Sunday, May 26, 2013

Off Broadway: Botallack O'Clock

Dan Frost in BOTALLACK O'CLOCK. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Written and directed by Eddie Elks and starring Dan Frost as Roger Hilton and Rhys King as the radio - yes, the radio! – (and as an oversexed bear that haunts Hilton’s imagination to boot), Botallack O’Clock received rave reviews when it was staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2012.  Third Man Theatre has now brought the play to New York where Frost is reprising his celebrated role as the tortured abstract artist at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan as part of the Brits Off Broadway program.  A fine actor, Frost plays the part of the obsessed, alcoholic painter with expressive intensity as he seeks to navigate the fine line that separates madness from artistic genius and, to that end, he is ably supported by King (who again plays the radio and the bear).

Hilton was an excellent painter whose ultimate descent into isolation, alcoholism, obsession and near-madness would seem to have the makings of a great play and Frost and King certainly are accomplished actors.  But despite all that, I found the play to be ultimately disappointing.  Hilton’s “insights” into the artistic process tended to be clich├ęs rather than bon mots and I thought that the playwright never really succeeded in exploring Hilton’s psyche in any depth.  Why, after all, did Hilton end up as he did?  What were the major influences in his life?  And what was the meaning of that lumbering bear anyway?  Unfortunately, we never do find out. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Broadway: Macbeth

Alan Cumming in MACBETH.

What Shakespeare had to say about life itself might just as well have been said of the entire production of Macbeth currently being staged on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre:

“[It] is…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

To be sure, the show is a hit, as attested to by the multitude of well-deserved curtain calls that the audience’s standing ovation demanded of Alan Cumming, the play’s star.  Mr. Cumming is undeniably an extraordinary actor who does a brilliant job playing the role of a mental patient who, in turn, acts out the entirety of Macbeth, playing virtually all of its roles himself.  It is a truly bravura performance and Cumming deserves all the praise he has received.  But the gnawing question remains: What was the point?

It’s as if a great ballerina were to perform a series of acrobatic stunts on stage or an opera star were to spend an evening mimicking the voices of pop singers.  It might be fun to watch, it might even represent an exhibition of considerable talent.  But it wouldn’t be ballet or opera.
And so it is here.  This show is, in essence, a wonderful entertainment and a splendid example of Mr. Cumming’s considerable talent, but it is not a great production of Macbeth.  So if you’re just out for an evening of fun and are turned on by unusual schticks, this show may be just what you’re looking for.  But if, like me, you prefer your Shakespeare straight, it might not be your cup of tea.

All of which has prompted me to pen this bit of doggerel:

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…
But watching Alan Cumming consumes hours….

The Scottish play
Now on Broadway
And starring Alan Cumming
Is a tour de force
Of Macbeth, of course -
And is totally mind-numbing

‘Twas not enough
He played Macduff,
Macbeth and Duncan too.
He played the witches
(And dropped his britches)
Just for me and you.

Now I must admit
The show’s a hit
And Cumming is the reason.
His acting’s great,
He’s just first-rate –
A man for every season.

He’s here, he’s there,
He’s everywhere…
In back, and now in front.
Yes, it is fun
But when it’s done,
It still seems just a stunt.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Off Off Broadway: The Balcony

L-R: Zoe Watkins, Francesco Andolfi, and Carlotta Brentan in THE BALCONY.  Photo by Richard Termine.

By 1949, Jean Genet, had been dishonorably discharged from the French Foreign Legion, had bummed around Europe as a petty thief and male prostitute, and had been incarcerated on ten separate occasions.  His convictions had been for minor legal infractions including theft, vagrancy, use of false papers, lewd acts, et al. but, under French law, the number of his convictions still put him at risk of being sentenced to life imprisonment. Fortunately for Genet, however, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, Jacques Cocteau, and a host of other cultural icons at that time were so impressed with his literary brilliance that they successfully petitioned the President of France to set aside his sentence, enabling him to continue to pursue a literary (and politically activist) career as a free man.

Genet wrote several versions of The Balcony (arguably his best play) in the late 1950s and early 1960s but the shortened version best known to American theatre goers is that based on the English translation by Bernard Frechtman that was first staged at Circle in the Square Theatre in New York and directed by Jose Quintero in 1960.  That version of the play was set in an upscale brothel in an unnamed country (inspired by Franco’s Spain), in which the brothel’s clients played the roles of powerful individuals (an army general, a bishop, a judge) while their real life counterparts were engaged in a revolutionary uprising in the city’s streets.

Horizon Theatre Rep’s current revival of The Balcony at The Access Theatre in downtown Manhattan sticks pretty close to that scenario (although it has been re-set with the furnishings of an upscale hotel suite rather than those more typical of a bordello and has been re-interpreted to reflect the economically inspired demonstrations currently taking place throughout the Euro Zone rather than the Spanish Civil War.)  The play’s dominant figure is still the brothel madam, Irma (Maria Wolf) who directs all the performances in her house of mirrors, fantasies, role-playing and illusions- and does so superbly.  And her principal clients are still The Bishop (Jacopo Rampini) who forgives a sinner, Carmen (Kimmie Solomon); The Judge (Zoe Watkins) who punishes a thief (Carlotta Brentan) with the assistance of the Executioner (Francesco Andolfi); and The General (Jon Okabayashi) who rides his horse (Alison Paula Campbell) – all of whom turn in fine performances.

It is within this context that Genet explores the dual issues of (1) dominance/submission (both for individuals and for classes within society) and (2) reality/illusion (issues which have engaged him in most of his other works as well).  Here these issues come to a head when the Queen’s Envoy (Carlo Giuliano) comes to report that the “real” Bishop, Judge, and General have been killed in the uprising and their “fake” brothel counterparts attempt to assume their roles; when the Envoy also reports that the Queen is nowhere to be found and Irma resolves to play her role; when Chantal (Ines Lucas), one of the brothel’s whores, leaves to inspire the revolution; and when The Chief of Police (Rafael De Mussa, who also directed the play) arrives to establish some sort of control but, even more, to seek some form of illusionary immortality for himself.

Genet’s plays generally are staged in highly stylized, almost surrealistic fashion, and that is what I had expected from this revival.  But that is not what I got – which may have surprised me but certainly did not disappoint me.  Indeed, this was a more realistic rendition of The Balcony than I’ve been accustomed to seeing - from the television set presumably depicting street riots in real time to the hotel suite’s accoutrements - but it probably made for a greater clarity in coming to grips with the geopolitical problems confronting today’s world and that, after all, is just what I think Horizon Theatre Rep and De Mussa were aiming at.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Off Off Broadway: Some Girl(s)

Kirk Gostkowski and Ashleigh Murray in SOME GIRL(S).  Photo by Olivia Nolan.

Variations Theatre Group (VTG) is closing out its fourth season with a bang – a wonderful revival of Neil LaBute’s Some Girl(s) at the Chain Theatre in Long Island City.  That, of course, came to me as no surprise: back in 2009-10, VTG’s initial production of another Neil LaBute play, The Shape of Things, starring Kirk Gostkowski and directed by Rich Ferraioli (VTG’s co-founders and co-Artistic Directors), blew me away.  And VTG’s subsequent revivals of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love and Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (both also directed by Ferraioli and starring Gostkowski) were equally impressive. So with Gostkowski starring in Some Girl(s) and Farraioli producing (even if not directing this one), my expectations were understandably high.  And I was not disappointed.

What did surprise me though is that, despite the consistent excellence of its productions, VTG remains one of the best kept theatrical secrets in the New York area.  Indeed, at the performance of Some Girl(s) that I attended, there were fewer occupied seats than empty ones.  Maybe parochial Manhattan theatre goers are simply reluctant to make the short hop across the river into Long Island City, even for the best of reasons (I know I was at first) and, if so, that is unfortunately their loss.

The story line of Some Girl(s) is simple and direct: Guy (Kirk Gostkowski), a successful teacher and aspiring writer, has just gotten engaged but, before getting married, he has decided to look up his ex-girlfriends and attempt to make amends to them for any injuries he might have caused them in their earlier relationships.  To that end, he arranges to meet each of them in a hotel room in her home town.  The ex-girlfriends are a predictable lot and the manner of Guy’s prior use, abuse and/or abandonment of them turns out to have been similarly unsurprising.
Sam (Amber Bogdewiecz) was Guy’s Seattle high school sweetheart who he dumped just before the prom.  Tyler (Ashleigh Murray) was his sexually adventurous partner in Chicago.  Lindsay (Kathryn Neville Brown) was the older married college professor with whom he took up as a graduate student in Boston.  And Bobbi (Jill Durso) may have been the only woman he ever truly loved (although maybe that was really her twin sister, Billi, that he loved after all).  Of course he had assured each and every one of them that she was “the one” and perhaps he even meant it at the time he said it but, what really comes across is that, to Guy, women are a pretty fungible commodity and his own hedonist selfishness is so extreme that their feelings never even enter into his considerations.
Each of Guy’s exes, in her own way, does an exceptional job of expressing her ambivalent attitudes toward her former lover.  Sam has married, has become a mother, and has gotten on with her life, but her nuanced performance suggests that the damage Guy did to her never fully healed.  Tyler exudes sexuality but she uses her sex as a scalpel, as if to suggest to Guy just what he might have lost by abandoning her.  Lindsay, who may be the most unforgiving of the lot, uses her sex to torment Guy as well, but more as a sledge than a scalpel.  And it is Bobbi who succeeds in torturing him with words, rather than her sexuality, who brings about his ultimate denouement – if, indeed, that is what it is.
But why has Guy acted so out of character in seeking to atone for his past sins?  Well, as it turns out, there may have been more to his apparently aberrant behavior than first met the eye.
The play is set in a series of nearly identical hotel rooms in Seattle, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles, the only characteristics distinguishing one room from another being the different paintings on the walls, all having been created by Stephanie Ferraioli (the show’s Scenic Artist and Rich Ferraioli’s wife).  The interchangability of the rooms (other than for the paintings) sharply underscores the fungibility of the women in Guy’s life as he perceives them.
When LaBute first wrote this play, those were all of the characters in it but, sometime after it was first produced, he decided that something was missing and added another scene with one more character, Reggie, the kid sister of Guy’s childhood friend. The scene with Reggie is an add-on – the play can be performed with or without it – but LaBute has suggested that a “daring” theatre company might attempt it.  Since VTG’s “goal is to produce intellectually engaging, muscular theatre” and since it defines “muscular theatre” as “strong, visceral language that elicits from the audience the experience of live raw emotion,” it is not surprising that it opted to include the add-on scene with the Reggie character (Jaclyn Sokol).
Personally, I would have preferred if that character and scene had been omitted.  I found Guy’s past relationship to the twelve-year-old Reggie to be gratuitously jarring and disturbing and one that was not at all necessary for our understanding of Guy’s persona as an adult.  But that is not to be taken as a criticism of Sokol’s performance in any way: indeed, I thought that the emotional depth of her performance was extraordinary.  I just would have preferred if LaBute had never written her role into the play in the first place or, given that he did, if VTG had chosen to produce the play without that add-on scene.
But that is a minor quibble.  Overall this is an excellent production, right up there with the rest of VTG’s shows.  It’s well worth a trip across the river.