"Two insufferable New York parents and their over-cultured children" (Some guy on Twitter)

War, War and More War: A Speed Review

In Musicals, Shakespeare, Theater, Uncategorized on December 19, 2015 at 7:21 pm

Harriet Walter: tough as nails as Henry IV at St Ann’s Warehouse.

Oh dear. Amid the procession of the equinoxes, and the comings and the goings, and the hurly and the burly of November and December, the Minor Critics have fallen down on the job. And so instead of our usual in-depth analysis of New York City’s vibrant theater scene, please accept this seasonal round up of recent activities.

  1. At the end of November, we proceeded across the East River to see Henry IV (both parts sharing a cell) at the new St Ann’s Warehouse at its new home in Dumbo; a joint production with Donmar Warehouse, directed by Phyllida Lloyd (a double-Warehouse event). We sadly missed Lloyd’s all-women production of Julius Caesar in 2013, set in a women’s prison. The Minor Critics didn’t know about the prison part, so they were suitably taken aback when the cast filed through the crowded lobby, with guards barking “Prisoners coming through;” they were equally impressed by the cage fencing holding both audience and actors. Within this cage was a feast of great acting (and regional accents of the British Isles): Harriet Walter as a hatchet-faced, care-worn Henry, who reminded the Critics’ father of someone scary who used to hang around outside the Sainsbury’s in Islington; Clare Dunne as a Northern Irish Prince Hal; and Sophie Stanton doing Falstaff as the archetypal Londoner who could be easily running a barrow off the Walworth Road. The Minor’s loved it – “intense” – even if they weren’t quite convinced by the prison setting, which might have made sense for the plotting and scheming of Julius Caesar, but seemed less productive here. Although it did set things up for an explosive ending, as the guards burst in to shut the whole thing down and march the actors back off and out through the lobby again.
  2. Henry V by the Shakespeare Forum, at Studio 007. Like buses: first, no Henries for what seems like an age, then two come along at once, and in this case perfectly timed.  The play’s text begins with a renowned speech by the Chorus, with talk of the wooden O being transformed in the vast plains of France, and so forth. Rather brilliantly, the production, or perhaps the exploration, by our good friends at The Shakespeare Forum, began instead with echoes of the Prince Hal of Henry IV – including the crushing put-down of Falstaff –  “I know thee not, old man”: now it echoed around a bare room, and a small audience on chairs randomly set down, before the animating incantatory force of the chorus (by the wonderful Claire Warden) burst upon the scene. The action unfolded around us – just actors, with some minimal costume elements – with Tyler Moss, the Forum’s artistic director, as Henry setting the pace in a production with just nine actors that demonstrated the very power of the the language and the acting  that the chorus invoked at the start. Just a bare, black studio room, and the vasty fields of France.  And in our times of war, there was much to think on in this production by Sybille Bruun Moss and Andrew Borthwick-Leslie: from the spectacular bare-chested, testosterone-amped push-ups of Filipe Valle Costa as the Welsh Captain Fluellen, to Mistress Quickley’s (Kelsie Jepsen) moving account of the death of Falstaff, and her farewell to Pistol and his associates. And Henry’s dismay, as the chorus reminds us at the end that the happy ending was precursor to the slaughter of the War of the Roses. Did this work? The Minors are old Henry V hands these days, and they’re friends of the actors, so don’t expect much objectivity there. But we had a test: an 11-year old friend of the younger minor, who didn’t know the play, and may not have seen a whole Shakespeare play ever before. She loved it.
  3. Mother Courage and Her Children at the Classic Stage Company. So, you want to talk about war? Step up, Herr Brecht. On a Tuesday night, the elder Minor Critic begged off another round with Germany’s Marxist master, and the younger complained about an inevitable sad ending. “Let me guess. She has children. And they all die.” Pretty much sums it up. But we deployed pizza, and the promise of snacks at the interval, and along she went for what turned out to be a production that moved the drama from the 30 years war of the early 18th century to the modern day Democratic Republic of Congo. It was a creative move by director Brian Kulick – with Mother Courage (Broadway star Tonya Pinkins) rolling her children along in a converted jeep as the fortunes of war swirl all around. Add a wonderful all black cast – Mirirai Sithole was a heart-rending Katerin – and what could go wrong? Well, something did. Maybe it was just Brecht’s distancing, intellectual style. Maybe it was the decision to add songs (by Duncan Sheik), when there are no songs in the original (it seems that at CSC these days, all drama tends towards musical theater). Maybe it was the fact that the man who sat down in the Iconoclast’s empty seat clutching a glass of white wine promptly fell into a heavy breathing, deep sleep for the entire first act, much to the amusement of the busload of French teenagers who made up the bulk of the audience that night (and whose energy was delightful). This falling-asleep-thing was mentioned to the theater-goer in question, who apologized, and then fell asleep during the second act. Maybe it was the music.
  4. Shakespeare monologues and scenes, by the pupils of Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics in East Harlem. So, two weeks after Henry V, we were back with the Shakespeare Forum at Studio 007 on a Friday night (at their new home at the El Barrio Artspace on 215 East 99th Street, a former school (PS109) now converted into an art and culture center and residences). This time, there were some fifty people, sitting around a square as participants in the Forum’s twice-weekly after-school program for high school students showed off their stuff. From Anthony and Cleopatra (“They were lovers; he went off and got married; now he wants her to take him back”) to Much Ado About Nothing (“She kind of hates him, except she kind of doesn’t”), via Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, As You Like It, Richard III and more…all done by youngsters who probably wouldn’t have had any opportunity to do drama in after-school, let alone Shakespeare, without the Forum’s excellent program (led by Kelsie Jepson, see above). The actors did well, with some great acting going on. The Bard did well too: East Harlem is a long way from Elizabethan Southwark. Except it isn’t.


Feeling Sorry for Scarpia?

In Opera on October 30, 2015 at 11:35 am
Angela Gheorghiu at the Met, October 29, 2015

Angela Gheorghiu at the Met, October 29, 2015

There are times when the parents, dedicated as we are to introducing the Minor Critics to the wonders of art and music, have our doubts. Like at the end of Act One of Puccini’s Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday night. This is a big operatic moment: a massed choir sings an ominous Te Deum; the evil Scarpia outlines his devilish plans to crush rebellion and seduce Tosca; and the 14-year old Iconoclast turns to his father as the curtain comes down, looks at his watch, and says “When does this end?”

There was more. In the interval, the 11-year old Romantic argues that she should in fact go home because a) her new braces are hurting and b) she needs to avoid the inevitable sad ending, which was likely to include everyone’s deaths, including Scarpia, whom she feels sorry for because while he’s chief of police and all, he is in love with Tosca. Also doomed to die, apparently, is the Marchesa Attavanti, “and she hasn’t even appeared yet.” The Iconoclast was equally bleak, saying that he expected Tosca to betray Cavaradossi, and then to be stabbed by him.

What to do? We couldn’t argue that it was all going to turn out OK. The kids had seen Madame Butterfly and La Bohème; they know that Puccini isn’t known for his happy endings. So we deployed two bottles of absurdly expensive mood-altering Orangina, and passed out the previously acquired Reeses’ Peanut Butter Cups, and changed the subject to Marc Chagall’s monumental Triumph of Music, hanging above the lobby bar. Sometimes, with the Minor Critics, you just have to take things an act at a time, trust the art (and the artists), and hope things click.

By half way through Act Two, it was a done deal. The Romantic eagerly elbowed her father as she recognized the opening of Vissi d’Arte, its shimmering beauty enhanced by the intensity of the drama (and the great acting of the wonderful  Angela Gheorghiu, whom the Minors had seen over the summer at the Opera Bastille singing Adriana Lecouvreur). Then, as the audience went wild with applause, her elder brother asked whether she was still feeling sorry for Scarpia (his vile appetites enhanced in this Luc Bondy production through the generous early application of additional non-speaking, erm, sex workers, and by the equally excellent acting and singing of the Serbian baritone Željko Lučić). She wasn’t, which was rather encouraging for all of us concerned in her future life choices.

At the end, as Floria Tosca exited, clutching the vital laissez-passer to her blood red dress, with Scarpia lying dead on the couch, and the applause erupting all around, the Iconclast turned and declared with gusto: “There you go!”

As the maestro Puccini knew well, there’s nothing like some torture and a stabbing to get the crowd going. Such indeed were the emotions stirred on Thursday that we then witnessed some classic old-style Met grumpiness in one of the boxes across the auditorium to the left, as two of the more mature patrons engaged in a loud altercation that included at least one death threat. That’s verismo, Doc.

From then on in, it was pretty much plain sailing. Indeed, at this performance we learned a new truth. Yes, the Minor Critics have made it clear that they don’t like sad endings, which can be a problem with art in general and with opera in particular. But it seems that really only applies to endings that are sad in a melancholic, sentimental, Lassie-Come-Home-Romeo-and-Juliet-kind-of-way, as opposed to the oh-my-god-they-just-shot-the-tenor-and-then-she-like-just-threw-herself-off-the-ramparts-kind-of-way (augmented here by the ingeniously devised and beautifully timed staging of that fatal final jump).  Or, as the Iconoclast declared  as the curtain dropped for a third time, “That was unexpected!”

So, as the recently departed Yogi Berra so rightly said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

What are we doing here

In Theater on October 20, 2015 at 12:13 am
Gary Lydon's Estragon and Conor Lovett as Vladimir (r)

Gary Lydon’s Estragon and Conor Lovett as Vladimir (r)

Now we have spoken before about the Minor Critic’s enthusiasm for a good story, and the Iconoclast’s almost Aristotelian insistence that a proper play should have a beginning, a middle and an end. We have spoken too of the terrible lamentations that erupted in February, 2014, when Tom Stoppard disappeared Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in mid-sentence. This left the parents in general with the theoretical question of whether to avoid the twitching nerve of existential panic, in the way of sensitive parents who don’t want their children to be upset, by, say, exploring more Shakespeare, perhaps with a bit of Restoration Comedy on the side. Or not.

And so it was that we found ourselves at the NYU Skirball Center last Thursday for the big potato of existential dread, the mother load of modern post-WW2 narrative destruction, Waiting for Godot. Why probe the troublesome tooth with your tongue when you can opt for a full-on root canal?

Kids, as the man says, tell me now: what are we doing here?

The production, by the Dublin-based Gare St Lazare Ireland company, directed by Judy Hegarty-Lovett, was about as good as you might imagine good could be, with Conor Lovett as Vladimir and Gary Lydon as Estragon delivering all the poetry and tragicomedy of Beckett’s lines with the natural rhythms and cadences of the most accomplished bletherers. Dominic J. Moore’s Pozzo was suitably shouty and annoying; and Lucky’s part one monologue of great incoherence was memorably horrendous.

The Minors already knew that Godot was never going to arrive. And somehow that knowledge, from the start, eased the way for the Iconoclast, who didn’t have to feel ambushed by any authorial double-dealing, but became instead quite engrossed in the wit and the words of it all. Not so his sister. At the interval, she was fit to set off for home, much like much of the audience when the play opened in London in 1955, a mood barely lightened by the application of sections of a Twix and sips of coffee. At that point, her brother was still taking an ironic approach, suggesting that what we were viewing was a play written for artistic people who want to see clever, incoherent plays because it makes them aware of themselves as artistic people, in the same way they go to see Italian Art-house films about floating plastic bags. So, he wasn’t entirely in the groove then. But at least he wasn’t fighting for the exit.

But then the second half hit, with Didi and Gogo becoming more and more aware of the bleakness of their fate, it would be fair to say that the production achieved new heights, in becoming both funnier and more moving, as Vladimir sustains himself and Estragon in the face of all the awful abyss of nothingness. The Romantic found the funny bits quite funny, and may have even laughed out loud.

At the end, there was no more talk of genre of floating plastic bag movies from the Iconoclast. In trying to process it all, he couldn’t quite give up on his Aristotelean tendencies, spending quite a while arguing that certain apparent absurdities in the play’s narrative line could be made sense of in a conventional sense, if you assumed that maybe five or six years had passed between Act One and Act Two (this would involve ignoring the stage direction that says “the next day”, but such is youthful fancy). Pozzo could indeed have gone blind. And Lucky dumb.

How time flies when one has fun!