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

May 1, 2017 by

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 by

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.)

Review – Miss Nightingale – Mr Bugg Presents at The Vaults (Waterloo)

April 9, 2017 by

The evening after I went to see Miss Nightingale, I was talking to a friend who works in burlesque. “I went to a show about queer love in World War II last night!” I told her. “It had boys kissing and saucy songs and everything! And it was set in a nightclub!” She was sold. And while there is much more to this show than my elevator speech contains, those few sentences capture much of what there is to love about the new musical that is Miss Nightingale. For those who won’t like its themes, well, they’ve probably already run off. But if you’re looking to make up your mind about whether or not to go, let me tell you more.

It’s the 1940s, in England. Injured air ace and war hero Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe (Nicholas Coutu-Langmead) has decided that running a nightclub would be just the thing. With rationing, there’s a lot of shady characters running around … including Tom (Niall Kerrigan), who’s sourcing booze from parts unknown. They meet to do a deal, and the mobster has his girlfriend Maggie (Tamar Broadbent) audition. Suddenly Sir Frank has found the entertainment for his venue … a blonde northern lass who works as a nurse by day and a singer of bawdy songs by night … a real (Florence) Nightingale. She gets her tunes from George (Conor O’Kane), a Polish pianist who … good heavens, does Sir Frank know him? And do they have the hots for each other? And are they going to somehow maneuveur the heavily mined waters of gay love during the era when it was a ticket to a jail sentence, not to mention social ostracism? Why yes they are … but not without a few spectacular crashes (and kisses) on the way.

Nicholas Coutu-Langmead & Conor O'Kane in Miss Nightingale Photo, Robert Workman

Nicholas Coutu-Langmead & Conor O’Kane in Miss Nightingale Photo, Robert Workman

Although the romance between Frank and George provides a nice structure for the show, most of the fun is actually in the scenes where Broadbent is front and center, entertaining the punters (both real and imaginary). Her sassy songs, about “shutting my pussy in the door,” “getting your sausage where you can” and other single-entendre subjects, provided lots of laughs and were even more fun done as a 1940s musical revue. But there was much more music than just that, as we had several songs developing Frank and George’s romance, providing character insights on Nightingale, and generally fleshing out the entire show as a musical. All of this was done with a live band on stage staffed by the various performers, whose skills include drumming, piano, triangle, ukelele, and a host of other instruments.

Miss Nightingale whoops it up for the troops Photo Robert Workman

There’s some tension introduced via…. wait, no, I’ll skip that spoiler! The various plot twists seemed a bit B-movie, but the theme (gay romance in WWII) and the decision to have a Northern girl as the big star won me over (even if Nightingale herself needed a bit more fleshing out). And it’s really a war story that I haven’t seen told before …. maybe the setting is forced or hard to believe, but given the attention that’s been paid to the fiftieth anniversary of the decision to decriminalize homosexuality in the UK, it feels like a story we’re all ready to hear. People in the 1940s were gay just like they are now, but the people who told stories back in the day didn’t talk about this. It’s time, and Miss Nightingale is a fun look back at what might have been as well as a reminder of what most certainly was. I suspect they’ll be finding more than just a few show biz types in their audience as it progresses; we do love us a good night out, after all.

(Miss Nightingale The Musical continues at The Vaults until May 20th. This review was for a performance that took place April 5th. Remember for this show the entrance is from a side street of Lower Marsh, so don’t get lost trying to access the normal tunnel like I did.)

Review – The Caravan Society – National Trust’s Queer City pop up members’ bar

March 29, 2017 by

The period between the end of the Christmas revels and Easter is a bit of a dead time theatrically speaking. I mean, sure, there’s been a couple of big openings (Almeida’s Hamlet – all sold out; Old Vic’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – good enough; Imelda Staunton in Virginia Woolf – a bit long) but nothing earthshaking. Into this wasteland (by London standards, and I am spoiled) strutted a glimmer of hope in the odd guise of the National Trust, hosting a Marchtime celebration called Queer City London, which appeared to be some daytime walks accompanied by some rather vague evening shenanigans at some place called The Caravan Society. When the tickets went on sale, I wasn’t really entirely sure what this “club” was going to be, so I got a variety of tickets – to a tour, to an evening opening with no program, and to one of the Queer City Nights series of “talks, debates and performances” that came with a slightly higher price tag. The evening events appeared to be selling out under my feet … and I was just getting my tickets 15 minutes after they had gone on sale! Good God, what kind of madness was this? Had I inadvertently come upon the hottest event of the London spring calendar?

The tour of historic queer Soho was great for context on what life was like in London before the decriminalization of homosexuality. But given that all of the ticketed evening events were at a recreation of “The Caravan Society” – one of the clubs regularly raided during the bad old days – I have to say I wasn’t really feeling very optimistic based on the unimpressive preview of the space we had at the end of our walk. Some couches against a wall, a bit of drapery hanging from the ceiling – we were supposed to believe that this was the “pouf’s brothel” so hatefully described in the old police papers? The little table with a bit of makeup on it and some photostat letters just did nothing for me. It was like trying to imagine a fantastic roast dinner from a dried up bone. It wasn’t even the same building as the original Caravan Society. I felt let down.

But I held out hope for what would grow when it was night time, the venue was filled with cheerful people, and the lovely MC Ralph Bogard was working at stirring up some magic. And when I came back on Thursday night – cheekily asking for a ticket at the door – I suddenly found myself in a vibrant, warm, boundary-erasing environment that was everything I could have hoped for and more.

The room was dimly lit, hazy (with dry ice fog, not smoke), and something lovely was playing through the gramophone. We slid onto a tucked-away couch and immediately struck up a conversation with the people sharing our nook. Why hello! What brings you here? And how do you get a drink …?

While we were still getting ourselves settled, the Master of Ceremonies took the stage to announce the Caravan Carousel, which required us to …. gasp … get up and start conversations with TOTAL STRANGERS. How un-English! And yet people went for it easily, and goodness only knows there were many, many people there that looked well worth talking to … what a nice excuse to go say hello! So off we went, canoodling and carousing, finding that a space that struggled to hold 50 people was far more full of life and interest than you would have ever expected just based on math.

Then it was time for performances. I saw several performers over the many evenings I attended (because oh yes I did go back), ranging from the debonair Dorian Black to the extremely tasty Mister Meredith and the lubricious “Mercury” (both of whom wound up wearing considerably less clothing than when they started) … not to mention Lili LaScala, Tricity Vogue, and whoever that half-naked dancing boy was they had in on closing night. VA VA VOOM. In between their numbers – danced on the small raised platforms in the middle of the room, but also done amongst us – indeed there was a real focus on audience interaction – the performers mingled and visited and spoke to us hoi polloi as if they were one of us. Oof!
But …. but maybe we were! Because one of the other fabulous features of the Caravan Society is that we, the audience, were asked to contribute to the evening’s entertainment with our various “party tricks” (as Mr Bogard called them when he circulated amongst us attempting to tease out a predilection for showmanship). And people did! I heard limericks and regular poetry, watched people do the splits and handstands, heard songs … what a wonderful bunch of talent we all had! We were encouraged to participate with the promise of a box of chocolates at the end, but could there have possibly have been a better reward that the approbation and admiration of our fellow society members? It didn’t seem possible. Even the bar staff and doormen were effusive with the few and the brave … who would not want that tiny moment of stardust? It made all of us glow a little brighter to have so much of it to share.

The evening ended each night I attended with a mock police raid – just whistles and the talent being hustled down the back stairs, while a voice overhead recited a plea to be released … and sent home with one of the “nice boys” in blue. In retrospect, The Caravan Society was a fun night with a clever concept that well repaid its trivial ticket price. And yet … I felt it was more than that. The tour had talked about clubs where clearly people were looking for more than just a place to drink; a place where they could be in their community and not continuing the pretense they used as a shelter in their everyday lives. A place where you could wear lipstick and nail polish and not be beat up or shunned … a place to drop the mask and maybe make a few new friends. I know that feeling; I spend my life pretending to be a nice married lady but I can’t be honest about my life or where my heart lies in my day to day life. Society wants you to keep a cork in it and not talk about feelings or not fitting in; we’re just supposed to suck it up. And let’s be honest, even while being gay (in the big cities at least) has become more acceptable, even within the community there is bashing on people for being too effeminate, inappropriately bisexual, or just generally not fitting tightly enough into some box that people find a comfortable way to categorize.

But once upon a time, it was all of us against all of the people that wanted us to stay in the closet, keep our mouths shut, and pretend like we fitted in. We had to support each other. We need to support each other still. And in this fantastic space of queerness, the Caravan Society of 2017 brought us back to our roots; one community, supporting each other in our diversity, uniqueness, imperfections, and mutual realization that We Just Aren’t Like Them. And for those few nights, a comet blazed across Soho, and all of us had a place where we could be glorious together and set the world on fire. We had the Caravan Society, and I can only hope that its light shines on into the rest of this year.

(Apologies to any performers I did not get to see or mention. Thank you to the wonderful reprobates who made this venue come to life. This was one of the best things I’ve ever done in the ten years I lived in London and I loved every moment of what you created.)

Review – Lizzie – Federicia Teater at Greenwich Theater

February 26, 2017 by

So logic dictates I should be writing about Imelda Staunton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

… but I have something more exciting to tell you about. See, you don’t need me to say yea or nay on a big show like that, you need me to tell you:


Oh, wait. You don’t know what I’m talking about. Okay, backstory: there’s a ROCK musical, a new one, happening in Greenwich right now. It’s based on the story of Lizzie Borden, the infamous 19th century American axe murderess (“gave her mother forty whacks,” etc). It is presented with four women who radiate rage, lust, fear, and a complete willingness to have fun with the metal genre all while singing like black canaries in a blood covered cage. I mean, how can you not feel the tension when you walk in and see the entire front row of the audience is wearing raincoats? When I arrived (late!), Lizzie (Bjorg Gamst) and her best friend Alice (Bleu Woodward) were rocking out in their leg-of-mutton sleeves in a way that was causing me so much cognitive dissonance I wanted to laugh and cheer at the same time. I don’t remember lesbian undertones to the original narrative, but WHY THE HELL NOT and hey, they actually did period appropriate dresses!

The whole thing from the start reminded me of an Emily Autumn show, only much more tongue in cheek and with some AWESOME FUCKING ROCK SONGS. I mean, the songs also really created character and moved the story forward, showing us the relationship between the Borden sisters (Eden Espinosa as older sibling Emma), the bad situation at the Borden household (a stepmother taking away the father’s attention and the girls’ place in his will – shades of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher!), and Lizzie’s slow evolution toward the solution to her very stifling life. I especially loved the tea and poison song in the first act, ending with some sort of concoction being poured into a dry-ice filled porcelain cup … rather a nice metaphor for Lizzie’s mental state.

The murder scene itself, while fairly damp, was in no way so horrific as to turn off any but the most lightweight of blood phones – pumpkins and hamburger in no way triggered me so I suspect it’s tolerable for most. And the second act, when the four actresses returned to face the consequences in corsets and fishnets, was such a blast that I wanted to jump up and cheer with them at the end. I haven’t had so much fun at a musical since Avenue Q.  Can this be the next big thing in musical theater? Because if this takes off, going out to see a show is going to be a hell of a lot more fun … and no more fighting to get the kids to come with! 
(This review is for a performance that took place Sunday, February 26th. It continues through March 12th. Do not miss it!)

Review – Frankenstein – Blackeyed Theater at Greenwich Playhouse

February 10, 2017 by

As a Goth and a fan of puppetry, I found the idea of an adaptation of Frankenstein done with puppets VERY exciting. The Royal Ballet’s Frankenstein suffered from the utterly too enjoyable body of the ballet dancer cast as its monster; seriously, who could have rejected that? And of course there was the question as to how it would compare to the National Theater’s Frankenstein; of course, the National had all the budget and access to top shelf acting talent, but could a small, scrappy company with a unique approach provide new enlightenment (and enjoyment)? I was confident that neither Edward Watson (Royal Ballet) nor Benedict Cumberbatch was necessary to make this show sing, so I took my seat with confidence.

The show starts (as does the novel) in the arctic, on a boat, where Frankenstein (Ben Warwick) is found wandering the ice. The initial set up of wooden beams and rope nicely conjures the feeling of a ship, especially one that’s stuck in the frozen ice. We’re able to see the sailors (and captain) showing kindness to the stranger they’ve found – a nice set up for the themes of compassion and humanity that appear later on.

The tiny cast of five then takes us on a whirlwind tour of Frankenstein’s life – his youth as an orphan (this confused me as he was not one in the book), his youth with and developing affection for his fellow orphan Elizabeth (Lara Cowin), his friendship with Henry Clerval (Max Gallagher), and then moves on at an astonishing pace to his university studies, where his obsession with the origin of life lead him to try to create it himself by reanimating the dead. This, of course, gets us to where I wanted to be, which was watching a show integrate puppetry into a narrative.

Blackeyed's Frankenstein by Alex Harvey-Brown

Blackeyed’s Frankenstein by Alex Harvey-Brown

The first sight of the monster was quite impressive, as it was most noticeably breathing and just … looking alive, and yet so clearly made. Frankenstein himself was going on about what a horror it was, but all I could think was … look! It’s quite convincingly alive! WHY AREN’T YOU PROUD OF IT??

This, of course, is the problem that leads to all of the issues of the second act, which, to not put too fine a point on it, that the monster becomes a murderer. As he tells it, it’s because “Daddy didn’t love me,” but I saw a more sinister thread: both Frankenstein and his monster showed a shocking self-centeredness and lack of empathy for others, which led to Frankenstein not really caring about the effect his actions ultimately had on others, or taking responsibility for them, and to the monster claiming he had justification for his viciousness. The two of them are equally damaged, and, again, this had some serious effects on me as an audience member, as i cared not a whit for either of them. It didn’t help that Frankenstein himself was overacting; I don’t know if it was opening night nerves or what, but I couldn’t find anything to hang my own sympathy around.

What was in its own way more frustrating, though, was the short shrift given to two of the most notable female characters in the novel – Elizabeth and the servant girl that the monster frames for murder. The servant, touchingly portrayed in the Royal Ballet version, gives a heartbreaking speech about her innocence which is completely missing from this adaptation – as well as Elizabeth talking about her desires to do something for herself (i.e. get an education). She dwindles to something less than two dimensional – she is simply a placeholder for the monster to have something to kill at the end of the play. And, worse, I neither felt bad for her nor for Frankenstein, as I felt he had no connection to her and thus had not lost anything.

Overall, this show told much of the novel and did it in a way I found beautiful to watch, but I had problems with the script that I was unable to overcome (although I found Max Gallagher charming and deliciously emotive in his many parts). Perhaps it will settle a bit, but this will not be the definitive Frankenstein for me.

(This review is for the opening night performance in London that took place on Tuesday, February 7th, 2017. It continues through Saturday the 11th then continues its tour: Malvern, Litchfield and Leeds are among its many stops.)

Review – Mary Stuart – Almeida Theater

January 27, 2017 by

The Almeida’s Mary Stuart opens with the most fabulous coup de theatre I think I’ve ever seen: a coin is tossed and, based on which actress has called the coin, the outcome determines who gets to play Mary Stuart, prisoner, and who gets to play Queen Elizabeth. The person who loses has their jewelry removed and their shoes taken off and walks off the stage barefoot; the other actress keeps her jacket and becomes power bitch, ruling over her court and completely in control. The point we’re trying to have pointed out to us is one made explicitly in the script; the person who is the “winner” and the person who is the loser is completely chosen by the hands of fate and has little to do with their own choices. However, what we witness is two actresses taking an incredible risk; can they each remember a bucketfull of dialogue, and be a different person, at the flip of a coin? ARE THEY ALL POWERFUL MAGICIANS?

As I watched the show, though, I stopped thinking about the role of chance and started thinking more about the action and the characters. I somehow started seeing Juliet Stevenson (our Elizabeth) as Theresa May … unsure how to deal with all of her power but desperate to show she was the one in charge. Sure, Elizabeth had a lot more to be weepy about than Theresa May, like managing foreign relations via her own marriage, but as Elizabeth became more cornered I saw more and more the modern politician with a shag blonde cut. And Queen Mary, well, the foreign devil held prisoner with no course to help … how could I not see Mary Stuart (Lia Williams) as a refugee held in some ridiculous Home Office limbo, denied access to her friends, family or legal council … with no choice but to beg for mercy from an arrogant sovereign who saw crushing her as a way to prove her own power? Theresa May, tyrant; Mary Stuart, every person ever desperate to escape death. And I can’t tell you how horrifying it was to watch Mary try to escape someone who’d decided that she owed him sexual favors because, really, when you’re in that kind of powerless position, how much ability do you have to say no? How much can you even protect yourself? And how much does each and every man who helps a woman in those kinds of desperate straights think that he now has a right to her body?

While the show itself is a bit of a marathon (and certainly has lots of history in it to keep you feeling like you’re getting an edumacation as well as being entertained), what I found amazing, more that the gobstopping interchangable actresses, was the crisp, vivid relevance of what I was seeing on stage to what is going on in the world around us. It’s not just a world where we’re fighting for how to spend our theater dollar, it’s a world of politics and power that theater can reflect back at us through a thinly curved mirror. Oh yeah. Mary Stuart. I came for the acting; I left feeling energized to go back out there and fight for oppressed people everywhere.

(This review is for a performance that took place on January 19th. It continues through January 28th. I had the supposedly crappy £12 side seats and was grateful for them and felt like they were excellent value for the price.)

Mini-review – The Dresser – Duke of York’s Theater

January 13, 2017 by

I knew little about this play before I went … I thought I’d seen some blurbles in the Evening Standard ages ago (back when it opened) but they had mostly faded into dim memory. Ah yes, the show about the guy who helps an actor dress up before shows … why, certainly I’ll go at the bargain price I was being offered a ticket for. I was actually unsure if I was going to see someone who was a costume designer or a wardrobe mistress or what, exactly, and just what the arc of the story was going to be. Frankly, it was the ideal situation for me, to walk into a theater having no idea what would happen on stage but feeling confident I was going to have one of those lovely experiences that I’ve come to expect thanks to living in the world capitol of English language theater.

Plot summary: it’s World War II, and bombing is going on. We’re in the dressing room of a famous actor (Ken Stott), who’s possibly not very good, and the man who helps him get ready to go on stage (Reece Shearsmith) is worried about whether or not “sir” is going to make the show tonight. He’s never missed a performance before, but something about all of the bombing seems to have unhinged “sir,” whom his dresser, Duncan, most recently saw wandering a market taking his clothes off and babbling. Duncan’s concerns seem well founded, and we sit with him as he nervously picks his way across Sir’s dressing room, talking with Sir’s partner (Harriet Thorpe) about Sir’s mental health, and generally setting us nicely for the big arrival of The Man Himself.

A lot of this play should be about the relationship of Sir and Duncan, but it’s actually more about the interaction of all of the personalities in a touring company, as we see when the long suffering (yet apparently devoted) stage manager appears – Duncan becomes all confidence, protecting Sir from the humiliation of a cancellation – and then again when a young, manipulative actress attempts to weasel her way into Sir’s dressing room (Normal threatens her with violence). Its all nicely balanced with the actual performance at the center of the play – a Noises Off romp through King Lear, with the backstage shenanigans front and center.

While seeing Duncan disintegrate in parallel with Sir may be what this show is supposed to be about, my enjoyment was most greatly because of the complex interleaving of this play with the text and characterization of Lear. To me, Lear is the the embodiment on many levels of an actual, inevitable mental and physical collapse of older actors, who may get decades on stage but will still eventually struggle to carry on doing what they love when their bodies and minds decide they can do no more. Semi-fictionally, this was wonderfully captured in My Perfect Mind, about an actor struggling to recuperate after a stroke had while in rehearsal for Lear: more meatily, however, this struggle for an actor to keep himself together was quite viscerally brought home two years ago when Brian Blessed had a physical collapse while playing the role, a trauma nearly immediately followed by a production where another actor failed to get his head wrapped around the hard work of dialogue memorization. Macbeth may be the unlucky play, but as a role that attracts older actors, Lear is now, to me, a role far more likely to see on stage tragedy. And seeing Sir struggle to remember his first line … indeed, to even remember which role he was about to play … was the truth of life as an actor being told on stage. It was heartbreakingly real, and a pleasure to watch.

It’s all for the best, then, that so much of this play ultimately has comedy at its heart; it makes for a brisk, exciting evening despite its 130 minute running time. It’s only on through this weekend, but I do recommend a watch; I for one will probalby try to find a way to see the BBC version with Sir Ian. Either way, it’s a treat.

(This review is for a performance that took place on January 5th, 2017. It continues through January 14th.)

Mini-review – Kiki’s Delivery Service – Southwark Playhouse

December 27, 2016 by

I find it very cheering that a time of the year that is known for dull rehashes of the simplest kind of children’s stories is also somehow forming the coating in the petri dish from which many other works of theater are growing; not just the old favorites of Aladdin and Cinderella, but the expansion of the Panto form with Harry Potter (entering into the canon of proper fairy tales, although done as “Hairy Poppers” it’s obviously not meant for a kid’s audience). In addition at the Southwark Playhouse there is the introduction of an entirely new children’s book to the London stage. Well, truthfully, Kiki’s Delivery Service is hardly “entirely new” as I first saw the animated movie version over ten years ago: but it’s a new entry in the children’s stories genre of playwriting and very welcome after seeing two versions of Peter Pan in one month. Come on, people, there are other stories to be told here!

If you have not seen Studio Ghibli’s film, the story is as follows: Kiki is a young Japanese girl (living roughly in the here and now) who has been trained as a witch, and as she has just become old enough to be sent out into the world to find her own place to do witching. The training and the magic are pretty much not described (other than the fact there is less magic in the world than there used to be); what we are clear about is that Kiki rides a broom and has a cat familiar, Gigi, who talks to her. Why she must leave at 13 is also unclear; but Kiki is very eager to go out into the world. However, it’s hard for her to find a place to settle down; it has to be a place both friendly to witches and not currently having a witch. After some misadventures, she finds a place where she things she might be needed; and, for reasons that are unclear to me, decides to use her talents to create a delivery service.

The set was fairly simple – well, there was a projected backdrop which could have taken over the storytelling but mostly stayed in the backdrop, and various items were wheeled out (the cake shop piece was actually kind of spectacular) onto the floor – and the focus seemed to be on engaging the imagination rather than spelling everything out a la Miss Saigon’s flying helicopter. So we had a puppet cat, and Kiki actually being carried on her broom – but then flying with ropes later – and I found it fairly easy to let go of my own rootedness in quotidian reality and engage with a story about magic, and growing up, and both accepting responsibility and letting go. The actors did a great job of handling multiple roles – even the person who plays Gigi gets time off to be a hammy clockmaker – and, except for a scene where Gigi is shown as an animated projection on a clock, the company stuck to low tech solutions to depicting magic that I felt made the story hold together as “the real world plus magic.”

Retrospectively, I found myself wondering why Kiki would have to leave at such a young age, why she seemed to do so little magic, how it was that a world with trains could integrate with witches, and why we only find out at the end about time limits on familiars. It seemed like there was a lot of background material about this world that hadn’t been explained at all – but I doubt anyone watching it would think about it too much. Kiki’s Delivery Service was simple and sweet and provided a good opportunity to let the imagination fly – with or without a broomstick.

(This review is for a performance that took place December 14, 2017. I highly recommend it to people bored of traditional children’s fare – obviously other people agree as the performances, which end January 8th, are nearly sold out.)

Review – Saint Joan – Donmar Warehouse

December 20, 2016 by

These days it’s so hard to get a ticket for a show at the Donmar that I go for entire seasons without seeing a single thing. I was a bit sad, then, when I saw the promo posters for Saint Joan – a play I’d never heard of (and certainly not seen) by George Bernard Shaw, one of my favorite playwrights – and realized that unless the gods smiled very favorably upon me, there was little chance of me getting to go. And yet, there I was, the Friday before Christmas (well, close enough), rather stuffed full of panto, and there was …. not just a crummy standing seat … but a juicy front row center ticket that would be all mine if I’d just fork over the full price of forty quid. Well. That’s at the top end of what I’m willing to spend for everything, but you could hardly ask for anything better. In fact, I wound up feeling a bit like Santa had come by for an early visit. Religious fanaticism and being burned at the stake? Ho ho ho!

So … this is going to be slightly different review from my normal “I had no idea what was going to happen and this is what I experienced” write up … instead, I’m going to look at this play through the lens of someone who is a fan of Shaw, and who has seen both Shakespeare’s version of Joan of Arc as well as Theo Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Briefly, though, the play is given a very modern setting, as the meetings that would normally have taken place at castles or abbeys are instead held around boardroom tables by men in suits (although Joan, oddly enough, appears in Gothic garb). It’s a very effective touch, because what these people are is, really, decision makers, and I found it easy to swallow the ridiculous (miracles and religion) when framed in such an every day context.

Joan as a character needs to carry a lot. Is she an evil witch? The Brits think so (and may have truly believed so in Shakespeare’s time), but Shaw is too much of a realist to go down this path. Is she inspirational? That’s the core of Shaw’s portrayal, and Gemma Arterton embraces that, like a one-woman life coach for the entire French army, seen here coaxing the Dauphin and Archbishop as well as military men with a combination of emotion, religion, touch, humanity, and vision. She seems a dream leader … but Shaw pulls us back to the ground. In a masterful scene – typically Shaw because he’s basically speechifying at us – the English contingent reminds us about the dangers of both nationalism and religious fanaticism. Or, rather, I think Shaw is trying to remind us of where things are going to go historically … but what I heard was a voice from the past warning us that the route to fascism and religious intolerance were often hidden beneath the guise of popularity and “being inspiring.” So here’s Joan … telling people to die in the name of God and encouraging divides based on national origin. Suddenly with that filter it all seems a little more creepy.

Playing a crazed teenager who’s able to rouse a nation to war is doubtlessly not easy. Arterton has the look of someone who can see God, but I felt her sense of betrayal at the end wasn’t as convincing as it should have been (despite the nicely conjured tears). The key role of the Dauphin was also just too weak and wiggly to be convincing. Still, the power players in the rest of the cast – the religious court that sits in judgment in the second act, and the French courtiers – seem strong enough to carry the rest of the play. Overall, it was a good night, and from my front row center seat my interest never flagged. (The gentleman next to me dozed off, however, so caveat emptor.)

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, December 16, 2016. It continues through February 18th.)