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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.