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)
First, necessarily, comments on the controversy: Theater is a living, breathing art form. It has always reflected and reacted to its time. Currently, LGBT and apocalyptic themes are joined by a proliferation of stories with immigrant, and Middle East discourse/illumination. Religious freedom, women’s rights and segregation have ruled the stage in waves.
As you’ve undoubtedly heard, in this, the Public Theater’s current iteration of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the central character is meant to physically resemble Donald Trump and his wife to sound like Melania. Why not?! The classic drama has been produced with Caesar portrayed as Mussolini in Orson Welles’ anti-fascist version, an unnamed African dictator for that of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and, in 2012, President Obama at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater. None of these interpretations provoked protests. That original text resonates in each rendition is sufficient reason to restage the piece.
Tina Benko, Gregg Henry, Teagle F. Bougere, Elizabeth Marvel
Oscar Eustis, Artistic Director of The Public Theater, chose Caesar for relevance and, in his own words, as “a warning parable.” This examination of how far a people may go to protect democracy from a charismatic demagogue clearly shows radical consequences of anarchistic violence rather than advocating it. A staff driven by greed and personal advancement (sound familiar?) gets just desserts. Brutus is the only patriotic, if misguided conspirator, a fact acknowledged but not celebrated. Fatalism sweeps the stage like sirocco. Chaos ensues.
The play itself is problematic. While much proves as lively as it is timeless – “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” is from bona fied text (the audience laughs), a long, dense scene in which Brutus and Cassius disagree on plans could put anyone to sleep. Attention dips for a time after Marc Antony’s spectacular death bed (here, a gurney) oration.
Corey Stoll and John Douglas Thompson; Nikki M. James and Corey Stoll
Julius Caesar (Gregg Henry, with inadequate bombastic presence) greets adoring Rome with wife Calpurnia (Tina Benko, palpably seductive; great Slavic accent) preening by his side. At one point, he bats her away, a gesture that could easily have been played in reverse had the director wanted to be more partisan. Though he refuses a crown, it’s obvious Caesar’s fingers itch.
Fearing the loss of democracy, members of The Senate plot assassination at the instigation of Brutus (Corey Stoll, who underplays so much, it feels like we’re watching a disgruntled bureaucrat, not a soldier or statesman.) “He scorns the base degrees by which he did ascend,” Brutus declares of Caesar. (Currently applicable?)
Of this bunch, Teagle F. Bougere’s Casca is solidly credible and John Douglas Thompson (Cassius) provides one of two masterful characterizations every time he’s onstage. Thompson is vital, impassioned; his voice deep and invested, phrasing accessible yet poetic, presence shimmers with power. A soldier to his toes.
Corey Stoll and The Company
Conspirators come and go at Brutus’s home prompting questioning concern by his wife Portia (an excellent Nikki M. James) who tries unsuccessfully to seduce her husband into telling her what’s going on. Calpurnia almost has better luck when, fearing the portent of a dream, she attempts to get Caesar to blow off the Senate in favor of cavorting with her, initially in a gold bathtub (inspired). With convincing reinterpretation Decius (Eisa Davis) changes his mind back, however. It’s here we first meet Marc Antony (Elizabeth Marvel), seemingly drunk and wearing shades (go figure), arrive to accompany her leader to the gathering.
You know the rest. Caesar is stabbed multiple times – here, first in the back, then physically pulled over the top of a podium to the floor and pierced by all. Brutus is the last and apparently most reticent, appearing directly after, glazed as a deer in headlights. A couple of actors have difficulty getting daggers out of pockets. One participant photographs the body on a Smart Phone.
Antony is devastated. “She” secures permission to address the public after Brutus’s brief announcement of Caesar’s death. (Pronouns change when applicable.) Marvel, a second terrific performance, looks and sounds like Sissy Spacek replete with Texas accent. The actress roils then erupts. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…” One of Shakespeare’s great Machiavellian speeches, it sounds as if in support of Brutus & Co while denouncing them with honeyed words, inciting the crowd. Nuanced writing moves seamlessly from defeat to empowerment to challenge. Marvel wonderfully emotes from her gut.
Elizabeth Marvel and The Company
The rest is demonstrations, Civil War, firing squads, and suicides. Battles are well staged. With civilians calling out, then running on stage from all over the audience, energy high and movement constant, violent pandemonium is evoked despite lack of much choreographed fighting. (NYC sirens often add.) Political and psychological parallels are many. Alas, the show’s incredibly short run doesn’t allow more of you to find them for yourselves.
Director Oscar Eustis moves his large cast with strategic skill immersing the audience, manipulating tension, creating sweep. Two-handers create palpable intimacy. Brutus and his boy Lucilius (Tyler La Marr) are as profoundly personal as he and Cassius or he and Portia. When laughter rises from the bleachers out of recognition, it fades to allow the production to continue.
David Rockwell’s Set looks as if it was designed by committee members each of whom stuck to his own vision, which, judging by his organization’s current ubiquity, may be the case. Too many styles deny the play gravitas as well as cohesion. Additionally, while a poster-plastered, graffiti-filled wall supporting a large number of floral tributes is timely and the Senate chamber looks splendid, inside Brutus’ tent resembles a lady’s sewing room and various Photoshopped panels evoke high school productions. Oh, and there’s the giant eye, a representation of Big Brother?
Most of Paul Tazewell’s contemporary, non-distracting Costume Design works well, though street cops without weapons or communication equipment become lite police. (His Tactical Squad is frighteningly well outfitted.)
Jessica Paz deserves double call out for Sound Design. Not only does she conjure vociferous mobs and not so distant violence, but every player speaking from the audience (and there are many) is distinctly heard. Original Music and Soundscapes by Bray Poor are cinematic.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Greg Henry and The Company
Free Shakespeare in the Park/ The Public Theater presents Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare Directed by Oscar Eustis The Public Theater In the park: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – July 11-August 13, 2017
Beauregard/Beau (Harvey Fierstein) is a 62 year-old, New Orleans born saloon pianist living in a London flat that indicates he’s made money in his time. An honest, sensitive, gay man, he suffered tragic losses in the U.S. during the height of violence against homosexuals and burgeoning AIDs, fled to Paris, and finally nested where he is.
Our hero is comfortably stuck in the past. Having spent many years as accompanist for Mabel Mercer (whose recordings aptly punctuate the piece), taste runs to American Songbook and classical music. His well appointed, two-story living room is floor to ceiling books (with no apparent ladder access – the single omission of a terrific looking set by Derek McLane). Though the Internet is a foreign country, while curiously checking out a hook-up site (his nom de plume is Autumn Leaf), Beau has succumbed to being pursued by 28 year-old Rufus (Gabriel Ebert), who enters in his shorts.
Gabriel Ebert and Harvey Fierstein
Assuming Rufus is a one night stand, Beau is surprised to find a thoughtful, affectionate person besotted with the past and suspiciously enamored of him. “Look at you. You’re so young! I feel like a priest!” The stranger saw Beau perform at a local club, asked around and Googled him. Questions about Mercer (answered in palpable fits and starts) and the older man’s friendship with James Baldwin elicit increasingly open stories about Beau’s personal history – at first in passing, then formally videotaped by Rufus. “You’re turning me into Grey Gardens!”
Gabriel Ebert and Harvey Fierstein
The young man seems to romanticize history. “Those days that you so fancy, everyone was miserable and drunk…drowning in self contempt,” Beau protests underestimating his lover. A relationship ensues. Rufus moves in. Except for periods when his “lowercase bipolar” swings make things difficult, the couple is happy. Five years pass. Rufus proposes a Civil Ceremony. (There was no gay marriage.) “The British are the only people in the world who think partnerships can be civil!” Beau quips. Age difference (at the least) keeps him from trusting commitment.
Things necessarily shift. A tattooed performance artist named Harry (Christopher Sears) enters the picture. (Wait till you see what he later does with a Mercer classic.) With minimum fireworks, love morphs and endures in ways both warm and practical. No, it’s not a sexual triangle. You’ll end up liking all three men.
Gabriel Ebert and Christopher Sears
Playwright Martin Sherman has beautifully written the – necessarily compressed – evolution of a relationship over the course of 13 years. Detailed personal histories sound as utterly authentic as documented politics, so-called social norms, and Harvey Fierstein’s “Southern mixed with Brooklyn” accent. The smart piece will elicit laughter and a few possible tears. If anyone’s a romantic here, it’s Sherman. What a pleasure and relief it is! (A final scene feels like the epilogue. I don’t know why this bothers me, but it does.)
Director Sean Mathias is immensely deft. Painful, intimate recollections and reflex sarcasm are given their due. Timing is pitch-perfect. Emotional weather changes are not telegraphed. The use of in-one curtain speeches (storytelling) works well. Fierstein’s brief moment at the piano contributes. Well chosen Mercer tunes color to best advantage. (Superb sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen)
The multifaceted Harvey Fierstein has never been better. It’s as if Beau was conceived to showcase the cynicism, wit and vulnerable heart with which we associate the actor’s past roles while painting a rich character around touchstones. This one’s no wilting lily. From the expression on his face when asked how he stays fit to wrenching, steeled description of tragedy to visceral, if fearful gratitude, he’s simply marvelous.
Gabriel Ebert makes Rufus sympathetic and touchy-feely affectionate, yet doesn’t appear cloying. The way the actor casually drapes his long body on furniture keeps sex in the air without discussion. His character’s breakdown is disturbing, but not overplayed.
Christopher Sears (Harry) offers a brazen performance within the performance and is otherwise comfortably naturalistic.
Peter Kaczorowski’s Lighting Design adds particular nuance to mood changes and focus.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Gabriel Ebert and Harvey Fierstein
Gently Down the Stream by Martin Sherman Directed by Sean Mathias The Public Theater 425 Lafayette Street Through May 21, 2017
Naomi Wallace’s award-winning play was last presented in New York at The Public Theater in 1996. It’s intriguing to consider why Playhouse Creatures think its revival timely. Mr. and Mrs. Snelgrave (Gordon Joseph Weiss and Concetta Tomei), a wealthy, older couple in 17th Century London, are quarantined in their home while the plague rages around them. At night the rats come out in two and threes to lick the sweat from our faces…
Their servants having died, William and Darcy live in the only two rooms still, hopefully, uninfected. Supplies and information (death tolls and gossip) come by way of Kabe (Donte Bonner), a mercenary who ostensibly keeps them inside while making a handsome profit.
Concetta Tomei, Remy Zaken, Gordon Joseph Weiss
Within a short time, the house is twice breached. A macabre 12 year-old girl, named Morse (Remy Zaken), allows the Snelgraves to believe she’s their neighbor’s well bred child running from household deaths, while Bunce (Joseph W. Rodriguez), a wounded sailor, is deferential and direct in his need for sanctuary. The intruders’ necks, arms, and stomachs are examined for telltale boils.
Concetta Tomei, Remy Zaken
In the first of many provocations, Morse, accepted as one of their own, asks to see Mrs. Snelgrave’s neck and gloved hands with the excuse that they’re likely beautiful. Bunce, considered beneath consideration, is put to work scrubbing the floors with vinegar. The Snelgraves haven’t been intimate since she was 17. Both are drawn to the attractive, virile sailor. William goads and salivates, Darcy passionately circles. Mr. Snelgrave is first imperious, then cruel. There are consequences. Morse appeals to Kabe – in passing. The girl parlays kissing her ankle for fruit; sucking a toe is more expensive. It will be 28 days before these four are allowed apart and outside.
Playwright Naomi Wallace is here intriguing and poetic. Historical description is trenchant. One Flea Spare contains deep sensuality, volatile sex (not actually seen) and palpable seduction, all heightened by the nearness of death. Moments of draconian class differences (and circumstances) are vividly represented by such as Bunce’s trying on Mr. Snelgrave’s beautiful shoes- at the latter’s unexpected invitation. Background stories are rich, relationships fascinating, characters well drawn. A horrible end works well.
There are, however issues. The program puts us in London 1665 and “now”, yet we never recognize the present. At one point Morse seems to describe her own demise, then appears again. Fearless, deceptive and calm, she may herself represent death. And what of the sailor’s wound, with which Mrs. Snelgrave is obsessed?
As to why now, perhaps the company is suggesting the state of our threatening world makes or should make us hyper aware of one another. In many ways, we too are sequestered together, some literally, others politically or emotionally. Action and reaction is daily inflated, sometimes with dire results.
Except for the affected Gordon Joseph Weiss who acts as if he’s the only one onstage, the company is strong and cohesive. Donte Bonner is a shifty survivalist to his skin. Supple carriage and fine accent enhance. Remy Zaken delivers a portrait of quiet malevolence with skin-tingling naturalness. Joseph W. Rodriguez’s personification of Bunce is proud, manly, watchful; a nucleus of in-check power. Sensitivity emerges with powerful grace and credibility.
Joseph W. Rodriguez, Concetta Tomei
Concetta Tomei is masterful. There isn’t a moment on stage we’re unaware of Mrs. Snelgrave’s thinking and/or emotion. Every action is colored by personal history. When Bunce touches her, the actress viscerally vibrates. In the presence of Mr. Snelgrave, she steels. At the last, her character resembles Medea. Brava.
Staging in the round is well handled by Director Caitlin McLeod. I rarely feel anything is missed. Characters standing on a stool at various corners of the raised platform are clearly leaning out of windows to communicate. Morse and Kabe respectively circle the stage speaking to ‘us,’ the former in his capacity as town crier, the latter like a dark angel. Proximity is effectively uncomfortable. Scenes with Mrs. Snelgrave and Bunce are electric. Ropes are employed with skill.
Bruce Cutler’s clever Scenic Design is comprised of hidden trap doors in the floor containing necessary elements, somehow always a surprise. Morse’s handmade dolls are terrific.
Costumes by Sarafina Bush are a ragtag, layered combination of period and contemporary. First apt, but later adjusted, they add to the confusion of when we are. Depiction of Mrs. Snelgrave’s physical cross-to-bear is extremely creative as is Kabe’s attire.
Photos by Monica Simoes Opening: Concetta Tomei, Gordon Joseph Weiss, Joseph W. Rodriguez, Remy Zaken
Playhouse Creatures present One Flea Spare by Naomi Wallace Directed by Caitlin McLeod Sheen Center (Black Box) 18 Bleeker Street Through November 13, 2016
Another reframed Shakespeare play, another 13 (I counted) helicopters disturbing performance (these can’t be rerouted?!), another frighteningly lifelike battle utilizing explosions and assault rifles?!
Troilus & Cressida appears to have been selected and certainly was staged to shock. A lengthy combat scene is viscerally difficult to sit through. At a time when war, increased local violence, lack of gun control and terrorism are ubiquitous in the news, it strikes me that subjecting us to something so theatrically realistic and compelling, achieves the complete opposite. Is this something to which we want to become inured?!
Troilus- Andrew Burnap, Pandarus- John Glover, Cressida- Ismenia Mendes
This is also a piece rife with testosterone-filled exposition; long episodes of men comparing muscles (a euphemism), swearing, and daring. A particularly odd choice. Having said that, acting and staging are skillful and energetic.
The latter part of the Trojan War: After playing footsie awhile, with the matchmaking help of her uncle Pandarus (John Glover), spunky Cressida (Ismenia Mendas) and earnest, boyish Troilus (Andrew Burnap) admit to and consummate their love. Shortly thereafter, she’s the object of prisoner exchange ending up in a Greek camp hotly pursued by Diomedes (Zach Appleman) to whom she turns, either attracted or in survival mode.
Because of a promise to his lady?! the great Greek soldier Achilles (seamless last minute replacement Louis Cancelmi) refuses to fight, choosing instead to remain in his tent with his lover Patroclus (Tom Pecinka), listening to heavy metal music. Powers-that-be trick him into one-on-one combat with Troilus’s brother Hector (Bill Heck) by first sending in the played-as-stupid-and-obtuse Ajax (Alex Breaux) who loses without shedding blood.
It’s not clear what the fight will accomplish, but at the Greek camp, Trojans and their hosts remain in peaceful truce. Troilus is led to spy on Cressida by trouble-making Ulysses (Corey Stoll), a civilian advisor who times it so that the Trojan will observe his girl with Diomedes. She’s accused of perfidy by her boyfriend and storms off.
In this version, Achilles then challenges Hector for a national rematch out of pride, though synopses found online indicate he does so to revenge Patroclus’ death which is attributed to Hector. Wounded, he also loses. Grisly war resumes. At the end of the piece, like Caesar at the Forum, Hector is surrounded by Achilles men and ignominiously knifed to death. Troilus mourns him kneeling in a pool of his brother’s blood. We never find out what happens to Cressida.
Ulysses-Corey Stoll and Ajax- Alex Beaux
Andrew Burnap and Ismenia Mendas, the show’s peripheral lovers, are natural actors with appealing chemistry, especially when in denial. Manly Bill Heck (a perfect movie Superhero) imbues Hector with dignity as well as confidence. Alex Breaux’s dumb Ajax is played with absolute credibility. Ulysses (Corey Stoll) is appropriately slimy. Stuck in caricatures, David Harbour (Achilles) and Tom Pecinka (Patroclus) ably carry out the director’s vision. Any play with the splendid John Glover is, to me, worth attending. Here the actor is warm, elegant, and occasionally playful as Pandarus – completely at home with Shakespeare.
Director Daniel Sullivan uses the mostly empty stage evocatively. His solders, with few exceptions, are cliché coarse and/or officious displaying no individuality. (Much of this may be the writing.) I don’t understand the compulsion to insert the currently requisite man in ridiculous drag and several flamboyant gay soldiers. As depicted, war is skin curdling.
Troilus-Andrew Burnap and Hector-Bill Heck
The play is performed in modern dress (David Zinn) which barely registers a blip (so acclimated are theater-going audiences) until soldiers take the stage in recognizable fighting gear.
Mark Menard’s Sound Design is aptly unnerving.
Sound like fun? The curious should be prepared.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Diomedes- Zach Appelman and Aeneas- Sanjit De Silva (center) and the Company
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…
What with Hilary Clinton hopefully on her way to The White House and a resurgence of women’s groups focused on everything from reproductive rights to career opportunities, The Public Theater apparently thinks mounting an all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew is timely quid pro quo. (All productions in Shakespeare’s time were acted exclusively by men.) Even the show’s director, Phyllida Lloyd, hails from the distaff side.
Lloyd, alas, is the biggest part of the problem here. Seemingly in an effort to emulate Alex Timber’s immensely more successful free-for-all musical take on Love’s Labour’s Lost, we have a concept gone off the rails with no cohesive point of view. Irreverence can be fun, but this…!?
Donna Lynn Champlin, Latanya Richardson Jackson, Crush Jumbo
In brief, Petruchio (Janet McTeer) arrives from Verona “to wive it wealthily in Padua.” When told the likeliest candidate is a shrew named Katherina/Kate (Cush Jumbo), he resolves to acquire the lady by denying her faults. Kate’s younger sister Bianca (Gayle Rankin) has a slew of suitors. Predominant among these are locals Gemio (Judy Gold) and Hortensio (Stacey Sargeant), and the newly arrived Lucentio (Rosa Gilmore).
The girls’ father, Baptista (Latanya Richardson Jackson), will not allow Bianca’s marriage before Kate is suitably paired off. He will, however, permit tutors access to his daughters. Lucentio switches places with his servant Tranio (Adrienne C. Moore) and is presented to papa as a teacher of literature. In a really funny scene, he declares his identity and love between passages of Gone With the Wind. Bianca responds “I know you not. I trust you not. (reading) I’ll never be hungry again!” She’s conveniently if irrationally dressed like Scarlett O’Hara.
Not to be outdone, Hortensio masquerades as a music instructor. Lucentio wins. Tranio secures her hand for his master (still disguised as him) by promising a large dowry. After a mix-up involving Lucentio’s faux and actual father, servant and master switch back.
Janet McTeer and Crush Jumbo
Drunk (there’s a bottle in his paper bag) and under dressed in this version, Petruchio weds Kate and drags her off in his hysterical, full sized RV, painted with pin-ups. (Kudos to Mark Thompson.) He deprives his bride of food and sleep at a trailer camp – killing her with ersatz kindness – until starving and exhausted, she gives in to his every whim. Upon returning home for Bianca’s wedding, he bets on and proves the shrew’s change. Kate’s iconic speech about wifely duties/subservience is a surprise to everyone.
A pithy role long relished by formidable actresses, Kate must be an equal to Petruchio for the play to work. She must match him in quickness of wit, intelligence, and stubborn pride – in other words, a prize. The best performances show slow recognition that this strong, attractive man is, in fact, worth having; that it’s her decision to submit, that rather than diminish Kate, it will eventually give her leverage. Petruchio meanwhile grows to admire what he now ostensibly owns and will, it’s implied, relinquish his outrageous test demands. The “doormat” speech is delivered with an arched eyebrow by a woman who has found her water level .
Crush Jumbo, Janet McTeer
Beginning and ending with a beauty pageant, the British Lloyd acknowledges that women were judged by beauty and financial gain. That she paints both female protagonists as unworthy of further examination is as anti-feminist as it gets.
In this production, the heroine is a tantrum-throwing, childish brat (andnot believable as that, either). As conceived one presumes by Lloyd and played by an ill-suited Cush Jumbo, her only merit is a dowry. The relationship is meaningless. Kate is a Stepford Wife. Lest we leave with that impression, she has an aria da capo fit of screaming rebellion at the end and is dispensed in a manner that makes no sense. What ?!
Bianca’s air-headed, blonde beauty queen persona is embodied rather well by Gayle Rankin with comedic flair, despite directed shouting. It would work better had she a significant Kate to play her opposite.
Latanya Richardson Jackson, Janet McTeer
Also good are Stacey Sargeant as Hortensio (replete with accordion and some well finessed timing) and Adrienne C. Moore as a genial Tranio. LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s Baptista lacks paternal and class authority.
A call-out should be made to Judy Gold (Gremio) who rescued a stall due to the malfunctioning RV, with ad-libbed comedy, some of which was lighthearted vaudeville, some of which was unnecessarily vulgar.
The best reason to sit through this mishmash is far and away Janet McTeer (Petruchio). This mercurial actress, soon to appear on Broadway in Les Liasons Dangereuses, imbues her swaggering, masculine role with so much visual testosterone, reality feels suspended. She moves, gestures, smokes, drinks and deeply laughs as would the cocky rogue. Petruchio manhandles Kate with confident sovereignty and no regard for the weakness of her sex. Commands are spit, aftermath watchful. McTeer, calculates, manipulates, revels, and gloats in perfect tenor. A masterful turn.
Rose Gilmore, Gayle Rankin
Mark Thompson’s evocative tent and wagon Set seems irrelevant to a piece with not a moment of circus parody or performance. His 1950’s Costumes fair better with the help of Leah J. Loukas’s unflattering (the style then) Hair and Wig Design. The production also, however, utilizes western gear, sometimes adding cowboy hats to suits from another geography. Petruchio resembles a Texas Hell’s Angel. Kate looks like a character from Dollywood (Dolly Parton’s theme park). Nor are the rich dressed any differently than their servants. At least give us that disparity within a chosen genre.
Live music between scenes consists of abrasive, electronic, bass sound with a tad of rhythm and next to no melody. (Sam Davis) Excerpted disco tunes and middle-of-the-road pop are often humorously inserted but rarely from the 1950s and never country/western. Disconnect is constant. (A company dance finale -Broadway meets disco – is sheer copycat.)
The company is hit or miss with language that should be crisp and intelligible whatever its proffered context. While I have no problem when two (black) servants speak with ghetto street inflection, general enunciation lacks the precision necessary to make a conversational approach accessible and entertaining. Most of these actresses seem untrained in Shakespeare. The further afield a production is taken, the more important its dialogue.
As always, the outdoor theater itself is a unique experience. Besides helicopters who frustratingly never seem rerouted on performance nights, we’re visited by an enormous raccoon and four perfectly arrayed geese. The weather is glorious.