Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Surprising TFANA Tamburlaine — Still Running Red!

Theatre for a New Audience continues to use its new space at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center well.  This time they’ve provided the opportunity to see Marlowe’s Tamburlaine for the first — and presumably last — time.

For some gladsome reason Michael Boyd decided to cut the two 3-4 hour plays that comprise Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, Parts 1 and 2, into one play that runs about 2 ½ hours with 30 minutes in the middle to give the stage crew time to mop up all the blood during intermission.  The play may not be so bloody as Evil Dead the Musical nor The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and yet it holds its own.

The play follows a chronological and geographical structure as Tamburlaine (a Scythian shepherd who has turned to raiding and marauding and gathering followers along the way), goes from territory to territory in Africa and Asia to conquer and control. While this pointless continuation of killing for titles appears illogical to a modern audience, that doesn’t keep the playwright from moving from one place on a map (he loves place names!) to the next, so Tamburlaine can kill one king, regent, prince after another.  It’s mad.  And it’s bold.  The battle between religious groups is nothing new — Marlowe has some Christian king breaking his word to Muslims, Muslims betray one another, and the only one who wins is the Scythian marauder Tamburlaine, who claims the title of every man he kills — King of Persia, Emperor of Turkey, Kings of Fez, Morocco, Argier, the map expands as the play continues.  It certainly sounds like nothing much has changed since Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine around 1587 and the present.  The maps have merely expanded to more land and changed some names.

I offer immense kudos to director/editor Michael Boyd as well as gratitude since I’m not likely to sit through two nights of four hours of bloodletting however heightened the language.  The theatricality of the blood-letting is admirable, the effects horrifying — although the gallons of blood did not compare to the tossing of a single cut-off tongue, which left us all aghast.  Tamburlaine goes beyond beyond, and even the come-uppance of dis-likable characters goes too far.  Mind you, there are a lot of laughs in this production of Tamburlaine, particularly from the ever off-kilter Saxon Palmer.  Add to him the delightful Steven Skybell, Matthew Amendt, Chukwudi Iwuji in an extraordinary performance going from the heights to the pits... really the whole cast is marvelous.

John Douglas Thompson and Chukwudi Iwuji (Photo Credit Gerry Goodstein)
The brilliant, amazing, lovably terrifying John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine the Great is a requirement for a play like this, and Mr. Thompson can carry it.  Although I cannot understand quite how his (or anyone’s) rhetoric could lead Theridamas (Andrew Hovelson) to betray his country or king (etc.), nor to persuade his captive to happily become a wife, Thompson’s Tamburlaine was magical and funny and oddly down-to-earth.  And quite mad, of course.  No resting on his laurels, no matter how many he conquered — he just liked the conquering.  Merritt Janson did fine work as Tamburlaine’s other conquest, the unlikely wife, Zenocrate (daughter of the Soldan of Egypt).  Nilanjana Bose was more than convincing as Olympia, the conquered woman still loyal to her husband even in death. 

Of all the wonderful actors in this play, I think my favorite was Paul Lazar, who set us up to laugh from the opening, so we knew it would be OK to laugh through the bloodletting as he played the doomed King of Persia, later the Soldan of Egypt, and finally Almeda the Jailor. 

Finally, the choreography by Sam Pinkleton, music by Arthur Solari, fight direction by J. Allen Suddeth all worked together to bring us this remarkable piece edited and directed by Mr. Boyd with dramaturgy by Jonathan Kalb.  Rather than rolling over in his grave at the massive cuts to his scripts, I suspect Mr. Marlowe is grinning ear to ear at this modern re-telling.  After all, everyone but writers know that less is more.

Alas, I saw this play near the end of its run so recommending it is practically a pointless exercise — EXCEPT that run has been extended through January 4th.  Do your darnedest to make it there — otherwise, just keep an eye out for anything edited or directed by Michael Boyd, and anything in which John Douglas Thompson appears.  Well done, TFANA.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, probably for the last post this year….or maybe not….

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Fall into Winter Performances

 Brooklyn Academy of Music

The last week of November, my friends and I traveled underground to BAM Opera House (rain, rain, rain, but that evening the MTA did its job) for a program by Philip Glass: The Etudes.  There are twenty of them, and they were played in chronological order starting with Mr. Glass himself followed by nine virtuoso pianists.  The first act was spectacular, downright awe-inspiring.  Mr. Glass’ music requires advanced technique (apparently he wrote them to force himself to play better) but they’re not just exercises.  There is depth, intricacy, and passion. By the 14th etude they start sounding rather alike, but just watching the very different styles of the pianists was fun.  I am a new fan of Timo Andres, Jenny Lin, Bruce Levingston, and Tania Leon.

Philip Glass surrounded by great pianists. Photo credit Stephanie Berger, courtesy BAM

The Vineyard Theatre

For my friend’s autumn visit to the city, we went to the Village to see “Billy & Ray” at the Vineyard Theatre.  It’s about the writing of a screenplay for the great Double Indemnity by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (based on book by James M. Cain which everyone disparaged as trash).  The play was written by Mike Bencivenga and directed by Gary Marshall, who of course knows how to direct in any medium, so it was put together well.  The play was a lot of fun for me since I got the in-jokes about the movie, the actors, the ways of the studio.  My companion’s brother would have enjoyed it.  While my friend enjoyed the play somewhat, she definitely looked at me questioningly each time I laughed at something she didn’t get.  It was only at intermission that I discovered she’d never seen Double Indemnity; and that she didn’t know Fred MacMurray had played a sweater-wearing dad named Steve Douglas in My Three Sons (one of the laugh lines for old folk like me).  I tried to explain what Double Indemnity meant to me, since I knew MacMurray as that dad and seeing him in Double Indemnity was mind blowing, realizing that the middle-aged actor was once sexy and seriously noirish in the film that started noir. I compared the experience to seeing Robert Young, seen in the same decade as My Three Sons playing the kindly Dr. Marcus Welby — a family doctor who still made house calls — and the shock of seeing him as a Nazi in a Hitchcock film. My friend had never seen Marcus Welby either.  Clearly I watched way too much television in my youth.

The play’s fun for those of us in the know and reasonably well structured until the end, when it runs into the problem any “fact” based story has in winding up — telling the audience what happened to Chandler afterward and Wilder and the movie, etc., and film noir itself.  Larry Pine was more than competent but not quite on as Chandler and Vincent Kartheiser, while better than I expected as Billy Wilder, was still not the Billy in my head (even though Billy must have been young once).  Still I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was good. The scenic designer used the space well, and the period music was spot on.  So it was a pleasant if not scintillating evening, and I was delighted to know that Chandler was well aware that doors open into rooms, not out into hallways, so that great, nail-bitingly tense scene in which Barbara Stanwyck hides from Edward G. Robinson behind the open hallway door was “grammatically” incorrect.  Billy Wilder didn’t care for reality, but rather for the dramatic moment.

Do see Double Indemnity, the film, if you haven’t — or even if you have.  The play’s fun, but does not hold a candle to the film it holds up for examination.
Kartheiser as Wilder and Pine as Chandler. Photo credit (c) 2014 Carol Rosegg

A Delicate Balancing Act at the Golden Theatre

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance is back on Broadway, but this one does not compare to the 1996 production, despite Pam McKinnon directing.  While I loved her production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, this evening is well staged, but not well directed mostly because it’s not well cast.  I hesitated to see this production because I did not want to sully the memory of the perfect production of the play we saw on Broadway in the 1990s — with the brilliant George Grizzard and Elaine Stritch and Rosemary Harris.  Sometimes — well, often — one should follow the gut.

The Leading Lady, Agnes, is a tough creature to play: she is the delicate balance.  Glenn Close doesn’t get it, coming off as merely officious.  John Lithgow is also rather shallow and dull as her husband. As their daughter, Martha Plimpton is also loud and shallow and dull.  

Lindsay Duncan is downright brilliant in addition to being courageous for taking on a role we all remember Elaine Stritch doing.  Ms. Duncan does a great deal more than hold her own. Bob Balaban (pitch perfect, tonally and physically) and Claire Higgins (mad and rather hateful, meaning perfect) as the frightened neighbors Harry & Edna are fabulous.  It made me happy just to see them enter the stage.  They nailed it.

One of my favorite aspects in the scenic/lighting design were the shadows of people about to enter – down the stairs, from the kitchen area, toward the front door, all the visual “foreshadowing” was marvelous.  The staging and design elements were cleverly “off balance.”

I know A Delicate Balance, and it’s not a dull play.  I should never have time to sit and think, “I am so bored with these rich people, they should go out and work, why is the drunk the only interesting thing onstage, what is the issue with the bedrooms with these people, they have servants and no guest room??”  But that’s how I felt the evening I saw this production.  The last 3-hour play I saw was Stoppard’s Indian Ink at the Roundabout, and I wasn’t bored for a moment.  Big difference. 

Six actors, of which three do fine work — really, Lindsay Duncan is the epitome of alive onstage, living as a whole person (however broken as an alcoholic, or, as Claire insists, a drunk) with relationships, history, power, humor, and guts.  To see her work, and that of Clare Higgins and Bob Balaban, is a delight.  But there must be a better way.

Save your money on this one.
Lithgow and Close.  Photo Credit (c) 2014 Brigitte Lacombe.

The Last Ship at the Neil Simon Theatre

Sting’s new musical (music & lyrics by Sting, a.k.a. Gordon Sumner) has a terrific book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, is directed by Joe Mantello, and rather thrillingly choreographed by Steven Hoggett.  When we saw it, we predicted: The Last Ship will be touted as and win awards as the best new musical of the year.  Unfortunately, the wrong people wrote reviews on it.  If you like Sting’s musical progression over the years, you’ll like the score. This is not what he did with The Police, this is later Sting, which leans more toward older music, music of the working people, which is pretty much the play.

The critics are wrong about The Last Ship.  It’s musically exciting, emotionally engaging, and different from the usual Broadway.  The choreography is suited to the characters doing the dancing, and the scenic and lighting design (David Zinn and Christopher Akerlind, respectively) are fabulous.  Michael Esper as Gabriel returned to his hometown and Rachel Tucker as the girl he left behind lead an excellent cast. We had a wonderful evening.  The play does not need Sting to appear onstage, he’s already there in its heart and sound, although he will join the cast as a means to bring more people into the theatre.  Unfortunately, this means those who see Sting will miss the hearty and heartfelt performance of Jimmy Nail. 

A fine Christmas gift it would be if this musical play’s box office turns around and it runs on, despite foolish critics.
A scene from The Last Ship.  (C)2014  Sara Krulwich/NYT

~ Molly Matera, hoping everyone is enjoying their preparations for holidays, which should include seeing some live theatre.