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Review – Follies – National Theater

September 3, 2017

Imagine going into an attic, and finding a dusty Faberge egg. You open it, and inside is a music box, two keys broken. You wind it up and it starts playing pretty music while little jeweled characters whirl around in the semi-darkness. This is Follies. The story concerns a reunion of old showgirls in a crumbling Broadway theater; they reminisce about the old times, do some numbers in the guise of reliving memories, and perform a few things together as their current selves while the shadow of their past mirror them in the wings and disintegrating dressing rooms. Eventually the story focuses on two couples, Sally and Buddy Plummer (Imelda Staunton and Peter Forbes) and Phyllis and Benjamin Stone (Janie Dee and Philip Quast), whose lives have not quite matched the hopes they had back when the girls were on stage and the boys were wooing them. This leads to an entire suite of “The Follies” of these four people … which has a total “jumped the shark” feel to it, but hey, it’s a musical, when do these things make sense? If Sondheim was tired of writing songs in the style of old vaudeville numbers and wanted to do more emotional reveals, that suited me fine. And the dance numbers from this section were just completely nuts – probably closer to what an actual review would have been like back in the day but something I’d really never seen on stage – only in the movies.
faberge-egg
Are you reading this to decide whether or not to go? Then open a new tab and just get yourself some tickets now, because if you love musicals of the Sondheim variety, then you probably already knew you had to go and just wanted confirmation. I’m doing that. You’re confirmed. And remember the National releases rush seats every Friday for the next week’s show for 20 quid – so if it’s sold out by the time you read this, it’s not in fact too late – you just need to jump on the ticket buying next Friday. (And please remember it’s 2:10 no interval so save your wine for after the show.)

To me, the genius of this production is doing this show in London, where assembling some ten or so top shelf actresses who are out of the ingenue era is as easy as grabbing a handful of sweeties out of a candy barrel, and we, the audience, come out winners (while the actresses get some damned fine material to work with). Our cornucopia of theatrical riches spills out on stage, greatly enhanced by the National’s shameless expediture on brilliant costumes for the “young” versions of the various actresses – Miss 1930, Miss 1925, et cetera – which we get to sit and enjoy as they glimmer and shimmy behind or alongside their modern (1971) counterparts.

The various conceits – of having musical numbers done from this classic era of stage, of shifting the story between the “girls” and the two couples, of having all of the characters represented by both their modern and their much younger selves – does so much to structure this show that it feels like it teeters of the edge of having just gone too far but ends up feeling masterful. We are just as much in the hands of a person who is on top of their game as I was earlier this year at The Ferryman. And the four leads were … well, actually, I do have a bit of a beef, because although I came to see Imelda Staunton, I felt that as Sally Plummer she was too one note. Sure, the character is a bit unhinged, and yeah Ms Staunton can dance and sing, but … I thought there were more depths to be found, somewhere, especially by such a skilled actress as Staunton. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe Sally was just written that way. But as consolation we have the magnificent “Losing My Mind” … and Janie Dee’s “Could I Leave You” … and, my God, just SO MANY GOOD SONGS.

I know. I’m just a blogger. I’ve let you down. There are better words I could use to describe this show. But mind this: I have already bought a ticket to go back. And when I sat there watching it, goosebumps raced over my skin, and I thought, “My God, this is it, an honest to God five star show, perfection incarnate, and I am here seeing it at the National and people will be talking about this show for years.” I know I will.

(This review is of a preview performance that too place on August 30th, 2017. Follies is running through January 3rd, 2018.)

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Review – The Mentor – Vaudeville Theater

July 26, 2017

Walking down The Strand on my way to a show, I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of new plays on that I’d overlooked. Look, right next door to Kinky Boots, a show called The Mentor, about which, seriously, not a peep. Now I know I’ve been keeping a low profile due to “cheap” meaning “no seats at all,” but it seemed odd that there was a show on the West End that had managed to completely fly beneath my radar. Half of what’s on right now is just last spring’s leftovers, and there’s a huge changeover happening as shows like The Girls and Beautiful end their runs. I did a bit of research – it was an 85 minute comedy about two playwrights having a clash of egos. Well, hell, I’m writing plays, why not come? If it had been in real life I would have paid solid money for it – much like I would have to have seen Stoppard and Pinter playing cricket.

The idea behind this play is that two men, an established playwright, Benjamin Rubin (F Murray Abraham) – who has done little of note since his first, tremendous play – and a up-and-coming playwright, Martin Wegner (Daniel Weyman), are being brought together courtesy of an arts organization that wants to raise its profile by getting a “mentorship” program established. Neither men seems to relish the actual “mentoring;” the older one is only there for the money and the younger one is just hoping to get a boost to his reputation. Meanwhile, apparently because there wasn’t enough dialogue to flesh the play out otherwise, we have two additional characters, the foundation’s representative (Jonathan Cullen) and the playwright’s wife, Gina (Naomi Frederick), who are given very little to say. Gina bigs up the elder playwright and gives her husband a foil, although she does manage to come into her own; poor Cullen has nearly nothing to do besides look hopeful and make beverages. Still, the addition of Gina to the plot makes the struggle between Rubin and Wegner far more visceral that it would have been if they were just discussing realism versus, er, non-linearism; Rubin wants to win this game on a more than literary platform.

While Rubin as a character is so well written and well played that the entire exercise seems to swirl around him – he is, after all, “the mentor” – the egotism, fragility, and, well, whiny man-baby aspects of his mentee are also a delight to see spattered on the stage. There’s little discussion of what actually makes a good play (I would have enjoy this) but much about how one survives in the creative world – whether by living off of one’s wife, using one’s artistic nature as a club to control others, finding the best way to make people laugh at parties, or by constant self-pimping – that provide unflattering insights into the actual life of artists as well as giving the audience plenty of comedy fodder. In the end, The Mentor seemed a slight play, but well done in its smallish form – a sort of perfect after work snack. Not every night is meant for Virginia Woolf or Hamlet; The Mentor is short and sweet and suited me nicely.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, July 21, 2017.)

Klanghaus – 800 Breaths – Royal Festival Hall

July 14, 2017

At about 7:30 Wednesday evening, I was standing on the rooftop of the Royal Festival Hall, noticing how I could see Saint Paul’s, Big Ben, and the Shard (as well as the front view of Waterloo Station!) when a gray haired woman turned to me and said, “Can you explain to me what that was about?” And “that” was Klanghaus 2017, a promenade gig/visuals/let’s explore the non-public spaces of the Royal Festival Hall event we had both just done. (Technically it’s “800 Breaths” but since there was one last year and one this year I think 2017 is the name that will stick.)

Only now it’s you asking, so imagine I’m facing you, in the sunshine and holding a limed glass of fizzy water, and saying,

“Well, it’s kind of like a chance to explore these unseen parts of this really great building, right? I mean, if you’re into brutalist architecture, which I am, or industrial spaces, which I also am. And by putting music into them, and having us walk from place to place, we’re getting to see places nobody ever goes to and experience them, right? And by putting music and visuals into these forgotten places they are ‘activating’ them, bringing them to life, so we got to see them in a way we never really could have even if you ignore the fact that we would never get to come to these places in the first place.

“But it was also kind of a gig, right? A chance to hear the music that this band plays. And I don’t think they wrote a whole bunch of new songs or music to go with what we were doing, so really in was form adapting to content and not the other way around. “Skywriting” for sure, only “Breathe in/breathe out,” just before we got out of the hot stuffy bit to the outside, that was a really nice one. So it was a bit about experiencing the space, a bit about enjoying the music. If you don’t like the architecture or the music then maybe it wouldn’t be such a great thing for you. But I liked it.”

So if I were talking to you, an undecided potential audience member, I’d want you to know that if you’re a fan of The Neutrinos (who perform music while we watch) or funky industrial architecture, you’re going to want to hustle to get tickets. And since you’ll be going up stairs, down a ladder, and just plain old standing; seriously, wear comfy shoes, no dresses, and refuse the offer of earplugs at your peril (the first room was so loud you could feel the air moving against your face).

But there’s more; the visuals provided by Sal Pittman. I sat entranced by a whirling propeller … or was it a drumstick? And later surrounded by a cocoon of music I stared down a hallway watching a flower open and close … open and close …. its organic perfection in complete contrast to the green, aging machinery framing it … like sailing in The Phantom of the Opera’s boat, but through the byways of Metropolis instead of the catacombs of Paris. 

And there was one tiny moment of ecstasy, when we fellow travelers all huddled under a low ceiling, and our musicians sang unamplified and in harmony, with a bass plucked along nearly sub-audibly, like a lonely elephant calling to its herd, and over my head a diver swam up, up, up to the air, in search of … the cool fresh air we were all about to walk into. It was so intimate and so lovely and so untethered from time and any reality. It was wholly now and us together and so … effervescent. And I didn’t really know how to pop out of the reality of explaining “what it all meant” and find words to convey that moment, but it was there and I was there and it was just perfect. 

( This review is for the 6:30 performance that took place on Wednesday, July 12, 2017. Last year’s performance sold out so buy now.)

Review – Queen Anne – Royal Shakespeare Company at Theater Royal Haymarket

July 12, 2017

As a blogger, I don’t usually get invitations to West End shows, so it was hard to not say yes to an opportunity to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Queen Anne here in Londoninium. I was also intrigued by the subject matter, a modern treatment of a lesser monarch (by Helen Edmundson), and given that I’ve recently been to Blenheim Palace (for the Max Richter concert of music from Woolf Works) there was some additional interest for me. And the RSC is a rare treat for me, as I don’t usually travel to see shows and their tickets when they’re in London are not inexpensive. I expected high quality acting, costuming, and sets … the question would be how is the play?

The set for this show was gorgeously simple, an arched double level wall that from the top occasionally served as windows or balconies and from the bottom, the doors to various rooms. But most of the action took place in bedrooms – usually that of the princess and later queen, Anne (Emma Cunniffe), although also that of her closest friend and confidante, the Duchess of Marlborough (Romola Garai). It is in the interaction of these two women that most of the play’s plot is twined, although there is also some forward motion brought to play by the distant cousin (Abigail – Beth Park) that the Duchess (Sarah) has placed in the queen’s household. It’s interesting to see how close both women are to the queen – while the Duchess advises (and cajoles) on politics in contrast to Abigail’s job of changing the bandages on Anne’s suppurating legs, they both sleep in her bed regularly and provide as much emotional support as they do practical. There’s also a hint of a more sexual tone to Sarah’s relationship with the Queen, although it seems to be of far less import than the fact that the poor monarch endured 17 pregnancies with no surviving children to show for her efforts.

Anne’s personal tragedies – the loss of so many children, her own bad health, and the death of her husband midway through her reign – are certainly remarkable, but the historic times in which she lived, with ongoing Catholic versus Protestant conflict, substantial wars abroad, and the battle for Scotland via “The Great Pretender” are of such import that the story of her impact as a monarch is just as weighty a story and one well worth being told on stage. We get a fair amount of detail about the War of Spanish Succession (including financing thereof) and the maneuvering to get peace with Scotland; all of which are most welcome to see covered on stage. Even better is the Whig versus Tory split which makes itself known in attempts to influence Anne to pick one versus another to advice her cabinet. And yet, for some reason, the author of this play chose to focus on … Sarah’s temper tantrums when she thinks Abigail is now more popular with the queen than she is?

Really?

All of this history and suddenly we’re watching Mean Girls?

What makes it even worse is that neither the political wisdom Sarah Churchill must have had through close contact with her husband (or which she shared with him!) nor the relationship that Anne would have had with her own husband (who must have taken some interest in the country he lived in!) receive much attention at all. The broadsheets that mocked the queen get some attention, but a play just about how they worked behind the scenes to rake mud seems like a more intriguing yarn. Instead, we watch these two women play out one-note lives – Anne as Eeyore and Sarah as Regina George – while Abigail is entirely ignored as a plot opportunity. Cunniffe probably could have eked a bit more out of Anne but ultimately this is a case where the blame falls firmly at the writer’s feet. People interested in filling an evening with a learning a bit of history may find this show passable; but it is far from a classic. Let us hope the misadventures of the pamphleteers get their chance at some point in the future.

(This review is for the performance that took place on Tuesday, July 11,  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.)

Review – Sweat – Studio 54

April 13, 2017

American factory workers look over their shoulder at how the world has fallen apart around them. Two of them know their destroyed lives are because of their own actions; but the greater disruption birthing their newly rotten lives has been forces beyond their control. It’s Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, which Bill Brantley says ” is the first work from a major American playwright to summon, with empathy and without judgment, the nationwide anxiety that helped put Donald J. Trump in the White House.” That’s a pretty broad claim, but I’m not going to dispute it; this play is timely in all the ways theater aspires to be – grabbing the neck of the rabbit with greyhound speed and shake, shake, shaking it in front of our transfixed eyes. But underneath the explosion of now is a play I feel suffers from serious structural flaws. It is not just watchable but fascinating, yet, let the scales of our collective trauma fall away from our eyes and we see Sweat sacrifices truth and dramatic legs in exchange for easy answers and audience friendly resolutions. Let me convince you.

First, I want to talk about what is right about this play. First, the ensemble just completely hits it. Not a bit about their performances left me disbelieving in their characters. We have three female workers (at what I believe is a pipe plant): Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), her best friend Tracey (Johanna Day), and Jessie (Alison Wright); Cynthia and Tracey’s sons, who also work at the factory; and bartender Stan (James Colby), who, alongside Cynthia’s sort of ex-husband Brucie (John Earl Jelks) serves as a sort of wake-up call about the human cost of factory work: Stan was injured so badly he was paid out, but not enough, while Brucie has been laid off and just can’t seem to get his life together anymore. All of them drink a fair bit; none of them seem to get a whole lot of joy out of life; the lot of them value their friendships with each other quite highly. Work is unpleasant but a source of identity; and without it, we start to slip into the cracks. Leaving the factory for something else, like Cynthia’s son Chris (Khris Davis) is talking about? That’s turning your back on your clan, on your family, on what you’ve all worked for. You’ve got the factory and your future and past if you have the job. The cast makes that feel real; the self-lies and shortsightedness of just one or two generations of stability feel very much like a reality you, as an audience member, can buy into. And the stories they tell, of a grandfather who worked with his hands to carve beautiful things, of dreams to travel the world that never came to fruition, seem like tiny slices of reality all working together to construct a believable world.

Nottage works hard to create characters we can invest and believe in. The easy friendship between Chris and Jason (Will Pullen), based on drinking and basketball and working together, slides seamlessly across any color barrier; ditto Cynthia’s friendship with Jason’s mom Tracey, built on years of slogging together and shared experience. And for both pairs, we get to see the children being responsible as their parents struggle – dramatically speaking, something I’ve seen rarely but am too familiar with in real life. But, in the play, as things start to tighten up, suddenly the question of race rises to the front and people start to talk about each other as being in competition. The busboy at the bar, Oscar (Carlo Alban), is suddenly seen as a foreign intruder, despite being a US citizen; and the ties that had formed over years start to fall apart.

But … but … drip by drip, story by story, the reasons that accumulate for why these people’s lives fall apart start to feel like a narrative that’s been pasted on top of a real situation to provide answers that, I honestly feel, were palatable ones for the audience present. Why did people lose their jobs? NAFTA. Why has racism risen in America? Not enough jobs to go around. Why didn’t people in factory jobs retrain for other stuff? They were discouraged to leave their community by their friends. Why the rise in anti-immigrant hysteria? Actually, let’s pick this apart.

So as this play tells it, the rise in hatred against immigrants was caused by the perception that they were “moving to America and taking our jobs away.” But as set up by Nottage, the “immigrant” in this case is someone who is an American citizen. So I ask: what is it that makes people decide to ignore this kind of truth? How could Tracey choose to ignore a job posting Oscar shows her that makes it clear people are being recruited in to the jobs at the plant at lower wages? How could Tracey really deceive herself about her ability to deal with her friend being promoted and make it be about race instead of skill or personality fit? You have to ignore a lot about what has gone on in the last ten years to make such facile conclusions about the origins of the divides that exist in America today, and while I agree that it’s been NAFTA that has decimated the health of the American working class, the rise in racism and anti-immigrant hysteria does not have such similarly simple origins.

But that’s what we’re given, A happened and caused B, and of course it’s very clearly delineated. This simplicity goes through to the ending of the play, which to my mind was just like a group hug after a therapy session – it felt nice but it felt inappropriate and off kilter and just way, way too easy. And that’s how I left this play, feeling like there were some really important subjects that needed to be addressed, but I’d just been given simple answers from one point of view that I didn’t even think represented my point of view much less reality. I mean, maybe even the belief that people can be color blind in a society of plenty was just an illusion I had in the 90s. Maybe we can really never work together. And maybe people always slip to drugs and violence when they’re poor. I just don’t think our stories and our world is as easy to understand as this play makes it out to be. And for that reason, I think that Sweat, while fully embedded in the world of today, is not going to wind up having dramatic legs, because it’s the questions that remain unanswered, the ones we take home with us, that are left out. We are not living in a facile world and we don’t need to be spoonfed easy answers like we, the audience members of today, are children. Push us more. Make us question ourselves. We need it.

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Saturday, April 8, 2016.)