Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an enchantment. When a feuding fairy king and queen, a mischievous sprite, mismatched lovers, and a farcical, amateur acting company share the stage, ardor, revenge, deception, whimsy and magic reign.
Any director must helm all this with clear point of view, however, or chaos ensues. Unfortunately, Lear deBessonet apparently has none. The four factions – fairyland, Athens’ nobles, youthful, romantic obsession, and vaudevillian shenanigans – bump against each other without cohesion. Though David Rockwell’s versatile, Arthur Rackhamish fantasy set (love the slide), and Clint Ramos’s extravagantly original costumes (inspired by, among others, Carmen Miranda, Siegfried or Roy, Esther Williams, and The Pope) are appealing, they signify nothing without empathy for the players.
Annaleigh Ashford (Helena) and Alex Hernandez (Demetrius)
For the record, I take no issue with updating the play’s look or adding punctuating, contemporary music – here, zydeco, r & b, rock, and country often sung by the flat out terrific Marcelle Davies-Lashley. (Original Music/Music Supervisor Justin Levine.) Nor, despite its getting a bit tired, do I object to the company’s goofy, signature dance number at the end.
Synopsis: Creating an atmosphere of romance, Theseus, The Duke of Athens (Bhavesh Patel) is about to wed Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (De’Adre Aziza). Hermia (Shalita Grant) and Lysander (Kyle Beltran) are in love, but the girl’s father Egeus (David Manis) insists she marry Demetrius (Alex Hernandez) who is, in turn, pursued by Helena (Annaleigh Ashford). The four young people find themselves in the Fairy Wood, some to flee, others plying suit.
Kristine Nielson (Robin/Puck) and Richard Poe (Oberon) watch Shalita Grant (Hermia) and Alex Hernandez (Demetrius)
Titania, Queen of the Fairies (Phylicia Rashad) is at odds with husband Oberon (Richard Poe) over the changeling boy she’s adopted (adorable Benjamin Ye who giggles on cue). Oberon enlists Robin Goodfellow/Puck (Kristine Nielson), to bewitch his errant wife into falling in love with the next creature she sees. That “creature” turns out to be Nick Bottom, the weaver (Danny Burstein), in the wood to rehearse a play for the wedding festivities. Robin famously changes Titania’s unwitting swain into an ass.
Ersatz play-within-the-play thespians include Peter Quince (Robert Joy), bellows mender Francis Flute (Jeff Hiller), Snout the tinker (Patrena Murray), Snug the joiner (Austin Durant) and tailor Robin Starveling, (Joe Tapper).
Patrena Murray (Snout), Robert Joy (Peter Quince), Jeff Hiller (Frances Flute), and Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom)
Also commanded to cast a spell on Dimitrius in order to bring together he and Helena, Robin mistakenly bewitches Lysander who then forsakes Hermia for Helena further complicating the caucus race.
To my mind, there are two unfathomable casting errors. The first is Kristine Nielson as a leaden Robin Goodfellow who clumps around the stage, humorlessly mugs in the yuk-yuk vein and adds not an ounce of lightheartness. The second, nightshirt-wearing fairies ranging, I’d conjecture, from 65-85 years-old who literally seem to have trouble getting up and down stairs to the proscenium. While chronological age is irrelevant, difficulty getting about is not, especially for fairies.
Richard Poe (Oberon) and Kristine Nielson (Robin/Puck)
Hearing audience members murmur that perhaps capable Shakespearean actors were few in New York come summer confirmed that my reservations about the cast were not simply from over exposure. And no, I don’t believe one has to be British. This is compounded by deBessonet’s lack of attention to characterization.
Annaleigh Ashford of whom I’m a fan, is hit or miss as Helena. Though a crowd-pleaser and often theatrically funny (especially physically), unedited excess finds her at last, just clownish. Both Ashford and Shalita Grant (Hermia) are pushed to unrestrained screeching which deBessonet appears to find amusing. The usually fine Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom) doesn’t seem to be having enough fun with the role. Kyle Beltran (Lysander) is earnest and clear. Among yeoman actors, Jeff Hiller (Frances Flute) enters querulous and plays Thisbe with evocative glee.
The stage is well and fully used as are Delacorte aisles.
An outdoor Midsummer is in itself a treat and this one was not without its pleasures. I wonder whether the audience holds The Public Theater to less high standards in Central Park.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Phylicia Rashad (Titania) and Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom)
Six Degrees of Separation was inspired by the true story of con man David Hampton who, in the 1980s, ingratiated himself with several well heeled Manhattan residents by misrepresenting himself as a friend of their children and the son of Sidney Poitier. The young man evoked sympathy garnering various gifts and assistance. One couple allowed him to spend the night only to discover two strangers occupying the morning guestroom. Hampton was eventually caught, tried and acquitted.
Playwright John Guare found himself fascinated with the ease with which Hampton accomplished his deception, particularly the way it reflected on the moneyed class he snookered. (He had the story firsthand from friends who’d believed the boy.) What made the grifter so appealing and relatable to his hosts? Did he change their lives?
Allison Janney and Benjamin Hickey
Paul (Corey Hawkins) appears at the Fifth Avenue door of Ouisa (Allison Janey) and Flan (John Benjamin Hickey) unannounced and bleeding. He tells the couple he’s a Harvard friend of their children and having been mugged across the street in Central Park, remembered the Kittridges proximity. He’s eloquent and well dressed.
The interloper couldn’t have picked a worse night. Ouisa and Flan are entertaining Geoffrey (the somewhat unintelligible Michael Sieberry), a wealthy South African friend whom they hope will supply the last two million dollars of a deal to purchase and resell a Cezanne. (Flan is a discreet art dealer.) Still, they can’t turn the boy away. He’s not only immensely flattering but seems to know everything about them.
Before the evening ends, Paul has declared himself the son of Sidney Poitier (about whom he’s also well versed) and promised them Extra jobs in the artist’s imminent production of Cats-the movie (Ouisa calls Flan a “starfucker” for asking, but they’re both extremely impressed.) He’s regaled his captive audience with the text of his (stolen) thesis – a theory that the iconic Catcher in the Rye has turned into “a manifesto of hate” (the red deer hunter hat is conjectured as indicating a killer of men), whipped up five star pasta, and indirectly secured Flan’s investment funds.
Lisa Emery, Michael Countryman, Allison Janney, Ned Eisenberg, John Benjamin Hickey
The next morning, Ouisa goes in to wake their guest so he might meet his dad at The Sherry Netherland and finds him having sex with another boy. Outraged, she throws them both out. (James Cusati-Moyer’s wild turn as the naked hustler is wonderfully played and directed.) “Give me back my $50.00!” demands Flan. “I spent it,” Paul responds nodding towards his company. “Please don’t tell my father, he doesn’t know…”
At this point, friends Kitty (Lisa Emery) and Larkin (Michael Countryman) show up with a similar story, bragging the anecdote. The group realizes they’ve been taken. A police detective (Paul O’Brien) can be no help. What are the charges?! By the time Dr. Fine has given Paul his brownstone keys and a young couple who can ill afford it are ripped off (a splendidly imagined tangent), Paul seems unstoppable.
In search of answers, the adults interview their collective kids, Tess (Colby Minifie), Woody (Keenan Jolliff) and Ben (Ned Riseley). (One remains at Groton.) Instead of help, the spoiled young people unleash anger and disparagement. (This is hysterically performed and directed.) Tess, however, tracks a theory to Paul’s ignominious “origin.” (Chris Perfetti does a fine job as Trent, the link here.)
Lisa Emery, Ned Eisenberg, Cody Kostro, Keenan Jolliff, John Benjamin Hickey, Allison Janney, Ned Riseley, Colby Minifie, Michael Countryman
The rest of the play, in fact the piece, centers on Ouisa’s strong connection to the needy, aspiring Paul who continues, rife with delusions, to reach out until captured. An existence with which she’s been content seemed suddenly as much an illusion as the young man’s masquerade and for reasons just as compelling.
Playwright John Guare’s 27 year-old piece holds just as much bite as it did when it emerged. Sharp satire is enhanced by on-target detail and wry syntax. Current purveyors of “fake news” give it an additional dimension. Paul’s theory about the Saroyan classic is clever. Flan’s muses on art are erudite. Watch for the second Paul reverts, when he tells Ouisa he likes being watched.
Ouisa’s hypothesis that everyone is linked to everyone else through six acquaintances (here, the boy who taught Paul how to seem as if he belonged and children of those duped) has beco0me a part of modern lexicon. “I find that A) tremendously comforting that we’re so close and B) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close. Because you have to find the right six people to make the connection,” she declares towards the end of the tale.
Corey Hawkins and Allison Janney
Allison Janney (Ouisa) is splendid, her appreciable comedic talents well showcased. Expression, tone, pitch perfect timing, and patrician demeanor make the actress a pleasure to watch. Despite being drawn to and moved by Paul, Janney’s take on Ouisa does not emulate that of Stockard Channing who played the character at Lincoln Center and in the film. Janney is less visibly emotional, more pragmatic. Still we see the shift.
John Benjamin Hickey does a yeoman like job but is miscast, lacking an Alpha Male persona.
As Paul, Corey Hawkins gives us a well honed Tom Ripley-like character (Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley) an absorber of others’ lives at all costs. He’s convincingly Ivy League when spinning webs and frighteningly street predatory in a flashback. Unlike Tom, this young man lacks luck and funding or he might be out there still.
Of the supporting cast, Colby Minifie makes Tess as credibly smart as she is whiney and demanding; Peter Mark Kendall manifests a young victim named Rick with naivete, excitement, and shock; Ned Eisenberg imbues Dr. Fine with querulous confidence.
Director Trip Cullman offers an interpretation with black humored snap and imagination. Staging is minimal and sharp-edged. When emotion shows itself, it’s all the more effective.
Mark Wendland’s stark RED set is unnerving from the get-go which somewhat telegraphs issues to come and perhaps shouldn’t. Hanging a large, two-sided Kandinsky which figures in the piece, high above heads works well as a symbol. Minimal furniture is exactly right. Clint Ramos’ Costumes don’t look sufficiently expensive. Ben Stanton’s often imaginative Lighting Design emphasizes rigidity and pith.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Corey Hawkins; John Benjamin Hickey & Allison Janney
Before Howard Ashman and Alan Menken hit pay dirt with Little Shop of Horrors, long before they became synonymous with reinvigorating Disney animated movies, 1979’s God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, based on the Kurt Vonnegut book, appeared briefly Off Broadway. Vonnegut’s sharp irreverence, couched first in science fiction, then as fantasy and finally as wry, humanist observation, was almost a rite of passage for a generation of smart young people enmeshed in alternative culture.
The author was older than many admirers, often referring to traumatic World War II experience beyond their ken, but shared with them a social conscience that emerged like a pendulum swinging between cynicism and idealism. This volume in particular might have been written by Bernie Sanders supporters.
Santino Fontana (Eliot)and the office staff
In the first minutes of the production, Eliot Rosewater (Santino Fontana) enters with a pratfall and haplessly donates $50,000 of his family’s foundation to a poet seeking immeasurably less.“Go and tell the truth,” he instructs the nonplussed writer. He’s devoted and he’s loaded/So we haven’t a complaint…sings his staff.
The Rosewater Foundation, created by Eliot’s U.S. Senator father (Clark Johnson) to help descendants avoid paying taxes on the estate, is based in New York City, not Rosewater, Indiana where the family manse stands empty. Though it’s “handled” by a large legal firm, Eliot has inherited control. He wears the crown uncomfortably and is often drunk. Obsessions include Volunteer Fire Departments (we learn why later) and a science fiction novelist named Kilgore Trout who is quoted and later appears as the voice of “real” sanity. (James Earl Jones). A psychiatrist deems Eliot incurable for reasons of not gratefully toeing the gilded line.
Despite, or perhaps because of, advantages, the young man couldn’t be more of thepeople. As written and expertly acted, Eliot seems like sweet, slightly obtuse Charlie Brown with an adult conscience. Equally uneasy in the upper echelon lifestyle curetted by loving wife Sylvia (Brynn O’Malley), frustration builds until our hero decides he must go in search of his destiny and disappears. Letters arrive from Hamlet to Ophelia, the escapee’s perception of himself and Sylvia. The other is Volunteer Fire Departments. We learn about this fixation later.
Skylar Astin (Norman Mushari)
Meanwhile, Norman Mushari (Skylar Astin), a young lawyer at the firm, learns of a codicil in the Rosewater Foundation set-up that states Eliot can be replaced by another family member if he’s proved mentally unstable. The ambitious associate recalls what his professors told him about getting ahead in law. “… just as a good airplane pilot should always be looking for places to land, so should a lawyer be looking for situations where large amounts of money were about to change hands.” One practically sees Eureka! flash over his head.
Leap-frogging Volunteer Fire Departments across the country (including a delightfully staged musical number), Eliot also has a eureka moment and returns to his depressed hometown. He opens the house, sets up an office, and becomes Rosewater’s defacto therapist and philanthropist (black telephone), as well as a member of the Volunteer Fire Department (red telephone.)
Brynn O’Malley (Sylvia) and the townspeople
We meet and compassionately hear from raggle-taggle citizens who grow to think of him as a Saint. Aspiring to be supportive, Sylvia arrives, and tries, how she tries to fit in! Eventually, however, his patrician spouse has a meltdown at a meticulously planned soiree when her guests prefer Cheese Nips to pate and coke to champagne. Brynn O’Malley’s deadpan apoplexy is as convincing as her love for and incomprehension of Eliot.
Kate Wetherhead (Caroline Rosewater), Kevin Del Aguila (Fred Rosewater)
While Eliot is altruistically fulfilling himself, Norman has found Fred (Kevin Del Aguila) and Caroline (Kate Wetherhead) Rosewater, in, wait for it, Pisquontuit, Rhode Island. The couple are bickering malcontents not adverse to swindling rich relatives. Both actors are marvelous in the deftly staged “Rhode Island Tango” and apple-pie-corny “Plain Clean Average Americans.” It appears to be a slam dunk, but of course, is not.
Narrative displays several signature Vonnegut themes, the familiar device of God-like narration (James Earl Jones), and characters found in other books by the author. Lack of this awareness in no way impedes enjoyment. There’s also a brief scene from one of Kilgore Trout’s space adventures – a disconnect, but very funny. Howard Ashman’s book and lyrics are literate, specific, and filled with heart. Alan Menken’s music is, well, fine. This was their first collaboration.
Santino Fontana, James Earl Jones (Kilgore Trout) and company members
Santino Fontana’s embodiment of Eliot is consistently engaging and sympathetic. Really, one wants to take him home to mom. The actor is completely natural and has an appealing voice.
Skylar Ashton (Norman Mushari), who looks too much like Fontana, is a solid player but could have more fun with numbers like “Mushari’s Waltz” in which his ballet seems restrained.
James Earl Jones literally lends resonance to the piece. His Kilgore Trout is a credible curmudgeon.
Of the townsfolk, Rebecca Naomi Jones (Mary Moody), Liz McCartney (Diana Moon Glampers), and Kevin Ligon (Selbert Peach) shine.
Director Michael Mayer uses Donayle Werle’s simply structured Set with skill and aesthetic variety. A fire pole and hose are used to great effect. Small stage business adds immeasurably. Heart and humor go hand in hand.
Choreography by Lorin Latarro is beguiling. Leon Rothenberg’s Sound Design couldn’t be crisper or better balanced.
Just ran away. I had to run away./My parents can hear, but I can’t,/and they blame me for that…(signed by a deaf actor )
Author Elizabeth Swados was in her mid twenties when, following on the heels of Hair and A Chorus Line, Runaways moved from The Public Theater to Broadway. Hair is affectionately (?) ridiculed in the piece as symptomatic of self indulgent baby boomers. Like A Chorus Line, Runaways was midwifed out of extensive confessional interviews – in this case, with homeless kids. It was an era of wildly innovative, experimental theater.
Eeny Meeny Gipsaleeny/Ooh Aah Combaleeny/Ooh, Mamacha cucaracha/COD… From up aisles and out of the wings, 25 young actors between the ages of 12 and 19 commandeer the stage as if they were squatters gathering, not unsuspiciously, for group warmth. Some performers carry books, those who do remain fluent. Most, wisely, look their ages. All but two sing up a storm and everyone moves well. Choreography by Ani Taj is vigorous and cool.
This is very serious/It looks like this child has been severely beaten/We’ll have to perform an appendectomy…is sung to a troll doll with neon pink hair. We meet abused children, junkies, prostitutes, and grifters. Everyone has a personal story, yet characters are unidentified and without through line. Nor is there resolution or a happy ending. Instead of distancing the audience, this rivets us to collective emotion.
Salsa, reggae, pop-rock tunes, chanting, and accompanied monologues fill the theater without hurting one’s ears. This is some of the best Sound Design ever – resonant, yet pristine and beautifully balanced (Leon Rothenberg). Chris Fenwick’s Music Direction is top notch. Arrangements are multi-layered and appealing. There is, however, and this is my single objection – untranslated Spanish.
I am the undiscovered son of Judy Garland/And I can dance and sing and wear fancy clothes./And whereas my sister Liza has to really work for applause/All you have to do is look at me/And you weep with standing ovations… comes from a powerful number about search for identity. No one treats me like Mico do./He buys me halter tops and Corkies/And he got me a water bed up on our flat/On Avenue C between Fifth and Sixth… is the song of a 13 year-old streetwalker.
There are unheard messages for parents and authorities, tips on scoring necessities …enterprise, you got to enterprise…warnings, dreams, prayers, and descriptions of enraged violence. The limbo of adolescence is difficult enough without what these kids face at home and now must cope with on the street, yet, this is not a depressing show and I’m damned if I know why. The kids are fierce even when pleading to be allowed to experience childhood. Are we under the illusion they’ll get through?
Donayale Werle’s terrific Set is raw stage filled with theatrical equipment, the excellent band, a bunch of worse-for-wear couches, and an upturned mattress. It shouts irreverence. Microphones are on stands and handheld as if we were watching the show in 1978. Mark Barton’s fine Lighting Design emerges crisply up front and variegated shadow in the back. Costumes (Clint Ramos) are a riot of color (as is hair) mixing then and now with aesthetic appeal and mash-up sensibility.
Elizabeth Swados, who died this year, pushed envelopes of all kinds. Her body of work is as impressive as it is illuminating. In an effort to be as specific as possible, she reached the universal. Next to nothing about this piece feels dated.
Director Sam Pinkleton manages a stage swarming with actors who sit, stand, lie, dance, sing, fight and sign in small groups well as company numbers without, miraculously, ever getting messy. Relationships are pointedly fleeting. Use of street garbage=cardboard, as a graffiti wall and projection screen is organic and imaginative. Aisles and balconies are effectively employed. The wonderful cast is almost all without stage-kid consciousness. Dramatization is dynamic and credible. We’ll undoubtedly see many of these young people again and again in years to come.
Every now and then a choice gets made,/And some debt in your heart won’t be paid./Who gets left behind no one knows./Don’t always condemn/ The one who goes…