Archive for May, 2017

Review – The Ferryman – Royal Court (transferring to the Gielgud Theater)

May 20, 2017

There is nothing like having the curtains rise and feeling this wave of emotion rolling off of the stage before even one word of a play has been said. The emotion I’m talking about here is confidence and pride: it’s an entire room full of actors, those on the stage and those hiding behind it waiting for their cues, all thinking as one: I am in the best thing happening right now and every one of you is damned lucky to be here, and you know it. And we did know it. And, well, they were right, not just that I was lucky to be there, standing (standing!) so far on the side of the stage that I never saw one character for most of a scene, but that I was watching the best thing on stage right now and likely for all of this year. The Ferryman is a miracle, really, and although it’s transferring and I could have held out to see it at The Gielgud, no, I wanted to see it in the teeny, intimate Royal Court, and I wanted to be there while the energy was crackling and every person sat down was expecting nothing short of a miracle. They, and I, were not disappointed.

What do you need to know about this show? It’s about a family living on a farm in Ireland in the early 80s, and the discovery of the body of the head of the household’s brother in a bog – where it’s been since he was shot and “disappeared” – raises, pretty literally, ghosts for everyone, but most especially for Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) and his sister in law Caitlin (Laura Donnelly). They’ve had to try to move forward with their lives while being held back just as if a chain held their collars to a stick in the ground – that stick being the unknown fate of their brother and husband Seamus.

I worried that this play was going to be a horrible weepy overpolitical drag, because I hate political plays – I like plays to be about the relationships between people. And oh, how The Ferryman took that vein and went deep. This is so much a play about people – about love and hate and the ties that bind us together and the words that untie and undo us – about how you decide who to hate and who to love and who is family and who is not – about how you decide what sort of compromises you can live with to be able to get on with that thing called life. We get some background about what the political elements are in play – the Easter Uprising very nicely brought up in a character-illuminating story moment – but everything all comes together not to lecture us on right and wrong but to show us people, complex and conflicted and oh so very real in their flaws and hopes and bitternesses. These characters were every bit as believable to me as the smell of baking dinner that wafted through the auditorium at the start of Act Two.

And the construction of this play – oh, the construction and destruction that takes place over just one day in time – it is a thing of rare beauty. We have very little of back story and lots of tale telling between people, between bragging teenaged boys, between curious young girls and their Aunt Maggie Far Away (Brid Brennan), between long-winded, dreaming Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson) and his neighbors, between liars and the people they wish to deceive. And we have some singing and dancing, all completely natural and joyous; and eating; and quiet moments; and people who are angry from selfishness and angry from being done wrong; and people who have buried their hurts for a long, long time and see them rising at last to the surface like, well, a body will after it has filled with enough gas from decomposing. But not in a peat bog; never in that deadest water will a body rise again. And just for a moment of amazement we have not just a life rabbit but a goose on stage, and miracle of miracles and actual living baby, because life does actually make that full circle even if we don’t see it on stage.

But in this play, we do; we see beginning to end; we see the outcome of what men’s hands wrought and women can choose to untangle or spin into a noose. It was all a tremendous emotional journey (I cried a bit) and at its end, with nearly three and one half hours on my feet, stuffed in a corner, as barely there as Aunt Maggie in her chair, I felt not a moment’s exhaustion, but just that exultation that I have but rarely felt at the end of a truly tremendous show given its all by a team of spectacular talent, and I felt grateful that I could have been there and shared that long moment with them all.

(This review is for the performance that took place on Monday, May 15th, 2017. Tonight is its last night at the Royal Court before it transfers to The Gielgud. Do not hesitate to make your ticket purchase now.)

Review -Magic Flute – Charles Court Opera at Kings Head Theater

May 15, 2017

Walking into the King’s Head Theater, I was amazed to see the space fully transformed. The exit doors were still in place, but look! We stood inside a jungle! Creepers twined up the walls, ferns sprouted from the railings, and an inpenetrable canopy of leaves blocked the ceiling from view. Combined with the normal damp and warmth of this enclosed space, it was very much like being in the Amazon … or perhaps somewhere on a mountainside in New Guinea. It was wholly exotic, and a marvellous concept for a Magic Flute. I had no idea what else Charles Court Opera had in store for us, but I was very excited to be finding out!

Our Tamino (Oliver Brignall) was an intrepid English explorer who has been caught by three ladies (Jennifer Begley, Sarah Champion, Polly Leach) who’ve mistaken him for a wild animal. Amusingly, each finds him attractive and hopes to discourage the others so as to get him for herself … but they all scatter, leaving Papageno (Matthew Kellet) to arrive, birdcage in tow, to get the credit for rescuing Tamino.

And then, well, you know, we have the rest of the show, which generally follows closely to the original but has a lot of clever rhymes (occasionally slangy) thrown in that make it a pleasure to listen to – important as we’re not given any supertitles to crib us through it. Being forced to pay attention to what they singers are saying as well as whether or not they hit the notes – well, that was a change! There were occasional problems with following the words – the Queen of the Night (Nicola Said) had particularly bad diction in her spoken dialogue, and occasionally when a character had their back turned to my side of the audience, I couldn’t catch what they were saying – but overall, forcing us to listen, well! I felt like, for once, the audience was really engaged, and not just watching a concert.

A most terrifying Queen of the Night

The Magic Flute, Hannah Sawle as The Queen of the Night, photo Bill Night


Costuming and special effects isn’t really what Magic Flute is supposed to be about, but there was so much charm and surprise in Charles Court’s interpretation that it’s impossible to remain silent on the subject. The use of a trio of bird puppets to discourage Papageno (and Pamina, Emily Jane Thomas) from self-harming … the hysterical creepy giant Papagena puppet … the REAL FLAMES that were brought out when it was time for Tamino to face his trials … the tattoos down the Queen of the Night’s chin … the overall effect, of jungly savage scariness really amplified the dichotomy the story was trying to pull out, of a contrast between light and darkness, between civilization and superstition. And it made it possible for the magic, for once, to seem real. In fact, it was real: it was stage magic of the highest order, done on a cheese paring budget but with all of the “gouda” things left intact. And if you think that pun was uncalled for, well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you. This is without doubt the most imaginative interpretation of the Magic Flute I’ve ever seen and the wordplay only made it better. Go!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, May 12th, 2017. It continues through June 4th and is already mostly sold out so GET ON IT.)

Review – Oh Yes Oh No – Louise Orwin at Camden People’s Theater

May 10, 2017

You know that thing where there’s a really great show you only barely heard about before it completely sold out? Yeah. This is one of them. As of the time I am writing this review, Oh Yes Oh No only had four tickets left for tonight. Yes, tonight. It’s sold out tomorrow. So this, loyal readers, is your heads up. Dash away online before you finish reading this and get your ticket purchased, or make the attempt to do waitlisting for the final performances of Oh Yes Oh No. If you want a night of theater that made you feel like you just got a blackjack to the back of the head, Louise Orwin’s one person show is it.

I did not know what to expect from this show. I thought I was going to get to hear someone talk about how wanting to be female and sexual, or sexually submissive, isn’t really approved in our society. These things are (mostly) true. But I thought it was going to be funny, an idea I stuck to even more strongly when I saw there were Barbie dolls on stage. What I didn’t expect was to be pulled into someone else’s dark nightmare populated by horrors inflicted internally and externally, by society, men and her/your/the self. You are told you can run away, but you will not. You will want to sit there until the end. You will want to see that there will be an end.

In the world of SM, sex is play and people engage in fantasies that are discussed and consented to beforehand. But the character of this play has a problem. What she likes – being hit, being choked, being hurt so much it’s nearly dangerous – seems wrong. And for her, there’s a double bind, because these things have been done to her in a situation where she did not consent. She was attacked She was raped. And now, she has to deal with the fact that she can both be seen as asking for it because she fantasized about violence and objectification, and of being in the horrible situation of not being able to ask for it any more … that is, to not be able to ask for what she finds hot. Being raped takes away way more choices than I might ever have thought.

Orwin makes many of these elements come to life in her show in the oddest ways. She pulls a member of the audience in to participate (we had a lovely leather jacketed short haired woman radiating all sorts of androgyny), and while they are asked if they consented, their answers are read off of cards. It plays with consent and in some ways highlights the fact that in a sexual situation, you might give your consent, but you may actually do so unwillingly … because you’re saying what you have to say to keep yourself safe. Because, actually, saying no and being hurt less may be a better option. I’m sorry, this is true. I’m sorry this is true. It is true. It just simply is.

Overhead, at times, we get to hear the voices of women talking about rape, about their rapes, about how it affected them, about how they remember it, about how it has changed their fantasy life, about how people think it should change them. But these aren’t all there is to this show. We have Barbie and Ken re-enacting sexual desire in a “safe” space, a “play” space, a space where dolls can spread their legs and bounce against each other and it’s all laughs. It’s a space that doesn’t reflect real life, where the people who prey on women are all so often their friends and acquaintances. We can walk away from the dolls. Barbie doesn’t cry and she isn’t hurt. It’s all fun.

As the show evolves, we are forced to accept Orwin’s statements, that she can want to be horribly treated and love it, with the fact that victim treatment struggles with shaming and the implicit belief that if you like a good smack in the face, you’re damaged, somehow. It’s a complex piece to navigate from the inside, but everything, honestly, all fell together so well from the outside. The struggle she faced was so real. I’ve never seen this subject handled on stage before and it was both moving and poignant, and clever and insightful as a staged work, hitting on so many levels.

I could go on at length. I could write a thesis on this show. But I’m just going to stop now, while there are still four tickets left, and tell you: go.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, May 9th, 2017. It closes May 11th.)

Review – Coming Clean: Life as a Naked House Cleaner – HOTBED Festival, Camden People’s Theater

May 6, 2017

So if you were going to go out for a fun night with a girlfriend, what would be you idea of a great date? For the many ladies who crowded the living room of an anonymous house (charmingly decorated with typewriters and old board games – really, it was like a movie set) in Bounds Green, it was clear that watching a handsome gay man explain to us the tips and tricks of housecleaning – while naked – was absolutely an ideal way to spend the evening. It became even nicer as we were handed glasses of prosecco. Our performer was still striding around fully clothed – greeting each of us and requesting us to fill out a quick survey – but, hey, it did seem very likely he might take off his clothes. The atmosphere was extremely convivial – how could anything go wrong? Coming Clean seemed like it was to be a dream come true!

This was true for us as we enjoyed the lap of luxury – Ethan Mechare kept us very well fed, and we were allowed to bring our own drinks as well – but Ethan’s story about his experiences in the dangerous underground of paid hourly labor was a source of likely nightmares for many of us. Well, it could have been – he’s certainly suffered enough sexual harassment on the job to keep an entire building full of lawyers running full-tilt – but in story after story we were kept laughing and on the edge of our seats. Who could have ever known the strange secrets of an east end cabbie? Just how many edge “philias” and “philes” were out there (not to mention hiding in full sight in the audience)? And why did they think they could most easily get them satisfied by calling a naked house cleaner out to try them out on?

Ethan’s story was punctuated and threaded together by his own passions – Oprah, cleanliness, showing off – but he made sure to add in lots of juicy extras that kept us all on tenterhooks. A real highlight for me – or perhaps we should say a “memorable moment” – came when he was discussing a client who wanted him to watch a little internet clip with him. Innocent enough – only it was from a site called Cakefarting.com. We were also shown this clip and let me say I have not been so shocked in the theater since Kim Noble showed a video of himself taking a crap in a church. The whole room was in a state of near riot and my mind was polluted in a way I will never be able to undo. It led me to hysterical reveries about what it meant when Ethan’s clients asked if he was “discreet.” A lot of times it’s a code for “are you obviously gay,” but I wondered if, for that client, it was a way of asking if there were any visible signs of cake on Ethan’s body – a little chocolate icing in the waistband of the trousers, a bit of crumbs clinging to his socks – the possibilities were endless.

In the end, I’m pleased to say, our performer did share with us what his clients paid (ever so much more) to see, only as a cherry on the (dare I say it) cake rather than as the body (did it again) of the performance. The whole thing was warm and merry and really just a completely lovely night out – I can hardly recommend it enough!

(This review is of a performance that took place May 5th, 2017. The final night of this performance in the Hotbed Festival is May 6 but it will be transferring to Brighton. Drinking before and during this show is highly recommended, but leave your hangups behind.)

Review – Bridle – Clamour Theater at Camden People’s Theater

May 1, 2017

Bridle” was billed as a “satire on feminine sexuality, and the attempts to control it.” It started out with three women kind of dancing on stage, dressed in somewhat sexy clothes, but wearing rubber horse heads. I wondered if we were going to go into some kind of long exposition on pony play, but no such luck; my companion looked around nervously then whispered in my ear that when he was in uni, his friends used to drop acid and run around the house wearing rubber horse heads just like the ones the actresses had on. As it turns out, neither of us were on the right track at all. I was distracted shortly in by a voice overhead that seemed to be telling the three women they’d been arrested for various inappropriate behaviors, such as sending naked photos via cell phone … I was thinking, is this the logical extension of the “extreme pornography” act, which criminalized depictions of many different forms of women’s sexual pleasure? Were we going to be facing the logical results of banning all of these things?

Well … no, that wasn’t the case, either, and while the police element came back it was all clearly purely metaphorical (although at the end I was wondering if one of the characters had started stalking her boyfriend). What we had here was the kind of things I discuss with my best friend all of the time. Why isn’t it okay for me to laugh loud and be the center of attention? Why are women supposed to be demure? Why do men persist in the virgin/whore dichotomy? Why does it feel like enjoying sex is something to be ashamed off? Seriously, it’s the 21st fucking century, why is everything still so backwards, and why does being female feel like such a restraint on our ability to genuinely express ourselves, our desires, our goals, and our wants? Why is being sexually positive still seen as a bad thing? AAARGH!

The three characters told little narratives, sometimes together, sometimes alone, often times talking to a voice (there were several) from overhead. They talked about sexual expression, laughing, the censure of other women, wanting things that you know aren’t good for you, being in sexual situations that are not positive but are still hot: a mixture of good bad, and messy, but all feeling very real about the territory that is how women really experience our lives. Yeah, being choked seems very “oh how can this be consensual,” but, if it is, seriously, who’s business is it? And yet we go through the days with people constantly looking over our shoulders, twitching their curtains, and judging us: are we good girls or bad, are we behaving ourselves or out of control, are we asking for it or being sad losers and begging for it. No matter what, it seems when it comes to female sexuality, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid being judged.

The show itself didn’t make any judgments on its characters; they were allowed to exist in their complexity without comment. But to me the message seemed clear; from your friends to your relatives, to your boyfriends to your neighbors; as a woman, it’s an endless fight to be true to yourself, and you can almost never be honest in any way without falling prey to a host of negativity and corrections about what the “right” behavior ought to be. We don’t get answers on how to change things; but this show is a start for a discussion about learning to be honest and learning to step away from what “society” thinks is right and head toward a more authentic examination about how women really are … without the bridles on.

(This review is for a performance that took place on 26 April 2017 as a part of the Camden People’s Theater’s inaugural “Hotbed” festival.)