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Arena Stage's Painted Desert; `Faraway Nearby,' Pretty but Dull

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Article date:
December 18, 1998
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Playing Georgia O'Keeffe in "The Faraway Nearby," Megan Cole has the right look of iconic handsomeness. She's 30 to 40 years too young for the role of the octogenarian painter, but she gets her willfulness and spirit exactly right. Still, the evening at Arena Stage is a long spell in the desert.

Canadian dramatist John Murrell has conceived a story about a late-life friendship between O'Keeffe and a hired man at her ranch in northern New Mexico named John Hamilton (Carlos Sanz). Hamilton, who calls himself Juan, is an itinerant artist who supports himself with odd jobs and has ended up at O'Keeffe's out of admiration for her work.

Cole and Sanz are attractive, sexy performers, and in an attempt to focus the tenuous play, director Roberta Levitow subtly brings out all underlying sensuality in the relationship. She and the actors are stranded, however, by the script, which never makes any sense of what this friendship between a woman in her eighties and a man almost 60 years her junior is about. First, it's hero worship on his part. Then it seems flirtatious. Next, she's too controlling and they quarrel. Then they're bathing together in a mountain stream and washing each other's hair. Finally, married and living in Santa Fe, he is visiting her in her growing senility and planning to move her someplace where someone will look after her. This series of photographs of a relationship doesn't add up to anything. Frankly, Murrell's O'Keeffe, with her insistent mysticism and penchant for arty aphorisms -- "The human face is always more mask than meaning" -- is a bore. Artists talking about art, as opposed to doing it, are generally not very interesting, and when the talk has been made up by a playwright, the result can be soporific. The only reason to watch a play about O'Keeffe is to gain insight into her art, and all we learn here is that she never quite got red right. The production is stunningly well designed by Ming Cho Lee, whose wide and horizonal set creates the illusion of desert strata, and Allen Lee Hughes, who spills varieties of magical New Mexican light over the proceedings. They make the stage a gorgeous box. But there's not much in it. The Faraway Nearby, by John Murrell. Costumes, Lindsay W. Davis; music and sound, Mitchell Greenhill. At Arena Stage through Jan. 24. Call 202-488-3300.

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'Blue Heart': Studio's Double Bypass

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Article date:
November 9, 1999
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"Blue Heart," which opened Sunday at the Studio Theatre, comprises two self-consciously experimental one-acts by English playwright Caryl Churchill, but Serge Seiden's focused, energetic and--in the first play--rather bouncy direction keeps things from bogging down in pretentiousness.

Additionally, the cast, led by Jon Tindle in double roles as a drunk and a con man, is excellent, and costumer Anne Kennedy has designed a superlative eight-foot ostrich.

The first play, "Heart's Desire," takes place in the Kitchen From Happy Hell, designed with sadistic cheerfulness--perky canisters, cute flowers--by Dan Conway. As the play opens, Alice (Catherine Flye) and Brian (Michael Tolaydo) await a visit from their daughter, who is flying in from Australia. She sets the table. He swipes a dollop of whipped cream off the refrigerated desserts. They both chat with a woman who appears to be Brian's sister, Maisie (Cornelia Hart).

An ordinary day, you might say, but boy would you be wrong: Starting the play over again and again, each time for a different outcome, Churchill attempts to undermine our bourgeois complacency by pointing out that, at any moment, anything could happen. In a series of Pirandellian twists, the play veers out from under the three characters and goes off in unexpected directions.

Among the unanticipated events are a broken ankle, a murder, a body in the back yard, a monologue about self-consumption and an invasion of children, and that's the short list, which doesn't include appearances by giant birds. As the play keeps beginning and beginning and beginning, you may think that if Flye starts setting that damned table one more time, you're going to have to charge the stage and stop her, but just about that time, fortunately, it ends.

"Heart's Desire" is another one of those plays in which the insanity that lurks beneath the placid surface of reality is taken out for a frisk. Insanity has been upstaging "ordinary" reality like this for decades now--since Ibsen, you could argue--and doesn't have many new tricks, but at least Churchill is antic and entertaining. Doing stylized turns of increasing desperation, Flye and Tolaydo are delightful, and periodically Tindle, as the drunken brother of one of the characters, shows up to add to the fun with questions such as "I'm unhappy! What are you going to do about it?"

Tindle metamorphoses from sketch artist to actor in "Blue Kettle," an odd and intriguing little piece about a man named Derek who deals with just having turned 40 by finding women who gave up their children in infancy and claiming to be their long-lost son. Tindle is wonderful, by turns enigmatic, hateful and wounded, and so are the actresses who play his various "mothers," particularly Flye, as a stiff and bitter woman who doesn't particularly want the happy ending she's been handed. Michelle Shupe is smart and sharp as Derek's appalled, confused girlfriend.

Unfortunately for anyone who goes to a play for something as banal as its story, "Blue Kettle" isn't about its strange little plot but about language and its limitations.

As things progress, the characters replace more and more of their dialogue with the words "blue" and "kettle." By the end you can't understand what they're literally saying, but their gestures and expressions still bring their emotions across. Other than proving that actors can do just about anything it takes to avoid being trapped onstage in the vacuum of an audience's incomprehension, I don't know what the point of this was.

Blue Heart, by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Serge Seiden. Lights, Michael Giannitti; sound, Tony Angelini; costumes, Anne Kennedy; props, Susan Senita Bradshaw; dialect coach, Elizabeth Van Den Berg. With Kate Debelack, David Muse, Rusty Clauss, Nancy Paris, Lee Holzapfel. At the Studio Theatre through Dec. 12. Call 202-332-3300.

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, Florid

Article from:
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Article date:
November 15, 1999
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Cultures don't exactly clash in Culture Clash's "Radio Mambo," which opened last night at Arena Stage, they just kind of bump. Occasionally bump and grind. The three members of the Los Angeles- based theater group--Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza--give the audience a high-spirited and funny tour of modern- day Miami that touches on troublesome issues but doesn't pause to develop them.

"Radio Mambo" was put together from taped interviews with various Miamians, and the three actor-authors transform themselves with minimal props (a wig, a shirt) into the people they interviewed. They're protean performers, shape-shifting across gender and race (Montoya also does a very convincing dog). Audiences may be reminded of Anna Deavere Smith's work, but this piece doesn't have the same depth or scary intimacy as, say, "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992." Smith vanished into her people; Montoya, Salinas and Siguenza just mimic them cleverly.

The canvas of characters is broad, though not very deep. Although the show tries to cover all the ethnic bases--Cubans, Haitians, Jews, blacks, whites, non-Cuban Latinos--it doesn't include many working- class folk. We meet an art dealer and a press agent and three prisoners and some drag queens and a furniture dealer and a psychiatrist, but no bus drivers, custodians, waitresses, convenience- store clerks, hotel help, etc. Not even any rental car agents, though the audience laughs knowingly when a black character talks to us about using a rent-a-car map as if we were dopey tourists. (It's not clear who the joke is on--perhaps the tourists who have been targeted then robbed or murdered because they drove rental cars?)

There are striking moments. Two black matrons discuss Miami's African American history over tea, one of them pointing out that she once went to a library and asked for materials on black history, only to be given "a folder of obituaries." Talking of the times Jews were banned from certain hotels, a press agent says, "The goyim could be awfully cruel and funny that way." A Cuban exile says of Castro, "He could not kill us all."

Culture Clash is frank about its leftist political leanings, and this shows up in "Radio Mambo" in the way the various characters are depicted. The Cubans are pretty much shown as capitalist hustlers. A Haitian points out that his country's troubles are the results of American foreign policy (though no reference is made to recent events; the evening never gets very specific politically). A contractor is shown as callous, and a developer and his wife are treated with outright contempt. Admittedly, they're pretty horrible-- coarse and selfish--but the interviewer (played here by Montoya) is so clearly disgusted by these people that you begin to feel a little sorry for them. It's very, very easy to set people up in interviews, especially ones you later edit severely, so that they look like fools.

At one point, talking about how unemotional he is, the developer says, "I'm Norwegian," and the interviewer mutters, "I have no idea what you mean by that." The guy obviously needs to brush up on his "white ethnics." Diversity-furthering note to Culture Clash: Norwegian Americans are generally stereotyped as laconic, pleasure- denying and inexpressive; see Keillor, Garrison, "Lake Wobegon Days" et al.

Radio Mambo, written and performed by Culture Clash: Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, Herbert Siguenza. Directed by Roger Guenveur Smith. Set, Herbert Siguenza; costumes, Elena Prietto and Culture Clash; lights, Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; sound, Mark Friedman; choreography, Lettie Ibarra. At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through Jan. 2. Call 202-488-3300.

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'Guys and Dolls': Love at First Sight

Article from:
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Article date:
December 31, 1999
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"Charm incarnate" pretty well sums up the "Guys and Dolls" that opened last night at Arena Stage. The musical itself is a gem-- arguably the jewel in the glittering crown of the American musical comedy--and when you get a production like this that does the material proud and then some, you've landed in theater nirvana.

Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows's 1950 musical is set in the 1930s as envisioned by the newspaperman and humorist Damon Runyon, the guy who invented comic gangsterspeak. We get characters with monikers like Harry the Horse. We get a heroine who performs at a classy joint called the Hot Box. We get a hero who runs "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York." We get a plot in which, though the guys resist with all their might, the dolls get that wedding ring around their sweethearts' necks.

You want your classic numbers? You got your classic numbers. "Luck Be a Lady Tonight," "A Bushel and a Peck," "Sue Me," "More I Cannot Wish You." Under Charles Randolph-Wright's incandescent direction, the evening sometimes seems like nothing but one show-stopper after another.

As the crap game entrepreneur Nathan Detroit, Maurice Hines starts the show by pointing a finger and lighting up--pop, pop, pip--a series of neon signs (Hotel, Cocktails, Hats Blocked). Such electrical magic seems well within his reach. At 56, Hines no longer punishes himself by performing tap, but he still moves and dances like a dream. Dapper and lithe in his swell suits and snappy hat, this Nathan is a lowlife scamp with major, major style.

Nathan's sweetheart is showgirl Miss Adelaide (Alexandra Foucard), who is exhibiting signs of impatience as their engagement enters its 14th year. "I'm Adelaide," she introduces herself to one character, "the well-known fiancee." Oh sure, Nathan loves her. He promises to drape her in "more mink than a mink." But he's just not ready to tie the knot.

Nathan has other difficulties. He can't find a place to hold his crap game. And it must be held, because lunkish Big Julie (Richard L. Pelzman, looking like Orson Welles in a leopard-skin fedora) is in town from Chicago with money to lose.

Meanwhile . . . Nathan's pal the gambler Sky Masterson (Brian Sutherland) is in town. To get money to rent a venue for the game, Nathan bets him he can't get Salvation Army sergeant Sarah Brown (Diane Sutherland) to go with him to Havana. The confident Sky knows an easy win when he hears one, and soon he's romancing shy and moral Miss Brown, only to discover that, though he's known some dames, this "prayin' tomato" is something special.

As this giddy fairy tale whirls to its perfect conclusion, the characters gamble and smooch and dodge the cops and dance, dance, dance. Ken Roberson's choreography brings some sensual sizzle to the show. The chorus girls in their yellow-and-black-striped stockings don't just swing their hips, they stick out their saucy rear ends, and tender eyes should be shielded from what Miss Adelaide does with a mink coat. The men's dances are joyous explosions of movement. The only thing wrong with the choreography is that there should be more of it. Say about three weeks more.

Though a squeaky-voiced pixie when she delivers her off-kilter lines--"If it weren't so amusing, it might be funny!"--Foucard is a full-throated siren when she sings. Tripping daintily around the stage in one outlandish outfit after another, ultimately donning a lace pantsuit with matching hat for her Big Day, she's a ladylike moll. Far too couth to steal the show, she just walks away with it.

As if one pair of goofily sublime lovers weren't enough, the married-to-each-other Sutherlands are delightful as the gangster and the do-gooder who feud themselves into love. They play the comedy of their size difference (he's tall, she's tiny) for romance--gradually he bends to her, like a flower seeking a sun inexplicably placed below it. Their initial scrappy meeting, where they snipe while their hearts melt, has all the crackle of '30s romantic comedy, and they carry this charge through the show, a couple made for each other.

As if having the four leads cast to perfection weren't enough, the show is jammed with wonderful small performances, from old pro Terrence Currier's wise Arvide Abernathy to Carlos Lopez's spry Harry the Horse to Wayne W. Pretlow's Nicely-Nicely Johnson, who brings down the house with his prayer-meeting solo, "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." Local actors Lawrence Redmond and Donna Migliaccio are blissfully present as the dim but game Benny Southstreet and the boogieing Salvation Army general. And if you watch the actors with next to no lines, you'll see that each one of them has his own little drama to deliver. Every corner of the production is alive and jumping.

The jazzily gorgeous production is the work of Thomas Lynch (sets), Michael Gilliam (lights) and Susan R. White (sound). Special mention must be made of Paul Tazewell's outlandishly fabulous costumes, which include a plethora of amazing suits (Harry the Horse is particularly resplendent in chocolate and cafe-au-lait stripes), gaudy spats, glitzy gowns and stylish chapeaus (one of these, sported by Adelaide, calls to mind Raymond Chandler's famous description of "a hat that was taken from its mother too young").

The limber, kinetic Hines is the show's major-domo and puckish presiding spirit. Hines is always dancing--he doesn't walk so much as slide and sidle into position. In this jumping, exuberant show, his personal style is smooth; he's the dry martini at the champagne blast. A hipster Nathan, Hines brings a jazzy cool to the show, a reminder, in the middle of the delightful Broadway tunes, of the earthy sources of American popular music.

Guys and Dolls, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Musical direction, Danny Kosarin. With Lorna Ventura, Stephen F. Schmidt, Ryan Blanchard, Michael W. Howell, Rosa Evangelina Arredondo, P.J. Terranova, Bobby Pestka, Michael J. Bobbitt, Cathy Carey, Johanna Gerry, Bruce Lineberry, Liza Shaller, Jill Slyter, Gary E. Vincent. At Arena Stage through Feb. 20. Call 202-488-3300.

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NTURY: Theater; Onstage, a Victims' Plight Movement; Drama Grew Up and Left Innocence Far Behind. It's Quite the Pity Picture.

Article from:
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Article date:
December 26, 1999
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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At the beginning of this century, one of the biggest hit plays was "Salvation Nell," in which an unwed mother who has been "saved" by the Salvation Army in turn redeems the criminal father of her child: At play's end, as she preaches, he removes his cap and bows his head. It was 1908, four years before the young Eugene O'Neill attempted suicide, and perhaps the play helped drive him to it.

Indeed, what could the ferocious and hypersensitive O'Neill have thought as he looked at the American stage at the beginning of the 20th century? It wasn't that playwrights avoided difficult topics such as unwed motherhood, poverty and miscegenation, it's that they were incapable of treating those topics any way except sentimentally. The good people were saintly, pathetic victims; the bad people were very bad indeed; and the ideal audience response was righteous indignation followed by relief when everything turned out all right.

Nineteenth-century Europe had produced the plays of Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg (O'Neill's favorite) and Shaw. America had produced stiff verse plays, derivative comedies and melodramas--none of which are put on today, even by the theaters that consider it their duty to produce obscure, forgotten plays that audiences hate. Nineteenth-century American plays aren't even studied in school except at the graduate level. They're that bad.

Almost a hundred years have passed since "Salvation Nell" and her ilk ruled the American stage, and as a culture we consider ourselves far more sophisticated than those earlier audiences. But in fact, though O'Neill stomped on it, melodrama, with its victimization and pathos, its good characters we're meant to pity and bad ones we're meant to hate, never really went away. It remains at the heart of those plays we commonly regard as our greatest.

O'Neill's family--which he was to dramatize so unforgettably in "Long Day's Journey Into Night"--consisted of a father who wouldn't admit he was a drunk, a brother who wouldn't admit he was a drunk, and a mother who wouldn't admit she was a drug addict. Also, no one wanted to admit that O'Neill himself had tuberculosis. This household in which everyone pretended, ludicrously and shamefully, that Everything Was All Right undoubtedly fueled his exasperation with plays that did the same thing. So, brooding, bitter and brilliant, he created 20th-century American drama.

Though he hung out with sailors, whores and down-and-outers, O'Neill was fundamentally bookish and middle-class, the kind of boy who flunked out of Princeton in order to experience "real life." He had read all the great European dramatists, and he knew that it was possible to get sexuality, ambivalence and viciousness, not to mention nonrealistic narrative, into a play. As soon as his "Beyond the Horizon" lumbered onto the Broadway stage in 1920, the theater world knew it was in the presence of someone special.

O'Neill brought emotional realism, adult concerns and expressionist form into the American play, but perhaps his greatest contribution was what he took out. He ripped the innocence from American drama, the precious myth of good people and bad people and easy definitions of right and wrong. He gave our stage adult complexity and strength. The terrible family in "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and the character of Hickey in "The Iceman Cometh" are too predatory to be victims and in too much pain to be villains. An audience can't just classify them morally and be rid of them.

Three years after "The Iceman Cometh's" first Broadway production in 1946, "Death of a Salesman" opened there, and melodramatic sentimentality returned--disguised, for many people convincingly, as social criticism and psychological acuity. Willy Loman became an American theater icon as the hero who was heroic because he was a victim.

Somewhat confusingly, "Death of a Salesman" runs on two story tracks: the father-son conflict between Willy and his elder son, Biff, and the story of Willy's betrayal by the capitalistic system he has unthinkingly served, which uses up his productive years and then fires him.

The idealistic Willy has loved selling and worked hard, but somehow the American dream isn't working out for him. His house is full of appliances he hasn't finished paying for, and younger men are passing him professionally. When he goes to see his new, young boss, the fellow is playing with his new tape recorder and indifferent to this old has-been's problems. Willy's past achievements for the company might as well not have happened. At the end of his life, he's left with nothing.

In the part of the play concerning Biff, Willy is shown to have made at least some mistakes. But he's been blameless in his behavior toward his company, a perfect employee in fact, and his mistreatment is meant as proof of the heartlessness of American business. Capitalism is now the villain twirling his mustache, and Willy the maiden tied to the railroad track, run over and crushed by progress.

The same era brought Tennessee Williams's most celebrated play, "A Streetcar Named Desire," in which the sensitive Southern flower Blanche DuBois is violated and driven mad by the tough, working- class Stanley Kowalski. On Broadway and in the movie, Stanley was famously played by Marlon Brando, who gave him shadings of vulnerability, but on the page he comes across as what Blanche calls him, a brute.

Stanley is the Bad Guy and Blanche is the Good Girl, even though she's been a very bad girl and seduced half the boys in her home town, which is why she's fled to stay with her sister Stella, who is married to Stanley. Blanche, who longs for gentility, who cries, "I don't want reality, I want magic!" is Williams's heroine. Her virtue is proved by her being so sensitive that bad treatment drives her mad.

Williams saw Blanche as courageous in her idealism, a victim of Stanley's animal-like nature. Audiences have often disagreed. Both Williams and the play's original director, the usually cynical Elia Kazan, were surprised and dismayed when some audiences laughed at Blanche, finding her pretentious and dishonest.

They attributed the reaction to the strength of Brando's performance as Stanley. For some reason, neither of the men so intimately associated with the play's first staging saw what audiences often do: that, far from being a courageous idealist, Blanche is a manipulative, selfish liar. Williams presents her as a pure spirit, though, however corrupt her bodily behavior--another Victim sacrificed to unfeeling humanity.

Both these emblematic American dramas--plays we regard as our masterpieces--ask us not to admire the hero but to feel sorry for him. Pitifulness has become the mark of a character's uncriticizable virtue.

Are things any better today?

The '60s supposedly ushered in a new, tougher age of drama, but when you look closely at the famous plays of the last 35 years, nothing has really changed. We've had the occasional ironist, like John Guare, but Guare isn't a star playwright. The boys who've made it big are pretty much all in the pity business.

Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" presents its rancid characters as finally pathetic. Sam Shepard's plays are about the plight, not the strengths, of the American male. Self-pity and self-hatred twist at the center of David Mamet's dramatic exercises. The heroes of "Angels in America," however flawed, are at the helpless mercy of a vicious American political system.

The one exception to this, interestingly enough, is the writer who has the most reason to regard his characters as victims: the African American playwright August Wilson. Yet Wilson is the least sentimental of our dramatists. He acknowledges the damage white racism has done to black culture, but his characters repulse audience pity. They're stoics, making the best of a wretched situation, and neither they nor Wilson ask for sympathy. Feeling sorry for a Wilson character would be an insult.

Otherwise, the heroes and heroines of American drama remain tied to the railroad track.

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Lost Odessa, Alive Again; Gesher Theatre Stages `City,' Isaac Babel's Telling Stories

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Article date:
March 27, 1998
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"City (Odessa Stories)," which opened last night at the Kennedy Center, is an adaptation of five short stories and one short play by Isaac Babel. Though spoken in Hebrew, this production by Israel's Gesher Theatre is provided with a simultaneous translation into English.

Babel's stories, and play, deal with life in Odessa just before the Russian Revolution, primarily the colorful, shady life of the gangsters of the period, sharp-dressing young men who plot their heists between prayers in the local synagogue. This material is rich without being theatrical -- that is to say, great details and very little dramatic movement. "City" is story-theater, which means the delights are largely in the telling.

Director Yevgeny Arye stages the evening on a glass and worked-iron set that suggests a 19th-century train station. The characters often slide on and off on platforms that resemble railroad handcars. A raised-grid performing platform provides opportunities for the actors to stumble theatrically over railings. A largely brass band generally occupies one area of the stage. The evening unfolds as a series of tales shared by photographer Hershkovich (Yevgeny Terletsky) and matchmaker Arye-Leyb (Boris Achanov) as they sit on a detritus-strewn Black Sea beach. The stories are sketches of Odessa life, not plot-heavy narratives, and they adapt to theatrical treatment somewhat shakily. One dealing with young Isaac's experience of a pogrom and another about a chaste meeting between Hershkovich and a prostitute (Natalya Voitulevich-Manor) are the most successful because they are the most emotional. The actors involved -- particularly Yevgenya Dodina as 11-year-old Isaac -- perform with exquisite emotional clarity and grace. Fully half the stories deal with the career of young gangster Benya Krik (the sardonically stylish Igor Mirkurbanov), whom we first meet while he's being enthusiastically serviced by a prostitute. Krik's saga is something of a tall story and has the repetition and simplicity of a folk tale. After he marries the daughter of old gangster Froim Grach (Yevgeny Gamburg), he has to deal with the midlife crisis of his father, Mendel (Leonid Kanevsky). The old reprobate has fallen for a gentile prostitute (amusingly sexy Efrat Ben-Zur) and plans to sell the family business and run away with her. Benya and his brothers beat the old man up, and that's the end of that. Subsequently, Benya turns a bungled robbery into a triumph by staging a Mafia-style funeral, complete with his singing of an aria from Puccini. As a cynical, loving vision of a lost world, "City" has many strengths. As a theatrical piece, it's a little clumsy and overlong, though always imaginatively staged and beautifully acted. City (Odessa Stories), adapted from Isaac Babel by Yevgeny Arye. Directed by Arye. With Svetlana Demidova, Amnon Wolf, Nelly Gosheva, Klim Kamenko, Vladimir Halemsky, Ruth Heilovsky, Israel Demidov, Slava Bibergal. At the Kennedy Center tomorrow and Sunday.Call 202-467-4600.

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A Pleasant Dip in `The Gene Pool'

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Article date:
January 28, 1998
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"The Gene Pool," Christi Stewart-Brown's bright domestic comedy that opened Saturday at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, puts a new twist on an old subject. Peter (Jeff Lofton), the 17-year-old son of Mira (Jennifer Mendenhall) and her partner, Claire (Kimberly Schraf), wants to know who his absent father is. This being the '90s, Dad is a sperm donor.

Complicating matters is an affair that Claire, a veterinarian, has recently had with a woman who, unlike the prissy Mira, likes animals. (This story doesn't really have much to do with the other, but Brown's a skillful enough writer to make us not mind.) Mira, previously a contented domestic goddess of cookery and gardening, panics: She starts reading books about "bed death" and trying '70s seduction techniques like wearing Saran wrap. Typically, she doesn't get the latter quite right.

The play is extremely likable and funny, and the production, directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner, is delightful. Mendenhall gives a sparkling, bubbly performance as Mira. Schraf and Lofton are both adorably daft as the frazzled, basically sweet Claire and the insouciant Peter, and Tina Frantz and Michael Russotto give strong comic support as Peter's girlfriend and long-lost father. Brown writes frank, funny dialogue about sex, and she can structure a comedy, too -- the action practically skips along. The evening is so pleasant that it's almost -- but not quite -- unfair to point out that "The Gene Pool" is essentially a very conventional comedy, and that it shirks the issues it purports to deal with. Mira and Claire have their problems, sure, but fundamentally they're perfect parents who have raised a perfect son. Like a kid in a sitcom, Peter is smart and clever and preternaturally well adjusted. Wherever this family lives, it isn't someplace where a guy might get bullied in the locker room about his unusual parental setup. In fact, Peter doesn't seem to know any other guys, or anyone his age at all except his girlfriend. Everyone is nice, so everything ends up just fine. There's certainly a place for this kind of Pollyanna comedy. But that place isn't usually the resolutely unconventional Woolly Mammoth. The Gene Pool, by Christi Stewart-Brown. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Set, Robin Stapley; lights, Marianne Meadows; costumes, Lynn Steinmetz; sound, V. Hana Sellers. At Woolly Mammoth Theatre through Feb. 8. Call 202-393-3939.

agtime'

Article from:
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Article date:
January 21, 1998
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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If behind-the-scenes television shows can be used to market movies, why not the theater? "Creating `Ragtime,' " tonight at 9 on PBS, is pretty much a trailer for the musical that opened Sunday on Broadway and is coming to Washington in mid-April. Like a lot of trailers, it's more exciting than the product it's selling. Using close-ups, fast cutting and visual juxtaposition, director Colin Smith really zings the musical snippets home. He should be considered for the no-doubt-soon-to-be-forthcoming film version.

"Ragtime" has been a labor of love for producer Garth Drabinsky, and this program really emphasizes the labor. He had to persuade the author of the novel, E.L. Doctorow -- gun-shy from the 1981 movie experience -- to grant him the rights. He auditioned 10 composers and/or songwriting teams, requiring each to submit four songs, before deciding on Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens ("Once on This Island" and the animated "Anastasia"). He tried the show out and revised it for three years, with productions in Toronto and Los Angeles. Two 42nd Street theaters were demolished and rebuilt into the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, now the biggest proscenium stage on Broadway, for the musical's New York premiere.

Drabinsky's stamina and attention to detail are impressive. But it's an unhappy theatrical truth that as much work, sometimes more, can go into a show that's only so-so as into one that's great. Perspiration isn't the issue; inspiration is. Composer Flaherty encapsulates "Ragtime's" weaknesses when he explains, "I wanted to write a piece about different American musical styles and talk about the roots of American music." This is precisely what he did. It's not exactly the same thing as actually writing a full-blooded musical comedy score. The omnipresent Whoopi Goldberg is host, and writer Joan Gelman has saddled her with clinking banalities: "Making a great Broadway musical out of a great book is one of the toughest tricks in the theater." One character is described as "trapped by a cataclysmic clash of pride and prejudice." White-bearded Frank Galati, a Falstaffian figure in a coat of many colors, talks vividly about directing "Ragtime." "Dance is a form of foreplay," he says, and explains that the middle-class women of the time were "dominated and enslaved, corseted and bound . . . by the male-dominated society." You wonder why the show he turned out isn't sexier.

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`Dinosaur': Monster At the Door At Woolly, A Drama That Carries Its Weight

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
April 8, 1998
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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In her previous play at Woolly Mammoth -- last season's "Tripping Through the Car House" -- Regina Porter showed that she was definitely a real writer, if not yet exactly a playwright. "Man, Woman, Dinosaur," which opened at Woolly on Saturday, is a giant step forward, a focused story that is dramatically exciting almost to the end, when, not knowing how to end it, the author calls in the melodrama troops and things get trampled.

Shy, introverted Toochie Willows (Kevin Jiggetts) lives with his wheelchair-bound, alcoholic mother (Rebecca Rice) on Skidaway Island, Ga. (a sea island near Savannah). The Willowses are black Episcopalians who live on a block of black Episcopalians, part of an exclusive little enclave with the usual problems of those exclusive little enclaves: The doctor next door beats his wife; Toochie's mom is using guilt to emasculate him.

Into their unhappy household comes a woman from another place and class, the hard-working, no-nonsense Bernadette Marsh (Caroline Clay). We sense what's coming and look forward to it, but Porter plays amusingly with our expectations by bringing matters to a climax almost immediately. No sooner do the young people get friendly than Ma'am, as Toochie calls his mother, is bellowing, "Why don't you two just go {expletive}!" Rice has eschewed mainstream theater to do most of her work in theaters such as the Living Stage, which reach out to prisons and shelters as well as schools. It's mainstream theater's big loss. She's dynamite here, authoritative, funny and mean. Rice has a lot of confidence as an actress, and she transfers it right to Verve Willows (never was a character better named), dominating Toochie and the audience with equal ease. Toochie's liaison with Bernadette wakes him up to new possibilities in life, and she is also happy. At this point, daringly, Porter decides to shift the play's focus: The romance is just an introduction to Bernadette's story. This turns out to be a lurid one. Bernadette is in flight from her husband, a mysterious gravedigger/root man named Alan Marsh (spooky Vincent Brown), and her 9-year-old son, Li'l Samuel (the talented young Daniel Lee Robertson III). Where the audience previously wondered what would happen when she and Toochie got together, now we are wondering exactly what will occur when Marsh finally shows up. Well, first thing, Ma'am has him in for a drink. Considering that she's a middle-class snob and he's a shabbily dressed drunk with wild eyes, this is not a particularly convincing element of the script. But the two monsters have a great scene together, after which Marsh vanishes into the night to work his juju. When Bernadette discovers he knows where she is, she becomes almost hysterical. Up until this point, the play is menacing and often beautiful, unfolding with a dreamlike logic. The eerie atmosphere and the brisk, well-written scenes have been enough to carry us willingly along, but now the plot kicks in. Marsh and Toochie meet. Blood is spilled. In an unsatisfying ending, Li'l Samuel is left with Ma'am. Rice plays the scene in a way that makes us believe she will love the boy, but what she's shown us of Ma'am earlier makes us doubt it. Howard Shalwitz is a dramaturge as well as a director, and it's no doubt partly to his credit that this play is so much more strongly told than "Car House." He's a director of wit and sensitivity, and he knows how to get performances from actors. Even leaving Rice aside, the cast is excellent, particularly Clay's stoic Bernadette and Brown's threatening Marsh. Lewis Folden has designed an off-balance, surreal set. It's beautiful, though I wish the strangeness of the script had been allowed to emerge rather than be telegraphed in the design. No theater in town right now works with new writers as well as Woolly Mammoth, which has brought us Nicky Silver, Amy Freed and Bill Corbett, among others, and is obviously giving Porter the kind of attention and support she needs and deserves. It's a risky artistic choice that Woolly almost always makes pay off, and Washington theater is the richer for it. Man, Woman, Dinosaur, by Regina Porter. Directed by Howard Shalwitz. Lights, Lisa Ogonowski; costumes, Robin Stapley; sound, Mark Anduss; props, Joseph Stoltman. At Woolly Mammoth Theatre through April 19. Call 202-393-3939.

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Theater; `The Winter's Tale': A Chill Is in the Air

Article from:
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Article date:
May 2, 1994
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Coldly brilliant, the Royal Shakespeare Company's "The Winter's Tale" that opened last night at the Kennedy Center is the kind of production more likely to appeal to critics than to audiences. It's masterfully thought out, and director Adrian Noble and his designers have given the proceedings a visual, thematic unity that makes a dramatic whole of Shakespeare's famously fragmented (part tragedy, part comedy) text. On a conceptual level, this "Winter's Tale" is extremely impressive. On a practical - i.e., sitting-through-it - level, the production is overlong, a little cute and, with a couple of exceptions, indifferently acted.

"The Winter's Tale" is one of Shakespeare's last plays and is acknowledged by scholars and theater professionals alike to have problems. The story begins with the unfounded jealousy of King Leontes (John Nettles), who for no apparent reason decides that his queen, Hermione (Suzanne Burden), and his best friend, King Polixenes (Julian Curry), are lovers. His vindictive actions result in the queen's apparent death and the abandonment of his newborn daughter, Perdita, on the seacoast of Bohemia, where she is adopted by a kindly shepherd (Jeffery Dench) and grows into a beautiful young woman (at which point she is no longer played by a doll but by Phyllida Hancock). Journeys end in families meeting, and all's well that ends well.

Leontes' motiveless malignancy and the play's peculiar mix of tones - pastoral-comical, tragical-magical - pose difficulties for director, actors and audience. Noble's supreme achievement here is his unifying of all the elements and moods: He's directed a fable, a fairy tale, a "winter's tale," in which logic is unnecessary and the story moves innocently forward by sudden twists and turns ("And then, one day, the king suddenly grew jealous ...").

Noble and set designer Anthony Ward and lighting designer Chris Parry have achieved this unity through contradiction: The styles of the somber and lighthearted parts of the play are so directly opposed that taken together each completes the another. Leontes' court is dominated by a huge box (now transparent, now opaque) in which scenes often take place as if imprisoned. Perdita's village in Bohemia is encircled with a vast sky. The actors in the court scenes are placed stiffly and pictorially; their groupings tend to fall into formal patterns. In Bohemia, everything is swirling chaos. The court is dark; Bohemia is sunny. The court is despair; Bohemia is hope. The court is the winter of the tale; Bohemia, with its flowers and sheep-shearing festival, is the springtime that always follows.

Even the balloons that are simultaneously the most appealing and most gimmicky part of the design seem to float differently in the two worlds. In Bohemia, they have somehow formed themselves into a wonderful tree. In the court, at the party that begins the play, the balloons are tied firmly to chairs, their strings forming vertical lines that echo the edges of that overwhelming box.

The party is seen through the eyes of the young prince Mamillius (Jeremy Levitsky), who observes his parents' falling-out withbewilderment. This doesn't quite answer the question of what goes wrong with Leontes, since the play can't fully be contained in the child's-eye-view vision Noble has imposed on it. Mamillius dies offstage halfway through the play. We later see a Bohemia that, with its balloon tree and bright colors, suggests a child's drawing of a country town square, though there is no longer a child to provide a point of view that makes sense of the design. The production keeps slipping on moments like this, where the play, in its richness, overflows the pretty conceptual bowl Noble has poured it into.

It's difficult to judge whether the acting is deliberately flat, in order to give the production a non-realistic, fablelike tone, or just flat in the ordinary, unsatisfying way. Burden is a moving queen Hermione, particularly in her trial scene, and as Autolycus, the clown/pickpocket, Mark Hadfield is spry and sleazy (his vaudeville-style renditions of the play's songs are the best part of the evening). Graham Turner has a few nice moments as the old shepherd's dimwitted son. But everyone else is rather serviceable. In the pivotal role of Leontes, Nettles is fierce but sometimes vocally incomprehensible. It's not clear why Leontes behaves as he does anyway; when you can't understand what he's saying, the character becomes murky.

Does it matter? There are productions so strongly and beautifully designed, so powerfully defined by a director's concept, that they simply sweep their texts along, scattering the actors like tenpins, and the experience is so kinetic you don't care. But these are rarely - I might guess never - productions of Shakespeare, whose fluid complexity is something a director can tame or serve but never simply master. Sitting through Noble's "Winter's Tale" is rather like listening to a professor delivering a lecture so inspired that you feel ungrateful when you realize you'd rather have less of what the professor thinks and more of the book he's lecturing on.

The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Adrian Noble. Design, Anthony Ward. Lights, Chris Parry. Music, Shaun Dvey. Sound, Paul Slocombe. Also featuring Don Gallagher, Julian Curry, Paul Jesson, Gemma Jones, Barnaby Kay, John Bott and other members of the Royal Shakespeare Company. At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through May 22.

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The Tell-Tale Heart; Studio's `Old Settler' Plumbs Emotional Depths

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Article date:
June 3, 1998
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Television is known for coarsening actors, but its warty hand has not touched "Law & Order's" S. Epatha Merkerson, who plays the lead in "The Old Settler" at the Studio Theatre. An actress with the rare combination of presence and subtlety, Merkerson plays Elizabeth Borny, a conventional woman surprised by passion in middle age, with unforced naturalness; you'd hardly know she was acting at all, except that you can't get this kind of dramatic complexity except from someone who can really act.

John Henry Redwood's play seems conventional on the surface. Elizabeth shares a Harlem apartment with her sister Quilly (Lynda Gravatt), who has just shed her no-good husband. Into their lives comes Husband Witherspoon (Carl Jay Cofield), a mama's boy from South Carolina pursuing his hometown sweetheart, Lou Bessie (Deidra LaWan Johnson), who has run away to the bright lights of the big city. This is Harlem in the '40s, and Lou Bessie has changed her name to Charmayne and fits right in. The naive Husband, who is renting a room from Elizabeth, may not assimilate as easily.

The script is old-fashioned in style, with lots of coincidentally well-timed entrances and exits and big confrontations between the characters. But Redwood has a more sophisticated sense of human nature than is usual in this sort of play, and director Seret Scott has seized on every hint of complexity. As a result, instead of being just a downbeat slice-of-life play, "The Old Settler" is an examination of emotional ambivalence, of the way generous and selfish desires can twine together as inextricably as a rose and a brier. Merkerson is well partnered by Gravatt -- they play together like an old-sisters act in vaudeville -- and Cofield, whose performance is full of surprising twists. The character of Lou Bessie, unfortunately, is a one-shrill-note cartoon of selfishness, and Johnson doesn't have much to do except be unbelievably obnoxious. Costumer Reggie Ray has risen to the occasion, from his sedate churchgoing dresses for the sisters to Quilly's white pillbox and gold banner and shoes for her Sisters of the Golden Scepter meetings. (His eye-popping zoot suit for Husband may be a little too much.) James Kronzer has created an understated, lived-in-looking apartment set, and Michael Philippi's lights match the script's emotional sensitivity. The pleasures of the evening are in the relaxed time we spend with the characters, watching Quilly fret about what's to eat, noticing the way Elizabeth's walk gets a little lighter every time she talks with Husband. Like a lot of writers with an easy naturalistic style, Redwood stumbles when he has to move the plot -- events jerk forward in an increasingly unconvincing way, especially toward the end when Husband is reduced to looking like either a dope or a jerk when the play has clearly presented him as neither. And just so we don't lose interest, he inserts some Neil Simon-style running jokes, such as one involving a telephone party line. On the other hand, a "joke" about Quilly's fear of rapists -- which hinges for its laughs on the idea that an older woman isn't sexually desirable -- is deliberately turned on its head when Husband falls for Elizabeth. "The Old Settler" is a sentimental drama, a once-popular, now-debased genre that has descended into the formula of TV movies about the troubles of "real" people. Redwood, Seret and the cast remind you how pleasing this type of play can be when it's realized with intelligence and depth. The Old Settler, by John Henry Redwood. Directed by Seret Scott; sound, Mark K. Anduss; props, Susan Senita Bradshaw. At the Studio Theatre through June 28. Call 202-332-3300.

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Theater; `Rhythms': Offbeat Sketches

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Article date:
July 15, 1994
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"Rhythms,"the Horizons Theatre production that opened last weekend, is a formless series of interlocking monologues by women who live or find themselves in Rappahannock County, Va. At first you may be afraid it's going to be one of those drippy feminist shows about fluids and feelings. There's a trace of that, but playwright Chris White has a dry, satirical sense that keeps things from getting gooey, and her sketches of the seven female characters are incisive little portraits.

"Rhythms" is earnestly inclusive: There's a black character, and a couple of working-class women, as well as members of the white middle class. White seems on her least certain footing with Kale (JoAnn M. Williams), the African American woman, and Ella (Rosemary Regan), a salt-of-the-earth country type. These two are presented as cliched earth mothers, with Kale knowing all the healing herbs for various illnesses, and Ella waxing rhapsodic about nursing and childbirth.

Fortunately, the others have more freshness and humor. Ella's mother-in-law, Sharon (Joan Kelley), is a matter-of-fact sort who refers to Ella as "very country," explaining, "She doesn't care appropriately for her body hair." Teenager Kali (Amy Wiese) is in trouble with her mother for having left the traces of a wild sexual encounter all over the house. Phyllis (Mattie Lolavar), a local girl who moved away, is back at a family reunion minus her husband. Gretchen (Melinda Adamz), a self-deprecating writer, is in town to do an ecology story. And Sheila (Marilyn Bennett) has discovered the joys of sex across class boundaries at a roadside produce stand.

None of these women has a story that is quite what you expect. White is an inventive writer who keeps throwing little surprises at you, and the cast is uniformly strong. Director Leslie Jacobson has staged the proceedings on a handsome set by V. Hana Sellers that features a lot of gleaming wood. Anne LeBaron has provided some lovely music. I could have done without what looked like a mystical dance of sisterhood, but on the whole "Rhythms" is quietly charming.

Rhythms, by Chris White. Directed by Leslie Jacobson. Lights, Helena Kuukka. Costumes, Barbara Tucker Parker. Choreographer, Cynthia Word. At Horizons Theatre, Gunston Arts Center's Theater Two, through July 30.

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Bare It and Grin: This 'Full Monty' Sings

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
October 27, 2000
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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There are no plaster garden gnomes in the musical "The Full Monty," which opened here last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Those ultimate symbols of lower-middle-class English tackiness are missing because, unlike the movie on which it's based, the musical is set in America, among laid-off steelworkers in Buffalo. Not exactly garden gnome country--and not a setting that quite fits the whimsically goofy story about a bunch of unemployed fellows breaking through their gender prejudices to do a male striptease act.

I saw "The Full Monty" in previews, but even then it was in boisterous good shape. With its high energy, easy laughs, catchy score by David Yazbek and exuberant dancing, the show has been shaped by director Jack O'Brien to be a crowd-pleaser. Our hero, affable Jerry Lukowski (Patrick Wilson), looks a little like Kevin Costner, while his hefty pal Dave Bukatinsky (John Ellison Conlee) suggests John Goodman--a likable pair of guys to spend time with.

Jerry is the idea man, the one who comes up with the notion of stripping for cash after he and Dave accidentally witness their wives going gaga for a male stripper. He appreciates the rock-star power of strutting naked and turning on the babes. Understandably, Dave hesitates, not particularly eager to parade his flab in front of an audience.

Lean Jerry and fat Dave call to mind those great proletariat clowns Art Carney and Jackie Gleason as Ed and Ralph in "The Honeymooners." What a "Honeymooners" idea "The Full Monty" is. You can just see Ralph, through a mixture of pride, stubbornness and lack of smarts, dragging Ed into this sort of shenanigans. You can imagine Audrey Meadows, as Ralph's skeptical wife, Alice, with crossed arms and tapping foot.

But in "The Full Monty," what would have been a humiliating mistake for Ralph and Ed is portrayed as liberating. By deciding to strip, the men prove their lack of fear at being taken for silly, weak or gay--thus confirming their manliness. The embarrassing situation isn't a joke on them--it's a test, a passage.

This therapeutic element was less obvious in the movie because of the English performing tradition of cross-dressing comedy and the looser English definition of proper masculine behavior. A combative bloke who gets drunk with the lads at the pub and comes home with a black eye can also be pixieish or gently loopy and no one looks at him twice. American working-class guydom is more rigidly defined: Think of the infamous Hustler cartoon of a hard hat tearing the clothes off a female pedestrian.

Two of the men in the movie formed a gay partnership, but there was nothing on-screen like the stage version's coming-out love song, performed at a funeral. (The song, "You Walk With Me," is beautiful.) Watching this scene, and--in Terrence McNally's politically correct script--Jerry's utterly unthreatened response to it, you feel ugly reality elbowing you sharply; some part of you is warily waiting for things to go wrong.

The show is more successful in tackling race. There is, typical of white American entertainment, only one major black character, but he's given a joyously politically incorrect song about the burdens of his sexual prowess, "Big Black Man." The character, Noah, a k a "Horse," is played by the marvelous Andre de Shields, and his dancing here is the purest, giddiest pleasure of the whole evening.

The dancing in general, though, is excellent. Choreographer Jerry Mitchell rises buoyantly to the challenge of creating dance numbers that are mostly about guys not being able to dance very well. The Act 1 curtain number, "Michael Jordan's Ball," in which the men "get" the idea of movement by focusing on memories of Jordan's moves, is about as high-spirited, witty and dramatically appropriate as you could wish.

Yazbek is talented. Even the less memorable songs are lively and enjoyable to listen to. Some of them--"Big Black Man" and a comic number about suicide whose rude title can't be printed in this paper- -are genuinely clever. And "Breeze Off the River," which Jerry sings to his son, and the previously mentioned "You Walk With Me" are quite lovely.

In general, the cast is strong, even the actresses stuck with the thankless roles of the wives, Lisa Datz and Annie Golden. I could have done without Jeanette, the wisecracking old show biz dame, but Kathleen Freeman is a lot of fun in the role. Wilson and Conlee are very good, and it's not their fault that their characters' actions are sometimes unconvincing. Ralph and Ed just don't belong in this PC, find-yourself, transcend-and-grow story.

The Full Monty, at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York. Call 800-432-7250.

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Theater; Hill-Thomas Redux

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
July 21, 1994
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Playing Clarence Thomas in the Studio Secondstage production of "Unquestioned Integrity," Vince Brown shifts his eyes back and forth like a ventriloquist's dummy. The movement is scary precisely because it reminds you so exactly of Thomas at his hearings - those half-shut, darting eyes behind the glasses. But Brown isn't doing a political cartoon: Not only does he have Thomas's histrionic defensiveness down pat, he also captures his core of furious dignity.

Mame Hunt's 75-minute adaptation of 103 hours of transcripts from the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings might seem like too little, too late, but the evening turns out to be rather fascinating. Things begin tritely with circus music, and the set features three rings in which Thomas, Hill (Kirsten Nokes) and an all-purpose Senator (Morris J. Chalick) sit. But Hunt is evenhanded in presenting what, in her version at least, seems like a human mystery.

Nokes's Hill is, like the original, self-possessed, soft-spoken, intelligent, firm, sane to the point of dullness. It's impossible to believe that she is a fabricator. Yet the outraged passion of Brown's Thomas doesn't come out of nowhere either: This is a man who's been deeply wounded. Both seem to possess a private, personal truth.

Chalick plays the Senator as a joke throughout, and though I'm not sure how else the role could have been played, watching an actor condescend to and make fun of his character gets old quickly. To give Chalick his due, the composite he is playing is an incredible dope. You hear it all again: the grandstanding, the moralizing, the prudishness, the self-righteousness, the shocking insularity. When Chalick's Senator, faced with the implication that a man actually might have talked dirty to a woman, sputters out, "That person would have to be some sort of psychopathic sex fiend or pervert!" he's the one who seems crazy. Thomas, and many others, have claimed that the hearings fed into negative stereotypes about black sexuality. But in Hunt's adaptation, at any rate, it's the depiction of white sexuality - as inhibited and prissy - that seems negative.

Onstage, the contest between Hill and Thomas comes down to who has the most convincing personal style. She remains calm and low-key, admitting at one point, with classic understatement, "It would have been more comfortable to remain silent." Thomas, on the other hand, rants dramatically at every opportunity. "I can't tell you what I have lived through!" he declares, and his speeches are peppered with such phrases as "ruin my life," "destroy me" and the famous "high-tech lynching." He takes himself very, very seriously - but though this is an annoying, even comic trait, it doesn't mean he's dishonest. Delivering the lines of heightened self-pity, Brown stares the audience down: How dare we judge this man, his performance asks, when we can't know his pain?

You get the sense that Thomas and Hill find themselves in a situation beyond their control, cannon fodder of warring ideological forces. In the end, the Senator has the last word, since it's a question he asks that seems to sum up the whole sorry business: "Is it all just one big mess of stuff we have to deal with, and everyone's culpable?"

Unquestioned Integrity, by Mame Hunt. Set, Chris Andersen; costumes, Lydia Spooner; lights, Martha Mountain; sound, Nathan Weisz and Ann Hairston. At the Studio Theatre Secondstage (upstairs) Fridays through Sundays through Aug. 7.

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Redone; `Animal Crackers': Arena's Antic Marxist Plot

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Article date:
April 9, 1999
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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The 1928 Marx Brothers musical "Animal Crackers," which opened last night at Arena Stage, is a tipsy, towering confection, a gaily festooned cake for Frank Ferrante's Groucho to jump out of. Jump he does, and he never really comes to earth. This is a pixieish Groucho, an imp, a sprite who seemingly pops out of thin air to break the rules of society, logic and theater itself.

Technically speaking, Ferrante is playing Capt. Jeffrey T. Spalding, a big-game hunter whom snooty Mrs. Rittenhouse (Celia Tackaberry in the Margaret Dumont role) hopes to exploit to her social advantage: "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas," he tells the assembled guests. "What he was doing in my pajamas I don't know." But, of course, he's really playing Groucho, just as Les Marsden, as the silent, lecherous Professor, is really playing Harpo and Jerold Goldstein, as the shifty Emanuel Ravelli, is really playing Chico. And this antic, enchanting production is really playing a gentle lament for a lost American past.

Director Douglas C. Wager -- who originally staged "Animal Crackers" at Arena back in the '80s and did the equally madcap "The Cocoanuts" a few years later -- is like a kid with the greatest toy train in the world. He makes the cars run merrily forward, backward, through tunnels and occasionally, just for the heck of it, right off the rails. The show's highest, most dizzying points come whenever one of the Marxes is blowing it up -- such as the sublime moment when Groucho, for no discernible reason, bursts into song with the words "Show me a rose or leave me alone!" There is a sort of plot. Mrs. Rittenhouse has two society-lady enemies (hissing Brigid Cleary and sneering Mary Fortuna, clad in the limiest of lime-green frocks), sisters who plot her humiliation. Her daughter, Arabella Rittenhouse (daffy Jeanna Schweppe), is in love with slick gossip columnist Wally Winston (Brooks Ashmanskas, a crackerjack dancer); society reporter Mary Stewart (pleasingly sane Kristie Dale Sanders) is in love with painter John Parker (Jimmy- Cagneyesque John Scherer); and the stuffy butler, Hives (a delightful comic turn from Ralph Cosham), has a sweetly perverse thing for his ex-employer, Mrs. Whitehead (Cleary). Publishing magnate Roscoe W. Chandler (Lawrence Redmond) is hiding a Dark Secret. Plus, there's a stolen painting. Who cares? Certainly not the Marxes, who anarchically pursue their own interests. Chico, a hired musician, is intent on not playing, since he's paid better for that than for an actual performance (a satire on the musicians' union that still stings). Harpo chases after various unwilling young ladies and exhibits a touching affection for a pet fish. Groucho pitches woo at Mrs. Rittenhouse the way another man might pitch a cream pie. If Ferrante's Groucho is airborne, Marsden's Harpo is earthy, a randy, gnomic, deeply silent creature who appears to make his home in a bottomless chest and responds to any threat by dropping down asleep like a possum. He can also play the harp. Goldstein's trick-piano solo suffers from being staged in one corner of the Arena, so most of the audience can't see his hands, but he still pulls it off. His Chico/Ravelli has a subversive trace of thug in him; if Marsden's happy troll Harpo might be found lurking beneath a bridge, Goldstein's Chico could believably turn up skulking in an alley. The art deco setting for this fractured fairy tale, purportedly the interior of Mrs. Rittenhouse's mansion, is the creation of Zack Brown, who also did the divinely absurd '20s costumes. Wager whirls and juggles the show around this set as if he were directing a one- ring circus. He is sublimely partnered by choreographer Baayork Lee, his collaborator on his past Marxist efforts. She provides distractions for the rather dull love songs by bringing on dancing canaries and capering clouds, sets the house servants frolicking with round silver trays as props, and provides the evening's show- stopper: an exhilarating tap number, led by Ashmanskas, to "Dancing the Devil Away." The smaller roles are carried off with verve. Michael V. Howell is a ludicrously Irish policeman. Redmond struts and frets pompously as Chandler. And Neal Mayer brings comic poise and grace to the thankless role of Zeppo. As Groucho's foil and inamorata Mrs. Rittenhouse, Tackaberry is a willing good sport but unfortunately not very funny. At three hours, the show is a little long. Wager isn't interested in shunting the audience in and out of the theater, but in calling up for us a piece of the theatrical past. From Lee's sprightly geometric choreography to George Fulginiti-Shakar's charming period orchestrations, the evening isn't a re-creation so much as a reincarnation. As if in some good dream, the long-gone Marx Brothers caper for us once again in all their maniacal glory. For all its effervescence, the final impression "Animal Crackers" leaves is of a fragile, ghostly beauty. Animal Crackers, by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Songs by Burt Kalmer and Harry Ruby. Additional music by Eric Stern. Additional lyrics by Laurence Maslon. Directed by Douglas C. Wager. Musical direction, George Fulginiti-Shakar; lights, Allen Lee Hughes; sound, Susan White. With Joseph Knight, Cathy Carey, Lisa Marie Cline, Maria Francesconi, Hayes Bergman, Kimberly Breault, Shawn Christopher, Gregory Daniels, Parker Esse, Derric Harris, Anne Hawthorne, Erin Malloy, Candice Michael, Marisa Rozek. At Arena Stage through May 30. Call 202-488-3300.

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'Troilus' And Trouble; Aimless Shtick Squanders Shakespeare

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
June 18, 1999
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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A director who works straight from instinct can achieve astonishing results and productions that seem purer and stronger than less intuitive work by directors of equal, or even greater, talent. The downside is that if that instinct falters, such a director may lack the mundane skills to help him or her over the dry patches. This is what has happened to the often-brilliant Joe Banno ("Romeo and Juliet") with his Washington Shakespeare Company production of "Troilus and Cressida," which is just one dry patch after another.

Directing this bitter play is no walk in the sun to begin with. Set during the Trojan War, the play tells the unhappy love story of Troilus (Jeffrey Johnson), younger brother of the Trojan hero Hector (Jim Zidar), and Cressida (Michelle Shupe), the daughter of a traitor who has gone over to the Greeks.

Brought together by her uncle Pandarus (John Emmert), the lovers are parted almost immediately when in a prisoner exchange Cressida is sent to join her father in the Greek camp. Before she goes, Troilus is almost hysterical with worry that she won't be true to him. Turns out he has reason. The play's military subplot concerns the efforts of the Greek generals to get lazy, recalcitrant Achilles (Andy Rapoport) to rejoin the fighting, with the wily Ulysses (Waleed F. Zuaiter) manipulating the famous warrior's vanity to get him back on the field. Even in a production that works (as Bill Alexander's did splendidly at the Shakespeare Theatre in the early '90s), the two plots, and the worlds in which they take place, fit together uneasily. Though it appears to be about love as well as war, "Troilus and Cressida" is arguably Shakespeare's most sheerly masculine play. The complex and interesting characters are the warrior generals, while the only woman with more than a few lines, Cressida, is a slut. Tony Cisek's two-level set is a Quonset-hut military camp below and a luxurious palace interior above, but Banno doesn't direct for the contrast. He doesn't really direct here at all, actually--he just lobs notions at the play, hoping perhaps to stone it into submission. So we have a swishily gay Pandarus, plus an Achilles who not only dallies with Pandarus (a relationship strongly implied in the text) but also has decorated his hut's exterior like a layout from "Gay Cliche" magazine. Banno has turned the sour Thersites (Delia Taylor) into a woman and married her to the loutish Ajax (Allan Jirikowic), who beats her. Hector and Ajax fight their one-on-one duel in a parody of World Championship Wrestling. Agamemnon is played by a woman less than four feet tall (Suzanne Richard), and it's never clear whether we're supposed to ignore her gender or not. Helen of Troy (Rana Kay) is a nymphet of 13 or 14, a sulky near-brat. As each novelty is unveiled, the audience perks up briefly to wonder where Banno is going with this. Unfortunately, the answer is nowhere. The production is so fragmented and stagnant that not even the cast's most talented actors--and this is a cast with a lot of talented actors--can get performances going. They're reduced to doing shtick from scene to scene. The love story is unconvincing, the war story is confusing, and, at nearly three hours, the evening is interminable. Banno closes with a final image that shows how genuinely inventive he can be. Ulysses picks up a toy horse that has been sitting onstage all along and looks at it speculatively. We watch the idea of hiding troops in a gigantic wooden horse and smuggling them into Troy come into his mind, and we shiver accordingly. Or we would, if up behind Ulysses we couldn't see that the Greeks have in fact not only already made it to Troy, they've gotten all the way into the palace and they've killed Troilus, over whose body they're standing even as Ulysses muses about how to get them in there. That horse won't run. Troilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Joe Banno. Dramaturg, Cam Magee; lights, Marianne Meadows; costumes, William Pucilowsky; sound, Dan Schrader; props, Jessie Duncanson; fights, Michael Johnson. With Jeff Lofton, Robin Ervin, Daniel Ladmirault, Eric Sutton, Tom Quinn, Scot McKenzie, Bryan Cassidy. At the Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington, through July 11. Call 703-418-4808.

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Fresh 'Tuna': Quite A Dish; Third Show Built On Reliable Recipe

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Article date:
June 4, 1999
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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The boys are back in town. Also the girls they play so well. And with some brand-new jokes and outfits. "Red, White and Tuna," which opened last night at the Kennedy Center, is the third of the "Tuna Trilogy" ("Greater Tuna," "A Tuna Christmas"), but even though the show is new, the audience will not find itself pining for Tunas gone by: "I don't like the look of this," says one character, returning to the town after a long absence, and when another asks, "Why? Has it changed?" the reply is "No."

Audiences undoubtedly will like the look of "Red, White and Tuna." Also the sound of it. Also just the general genial nutty spirit. As always, Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, who wrote the script with director Ed Howard, play all the roles.

These include the long-suffering Bertha Bumiller (Sears), who may at last find happiness with deejay Arles Struvie (Williams), as well as the one-man humane society Petey Fisk (who reminds us to sympathize with centipedes because they "are always on their feet"), pregnant and complaining Charlene Bumiller (Williams) and dog-hating Pearl Burras (Sears). Vera Carp (Williams) still schemes to be social queen of Tuna. Didi Snavely (Williams) still dresses in plastic because it's easy to clean, and she still manages Didi's Used Weapons. Didi's husband, R.R., was taken away by a UFO 1,999 days ago, and she's hoping he won't return. High-strung theater auteur Joe Bob Lipsey (Sears) has had another hit with "Mother's Boy," a musical based on the Oedipus story, and former delinquent Stanley Bumiller (Williams) has found his artistic calling spray-painting dead animals and selling them for thousands to rich, arty types in Santa Fe. Among the new characters are the stuck-in-the-'60s Amber Windchime, who used to be called Fern (Williams), and Star Birdfeather, formerly Berenice (Williams). Then there's the Rev. Sturgis Spikes, who is always a little skittish just after he gets out of jail. Rev. Spikes is teamed up with the Tuna Smut Snatchers, a vigilant moral watchdog group that managed to cancel Joe Bob Lipsey's latest show on the grounds that the song "I Get a Kick Out of You" contains a reference to champagne. Oh yes. There's also an alien. It's been nine years since "A Tuna Christmas" debuted, but you don't feel the gap. Sears and Williams pick up right where they left off. This installment's tone is slightly more poignant than that of the earlier ones, even a shade elegiac, with lovers finding each other and settling down: Tuna at sunset. Linda Fisher's costumes are as much of a hoot as ever. Sears gets to wear not one but two resplendent chenille robes and also sport a Statue of Liberty crown. Williams shows off his legs in a variety of short skirts and fancy shoes. By now, these two are beyond criticism: They simply, wonderfully, exist. Red, White and Tuna, by Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams. Set, Kevin Rupnik; lights, Root Choyce; sound, Ken Huncovsky. At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through June 20. Call 202-467-4600

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ss; Reduced Shakespeare's Historic Romp

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Article date:
June 8, 1999
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Those merry scamps in the Reduced Shakespeare Company are back, this time with a musical: "The Complete Millennium Musical," to be precise. Biting off more than they can chew? Hah. These are the guys who condensed both the Bible and the history of America into pun- filled, two-hour evenings.

"The Complete Millennium Musical" is performed at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater by old hands and authors and directors of the show, Reed Martin (the bald one) and Austin Tichenor (the one with hair), as well as a newcomer, Second City alumna Dee Ryan, the first female performer the group has ever had. Ryan apparently feels this slight deeply as she is continually trying to insert into the material references to great women. Mamie Eisenhower seems to be her particular favorite.

Obviously, the show is goofy and all over the place. It also, surprisingly, has a sharp edge. Liberal pieties about the poor and forgotten are skewered by Ryan's continually vain attempts to perform something called "The Unsung Song." There's a nifty little duet by Ghengis Khan and Hitler. At one point, posing in a chair at his waspishly Noel Cowardish best, Tichenor informs us he's going to sing a ditty called "Do Let's Be Frank (About the Muslims)." Pause. "I know what you're thinking." Longer pause. "Where on earth is he going with this?" He's going into a routine about anti-Muslim stereotyping, actually, but his playing on the audience's nervousness about his and their attitudes is really the point. There's something performed in tutus called "An Enlightened Dream Ballet" that skewers anti-homosexual prejudice. To a '40s beat, Ryan slinks through an S&M number about the Inquisition ("Let 'em Swing"). Martin rousingly serenades us with "Everybody Hates the French" ("Everybody! Sing along!"). Tichenor has a number of biting numbers, which are enhanced by his rich singing voice. There's also a lot of just plain silliness, a quality in happy abundance on Washington stages these days what with the Tuna boys next door at the Eisenhower Theater and "The Knight of the Burning Pestle" over at the Folger. As Thomas Crapper, the inventor of the commode, Martin sings "Flush Your Troubles Away." As Freud wearing goggle-eyeball glasses, Ryan hits the open road in "Big Torpedo." Among the "Three Spacemen on the Apollo Ship" is--surprise!--Mamie Eisenhower. The computer running the show has a breakdown. Semiautomatic squirt guns are deployed. A word to the wise: This isn't a show you can saunter into half an hour late (a common occurrence at the Kennedy Center) without repercussions from the not-at-all-pleased and extremely witty Tichenor. If verbal humiliation doesn't scare you, remember the squirt guns. You have been warned. The Complete Millennium Musical (abridged) by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, additional material by Dee Ryan. Music composed and arranged by Nick Graham. Directed by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor. Musical direction, Nick Graham. At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater through July 25. Call 202-467-4600.

oom of Lost Souls

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Article date:
May 12, 1999
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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In "A Hotel Room in the Town of NN," which opened last night for a six-performance run at the Kennedy Center, the tiny audience of 65 is seated on the set--around the edges and up under where the eaves might be, looking in on a sordid hotel room in an unnamed town in 19th-century Russia. Hope will flutter in this room in the next 90 minutes, vanity will caper, and reality will crash down as our protagonist Chichikov (Avangard Leontiev) schemes to make his fortune from a list of the dead, and the audience will flutter, caper and crash right along with him in this intense, grotesque, sensational production.

"Hotel Room" is director Valeri Fokin's adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's "Dead Souls," in which the ambitious and scheming Chichikov tries to swindle a massive tax credit from the government by pretending to own numerous serfs. So as not to overlap with any actual owners, he buys from them names of dead serfs. In the parlance of the time, serfs were officially listed as "serf souls," hence Gogol's savagely ironic title. These people who didn't own their bodies in life don't even get to own their souls after death.

Adapted many times for the stage, "Dead Souls" is full of extreme Russian "types" from all classes. Comparison is sometimes made to the social expanse of Shakespeare, but in his grotesquerie, humor and moral indignation, Gogol is actually nearer to his own contemporary Charles Dickens. And "Dead Souls" is generally enjoyed for the same reasons as Dickens's work--the fabulous characters, a little too richly drawn to be altogether realistic. In a move for which "audacious" is a pale adjective, Fokin has set his adaptation in the wings, so to speak, of Gogol's classic, leaving out everyone except Chichikov, his manservant (Sergei Sazontiev) and his driver (Valeri Yeremichov) to concentrate on the would-be swindler's dreams and despair when he is alone in his hotel room. It's something like doing "Macbeth" and leaving out the witches, Banquo, Lady M and the murder scenes and the great soliloquies to show Macbeth brooding on a battlement. This description may make American theatergoers think of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," but that was essentially a brilliant schoolboy prank. "Hotel Room" is more like a variation on a theme by Gogol, a meditation on "Dead Souls," a shadow narrative and a response. It's stunning, too. This is a footnote to a great work that, once you've seen it, is impossible to imagine that work without (a conceit worked out by another Russian literary genius, Vladimir Nabokov, in "Pale Fire"). Crammed into Chichikov's hotel room, you also feel like you're crammed into his mind, nearer than you want to be, noticing things you'd rather not. The extraordinary Leontiev has a great face-- sometimes his strong features are shadowed and austere, near- beautiful, then his eyes brighten and his mobile mouth widens and he looks like a fool. It's as if the masks of tragedy and comedy were shifting over a single set of features. Leontiev seems to generate his performance through his pores: We can almost smell Chichikov's petty soul, like sweat. Aleksandr Velikanov's set is practically another character, with its floorboards separated by gaps, its cheap furniture and its cold emptiness. Tall windows stand in one wall, but they're too filthy to see out of, and the light that comes through them is weak and without warmth. As no separate designer is designated in the program, I assume that Velikanov also created the almost palpable varieties of light that spill into and over his set: daylight, dreamlight and the kind of darkness that hides the corners of a room. Occasionally, the action is illuminated by nothing more than the flame of a single candle. There's no American equivalent of the kind of complete-body acting done by Fokin's actors here, except in the long-lost art of silent- screen comedy. There's nothing arty about the way they move, stylized though it often is--they simply seem to inhabit their bodies more fully than the rest of us. "Hotel Room" is that artistic paradox, a robust abstract production. After a while, trapped in Chichikov's sorry little room with him, you begin to wonder what's outside those dirty windows, on the other side of those ominously tall doors. Is it the rest of the "Dead Souls," all those characters, the teeming mass of Russia itself? Or is the room floating in a featureless nothing, as void as Chichikov's hopes and as hollow as his own dead soul? A Hotel Room in the Town of NN, adapted and directed by Valeri Fokin. Music, Aleksandr Bakshi; costumes, Nelli Fomina; choreography, Viktor Shendorovich. With Tatiana Ivchenko, Natalia Lykeicheva, Nikolai Lopushikhin, Vladimir Davidenko. At the Kennedy Center through May 16. Call 202-467-4600.

how Boat': On Broadway, an Epic Return

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Article date:
October 3, 1994
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Jerome Kern's famous, mournful "Ol' Man River" is by turns a near-spiritual, a choral lament and a confrontation in the Harold Prince production of "Show Boat" that opened last night at the Gershwin Theatre. Michel Bell's deep bass rolls the first part of the number along like a force of nature. A backdrop lowers - a huge photograph of black men and women picking cotton, looking blankly and warily at the camera - and the verse is taken up by the chorus, dressed as workers, turning the song sweet and sad and amazingly delicate. Then Bell and the chorus advance to the edge of the stage, and the third verse is thrown at the audience as a statement of pride and a challenge, as in-your-face as a song from 1927 can be.

This is only one of many stunning moments in Prince's production, which is so luxuriously, theatrically rich that you can hardly take it all in. "Show Boat" itself is an extraordinary piece of work, epically ambitious and musically almost profligate: There are enough marvelous songs in it (by Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II) to build six modern musicals around. In the first act alone, "Make Believe," "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" follow one right after another.

In its time, "Show Boat" was revolutionary. To understand exactly how revolutionary, you only need to look at the names of some of the musicals Kern composed earlier: "Very Good, Eddie," "Oh, Boy!," "Zip Goes a Million" (all in collaboration with P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton), "Sally Sitting Pretty," "The City Chap." Musicals were lighthearted, rather slight affairs, designed to give the audience a maximum of singing and dancing without too much distraction by the plot. This was the tradition that produced Fred Astaire, who made a film of Kern's "Roberta." It was the tradition that produced the Marx Brothers in "The Cocoanuts" and "Animal Crackers." With its strong story, operatic sweep, high sentiment, social consciousness, regional flavor and heady combining of musical styles, "Show Boat" started a whole new tradition. It's the fountainhead of what we know today - from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Sondheim - as the American musical.

The story, adapted from Edna Ferber's novel, doesn't read like anything particularly out of the ordinary. Cap'n Andy (John McMartin) and his shrewish wife, Parthy Ann (Elaine Stritch), run a traveling theater - the show boat of the title - up and down the Mississippi, performing 19th-century crowd-pleasers like "The Parson's Bride." Their daughter, Magnolia (Rebecca Luker, who has the purest, warmest soprano you might ever dream of hearing), meets and falls in love with a riverboat gambler, Gaylord Ravenal (Mark Jacoby). They marry and fall on hard times. She bears him a daughter, he deserts them, she becomes a famous singer, and they reconcile at the daughter's wedding. In a poorly developed subplot, the life of the actress Julie LaVerne (Lonette McKee) is ruined when she is exposed as half-black.

Except for the attempts to deal with race, this isn't a plot much above melodrama. But Kern's score infuses it with such beauty, complexity and variety of emotion that it becomes mythic. Kern brought to his work the musical conventions and styles of his European heritage. When he drew from African American blues and gospel and the upbeat, optimistic patriotic music of America, the kind of cultural fusion that this country used to boast of took place. The score to "Show Boat" has the piercing, plaintive sorrow of the blues, the bouncy energy of white popular music of the time and a distinctly Old World melancholy - a world-weariness not native to American music - that gives "Show Boat" a curiously elegiac tone. Watching it, we feel the American past, the whole American myth, drift down the Mississippi to become lost to us, mist-hidden in a fog of nostalgia, guilt and wonder.

Prince did a great deal of work putting together exactly the version of the script and score he wanted. Among other things, he restored to the black female second lead, Queenie (Gretha Boston), songs generally cut: "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun' " (deemed too downbeat for the original production) and "Queenie's Ballyhoo." He extended the action, which begins in 1885, all the way to 1927, taking us right to the edge of the Depression and, of course, the eve of the show's premiere. With set designer Eugene Lee, he developed a "montage" style of quick scene narrative that enabled him to shift time and place more easily, and to restore some of the serious elements in the story he felt were missing.

From a modern point of view, the most retro thing about "Show Boat" is that the story follows the young lovers, when Julie, the woman trying to pass for white who ends up a drug addict, clearly has the more interesting story. True, she is that cliche the Tragic Mulatto, but the most horrible conflicts of the time are dramatized in her, and it's interesting to imagine what, say, George C. Wolfe ("Jelly's Last Jam") would have done with this material.

Prince has clearly taken great pains to give historical respect to the African American characters in "Show Boat," even the extras, who are seen to be continually at manual labor that enables the whites to live, as well as - as they raise and lower flats - this production to go on. "Ol' Man River" is vividly reimagined (though in a way perfectly compatible with the script, which condemns racism). In Act 2, when the script pretty much abandons Queenie, her husband, Joe, and Julie, Prince and the astonishingly talented Susan Stroman (who choreographed "Crazy for You") devise a way to keep the African American presence in the story, as well as to pay tribute to black contributions to the form of the very musical we're watching and, by extension, to all of society: In a sweeping montage set on a Chicago street, as the decades roll by in dance and music, each dance innovation is introduced by a set of black dancers. The steps diffuse into the crowd, and the resulting dance carries the years onward. In the background, the revolving door of the elegant Palmer House hotel whirls like the wheel of time itself, light glinting gold from its revolving panes.

In the cast, Stritch, McKee and Luker stand out. McMartin is sweetly funny as Cap'n Andy, though he can't quite pull off the tour de force in which the Cap'n acts out the whole second act of a disrupted show. As the comic dance team, in the make-believe show as well as the actual one, Dorothy Stanley and Joel Blum are delightful, and Blum has a show-stopping, rubber-limbed solo in the second act.

Lee's sets, though complex, are visually simple and elegant. I wasn't crazy about the multicolored lights meant to reflect the drifting river that Richard Pilbrow kept throwing up on the backdrops, but this tired metaphor of time as a river was likely the director's choice (one of his few slips). Stroman's choreography is frolicsome, witty, buoyant, beautiful and altogether exhilarating.

Prince is an "auteur" of the stage, a muscular director who takes a show and wrestles it into submission. It takes a strong talent to withstand and flourish under such an approach. Stephen Sondheim's work was every bit Prince's match, of course, and "Show Boat" can stand up to him too. It doesn't challenge him, though. Rather, as arguably the greatest show he's ever worked on, it releases the full, brilliant abundance of his talent. He and Kern and Hammerstein's masterpiece deserve each other.

Show Boat, music by Jerome Kern, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Harold Prince. Choreography, Susan Stroman; orchestrations, Robert Russell Bennett and William David Brohn; costumes, Florence Klotz; sound, Martin Levan. Also featuring Doug LaBrecque, David Bryant, Ralph Williams, Mike O'Carroll, Larissa Auble, Tammy Amerson, Sheila Smith, Lorraine Foreman. At the Gershwin Theatre in New York.

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'Short Eyes': Prisoners of Society

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Article date:
August 11, 1999
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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The late Miguel Pinero's "Short Eyes," the initial offering of the Essential Theater Company, premiered in New York 25 years ago. At the time, it was a slice-of-prison-life melodrama whose rawness and obscenities shocked and thrilled bourgeois white critics and audiences.

Now that the play isn't breaking any taboos, it's revealed as a conventional enough drama. White middle-class child molester Clark Davis (Jon Benoit) is put in prison with a bunch of black and Puerto Rican criminals. Pinero is frustratingly unforthcoming about why most of the men are imprisoned, but whatever their crimes, each of them despises any man who abuses children, pinning on him the derisive nickname "short eyes."

Clearly it's only a matter of time until something unpleasant happens to Davis. The catalyst is the young inmate Julio (Maurice Tscherny), nicknamed "Cupcakes" for his cute behind. Julio is continually fending off the half-mocking attentions of the other prisoners. Finally, to distract a potential rapist named Paco (Jaime Robert Carrillo), he manipulates the men's hostility so that it focuses on Davis.

Julio is the protagonist of the play, but Anton Dudley, director of the Essential production, doesn't present him that way. The character is off to the side, just one of many, until suddenly in the third act the audience finds itself spending a lot of time with him and realizes that he is what the play has been about. Tscherny's performance further confuses the issue--he seems like something of a flirt, constantly touching the other guys, and it comes as a surprise when Paco's attentions terrify him.

Since the production has no distinct story line, all the audience has to latch on to is the various characters. These are crudely drawn--the Black Muslim, the white "drug fiend," the decent fellow, the bully, etc.--but energetically written, and several of the actors dig right into their roles: KenYatta Rogers, as a prisoner named Ice, is hilarious giving a monologue on masturbation. Others don't appear to know quite what they're doing. As the luckless Davis, Benoit gives a twitchy performance right out of an old horror movie.

Particularly with Julio's story de-emphasized, "Short Eyes" exists only to teach the presumably pampered audience a lesson about the gritty reality of minorities in prison. This side of the play is a little creepy. An audience today, familiar with the truths "Short Eyes" claims to expose, can't help noticing its freak-show element-- the way Pinero shows off the men's coarseness and danger, as if they were exhibits for the timid, clueless but titillated audience to peer at. The play intends to arouse our outrage and sympathy, but it also invites us to condescend.

Short Eyes, by Miguel Pinero. Directed by Anton Dudley. Set, N. Eric Knauss; lights, Shawn Northrip; costumes and props, Augustine von Doppleganger. With Kelvin Davis, Jonathan Bailey, Jeorge Watson, Jen DeMayo, Dennis Keefe, Colby Codding and Matthew Hencke. At the D.C. Jewish Community Center through Aug. 29. Call ProTix at 703-218- 6500. @Art Caption: Kelvin Davis, left, and Jonathan Bailey in Essential's "Short Eyes."

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Les Arts Sauts: Starring On a Swing

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Article date:
August 2, 1999
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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One of the stereotypes that Americans foist on the French is that they're a sexier people than we are. That stereotype, it turns out, is completely accurate, at least as far as their trapeze artists go. "Kayassine," performed at the Kennedy Center by Les Arts Sauts ("The Jumping Arts"), presents near-sculptural images of the human body at its most fine-tuned.

Les Arts Sauts's show is kinetic, of course, with people swinging and twisting in midair. But its tone is oddly reflective. An American performance of trapeze mastery is likely to be just that--an exercise in mastery, the conquest of gravity, the transcendence of the body's limits. "Kayassine" is about display. What you take away from it isn't the stunts but flash-frozen images of the human form floating or in mid-swoop above your head.

There's only one woman in the 11-member troupe--Sara Sandqvist, who, during the first part of the show, slowly writhes in a translucent swing, so that certain elements of her body are highlighted. We see a lot of her strong, graceful hips and legs. The male sex then asserts itself in more conventional trapeze work, but the men are also objects of desire in costumes that emphasize their thighs and shoulders and astonishingly muscular stomachs. One fellow wears a flirty drapery around his hips like a skirt, and a couple of them sport haircuts that might be described as tubular-Mohawk.

Patrick Cathala's lights provide a misty atmosphere under a black dome--occasionally, wonderfully, aerialists literally seem to appear out of thin air to swing over the audience. These are the most traditionally exciting moments in the show, along with, of course, those heart-stopping instants when an aerialist is passed from one man to another and for a moment seems to hang, unsupported, 30 feet or so above the ground.

There are, in fact, one or two falls, but there is also a net. Arguably the most charming part of the evening comes at the end when each performer drops into the net in his or her own inimitable style.

With its female singer (Pascale Valenta) crooning Asiatic-Celtic- medieval melodies, a cellist (Benoit Fleurey) suspended above the audience (which reclines in special chairs), the deliberate beauty of the presentation and the state-of-the-art sound and lighting, Les Arts Sauts is self-consciously arty. Nothing could be further from the spangled vulgarity of the American circus. This performance is slow, meditative, open-ended. You can make up your own narrative to fit what you see, or you can just dream along.

Kayassine, performed by Les Arts Sauts, directed by Herve Lelardoux. Lighting engineer, Benoit Baillard. Sound engineers, Olivier Horn, Jocelyn Mistral. General technician, Alain Dessard. With Fabrice Champion, Arnaud Grasset, Jean-Francois Rogemont, Nehmatallah Skaf, Jean-Antoine Veran, Patrice Wojciechowski (who also plays Jew's harp), Germain Guillemot, Christophe Lelarge (who also plays double bass), Frank Michel, Stephane Ricordel and Olivier Merlier. In the Kennedy Center's Plaza Tent through Aug. 17.

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f Mannerism; Documentary Style Narrows Appeal of Film on French Theater

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Article date:
September 1, 1996
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Lloyd Rose
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The famed documentary maker Frederick Wiseman tonight takes his camera and the television audience inside the Comedie Francaise, the near-mythical French theatrical company founded more than three centuries ago by a decree of Louis XIV. The troupe has survived the revolution, two world wars and, most recently, severe government subsidy cutbacks to maintain its place as one of the great theaters of the world.

Shown in French with subtitles tonight at 9 on Channel 26, "La Comedie Francaise, ou L'Amour Joue" sounds on the face of it like a work that will gladden every theater aficionado's heart. This isn't quite the case. Wiseman has stuck -- with admirable or irritating integrity, depending on your point of view -- to the documentary style he pioneered in the '60s with his first, great, shocking film "Titicut Follies" (about a Massachusetts state mental hospital). Eschewing narration and explanation, he simply presents to the audience what he has filmed, and we catch what we can.

Thirty years ago this style was an aesthetic attempt not to filter or edit "raw" experience, but to pass it on to the audience pure. This seems oddly appropriate to a film on a French subject, since some French literary theories hold that to write clearly is to establish a totalitarian power that forces the reader to follow the writer's meaning. And it's been extraordinarily effective in some of Wiseman's films on American institutions, in which an American audience can fill in the gaps with its own cultural knowledge. With a rarefied, high-culture foreign institution, though, Wiseman's hands-off approach ranges from inadequate to perverse, at least for an American audience. In Europe, where the film is to be released theatrically, it will likely be more accessible. But on this side of the ocean, unless you can recognize Moliere by his bust and quotations from his plays and identify scenes from Marivaux, Feydeau and Racine, "La Comedie Francaise" has long passages that are not fully comprehensible. Aside from the unapologetic esotericism, the film is also disappointing in the way it reduces the Comedie Francaise to something generic. We see scenes that anyone who has worked at a theater, from the technical crew to board members, will recognize. The administrators bemoan government cutbacks, discuss a threatened strike by the electricians union, argue about whether the theater's pension plan should provide free eyeglasses, dentures and telephones. Seamstresses build costumes in a huge room full of fabric and sewing machines. Stagehands raise an ornate gilt arch. A box office worker argues with a woman who wants to buy more than the permitted quota of four tickets ("I'm from city hall!" she keeps telling the unimpressed clerk). Actors rehearse and argue with the director. Except for the arguments, which have a heady, Gallic, philosophical air (one is about what the phrase tout de meme meant in the 17th century, or whether, indeed, we can even know), none of this seems different from what one might find in a documentary on, say, Arena Stage. We hear that there is a subsidy, but have no idea how much of the company's budget it accounts for. They do these things differently in Europe: Terry Hands of the Royal Shakespeare Company once complained that it received "only" 40 percent of its operating costs from the government, a share at least 10 times as great as any American theater company could even hope for. La Comedie is funded well enough to provide pensions and retirement support for its members, but no details are forthcoming about how much this costs, where the money comes from or how seriously the funding level is threatened. La Comedie chooses and elects its members for life, something else you wouldn't necessarily know from the film. Aside from the financial details of this lifelong support, which would be fascinating, you can't help wondering if giving artists a tenure of sorts ever leads to stagnation. What do other French theater directors, whose institutions are less well subsidized, think of La Comedie? Is it perceived as perhaps a little stale, or as a national treasure? French is famously a formal language, lending itself better to rhetorical expression than to psychological realism, and the French acting style has developed accordingly. You can just barely glean this from the rehearsal scenes. Only in a scene from Racine's "La Thebaide" does the crystalline lucidity of French acting emerge -- making you realize, among other things, that these actors understand the uses of stillness in a way unknown to Americans and the English. So we see much and learn little. It's a pleasantly familiar, rather cozy experience for those who know the subject. Those who don't are apparently just supposed to catch up as they can. This is not a democratic film -- it's for graduate students in theater history.

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`Titanic': Not Quite Up to Speed; Touring Production Lacks Broadway's Grand Stagecraft

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Article date:
July 16, 1999
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Anyone who didn't see "Titanic" when it was on Broadway will never see it now. The touring version, which opened last night at the Kennedy Center, bears about as much resemblance to that production as a Xerox copy does to an oil painting.

Maury Yeston's Tony-winning songs are intact and beautifully sung, and Peter Stone's Tony-winning book is unchanged. What isn't there is Richard Jones's technically complex, astonishing staging: For financial and practical reasons, the three-tiered show with its exquisite shifting boxes of action now takes place on one level in front of uninteresting backdrops.

The actors line up across the stage -- a visual monotony that didn't matter when Jones was playing with three levels -- and sing at the audience. It might almost be a concert version. Without the kinetic staging, you notice how inert -- dull, really -- the first act is. Characters from Musical Comedy Land are introduced: the feisty Irish colleen, the amusing social climber, the young newlyweds, the very proper servant and so on. There are also, of course, Capt. E.J. Smith (William Parry), ship's designer Thomas Andrews (Kevin Gray), ambitious White Star Line official J. Bruce Ismay (Adam Heller) and radio operator Harold Bride (Dale Sandish).

None of them has much to do, though, except pass time till the ship hits the iceberg. The only action is the continual bombardment of the captain with urgings, on the one hand, to go faster (this from Ismay), and on the other, to watch out for icebergs (this from Bride). We already know which advice he paid more attention to.

The smack into the iceberg ends Act 1. Act 2 depicts the eerily slow sinking (total submersion took 2 hours, 40 minutes) and the equally eerie way the passengers only gradually realize that most of them are going to die (only about a third survived, almost none from third class). This is the strongest, strangest, most wrenching part of the story, and even with the abbreviated staging, it retains some of its power.

But how much is missing, compared with Broadway! At the Kennedy Center, the ship's stern gradually tilts as terrified passengers cling to the rails and Andrews sings, with vain regret, about how he might have designed the ship better. It's pretty impressive, though this is the kind of thing a movie does better (and, in fact, the movie did it better).

On Broadway, the tilting deck occupied the upper third of the three-level playing area, and Andrews was alone in his stateroom on the bottom. As the deck tilted, so did the stateroom -- its chairs and small tables falling over one by one as Andrews frantically tried to figure out what he might have done differently.

Finally, as the people above stumbled and fell from sight, the baby grand piano in the stateroom, slowly at first and then inexorably, slid across the stage and bore Andrews off to his despairing death. It was an unforgettable theatrical moment, the kind of thing that demonstrates how an action-packed, physically extreme story can be stunningly rendered onstage, and shows that such stories don't have to be ceded to the movies.

If you didn't see the Broadway "Titanic," you won't find this one bad; you may just wonder what all the fuss in New York was about. Jones has adapted his direction as best he could; unfortunately, since that involved losing two levels, there wasn't a lot he could do. Bits of the original staging show up -- a scene in which some third-class passengers look down a stairwell straight into the audience; the duet between Bride and a stoker (Marcus Chait) in the radio room, a small pale green square floating in black. But in their newly conventional surroundings, these effects look forced and odd.

The singing is superb, and Yeston's score holds up in these reduced circumstances. It's a lovely piece of work, melancholy and subtle. The opening series of songs, in which the passengers approach the voyage with hope and wonder, is a heart-stopper. "Titanic" is, unavoidably, a supremely ironic show. But it's not cynical, and this is mostly owing to Yeston, whose music is an elegy for yearning and optimism, not a sneer at human folly.

The Opera House stage is big, but it's easy to see, even from the audience, that it's not tall enough to have accommodated the full- blown staging of "Titanic." There are probably few, if any, theaters outside New York that could. The cut-down version seems to have been the only alternative if the show was to tour at all. But audience members should understand that they're not going to see the extraordinary production that earned the Tony for "Best Musical."

Titanic, story and book by Peter Stone, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. Directed by Richard Jones. Set and costumes, Stewart Laing; lights, Paul Gallo; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy; orchestrations, Jonathan Turnick; original choreography, Lynne Taylor-Corbett; additional choreography, Mindy Cooper. With David Pittu, John Leone, Raymond Sage, Edward Conery, Timothy J. Alex, Matthew Yang-King, Ken Triwush, Bruce Thompson, Jennifer Waldman, Kristi Barber, Rebecca Hunter Lowman, S. Marc Jordan, Taina Elg, Rob Donohoe, Joann Spencer, Ken Krugman, Carol Denise, Bob Lauder Jr., Stacie James, Michael Shelle, Laura Kenyon, Margo Skinner, Sarah Solie Shannon, Philip Lehl, Christianne Tisdale, David Beditz, Liz McConahay, Melissa Bell, Dana Lynn Caruso, Jodi Jinks, Kate Suber. At the Kennedy Center through Aug. 21. Call 202-467-4600.

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The Orson Investigators; Theater Troupe Revisits 'War of the Worlds'- -and the Genius Behind It

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Article date:
February 20, 2000
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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In the SITI Company's "War of the Worlds"--which in a dynamic and welcome new development the Kennedy Center presented 12 days ago as part of its free Millennium Stage series--director Anne Bogart depicted the Mercury Theatre on the Air performing its famous live radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds." The 1938 show about a Martian invasion panicked a gullible America and made a star of the 23-year-old theater wonder boy Orson Welles. Welles himself is the star of Bogart's piece, part of a longer work about him (also called "War of the Worlds") that will premiere at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville on March 10.

Fifty-nine years ago Welles, age 26, made his greatest--some say this country's greatest--film, "Citizen Kane," based on the mythic American monster William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate who helped start the Spanish-American War. Today Welles is the myth and the monster, and Bogart, a theater enfant terrible herself, appreciates both elements. There's been a lot of sentimental, overblown writing about Welles, but she seems willing to deal with his elusive ambiguity.

America's Doomed Artistic Son

When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, he meant that, in an age of three-act plays, success in America took its victim right from the beginning to the climax, without any intervening period of development. Nowadays, the phrase stands for no follow-up after an initial glorious success. Welles epitomized both definitions.

At the age of 20 he directed for the Federal Theatre Project an all-black "Macbeth" set in Haiti. At 21 he was running, with John Houseman, the Mercury Theatre and electrifying New York with bravura productions such as a "Julius Caesar" set in contemporary fascist Italy. At 24 he was on the cover of Time. At 26 he directed "Citizen Kane." At 30--after his abandoned, studio-edited "The Magnificent Ambersons," his never-finished documentary "It's All True" and other failures that some have blamed on the Hollywood system and some on Welles's mercurial, perverse personality--he was washed up.

Welles did astonishing work after "Kane," however. To cite just one example, his "Chimes at Midnight" (1965; he played Falstaff) is widely considered the greatest Shakespearean film ever made. But his later projects were almost always flawed--by studio interference or poverty (the sound in "Chimes at Midnight" is very poor for this reason) or his own inability to quite pull his vision together. And in the final years of his life (he died in 1985), he was best known as the fat guy on the Paul Masson commercials, rumbling in a voice almost too deep and resounding to be human, "We will sell no wine before its time."

Yet he lives on in our cultural imagination. Not only for his work- -"Citizen Kane" and his styled-to-kill thriller "Touch of Evil" have both been successfully re-released in the past few years--but also for his legend. He's the boy Icarus, who flew too near the sun, the genius destroyed by the crass capitalism of Hollywood, the American artist driven into exile by his own unappreciative nation ("Chimes at Midnight" was filmed in Spain), our glorious, doomed artistic son. Did America murder him, or did he commit suicide?

The Calm Center

In Bogart's production, Welles is played by Stephen Webber, who possesses Welles's youthful largeness (he was 6 foot 4) and masterly calm. He bounds into the radio studio at the last possible minute, an enthusiastic boy, and quickly metamorphoses into a commander, as if the broadcast were a combat mission dependent on his tactical shrewdness and the discipline of his soldiers.

In a sense it was. Welles didn't bother attending rehearsals (his assistant, Paul Stewart, ran them) and his involvement with the scripts was minimal ("The War of the Worlds" script was written by Howard Koch, who went on to pen "Casablanca"). But when he arrived to direct the live broadcast, the art began. In live performance, the tension of possible failure can be electric--Welles rode that tension like a man taming a bronco.

Welles actually stood on a platform wearing earphones when he conducted his radio productions. For obvious reasons, Bogart has placed him down among the actors and done away with the earphones. The audience hears not a word that wasn't in the original broadcast (and doesn't hear some that were), but we can tell by the actors' body language what their whispers and interactions mean.

Bogart takes other liberties. One of the most amusing elements in "War of the Worlds" is the way Welles scribbles rewrites and shoves them at the surprised actors. This never happened; the script was set. The notion that Welles actually had something as rustlingly noisy as a state map in the studio during a live broadcast, the better to suddenly and dramatically choose Grover's Mill, N.J., as the site for the Martian landing, is ridiculous.

But if the details are fudged, the spirit feels right. Welles was known as an improvisational genius, and this was what Bogart needed to show. And she has put in small touches that seem perfectly in character for her star subject: the way Welles, of all the actors, retains his shoes during the broadcast (no tiptoeing around in stocking feet for him!), or calmly sits and eats a steak during a period when he's not on mike. Webber's decorous consumption of this repast is one of the best things in his performance. And if it doesn't happen to be true that Welles would eat during live broadcasts, it is true that he was famous for eating during theater rehearsals and film shoots (double steak and triple pistachio ice cream was one of his favorite meals).

Webber and Bogart's Welles looms over his actors, a faintly threatening presence. And he's not only larger than they are, he's also stiller, the calm center around which the seemingly chaotic production whirls. He's an act of nature, he's uncanny, he is not one of us. As Jeffrey Frace, playing reporter Carl Phillips, describes the hideous bulk of a Martian slowly, slowly heaving itself up out of its spacecraft, Bogart has Webber walk toward the audience. Ostensibly, he is approaching the unseen sound booth to signal a cue, but in fact he looks like a man moving in a trance, his face implacable and remote. Brian H. Scott's lighting grows suddenly stark and shadowed, and we understand that as we hear about an imaginary monster, we are looking at a real one.

Bogart and Welles

Bogart's "War of the Worlds" often moves like that--from documentary realism to theatrical expressionism, with the actors, for example, forming a huddle from which one of them rises as Phillips announces the spidery Martian war machine staggering up on its long legs. In this way, too, the production is about Welles, a stage master of artifice and no slave to realism. It's one director's homage to another.

There are many of these homages to the Great Orson in American popular art. Some are tiny, like the way the voice of the Brain in the cartoon series "Pinky and the Brain" is a parody of Welles. Some are hip jokes, as when the movie "Buckaroo Banzai" postulates that Martians really did invade Earth but Welles was brainwashed into saying it was all his hoax. Some are worshipful. In Tim Burton's "Ed Wood," Welles (spookily incarnated by Vincent D'Onofrio) appears in a corner booth at Musso & Frank, brooding over his latest fight with the studio. To the awestruck, utterly and unknowingly talentless Wood, it's as if an angel has descended from the Paradise of Art.

All that Bogart actually feels and thinks about Welles can't be discerned from this scrap, fascinating as it is. That will have to wait for the Humana Festival. But the American theater hasn't had as potentially exciting a project--or definitely exciting a subject--in a long time.

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Washington, Bard to the Bone; On Shakespeare's 436th Birthday, It's Time to Assess Our Affinity for And Access to Theater's Good Will

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Article date:
April 23, 2000
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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In his 1999 production of "King John," Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn had the title character (played by Philip Goodwin) wander into a nighttime palace corridor and commune with a portrait of his better-loved brother Richard the Lion- Hearted. For a Washington audience, this moment delivered an extra little shiver--after all, a similar incident with Richard Nixon and the portraits of his predecessors happened only a few blocks away. For a moment, "King John" was a Washington story.

Today is Shakespeare's presumed birthday (only his baptism date is known). He was born 436 years ago. His first play was produced circa 1592. He has been produced, extolled and debated for four centuries, not always positively (Tolstoy, Samuel Johnson and Bernard Shaw were not fans). He has survived the academics who want to turn him into an inaccessible Saint of Art and the snobs who claim that only a Gielgud can speak his verse and the reverse snobs who figure that if a lot of people admire him, he must be junk. He has survived hundreds of dreadful performances and scores of the kind of "great" performances that put audiences to sleep. Age cannot wither nor custom stale his infinite variety.

And Shakespeare is the Washington playwright. This city supports three theaters devoted to his works: the Shakespeare Theatre, the Washington Shakespeare Company and the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. It's an impressive number for an American city of this size.

"I know I couldn't do what I'm doing in New York," Kahn says. "Where is the big Shakespeare theater in New York? They only do it in the park. Do they think the productions are too big and expensive? I don't know. It's shocking to me."

As for Washington's reputation as a stuffy, unadventurous place, Kahn adds:

"Where else could I open next season with 'Timon of Athens'? Or last season with 'King John'? Or the season before that with 'Henry VI'?"

Indeed, with those three plays we're way off the list of Shakespeare's Greatest Hits. Some Shakespeare lovers go their whole lives without getting a chance to see "King John." As for "Timon" . . . well, in case you don't remember it, that's the one about the guy who becomes disgusted with society and goes off to live in a cave. Even in its time, not a crowd-pleaser.

Washington is aesthetically blessed, of course, in Kahn, a world- class Shakespearean director and producer. The Shakespeare Theatre has been designated by the Economist as one of the three greatest Shakespeare theaters in the world and called this country's "foremost Shakespearean company" by the Wall Street Journal.

But Washington audiences will also go to see an all-female "Taming of the Shrew" at Washington Shakespeare, or a "Hamlet" with the title role played by four actors at the Folger. They'll attend touring productions by the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express and the Aquila Theatre Company (also at the Folger). They'll drive out to Olney Theatre Center to see "Romeo and Juliet."

They'll attend and applaud Stacy Keach's voracious Richard III at the Shakespeare Theatre (1990), Michael Tolaydo's mournful rendition of the role at the Folger (1995) and John Emmert's snarky high- society performance at Washington Shakespeare (1998). They'll watch Lear done by a woman at Washington Shakespeare, and by Ted van Griethuysen at the Shakespeare Theatre, and see van Griethuysen warm up for the role in "The Dresser" (the story of an actor playing Lear) at the Folger.

Why is this?

"Washington is kind of a company town, and the one industry is government and politics. Many of the plays are explicitly about these themes," says Christopher Henley, artistic director of the Washington Shakespeare Company and director of one of the best "Hamlets" (in 1991, with TJ Edwards) I've ever seen. "It's the way Warner Brothers gangster movies did so well in the '30s, because they were about what was happening then."

An interesting comparison, politicians with gangsters. But that's the kind of connection Washington Shakespeare specializes in making. It's a theater about the current, the immediate.

Washington Shakespeare's founders, Henley explains, "had all trained in the kinds of small theaters where you do cutting-edge theater in an intimate space. We wanted to transfer that to the classics.

"We approach Shakespeare as if we were doing a play by Pinter or Shepard. As if parts weren't in verse, as if roles hadn't been played by famous actors, as if there weren't this rich history of Shakespearean performance. We try to look at it as if it were brand new."

Obviously, this approach works better sometimes than others. But as Kahn says, "Washington Shakespeare keeps taking chances." If you want to see a gender-reversed "Twelfth Night," this is the place for you. It's also where you can see "Pericles" staged on sets in different locations, in the multi-stage style of the medieval mystery plays, or a production of "Measure for Measure" that actually makes sense of that difficult play by setting it in the pre-Civil Rights- era American South.

Henley thinks the small size of Washington Shakespeare's theater (117 seats to the Shakespeare Theatre's 440) is important. "When you see a play with 12 or 15 actors from that close, you tend to identify people more clearly and follow the play more easily. It's not just a bunch of lords.

"People often say to me, 'It's just so clear.' And that goes to our purpose of demystifying Shakespeare for the audience. I think they're afraid that if they haven't read the play or seen it before, they'll come in and be lost. Having Shakespeare in an intimate context helps solve this problem."

Joe Banno, who has often directed there, says, "Washington Shakespeare is all about alternate approaches to Shakespeare and makes a great strength of its limited budget and intimate space." He should know about alternate approaches to the Bard, having directed what might be called "extreme Shakespeare" for Washington Shakespeare with his productions of "Cymbeline," "Pericles" and "Troilus and Cressida" (also scripts not done very often).

Banno, who is the artistic director of Source Theatre, also works frequently at the Folger. It was for them that he did his heartbreaking "Romeo and Juliet," set in a Catholic school on Long Island, and that astringently intelligent "Hamlet" that cast the title role with four actors.

Banno clearly adores Shakespeare, and when he took over the artistic leadership at Source in 1997, the outgoing director, Pat Sheehy, suggested he might want to make the place a Shakespeare theater. "Ten years ago that might have been an interesting idea," he says. "Now it feels redundant."

"Shakespeare's just the best, right?" says Janet Griffin, the artistic producer at the Folger. The Elizabethan stage there, part of the Folger Shakespeare Library, was built as a museum reproduction in 1932, and Griffin is aware that she presides over an institution.

"I try to work a little against the grain of the idea that the Folger might be too staid or traditional," she says. Not to worry. Aside from Banno's exuberantly offbeat work, the Folger has presented Joe Calarco's "Shakespeare's R&J," in which four prep school boys spend a night acting out the play. It aims to do two or three Shakespearean offerings a year along with one "Shakespeare-related" play, such as "The Dresser" or Floyd King's "Mad About the Bard."

The strength and limitation of the Folger is that Elizabethan stage, which was never designed to be a working theater. It has a cramped backstage and two huge pillars that block sight lines and are a headache for directors and designers.

But the space undeniably has its charms. The compromised views from the side balconies aren't any worse than what you get from the front boxes at the National, and the intimacy--it seats 240--can be exciting. (Kahn himself did his electric "Richard III" with Keach there.) "Nothing can replace the experience of being in that Shakespearean theater to watch those plays," Banno says.

Nor, of course, can anything replace the experience of those plays. "When we were young," says the 43-year-old Henley, "we'd do anything and find a challenge in it. Now if we're going to spend two or three months of our lives day in day out--not to mention several months of planning--on something, we really want to grapple with a giant of the theater.

"Also, we're asking people to spend an evening in the theater. When you're doing one of these plays, you never feel like you're wasting an audience's time."

Kahn supports this: "I believe that the experience people have watching Shakespeare is very particular: great language and ideas, great theatricality, beautiful language. There's a complexity," he adds dryly, "that you don't get on television or in the movies."

Well, not in most movies. Kahn, Henley, Griffin and Banno all point to the Shakespearean films of the '90s as illustrative of the playwright's present popularity. Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Hamlet." Trevor Nunn's "Twelfth Night." Laurence Fishburne in "Othello." Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in "Romeo Juliet." "Those films weren't here 10 years ago," Kahn points out.

And then there's the nature of Washington theatergoers themselves. "I certainly have an informed audience," says Kahn. Banno notes that Washington is "a town of educated people. You have a lot of college degrees walking around."

But is this all there is to it?

If you think about it too hard, Shakespeare's vastness, his ability to contain multitudes of interpretations, becomes frightening. It's like staring at the stars and trying to imagine infinity--how can it be that no matter how far out you go, his genius is still in front of you, spreading away into unreachable places, taking some shape that is, finally, beyond your own power to imagine?

Yet as Kahn points out, there's also something "comforting" in Shakespeare, in our familiarity with his tales and images. Juliet on her balcony. Hamlet with the skull. "It's like when your mother used to tell you a story over and over again."

And it's not just the plots. Across four centuries, the situations in Shakespeare remain immediately recognizable. As Banno puts it, the plays "elevate the soul-killingly mundane to a level of transcendent power." For all the magnificent poetry and actor's rhetoric, in the end an audience member feels that a message has been whispered, ever so intimately, ever so revealingly, into his ear alone. And each member will hear something different.

So will each actor and director who interprets him. Banno compares directing Shakespeare to playing Bach. A music aficionado can listen to Glenn Gould's interpretations of him, or arrangements and performances on instruments contemporary with the composer, or Wendy Carlos on synthesizer.

"There are as many Shakespeares as there are interpretations," he says. "And for each interpretation, there is a constituent audience."

Three theaters devoted to Shakespeare turns out not to be that many. Actually, it may be too few.

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Melba Moore's: Warm Cole

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Article date:
July 20, 1996
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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It's been 26 years since Melba Moore first drew national attention, in "Hair," and her voice can still make the hairs on the back of your neck prickle. Her entrance number in "A Swell Party: The Cole Porter Songbook," which opened last night at the Kennedy Center, is "Begin the Beguine," in which her voice alternately caresses like black velvet and rings like a silver bell. Moore only sings four numbers solo, but they're worth the whole evening.

It's almost an insult to praise Cole Porter, whose work the show celebrates. His songwriting wit, energy and sophistication have yet to be equaled in American popular music. His tunes swing toward beauty, then turn sardonically in on themselves, and his lyrics can be coolly, astringently worldly: "There's someone I'm trying hard to forget," a man sings mournfully to a woman he's just met. "Don't you want to forget someone too?" And of course, when he wants -- "Night and Day," "Begin the Beguine," "What Is This Thing Called Love?" -- he could be sheerly and unabashedly beautiful.

Moore's other numbers are a shrugging "Just One of Those Things," a been-around-the-block "What Is This Thing Called Love?" and a "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" that she delivers as a tribute to Pearl Bailey. She can purr like Eartha Kitt, and blow a lyric lightly up in the air to float like a feather.

Moore's supporting cast is hardly lacking in star power. Jennifer Lee Andrews originated the role of Trude in "Grand Hotel." Roxie Lucas is a veteran of "Forbidden Broadway," and Bill Nolte has played Old Deuteronomy in "Cats" on Broadway. Abe Reybold can't match their credits but has a full, warm voice. Nonetheless, in this show your heart belongs to Melba.

A Swell Party: The Cole Porter Songbook, conceived by Patricia Wilcox and Fred Wells. Direction and choreography, Patricia Wilcox; music direction and arrangements, Fred Wells; production design, Marcia Madiera; lights, Mara N. Fishman; costumes, David Brooks; piano, Fred Wells, John Mulcahy. At the Kennedy Center through July 28. 202-467-4600.

Raises The Curtain on Women

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Article date:
July 11, 2000
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Arguably the liveliest, least pretentious new-play showcase in the country, the Contemporary American Theater Festival is currently presenting four plays that, however variable artistically, give an audience something to talk about. This year's offerings include Joyce Carol Oates's take on Marilyn Monroe, "Miss Golden Dreams," and a new white-collar workplace satire by Richard Dresser (of "Below the Belt").

Dresser's "Something in the Air," the only comedy in CATF's four- play program, features the versatile Lee Sellars as Walker, a naive loser who stumbles into a get-rich-quick scheme in which he buys the life insurance policy of a terminal patient and waits to cash in. Being an outgoing sort, Walker makes friends with his benefactor, the sour Cram (Anderson Matthews), but things pall when the miserable old jerk refuses to die. Then Walker meets perky Nurse Holloway (Brandy Burre), who to his "Nice night" replies, "How can it be nice if there's suffering in the world?" and he realizes he's found a solution to his problem.

Written as a parody of film noir, "Something in the Air" is fabulously designed (by Markas Henry), and director Ed Herendeen keeps the actors on their comic toes. But the short scenes don't shift quickly into one another, as in a film. Instead, the lights go down and music plays while furnishings are rolled into place from the wings. These continual stops slow the potentially lively evening to a plod.

Oates joins a long line of successful novelists--from Henry James to Norman Mailer--who have wanted to write for the stage. The skills of the one form don't translate well to the other, but Oates is certainly a writer, and as much as "Miss Golden Dreams" rambles, it keeps you with it. She is aided tremendously by the tremulous, vulnerable, sexy performance of Stacey Leigh Ivey (the saucy mistress in Arena's "The Women") in the title role.

But even as you're watching the play, you may wonder what for. Do we really need yet another dissection of Marilyn Monroe? What exactly is it we're supposed to learn from her unhappy life? Admittedly, there's a human fascination, not altogether pure, with anyone who seems blessed by life and yet finds only misery. Marilyn was so beautiful, so famous--why wasn't she happy?

Oates's answer: Lousy men. There probably is something to the idea that being the sexiest woman in the world wasn't good for Marilyn and to the unpleasant corollary that male sexual desire isn't necessarily a boon to a woman. But it's a big leap from there to the idea that all men are monsters, which is essentially what "Miss Golden Dreams" comes down to.

Though coyly not named, all the famous men in her life are here: Joe DiMaggio (Greg Baglia), Lee Strasberg (Lee Sellars), Arthur Miller (Michael Goodwin), JFK (Anderson Matthews). Of these, only Miller is allowed any humanity, and the portrait of Kennedy conforms to the ugliest accounts of his sexual behavior.

Throughout, Monroe is presented as dumb, emotionally elusive and maddeningly oversensitive--but still, somehow, a victim whose life can teach us feminist truths. The same odd attitude can be found in the festival's other two plays, Catherine Filloux's "Mary & Myra" and Sheri Wilner's "Hunger."

"Mary & Myra" is a full-length play built around what should have been a one-act, and despite the best efforts of director Lou Jacob to instill mood and spirit, it dribbles to a standstill. The Mary is Mary Todd Lincoln (Rosemary Knower), who when we meet her has been put in an asylum by her only remaining son, Robert. The pioneering feminist Myra Bradwell (Babo Harrison) is determined to get her out. To her exasperation, she finds her client almost as much trouble as her client's son.

Mary is skittish, changeable, childish, uncooperative, emotionally self-indulgent, dishonest and unreliable. In spite of our innate sympathy for her sufferings (three children dead, her husband murdered in front of her) and the impish charm of Knower's performance in the role, the woman is appalling. Yet this nightmare-- a living list of qualities once used to prove women inferior--is presented to us as truly feminine as opposed to the "masculine" Bradwell with her self-discipline, mastery of the law and ability to get things done. Apparently self-control is somehow dishonest--I almost said "emasculating"--for a woman, who ought to spend her time wallowing in her intuition.

In "Hunger," the heroine, Diana (Ivey again), has just been beautifully proposed to by Adam (Greg Baglia), who clearly adores her. Her response is to wander out onto the beach and fall in love with a merman (Reese Madigan). Adam just isn't enough for her inchoate longings, which the play presents as fundamental to her very being. You might think that if she feels this way she should just break up with poor Adam, who is in for a long, difficult haul, but no, she consents to be his in spite of his inadequacy and he, poor sap, is grateful.

With these three heroines, the faults traditionally ascribed to women are not only not denied, they're celebrated as something essential to femininity. If men don't get it, they're just creeps or fools. The clock is turned back, and the "feminist question" becomes once more "the woman problem," as in: Can't live with us, can't shoot us.

Now 10 years old, the festival continues to be an expression of founder and artistic director Herendeen's restless curiosity about theater, cultural-political issues and how the two can be combined. The result has often been uneven but is rarely dull, and this is one of the livelier years. There's certainly plenty to argue with.

Miss Golden Dreams by Joyce Carol Oates. Directed by Ed Herendeen. Mary & Myra by Catherine Filloux. Directed by Lou Jacob. Hunger by Sheri Wilner. Directed by Greg Leaming. Something in the Air by Richard Dresser. Directed by Ed Herendeen. Sets, Markas Henry; lights, Micheal Foster and James Fulton; sound, Kevin Lloyd; costumes, Anne Kennedy and Moe Schell. On the campus of Shepherd College through July 30. Call 800-999-2283.

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'Kwaidan': Fear & Laughing in Japan

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Article date:
November 10, 2000
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"Kwaidan: Three Japanese Ghost Stories," which plays through Sunday at the Kennedy Center, is a serene enchantment. Nipponophile Lafcadio Hearn's 1904 collection of Japanese supernatural lore is already the basis for a classic film. Now Asian American theater artist Ping Chong has adapted three of the tales for puppetry, and the result is startling, funny, eerily beautiful.

In the first story, a Buddhist monk watches over the bed of a recently deceased man and encounters a jikininki (flesh-eating ghoul). In the second, a blind magician is hired to perform for the dead. In the third, a young girl who dies before her marriage is reincarnated and rejoins her beloved. The stories are sketchy, like folk tales. The fascination is in the way Chong tells them.

Designer Mitsuru Ishii has built a stage on the Terrace Theater stage, painted to look like black lacquer and gilt, its frame the shape of a medieval Japanese gate. The blank back wall of this stage can shift to produce a line of three round portals, or three rectangular ones, or a combination: windows through which we watch the strange happenings.

Sometimes we are looking at a landscape like something from a Japanese screen, mountains against which the tiny puppet figure of the monk labors upward, a stream roaring in the background (the sound, by David Meschter, is extraordinary). Sometimes when two of the round windows open they are filled with horrible gigantic eyes that blink to reveal wrinkled lids. Occasionally a portal slides aside and we are looking down at a scene, as if through the lens of an overhead camera.

Shadow puppets may be cast on a screen over a portal, or a photograph of a mountain cottage may be projected onto one. The variety possible with these modest tools is part of the show's wonder. The set is a sort of narrator, an active participant in the storytelling. (Those who saw "Titanic" in New York will recognize the source of that show's astonishing staging.)

The puppetry was "coordinated" by Jon Ludwig, the artistic director of the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. He and his unseen puppeteers manipulate figures only about two feet tall as well as shadow silhouettes, giant puppets we see only from the shoulders up, and those awful eyes.

This sophisticated, otherworldly experience isn't really a children's show. Some of the details are cruel (the poor blind musician also ends up earless) and some of the design grisly (the jikininki has what looks like a raw, flayed head).

On the other hand, it isn't all uncanny and shivery: There's a satirical sequence set in a McDonald's. So the modern West barges into this delicate ancient Japanese art.

Kwaidan: Three Japanese Ghost Stories. Conceived, directed and adapted by Ping Chong from the book by Lafcadio Hearn. Projection design by Jan Hartley. With David Ige. Puppeteers: Pamella O'Connor, Lee Randall, Fred C. Riley III, Don Smith. Produced by Center for Puppetry Arts in association with Ping Chong & Company. Touring in conjunction with Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater. Call 202-467-4600.

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A `Mockingbird' That Never Goes Out on a Limb

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Article date:
October 22, 1996
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Harper Lee's minor classic "To Kill a Mockingbird" tells a story of racial injustice seen through the eyes of a child. The stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel, a production of which opened at the Olney Theatre last weekend, presents that child as an adult, looking back on and recounting the events. I can't see any other way to adapt the novel, but the change sentimentalizes Lee's tone, removing the briskness, wit and irony and replacing them with a solemn lament on the evil of humanity, Southern style.

Nine-year-old Scout (Adrianne Manzelli) and her elder brother, Jem (Bobby Steggert), are the children of widowed lawyer Atticus Finch (Alan Wade), a bookish member of a small Alabama community that includes a nasty old gossip (Vivienne Shub, who has the type down pat), a good-ol'-boy sheriff (David Marks), the trashy Bob Ewell (Carter Jahncke) and the town recluse, Boo Radley (Ian LeValley). There is also a segregated black community, one of whose members, Tom Robinson (Robert W. White), is accused of rape by Ewell's daughter, Mayella (Christine Tivel). Atticus takes the case: The story shows the consequences of his doing so.

James Kronzer has designed the only set of his I've ever seen that doesn't quite work. A construction of slatted wood and swing doors lit, courtesy of Daniel MacLean Wagner, by slanting, dusty light, it looks terrific. But it's shallow, which forces director Jim Petosa either to send the actors running back and forth or to line them up across the stage for most of the evening (the set opens up and deepens for the trial scene). There's no way for anyone to move naturally, and this, plus the presence of the adult Scout (Carole Graham Lehan) as an invisible witness and commentator, stylizes the proceedings in a way that cuts against the essential naturalism of the scenes. The story moves along jumpily, like a badly edited film, and comes across as thinner than it is. The always reliable Wade is good as Atticus, the educated man of conscience, separated from the rest of the town by class and politics. The child actors -- Manzelli, Steggert and Matthew Mezzacappa as a character based on the young Truman Capote -- do fine. Marks is genial as the sheriff, Jewell Robinson no-nonsense as the Finches' maid, Joe Lane quietly impressive as the Rev. Sykes, and Jahncke snarly and upsetting as Bob Ewell. As Ewell's mistreated daughter, Tivel brings some genuinely ugly pain to the proceedings, making the girl a victim but refusing to allow us any sympathy for her. As Boo Radley, LeValley is made up so strangely that he looks as if he's wandered in from a horror movie, and the part is too small for the actor to have time to overcome this handicap. Published in the late '50s, the book took what was for its time a very liberal stand against racial intolerance. In the decades since -- after Eldridge Cleaver and O.J. Simpson -- the court case has acquired an ironic tint, and the passively suffering Robinson has come to seem a slightly patronizing creation. (With little to work with, White does a dignified job in the role.) "To Kill a Mockingbird" is about Good White People powerless in the face of racist evil, and while this is a legitimate subject, both novel and play skirt the issue of who exactly the Evil White People are who sit on the unseen jury. All guilt is laid at the feet of the cartoonishly stupid and sly Ewells, as if the solution to racism is just for them to move out of the neighborhood and quit messing it up for the rest of us. To Kill a Mockingbird, adapted by Christopher Sergel from the novel by Harper Lee. Director, Jim Petosa; costumes, Rosemary Pardee; props, Tessa Dunning; sound, Ron Ursano/the Chroma Group. With John Dow and James Slaughter. At the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts through Nov. 17. Call 301-924-3400.

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'Miracle Worker': Signs of a Lesson

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Article date:
March 20, 2000
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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The burning heart of the Arena Stage production of "The Miracle Worker," which opened last night, is Shira Grabelsky as the 6-year- old deaf and blind Helen Keller. A college freshman and deaf herself, Grabelsky is tiny with a childlike, eerily beautiful face, and her immediate, unself-conscious and intense performance seems less acting than spontaneous incarnating. This Helen is an imp and a changeling who has to be lured through proofs of love into the allegedly superior world of the hearing.

Helen's brutally loving savior, who strives to teach her language, is 20-year-old Annie Sullivan (Kelly C. McAndrew), a near-blind survivor of a poorhouse childhood who had been valedictorian of her class at an institute for the blind and deaf. The spoiled Helen-- child of an aristocratic Southern family that had survived the Civil War with its fortunes relatively intact--was her first (and, as it turned out, last) pupil.

McAndrew is a stalwart, feisty Annie, and the casting in some of the smaller roles (such as Lynnie Raybuck as the housekeeper) is astute. But in general, the cast is a little shaky, a surprise considering director Nick Olcott's past work with actors (his superb "Uncle Vanya" at Round House, for example). The performances are oddly ungrounded, as if everyone except the central protagonists were in a light comedy. This is partly playwright William Gibson's fault, but part of what a director does is shore up a script's weaknesses.

However, Olcott's talent for comedy and his sensitivity to nuanced human behavior show themselves throughout the production, particularly in the famous second-act battle between Annie and Helen at the dining table. Having dismissed the rest of the Keller family, Annie squares off against her small opponent--who, both in Gibson's writing and in Grabelsky's characterization, is very much her own stubborn person and not without weapons. This sequence is hilarious yet oddly moving, not exactly slapstick tragedy, but something like slapstick heroism.

Too frequently, Gibson labors uphill against his own awkward talents. Except for Annie and Helen, his characters are sketchy. Some scenes play like a lecture on the virtues of "tough love." A subplot about Helen's father, Captain Keller (Fred Grandy), and his son from his first marriage (John Kim) is embarrassingly unconvincing.

Perhaps aware of the script's artistic wobbliness, Olcott has reconceived it along Brechtian lines, adding the stylization of a signing chorus and--except for Rosemary Pardee's costumes and Scott Burgess's delicate score--removing the play from any 19th-century realism through nontraditional casting and a spare, abstract set (by Tony Cisek). The audience is made aware of stage artifice and so is encouraged to take a cooler look at the play than the usual tear- jerking realistic production evokes.

This sounds like a reasonable way to update the script, but in practice it's confusing. In the in-the-round Fichandler Theater, the signing chorus surrounds the action, separating the audience from the actors, and for a hearing audience the effect is to have the script translated via sign language into silence. This is a pretty good way to shake up the complacencies of those who are not deaf, but it makes the play seem like an excuse for a lesson.

A lesson about what isn't clear. The script itself exhibits no awareness of modern political attitudes. No arguments are made for Helen's situation as a viable alternative to being sighted and hearing. The fierce, bullying Annie is not cast as a tyrant trying to impose bourgeois repressions such as table manners on an innocently uninhibited child. If there's any lesson in "The Miracle Worker," it's not intellectual at all but that old corny standby about love triumphing against all odds.

And the script's power is in this corniness. No matter how cynical you may be about Gibson's heart-on-the-sleeve writing or how much the play's didacticism and speechmaking tire you, the central story of "The Miracle Worker" is sure-fire.

Annie is heroic for the most basic of reasons: She loathes suffering and intends to do something to remedy it. And she does. The play may just barely avoid sentimentality, but in the end it achieves something genuinely humane.

The Miracle Worker, by William Gibson. Directed by Nick Olcott. Visual dramaturge (signing), Eric Malzkuhn; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; fight choreography, Michael Jerome Johnson. With Frederick Strother, Samarra Mbenga, Lynne E. Streeter, Christopher C. Walker, Dale Stein, Stella Antonio-Conley, Fred Michael Beam, Mike Deninger, Tyrone Giordano, Allen W. Neece III, Makela Spielman, Krista Leitch Walker, Alexandria Wailes. At Arena Stage's Fichandler Theater through April 30. Call 202-488-3300.

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ing': Loopy Family Circles

Article from:
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Article date:
September 18, 1996
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Lightning doesn't exactly strike twice in "Better Living," the "prequel" to Round House's comic 1995 hit "Escape From Happiness" -- but it comes near enough to make no difference. George Walker's play drops in on an earlier crisis for the stalwart though nutty Nora Quinn (Nancy Robinette) and her three daughters and revolves around the family's father, Tom (Terry Wills), who deserted them after trying to burn the house down.

What's a mother to do? Well, schizophrenia is one answer. Nora has drifted into some dimension that overlaps without exactly corresponding to the reality in which the rest of the world exists. "She is living in some sort of fourth tense!" sputters youngest daughter Gail (Elizabeth Kitsos). Ditz daughter Mary Ann (Jane Beard) and lawyer daughter Elizabeth (Kimberly Schraf) are also concerned about Mom, especially once she starts digging out some extra room in the basement.

At the beginning of the play, Robinette enters from the dark cellar bearing a shovel like a scepter -- a queen from the kingdom of the gnomes. Her hair is awry, her eyes are bright and, if possible, she is even more sublimely, graciously cracked than she was in "Escape From Happiness." Nora took charge in that play; here she's threatened, wary, ready to shy off at the slightest threat. Obviously she's in no shape to cope with Tom's decision to return and make things up to his family. She deals with it by deciding he's someone else altogether and calling him Tim. Tim/Tom has his own nutty plan for fixing the damage he did years before. This is a family where no one is going to have a good idea, and Tom is no exception: He decides his wife and daughters will be happier if only they can be more efficient, and converts them to a system called Collective Consumer Cooperation. What exactly this is, is never made quite clear, but it involves stuffing lots and lots of envelopes. Finally, with the help of Nora's priest brother Jack (Richard Pilcher), the family reasserts itself. Daniel De Raey, who directed "Happiness" so joyously, is back, and so from that production are Robinette as Nora and Kitsos as Gail. Beard, who was the steely Elizabeth in the first play, moves over to Mary Ann. Not as tightly wound or abruptly surprising as Sarah Marshall was in the role, Beard has her own style of wafting disconnection: She really makes Mary Ann her mother's daughter. James Michael Caffery is an adorable airhead as Gail's boyfriend, Junior, who gives up on his unlaunched singing career because "I got a feeling that even though I got natural talent I'd be better off not using it." Schraf is a fierce, funny Elizabeth, Wills an unsettlingly ambiguous Tom, and Pilcher a deadpan pleasure as Jack, lonely in his sanity. With a fine sense of deja vu, Jos. B. Musumeci Jr. has done what looks like an exact reproduction of the "Escape From Happiness" kitchen (it might be a little cleaner). Rosemary Pardee has designed down-at-heel but defiantly individualized clothes for the characters, who may be poor but have their own style. Her triumph is perhaps Robinette's shapeless blue chenille tent of a bathrobe. Walker's losers are unbowed in their struggles, though haunted by the cold suspicion that not only is there no winning, there's no game. They know sorrow but not self-pity, and it's a pleasure to watch them achieve their small, absurd triumphs, though in this play exactly how they do triumph is a little confusing. Indeed, if the evening isn't the treat that "Escape From Happiness" was, it's owing entirely to the script's not being as strong. "Better Living" doesn't have a real comic kick. But it's still delightful, and anyone who saw "Happiness" owes it to himself to see it. So does anyone who loves comedy, since Walker's are among the strangest, tenderest and most penetrating being written today. Better Living, by George F. Walker. Directed by Daniel De Raey; lighting and sound, Neil McFadden; props, Contessa L. Riggs. At the Round House Theatre through Oct. 6. Call 301-933-1644.

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Tuneless `Whistle'; Lloyd Webber's Latest Mega-Musical Has a Burning Barn but No Fire

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Article date:
December 13, 1996
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Near the end of "Whistle Down the Wind," the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that had its world premiere last night at the National Theatre, we finally get the Big Snake-Handling Number. Performing "Wrestle With the Devil" in a diabolic red light, the singers writhe and sweat and spin and grimace and shake rubber snakes and dance frenziedly and fall into ecstatic trances with their feet twitching. It's all pretty embarrassing, but at least the evening momentarily comes to life. Rarely has a show needed a jolt of bad taste more. Lloyd Webber is often accused of vulgarity, but that's not the problem here. "Whistle Down the Wind" is just dull.

Based on a novel and a Hayley Mills movie of the same name, both set in England, "Whistle Down the Wind" tells the story of a group of children who mistake an escaped convict hiding in a barn for Jesus Christ. Lloyd Webber has changed the setting from Yorkshire to rural Louisiana in the 1950s, raising a question: Why set the show in the most musically rich state in America and then write a score that shows no influence of the blues, ragtime or jazz? The numbers you'd expect to show some regional flavor -- a bar dance titled "Cold," "Wrestle With the Devil," the gotta-get-out-of-town "Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts" -- have a tinny, generic country-western and '50s rock sound. But this Louisiana, in which blacks and whites socialize and attend church together and a Baptist congregation dances in a bar, has about as much cultural reality as a street in Disneyland.

Book writer Patricia Knop's credits include "9 1/2 Weeks," "Red Shoe Diaries" and "Delta of Venus." A background in soft porn doesn't prepare a writer well for a script full of spiritual whimsy. Maybe she felt inhibited,that she had to "behave," because she's turned out a drab, stuttering book that mopes along, starts and stops, introduces plots and then abandons them. Nothing is carried through, and there's absolutely no tension, particularly no sexual tension. The escaped convict (Davis Gaines) makes a couple of halfhearted passes at the innocent Swallow (Irene Molloy), who thinks he's Jesus, but there's never any indication that he's seriously tempted to molest her, and no drama in his refusal to do so. "Whistle Down the Wind" is the sort of show in which a character comes into the family barn in Act 1 and says, "You kids be careful around this kerosene. Burns like a tinderbox," and -- after wondering who this farmer is who's so stupid he keeps kerosene in his barn -- you just settle back and wait for the Big Barn Conflagration Effect to arrive in Act 2. (The creation of lighting designer Howell Binkley, it is pretty impressive-looking.) A sick kitten is introduced, and since the laws of cornball dramaturgy dictate that that kitten must die, it expires pathetically right when a spiritual crisis is needed. On the other hand, the snake-handling revivalists get a sinister buildup of dark mutterings and vague fears for nearly two acts, and then no one gets bitten. The show alternates between being so obvious we're way out ahead of it and so misleading we can't follow it. Lloyd Webber's latest in a series of revolving lyricists is Jim Steinman, of the Meat Loaf albums "Bat Out of Hell" and "Back Into Hell," and I only wish there were a song in this show as good as the simple but energetic "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." Steinman and Lloyd Webber's differing styles of gothic intensity might have been expected to be mutually enhancing, but in fact they cancel each other out. Lloyd Webber isn't as aggressively, unapologetically tuneful as he can be, and Steinman has written clogged-up lyrics such as "Let me rise above the carcass of the nature of the beast!" (Huh?) Harold Prince brings all his brilliant directing skills to bear on the material, and with Binkley and set designer Andrew Jackness he produces some inventive, often startling staging. There's that burning-barn effect, and some marching pylons, and a town street that seems to appear as magically as Brigadoon, and a train that whizzes by, and a train that whizzes right at us like the one in Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. The sets move more than the story. With all that talent around, you find yourself wondering why no one dealt with so many little details, such as ensuring that the audience could understand the charming little boy who plays Swallow's brother (Cameron Bowen) or creating decent cat puppets or making sure that a few more of the plot balloons launched in Act 1 actually float on into Act 2 rather than up and out of the show. Molloy is lovely and has a clear, pretty voice, but on opening night she wasn't particularly animated. Gaines has a gorgeous, old-fashioned tenor that he can warp into thrilling rock-style crescendos. Prince clearly went for singers over actors, and he got them. Critics sneer and musical theater purists weep, but nothing stops the Lloyd Webber juggernaut. "Whistle Down the Wind" is his weakest show besides "Aspects of Love," but "Aspects" dealt, or tried to, with adult themes of sexuality and adultery. "Whistle Down the Wind" is thuddingly a family event. In one tall-tale song about a gambler who died at the roulette table while his bet on red kept coming up, the convict delivers a line that probably describes this show's financial future: "He was dead, but still a winner!" Whistle Down the Wind, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Jim Steinman, book by Patricia Knop. Directed by Harold Prince. Choreography, Joey McKneely; costumes, Florence Klotz; sound, Martin Levan; projection design, Wendall K. Harrington; musical supervision, Michael Reed. Orchestrations, Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Cullen. With Abbi Hutcherson, Candy Buckley, Timothy Nolen, Allen Fitzpatrick, Chuck Cooper, David Lloyd Watson, Timothy Shew, Mike Hartman, Lacey Hornkohl. At the National Theatre through Feb. 9. Call 800-447-7400.

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The Horror! The Horror!

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Article date:
May 15, 2005
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H.P. LOVECRAFT: Tales

Edited by Peter Straub

Library of America. 838 pp. $35

H.P. LOVECRAFT

Against the World, Against Life

By Michel Houellebecq

Translated from the French by Dorna Khazeni

Believer. 247 pp. $18

"The only horror," wrote Edmund Wilson of H.P. Lovecraft, "is the horror of bad taste and bad art." Yet here Lovecraft is, enshrined in his own volume of the Library of America, in the company of Twain and Hawthorne, Douglass, Lincoln, both Jameses and Vladimir Nabokov. The selection of stories is edited by the horror writer Peter Straub (In the Night Room, Ghost Story), with no explanation as to why he chose these particular 22 stories out of the 65 available (excluding juvenilia and collaborations), or why Lovecraft's long essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," one of the better things he wrote, isn't included. Library of America editions omit introductions, presumably so as not to get between the reader and the text. This works fine for someone like Twain but is less satisfactory when the chosen author wrote horror stories about hideous, squishy Things and produced sentences such as, "In that shrieking the inmost soul of human fear and agony clawed hopelessly and insanely at the ebony gates of oblivion."

To be fair, it wasn't sentences like that one that made Lovecraft's reputation. It was stuff like this: "forests of monstrous overnourished oaks with serpent roots twisting and sucking unnamable juices from an earth verminous with millions of cannibal devils; mound-like tentacles groping from underground nuclei of polypous perversion . . . insane lightning over malignant ivied walls and daemon arcades choked with fungous vegetation. . . ." He eventually organized all this yuckiness into a mythology in which foul entities mass around our petty earthly reality like some malignant Oort cloud. Once, they were the dominant race here, and they're itching to take over again. Nothing personal, just the business of biological continuation.

No doubt about it, Lovecraft had a vision. His admirers claim that his artistic endurance lies in the nihilism and materialism of this vision and its determined diminishment of humanity, which Lovecraft called our "negligible and temporary race." Others might argue that the vision endures because it's full of really, really excellent gross monsters.

Writers such as William Hope Hodgson had invented creatures that disgusted as much as they frightened, but it was left to Lovecraft to give this disgust a particular sensual incarnation. Not since Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," in which a body deliquesces with a living soul inside, had the monstrous been made so putrid, mushy, dripping, damp and oozy -- so loathsomely physical. After finishing a Lovecraft story, the reader has, in a manner of speaking, to scrape the slime off himself. This isn't a shortcoming in the writing; it's the point.

Indifferent to the pleasures of the flesh, Lovecraft was keenly sensitive to its horrors: misshapenness, the wet swampiness of decay, the possibility of violation, of amputation, of unwelcome and unwholesomely grafted additions. What influence he has had isn't realized in the "Cthulhu mythos" stories of his followers (pallid imitations, for the most part) but in the '80s genre of "body horror," with its mutilations and such upsetting activities as people turning inside-out.

Physical revulsion shows up in Lovecraft's racial attitudes, too. For a long time, he regarded any non-Anglo Saxons -- not just the usual suspects but Italians and Irish as well -- as inferior, not to mention revolting. His descriptions of blacks and Jews are vile, full of what feels like a marrow-deep squeamishness. Born in 1890, the overmothered son of a woman who both indulged him and refused to let him touch her, Lovecraft grew up claiming a cool lack of interest in sex (although the woman to whom he was briefly married reported that he was capable enough, in an unenthusiastic sort of way). But he became hysterically overheated when writing about "degraded" poor whites in the New England hills who mate with unspeakable things and bear hideous progeny. This isn't just the "Deliverance" syndrome, i.e., a prissy intellectual's fear of white trash. The terror in these stories is the terror of miscegenation.

Lovecraft has been praised for resolutely turning his back on "reality," but his idea of reality was extremely restricted. He had no children, never held a job and, until the cancer that killed him in 1937, was in reasonably good health. His responsibilities were childishly limited to his own needs. Poe, who was a great influence, fled into his arid unrealities from a life of intense hard work and financial obligations to his sickly wife and her mother. His stories shudder with forbidden violence and revenge. Like Lovecraft (whom he admires), the modern horror master Stephen King sets most of his work in New England, but he creates a grimly recognizable world of poverty, politics, dead-end jobs, family abuse. In both Poe and King, the ultimate horror is the deformed human spirit. In Lovecraft, it's something squashy with tentacles.

Just as you're starting to believe that your attitude toward French scholarship has been provincial and unfair, along comes a book like H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life to nail all your prejudices back in place. Michel Houellebecq, a critically acclaimed novelist, has found in Lovecraft a hero for the Political Incorrect: "Paradoxically, Lovecraft's character is fascinating in part because his values were so entirely opposite to ours. He was fundamentally racist, openly reactionary, he glorified puritanical inhibitions, and evidently found all 'direct erotic manifestations' repulsive. Resolutely anticommercial, he despised money, considered democracy to be an idiocy and progress to be an illusion. The word 'freedom,' so cherished by Americans, prompted only a sad, derisive guffaw." Well, okay. If that's the kind of thing you find fascinating, then that's the kind of thing you find fascinating. Houellebecq refutes arguments against his theses by declaring, "That's a joke!" He also gets some facts wrong, though perhaps "facts" in this situation are only a bourgeois convention designed to limit the freedom of challenging scholarly insight. (Lovecraft was hardly a "country gentleman.") His central insight is that Lovecraft courageously rejected banal reality for a fictional world of transcendence, even if that transcendence meant, as it does in one story, bumping into an invisible whistling octopus.

Lloyd Rose is a former theater critic for The Washington Post.

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'Private Lives': Contrary, Crazy Love

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
May 29, 2002
Author:
Lloyd Rose
More results for:
"lloyd rose"

In the Tony-nominated London import "Private Lives," now at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Lindsay Duncan stretches and purrs as Alan Rickman slinks cozily around her. Playing the divorced Amanda Prynne and Elyot Chase in Noel Coward's famous comedy, they're a pair of superbly feline lovers who, in twin moments of postmarital madness, have rushed off and taken as second spouses a couple of well-meaning puppies. At the first sight of the current Mrs. Chase, pretty, perky Sibyl (Emma Fielding), you have a foreboding. Somehow, even dressed in clinging silk, she appears to trot, while her new hubby, the preternaturally elegant Rickman, fairly glides onto the stage. This marriage is doomed.

So, clearly, is Amanda's recent hookup to Victor (Adam Godley), a humorless prig in an itchy-looking brown suit. We get a look at this mismatch just after observing Elyot's, thanks to the fact that the two sets of newlyweds are spending their respective Riviera honeymoons in adjacent hotel rooms. Conveniently, these have adjacent balconies, on which Elyot and Amanda soon find themselves, each considering that there might be some unforeseen deficiencies in their new matrimonial alliances. Only minutes earlier, for example, Elyot, piqued by Sibyl's stubbornness, has told the poor girl he'd like to cut off her head with a meat ax.

As the pair brood with their backs to each other, the audience waits with patient glee for the payoff. It arrives with a bang. When Elyot spots Amanda, Rickman rockets back with a combination leap and spin worthy of an Olympic skater -- really the only sensible reaction for a man who realizes his world is about to drop out from under him.

Act 1, with its satirical happy ending in which the newlyweds desert their newly wed and run off together, almost stands alone as a little play in itself. But "Private Lives" continues for two more mordant, funny acts while Elyot and Amanda rediscover exactly why they divorced in the first place.

The two stars and director Howard Davies were last on Broadway together 15 years ago with "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," and they've reunited for another play about dangerous entanglements. As in "Les Liaisons," Rickman and Duncan -- posed in their fabulous clothes against Tim Hatley's gorgeous warped-deco sets -- look the very epitome of detached, disdainful savoir-faire. And as in that play, they are in fact raving infants, addicted to excitement and their own egos. The awful but irresistible comedy of such superior creatures collapsing in snit fits fuels Davies' approach to the script -- he's out to skewer not just love and romance, but all pathetic human pretension.

And he's got the team for it. Rickman and Duncan were brilliant together in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," and they're brilliant together here. She's a long-stemmed flower of a beauty with fine features and petal-white skin, he's a languorous, witty sensualist with hooded eyes and a romantic profile, and they're both knock- down, drag-out hilarious. Under Davies' boisterous direction, the quarrel-filled second act is like something out of "Noises Off," with pillows, cigarettes, phonograph records and the actors themselves flying through the air. Rickman in particular seems to like it up there -- even at rest, he stands with one heel cocked, ready to take off at a moment's notice.

Rickman has been deliciously funny in movies -- his disgruntled turn in "Galaxy Quest" as the actor stuck playing a corny-looking alien comes immediately to mind -- but this is the only full- throated comic lead, stage or screen, of his career. To say he rises to the challenge doesn't quite describe it -- it's more as if he pours himself into the part and explodes. His Elyot is supple and volatile, a liquid rather than a solid, held in human shape by his beautifully tailored clothes (the clever, sophisticated costumes are by Jenny Beaven). Rickman here makes you realize how funny he's always been, how much his marvelous screen villains of the '80s were essentially great comic performances.

The exquisite Duncan is both his foil and the candle to his moth. Like Rickman, she's a smoothly witty actor, but beneath her polish she's scrappy and sane, Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire. Though she can match Rickman tumble for tumble, the impression Duncan leaves is of an erect composure around which he bends. The waspish Elyot needs Amanda's wry toughness. Rickman's so light on his feet he's almost balletic, but when he embraces Duncan, Elyot comes to earth, gratefully grounded.

At such moments, this "Private Lives" is touching, even tender. The play doesn't have depths, exactly, so much as melancholy puddles - - Davies finds every one of these and has the characters gaze into them, ruefully regarding their absurd reflections. What fools we are, they seem to sigh, before jumping right back into the foolishness. Elyot and Amanda are entirely too intelligent, ironic and thin- skinned to be able to put up with anyone else, each other not excepted. But they can also join forces against the obtuse world, and in the end this is what unites them.

The obtuse world is represented by their obtuse spouses. Next to the fireworks of Elyot and Amanda, poor Sibyl and Victor are a damp fizzle. The roles simply aren't as well written, and the actors playing them always have a bit of an uphill struggle. Fielding seems at a loss playing the pure-dolt Sibyl of Act 1. She finds her feet once the character gets nasty. As Victor, Godley appears at first to have been cast for his Prince Charles gangliness and stick-out ears, but he turns out to have crack comic timing and, when it's called for, an affecting simplicity.

Dismissed by some critics as too brittle and shallow when it premiered in 1930 (with Coward himself as Elyot), "Private Lives" has since been praised as an incisive examination of the way love and hate combine, as if Coward were Strindberg reborn with a gift for one- liners. In fact the play is something much shrewder -- an incisive examination of the way love and irritation combine, of how a person adored in the evening can transform next morning into someone who will have to be killed if he or she slurps the coffee in that annoying way one . . . more . . . time. Its subject isn't the extremes of passion but the psychopathology of everyday life.

Private Lives, by Noel Coward. Directed by Howard Davies. With Alex Belcourt. Lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, John Leonard; music, Paddy Cunneen; fight coordinator, Terry King. At the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St., New York. Call 800-755-4000.

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ennedy Center, August Wilson's Latest

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
November 15, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
More results for:
"lloyd rose"

It's amazing how August Wilson, whose "Two Trains Running" opened last night at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, can keep your attention even when there's nothing happening. "Two Trains Running," like his other work, is roughly 90 percent talk, as his characters reel out stories about their past, their angers, their dreams. They're good stories and they give the actors some fine opportunities, but "Two Trains Running" doesn't have much dramatic power. It's more an evening of linked monologues than a play.

In interviews, Wilson has pointed out that he's self-taught as a playwright and concerned with forging his own dramatic methods. There's no sense holding him up to the usual conventions of a traditional theater he knows and cares little about. The question becomes whether he's reaching what appear to be his own artistic goals.

"Two Trains Running" is the latest in Wilson's series of plays about 20th-century African American life, each set in a different decade. The year is 1969, and the group of regulars that gathers in Memphis Lee's Home Style Restaurant boasts nary a radical, not even an Afro. These are working folk, and the budding Black Power movement is happening somewhere else, among people they're not too concerned with. They have immediate, everyday problems to attend to.

Memphis Lee is determined to get the right price from the city for his property, which is part of a large downtown purchase (presumably for the sort of urban renewal that destroyed D.C.'s Southwest neighborhoods near the river). Wolf, the numbers runner, just wants to keep his business going: He and Lee fight about whether he can take calls on the restaurant's pay phone. Sterling, a footloose ex-con, romances the waitress and worries about getting a job. There's also a window-table philosopher, a symbolic madman, a wealthy funeral-home owner, and the mysteriously disaffected waitress who has mutilated her legs with a razor.

Wilson captures the under-Whitey's-heel cynicism of Lee's customers. They're all pragmatic survivors - still, they fight back as they can. The symbolic madman, Hambone, is obsessed with getting the ham a white man owes him for painting his fence. This relatively small cheat is echoed in Lee's determination to beat the all-white City Hall. Lee sneers at the idea of Black Power, but he fights his own battle beyond the point of good sense. As for Hambone (who says hardly anything except "I want my ham!"), Holloway, the philosopher, points out that at least "he ain't willing to accept whatever the white man throws at him."

Wilson can keep you listening. You find yourself wanting to hear about the healing woman "Aunt Esther," whom Holloway extols. You're disturbed and angered by Lee's story of how white men slaughtered his mule and burned him off his farm. You want to find out why Risa, the waitress, cut up her legs. These characters are fully imagined - they live. But they only have stories, not a story. It's as if you boarded a bus they were on and listened to each of them unburden his or her soul, then got off without ever finding out what their hopes and fears led to.

Director Lloyd Richards, Wilson's longtime partner, has directed for maximum humor and vividness. Sometimes you get the impression he's layering laughs onto the play, or making a moment out of something Wilson meant to slip subtly by. But there's no denying his energy: This is a near-three-hour evening that doesn't feel anything like that long.

Since there is no real story, a lot rests on the actors and their ability to carry those monologues. Roscoe Lee Browne, that smooth old pro, brings an almost Old Testament judgment to Holloway's big speeches. Cynthia Martells takes a shtick - moving very, very slowly - and makes it compelling, even slightly mystical; her Risa is a somnambulist, a sleeping beauty. Al White is a charged, faintly dangerous Lee - although the character is written as stolid, White has an edge that makes you worry about what he might do next.

This edge may be what the character of Sterling, the ex-con, needs to come across. John Cothran Jr. gives a thought-out performance - he makes Sterling's restless hunger for life a form of innocence, and you hate fearing he might get hurt just because he instinctively lives as fully as he can. Cothran illustrates how the constraints of white society, even if unenforced, have the power to kill the soul. But he makes his point about the character early on and then has nowhere to go. There's no tension in the performance; you never really fear for him, and you aren't afraid of him either - he's too sane.

Though at first you admire Wilson's refusal to deal with any of the cliches of '60s race activism, after a while you begin to wonder what he does want to show you. Except for a few historical references, the events of "Two Trains Running" might just as easily take place in the '40s or the '50s. The lives and deaths of Malcolm and Martin don't seem to have either inspired the characters or made them any more cynical. Sterling is more of a live wire than the others, and for a while it seems as if he's going to represent the aggressive '60s refusal not to settle for what the white man handed out. But then Memphis, the old-timer with no use for new political ways, turns out to be better at besting the white powers-that-be than Sterling.

Sterling is the hero of one of the play's many offstage nonevents. Cheated of half his numbers winnings, he rushes off to confront the white mobsters who control the game, crying, in homage to Hambone, "I want my ham!" Since he has earlier bought a gun and the others have worried about his volatility, Wilson has worked up our concern about him. But he returns in the next scene without even his hair mussed. He went to the mobsters to demand a refund for the $2 he paid for his ticket, without, however, turning over any of the money he's won, and the capo just looked at him funny and showed him the door.

And because it happened somewhere else between scenes, we don't even get to see his tiny, anticlimactic defiance - he just tells us about it. Just as Lee tells us about his battles at City Hall, and Holloway about Aunt Esther. Everything is happening somewhere else. It's like a one-set TV show where the characters enter and describe what just happened to them in the parking lot or at the store, only without the discernible story a TV show would have.

A play like this calls up the question of whether a work of art is sanctified by its subject. Wilson has a great subject that hardly exists on the American stage: the life and history of black America in this century. His reach is epic. You can credit him for what he is attempting. Or you can wish he would produce a play as powerful, rich and explosive as the history he's dealing with.

Two Trains Running, by August Wilson. Directed by Lloyd Richards. Set by Tony Fanning; lights, Geoff Korf; costumes, Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko. With Al White, Anthony Chisholm, Cynthia Martells, Roscoe Lee Browne, Sullivan Walker, John Cothran Jr., Chuck Patterson. At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through Dec. 8.

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Theater; Saint Joan, Without Fire; The Shakespeare, Faithful to Shaw

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
December 4, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
More results for:
"lloyd rose"

"Saint Joan" is, after "Pygmalion," George Bernard Shaw's most famous play, but it's not really one of his best. In the Shakespeare Theatre production that opened Monday night at the Folger, the play is presented respectfully and unimaginatively. Where the writing is good, the actors rise to it with almost palpable relief; when it's long-winded, dull and unconvincing, they wander in a wordy swamp.

The story of Joan of Arc - the 15th-century French farm girl who led her country's army to victory against the invading English and then, captured, was tried for heresy by the French Catholic Church and burned at the stake by the English - remains mesmerizing, one of those bits of history that just won't make comfortable sense. Was she inspired by the God of the Catholic Church, or was she mad? If she was mad, what exactly was the nature of her illness? And how the hell did she motivate those soldiers and win all those battles?

Shaw answers the last question very easily - she was just like GBS. That is to say smarter than anyone else, smugly sure of herself, stubborn, tough and representative of a couple of things Shaw approved of: Protestantism and nationalism.

Joan was famously a virgin, and in Shaw's hands she becomes the most sexless of all his women - not even boyish, more like a hearty games mistress who urges her charges into battle as if it were a hockey match. He's enamored of this lecturing know-it-all but is unable to dramatize her charm for us; he relies instead on other characters repeating the line, "There's something about her." That "something" is left for the actress to supply.

Gail Grate, who was Eliza in Arena's "Pygmalion" last season, is physically beautiful and technically assured. She knows what she's doing onstage, and she skillfully avoids the role's many traps: Her heartiness isn't obnoxious, her simplicity isn't arch, and she underplays the suffering at the end with great tact. But she doesn't supply the mystery of the character that Shaw couldn't, and the result isn't an enigma of human behavior, it's a vacuum.

Grate is fighting an uphill battle. The excitement in Shaw's plays comes from their pugnacious flinging-about of ideas; you get the sense that the playwright is discovering new arguments, undercutting what he thought he knew, as he writes. In "Saint Joan," he has it all figured out, and the audience has to sit still and listen to his lectures on politics and faith. Shaw being Shaw, these are intelligent and often witty, but they're not exciting. He doesn't upend your prejudices in "Saint Joan" like he does in "Major Barbara" or "Mrs. Warren's Profession." Joan is all too clearly on the side of the angels, and by extension so is the audience - for the first time in his career, the great provoker leaves us complacent.

Shaw is on firmer ground in the second half of the play than in the first. Once he leaves the task of showing us how swell Joan is and gives us her trial, he has sure-fire material. His genius here is the extraordinary sympathy of her accusers - her two main judges, the Bishop of Beauvais and the Inquisitor, genuinely pity her and fear for her soul. They go out of their way to try to get her to recant and avoid the stake. But Joan can't deny her solitary truth: that God spoke to her. She dies for the sake of a higher reality than that of any earthly institution.

Like "Man and Superman," "Saint Joan" has an act that used to be left out of productions: In this case, an epilogue in which the cowardly little Dauphin, whom Joan on God's orders crowned king, is visited in a dream by most of the characters in her story. Shaw's mischievousness is highest in this scene - it contains most of the best jokes, and the only real satire in the play: When Joan, worshiped by those who once scorned her, asks if she should come to life again, one by one they all make their excuses and hastily depart. This is the only time Shaw pricks us, mocking our self-serving delusions about how we would have been on her side.

Director Sarah Pia Anderson has served up an illustration of the script rather than an interpretation, but this has its pleasures. She and set designer Donald Eastman have dealt with the rather unfortunate Folger space by raking the stage and opening up its depth. Nancy Schertler does her usual subtle, lovely lighting, and Barbra Kravitz has designed stunning costumes; she knows how to put gorgeous clothes on a character and still have them look like something that person would ordinarily wear.

There's a lot of meaty writing in the play, and the huge cast chomps into it. Particularly notable are Emery Battis, who makes the Inquisitor honestly kind; Philip Goodwin, as the high-strung, self-pitying Dauphin; Michael Early as the saintly Brother Martin; and Jack Ryland as the worldly and pragmatic Earl of Warwick (whom Shaw gives most of the great lines).

The outstanding performance is by Ted van Griethuysen as Peter Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais. Cauchon is Joan's chief opponent in the church, and Shaw has written him as a figure of fierce integrity. With his half-lowered, reptilian lids and the profile of a corrupt Dante, van Griethuysen suggests that Cauchon's integrity is matched with the cunning of a political survivor. He's watchful - and in a play in which every character is over-defined, he retains something unknowable. You're never quite sure of the exact ratio of Cauchon's honesty to his self-interest, and van Griethuysen gives the impression that Cauchon isn't sure either, that he's discovering his ethical depths as the play unfolds. At the end, when he is faced with Joan's fervor, she terrifies him.

Joan's story is unavoidably affecting, and Shaw's treatment of her trial is justly famous. If there's a more wrenching "courtroom scene" onstage outside of Shakespeare, I haven't seen it. But Shaw can't leave Joan's story, its mysteriousness and wonder, alone. He reminds us continually that what is truly great about Joan is that she foretold Protestantism, which holds that a human being can speak directly to God without the intercession of the church. He explains her greatness by having her ride his religious hobbyhorse. You get the feeling that if she hadn't been such a perfect mouthpiece for his ideas, he'd have left her to the history books.

Saint Joan, by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Sarah Pia Anderson. Set, Donald Eastman; lights, Nancy Schertler; music, Daniel Schreier; costumes, Barbra Kravitz. With Gail Grate, Philip Goodwin, Jack Ryland, Robert Stattel, Emery Battis, Michael Early, Ted van Griethuysen. At the Shakespeare Theatre through Jan. 26.

t the Lansburgh; After 21 Years at the Folger, Theater to Move Downtown in February

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
November 8, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
More results for:
"lloyd rose"

After an association of 21 years, the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger won't be at the Folger anymore. Artistic Director Michael Kahn and Shakespeare Theatre Board Chairman Lawrence A. Hough will announce today that in February, the Shakespeare Theatre will take up residence in a new 447-seat theater in the Lansburgh building in downtown Washington.

"We just got it two minutes ago," Kahn said yesterday, striding happily around the new space, which, even under construction, is graceful and intimate. The raised rows where the seats will be follow a gentle, embracing curve, like an amphitheater. Kahn looked around like a kid who actually got a pony for Christmas. "Do I seem giddy?" he asked.

Maybe a little, and with good reason. In the past few years, under Kahn's direction, the Shakespeare Theatre has expanded its audiences to the point where the 243-seat theater at the Folger Library had become unworkably small. Said Kahn, "We were building new audiences, and they couldn't get in."

Both the theater and the library plan to keep a connection. Werner Gundersheimer, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, said in a statement: "We will miss the company's enlivening presence on the Hill. It is reassuring to know that the Shakespeare Theatre intends, from time to time, to return and perform on our Elizabethan stage." Kahn said he hopes that "next season, or maybe the season after," he can start doing smaller-scale work in the Folger theater: productions of less well-known plays and thematically linked repertories.

Great care has been taken to shift subscribers to the company's new home at 450 Seventh St. NW. Those who bought Tuesday night tickets will still have Tuesday night tickets; those who wanted right center have seats in right center. The only real difference is that the number of subscribers previously split over two evenings can now be accommodated in one. And for the first production, a van will be at the Folger site to transport any audience members who have wandered astray.

The theater attached to the Folger Library was originally built in 1932 as a museum exhibit - a reproduction of Shakespeare's 16th-century Globe Theatre. It was never intended as a performing space, and wasn't used as one until 1970, when the Folger Library's new director, O.B. Hardison, decided it should house a theater. The result, after fire code modifications, was the little theater that Shakespeare Theatre patrons regard so fondly, and that actors, directors and designers have privately cursed for years. Liviu Ciulei, for one, has refused to direct in the space, which boasts, among its shortcomings, two permanent pillars that dictate how the sets must be designed, where the actors must move and to some extent what the audience can see.

A lot of people weren't even seeing the pillars. Kahn found himself picking up 10,000 new potential audience members from the Shakespeare Theatre's summer performances of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, but had no seats for them. "We had to stop selling subscriptions," he said.

The move to a larger space changes all that. "{The Lansburgh theater} permits us to extend runs if we want to," said Kahn. "To have more seats for more people." Not to mention roughly 300 indoor parking spaces.

Kahn adds that "we're prepared to help present other local groups in this building at the time we're not playing. We're committed to that." Among groups he has talked to are District Curators, Horizons Theatre and GALA Hispanic Theatre.

The amiability between the Shakespeare Theatre and the Folger Library is a pleasant change from six years ago, when the trustees of Amherst College, which administers the library, decided that the theater was just too expensive for them to continue their support. At that time the annual operating budget was $1.6 million, of which $1.2 million came from box office receipts. The library had put some $2 million into the theater over 15 years. (The present budget is approximately $4.8 million.)

The public outcry over the possible closing took the Amherst trustees aback. The D.C. Council passed a resolution urging the trustees to find a way to maintain the theater. Folger Audiences, a committee to save the theater, was founded; its leaders were then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who said, "The Bard belongs not just on library shelves but on the living stage."

An agreement between the library and the theater was worked out. The library agreed to keep the Shakespeare Theatre open for two more years, with the Amherst board contributing $150,000 a year and paying the $260,000 needed for maintenance and upkeep during that period. In return the theater, under the guidance of a committee headed by R. Robert Linowes, would work to establish financial independence by the end of the 1986-87 season.

Kahn was hired as artistic director in 1986. He fired all but three of the 18-member company and set about raising the theater's professional standards. "Six years ago," he noted yesterday, "I was hired to save a space. Now, with the move to this building, the board has moved to save a theater company."

Kahn says the Shakespeare Theatre is the only organization that ever had "serious conversations" about taking over the Lansburgh theater, although apparently at one time a "commercial organization" was interested. According to Hough, the changeover can be made with a very small increase - some $50,000 - in the annual budget, along with start-up costs of approximately $200,000.

The Shakespeare Theatre will share space in the building with several retail outlets - the only one yet announced is Boyce & Lewis Shoes - and 385 rental apartments. There is a health club, including swimming pool, in the building, but Kahn noted regretfully that the theater's lease doesn't include that benefit. The space is leased from the Gunwyn Co., which was chosen to develop the site in a national competition sponsored by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp.

The first production on the new stage will be "Much Ado About Nothing," starring Kelly McGillis and directed by Kahn. Standing amid the dust and debris of construction yesterday, he pointed happily to the orchestra pit: He plans to use live music in "Much Ado," a Shakespeare Theatre first. In general, he said, productions would not be more elaborate, but he admitted with some relief that "it will be interesting to do a play in which there aren't always the same three entrances."

He looked around his new domain, currently designed in a palette of gray and white - construction board and plaster. It's the first theater built from the ground up in Washington since the Kennedy Center in 1971. A brave new world. "We've always been thought of as the Folger," Kahn said. "I guess we're the Shakespeare Theatre now."

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Theater; Loopy `Lloyd's'; Source's Zany `Prayer': Slow but Affirming Satire

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
November 26, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
More results for:
"lloyd rose"

In "Lloyd's Prayer," which opened Saturday at the Source, Bob the raccoon boy is adopted by Lloyd the evangelist, who teaches him his first sentence: "Sorry about the carpet." Aware that this might not cover all of life's contingencies, Lloyd follows it up with, "I'll have another, and bring one for my friend."

As the saying goes, if this is the kind of thing you like, this is the kind of thing you'll like. Kevin Kling's "Lloyd's Prayer" is zany without strain, lighthearted and spring-heeled. The Source's production, unhappily, is lead-footed - a script designed to cruise at 90 tootles along at about 35. You don't get the pleasure of the quickness of Kling's wit, the near-surreal way the jokes zing out of nowhere. Still, there are some droll performances, and "Lloyd's Prayer" remains a pretty terrific little play.

The loopy plot may remind theatergoers of the wacko Tim Grundman scripts that New Playwrights' Theatre used to put on. Bob the raccoon boy is first taken in by a Middle American couple. Dad attempts to establish a father-son relationship with the wildling by getting a bird feeder they can build together, a rock to which you nail a doll named Prometheus, on whose tummy you put the bird seed. This doesn't really work out well for either of them, and Bob ends up as the exhibit for Lloyd's money-raising salvation spiel.

Meanwhile, a local girl wins a beauty contest by twirling a baton and singing "If I Only Had a Brain" with new, relevant lyrics, such as "I would free all the hostages." Her body is taken over by an angel, who wants to keep Lloyd from exploiting Bob. Lloyd tries to replace Bob with a guy in a rubber suit called Porpy the Carp, but it's just not the same. He ends up running an emporium called Lloyd's Holy World ("At Lloyd's Holy World, you do the saving!"), while Bob ... but why go on? Suffice to say that there is a happy ending.

In the original production at the Actors' Theatre of Louisville, Kling played Bob - small, skinny and full of surprises, he gave the part a lot of (sometimes literal) bite. Kevin Roach is an altogether more innocent presence, more of a teddy bear than a raccoon, and his out-of-it sweetness can be very funny. As Lloyd, Wynn Hollingsworth has the evangelical accent and attitude down pat, and he works hard, but he doesn't give the part much movement. In the sense that the play has a story at all, it's about Lloyd's redemption, but Hollingsworth seems to start and end in the same emotional place.

The other roles - including Mom and Dad, the Angel, Porpy the Carp and a couple of others - are handled by Allyson Currin and Gary Telles. Currin is in general a bright comic light, whether indulging in Mom's homicidal fantasies or playing the blithe, hard-as-nails beauty queen. Telles is particularly sour and funny as Dad (he also does the voice for Dad's invisible dog, Princess), and as a sleazy factory boss he gives the impression that when he exits "Lloyd's Prayer" he'll enter a production of "Glengarry Glen Ross."

Michael Stepowany's set has a self-conscious detritus-of-modern-life clutter, but he's put in some lovely touches - such as an elevator to Heaven, and a prop tree that enters shakily balanced on a remote-control toy truck (a Doug Wagerism, wittily adapted to a minuscule budget). David Crandall's choice of between-the-scenes music is deft and amusing. It keeps your attention up during the blackouts when, what with director Pat Murphy Sheehy's slow pacing, the energy tends to drain off the stage.

"Lloyd's Prayer" is really a Christmas play. Though nutty as a Marx Brothers routine, it's also genuinely sweet-souled - an absurdist religious satire that ends up affirming that God is love.

Lloyd's Prayer, by Kevin Kling. Directed by Pat Murphy Sheehy. Set, Michael Stepowany; lights, William A. Price III; costumes, Christina Rosendaul; sound, David Crandall. With Wynn Hollingsworth, Kevin Roach, Allyson Currin and Gary Telles. At the Source Theatre through Dec. 28.

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ersal `Connections'

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
October 15, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Alexander Gelman's "A Man With Connections" is being given an intelligent and interesting production by the new No Curtain Theatre. Gelman is one of those Eastern Bloc poet-politicians, a major Soviet playwright who was also an adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev. His play is on the surface a criticism of Soviet socialist bureaucracy; at its heart, though, it's an acid indictment of human nature worthy of Strindberg or O'Neill.

The "man with connections" is Andrei, who has toadied and fought his way to a position of power in the state construction industry. His life becomes complicated when a work order he gives causes an industrial accident that mutilates his only son. Essentially, the play is a long, often vicious confrontation between him and his wife, Natasha, who maintains he's sacrificed the boy to his career.

This is old-fashioned dramatic territory: American audiences may be reminded most of Arthur Miller, particularly "All My Sons." The two characters have the kind of confrontations people have only on stage, and they're prone to tell each other exactly what they're feeling rather than behave in any revelatory way. For a while, the evening is just a slam-bang fight in which the two throw accusations at each other; Gelman's idea of surprise is that when each finishes his or her tirade, the other has a story with which to top it.

While the wife is battering at the husband and he's wallowing in guilt - "I'm not a man ... I'm not even human!" - the play looks as if it's just going to score easy points off his weakness. Then, about halfway through, it begins to get more interesting. It turns out that the wife can live with her son's misfortune, if her career advances along with her husband's. As these two cling to each other in a mixture of love, cowardice and disgust, the play catches the ugliness of self-serving compromise in a harsh, unforgiving light.

The two actors, Dick Stilwell and M.J. Karmi, barrel the play along. Stilwell is a relaxed, natural stage presence; he doesn't flinch from showing us all of Andrei's minginess. Karmi, as Natasha, isn't quite as varied, but her strength carries her, and the play, through the big scenes.

Everything unfolds in the Soviet equivalent of an upper-middle-class apartment, which Carl F. Gudenius has furnished with a subtle non-Western air, including such touches as a sugar bowl of Hungarian pottery. But except for the details of Andrei's business, "A Man With Connections" could be set in the West, where the sacrifice of the innocent to personal ambition isn't exactly unknown. Between cultures, the uglinesses of humanity can always find detente.

A Man With Connections, by Alexander Gelman. Directed by Jiri Fisher. Set and lights, Carl F. Gudenius. With Dick Stilwell, M.J. Karmi and Laurie Mufson on alternate nights, and George Fisher. At the Church Street Theatre through Oct. 27.

@Caption:Dick Stilwell and M.J. Karmi in "A Man With Connections."

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Theater; `Rogers': Mirth of A Nation

Article from:
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Article date:
October 8, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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The more things change in America, the more they remain the same. The most interesting thing about "Will Rogers' U.S.A.," which opened Sunday night at Ford's Theatre, is its topicality:

On foreign intervention: "We will send Marines to any country where 10 people say they want us."

On Russia: "I guess all we can do is wish 'em good luck ... and food."

On New York City: "Hardly a day goes by that an innocent bystander isn't shot in New York."

On a military action abroad: "We say it ain't no war. The Chinese say it ain't no war. The League of Nations says it ain't no war. The men getting shot at say it's the best imitation they've ever seen."

Rogers, impersonated here by James Whitmore, proves to be a shrewder fellow than the lovable folk hero of American myth. He got his start as a rope-twirling cowboy in the Ziegfeld Follies and went on to add political commentary to his act. He was popular, as Whitmore demonstrates, because with his aw-shucks manner and disarming grin he took the sting out of his remarks.

Some of them were pretty safe to begin with. Anti-Congress jokes will never go out of style, as the ready audience laughter on opening night proved. And these selections from Rogers's performances and writings sometimes lead Whitmore into embarrassing territory. When Rogers talks about the pride behind the tears of American mothers who lost their sons in the First World War (Rogers died in 1935), the remark, as he notes in character, "fell through the ice."

But his gentle whimsy is occasionally effective. He demonstrates his foreign policy plan by treading across the stage carrying an imaginary France away from Germany and switching it with Japan. He admits this has its drawbacks, as Japan and Germany will probably fight, but "at least it will be something different."

Rogers was part Cherokee, born in the Indian territory that later became Oklahoma, and his sharpest remarks come from this heritage. He's understated but scathing about the way Native Americans were cheated of their lands: He claims he's about to fly to Alaska (on the plane trip that killed him) to explain to the Eskimos exactly what Americans mean when they talk about treaties.

"Will Rogers' U.S.A." isn't meant to be a play, like "Tru" - it's just a re-creation of Rogers onstage. Whitmore is spry and engaging, and Paul Shyre, who adapted the material, chose selections from Rogers's works well. Folksy and play-safe as Rogers may have been, he can still win you over: It's hard not to respond warmly to a man who, discussing the United States' determination to export what it sees as virtue, points out, "If we had any morals, we'd use 'em ourselves."

Will Rogers' U.S.A., originally adapted and directed by Paul Shyre. Production designed by Eldon Elders. With James Whitmore. At Ford's Theatre through Nov. 3. @Slug: C04ROG

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`King Lear': Simply Powerful; At the Folger, Drama of Despair

Article from:
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Article date:
May 1, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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In "King Lear," parent and child fall asunder and nature itself storms out of control; the play whirls you toward an abyss, "all cheerless, dark and deadly." It's easy to see why Peter Brook once set it in an icy landscape and cast a well-known Beckett actor, Jack MacGowran, as the Fool. But where Beckett is reductionist, Shakespeare is apocalyptic: It's the gods of morality and hope that crash down in "Lear," crushing the helpless characters in their fall.

Michael Kahn's production of "Lear" that opened last night at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger is an honorable presentation of this vast, impossible drama. You want greatness from a Shakespearean tragedy, and you don't get it here. But you get the play directed and acted with clarity and rigorous intelligence - both rare enough in the theater - and when the playis "Lear," that's a lot.
The production is handsome. Tom Lynch's barren, unfriendly looking set has doors that slam shut in unison, like a trap. Howell Binkley's lighting is effective throughout, especially on the heath when he makes the shallow Folger stage seem depthless with fog. Martin Pakledinaz's costumes, vaguely czarist Russian, are beautiful but sometimes poorly cut so that they hang awkwardly.

Lear is played by Fritz Weaver, making his quest for this actor's grail. In the early scenes, Weaver is a big, strapping Lear, elderly but vital with power - the sort of man you can picture riding and hunting all day. But he's a spoiled child too: When his favorite daughter Cordelia refuses to flatter him, he renounces her in wounded pique. As the play strips Lear of his kingdom, his family and finally his wits, Weaver divests himself of his kingly robes and, seemingly, much of his flesh. By the end he's frail and stooped, almost wizened. It's a beautiful piece of physical acting and a tribute to Weaver's technique, as is his mellifluous delivery of the verse, which he gives its full weight even when, in the final act, his voice is cracked with suffering.

Weaver's approach to the character is straightforward: Lear begins as an infantile old man who through suffering learns true humanity. Weaver conveys this spiritual journey quite clearly, but in the early part of the play you may see what he's doing more than you feel it.

As Lear weakens, though, Weaver grows stronger. Lear's madness seems to release in the old king a surging, previously unfelt tenderness, as if Lear's tragedy all along had been the inability to love. Twice during the production, Lear embraces a victim - once the blinded Gloucester and once the dead Cordelia. Each time Weaver takes the person against his whole body with almost maternal tenderness, as if desiring, in vain, to heal as much as to comfort.

He handles the scene in which he has to enter with Cordelia's body with exquisite grace. This is a real obstacle course of a scene, requiring the actor to do things such as enter crying "Howl" four times and later, in a shattering speech of grief, repeat the word "Never" five. I remember watching Olivier, in his televised performance, wind up for that last effort, hitting each "Never" with a subtly different inflection. Weaver just cries and he just speaks, and the words surrender to his simplicity.

There are other strong performances. Mary Lou Rosato is a passionate, ravaged Goneril. She actually gives the abusive daughter a point of view - her feelings are hurt by her father, and her patience worn out by his selfishness. As Edmund the bastard, Daniel Southern finds the dark humor in the role. Gary Sloan is a compassionate Edgar, Michael Santo a ferrety Oswald, and Ralph Cosham, who has a gift for making weak men sympathetic, a decent and uncompromising Albany.

Jack Ryland brings the loyal Kent a bulldog quality - he projects a peasant's strength rather than a courtier's airs. Sabrina Le Beauf is plain-spoken and strong-willed as Cordelia. And Philip Goodwin is a very interesting Fool. This is not the same thing as making the role work: It still doesn't seem to make much sense when people onstage roar at the Fool's critical sallies, and why Lear - so petulantly sensitive he'll banish his own daughter for a slight - puts up with him is anyone's guess.

In general, this production doesn't resolve the questions that arise as you're watching the play. The Fool is only one problem. Cordelia's self-righteous bluntness about her love for her father seems peculiar and even self-destructive.

And Goneril and Regan remain a puzzle. Are they just the equivalent of the Ugly Stepsisters? Or do they, as Rosato's performance suggests, have a grievance? Could there ever have been a parent in all of history as guiltless as Lear thinks himself? Certainly what we see of him is tyrannical, sulky, petty, foolish and self-pitying: What kind of father was he anyway? Still, it's impossible to keep any sympathy for Goneril or Regan in the second half of the play because they start putting out eyes and poisoning people and generally carrying on like the monsters Lear says they are. Kahn's one directorial misstep is having Regan and her husband embrace passionately after the blinding of Gloucester, as if sadism, perhaps, were the explanation for her character.

There is no "explanation," of course. The dysfunctional family in "Lear" seems like a metaphor for something terribly wrong with the world. This is as near to the terrible despair of Greek tragedy as post-Christian drama ever comes. King Lear by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Kahn. Set, Thomas Lynch; lights, Howell Binkley; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; music, Anthony Stark; fights, David Leong. With Fritz Weaver, Mary Lou Rosato, Kate Skinner, Sabrina Le Beauf, Ralph Cosham, Edward Gero, Phillip Goodwin, Richard Thompson, Todd Dellinger, Ted van Griethuysen, Gary Sloan, Daniel Southern, Jack Ryland, Michael Santo, James Slaughter, Emery Battis, Richard Pelzman. At the matinees, the Tuesday evening performance May 28, and the Saturday evening performances June 22 and July 6, Emery Battis will play the role of Lear. At the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, 301 East Capitol St.

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Theater; Shepard's Tango Of Macho; In N.Y., the Subdued `States of Shock'

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
May 17, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Sam Shepard may look like the icon of the American cowboy, but he knows the worm at the heart of the myth. At its deepest level, his work is about the terror of being male.

Shepard isn't prudishly moral about the excesses of macho: He understands the way in which the capacity to do damage carries a seductive, virile charge. But he also knows what it's like to be damaged. His plays are full of perverse, ominous father figures - shamans who hold the secret of masculinity, which Shepard's younger men are fearful they may never grasp. Or worse, they will grasp it, and it will drive them half crazy.

In "States of Shock," his new play, which opened last night at the American Place Theatre in New York, Shepard touches on this theme again, but in a remote, rather academic way. "States of Shock" takes place in one of those metaphoric restaurants-at-the-end-of-the-world where a Marine colonel and a maimed soldier come to act out a ritual of vengeance and revelation. The colonel has picked up the soldier at the hospital and, as a treat, taken him out for dessert. Their relationship is not what it seems. The colonel takes toy soldiers and tries to force the soldier to reenact the circumstances of his wounding. The soldier keeps pulling up his shirt to reveal a round, raw-looking wound like the crater of a volcano. They banter and threaten each other obscurely. There's role reversal and a flogging. It's like a Pinter play overdosed on testosterone.

"States of Shock" is also a "terrible secret" play - and the secret is obvious about an hour before Shepard reveals it. So there's nothing much to do but watch the actors try to give the play some tension and think of all the things it reminds you of: Tennessee Williams (intimations of S&M; hysteria); Albee (satirically banal conversations; a fantasy about a family member); Miller (the guilty father; the suffering son); "Born on the Fourth of July" (a terrible wound; more hysteria).

The Colonel is played by John Malkovich, a passionate and dangerous actor who is astonishing here even when what he's doing is incomprehensible. Not having been given a character, he plays the moments for all they're worth: He struts and preens and bellows and dances, exuding paranoid menace. Watching him balance a coffee cup on his head, I found myself thinking of Brando's nutso turn in "The Missouri Breaks," in which he changed accents from reel to reel and spent half the movie in a dress. Brando seemed to be expressing contempt, but Malkovich is just doing his damnedest to drag the play up to some sort of speed. You get the feeling he'd put on a dress if he thought it would help. His performance is often irritating, but without it the play would have no life at all.

Not that the other actors aren't working hard. As the mutilated soldier Stubbs, Michael Wincott is a wary, elusive adversary for Malkovich. In the ridiculously symbolic roles of White Woman and White Man, restaurant onlookers Isa Thomas and Steve Elson have their nasty, funny moments. And Erica Gimpel gracefully manages her oppressed-black-woman role as the waitress at the mercy of the white couple's snottiness and the Colonel's insanity.

In "States of Shock," Shepard's anarchy, his peculiarity, is gone. The play condemns the same old American evils: the vileness of the warrior, the heartlessness of the bourgeoisie, the lie at the center of family life. It feels as if it came out of a time capsule from 1969. And after a while it gets tiresome - self-hatred, after all, is just another form of self-infatuation.

There are shivers of the old terror: "The best way is to kill all the sons!" goes one line. "Wipe them off the face of the Earth." That's an idea to wound with - a horror that might have blown the hole in Stubbs's chest. But "States of Shock" is finally bloodless - sweaty, maybe, but cerebral. Drained.

States of Shock, by Sam Shepard. Directed by Bill Hart; scenery, Bill Stabi; costumes, Gabriel Berry; lights, Pat Dignan and Anne Mlitello; music and sound design, J.A. Deane; percussion, Richard Dworkin and Joseph Sabella. With John Malkovich, Erica Gimpel, Isa Thomas, Steve Nelson, Michael Wincott. At the American Place Theatre, New York.

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Theater; Shepard's Tango Of Macho; In N.Y., the Subdued `States of Shock'

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
May 17, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
More results for:
"lloyd rose"

Sam Shepard may look like the icon of the American cowboy, but he knows the worm at the heart of the myth. At its deepest level, his work is about the terror of being male.

Shepard isn't prudishly moral about the excesses of macho: He understands the way in which the capacity to do damage carries a seductive, virile charge. But he also knows what it's like to be damaged. His plays are full of perverse, ominous father figures - shamans who hold the secret of masculinity, which Shepard's younger men are fearful they may never grasp. Or worse, they will grasp it, and it will drive them half crazy.

In "States of Shock," his new play, which opened last night at the American Place Theatre in New York, Shepard touches on this theme again, but in a remote, rather academic way. "States of Shock" takes place in one of those metaphoric restaurants-at-the-end-of-the-world where a Marine colonel and a maimed soldier come to act out a ritual of vengeance and revelation. The colonel has picked up the soldier at the hospital and, as a treat, taken him out for dessert. Their relationship is not what it seems. The colonel takes toy soldiers and tries to force the soldier to reenact the circumstances of his wounding. The soldier keeps pulling up his shirt to reveal a round, raw-looking wound like the crater of a volcano. They banter and threaten each other obscurely. There's role reversal and a flogging. It's like a Pinter play overdosed on testosterone.

"States of Shock" is also a "terrible secret" play - and the secret is obvious about an hour before Shepard reveals it. So there's nothing much to do but watch the actors try to give the play some tension and think of all the things it reminds you of: Tennessee Williams (intimations of S&M; hysteria); Albee (satirically banal conversations; a fantasy about a family member); Miller (the guilty father; the suffering son); "Born on the Fourth of July" (a terrible wound; more hysteria).

The Colonel is played by John Malkovich, a passionate and dangerous actor who is astonishing here even when what he's doing is incomprehensible. Not having been given a character, he plays the moments for all they're worth: He struts and preens and bellows and dances, exuding paranoid menace. Watching him balance a coffee cup on his head, I found myself thinking of Brando's nutso turn in "The Missouri Breaks," in which he changed accents from reel to reel and spent half the movie in a dress. Brando seemed to be expressing contempt, but Malkovich is just doing his damnedest to drag the play up to some sort of speed. You get the feeling he'd put on a dress if he thought it would help. His performance is often irritating, but without it the play would have no life at all.

Not that the other actors aren't working hard. As the mutilated soldier Stubbs, Michael Wincott is a wary, elusive adversary for Malkovich. In the ridiculously symbolic roles of White Woman and White Man, restaurant onlookers Isa Thomas and Steve Elson have their nasty, funny moments. And Erica Gimpel gracefully manages her oppressed-black-woman role as the waitress at the mercy of the white couple's snottiness and the Colonel's insanity.

In "States of Shock," Shepard's anarchy, his peculiarity, is gone. The play condemns the same old American evils: the vileness of the warrior, the heartlessness of the bourgeoisie, the lie at the center of family life. It feels as if it came out of a time capsule from 1969. And after a while it gets tiresome - self-hatred, after all, is just another form of self-infatuation.

There are shivers of the old terror: "The best way is to kill all the sons!" goes one line. "Wipe them off the face of the Earth." That's an idea to wound with - a horror that might have blown the hole in Stubbs's chest. But "States of Shock" is finally bloodless - sweaty, maybe, but cerebral. Drained.

States of Shock, by Sam Shepard. Directed by Bill Hart; scenery, Bill Stabi; costumes, Gabriel Berry; lights, Pat Dignan and Anne Mlitello; music and sound design, J.A. Deane; percussion, Richard Dworkin and Joseph Sabella. With John Malkovich, Erica Gimpel, Isa Thomas, Steve Nelson, Michael Wincott. At the American Place Theatre, New York.

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kes the Cake

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
November 26, 1996
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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If a comic performance can be described as heroic, that's the kind Bill Mondy gives in John Strand's satire "Three Nights in Tehran," which opened Sunday night at Signature Theatre. As Oliver North, Mondy takes off, cracks the stratosphere in about three seconds flat and heads for some uncharted comic galaxy. But the play remains behind.

Strand has made a bold choice for a satire (he's not an adapter of Moliere for nothing): North is not just the butt of the play but also its suffering hero. His fellow conspirators bumble through a secret mission to Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis with a combination of cynicism and stupidity, but North really cares. "The world's not simple," he mourns. "There's evil in it." And when he says "Lives are more important than rules," he's like a lawbreaker out of Ibsen, maybe a little crazy but with a genuine, shining integrity.

Mondy and director Kyle Donnelly really understand this aspect of the character. Mondy's face is in constant motion, the eyes slipping around under their heavy lids, the mouth pulling itself into strange shapes, the cheeks vibrating. It's as if he were trying to carry the whole play on his facial muscles and, far from being off-puttingly twitchy, he radiates North's nervous inner torment. (His performance is a cousin to Richard Bauer's volcanic, pain-fueled turn, also directed by Donnelly, in "The School for Wives" at Arena a few seasons ago.) But though Donnelly is at her sprightliest, tossing actors about like cucumber slices in a salad, this is essentially a one-joke play. The action takes place in a Tehran hotel room (designed with a perfectionist's attention to mismatch by Lou Stancari) as North and cohorts Robert McFarlane (Michael Goodwin), George Cave (Hugh Nees), Paddy (Michael Wikes) and O'Reilly (Marty Lodge) make fools of themselves trying to trade arms for hostages. They stumble around, idiotically misunderstanding the situation, carrying such ludicrous props as the infamous chocolate cake, and inviting us to laugh condescendingly at how much dumber than us they are. The cast -- which includes Larry Redmond at his oiliest as the opportunistic Manucher Ghorbanifar and Sarah Marshall in fine fettle as North's conscience -- are appealing, and the high jinks are often funny. Strand's dialogue can be sharp. "I offer myself as guinea lamb!" Ghorbanifar announces enthusiastically, and Marshall's character warns North, "God is merciful. The press is not." Some of the scenes are wonderfully nuts, particularly if they're one-on-ones between North and some hapless saner character. But the satire doesn't build: The stakes don't get higher, the screws of farce don't turn torturously on the characters, the plot just jogs in place. Sometime in Act I, the Iranians state that there will be no hostages released until they receive the promised weapons, and the Americans reply that there will be no weapons until the hostages are released, and they have the same argument for the rest of the evening. The play keeps going in circles, and the audience gets the limited satirical point way, way, way before the end. Even some of the jokes, such as one involving room service and another about a girlie mag, leave us waiting around till the all-too-obvious punch line finally arrives. Donnelly pushes the actors so high that sometimes they achieve the antic lunacy of a Busby Berkeley routine. But the script keeps stepping on their toes. Three Nights in Tehran, by John Strand. Directed by Kyle Donnelly; lights, Michelle McDermott; costumes, Anne Kennedy; sound, David Maddox; props, Eleanor Gomberg. At Signature Theatre through Dec. 22. Call 703-218-6500.

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The Struggle to `Succeed'

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Article date:
February 3, 1995
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Des McAnuff's production of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," which opened a pre-Broadway run at the Kennedy Center last night, is like a big, red, shiny balloon that Matthew Broderick, in the lead role, keeps jumping up and trying to catch the string of. As the rising young executive J. Pierrepont Finch, Broderick is following in the legendary footsteps of Robert Morse, for whom the role was a star-making vehicle in 1961. It's not that Broderick is bad. He's personable and sings reasonably well and moves gracefully, and he can certainly act. But he's not a showman; he can't put over a number. What he's doing here is giving a letter-perfect imitation of a musical comedy performance.

"How to Succeed in Business" has a whole passel of terrific Frank Loesser songs, and the book -- by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert -- isn't bad at all. The satirical look at corporate America is mild by today's standards, but it's still clever. When a company lifer explains to Finch that he got where he is by "skill, diplomacy and bold caution," or when Finch himself presents a project with the exclamation, "I'm combining greed and sex -- we can't miss!" the lines sound modern, and get laughs.

But this musical is in an odd position in American cultural history. It's not quite old enough to have the distance and definition of a period piece (as, say, "Damn Yankees," for all its updatings, does). But its topical jokes and its picture of the workplace don't seem to have much to do with the present either. With neither the charm of a period musical nor the zing of a contemporary satire, the show is pleasant enough but not very exciting.

Nor does McAnuff provide the kind of personal vision by which a director can make even the hugest musical sing like a spinning top. There's no sense of why he chose this material as opposed to any other of a number of perfectly serviceable musicals: He doesn't bring it any edge or personality. Whatever you thought of it -- and I liked it -- "The Who's Tommy" was a powerful, emotional piece of theater. In spite of all the effort that's clearly been poured into it, this production is bland.

A few of the musical numbers have some energy. "A Secretary Is Not a Toy," which was pretty much a joke on bimbos in the original, is staged here as a tribute to female sexual power, with the men rendered helpless by the mere sight of corporate mistress Hedy La Rue (Luba Mason, who is to "statuesque" what water is to "wet"). In the next to the last song, "Brotherhood of Man," Lillias White, as the company president's executive secretary, takes over the last few verses, and her fervor and big voice knock the proceedings into a whole new dimension. Unfortunately, the show only has 10 minutes or so left to run.

John Arnone has designed a "Tommy"-like set: huge stacks of rectangles, like towers of windows, onto which video projections can be thrown. This was fine for "Tommy," which is after all a rock musical, so it was appropriate that it should look like a rock concert. Rock is a presentational rather than dramatic musical form, and when McAnuff staged "Tommy" as a series of kinetic illustrations to the songs, his technique worked. But there's not much enjoyment to be had watching Megan Mullally, as the love interest Rosemary Pilkington, sing a song about an idyllic married life in the suburbs while a huge animated computer graphic steals the audience's attention from her. With their size and sharp edges, the skyscraper- like sets suggest that high-tech, ruthless '80s business world. They're all wrong for -- and overwhelm -- the innocently corny pleasures of "How to Succeed."

The production keeps promising to spring to life, but it never quite makes it. There's nothing really wrong with Wayne Cilento's choreography, but it's not much fun either. Several of the performers -- Mullally, with her adorably throaty voice; Jeff Blumenkrantz as the scheming Bud Frump; Ronn Carroll as company president J.B. Biggley -- make strong impressions, but they never get to cut loose. Everyone involved is shaking the bottle like crazy, but it's no use, things just don't fizz.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert. Set, John Arnone; lighting, Howell Binkley; costumes, Susan Hilferty; orchestrations, Danny Troob; musical direction, Ted Sperling. With Tom Flynn, Jonathan Freeman, Victoria Clark, Randl Ask, Gerry Vichi and the voice of Walter Cronkite. At the Kennedy Center through Feb. 26.

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Theater; `Follies' Without the Kick

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Article date:
April 5, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer in your pants. "Ziegfeld: A Night at the Follies," which opened last night at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, is minus the seltzer. The song is provided by the likes of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, Billy Rose, Howard Arlen and Yip Harburg. The dance is executed with lively competence by long-legged beauties, perky chorus boys and the six romantic leads. What's missing, in spite of the presence of two actors meant to be playing Mae West and W.C. Fields, is rudeness, liveliness, sexiness. The show is a pleasantly diverting museum piece.

The Ziegfeld Follies took place in a world in which the word "naughty" still had a meaning. After years of skin magazines, nudity in films and double-entendre on television, it's hard to appreciate how daring and genuinely sexy these shows, with their half-naked women and bawdy songs, were. They had the titillation of the unsavory as well - a Ziegfeld girl might make a respectable marriage to a millionaire (or the boss: Florenz Ziegfeld himself married three of his stars), but she also had a loose, faintly tawdry reputation, like a woman who poses for nudie magazines today. The very name "follies" implied reckless living - Ziegfeld's imitators chose for their shows names like "Vanities" and "Scandals."

All of this was a long, long time ago. In the production at the Mechanic, the glittery, semi-revealing costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge and Nanzi Adzima look quaint, their revelations of leg and bosom much less than what you see regularly in magazine ads. Inevitably, the show becomes about its spectacle, and here too it suffers from coming after not only the movies but also techno-musicals like "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera." Jeffrey Schneider's sets are pretty, and they're sometimes amusing, but they're not the kind of thing you gasp at when the curtain comes up.

What's left then? Some pleasant renderings of some wonderful songs. And a gotta-dance young performer named Paul Finocchiaro, who has the slightly oversize presence of a born musical comedy star. When he sings and dances, Finocchiaro really comes alive, and he brings "Ziegfeld: A Night at the Follies" to life too.

Ziegfeld: A Night at the Follies, devised and written by Dallett Norris. Directed by Joe Leonardo. Choreography, Kathryn Kendall; set, Jeffrey Schneider; costumes, Theoni V. Aldredge and Nanzi Adzima; musical direction, John Mezzio; orchestrations and arrangements, Mezzio and David Siegel; dance music arrangements, Mark Hummel. With Catherine Hart, Judy A. Walstrum, Kathy Reid, Karlah Hamilton, A.J. Graham, Paul Finocchiaro.

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Theater; The Potent Echoes of `Sizwe Bansi'

Article from:
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Article date:
March 18, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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A trio of engaging local actors brings its talents to the American Showcase Theatre's production of "Sizwe Bansi Is Dead." Bill Grimmette, Michael Jerome Johnson and Gregory Ford (back on stage after several years' hiatus) are both skillful and likable in this early Athol Fugard play about how one man manages to beat South Africa's totalitarian "passbook" system. Their spirits and energy carry the production, which is fortunate since the play itself is lesser Fugard. He created the play jointly with South African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, and it has the marks of actors' improvisations and shtick all over it.

In its original South African production in the early '70s, "Sizwe Bansi" was probably electric. The dangerous subject matter, the attack on the system, Kani and Ntshona turning their "bits" into drama - all this must have been heady stuff. But a theatrical production, particularly of a political nature, is very much an event of its time and place. Shorn of its original performers, "Sizwe Bansi" is less a play than a blueprint for an event and an excuse for actors to show their stuff.

The story is simple, and Fugard gives away its twist very early. Sizwe Bansi wants to work in Port Elizabeth, though his passbook gives him no legal right to do so, or even to be in the city. He is taken under the wing of the large-spirited, generous Buntu - in Fugard's ironic phrase, "If that man was white, they'd call him a liberal!" - and instructed in the Kafkaesque ways of the South African bureaucracy. Buntu tells Bansi that his case is hopeless, but that night, coming home from a bar, they find a dead man with a passbook on him. Sizwe Bansi "dies" and assumes this man's identity.

There's probably one act's worth of action in this story. Fugard pads it by adding a 45-minute monologue by a photographer who ends up doing a picture of the ex-Sizwe, and by letting the characters of Buntu and Bansi tell stories, do impersonations and perform a short drunk routine.

Still, if you're going to pad a play, it's not such a bad idea to pad it with things for actors to do. The opening monologue - mostly about working in a Ford automobile factory - has almost nothing to do with Sizwe Bansi's story, but it gives Gregory Ford, as Styles the photographer, a chance to do a little tour-de-force acting. Ford is a charmer - he makes Styles good-natured but hardheaded, and is smart enough to let the awfulness of his experiences speak for itself rather than trying to puff it up with emoting. He never fakes anything, and he keeps our attention. Ford is talented enough, in fact, to do more by doing less: He's playing to the back row, but in the American Showcase space, the back row is the third row. Ford ends up throwing his performance all the way through the walls and into the parking lot.

Grimmette as Buntu and Johnson as Sizwe Bansi are equally good but more subdued. Grimmette has the showiest role, and the fact that he assumed it well into the rehearsal period, when the original actor left the production, adds to his impressiveness. Buntu does a lot of "acting out" to explain situations to Bansi - imitating a preacher, a policeman etc. This sort of thing could get old very easily if handled by someone less vital.

Johnson has sweetness and resolve as Bansi. He's graceful and understated, and some of his best moments are quiet ones - the way he looks at Styles's camera in wonder, or the expressions that play across his face during Buntu's instructive monologues (he's a terrific listener). It's easy to let this sort of actors' showcase get out of control; director Fred Strother keeps everything together, harnessing his performers' energies in the service of the production.

Whatever the merits of his scripts, Fugard always has his great, terrible subject matter. When Buntu warns Bansi to stay out of trouble, Bansi asks him how: "Our skin is trouble." "Sizwe Bansi" falls down as a play, but as witnessing it's still powerful.

Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. Directed by Fred Strother. Set, Prince NO-RA; lighting, James Howard Jr. With Bill Grimmette, Michael Jerome Johnson and Gregory Ford. At the American Showcase Theatre, 1822 Duke St., Alexandria, through April 7.

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Theater; `Conquer': Class Comedy ; At Arena, a Raucous Muddle ot the Sexes

Article from:
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Article date:
March 22, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"She Stoops to Conquer," which opened last night at Arena Stage, is an embarrassment of riches. Joe Dowling, who last season directed the grimly marvelous "Juno and the Paycock," has produced a masterly, robust version of Oliver Goldsmith's 18th-century comedy. His work is set off by Marjorie Slaiman's opulent, witty costumes and F. Hallinan Flood's astonishing, magic-box set. Each performance is a gem, and there are three dazzling crown jewels: Jake Weber as the befuddled lover, Marlow; David Marks as the lazy, lusty, buffoonish Tony Lumpkin; and Halo Wines, bringing the energy and power of a comic Medea to the role of Tony's overbearing mother, Mrs. Hardcastle.

With its young lovers thwarted by parents and various mistaken identities, "She Stoops to Conquer" echoes Shakespeare's classic comedies. But the play lacks the Shakespearean elements of refinement and philosophical musing. Goldsmith puts his clowns stage center; it's as if Bottom and the menials had taken over "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Goldsmith's plot turns on a crude central joke: Marlow, though quite the swain with "loose" women, freezes up in front of ones he respects. There's no way to make this plot device "politically correct" - it's not as if the concept has nothing to do with male-female relationships today - and Dowling wisely doesn't try. He just lets the gimmick run the play. While young Kate Hardcastle is dressing as a housekeeper to overcome Marlow's reserve ("stooping to conquer"), her half brother Tony and cousin Constance Neville are trying to avoid the machinations of Mrs. Hardcastle, who is determined they will wed. Constance is in love with Marlow's friend Hastings, while Tony has pledged at least his body and possibly his soul to the ample barmaid at the Three Pigeons, Bet Bouncer. Meanwhile Mr. Hardcastle wanders befuddledly around the edge of the action, never quite sure what's going on but hoping in a rather helpless way that everything will work out.

The resulting moves and countermoves are less a dance than a carnival. This isn't the Georgian 18th century of balance and classicism, the minuet and Bach - it's the rowdy 18th century of Hogarth and Rowlandson, where men in lace shirts are caught with their velvet breeches down. Not that "She Stoops to Conquer" is explicit. It's lusty rather than lewd, a full-blooded comedy of the sexes.

This sort of high-spirited play is a notorious trap. Anyone who has ever sat through a Shakespearean production where the clowns go on and on, laughing with false heartiness at their own mystifying jokes, has seen that trap close on actors. But in "She Stoops to Conquer," no one strains to be funny. The cast seems let loose into comedy, liberated. They spring around the text as if it were a trampoline.

The most boisterous springers are the servants, whom Dowling has cast with the care usually only devoted to leads. M.E. Hart and Pedro Porro are the irreverent personal servants of Marlow and Hastings. Jarlath Conroy (the scarecrowish, feral Joxner in "Juno") is Hardcastle's chief servant, Diggory - he's an endearingly manic crazy, like Christopher Lloyd. An antic group of actors play the beleaguered Diggory's staff: red-faced, earnest Hugh Nees; dim Keith Fulwood; equally dim Brad Waller; lumbering Jefferson Cronin and giggling Brigid Cleary, as misfit a group of servants as ever tried to run a house. (They double with no difficulty at all as the drunks at the Three Pigeons, where they perplex the bawdy Jane Pesci-Townsend, as Bet Bouncer, much less than they do poor Diggory.)

The gentry are as energetic and discombobulated a bunch. As Misses Hardcastle and Neville, Kathryn Meisle and Jurian Hughes are pert, mischievous schemers. (Hughes is particularly amusing when she scraps like a 4-year-old with her cousin Tony). Though as Hastings he's basically playing a straight man, Jeffrey Wright has his moments of comic exasperation. Mark Hammer brings a certain wistfulness to Mr. Hardcastle's confusion. All the poor guy wants is a little peace, and you can feel his relief when he finally gets together with Marlow's sane, sensible father (John William Cooke).

As Marlow, Jake Weber is also playing an essentially sane character. His brains and nerve only fly out the window when he's faced with a "lady," at which point he starts stammering and breaking the furniture. Weber isn't as funny when he's bullying as when he's a goof, but he's such a superb goof, this hardly matters: At one point, spat upon by fate, he hops around the stage like a frog having a tantrum.

Then there are the smothering mother and determined-not-to-be-smothered son, Mrs. Hardcastle and Tony Lumpkin. Balancing a towering red wig topped with a muslin duster, or charging across the stage in yellow and salmon flounces, Wines is the storm center of the rambunctious stage action. An actress of amazing versatility, Wines is perhaps most astonishing as a comedian. She combines a raucous willingness to try anything with a crystal-delicate sense of timing. Even while she's tickling you with the precise, quick tilt of her head, she's raking you with her bellows of outrage. She makes Mrs. Hardcastle an outsize, epic harridan.

Wines is perfectly partnered by David Marks, a newer member of the Arena company who has steadily been getting larger roles. Tony Lumpkin is his first real star part, and he goes supernova with it. Though heavy, Marks is extremely light on his feet; this surprising grace characterizes his whole performance. Though his Tony is limpid of eye and guileless of face, Marks has a small boy's slyness, as well as a small boy's guiltless greed. Tony is a wallower in life's pleasures, an animal-innocent sensualist. The only thing wrong with Marks's performance is that you realize you're going to have to wait 20 years for his Falstaff.

In the textbooks, comedy is redeemed by its lessons: stuff about reconciliation, union, regeneration. Onstage, in a production like this, comedy doesn't need redemption. The thing itself is enough. "She Stoops to Conquer" is a celebration.

She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith. Directed by Joe Dowling. Set by F. Hallinan Flood; costumes by Marjorie Slaiman; lighting by Allen Lee Hughes; musical direction by George Fulginiti-Shakar; choreography by Virginia Freeman; sound by Susan R. White. With Halo Wines, Mark Hammer, David Marks, Kathryn Meisle, Jurian Hughes, Keith Fulwood, Hugh Nees, Jefferson Cronin, Brad Waller, M.E. Hart, Pedro Porro, Jane Pesci-Townsend, Jake Weber, Jeffrey Wright, Brigid Cleary, Jarlath Conroy, John William Cooke. At Arena Stage through April 21.

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Theater; `Heidi' Ho-Hum; Wasserstein's Clever but Thin Morality Play

Article from:
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Article date:
March 22, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Wendy Wasserstein is an extremely clever writer, and "The Heidi Chronicles," which opened last night at the Kennedy Center, is pleasant and entertaining in its mild way. The fact that it won a Pulitzer shouldn't intimidate anyone: It has lots of jokes, but no passion or bite. It's strictly Theater Lite.

Wasserstein's heroine, Heidi Holland, is a member of the generation whose college years coincided with the '60s. Wasserstein brings her through the early days of the women's movement and up to the present. Along this journey - which touches the obligatory bases of consciousness-raising, women artists, single motherhood and, of course, men - Heidi, an art historian, remains true to herself. While her friends sell out and self-destruct, she holds bravely to her principles. Naturally, her integrity guarantees that she will be lonely. "I've been sad for a long time," she confides to a friend at one point. "I don't want to be sad anymore."

"The Heidi Chronicles" is a real Princess Fantasy. Heidi is not only more sensible, intelligent and honorable than her contemporaries, she's a woman a man can carry a torch for for decades. The callow Scoop Rosenbaum - who starts out as editor of the Liberated Earth News and ends up running a magazine called Boomer - doesn't marry her because, he says, she's too good for him, then lives to regret it. Wasserstein even gives her heroine an improbably happy ending. Heidi herself is not happy, of course. She's too honest and wise for that; she only hopes for the next generation. But she does manage, on an art historian's salary, to acquire an apartment with good light and a fireplace, and an adopted baby (a girl, natch). Life may not reward Heidi's virtue, but the playwright does.

Wasserstein pampers her heroine in another way. The supporting characters are all sketched satirically - the Militant Feminist, the Shallow Sellout etc. Wasserstein gives a little depth to the noble homosexual pediatrician, but basically Heidi is the only character she doesn't make fun of, the only one she allows a little humanity. At one point, disillusioned with the '80s, Heidi mournfully complains that she feels "stranded." But it's Wasserstein who's stranded her, by creating only straw characters for her to share the stage with.

Wasserstein's satire is pretty limp - her targets and points are obvious - but some of her one-liners and exchanges are very funny. In a sardonic bow to feminist correctness, Scoop refers to "Ehrlichperson and Haldeperson," and when he asks Heidi why she covers her mouth when she talks about sex, she mumbles in embarrassment, "Hygiene."

The cast zings Wasserstein's jokes at the audience with verve. Robert Curtis-Brown as the pediatrician, Peter Patrone, has all the best lines (homosexual characters generally seem to have all the best lines) and he tosses them out blithely. Mark Harelik brings his personal charm to the shallow Scoop and succeeds in making him rather touching. Maggie Baird, Elaine Hausman and Amy Ryan handle their multiple roles as Heidi's friends adroitly. The character of Heidi is basically a drip, so it's a personal triumph for Stephanie Dunnam that she isn't drippy, and is often funny, in the role.

"The Heidi Chronicles" is an upper-middle-class comedy: everyone's white, everyone's educated, everyone's basically fine. Except for the HIV infection of a character we never meet, there's no illness or death. Also no economic difficulties, no problems with children and - amazingly for the period the play covers - no drugs. This insularity would be fine if the play were meant to be fantasy or fluff, but Wasserstein wants to deal with real issues. And her heroine's vague sense of regret isn't a real issue, it's just a spoiled girl's mooniness. Chekhov would have forgiven Heidi but still satirized her. Wasserstein's coddled her.

The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Set, Thomas Lynch; costumes, Jennifer Von Mayrhauser; lighting, Pat Collins; sound, Scott Lehrer; projection design, Wendall Harrington. With Stephanie Dunnam, Mimi Lieber, Michael Sandels, Robert Curtis-Brown, Mark Harelik, Maggie Baird, Elaine Hausman, Amy Ryan. At the Eisenhower Theater through April 28.

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Fugard's `Africa': The Torn Heart Of a Homeland

Article from:
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Article date:
February 22, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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The Arena Stage production of "My Children! My Africa!" is a gripping theatrical debate. Athol Fugard's script has all his usual intelligence and humaneness. The play is too wordy, but the passion of Fugard's argument - along with taut direction and excellent acting - keep you with it.

Fugard sets things up very simply. There are only three characters: the idealistic middle-aged schoolteacher, Anela Myalatya, or Mr. M, as his students call him; his most brilliant pupil, Thami Mbikwana; and Isabel Dyson, a white teenager from another school who forms a two-person debate team with Thami. Mr. M's plot is to coach the two to win a national debating contest, and thus throw the country's and school system's prejudices about black students back in their faces. But history and youth have another plan in mind.

Most of the play takes place in Mr. M's classroom, where Thami and Isabel train for the contest. They compete and argue and become shyly fond of each other, though there are strange awkward moments between them - such as when Isabel, in generous innocence, invites Thami into her white neighborhood to have tea with her parents. Thami's growing radicalization takes place onstage - we track it by his reaction to the material he's studying, his growing feeling that such stuff is irrelevant, if not useless. He likes and trusts Isabel and can talk to her honestly. But with Mr. M, who bullies him like a sternly loving father, he is closed and distant. His quarrel with his teacher isn't just political - he's also a boy breaking away from a father figure.

Fugard's plays are rarely overtly autobiographical, but they're always intensely personal. "My Children! My Africa!" is essentially an anguished depiction of Fugard's heartbreak, shame, rage and hopelessness about South Africa, the home he's doomed both to love and despise. His divided soul is the play's subject: Being white, he can't face with equanimity the destruction of his world; being a moral creature, he can't deny that that world deserves destruction. "My Children! My Africa!" is a drama of the liberal's dilemma - the acceptance of responsibility for a society's failings coupled with a refusal to give in to the egotism of cultural self-hatred.

The liberal position has taken a bashing from both the left and the right in the past 25 years. Fugard, rejecting the smug complacency of the status quo and yet continuing to argue for the "Western" values of fairness, tolerance and reason, redeems it. He demonstrates that whatever liberalism's failures, it's not the easy way out, but a renunciation of self-satisfaction, and an acknowledgment that for a person of conscience there's no such thing as peace of mind.

Mr. M has suffered under apartheid; he hates it. As a teacher, he has worked quietly and relentlessly to subvert the Bantu education that is supposed to train blacks for subservient roles in South African society. An aging bachelor who lives in a tiny room, with TV privileges in his landlord's den, he has devoted his whole life to his pupils. When Thami, his favorite, denounces him as a tool of the system, he replies, "You can stand here and accuse me unjustly {because} I have liberated your mind," and he has a point.

Thami, of course, isn't interested in hearing it. He's a young radical with a simple view of the world that might be phrased as, There's no problem that can't be burned away. Fugard was moved to write "My Children! My Africa!" by his horror at "necklacing" - the play is in part an exploration of why black South African rage can result in people being pinioned in gasoline-soaked tires and then set on fire. Fugard won't say that people who do such things are animals. But he won't say that causing such extreme human suffering is politically justifiable either.

Fugard doesn't stoop to comforting, evasive homilies such as "Violence never solved anything" (if history has taught us any lesson, it's that violence solves a lot). He wants badly to understand Thami the same way he understands Mr. M. But he can't. In the end, the only truth he has is his revulsion against one human being setting fire to another. That revulsion is the center of his moral being, and he can't give it up.

The result for the play is unfortunate. As long as Fugard gives Thami and Mr. M's positions equal treatment, he forces the audience onto an intellectual and moral bed of nails. But when, finally, horrible violence befalls one of the characters, Fugard feels forced to make that character guilty - that is, deserving of the awful death in a way an audience with those aforementioned "Western" values can at least partially accept. It lets us off the hook, when in fact the questions Fugard has raised are the kind that keep you on the hook: unresolvable questions about the relation of justice and mercy, and the definition of evil.

Director Max Mayer keeps the play flying along, bringing its debates to life as if Fugard were Shaw, and finding all the small moments in which the characters' ordinary human concerns influence their ideals. He has a terrific cast. As Isabel - the decent-hearted white girl who knows she has harsh lessons to learn and is willing to learn them, Robin Morse is a beautifully natural presence. She never hits a single "actressy" note. Teagle F. Bougere, who as Wally Webb in "Our Town" created a character out of six lines and some air, is a resolute Thami. And Herb Downer finds the purity and generosity in Mr. M's idealism. He takes you way down into the play's moral complexities; sometimes it's a heart-wrenching journey. On the stage of Arena's intimate Old Vat Room, David M. Glenn has designed an ingenious set that transports us from place to place with skillful, unshowy use of projections.

But "My Children! My Africa!" has neither comfort nor blame to offer. It's Fugard's personal dilemma rendered in political terms, a reminder that all political theory begins in the human heart.

My Children! My Africa!, by Athol Fugard. Directed by Max Mayer; set, David M. Glenn; lighting, Christopher Townsend; sound, Charles T. Brastow; costumes, Crystal Walker. With Herb Downer, Teagle F. Bougere, Robin Morse. At the Arena Stage Old Vat Room, Sixth Street and Maine Avenue SW, through April 7.

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Julie Harris, Casting Spells in `Lucifer's Child'

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Article date:
February 22, 1991
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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When you have a chance to spend an evening in the company of Julie Harris, who cares what she's doing? The writer William Luce previously has created two one-woman shows for her - "The Belle of Amherst" and "Bronte." Now, with "Lucifer's Child," which opened last night at the Kennedy Center, he's giving her a chance to play the Danish writer Karen Blixen. Blixen, who wrote under the name Isak Dinesen, was the author of the book and subject of the movie "Out of Africa." "Lucifer's Child" takes place years after the events in the film, at the end of Dinesen's life when she was a syphilitic invalid dwelling in the old family house in Denmark.

Say what you will about one-person shows, they allow actresses of a certain age, to whom the theater offers very few decent parts, a chance at roles worthy of them. "Lucifer's Child" is an opportunity to see a major American actress at work. Age can burnish an actor until his artistry has the deep, mellow glow of antique wood. Harris is both an arresting stage presence and a velvet-smooth technician, with the grace and "naturalness" that only experience can create. She's been acting for more than 45 years, and she gives the impression that she's learned something from every role, that she never stopped moving forward.

Luce has given us two evenings chez Dinesen: New Year's Eve 1958, and one the following April. In between, she goes on a reading tour of America, ending up weak and hospitalized, not from her chronic syphilis but from anorexia. Before the American trip, she is an aging coquette who first appears in a Pierrot costume. Afterward, she looks like an ordinary old lady, wearing glasses and a baggy sweater. This is really about all the movement there is to Luce's piece, which can't properly be called a play. There's no drama to it in the usual sense. But Luce has very skillfully woven together Dinesen's anecdotes and memories so that we always want to hear what comes next. And Harris finds the core of her fascination - her vanity and strangeness and almost childlike self-confidence. Dinesen was a self-dramatizer, very much the star of her own life, but Harris's performance is clean-lined and subtle, with a crackle of common sense running through it. She's irresistible, like a worldly grandmother warmed by her hot memories, a Danish Colette.

Dinesen was a spooky writer - her stuff reads like mother-of-pearl Poe. The exception to this fey style is "Out of Africa," a remarkable memoir with a great reporter's sense for detail and meaning - it's the book Hemingway referred to in his Nobel acceptance speech when he wondered why Dinesen's work hadn't been considered for the prize. Luce uses passages from "Out of Africa" for some of the monologues here, but we never get to hear any of Dinesen's famous stories, the ones she told to entertain her lover Denys Finch Hatton, the ones she was referring to when she called herself "a storyteller." This isn't a show about Dinesen the artist but about Karen Blixen the woman - the one who married her cousin Bror and went to Kenya to run a coffee plantation and then, after Bror left her and the farm failed, returned to Denmark to write and to weaken from the syphilis with which her husband had infected her.

If you look past Harris's charm, Dinesen seems pretty unbearable, the kind of woman who announces, "I'm 3,000 years old! I've dined with Socrates" and describes contracting syphilis with the phrase "The flowering of Nemesis had begun inside me." Things like makeup and clothes are very important to her, and she can describe her warm relationship with a servant without the slightest bit of self-irony. Harris plays her briskly, as a tough old bird who feels she's earned the right to her eccentricities. She doesn't give a damn whether we like her or not, which is, of course, part of her allure. Dinesen describes herself as "a horrid old witch," but Harris plays her like an enchantress.

Photographs of Dinesen at the end of her life show that she was rather witchlike - terribly thin and ravaged by her illness, with unpleasantly bright eyes. Harris, in contrast, has kept the plain country beauty of her youth, and she brings her own vitality to the role of the much older Dinesen. Harris has a lovely, cracked, supple voice - you feel as if you could listen to her all night. We may not hear any of Dinesen's stories, but Harris's acting becomes their stand-in - playing a spellbinder, she is a spellbinder.

Lucifer's Child, by William Luce. Directed by Tony Abatemarco; scenery, Marjorie Kellogg; lighting, Pat Collins; costumes, Noel Taylor. With Julie Harris. At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through March 17.

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Theater; `Labor's Lost,' Comedy's Gained

Article from:
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Article date:
February 7, 1995
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Frolicsome, charming and completely delightful, Laird Williamson's production of "Love's Labor's Lost," which opened Sunday night at the Shakespeare Theatre, is set in an English university right out of "Charley's Aunt," with the young king of Navarre and his scholar pals cast as studious upperclassmen.

"The mind shall banquet, though the body pines," King Ferdinand (Dallas Roberts) explains to his three fellow scholars. They're all going to thrive on one meal a day, three hours of sleep a night and, of course, no female company.

No girls! Though a decent enough fellow, Ferdinand is clearly a bit of a twit in the romance department, and his friend Berowne (Sean Pratt) tries to talk him out of this celibacy gag, but to no avail. The king is firm -- until, that is, the Princess of France and her attendant ladies show up on a diplomatic mission.

"Love's Labor's Lost" is one of Shakespeare's early comedies, slight stuff when compared to later masterpieces such as "Much Ado About Nothing," for which it is in some ways a rough draft. But Williamson and his cast capture every bit of the effervescence, sweetness and folly the play has to offer -- not to mention getting the laughs.

There's one comic jewel of a performance after another in this production: from Emery Battis's eccentric don to Ted van Griethuysen's tipsy cleric to the vaudevillian perfection of Floyd King and Jason Kravits as a pompous Spanish lord and his servant to the witty sparring of Pratt's Berowne and his sharp-tongued lady love, Rosaline, played by Melissa Bowen. Roberts is a winningly shy nit as the king, and Enid Graham mocking and intelligent as the Princess of France. As Officer Dull, David Sabin brings to mind Nigel Bruce, the endearingly dim Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes.

Anita Stewart's set and costumes are both beautiful and slyly funny. The walls appear to be made of wrinkled manuscript (a fragment of Chaucer is printed on the backdrop) and the furniture consists of piles of huge books upon which the characters perch, stand and lounge. A medical school skeleton stands at one side of the stage, a phrenology bust sits on the other, and an improbably yellow piano dominates upstage.

As for the costumes -- this is the height of the Edwardian era, with boaters and loose blocky suits for the men and Empire gowns for the ladies. King, as the pretentious Don Armado, wears boots with toes about a foot long, and Battis's don proclaims his freedom from conformity by wearing sandals with brown socks. The underclassmen sport caps and Navarre Academy jackets.

The characters traverse the stage on bicycles under gently falling, brightly hued autumn leaves. This idyllic, unspoiled academia is like something out of P.G. Wodehouse or "Charley's Aunt." But the fall is coming to this Eden -- the fall of 1914, to be precise, and with it the First World War. We notice that in a pageant of famous warriors of history (hopelessly botched by the don, the cleric and Don Armado), the costumes are the brown uniforms and shallow helmets of World War I doughboys.

In the general hilarity of this mismanaged presentation, there is an odd sober note, when Armado objects to mockery of Hector, the great Trojan soldier slain by Achilles. Then news of the Princess's father's death is delivered by French soldiers, the faint boom of artillery shudders in the background and the play, the merriment and a way of life all come to an end.

Love's Labor's Lost, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Laird Williamson. Lights, Marcus Dilliard; music, Cathy MacDonald; musical staging, Karma Camp. With Michael Medico, Jason Patrick Bowcutt, C.J. Wilson, Carol Halstead, Alene Dawson, Libby Christophersen and Brian Thompson. At the Shakespeare Theatre through March 19.

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ER; The Search for Ambitious Signs of Life Onstage

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
December 27, 1992
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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It was a quiet year here in the Washington theater. No one did anything unexpected. No one really did anything less than expected either. It's during such lulling seasons that a critic particularly sits up and takes notice of signs of life.

Ambition is one of these. Little Signature Theatre continued to be chockablock with it, charging with all cannon firing at Sondheim's "Assassins," a sour nothing of a musical by which the company did better than it deserved. Also keeping the pace in the hubris marathon was the Washington Shakespeare Company, which, while not matching its "Hamlet" of two seasons ago, assayed "Macbeth" with honor intact, and also had a go at Sartre and Diderot. This is not a theater for the faint of brain.

Risk is another twitch that denotes a heartbeat. At Woolly Mammoth, Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz has launched boldly into a '92-'93 season of all new plays. Woolly did very well in the spring with its standard absurdist fare, particularly "Kvetch." This makes the decision not to play it safe even more impressive. And over at Source, Artistic Director Pat Sheehy took a chance with what turned out to be the debut of a promising playwright with Lucy Tom Lehrer's "Those Sweet Caresses."

Playing it safe yielded some results too. Joy Zinoman's showcasing of local "stars" at the Studio brought Fred Schiffman back to the stage in an outstanding performance as Marvin in "Falsettoland," and gave Philip Goodwin a chance to show his acting fireworks in "The Lisbon Traviata." Studio did less well by Sarah Marshall, putting her under demure raps in "The Bright and Bold Design." Fortunately, out at Round House, Jerry Whiddon - in the most daring production of the season - cast her in the title role of "Elektra," allowing her to showboat her craziness and her technique.

At the Shakespeare Theatre, Michael Kahn seems to have been energized by his new space at the Lansburgh. After an obligatory crowd-pleaser-with-movie star - "Much Ado About Nothing" with Kelly McGillis - he went straight for one of Shakespeare's most difficult plays, "Measure for Measure" (again with McGillis, but also with Philip Goodwin as a stunningly neurotic Angelo). Kahn then brought in the brilliant English director Bill Alexander and matched him with an even more difficult play, "Troilus and Cressida." The result was a theatrical paradox: some of the finest directing I've ever seen, which nonetheless didn't result in a satisfying experience for the audience. To finish things off, Kahn decided to direct his first "Hamlet." Next year he takes up the tightrope.

At Arena, Kyle Donnelly directed a "School for Wives" (with Richard Bauer at his most Bauerish) that gave up all pretense of stage-bound logic and zipped happily into the lunatic stratosphere. Artistic Director Douglas Wager immediately gathered her into the Arena fold as an associate director - a move more secure and generous than many artistic directors who are excellent comic directors themselves would make. Donnelly promptly ran at that famous director-breaker "The Way of the World" and broke. Somehow, one imagines that a woman who figured out how to put a chain saw into a Moliere play will pull herself back together. For his part, Wager directed a chilling and chillingly assured production of "The Visit" and did a funny job with "Of Thee I Sing," though those who have seen his Marx brothers musicals may have felt he was going, a little tiredly, over old ground.

The booking houses - the Kennedy Center, the National and Ford's Theatre - kept on booking. Ford's schedule always reads like it caters to the tourist bus crowd: safe, mostly mediocre shows. This year, it actually went an extra step and produced a howler: "Captains Courageous," which featured - among other delights - a number in which dancers waved paper fish.

The National is dark so often that one wonders how the Shuberts keep it running. And the Kennedy Center wafts hither and thither: now a swing musical from Germany ("Berlin Cabaret"), now an off-Broadway tear-jerker ("Marvin's Room"), now a roadshow ("The Buddy Holly Story"), now a pre-Broadway tryout giving Stacy Keach an opportunity to entertainingly wear down his incisors ("Solitary Confinement"). If there is a philosophy - artistic, or even commercial - behind these productions, it's in a code too arcane for me to decipher.

As for the work that was predictable, why dwell on that? Just wish Washington theater luck and energy in the New Year.

irlwind'

Article from:
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Article date:
February 11, 1995
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"Out of the Whirlwind," which opened last week at the American Theatre Project, is naive and amateurishly done, but a crowd- pleaser. This play about the abortive 1800 slave revolt by Gabriel Prosser, doomed by an unexpected and ferocious rainstorm, rambles on and on, with the more interesting characters -- Gabriel and his fellow rebels -- too often yielding stage to various other historic figures who talk among themselves way too much.

There's no suspense to the story -- the play starts as the rebellion fails, and we know from history that Gabriel was hanged. Nonetheless, playwright Susan Altman manages to construct a narrative out of the possibility that the rebels might escape. Their plotting and quarreling among themselves are the best parts of the play.

Gabriel (Jeorge Watson) is the strong, silent type. Caleb (Ben Morgan) has had his family sold away from him and has nothing left to lose. Amos (William F. Rowel) is young and hotheaded. And Jeremy (Michael Sainte-Andress) is philosophical and poetic. Jeremy is in some ways the most compelling character: He feels that even the act of rebellion was an accomplishment and holds no bitterness toward Gabriel for its failure. He's also prone to notice and speculate charmingly on everyday matters such as the way his hands work, or the presence of a new spider in an abandoned web.

Altman's dialogue is skilled and relaxed and often quite funny. Morgan and Sainte-Andress are particularly at home in their roles, and everyone else works hard and earnestly. The actors are often ill- served by the technical design: For example, when Amos is being tempted by Gov. Monroe (E. John Edmonds) to betray his fellows, Rowel is so badly lit you can't tell how he's reacting to the situation.

All in all, the production is a matter of good politics, not-so- good art -- but the politics may be enough for audiences. The night I was there the production got a standing ovation.

Out of the Whirlwind, by Susan Altman. Directed by Ed Bishop. Set, Howard James; lights, David B. Sislen. With Tee Morris, Randy Howk, Carlton Jackson, Stephan Waters. At American Theatre Project through Feb. 26.

es

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
November 18, 1992
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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A satire of "opera queens" in Act I and an attempt at operatic tragedy in Act II, Terrence McNally's "The Lisbon Traviata" collapses under the weight of its pretensions by the end. But the production at the Studio Theatre, which opened Sunday night, is funny and boasts some excellent performances, particularly from Philip Goodwin as Stephen, the man who must make the unhappy journey from mere lover of operatic emotion to participant in it.

"The Lisbon Traviata" could stand perfectly well on its second act alone, which contains all the dramatic information and action the story needs. But McNally has written a comic first act, so that we get Stephen's situation introduced to us gradually through his conversations with his opera-mad friend Mendy (Floyd King). Mendy and Stephen both adore Maria Callas, and Mendy is desperate to get his hands on a recording of her Lisbon "Traviata," which Stephen has a copy of but has thoughtlessly neglected to bring by when he comes over for the evening.

McNally has a barn-big target in gay opera obsession, and he hits it with everything he's got. "I never camp," King's Mendy sniffs at one point, but of course his glorious camping is what amuses his friend and the audience so much. Mendy is the romantic of the two men, worshipful and yearning. Stephen is more like your average baseball card collector: all statistics and dates. They're capable of wrangling for minutes at a time over whether, in a certain performance, Callas hit a high C or a B-flat.

Mendy, who can't find a permanent lover, and Stephen adore Callas because her outsize emotions express their own feelings, bottled up in a society that prefers they live out of its sight. In the second act, when Stephen confronts the wandering attentions of his longtime companion, Mike (Michael Chaban), he slips on art and tumbles horribly into life.

Horribly, but not tragically. The Studio has chosen to go back to the ending McNally provided for the first New York production, not the one he subsequently used in the published edition of the play. McNally knew what he was doing to abandon his original choice. Stephen's descent into melodrama only points out that life, no matter how ugly, is pettier and less interesting than opera, and that in particular the misery of a couple that have drifted apart the way couples do doesn't earn the passionate expression an opera tale does. You also learn anew, if you had forgotten, that violence onstage works best in stylized productions - verse or music - and is hard to pull off in realism.

McNally's new, nonviolent ending would have made the play poignant instead of a bit nutty. Fortunately, up till the very last few minutes, it runs along as if it were going somewhere other than into a wall, and the nervous sparring of the two lovers in the second act is terrifically well observed by the author and performed by Goodwin and Chaban. Chaban is touchingly decent, out of his emotional depth with a man who turns out to love him more than he can love back. Goodwin has to get tenser and more desperate and then even tenser and more desperate, going further than you think he can, twisting his agony around his character and Mike like cutting wire. It's an impressively paced piece of work (overseen and aided by director John Going), and Goodwin's artistic courage in thrusting himself as far into the play's emotions as possible almost makes up for the script's failings - he brings Stephen a lot nearer to tragedy than the text does.

James Kronzer has designed two apartments for the proceedings, both LP- and CD-lined. Stephen and Mike's is in greenish aqua, gray and bent chrome. Mendy's is peachy and pumpkiny, complete with a standee of Callas and a chaise longue on which Mendy can throw himself in despair. Mendy is the kind of role King can do in his sleep, but he doesn't drift through it - he jacks up the first act with edgy energy. In a small part as Mike's new lover, who unexpectedly meets Stephen, Firdous Bamji is also very fine, balanced, modest and sure of himself where poor Stephen is floundering and shatterable.

The homosexuality of the characters means Stephen and Mike's argument is masculinely frank about sex in a way male-female arguments tend not to be. This is only one of many ways in which McNally lets you know you're in a world rarely presented onstage without the crutch of polemics or too-easy humor. McNally doesn't camp either.

The Lisbon Traviata, by Terrence McNally. Directed by John Going. Set, James Kronzer; lights, Daniel MacLean Wagner; costumes, Ric Thomas Rice. With Philip Goodwin, Floyd King, Michael Chaban and Firdous Bamji. At Studio Theatre through Dec. 13.

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Theater; `Sand': On Top of Old Hokey

Article from:
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Article date:
November 26, 1992
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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There's a very funny line in "Tennessee," the first on a bill of two Romulus Linney one-acts that opened this week at the Round House Theatre under the general title "Sand Mountain." A sharp-tongued woman is heaping execrations on the man who wants to marry her: "They should have buried you," she yells, "and raised the afterbirth!"

This is a great insult. Unhappily, the rest of the play isn't that lively. It's an extended shaggy-dog story in which the audience gets to the punch line way, way, way before the main character reveals it. This main character is an elderly woman who wanders onto a mountain homestead in North Carolina claiming to have walked seven miles from Tennessee, even though the border is 80 miles away. She starts telling the story of her marriage 70 years ago, an arrangement she was forced into after having sworn to marry any man who would take her to Tennessee. Even from this brief description, what has happened is pretty obvious. In the play, our heroine takes nearly an hour figuring it out. In spite of Mary Starnes's efforts in the role, "Tennessee" is almost totally static.

The second play, "Why the Lord Come to Sand Mountain," has Jesus and Saint Peter visiting a poor Appalachian cabin, where Jesus swaps legends and tall tales with the inhabitants. There are some charming moments in this piece, and a nice dirty joke at the end, but there are also sentimental, self-consciously folksy passages not far in temperament from bad, saccharine Disney. Linney's world is essentially artificial, a sort of theme-park Appalachia, denatured for genteel sensibilities.

Director Edward Morgan and his cast, which includes Bill Grimmette, Kathryn Kelley, Jack Kyrieleison and Richard Salamanca, work away at the canned Americana material, but to no avail. The only real poetry onstage comes from Elizabeth Jenkins's log set, backed by a deep rose and lavender sunset, with, on either side, paintings of dim, shadowy mountains stretching away into nowhere.

Sand Mountain, by Romulus Linney. Directed by Edward Morgan. Set, Elizabeth Jenkins; lights and sound, Neil McFadden; costumes, Rosemary Pardee; music, Sandy Mitchell, Steve Hickman and Edward Morgan. With Kathryn Kelley, Jack Kyrieleison, Larry Fish, Mary Starnes, Richard Salamanca and Bill Grimmette. At the Round House Theatre through Dec. 13.

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A Lame `Richard'; Ian McKellen's Opaque King

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June 25, 1992
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Lloyd Rose
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As the psychopath who would be king in the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain's production of "Richard III," which opened Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center, Sir Ian McKellen does amazing things with his glove. He's playing Richard as a cripple rather than a hunchback - his left leg is weak and his left arm dead. A resourceful fellow, Richard has learned to perform everything one-handed - including donning and doffing a leather military glove. McKellen does something with his hand muscles that makes the glove seem to slither off his fingers of its own accord. Later, he makes a glove slither on. It's showy stuff, the kind of thing he does throughout in place of a characterization.

McKellen can be extraordinary in Shakespeare. In his early forties, he was an energetically youthful Romeo, all irony and ardor, fire and wind. When he played Macbeth, he tore the heart out of the play and threw it, a bloody trophy, at the audience's feet. But his Richard is all tics and tricks, not even enigmatic, just opaque.

Director Richard Eyre has put together a production that tells you what you're meant to think, without showing you why you should think it. Everything takes place in the black void of nothingness (indistinguishable here from the cavern of the Opera House), in a world without color except for the silvery gleam of metal and the crimson glint of blood. Images of war - white, acrid-looking battle smoke; military uniforms - abound. And about halfway through, the style becomes Haute Fascist, with armbands and black shirts and the ubiquitous round Nuremberg-rally-style microphone, through which our antihero tells his lies to the populace, his vile words echoing aggressively around the stage.

But Eyre doesn't draw his images from the text, he slathers them on top of it. All the work is being done by the set, lighting and sound designers. If you give what's going on a moment's thought, you wonder how on Earth the threat of fascism applies to internecine wars among a hereditary monarchy, a system that pretty much guaranteed a succession of rulers whom today we'd judge as tyrants. The terror of fascism is that it appeals to the lowest political longings in an empowered populace - that is, possibly in us. Richard basically just puts one over on the crowd he addresses, and the various powerful people he manipulates aren't seduced by his politics, they're just too weak and stupid to stand in his way. It isn't sophisticated, or very revealing, to tell us that ogres are dangerous. We could have figured that out on our own.

Shakespeare showed a political acuteness unmatched in drama in some of the history plays he wrote later - particularly "Henry IV," Parts 1 and 2. But "Richard III" is one of his earlier plays, probably written when he was in his late twenties, and it's basically just a melodrama with a villain you love to hate. Stacy Keach played it exactly this way, with a wink at the audience, in the Shakespeare Theatre production here a couple of years ago. And even Olivier's famous performance, which survives on film, isn't deep - it's sexy, malicious, scary, amusing.

Neither McKellen nor Eyre is interested in such cheap thrills; the audience isn't supposed to have something so mere as fun. But if you're not having fun, you should be having something else: a lesson, an experience in moral terror, a revelation of human corruption. Technically astonishing but cool and rather remote, McKellen doesn't even bring the heat of power-lust to his performance.

When McKellen first enters, walking out of the smoke, bundled in a military greatcoat, firing out "Now is the winter of our discontent" in clipped, brutal syllables, it's easy to see Richard as an orphan of war, and anticipate that this production will be about a professional soldier who is driven to make a battlefield of his peacetime world. But the idea isn't developed. Late in the play, when Richard gets back into armor, he doesn't seem any more himself than he had earlier.

In fact, McKellen doesn't give us any insight into the character. Richard is upset that his mother doesn't love him - but as far as Shakespeare was concerned, she had a point, so turning her into an abusive mother isn't convincing (especially as the actress is costumed and made up to look like a Disney cartoon villainess). At one point, McKellen pokes around in a severed head and then sniffs and tastes his finger. It's a terrifically creepy bit of business, but what does it mean? That the guy's a necrophiliac? Is that supposed to be part of his motivation? It seems a little baroque.

"Richard III" is the second-longest of Shakespeare's plays, and there's nobody in it but Richard. Everyone else is a tiresome relative or a foolish political foe, fodder for his lethal ambition. The political situation that makes his ascension to the throne possible is complicated, and Eyre hasn't done anything to clarify it for the audience. You don't know who's related to whom or what claims anyone has to what title, and with most of the company speaking in hoarse iambic pentameter rant, you aren't going to find out by listening to the text. Eyre has kept almost all of the stylized set pieces - long, static curses and laments - and given them to actors who don't have the vocal agility to deliver them. At 3 1/2 hours this is a long, long evening, and unfortunately it comes with the high-class cultural imprimatur - an English production, a knight as the star, rave reviews - that makes a theater-goer who is aggravated or bored by it feel that the fault must be in inadequate, uncultured him.

It isn't.

Richard III, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Richard Eyre. Set, Bob Crowley; lights, Jean Kalman; music, Dominic Muldowney. With Ian McKellen, Charlotte Cornwell, Terence Rigby, Rosalind Knight, Peter Darling, Richard Bremmer and Richard Simpson. At the Kennedy Center Opera House through July 19.

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Theater; Shakespeare's Uneven `Measure'

Article from:
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Article date:
May 12, 1992
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"Measure for Measure" is always classified as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays." Lots of reasons are given, but basically they come down to this: What happens to the characters by the end isn't very satisfying, either emotionally or dramatically. Michael Kahn's production, which opened Sunday at the Shakespeare Theatre, solves a lot of the problems - or at least makes them irrelevant - but the play remains troublesome and peculiar.

The plot has a decidedly modern twistedness. In 16th-century Vienna, laws against licentiousness that have been ignored for more than a decade are suddenly put into effect. The resulting crackdown nets a young man named Claudio, whose sin is sleeping with the woman to whom he is betrothed - an understanding that amounts to a contract. The rigidly moral Angelo, who has been left in charge of the government by the Duke, determines the boy must die. Claudio's sister, a convent novice named Isabella, goes to Angelo to plead for her brother's life, and the icy prude discovers the fires of lust. He tells Isabella Claudio is saved - if she sleeps with him.

Things get more complicated from there on out, and though all goes right in the end, the story feels unresolved and a little sour. Isabella insists that it's better for Claudio to die than for her to yield her body in sin. Even given that sleeping with Angelo might damn her soul, her self-righteousness doesn't play very well, and to a modern audience appears either almost wicked or almost insane. She seems to feel an extreme aversion to sexuality (a prejudice more often found in Shakespeare's male characters), and when, in the "happy ending," the Duke offers her marriage, you wonder what he's letting himself in for.

The Duke is another problem. He starts the whole mess by putting Angelo in charge so he can sneak around the city in disguise, measuring its morals. Once he discovers what's going on, he delays unconscionably in straightening the situation out, keeping Isabella in agony for an unnecessary length of time, letting Claudio believe he's going to die when he isn't, and taking forever to tie up the plot strands in the last scene. His concern for justice doesn't have much to do with any care for human suffering.

Kahn hasn't gotten through or around these central difficulties. But he's directed with his usual clear intelligence and pulled off some very tough things. He makes the play work to some extent as a debate of ideas about freedom and the law: When do individual rights become bad for the society at large? When do society's demands wound the individual? These questions aren't exactly out of fashion today, and there's a lively intellectual energy to this "Measure."

Also, as he showed in "Much Ado About Nothing," Kahn is a master at mixed-tone drama, melding comedy and tragedy smoothly into one lifelike whole. The bawdy comic scenes here work terrifically - that is to say, they're both comic and bawdy, and not straining to be either. And they seem to belong in this corrupt world.

As Pompey, the bawd (pimp) who pretends to the status of barman, red-haired David Manis has the comic incompetence of a man who's gotten in over his head. By turns cowardly and effusive, Pompey is always cracking questionable jokes at the wrong time. He's an innocent, really - the poor sap just doesn't get it. In the other major comic role, the foppish Lucio, Daniel Southern is airy and slimily elegant, deliciously obnoxious.

Keith Baxter has a relaxed, aristocratic authority as the Duke. Baxter is such a warm, rooted stage presence, and plays with such skill, that he keeps you with the character dramatically even when your common sense is rebelling at his tricks.

Kelly McGillis is breathy and distraught as Isabella. She can't make the character sympathetic, but she doesn't make her neurotic either. She looks grand - tall, handsome, full-bodied. There's drama in her mere physical contrast with Angelo: She's so healthily womanly, and he's so gaunt and fleshless.

Philip Goodwin gives a fine, subtle performance as Angelo. With his wire rims and brush cut, he looks a little like Wittgenstein, and he plays Angelo as an intellectual out of touch with his senses. The sudden onset of lust literally floors him; his body twists in response, crippled by this unwelcome sensuality.

Kahn has also drawn fine work from his supporting cast, many of whom have tiny roles: Roy Cockrum as a Mistress Overdone who turns out to be a Master; Jonathan Lutz as the decent Provost; Kate Skinner in a triple role that includes Angelo's spurned betrothed; T.J. Edwards as a fop and as a prisoner who decides he's not in the mood to be executed; Bernard K. Addison as an evil-tempered executioner; Eric Hoffmann as the malaprop-spouting constable Elbow; and James J. Lawless as the Duke's steady senior adviser, Escalus.

The production is stunningly handsome. Derek McLane's set is designed along an oppressive horizontal, all black walls and bare metal, eerily illuminated by Howell Binkley's stark, smoky light. Kahn's stage pictures are beautiful, shifting from one evocative pattern to another. In fact, in my opinion, the play's finest moment is a Kahn invention: Angelo, in his shirt sleeves, ripping a curtain from a painting of a ripe nude. This is, of course, a nonverbal moment - which says something significant about the production's successes and its limitations.

Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Kahn. Set, Derek McLane; lights, Howell Binkley; composer-sound designer, Adam Wernick; choreographer, Karma Camp. With Keith Baxter, Kelly McGillis, Philip Goodwin, David Manis, Daniel Southern and James J. Lawless. At the Shakespeare Theatre through June 14.

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Theater: Chamberlain & "My Fair Lady': Bu George, They've Got It!

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
May 10, 1993
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"lloyd rose"

Richard Chamberlain is a droll, charming and ultimately winning Prof. Henry Higgins in the revival of "My Fair Lady" that opened last night at the National. If he's laboring in the shadow of Rex Harrison - who through the original Broadway album and movie impressed himself unforgettably on the part - it's a labor of ease and high spirits.

The king of the miniseries, Chamberlain has spent a lot of time in roles that require him to look very, very serious and act very, very concerned. Higgins demands nothing of the sort, and Chamberlain seems to be having a simply wonderful time playing this egotistical, irresistible overgrown boy. (To answer the obvious question, his voice is quite up to the role of Higgins, which Harrison more or less played as non-singing.).

As every fan of musicals knows, "My Fair Lady" is the only one with a book by a dramatic genius, namely George Bernard Shaw. It's hard to tell from the play whether Higgins, the professor of phonetics and speech, actually has any romantic interest in the flower girl he trains to speak "like a lady"; I've seen productions go both ways. But Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, only the last in a long line of lyricists and composers (including Rodgers and Hammerstein) who tried to turn the play into a musical, gave the story a happy ending that turned it from an ironic Shavian lesson into a romance and, arguably, improved on the genius.

Yet "My Fair Lady" has a curse of sorts on it, because the first production - in 1956, with Harrison and Julie Andrews and directed by Moss Hart - was perfect. It might have faded safely into myth if Harrison's performance weren't on film (Andrews's role, Eliza, went to Audrey Hepburn, whose singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon), along with Cecil Beaton's sumptuous art design. As things stand, though, "My Fair Lady" is almost inseparable from its original conception and execution. This revival may not change that, but it makes a bold attempt - and succeeds theatrically in its own right.

The boldest part of this attempt are the sets, which I ended up loving but which may dismay many people. The work of English designer Ralph Koltai (whose work was seen here in the Royal Shakespeare Company's mid-'80s productions of "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Cyrano de Bergerac"), the sets are witty, eclectically modern and quite abstract. In the famous Ascot sequence, many of the spectators drop slowly from the fly space to hang like marionettes. Higgins's study is framed by a gigantic phrenological head on one side and a huge parody of a mad scientist's lab on the other, which we are meant to take as his recording library. The palette is most definitely not Victorian, featuring as it does a brilliant lime, near-chartreuse green in many scenes. But when you think what a trap the traditional settings would have been - how they would have looked like a puppet theater for the poor actors to play Harrison and Andrews in - this radical solution may seem like the only way to break from the original production's grip.

Everything else is still there. The marvelous tunes, the erudite, amusing lyrics, the great book and the ideal musical-comedy romance, in which a stuffed shirt is humanized by a spirited woman. That woman, Eliza Doolittle, is played here by Melissa Errico. With Elizas, you usually wait patiently through the Cockney period while the poor actress tries her best to be "low class" and are relieved when she gets all dressed up and can relax into genteel behavior. But Errico has a real sweetness and spark as the flower-girl Eliza; dressed up as a lady she is lovely, but a bit overwhelmed, which seems as it should be. Errico doesn't have Julie Andrews's uncannily clear soprano (no one does; possibly no one ever will again), but her upper range is operatically thrilling, and she acts the songs appealingly.

Eliza's father, the ne'er-do-well Alfred P. Doolittle, is played by Julian Holloway. He has the right attitude and is gracefully understated in a role that lends itself to mugging. It's a pity he isn't a dancer and that his two big numbers - "With a

Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church" - are choreographed (by Donald Saddler) so that he just moves around properly in front of a leaping chorus instead of breaking into the jig you're waiting to see.

Paxton Whitehead, one of the stage's unsung treasures, is a delight as Higgins's friend Col. Pickering. Stuffy but quizzical, with a secret nonconformist spark, Whitehead is a much funnier Pickering than you find on the page. When bemused - a continual state - he darts his head like a curious bird.

Howard Davies, the English director of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," had no previous experience with musicals, and Tommy Tune reportedly gave him some uncredited advice. Possibly Tune's hand accounts for the slickness of some of the gags, for in general Davies is blessedly unslick, interested in the characters and the moments between them. We see Eliza slowly fall for Higgins, and the moments are made clear when he realizes that this new and strange part of his life might not, however exasperating, be such a bad part.

This isn't a show directed to slam you into the aisle; you can sit still and appreciate how good it is. Ultimately, though, it's Chamberlain's show. The television actor who always insisted on testing himself onstage shows us that none of that effort was wasted. He's an old pro - assured, masterly, yet practically fizzing with his delight at being given, and rising triumphantly to, this chance to act a great role. The audience is the lucky sharer of his pleasure.

My Fair Lady, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe, adapted from the play "Pygmalion" by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Howard Davies; choreography, Donald Saddler; sets, Ralph Koltai; lights, Natasha Katz; costumes, Patricia Zipprodt; musical and vocal direction, Jack Lee. With Richard Chamberlain, Melissa Errico, Paxton Whitehead, Julian Holloway, Dolores Sutton, Robert Sella, Glynis Bell. At the National Theatre through May 29.

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aesar's Pale Ghost

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
April 1, 1995
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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As Max Prince, the comedian-hero of Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," Howard Hesseman has a weary, distracted air that grounds the character in a way Nathan Lane's high spirits didn't on Broadway. Prince is based on the famous television funnyman Sid Caesar, for whom Simon worked in the '50s, and the play presents him as hilarious and good-hearted but also tormented and self-destructive. "So much anger in him," says one character, "so much pain," a description that didn't fit the ebullient Lane but suits Hesseman's distracted disgruntlement.

Simon's nostalgic comedy, which opened Thursday at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, recaps several months in 1953 when young Lucas (a stand-in for Simon, played by Matthew Arkin) goes to work for an unnamed weekly comedy series clearly based on Caesar's "Your Show of Shows." Caesar had a writing staff that at one time or another included Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart and Simon's brother, Danny.

They are the inspiration for the merry crew in the play, but the stage writershave shticks or accents rather than characters: Milt (Lewis J. Stadlen) dresses fancy; Val (Michael Countryman) has an accent like Bela Lugosi and great difficulty pronouncing a certain common expletive; Ira (Alan Blumenfeld) is a manic hypochondriac; Kenny (Anthony Cummings) is the smart guy; Brian (J.K. Simmons) is the token goy; and Helen (Michelle Schumacher) is the token woman. They're all zany, lovable cutups, and they spend more time than the audience does laughing at one another's jokes.

Jerry Zaks has directed everyone except Hesseman to talk very loud and very fast, so the evening certainly speeds by, though nothing much happens. Prince is at war with NBC over its plan to cut his show back (it's apparently too sophisticated, though you wouldn't know that from the scenes Simon has the writers create). He keeps punching holes in the wall. The writers sort of worry about his pill-and- booze addiction, then they just seem to forget about it. There's some yelling. Shoes are thrown out the window. Quips are made.

It's all rather shapeless, and on Broadway, with Lane just another one of the nuts, there was no shading. Hesseman gives the Kennedy Center production a center of gravity -- he's the one adult in this office, and the writers circle him like needy, clever children vying for a parent's attention. Hesseman became famous for his work on sitcoms ("WKRP in Cincinnati," "Head of the Class"), but he's not a shallow, mugging "TV actor" (or "meat puppet," as the Hollywood techies say). His Max is complicated, mournful and charismatic: You understand why the writers venerate him, and why Simon believes that what happened to him was tragic.

Some of the cast punch through the cartoon outlines of their roles. Stadlen is always a delight. And Blumenfeld knows how to make the sweaty most out of Ira's aggressive bombast -- he's funny but also a little scary.

Blumenfeld's Ira (who is said to owe something to Mel Brooks) suggests the darker side of comedy, the egomania and veiled aggression that Carl Reiner, for example, brought out in his Caesar- based character on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Comics are notoriously unpleasant human beings offstage (Jack Benny appears to have been a rare exception), and the rage at the heart of comedy is a great subject. "I killed 'em," the stand-up comedian says after a successful show.

This is a subject Simon skirts but never really deals with. He seems to want to. He wrote those lines about Prince's anger and pain. But anytime real suffering or fury starts to intrude into the laughter, Simon cuts to a one-liner. Some of them are funny. Some of them aren't. None of them is as interesting as the play you feel he could have written about Sid Caesar.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor, by Neil Simon. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Sets, Tony Walton; lights, Tharon Musser; costumes, William Ivey Long. With Alison Martin. At the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through April 23.

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