Saturday, October 18, 2008

Dubya and Dionysos

Lately, I've had Greek drama on the brain.

Tonight I went to see Oliver Stone's film W with an eye on current representations of Iraq and politics in film and theatre. I've seen a number of other shows on the topic: The Vertical Hour and Black Watch come to mind as recent examples on stage. As does Mark Ravenhill's epic cycle of short plays aptly titled Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat

W, which emphasizes the Oedipal instincts behind Bush, Jr.'s rise to power is sort of a modern-day Oedipus story played as a tragicomedy. There are ha-ha moments of recognition, but mostly because Stone hones his actors in on the truths of their characters. Particularly fine - and notable to one who's viewing the film from a theatrical perspective - are sequences that bring Bush back to the empty ball field of the team he once owned. The crowd is gone, and the balls come flying; his reactions are the variable.

The cast of Hare's Stuff Happens at the Public Theater.

I was struck throughout the film by how many similarities there were between Stone's film and David Hare's 2004 play Stuff Happens. Hare's self-described "history play, which happens to centre on very recent history" also seeks to raise the characters to epic proportions. It's interesting to see how many similar behind-closed-doors moments Hare and Stone have chosen to focus on - particularly the scenes in the White House where the cabinet gathers to discuss politics and pray.

Anyway, I recommend both seeing Stone's film W and reading or seeing Hare's Stuff Happens. Together, they create an interesting dialogue about representations of politics in theatre and film.

After the movie, I finished reading Scotsman David Greig's adaptation of Euripides's The Bacchae as well. The adaptation, which was produced in associate with the National Theatre of Scotland starring Alan Cumming, keeps all of the characters and situations but develops a clarity and fluidity of language that more strict verse translations seem to lose along the way. It's not a modern adaptation per se, but it struck me as more irreverently funny than others like it. I recommend taking a look at Greig's script for a fresh take on The Bacchae, which is a fairly quick, fascinating play to discover.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Revisiting the classics via Robert Fagles

While this season's off to a tepid start, I have a worthy suggestion for weary theatergoers in search of a reinvigoration of sorts: why not revisit the classics?

In studying Greek drama for a current class I'm taken, I've been struck by how readable and enjoyable Greek plays can be, and I have a few suggestions for interested readers.

My professor, Roger Oliver, recommended to our class that we read Robert Fagles's translations of both Aeschylus's The Oresteia and Sophocles's The Theban Plays (concerning Oedipus), both published by Penguin Classics, and I found his fluid, poetic versions to be quick, satisfying reads.

To see the plays in action in New York is also currently possible! The Pearl Theatre Company is currently featuring The Oedipus Cycle, Sophocles's Theban Plays performed back-to-back (the running time is 3 hours). 

Upcoming at one of my current favorite theatre companies, Classic Stage Company, is An Oresteia, an amalgam of plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides chronicling the fall of the house of Atreus.

Oedipus is also currently receiving a Ralph Fiennes-led production at London's National Theatre that promises to be one of the hottest tickets across the pond as well.

Say what you will about Greek plays being stodgy and irrelevant, plays like Agamemnon, Antigone, and Oedipus the King hold underestimated riches for modern readers. Sometimes, as in the case of Oedipus, they even continue to pack 'em in thousands of years on.

Season thus far...

So far, so...

Well, it's been an interesting beginning of the season on Broadway this fall.

We've had [title of show], A Tale of Two Cities, Equus, The Seagull, 13, A Man For All Seasons, and To Be Or Not To Be.

So far there have been one standout musical ([tos]), several standout play revivals, and the mediocre 13 and To Be Or Not To Be. Still, we're waiting for that big runaway success, critical or otherwise (last season's August: Osage County). Will it come in the form of Billy Elliot? Shrek the Musical? 9 to 5? The answer remains to be seen.

Along the way, we've gotten several fine performances, including Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths in Equus; the ladies of The Seagull; and Frank Langella in A Man For All Seasons; but once again, we're still waiting on that knock-em-dead surefire Tony-winning performance that, in the past few seasons has come in the form of Christine Ebersole (Grey Gardens) and Patti LuPone (Gypsy).

I, for one, am excited, particularly following the tepidly titillating To Be Or Not To Be's opening night tonight, for the opening of All My Sons on Thursday. Though many have expressed their doubts surrounding director Simon McBurney's crafty production choices (underscoring, video projections, etc.), I'm a fan of his (shout out to A Disappearing Number at the Barbican in London) and can't wait to see what he's done with Arthur Miller's postwar drama.

Several recent announcements have spiced up the prospects for the post-holidays season.

Roundabout Theatre Company has just announced a January 12 benefit concert reading of Sondheim's A Little Night Music starring Natasha Richardson, Victor Garber, Christine Baranski, Laura Benanti, Marc Kudisch, and Vanessa Redgrave.

And Angela Lansbury has just been announced as Madame Arcati opposite previously announced Christine Ebersole and Rupert Everett in the upcoming Michael Blakemore-directed revival of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Reading "All My Sons"

Somehow, through my four years in high school and first three years of college, I missed -- for the most part -- the Arthur Miller boat. Besides for a few lessons on The Crucible, which I enjoyed at the time but which left little mark on my psyche, most of what I knew of Arthur Miller was the titles of his plays -- The Man Who Had All the Luck, All My Sons, After the Fall, A View From the Bridge, Death of a Salesman...

He'll probably come up in my History of Drama and Theatre II class next semester, but I'm not one to wait around to be taught about something; I like to go out and teach myself whenever possible. So with this aim in mind -- to familiarize myself with All My Sons in advance of the Broadway revival's opening -- I bought Arthur Miller: Collected Plays (1944-1961) with my Barnes and Noble membership discount and sat down to read the play.

Oh. My. God. Arthur Miller is a genius. What a compelling topic -- residual scandal over the blunders of an unlikely war profiteer! Mixed with all kinds of family intrigue! And some of the best goddamn dialogue I've ever read for the theatre. It's been a while since I read a play that was such a page-turner. It reminded me a bit of Shaw's Major Barbara and a little bit of O'Neill, only combining the best elements of each to make for a real theatrical home run.

If Katie Holmes can pull of the plum role of Ann, the rest of the cast seems absolutely spot-on. I say, be there or be square!

"Equus" -- a season of play revivals!

With the Broadway run of Equus opening Thursday, I'm struck by the number of play revivals we'll be seeing on Broadway this fall.

I count the following: Arthur Miller's All My Sons, David Mamet's American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow, Peter Shaffer's Equus, Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, and Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons.

In winter and spring, those will be supplemented by Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and Friedrich von Schiller's Mary Stuart.

If last season was the season for musical revivals, with Gypsy, Sunday in the Park with George, and South Pacific each earning rave reviews and multiple Tony nominations, this seems to be the year producers are hoping to bank on audiences' familiarity with classic plays and penchant for star turns. Among those starring in play revivals are: Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths (Equus); John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Katie Holmes, and Patrick Wilson (All My Sons); Cedric the Entertainer, John Leguizamo, and Haley Joel Osment (American Buffalo); Jeremy Piven and Raul Esparza (Speed-the-Plow); Kristin Scott Thomas (The Seagull); and Frank Langella (A Man For All Seasons). Looking ahead, Mary Louise Parker's turn in Hedda Gabler looks particularly poised to create some buzz as well.

At the moment, as its opening night fast approaches, all eyes are turned to Equus. Is Daniel Radcliffe's penis worth paying $120 for? Is he a better actor on stage than he is in the middling Harry Potter adaptations? And how is Radcliffe's costar Richard Griffiths, making his first return to Broadway since his Tony-winning turn in The History Boys? The answers are all forthcoming in my review of the play, but I suspect that a visit of one's own will ultimately be the only way to assuage one's curiosity.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"Mourning Becomes Electra"

I just this moment finished reading Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra. In my history of drama and theatre course, as we were reading Aeschylus's The Oresteia, my professor mentioned this play as a reinterpretation of Aeschylus worth noting. In the play, O'Neill updates Aeschylus, setting the events in post-Civil War New England.

Now that I've read it, I'm not sure what to think. It's a brilliant exercise in updating an ancient play for modern times, but I'm fast realizing O'Neill's flaws as a dramatic writer. The conceit of the play, the resemblance amongst characters within the Mannon family, relies on heavy amounts of stage direction. This would be totally intolerable to literary departments accepting scripts nowadays and has the averse affect of spelling out too much for a reader.

The speechifying is overwrought; the dialogue is too often either too pedestrian or too erudite. That said, the character of Christine Mannon (the Clytaemnestra character) is fascinating.

All in all, an interesting, flawed read. Apparently it's being revived off-Broadway this season. It'll be interesting to see if they can wade through the muck of O'Neill's melodrama and make this a compelling production.

And another play from the same book (Three Plays) is being revived on Broadway this season with Carla Gugino, Pablo Schreiber, and Brian Dennehy: Desire Under the Elms (awful title, no?)

New York theatre...

I'd like to start writing on this blog again. There was a time I wrote it in almost nonstop, but recently I've been much busier. Whilst in London, I was running about like a chicken with its head cut off, flitting from one theatre to the next. Now, in New York, I'm balancing classes with my internship at Roundabout Theatre Company and the steady stream of reviews I've been writing for (my favorite of my obligations).

No matter, I'm determined that I will post here as often as I can. Because I'll be posting most of my lengthy thoughts about productions on, I'll refrain from detailed reviews on here. Instead, I'll add little tidbits, recommend little things I've stumbled upon, etc. Most of it will be theatre-related; some of it will not be.

First up, as I was wandering through the BC/EFA Broadway Flea Market this year, I stumbled upon a recording done by Corin Redgrave of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis for $5. I read this book over the summer, an extended letter written by Wilde to his lover Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas during his term of imprisonment at Reading Gaol. The recording is wonderful. Also included is the "tea scene" from The Importance of Being Earnest, as performed by Vanessa Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave. I recommend reading the book. While the CD seems not to be readily available online, it's possible to find audio recordings of Corin Redgrave reading the letter, and they ought to be worth checking out. He's also performing the letter at the National Theatre again this autumn.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"Top Girls" on Broadway

When British playwright Caryl Churchill wrote Top Girls in 1982, during the age of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, I expect she must have known that the themes of her play would remain painfully relevant even into the next century. Manhattan Theatre Club's timely revival of Churchill's play comes just as former first lady Hillary Clinton winds down her epic attempt at becoming the first top girl in U.S. history, and it provides a complex and intelligent companion to the debate over the lingering sexism in society today. How much is it important that the leaders of tomorrow be women, the play asks, if those in question don't have women's best interests at heart? Can women be both happy and successful? And should they have to don pants and act like men to get where they want to be?

Read my review of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls on Broadway at 

Mark Ravenhill and "Boris Godunov"

Mark Ravenhill has certainly come a long way in the eleven years it's taken him to get from his first play, Shopping and Fucking, to his epic cycle, Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat. In regards to the In-Yer-Face school into which he was siphoned - along with Sarah Kane, amongst others - early in his career, he denies any formal sense of a group at the time and replies, elusively, "I think it was kind of in the air everywhere." But he's never been out to shock. "With each play," he says, "you hope to surprise yourself and explore new stuff, and you're trying to listen to what's happening in the world and trying to put that in your play, and obviously the world doesn't stand still, so it constantly evolves."

Read my interview with in-yer-face playwright Mark Ravenhill at, where I'm now a contributing writer.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

I'll Be the Devil, Tricycle Theatre, London

Rating: ***/5
Saturday, 1 March 2008.

It's not as bad as the hype. Leo Butler's new play set in 1762 Limerick is bloody fun at times, though it veers toward melodrama a bit too often.

Concerning family strife in Limerick, Ireland during the The Seven Years' War, when Irish Catholics were mistreated by their British Protestant occupiers and the Irish converts they took along the way, the play has a fairly simple premise. 

Catholic Maryanne, mother to Ellen and Dermot, has mothered children by Lieutenant Coyle, who's renounced his Catholic faith.

It's punctuated with brutality, shit, and gore, so it's not for the faint hearted. And I'm not sure it ultimately makes the strong statement it aims for, but I'll Be the Devil has its moments, and those curious about Irish history will certainly relish in what seems to me a fairly vivid portrayal of the times. 

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Tempest, The Rose Theatre, Kingston

Rating: **/5
Thursday, 28 February 2008.

OK, give them credit for reexamining Shakespeare's The Tempest from an Islamic perspective. Interesting enough. Asian company Tara Arts has brought its radical new production to the Rose Theatre in Kingston, but I'm not sure it ought to have left the rehearsal hall.

Director Jatinder Verma has obviously put a lot of thought into this production, but what she gives us is not a considered result. Instead, she's experimented with a sparse -- underwhelming -- set and dangling ropes that, misused, make up the bulk of the properties. 

Some of the cast, including Robert Mountford as Prospero, shine in parts, but much of the company seems out of the loop, especially Caroline Kilpatrick as the fairy Ariel.

This Tempest, innately a play plagued by ambivalence and rocky patches, needs a unity of vision that it lacks in its current inception. Hopefully as the production tours it will improve, but I wouldn't hold out hope.

The Vortex, The Apollo Theatre, London

Rating: ***/5
Saturday, 23 February 2008.

Noel Coward's breakthrough play, The Vortex, is back in London, this time starring TV's Felicity Kendal in the central role of Florence Lancaster in a fairly by-the-books revival by Peter Hall. Though she hams it up at times, Kendal has a ferocious onstage demeanor and a raspy voice that helps her spit lines with an admirable sharpness.

The play centers around Florence, ever a failure in her adulterous love affairs, and her son Nicky Lancaster, newly addicted to cocaine. The two resent each other throughout, coming at the end of the play to a half-hearted promise of mutual redemption.

Dan Stevens as Nicky and Cressida Trew as Bunty Mainwaring, the object of his affection, bring youth and charm to the production, and Daniel Pirrie is churlishly charming as Tom Veryan, Florence's younger lover.

The first act contains all the nail-biting as we wait for the inevitable; the second act is the picking up of the pieces.

The sets are drab: unobtrusive and merely serviceable.

In the end, I found the production reasonably accomplished considering the triviality of it all. Weighty subjects are tossed around lightly -- one of Coward's biggest gifts. But the resolution, all treacle and no tenacity, is lacking in earnestness -- Coward's fault.

Forgive the actors; the lines are set in stone.

Blasted, Queens Hotel, Leeds

Rating: ***/5
Friday, 22 February 2008.

Stepping into the lobby of the Queens Hotel in Leeds last week, I and the rest of the audience of twelve who'd gathered together for a common purpose felt a strange combination of excitement and fear. We'd been forewarned to expect "scenes of nudity, violence, sexual violence, and defecation." But surely it can't be that extreme. We're here to see a play after all -- even if it is the infamous Blasted by Sarah Kane.

I inquire as to where we're meant to go. There's no signage anywhere, no indication that we're at a theatrical performance. "Room 807," I'm told by the porter on duty. "Just up the elevator, turn left, and then turn left again."

I and my fellow audience members reach the room, expecting to be greeted with detailed instructions. Instead, we drop our coats and bags off haphazardly in one of the suite's two main rooms. A phone rings moments later, and an attendant relays directions to us, supposedly from the hotel concierge. We're to wear a mask resembling a bedsheet, she tells us. And if we experience distress during the performance, we're to raise our hands.

Minutes later, actors burst into the hotel room, launching into Sarah Kane's landmark drama of cruelty. When Blasted, Kane's first play, opened at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in January 1995, it caused quite a ripple within the theatre community. Never before had such brutal violence, frank language, sexuality, and militaristic brutality come together to such potent effect. The unofficial movement she started, In-Yer-Face Theatre, would be carried on by Mark Ravenhill, Jez Butterworth, and others after her suicide in February 1999.

But it was Blasted that started it all, and this production, executed by young Leeds production company nineteen;twentynine understands the potency of Kane's drama. Directed by Felix Mortimer and featuring a rotating cast of actors for the week's four performances per day, the tone of the production is spot-on: the naturalistic hotel lighting, the blue glow from the bathroom, the sounds of gunfire rattling away in the background during the play's two devastating final scenes, the use of a flashlight for minimalist lighting later in the proceedings. It's all terribly well done.

The cast that I saw, Martin Wickham as Ian, Steph De Whalley as Cate, and Ash Layton as the Soldier, were all well-suited for their parts. Wickham magnificently captures the cruelty of a man stringing along a not-quite-all-there Cate, ultimately harming her beyond repair. And Ash Layton, displaying an angular grimace that could kill, shakes things up in the play's second and third parts in the role of the soldier. 

It's a clever concept, a site-specific Blasted, the kind of gleeful gimmick frequent theatergoers dream of. It could even be argued that the voyeuristic perspective of eavesdropping on these thoroughly flawed characters within their own environs seems absolutely fitting in showing an audience the full extent of their cruelty. But it's also sadly a result of the translation from stage to suite that someone forgot the elements of magical realism that Kane's included in the text.

This isn't just the tale of two ex-lovers in a hotel suite for the night. It's about the bursting in of modern warfare on private lives, embodied by the soldier's arrival, and the comparison that this draws between Ian's transgressions upon individuals and soldiers' upon humanity. Kane's writing gets a bit heavy-handed at times, but this is theatre intended to shock, and shock it does. Perhaps, however, a level of distance is required for the piece to have its fullest impact. Can we properly process this shift from reality to a more heightened form when we're so close to the actors and the action?

By the end of the play, the audience is plainly in shock. We're left peering with rapt anticipation into the bathroom, where the final moments of the play are unwisely placed outside the vantage points of most of the audience members.

There's obviously not much that could have been done in regards to setting. After all, the room can't be altered for a mere one-week run. But concessions could have been made for the presence of an audience. The removal of one of two out-of-place flatscreen TVs would have created more seating space for those audience members who really needed it. And more sensitivity to the physical inclusion of the piece's spectators would have created a more productive interaction between actor and audience. Along the way, the audience has been fighting for proper perspectives on the action, which uneasily shifts between the suite's two awkwardly divided rooms. Perhaps the hotel setting is ultimately just too cumbersome to contain such an ambitious project.

This is ultimately a production that delivers a mixed bag of results. On one hand, there's something to be said for a play so brutal being played out within feet -- or even inches -- of you. And the experience is certainly an unforgettable one, with acting and environmental elements that are accomplished. The anticlimax of the ending's awkward setting and the racing-back-and-forth nature of the experience, however, got in the way of what would have been more satisfying, if still inherently flawed, production from an enthusiastic company that shows promise for the future of daring regional English theatre.

Artefacts, The Bush Theatre, London

Rating: ****/5
Wednesday, 20 February 2008.

Mike Bartlett is one of England's newest playwriting talents. After the success of last year's My Child at the Royal Court, he's back with a new play at the Gate Theatre, Artefacts

Kelly is your typical London girl, a bit flaky and chronically addicted to her mobile phone. One day, she learns her father is Iraqi. He comes to visit her all of a sudden, bringing with him a strange artefact that will change her life in this transcontinental story that shifts between London and Baghdad. 

Bartlett is brave to tackle subjects he's probably never experienced first hand, and his use of Iraqi folklore and Arabic language within the play are extraordinary, bringing us momentarily closer to the experience of these Iraqi people and at the same time allowing us the necessary sense of estrangement.

Lizzy Watts as chatty Kelly and Peter Polycarpou as his sober father Ibrahim give excellent lead performances. 

The play is presented in the centre of a theatre-in-the-square setting, the space covered in Persian carpets spliced together and covered with glistening rubble. 

One hopes that the play, as it progressed, concluded with a message other than one that's almost apathetic toward our consumer culture, one where Kelly had taken more from this experience, but still it's a play that keeps its audience on its toes and provokes a conversation across cultural borders.