Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

Review – Peer Gynt – National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep Ensemble at the Barbican

May 3, 2009

On Thursday night J and I went to the Barbican to see the National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep Ensemble‘s production of Peer Gynt. I was excited about this show for two main reasons. First, I love Ibsen, and I have never seen Peer Gynt before. Second, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch was supposed to be one of the theatrical events last year, and since I’d missed out on it, I wanted to see just what made this company’s work so outstanding. High hopes, eh? And I’d managed to score 8th row center seats, probably the best I’ve ever had at the Barbican.

The stage is fully opened and very bare as the story starts. The Barbican’s main stage is just a barn, and it really makes it difficult to get an intimacy to the proceedings with the 50 foot tall rafters looming above. A table and a chair or two stood in front of what looked like a billboard of the fjords of Norway; to the sides, a lowered area held chairs and what looked like about 16 people (8 on each side), sitting in chairs, who appeared to be fresh from a wedding party or hen do (the trampy clothing of the woman were confusing me but one woman was in her bridal gear); behind the wall a ramp led some two stories up from the rest of the proceedings, to a platform that looked like rather a drop to the floor below. In front of the billboard, a man dressed all in white (Cliff Burnett, sort of a cross between Nick Cave and Colonel Sanders) was playing an accordion, but he moved off stage as Peer Gynt (Keith Fleming in a tour-de-force performance) appeared, being bawled out by his old mom (Ann Louise Ross) for disappearing on a bender.

Peer Gynt looks to be an out of shape man in his middle 20s, and there’s no doubt in my mind that his character is truly a touchstone of Western play writing. I can’t speak to Ibsen’s original, but this Gynt was a grandiose drunk prone to big dreams (singing “Peer Gynt the emperor” to a tune by the Pet Shop Boys) and telling ridiculous stories to mask his shortcomings. And his shortcomings are many; no job, no girlfriend, mocked by the town (played by the wedding guests, who make snorting noises when they see him), his family’s money dwindling around him. His mom wants him to use his limited charms to actually pull the only girl in town who likes him enough to marry him, just to save her from financial ruin; but Gynt is terminally incapable of following through on any plan, even if it’s only one that would take a few hours to execute.

What he does truly excel at is storytelling, even if it’s clear that the yarns he spins are nothing but lies, tales he’s often heard elsewhere and then tried to sell as his own (as he is caught doing several times). He starts the play out taking his mom on a magic reindeer ride (on the top of a spotlit table), telling her how he rode one across hill and dale and finally down over the edge of a cliff, plunging through clouds of seagulls as he fell, a moment of storytelling and dramatic imagery that actually set the wrong stage for the evening, as this was the very best moment of the entire play, when two people standing on a table created a forest with trees and giant stags in my mind simply through their words, and nothing that happened for the rest of this evening, an evening focused on spectacle over drama, would come near it.

I want to emphasize just how much of a spectacle this evening was. I saw many things I’d never seen on a stage before: a hanged man disco-dancing; a person having a near-death experience in a plane while being seduced by a demon; the lead character being sexually assaulted by a person in a gorilla suit; a woman giving birth to a wriggling piglet. I mean, WOW, there was so much going on stage – so much that I lost my ability to care about anything I was watching around about the second hour (despite going, “Wow, never seen that before. How long is this play again?”).

Peer Gynt, touchstone of Western drama that he is, is a hard character to like, as all anti-heroes are, but I felt like I should have been more emotionally invested in what was happening to and around him. But I couldn’t rouse myself to care about Gynt any more than he could rouse himself to fix his life. The pretty girl he loved, the strange journey through his future, all of the madness with trolls … none of it moved me. It’s like somehow amidst the cavernous spaces of the Barbican’s stage, the story just got lost. Maybe it was hiding under a pile of trolls. Really, I didn’t care; I just wanted it to be over, or to get interesting again, but it didn’t happen.

Needless to say, I was disappointed by this show, even while I was occasionally impressed by its scale and vision. But like Gynt himself, Peer Gynt would have benefited from focusing on having a focus instead of flailing all over the place in a desperate attempt to make and be something grand. At three hours and eight minutes running time, it just doesn’t reward its investment. I’ll be waiting for a real production to come by and advising people to skip this.

(This review is for a show on Thursday the 30th of April, 2009. It continues through May 16th. For other opinions, see < ahref=”http://www.viewfromthestalls.co.uk/2007/10/peer-gynt-october-2007.html&#8221;)View from the Stalls and the London Theatre Blog.

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Review – August: Osage County – Steppenwolf at the National Theatre

November 29, 2008

Tonight I got to see a show I have been waiting to see for a year, since I first read about it in the New York Times: August: Osage County, the Pulitzer prize winning play by Tracy Letts that is receiving its European premiere this week at London’s National Theatre. The phrase “It is, flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years” had me drooling and going mad that it was so far away. In fact, my secret plan was to see it this winter in New York, but No! The original cast was leaving Broadway! I was doomed to only see a shallow recreation of the original …

until I read that the Steppenwolf cast was coming to remount it in London. Hurray!

Of course, this only meant that I was doomed to be disappointed as this incredibly over-hyped show proved to me, once again, that you can never meet hopes that are raised to such a fever pitch.

This, in fact, is not the case. Is August: Osage County the best show I’ve seen on a London stage this year? I’m afraid so. Is it the best play written in America in, say, the last five years? Well, I am pretty damned sure it is. In fact, it’s about the only new play I’ve ever seen that made me feel like I’d actually seen a show that was going to make it into the canon. A family drama with the psychological knife of Ibsen, the turmoil of O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the desperation of Death of a Salesman … God yes, this play was brilliant. It hit the key question that a great play must be able to say yes to: did I just see a play where I felt like the characters had lives before the show, and after? Osage County somehow managed to put thirteen people on stage of which only four were filler. Every other one, I could probably think about it and tell you a little bit about their childhood, and what they did a month after the end of the play. It was that good.

I will try to stop the foaming at the mouth and review it just a bit. The story is that the … uh, don’t want to give away any plot points … matriarch of this Oklahoma family has her daughters and sister (and spouses, and one grandchild) gathered around her, and she is … falling apart. Deanna Dunagan (as Beverly Weston) plays a manipulative, pill-popping, vicious woman the likes of which I haven’t seen since All About Eve. She was a force of disruption everywhere she went, and while I can’t be sure that muscle relaxants will quite make someone act the way she did, I completely bought into her character.

Also brilliant were Rondi Reed (as Violet’s sister Mattie Fay Aiken) and Amy Morton (as Barbara Fordham, her eldest daughter). I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen so many good roles for women “of a certain age” on stage at the same time. They were angry, they were tender, they were hurt, they had secrets, they had goals in their lives they wanted to accomplish. I thought of the wimpy heroines of Chekov and thought, give me these foul mouthed, strong willed gals any old day.

My only complaint about the evening was the excessive laughter of the audience (which occasionally made it hard to hear what the actors were saying – perhaps a bit of a problem with the sound design, also?). There were several funny lines, but it seemed the audience really and truly thought they were at a comedy, rather than watching the sad disintegration of a group of people who might even love each other underneath the nastiness. Maybe they were really uncomfortable with the tension on stage – the post-funeral dinner was like fingernails on a chalkboard – or maybe there was some extra layer of English sensitivity that was being hit that I didn’t get. It is a serious play with some funny moments, but it is not in any way “uproarious.” It really is just the simple truth about how things are, and I think a lot of people don’t like to admit that way more people have families like this than you want to believe.

At any rate, GOD, a four star night. It’s here for eight weeks; open up your wallet and buy your tickets now.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, November 28th. Be advised the running time is three and a half hours – starts at 7:15, done at 10:45 – though I just felt like time flew by while I was in the theater.)

Review of the opera Monkey: Journey to the West– Royal Opera House

July 25, 2008

NOTE: This show is being remounted from November 8th until December 5th at “Monkey’s World,” near the Millenium Dome. Number to call is 0844 847 1665 – which is probably Ticketmaster or something. More info here.)

What is the point in reviewing a sold out show? It can’t influence anyone to go, since it’s not possible; for those who’ve made the commitment, any critique isn’t much welcomed; for those who’ve had no luck getting tickets, praise simply rubs the salt in the wound. But with its back history for me (a year long build up!), Monkey still must have its time in the sun – and space online.

Ever since I read about the opera version of Monkey: Journey to the West I’ve been burning with desire to go. I read the book in college (as part of my Chinese lit studies), then went on to see many versions of it – marionette (at the Northwest Puppet Center in Seattle), animated, Kabuki (in Tokyo, an excellent show at the Kabuki-za), shadow puppet – it’s just an incredibly popular tale. (Sadly I never caught the t.v. show, but since it wasn’t shown in the US, I think that’s to be expected.) I am a fan of the Monkey King and I love to watch his big blazing ego wreaking havoc, especially if there is a little bit of kung-fu involved. And even though I thought I knew the story, every time I watch it seems there’s another aspect of the fairy tale I’ve missed out on. There are, it seems, an endless number of demons to be fought and gods of both heaven and hell waiting to have their noses tweaked, and Monkey does it all with panache. Who wouldn’t want to see his tale told on stage?

Unfortunately, last year’s performances all took place while I was off at a family reunion, so there was no way for me to see it, to my regret. However, when the Royal Opera put a teensy tiny ad on their site saying they were going to be presenting it this summer, I was all over it – signed up on the email list and waiting, waiting, and checking for news of when the show would happen. The day the tickets went on sale, I had already rounded up a group to go (though I could only buy four tickets), and I jumped when the bell rang to queue (online of course). At any rate – we got seats, ones I could almost afford (at £35 each in the balcony – quite steep and as it turns out with a blocked view of the climax of one of the two best scenes), and then just had to wait until the day finally rolled around.

Yesterday was, at long last, the day. What was I expecting? All I really knew is that it was going to be bright and shiny and had design work by the guy who’d done Tank Girl (Jamie Hewlett). I’d forgotten it was sung in Mandarin (a big plus for me but probably not so awesome for the youngest members of the audience) but I’d also forgotten that it was going to have lots of martial arts (yay!). In addition, there were lots of traditional Chinese performance arts on display, such as plate balancing, cloth spinning, and balancing/acrobatics. There were also what I think as more Western-style circus performances, such as rope suspension (like trapeze work – I don’t know exactly what it’s called) and a contortionist. Really, it was a smorgasborg of shiny fun things to look at, and the sets were big and “wow” (except for the part where from at least row G on up in the upper amphitheater you couldn’t see the occasional top fifth of the stage, meaning Buddha’s head was cut off in the final scene and when Monkey was fighting Princess Iron Fan, I was utterly unable to see how he won the fight). I was, however, not expecting the show to run straight through with no intermission; fortunately I heard the annoucement beforehand and was able to make a dash for the ladies’ before I went in the auditorium.

The show was pretty fun. I especially enjoyed the scene in the underwater palace of the Dragon King and the, er, lair of the “Spider Queen” slash web women (in which women acrobats were hanging from the ceiling from red silk scarves trying to trap the pilgrims in their web/cloth and thus luring them into sexual misdeeds – apparently done as a movie by the Shaw brothers in the 60s). However …

For a show with so much buildup, it may have been impossible to satify my expectations. That said, I found the narrative incoherent and saw little connections between the major sections of the show. This meant each section needed to be brilliant on its own, and most of them were quite fun to watch … but without the pieces knitting together, you are denied the opportunity to create a greater whole. The effect is more like watching a bunch of music videos.

Furthermore, while the Monkey King is funny and irritating, why isn’t there more to the characterization of his companions? Really, why should we care about whether or not he helps Tripitaka? His companions Pigsy and Sandy were just ciphers and had almost no sense of personality at all, and while Sandy wasn’t much in the book, Pigsy was a real character and certainly deserved more than he got.

I also just hated the clumsy scene transitions. Whether it was the animated movies, which detracted from the possibility of using this time to develop the characters/story more and also cut of major opportunities to do theatrical magic (and gave me horrible flashbacks to being stuck at the crummy Fa Lun Gung “Chinese Arts Spectacular”), or the times when things just stopped dead and we got to watch people move stuff on stage (how anticlimactic! how secret-revealing!), this bit seemed incredibly unpolished, especially given that it’s been touring in China and America.

Overall, I found this an enjoyable evening, but my enjoyment was limited by the poor sight lines my £35 seats offered (which could and should have been designed around, that’s what technical rehearsal is for) and, er, this bit where the magic just wasn’t happening for me. It was fun and exciting and much more entertaining than opera normally is (and in terms of providing a spectacle, this show really succeeded – I can’t remember the last time I was so caught up in the action on stage I didn’t bother reading the supertitles), but as a work of art, as something that might be the least bit emotionally moving, it was a failure, which was kind of sad.

(This review is for a show that took place on Thursday, July 24th.)

Review – Dickens Unplugged – The Comedy Theatre

June 27, 2008

Choosing theater as a pick-me-up may seem a little odd to some, but I find that a really good show will really raise my mood. With that thought in mind, I invited a friend who’s a big Dickens fan to accompany me and my husband to see Dickens Unplugged at the Comedy Theatre last night. My uncle had seen it two weeks back and given it a rousing review, so I had high hopes that I had a good evening ahead of us. To improve the matter, Last Minute has been consistently flogging tickets at £10 a pop (and the Ambassadors themselves are doing a two-fer), so the risk level was very low.

I personally have a bit of a mixed history with Mr. Dickens. I was forced to read A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver, and Great Expectations while I was in high school, and I didn’t like any of them. Now, mind you, being able to refer to these books has been good for me in terms of my ability to get western culture (most recently while I was reading the Jasper Fforde “Thursday Next” mysteries, in which Miss Havisham plays a very important role), but I just found the stories themselves mawkish and trying to finish them was like a death march through fields covered in treacle. Bah. That said, I am very much pro-Dickens insofar as he was a real mover for improving the lot of the poor in Victorian times, and I am a big fan of A Christmas Carol, so I figured a night watching people re-enact scenes from his books in a comic matter would be pleasant enough.

I was not, however, expecting the show to be so musical. About half of it is sung, and, you know what? It’s good. I liked the songs and found myself humming the opening tune after the show was over (which did not happen at Marguerite). The performers were very good – all five of them played something, sometimes three guitars, sometimes an upright bass, once two trumpets (muffled), all acoustic and therefore “unplugged” (how I missed the reference I do not know) – other than one hysterical visit from an electric guitar. The men sang in fine harmony, the lyrics were clear and relevant and very often funny – it was great! And for me, it was nice to see Americans on stage doing comedy in an American style, even though it was a bit odd to hear Mr. D himself talking like a Californian.

In fact, this whole evening was a really good time. The actors interwove bits of Charles Dickens’ life with the stories he was writing, making for an interesting narrative with lots of costume changes as they each wound up playing as many as three or four characters in the course of a given story. They were great comedians and completely had my attention, especially during what I fear was an unscripted bit when Charles Dickens’ wife’s skirts started slipping off. (Ah, improv!) The highlight of the night was either the brilliant bit of stagework when they figured how to have the recently beheaded Sydney Carton come back to finish the last line of the song he was singing or the Tiny Tim rock show at the very end of A Christmas Carol.

I was cheered to see how animated and happy the audience was as we left the theater – people had really had a good time! Sadly, though, this show appears to be closing this weekend, so if you want to see it, you’d better get your tickets bought ASAP. I recommend it highly as a fine value for your theatrical dollar – er, pound.

(This review is for a show that took place on Thursday, June 26th.)

Review – Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter – Kneehigh Theatre at The Cinema Haymarket

June 18, 2008

(This, my favorite show of 2008, is now in New York City at Studio 54. Both The New York Times and blogger Steve On Broadway love this show – don’t miss it!)

Several months ago I heard about a unique hybrid production of the movie of Brief Encounter and the play that inspired it (Still Life), presented in the cinema where the movie premiered back in the day (restored to its glory for the show). I was intrigued but held off going so that I could attend with a gaggle of my friends. Time passed, the event hadn’t been organized, and my uncle was in town looking for a show to fill the slot on Sunday (which in London means slim pickins, no doubt about it). Torn between seeing an opera none of us had much of an interest in and a show that I personally was quite interested in, based on a movie my uncle loved, it wasn’t too hard to make the argument for skipping Covent Garden in favor of the Cinema Haymarket.

And what a good choice it was! Brief Encounter is pure theatrical magic. I can hardly sing its praises highly enough. In part, I think, I just didn’t know what to expect – I thought it was going to be people performing the dialogue in front of a movie screen. This did happen – for about the first five minutes of the show … but as it was performed, two of the actors were in the audience, and one of the “actors” was on the screen, addressing one of the people in the audience – so it was completely unlike the audience participation version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was kind of what I thought the show was going to be like.

Instead, what we got was a full-fledged multi-media show with just that clip of film as its basis, with live music and multi-tasking character actors (a cast of eight, I think?) that occasionally sang and danced and even bounced up and down in unison to indicate the passage of a train. Our star-crossed lovers, Laura (Naomi Frederick) and Alec (Tristan Sturrock) plunged into it all whole-heartedly, taking us on a boating trip, dancing in the air with joy, being kind and thoughtful to each other, and falling in love in most heart-rending fashion.

Meanwhile the rest of the brilliant cast was hamming it up in a variety of roles my uncle claimed saw little screen time in the original, but which added a lot of texture (in the form of two other love affairs) and provided the opportunity for all sorts of hijinks. It all ended in a fairly melancholy way, but we were so energized from the rest of the show, who could care? And as to the (American) woman in the bathroom who said that she didn’t remember Brief Encounter being a comedy – I say, you make a show that works in the medium you’re using, and this was a brilliant piece of theater.

My uncle, who’s retired, said Brief Encounter was worth paying full price to see – and considering he paid for three tickets, I consider that quite a compliment. (The matinee wasn’t available at the TKTS booth, although it often is for evening shows.) Also, after seeing four plays in four days (six for him), we all agreed that this was the best of the bunch – the icing on the cake for his trip to London. For me, it’s the best play I’ve seen in at least three months, possibly the year to date, and the only one that I’d go see again.

Links about ballet and show reviews

June 15, 2008

I came home from watching “The Revenger’s Tragedy” last night and fooled around online instead of writing up my review. My goal was to read a review of the play I’d held off reading until after the show (though I found even a second), but there was lots of other good stuff on there I’d missed, like a review of “Dances at a Gathering” (which made me feel good that I’d left after it was over and not stayed for the second half of the evening) and a great discussion about the future of ballet (the idea being the culture here is closed and that new works aren’t really being promoted). It made me get excited about the idea of going to San Francisco for their new works season next year.

Review – New Works in the Linbury (spring 2008) – Royal Ballet

May 22, 2008

Lured by the promise of seeing a Wayne McGregor piece I hadn’t yet had the fortune to see, I headed down to the Royal Opera House today to check out “New Works in the Linbury.” (Here’s the description of the show: “Monica Mason is delighted that The Royal Ballet are back in the Linbury Studio Theatre presenting a series of world premieres by choreographers from within the Company. Plus, there is an opportunity to see Wayne McGregor’s new short work Nimbus, which was specially commissioned for the World Stage Gala last November.”)

Well, the night is over and I’m not sure when the chance was to see Nimbus. Was it in the lobby before the show started? Was it a special “extra features” at the end of the night, after the dancers had all taken their bows as if it really was all over? Was he really laboring in such obscurity that it was no longer possible to see his stuff on stage? I really have no idea. Thankfully it meant there was also no chance of an unfortunate encounter with Mr. McGregor, in which I would be tearfully ashamed of liking his work so much and yet being no longer capable of speaking to him, but then, surrounded by what I can only assume were British ballet folk, I suddenly felt, well, I really was just a nobody anyway – none of these people were ever going to speak to me of their own will other than to tell me to please let them pass by or kindly stop whispering during the performance. What a change from the software testing conference I went two three weeks ago, when the giants in the field were all most open to speaking about their work and how it might relate to what you personally are experiencing, in a helpful, problem-solving way.

The list of works were as follows: “What If,” choreography Ernst Meisner, danced by Romany Pajdak and Sergei Polunin; “b,” choreography Viacheslav Samodurov, danced by Sarah Lamb and Ivan Putrov; “Of Mozart,” choreography Liam Scarlett, dancers a cast of hundreds (or rather eight); “Agitator,” choreography Matjash Mrozewski, danced by Isabel McMeekan and Thomas Whitehead; “Monument,” choreography Vanessa Fenton, also many dancers; “Stop Me When I’m Stuck,” choreography Jonathan Watkins, danced by Yuhui Choe, Lauren Cuthbertson …. and some more dancers, but I’m trying to avoid carpal tunnel here.

The opening number, as it turns out, was my favorite of the night. “What If” was just … what do they say, luminous? The two dancers were fun, young, athletic, and made me fall in love with them. They were young colts frolicking on stage, and though Romany seemed to not quite smoothly get two of her turns, I couldn’t help but get excited about a future of watching the two of them dance together.

Liam Scarlett’s “Of Mozart,” with a musical choice that couldn’t help but make me think of Mozart’s Journey to Prague, seemed straight out of the school of modern choreography that plays it straight, with lovely, classic costumes (long, toned skirts for the women; shorts and long sleeved, tight-fitting tops for the men); old music; and a dance vocabulary that’s very familiar but throws in occasional bits that show its modernity (feet held at a 90 degree angle; supporting dancers by holding the back of the neck). It even had little bubbly “personality” bits that made me think of Jerome Robbins; most notable was the hand movements (clenching; rotating; opening and closing) during a pizzicato movement. Liam really seems to get what I think modern ballet audiences want, and I expect he’s going to have a pretty successful career as he gets more fully into his stride.

Sadly, I don’t think what he’s producing is what ballet needs. How are we going to get new audiences? Are we going to stick to what’s safe until there are no more people under 65 watching ballet? I started thinking about “Chroma” and how awesome it was and how the choreography was just so blistering fresh at some point in the middle of “Of Mozart” and just couldn’t get my concentration back. The performance I was watching was fine, but it wasn’t pushing myself or the art just one little bit. I felt sad about this and kind of relieved that it was time for intermission.

After intermission the evening restarted with “Agitator.” This also wasn’t a genre-breaking piece, but … my god, could Isabel McMeekan dance. I could not get my eyes of her fantastic legs and her fluid movement from one position to another. (I felt a bit badly for Thomas Whitehead as he didn’t have nearly the opportunity to show off she did.) I felt like it was on the verge of breaking into that really exciting partnering work that Forsythe does, but no luck. That said – it was still pretty damned yummy. I’ll be watching for her in the future.

My last review is for my least favorite piece of the night – “Monument,” which is apparently by a choreographer that was quite popular with the audience. It all started off quite well, with fantastic electronica (“Pathogenic Agent”) by Jens Massel, aka Senking. The full-body, black with orange neon and glittery lines bodysuits were all a little to amusingly Cyberdogs for my taste, but we had black toe shoes to deal with and I was just kind of riding with it, watching the dancers contort themselves, the women’s feet arching in their shoes, the men throwing them over their shoulders, the music sounding really fantastic on the Linbury sound system.

And then it all went south. Maybe I had show fatigue; maybe … it was bad. Suddenly we transitioned into the second movement of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E, and we were staring at a couple on stage. The woman was stiff, her feet as flat as they can get, her eyes staring straight at the sky – and if we weren’t clear that she was dead, the man waved his arms over his head in this Z motion straight out of a Greek play (and, I think, Martha Graham). Good God! Why the obviousness? What happened to what we were watching before? Then it was grief, grieving, oh, the sadness, the other dancers joining in the sadness … and at the very moment I was thinking about what I’d just seen and how cliched it was and how with any luck I’d never see someone making this Z motion with their hands again … all of the dancers were doing it at the same time! AAAAUGH!

I’m afraid at this point I snapped the tether, and then I was looking at things like the bottoms of the pointe shoes (were they black, too?) and the violinist (Tatiana Bysheva, really making a career in classical music look sexy). Eventually it was over, and we got to watch “Stop Me When I’m Stuck,” which I was now too tired to really enjoy but J said reminded him of a dream ballet (it was his favorite bit of the night). There were occasionally some pretty great solos but I had my fill for the evening, and without Wayne, I felt like the evening had a few too many empty calories in it as a whole (despite being filled with utterly gorgeous dancers).

(This review was for a performance on Thursday, May 22, 2008. Reviews of the other pieces may come later.)

Contains Violence – Lyric Hammersmith

April 14, 2008

Short review, as I’m still too cold to do much but hover near the radiator.

We just spent an hour and a half sitting in the cold with headphones and raincoats on, watching four actors perform in two well lit offices across the street and hoping to God it didn’t start raining as it would have quickly soaked through our trousers and we were already more than cold enough.

Summary: good concept, weak script, bad acting. I think the actors had just lost their connection with the audience – not too surprising given that we were almost a city block away. Watching them through the binoculars was entirely ungratifying – they didn’t seem to be doing anything more than going through the motions. So even though the technical execution was quite good, it was really not worth sitting outside that long in 9°/48° weather to watch. Minkette’s “Train of Thought” was a million times more fun and engaging, and the acting was better, too.

(This review is for a performance that took place Monday, April 14th, 2008. It did not do anything more than think about sprinkling during the show, but that was plenty in my book.)

Royal Ballet’s “Sylvia” – Royal Opera House

April 2, 2008

As I saw this show on closing night (and I’ve got about a show a night this week and little time for writing), I’m going to make this review fairly brief. “Sylvia” sells itself as a pretty, full-length Ashton ballet. We were drawn by the lovely posters, featuring a tunic-clad Greek goddess type blowing a hunting horn, and the music, which is by Delibes, composer of the brilliant Coppelia. I was also interested in seeing a full-length Ashton ballet, as his short works had been of somewhat mixed quality (Les Patineurs brilliantly excepted) and, as a recent arrival to these shores, I have been wanting to become better aquainted with the local idea of good choreography rather than staying hide-bound in my little Balanchine-centered ballet world. (I’d previously seen The Tales of Beatrix Potter.)

Even though this ballet has been recut and rearranged by Christopher Newton, it can’t get past its age and … God only knows what else is holding it back, but this is a musty old basket from the ballet basement and while it isn’t horrid, it’s just not interesting, not enough to see twice and not enough to recommend to anyone other than people who want to fill in their ballet history. I say this despite the fact that with Marianela Nunez dancing I really could not have asked for a more elegant lead. She was fantastic in the second act’s seduction scene, my favorite part of the ballet. But the rest of the characters and the story were just so stale and painful I could barely stand it. The villain (Orion) was out of a Disney cartoon; the entire plot seemed to be a missed episode for Fantasia, a sexless Greece with pretty gods dancing prettily and villagers pushing charming carts and holding lambsies and hoes. The costumes looked like they were pulled from a girl’s bedroom circa 1952, and the sets were hobbled by the past in a way I’ve only ever imagined American opera is, clinging desperately to the recognizable incarnations of “high art” by being pathetically realistic and overdesigned. Seeing this ballet made me understand why people think this is a dying art, especially considering what was happening contemporaneously with on the American stage.

Thanks to a gorgeous violin solo in the third act, I didn’t consider the night so terrible as to be unredeemable, but I was just not sold, even though there were dancing goats. With luck, a week of modern dance will wash this whole thing right out of my mind and the next time I go to the ROH it will be something where the choreography takes advantages of the fantastic talent made available to it instead of smothering them in tripe.

(This review is for a show that took place on Monday, March 31st, 2008.)

The Importance of Being Earnest – The Vaudeville Theatre (with Penelope Keith)

March 30, 2008

I was pleased to see that only a few months after opening and with very strong reviews, The Importance of Being Earnest had finally made it to the TKTS booth and the joy of 25 quid main stalls seats. Hurray! So we decided to have an impromptu Friday night “top quality” theater outing along with Wechsler and Cate (from my office) and go see this Wildean gem, which I had managed to utterly miss in my twenty-two odd years of actively and eagerly going to plays. Sure, I’d read it, but there is nothing like seeing a literary masterwork come to life in front of your eyes (unless it’s a horrible movie you’re talking about – I am only referring to theatrical masterworks), and the heavily loaded text of this show really benefits from getting off of the page and into (and out of) actors’ mouths. Suddenly it all seems like a dinner party attended exclusively by six Dorothy Parkers, only with a bit of plot to hold together the bon mots, or, rather, to give them a little something to hang upon.

The plot? Oh, I’d long forgotten it, and in fact I’d forgotten it enough that I did not remember a plot twist or two. Let’s say that it involves some gentlemen who are most clearly not named Ernest and there’s something about a handbag (rather like the handkerchief in that other play). There is also tea (served twice!), mistaken identities, and a lot of very clever jokes. Actually, there’s pretty much nothing but some very clever jokes that begin as tea is about to be served and end darned near where the handbag shows up, so perhaps these other items are superfluous.

That said, this really was a gem of a production of this clever little play and there’s a lot to recommend it if you like shows where you have to actually listen to what the actors are saying (a habit sadly thrown by the wayside in this era, and one which doesn’t actually seem to help one understand what’s going on when watching Pinter). The initial set is a lovely, gilded Japonaiserie room with a wealth of detail – it looked very appropriate for the time (unlike the costumes which were a complete hodgepodge, at least for the women) if perhaps far nicer than it would have. It was very Whistler, somehow. The second two sets, in a garden and in the front room of a country house, were fine but not nearly so absorbing.

The acting, though, was really what this show was about, as the characters could have done it in street clothes in a black box and still made it come alive. The men (Algie and Jack) were, well, as interchangeable as I recall them, with Algie being slightly more gay (Wildean, perhaps) and Jack a bit more whiny. The women … well, I have to say, seeing this after learning so much more about Victorian behavior, I found them very much not at all like I think real Victorian women would behave and speak! But, then, they were just characters in a play, and each of the actresses made her characters come brilliantly to life, even though Gwendolyn (Daisy Haggard) had a completely bizarre accent – it almost seemed like it was via New Jersey. I even loved Miss Prism, the prior, and the butlers! It was the kind of top-notch crew that one really only seems to get in London – effortless perfection from everyone involved.

At any rate – a very good night out, and highly recommended!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, March 28th, 2008.)