Thursday, June 20, 2013

Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center in DC

Having made its US debut in summer stock in 1978, Shear Madness has since been staged all over the world: Athens, Seoul, Istanbul, Rome, Budapest, Mexico City, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, Tel Aviv – the list just goes on and on.  The play’s Boston Company is now the longest running non-musical play in American theatre history; the Washington, DC production at the Kennedy Center is in second place; and the Chicago production comes in third.  How’s that for a theatrical trifecta?

Moreover, the Boston Globe has named Shear Madness “Best Comedy of the Year” seven times; both the Chicago Sun-Times and the Philadelphia Enquirer have named it “Best Play of the Year”; it has received the Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America; and it was the first play ever to have been inducted into the Comedy Hall of Fame.  Without question, this play is in a class of its own.
Sue and I finally got to see it with our 12 year old granddaughter, Naomi, last Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center during our brief sojourn in our nation’s capital.  Hundreds of other teens and pre-teens from all over the country were in attendance at the same performance and it was readily apparent that they absolutely loved the show.  Naomi agreed with them: she proclaimed that the play was the high point of our four day trip to Washington, DC.  But Sue and me, not so much.

Based on a German murder mystery originally titled Scherenschnitt by Paul Portner, Shear Madness is an interactive, improvisational, slapstick whodunit set in a unisex beauty parlor/barber shop.  The shop’s proprietor, Tony Whitcomb (Tom Wahl), is an irrepressible, fun-loving, flamboyant homosexual who is assisted in running his establishment by Barbara DeMarco (Gillian Shelly), the shop’s slutty hairdresser/manicurist.  The shop’s customers are Mrs. Shubert (Maureen Kerrigan), a philandering socialite; Eddie Lawrence (Nick DePinto), a suave and somewhat mysterious individual professing to be an antique dealer; and Nick O’Brien (Patrick Noonan) and Mikey Thomas (Jonathan Lee Taylor), two undercover cops.  All are constantly in motion, in and out of the shop, in one door and out another, when it is discovered that Isabel Czerny, a retired concert pianist and the building’s landlady (who we never do get to see), has been murdered.
It is quickly established that the murder must have been committed by Tony, Barbara, Eddie or Mrs. Shubert and it is up to Nick and Mikey (with the audience’s help) to determine who the guilty party is.

To that end, Nick and Mikey question all four suspects, soliciting the audience’s assistance along the way to determine the extent to which each suspect’s responses are or are not consistent with the events that the audience saw transpire on stage.  The entire structure provides the cast with a wonderful opportunity to improvise, peppering their remarks with allusions to current events, and they take every advantage of it.

Ultimately, the audience is asked to vote on who they believe to be the murderer and – surprise! – whoever a plurality of the audience comes up with turns out to be guilty (alternative endings for the play having been written to allow for all contingencies; the same conceit, by the way, was utilized in Roundabout Theatre’s Broadway production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood that we attended and reviewed earlier this year).  As it turned out, on the evening we saw Shear Madness, Eddie was the murderer but at any other given performance, the murderer might have been any one of the other three suspects (which partially explains why some theatre-goers choose to see this show more than once).

In my opinion, this is a terrific show for teens and ‘tweens: it is slapstick, burlesque, raucous, pun-filled, and a bit smarmy.  But for adults with somewhat more sophisticated tastes in theatrical comedy, I think the show may prove to be something of a disappointment, especially given all the hoopla surrounding it.

As an example, here’s how Tony Whitcomb described what happened when he feared that his pet cats, Hillary and Bill, might be trapped in a fire:

I told Hillary to run but she said “Not until 2016.”  And Bill just kept chasing his tail as usual.

Or, to take another example, when Nick O’Brien was preparing to question Eddie Lawrence, their exchange went like this:

Nick: Anything you say will be held against you.

Eddie: Boobies!

The young people in the audience did love it and if that kind of stuff is your shtick, you very well may too.  I just found it all a bit puerile (but maybe that’s just what comes of being a septuagenarian).

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

One Destiny at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC

Lincoln's Box at Ford's Theatre
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC on April 14th, 1865 is etched in our nation’s history.  The event so shook the country that performances at the theatre were not resumed for more than a century following Lincoln’s death (the site was subsequently used as a warehouse and office building but was not renovated as a theatre until 1968.)

Last Friday, during our four day trip to our nation’s capital with our granddaughter, Naomi, we all visited the Ford’s Theatre Museum (a huge collection of Lincoln memorabilia housed in the theatre’s basement) and attended a performance of Our Destiny, a short play by Richard Hellesen that explores the events that led up to Lincoln’s assassination.  The play, staged in the renovated theatre,
Stephen F. Schmidt and Michael Bunce in ONE DESTINY
is a cleverly constructed two hander in which two eye-witnessesses to the assassination - Harry Ford (Stephen F. Schmidt), the theatre’s co-owner, and Harry Hawk (Michael Bunce), a prominent actor of the time - try to make sense of what happened and struggle with the question of whether they might have been able to have done something to have prevented history’s having taken the course it did.

The play is entertaining, quite professional in its rendition, and educational.  It wasn’t one of the highlights of our trip but it certainly was worth seeing.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Trip to Washington DC with Naomi

Naomi outside the White House...
We’ve just returned from a four day trip to our nation’s capital with our 12 year old granddaughter, Naomi, to celebrate her graduation from lower school.  (She actually graduated last year, but we were simply unable to schedule the trip any sooner: between school, skiing, soccer, sports club, and theatre camp, her calendar was just too full.)  As it turned out, the trip was brief and exhausting – but it was absolutely wonderful and we all had a great time.

We traveled back and forth by train on Amtrak – a much more efficient and civilized way to get from NY to Washington than flying, what with the added time it would have taken to travel to and from airports in both cities – and we stayed at the Embassy Suites Washington Convention Center.  Our choice of a hotel worked out perfectly:  our two room suite was spacious and well appointed; the hotel was very child friendly; and we were located within walking distance of both
...and at the Lincoln Memorial
the Mall and of Ford’s Theatre.  A large free breakfast buffet was provided daily, fortifying us for the long days of sightseeing ahead of us.  And at the end of the day a free manager’s reception (wine, cheese, chips, crudités, etc.) took the edge off our appetites before dinner.  Add to that the swimming pool, hot tub and fitness center (all of which Naomi somehow found time to fit into our busy schedule) and we really couldn’t have asked for anything more.

During our four days stay, we managed to get to the Air and Space Museum, the American Indian Museum, and the Natural History Museum on the Mall.  We saw the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial,  the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the National Archives (one really can’t go to Washington without seeing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights).  We saw the White House (but only from the outside; unfortunately tours of the White House have been cancelled due to the sequester.)

,,,and in front of the Washington Monument
But while we weren’t able to tour the White House, we were able to tour Congress and to snag passes to the Visitors Gallery in the House of Representatives.  We visited the museum at Ford’s Theatre and saw One Destiny, a play about the Lincoln assassination at the theatre (I’ll be posting a brief review of the play in a day or two).  We also visited the John F. Kennedy Center and saw the long-running comedy Shear Madness there (I’ll be posting a brief review of that play in a day or two as well).  And we took the quirky DC Ducks Tour – a tour of the city in an amphibian bus that is just at home on the city’s streets as it is in the Potomac River.

In short, we all had a grand time.  When I asked Naomi what she most enjoyed, these were her choices:

Third Place:  The DC Ducks Tour.

Second Place: The Visitors Gallery of the House of Representatives.

First Place: Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center (I’ll have more to say about that in a future post).

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

3 Kinds of Evil by John Guare

Based on the experiences of three real-life exiled artists, John Guare’s 3 Kinds of Exile, currently premiering at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater on West 20th Street in Manhattan, isn’t just one play but, rather, three – all thematically related, to be sure, but still so distinctly different from one another, not only in content but in form, that one still might question whether the theater-going public might not have been better served had Mr. Guare expanded one of the three into a full length production and presented just that one.  Karel, based on the life of the exiled Czech filmmaker Karel Reisz, is a monologue.  Elzbieta Erased, predicated on the life of the Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska, is a two-hander.  And Funiage, inspired by the life and works of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, is antically Brechtian in nature.  As presented, they do provide enough entertainment to keep an audience engaged for 100 minutes without an intermission, but I think I would have preferred to have seen any one of them alone, had it only been developed into a full-fledged production of its own.

Karel, a forceful, yet touching, soliloquy, is effectively delivered by Martin Moran.  As played by Moran, Reisz was a tortured soul suffering from a debilitating ailment that was none the less severe for its probably having been psychosomatic, resulting from childhood traumas associated with his forced exile from Eastern Europe to London. (Note:  Karel’s somewhat surprising climax might have been more effective if a similar ploy hadn’t been used to greater effect in Sharr White’s The Other Place just two years ago.)

Elzbieta Erased is something quite different: a delightful two-hander in which Guare makes his acting debut, playing opposite the exceptionally talented Omar Sangare.  Sangare and Guare alternate in their depictions of Elzbieta Czyzewska and a variety of characters in her life (ranging from David Halberstam to Guare himself) and they play off one another as if they had been doing so for years.  Sangare is a remarkable performer and it was more than courageous of Guare to play opposite him in his own acting debut.  But while Sangare set the bar very high, Guare was up to the challenge.

There is an old saying that goes something like this: “You’re born, you marry, and you die.  I’ve been born and I’ve married.  Now there’s nothing left for me to do but die.”   The conceit behind Funiage plays on that idea (the artificial term “funiage” itself conflating the concepts of funereal and marriage rites).  David Pittu stars as Witold Gombrowicz in this final segment of the play, ricocheting between the realistic and the surrealistic in virtually Brechtian fashion.  In this exercise, he is ably supported by eight other cast members (including Moran and Sangare).

And what is one to make of it all?  Well, I think that all that Guare meant to express was that one man’s meat really can be another man’s poison.  Exile, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad but depends upon the individuals and circumstances involved.  Karel focused on the tragic effects on a child’s psyche of his having been forced into exile, even years or decades after the initial event.  In contrast, both Elzbieta Erased and Funiage reflected the consequences of voluntary self-exile rather than forced exile but the consequences in those two cases still couldn’t have been more disparate.  In Elzbieta Erased, an entire life was destroyed as a result of exile, despite the fact that that exile was voluntarily undertaken, as Elzbieta Czyzewska, a star in her native Poland, left her glory days behind her when she emigrated to the US, never again achieving anywhere near the success she had realized in her native land.  And in Funiage, we witnessed the flip side of Exbita Erased: for Witold Gombrowicz, unlike Elzbieta Czyzewska, his voluntary exile led to a new beginning and a successful life that far outshone the life he left behind in Poland.