, and burning at the stake); from betrayals and double-crosses to disguises and false identities; from adultery and cuckoldry to religious hypocrisy and ethnic bigotry.  Not to mention incest and nudity, to boot.  This play has it all and this revival plays it for all its worth.  It is truly a wonderful production that should not be missed.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Belle of Belfast at DR2 Theatre

L-R: Kate Lydic and Hamish Allan-Headley in THE BELLE OF BELFAST. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Virtually everyone in Belfast in 1985 (whether Catholic or Protestant, young or old) was affected by the Irish “troubles,” although the manner in which they attempted to cope with their predicaments varied widely from person to person.  For one it might be religion; for another, alcohol or drugs; and for yet a third, sexual rebellion. Thus, Ben Reilly (Hamish Allan-Headley), raised to be a good Catholic but orphaned as a young boy when his parents perished in a car crash, eventually became a mild-mannered Catholic priest, taking solace in his religious faith and certain that his parents, looking down upon him from Heaven, were pleased with the path he had taken.  Dermott Behan (Billy Meleady), on the other hand, another priest with whom Ben shared living quarters in later life (but one who was much angrier and fiery than his clerical roommate) found solace of a different sort: he sought comfort in alcohol.  And Anne Malloy (Kate Lydic), who also was orphaned at a very young age when her parents were blown up as collateral damage in an IRA terrorist explosion, thereby becoming martyrs to their cause, found an entirely different solution: she acted out as a sassy, rebellious, promiscuous, seductive teenager, ultimately engaging in the most damaging sexual behavior.
Anne is the central character in The Belle of Belfast written by Nate Rufus Edelman and directed by Claudia Weil, produced by the Irish Repertory Theatre and currently enjoying its New York premiere at its temporary location at the DR2 Theatre in Union Square in downtown Manhattan, and the play revolves primarily around her relationship with Father Reilly, the parish priest who is twice her age.  The play treads very familiar ground but does so effectively, largely due to the remarkable talent and professionalism of its entire cast which, in addition to Allan-Headley, Meleady and Lydic, includes Patricia Conolly as Emma Malloy (Anne’s somewhat loopy great-aunt who has cared for her since Anne was orphaned) and Arielle Hoffman as Ciara Murphy (Anne’s best friend who is as lost as Anne is).

In our last review (of a recent revival of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros) we commented on man’s frequently foolish tendency to focus on the trivial and insignificant at the expense of the truly important.  Ironically, something quite similar is at issue in The Belle of Belfast.  In Rhinoceros we were introduced to characters who were more concerned over whether the rhinoceroses they encountered were Asian or African or had one horn or two than with the massive devastation they were causing.  In The Belle of Belfast, Emma dwells on such trivia as where and by whom it might be appropriate for her to be touched and by the sin she might have committed by viewing an incident of shoplifting rather than any of the larger issues in life.  Duncan is seemingly more concerned with the number of Hail Marys to prescribe in the professional for the most minor of religious infractions than with the death and destruction all about him (he actually takes pleasure in the martyrdom of Anne’s parents since it entailed the deaths of seven Protestants as well).  And Anne is persistently hung up on replacing all her “fucking” profanity with milder “fecking” expletives, a distinction which actually seems to matter to Father Reilly (who remains more concerned over maintaining his relationship with the Church than with his relationship with Anne, even at her time of greatest anguish).
It is a sad but all too true commentary on the human condition.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Ionesco's Rhinocerous in Revival by Onomatopoeia Theatre Company

The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company
by Eugene Ionesco

Rhinoceros poster art - “The Rhinoceros” woodcut (1598) David Kandel

Eugene Ionesco wrote Rhinoceros in 1959, more than a half-century ago; it was first produced a year later under the direction of Orson Welles at the Royal Court Theatre in London, starring Laurence Olivier as Berenger.  In 1961, the play moved to Broadway, featuring Eli Wallach as Berenger and Zero Mostel as Jean, a role for which Mostel won that year’s Tony Award.  In 1973, it was adapted for the movies (still called Rhinoceros) and in 1990 it was adapted for a musical entitled Born Again.  Currently it is being revived in a limited off off Broadway run by The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company at the Gene Frankel Theater on Bond Street in downtown Manhattan, starring Adam G. Brooks as Berenger and Alex Levitt as Jean.  This is a very ambitious project for Onomatopoeia to undertake, considering how high Olivier, Wallach and Mostel set the bar in their earlier performances, but both Brooks and Levitt, although relatively young actors, have proven themselves to be up to the task and both can take justifiable pride in their own performances.

The play’s plot is a classic example of the theatrical genre known as “Theatre for the Absurd,“ the movement with which Ionesco is most closely identified.  One or two rhinoceroses are running amok in a small peaceful French town.  Nor are these ordinary rhinoceroses that may have escaped from some local zoo or traveling circus.  Far from it.  They actually are people who have contracted "rhinoceritis," a strange malady that turns its victims into full-fledged rhinoceroses (Asian or African, take your pick), horns and all.  Before long, there are not just one or two rhinoceroses on the loose but dozens – a full-fledged epidemic.  But what does it all mean and what, if anything, should be done about it?

Thomas R. Gordon, Onomatopoeia’s Artistic Director has affirmed that the Company seeks …to create theatre with a focus on sound! Any and all types of sound!  Whether it is music, yelling or a symphony of emotions, we aim to create theatre that must be heard to really be seen!”  Well, if that is the Company’s mission, I can think of no better play for it to have revived than Rhinoceros, what with all the stomping, grunting, wheezing and trumpeting emanating from the pachyderms from which the play derives its name. 

But of course Ionesco’s motive in writing his play wasn’t just to make noise.  He had some very important things to say and while critics and playgoers continue to disagree on whether his primary goal was to indict the Communist movement (much as George Orwell did in Animal Farm), or whether it was to condemn Vichy France’s collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, or whether it was just one more example of existential angst (think Becket or Camus), there are at least three points on which they are all in substantial agreement:
First, the play certainly is an attack on conformity and the willingness of all too many otherwise decent and well-meaning people to capitulate unthinkingly to the will of the majority.  It is quite similar to the point that Ibsen asserted in Enemy of the People when he proclaimed that “The majority is never right.  Never, I tell you! That’s one of these lies in society that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against.”  Edmund Burke expressed a similar sentiment when he wrote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

In Rhinoceros it is Berenger (a somewhat irresponsible sot) who turns out to be that last “free and intelligent man,” retaining his humanity in the face of the “rhinoceritis” epidemic, even as he watches one after another of his friends and neighbors– ultimately even including his best friend, Jean, and his sweetheart, Daisy (Charlotte Vaughan Raines) – succumb to the deadly disease, despite their most vehement initial protestations.  Apparently, when push came to shove, they all decided that one must “go along to get along” and that despite one’s personal values, one should “not be judgmental” but should simply “live and let live.”  Maybe being a rhinoceros wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Second, Ionesco clearly intended to mock mankind’s frequent tendency to focus on the trivial and ignore what is truly important - in short, to fail to see the forest for the trees.  The Logician (Clinton Powell) and The Old Gentleman (Albert Baker), played almost as if they were Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, discuss at great length whether the first two rhinoceros sightings were of one and the same rhinoceros at two different moments in time or were of two different animals; whether the beasts had one horn apiece or two or whether one rhino might have had one horn and the other two - if, indeed, there really were two different animals; or, if there actually had been only one rhinoceros after all, whether it might have had two horns at the time of its initial sighting but lost one before it was sighted the second time; whether the animal (or animals) were Asian or African rhinoceroses; whether it is the Asian rhinoceros that has one horn and the African rhinoceros that has two or whether it might not be the other way around; and on and on.  Lost in all the verbiage was any consideration of the fact that the rhinoceroses were wreaking havoc throughout the town.  And that ultimately, as they spread, the consequences for the entire world could be absolutely catastrophic.  One rhino or two, one horn or two, Asian or African - who really cares?

Third, Ionesco holds up to ridicule those who simply deny reality whenever they find it unpleasant to accept.  Thus Mr. Botard (also played by Clinton Powell) vehemently denies to Ms Dudard (Zoe V. Speas) that the rhinoceros (or rhinoceroses) even exist, let alone represent a threat to the town, despite all of the eye witness testimony to that effect.  And he denies to Mrs. Boeuf (Julia Register) that humans could possibly be turning into rhinoceroses, despite the fact that she claims to have just seen her husband turn into one.  These are simply facts that he chooses not to face.  Until, that is, Mr. Boeuf, who has, indeed, turned into a rhinoceros, shows up to destroy the staircase leading to the office in which Mr. Botard is holding forth, necessitating both his and Ms Dudard’s rescues by several firemen.

Rhinoceros was first produced barely fifteen years after the end of World War II and during the very earliest stages of the Cold War when the Soviet Union still dominated half the world.  Understandably, it was especially relevant at that time, with the world still very much aware of the horrors that can accompany an unwillingness to confront evil in all its incarnations in order to avoid being deemed too judgmental, too unconventional, or simply unwilling to see the other guy’s side..  But although World War II and the Cold War are behind us, the fact remains that the play is just as relevant today as it ever was.

Today’s “rhinoceroses” are no longer Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union but they are Al Qaeda and ISIS, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia and North Korea.  Russia’s seizure of Crimea was eerily reminiscent of the Nazis’ annexation of Sudetenland and the world’s acquiescence in the one is as frightening as it is in the other.  And yet, as today’s “political correctness” segues into moral relativism, we find the President of the United States evaluating Islamist terrorism through the prism of the Catholic Inquisition of more than 500 years ago; seeking to understand Shariah law (which mandates stoning and decapitation for adultery or blasphemy) by viewing it through the eyes of those raised in other cultures; and urging negotiations over nuclear weapons with a rogue state committed to the sponsorship of world terrorism, the denial of the right of Israel even to exist, and the rallying cry “Death to America.”  It is tantamount to his attempting to sit down to tea with a rhinoceros.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Terrific Revival of The King and I at Lincoln Center Theater

L-R: Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe in THE KING AND I
In 2008, Kelli O’Hara garnered well-deserved Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations for her phenomenal performance as Nellie Forbush in Lincoln Center Theater’s wonderful revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.  Now we’re about to find out if lightning, indeed, can strike twice.  Lincoln Center Theater has just launched its revival of The King and I, another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre with Ms O’Hara again appearing in the starring role – this time as Anna Leonowens, a strong-willed English school teacher who contracts to travel to Siam to teach the children of the King (Ken Watanabe) and who ends up getting much more than she bargained for (as does the King).  And, as it turns out, lightning does strike twice: she is just as terrific in the role of Anna as she was as Nellie Forbush and this revival of The King and I is just as good as was the LCT”s justifiably acclaimed revival of South Pacific seven years ago.

But it is not just Ms O’Hara that makes this revival such a roaring success: this is simply a superlative production on virtually all counts.  Michael Yeargan’s set design is astounding from the opening scene in which Anna’s ship virtually sails directly into the midst of the audience to the sumptuous scenes of the King’s splendid palace.  The director and the cast have made very good use of much more of the theater than just the stage, with dramatic entrances and exits effected from several aisles. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is truly amazing - a spectacular blend of Eastern and Western movement.  And Catherine Zuber’s costume designs are smart and richly evocative.

But the most important factor in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is, of course, the music and here this revival benefits especially form the magnificent voices not only of Ms O’Hara but also of Ruthie Ann Miles (who plays the part of Lady Thiang, the King’s Number One wife, to absolute perfection), and Ashley Park (cast as Tuptim, the young girl presented to the King as a “gift” from the King of Burma whose voice is absolutely thrilling.  The large supporting cast is positively first rate – especially the many children of the King whose insouciance adds a delightful spice to the mix.  

Indeed, my only misgiving about the casting of this show related, ironically, to the King, himself.  Unquestionably, Mr. Watanabe is an accomplished actor with an impressive resume, including Japanese theater credits for his performances in Hamlet, The Lion in Winter, Dialogue with Horowitz, and The Royal Hunt of the Sun, as well as credits for his roles in several films including The Last Samurai (for which he received Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations).  This production of The King and I, however, marks his debut on the American stage and it is unfortunately wanting. While he succeeds in displaying his formidable acting skills in his conflicted role as the absolute ruler of a nation aspiring to transition from barbarism to a place among the nations of the civilized world while retaining its cultural values, neither his articulation nor his singing voice were on a par with those of the show’s three female principals (admittedly a very high bar).  But notwithstanding my disappointment over that one shortcoming, this production has so much else going for it that it truly deserves inclusion in any list of Lincoln Center’s many superb revivals of classic musicals.