Sunday, December 8, 2019

A Spirited Carol in Harlem

This weekend, I had a chance to see A Christmas Carol in Harlem, a delightful update of the classic Charles Dickens tale set in contemporary New York City.

A friend of mine from a local Dickens group went with me, and we were both impressed by the eerie quality of the ghosts. When Jacob Marley appears in the book, he passes right through a heavy door, and his body is transparent "so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind."

How do you do that on stage? Well, during the 19th century they could use elaborate stage techniques like Pepper's Ghost, but that would never work in a space like Aaron Davis Hall, where The Classical Theatre of Harlem is staging the production in an intimate, three-quarter-round setting. Instead, projections designer Shawn Boyle has managed to create ghostly digital effects behind Steve Greenstein, who plays Marley, making an outline of the actor's face almost--but never quite--materialize on the backdrop. The effect is truly haunting.

My favorite spirit in the story is the Ghost of Christmas Past. The strange figure is "like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from view, and being diminished to a child's proportions." In my own two-person adaption of the story performed in Saratoga Springs, we had a hand puppet perform the role, which worked quite well. Again, with the audience on three sides of the action, this would be unlikely to go over well in CTH's production.

The solution they came up with was perfect. Eryn Barnes, who plays the Ghost of Christmas Past, is an astonishing acrobat who moves in some of the most uncanny ways you're likely to see on stage. Walking on her forearms and performing amazing kicks and flips without breaking a sweat, she manages to also say her lines as if her acrobatic feats are as natural to her as taking a stroll down a country lane. Costume designers Lex Liang and Margaret Goldrainer dress Barnes in a sleek 1970s style that immediately calls to mind the youth of our contemporary Scrooge, played movingly by Charles Bernard Murray.

Generally, it is much easier to represent the Ghost of Christmas Present, who is described by Dickens as "a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty's horn." This is something we've all seen on stage countless times, but again, the CTH production comes up with an imaginative interpretation that is both faithful to Dickens's words and entirely original. Andrei Pierre plays the spirit with the help of a group of back-up dancers all dressed in the same shimmering color as his own clothes, making him appear as Dickens's jolly Giant, with the help of some splendid choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fisher.

The Ghost of Christmas Future is scary enough without needing to add much, so director Carl Cofield has opted to have him appear in the traditional black robe. The figure is still suitably mysterious, though, and the future sequence includes a number of tremendous performances, including that of Angela Polite (creator of the one-woman show MARY SPEAKS) as the spooky Clock Shop Lady.

This adaptation, penned by Shawn René Graham, condenses much of the story, combining Scrooge's nephew Fred with the character of Bob Cratchit (played by Jeffrey Rashad). Tiny Tim also becomes Tiny Timothia, played adorably by Emery Jones. Other fine performances are given by Reed Harris Butts, Gabrielle Djenné, Daniel Echevarria, Ure Egbuho, Paula Galloway, Kaden Jones, and Kenzie Ross.

Spirited music pervades the piece, directed by Kahlil X Daniel, who also looms over the stage as the Ghost of Christmas Future. Don't miss your chance to see the show before it vanishes on December 21st!


Charles Bernard Murray as Scrooge and Eryn Barnes as The Ghost of Christmas Past in Classical Theatre of Harlem's A Christmas Carol in Harlem -- photo by Jill Jones

Monday, December 2, 2019

Cyrano

Eclecticism can be a great thing in the theatre. When the Public last staged William Shakespeare's Cymbeline in Central Park, the set was covered with reproductions of Western art from nearly every period, and when each scene felt like it took place in a new milieu, that felt about right, given that Shakespeare seems to mix vastly different settings and periods in a single play.

When Edmond Rostand wrote Cyrano de Bergerac, however, he set the play squarely in France of the 17th century. The play creates a singular vision of the world, not as it actually was in the 1600s, but as Rostand dreamed it could have been. Not every production of Cyrano de Bergerac needs to be set in 17th-century France, and a production placed in the time of Rostand's own fin de siècle Third Republic might work out charmingly, but the play does imply a single, unified setting.

That's what makes the eclecticism of Erica Schmidt's new musical adaptation, dubbed simply Cyrano, so oddly intriguing. Where are we? Or more precisely, when are we? The costumes designed by Tom Broecker range from the era of Louis XIV to the U.S. Civil War to contemporary. The music composed by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National has an indy-rock feel, yet the vocal stylings of Jasmine Cephas Jones as Roxanne have a deep R&B resonance. Throw into the mix The Great Comet's Grace McLean as a quirky and comedic Marie, and what do you get?

The answer seems to be a puzzle where each piece is brilliant, but the audience has trouble putting it all together. Fortunately, unifying this whole sprawling epic is the character of Cyrano himself, played here by Peter Dinklage. I greatly admired his work in Schmidt's production of A Month in the Country at Classic Stage Company, though apparently he also did some T.V. show about dragons.

Oddly, though, Schmidt's adaptation cuts out some of Cyrano's most famous scenes. We don't get his duel while composing a poem, nor his long list of self-deprecating jokes about his nose. For that matter, his nose is not enlarged at all for the part, and the cast hints that by "nose" they might be referring to another element of his appearance.

Rostand's creation of Cyrano de Bergerac is legendary, and the saga of its first production provided the plot for this year's cinematic gem Cyrano, My Love. This production of Cyrano by the New Group, playing now at the Daryl Roth Theatre, might not prove quite as memorable, but it's still worth seeing, and definitely worth hearing. The songs in the battle scene are particularly evocative, and I would like to see the Dessner brothers write more work for the theatre, especially if they can bring along their lyricists, Matt Berninger and Carin Besser.

If you do see it, bring tissues. The story's finale is appropriately moving, though not necessarily in the same way as the original. The final word of Rostand's play--"panache"--is notoriously difficult to translate, because it refers to both the literal white plume in a soldier's helmet and the intangible qualities of bravery, gallantry, and style Cyrano so prizes. By changing the word simply to "pride" Schmidt has transformed the play from the heroic comedy Rostand intended into a tragedy. Whether that is a good thing or not is a matter of taste.

Currently, Cyrano is only playing until December 22nd, so see it now before it disappears!

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Barbara Goes to B-School

For a number of years now, I've shown the 1941 film version of G.B. Shaw's Major Barbara to my Business Communication students. I even presented about my experiences introducing business students to Shaw at a conference held at the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2017.

Some of my colleagues there suggested that I publish my findings. Academic publishing rarely runs at lightning speed, but I'm glad to say that now, two years later, an article based on my experiences is appearing in SHAW: The Journal of Bernard Shaw Studies. I haven't received my paper copy yet, but it's already available on Project Muse.

The article is entitled "Undershaft in B-School: Responses of Business Students to Major Barbara." I am very grateful to students who gave me permission to use (anonymously) excerpts from their writing about Major Barbara. I frequently offer students an optional extra-credit assignment writing about their interpretation of the story, so I had plenty of writing to draw upon when giving examples of the responses of business students.

And what do business students think of the play (or at least of the movie based upon it)? For that, you'll have to read the article!

Friday, November 29, 2019

The Season of the Carol

Thanksgiving is over, which means we now begin... the season of A Christmas Carol.

I wrote my own two-person adaptation of the Charles Dickens novella which was done by the Epiphany Theater Company in Saratoga Springs in 2007, but it is far from the only adaptation of the piece, and quite a few Carols will be in the New York area this season.

The first one I'll be seeing is A Christmas Carol in Harlem, which Classical Theatre of Harlem is doing December 4th through 21st in Aaron Davis Hall on the campus of City College, located of course in Harlem. This updated version of the story has been adapted by Shawn René Graham to include original and classic holiday carols tinged with gospel, hip-hop, pop, and R&B influences.

On Saturday, December 7th, the Friends of Dickens New York will be welcoming U.K.-based actor Dominic Gerrard as he gives his one-man rendition of A Christmas Carol at the Epiphany Branch of the New York Public Library. The performance is free and open to the public. It begins at 1:00 pm, and will be followed by a meeting of the Friends of Dickens (which I will be facilitating) discussing Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop. If you haven't read that novel, you're welcome just to stop by and watch the performance, though!

But wait... there's more! Actor Jeffries Thaiss and musician Eric Scott Anthony will be performing a two-person adaptation of the Carol at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Upper Manhattan from December 12th to 14th. They will then bring their show to Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island on Sunday the 15th, and then they have a one-night-only performance at the Church of Sweden on 48th Street on Wednesday the 18th. If you miss all of those performances, you can then catch them at the Al Hirschfeld Gallery located in the Mansion/Museum of Greenwich Village from December 20th through 22nd.

A number of Carols have been annual traditions in New York, and for the seventh year, John Kevin Jones will perform his one-man version of the story at the Merchant House Museum on East 4th Street. Jones uses Dickens's own reading version for his performance, and his show will be running from November 29th until January 5th. I don't think I'll be getting to that one this year, but one of these days I really need to get down to see the Staten Island Shakespearean Theatre Company as they perform Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol at the historic Conference House. This year, they'll be performing from December 12th to the 22nd.

If bigger productions are what you seek, the Carol is also running until January 5th on Broadway, where an adaptation by Jack Thorne is playing at the Lyceum Theatre, starring Campbell Scott, Andrea Martin, and LaChanze. Whichever version you see, give the old Alastair Sim movie a rest this year, and take advantage of the opportunity to see A Christmas Carol live!

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Grateful

On this day of giving thanks, I am grateful for some of the wonderful theatre companies in New York City that keep going in spite of the difficulties of this day and age.

I am grateful for Gingold Theatrical Group, which has managed not only to keep its Project Shaw reading series going in lean times, but to continue to produce excellent fully staged work as well. This fall's production of Caesar and Cleopatra brought an epic to life on a shoe-string budget. We need more work like that: dedicated, daring, and filled with enthusiasm.

Though I didn't get out there as much as I would have liked to this year, I'm grateful that Irish Repertory Theatre is still with us, too. Their production of Sean O'Casey's trilogy of Dublin plays was not to be missed, and I particularly loved Juno and the Paycock. They'll soon be opening one of my favorite under-produced plays, London Assurance by Dion Boucicault. Thank you yet again, Irish Rep!

Theatre in the parks is always hit-or-miss, which is why I'm particularly grateful to New York Classical Theatre for consistently providing quality outdoor theatre for the masses. This summer's production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest was a delight. I hope what they have to offer us next summer will likewise entertain and provide food for thought.

Finally, I'm grateful to Urban Stages for bringing new work to life and being one of the few New York theatres left to take unsolicited scripts. It's a pity we don't have more theatres in this city with the type of open-door policy that has helped Urban Stages discover truly new voices.

Some of the larger theatre institutions in New York frequently get applause for their good work, but it's smaller companies like these that really keep New York theatre alive and vibrant!

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Waxworks as Theatre

Ever since Madame Tussaud began exhibiting wax figures in the eighteenth century, the display of waxworks has had a theatrical flair. Charles Dickens picked up on this in his novel The Old Curiosity Shop, which depicts its heroine, Nell, getting a job with a traveling waxworks exhibit.

The proprietress of the waxworks, Mrs. Jarley, first spied Nell when she was traveling in the company of two Punch and Judy men, Codlin and Short. To Mrs. Jarley, however, her refined waxworks show is infinitely superior to the pair's puppets. "Never go into the company of a filthy Punch any more," she instructs Nell.

While Punch and Judy shows emphasized their comedy, waxworks stressed their refined and educational value. Mrs. Jarley puts it this way:

It's calm and--what's that word again--critical?--no--classical, that's it--it's calm and classical. No low beatings and knockings about, no jokings and squeakings like your precious Punches, but always the same, with a constantly unchanging air of coldness and gentility; and so like life, that if wax-work only spoke and walked about, you'd hardly know the difference. I won't go so far as to say, that, as it is, I've seen wax-work quite like life, but I've certainly seen some life that was exactly like wax-work.

In spite of Mrs. Jarley's pride in the refinement of her craft, she is embarrassed by the fact that she cannot read. When she uncovers that Nell can read and write, she seizes upon this fact as evidence that the girl will be a valuable addition to her team. Mrs. Jarley then goes about teaching Nell the stories of all the people depicted in wax, including "an unfortunate Maid of Honour in the Time of Queen Elizabeth, who died from pricking her finger in consequence of working upon a Sunday" and "Jasper Packlemerton of atrocious memory, who courted and married fourteen wives, and destroyed them all by tickling the soles of their feet."

What's interesting about the waxworks segment of the novel is that Nell herself as exhibitor becomes of greater interest to the crowds than any of the waxworks themselves. Mrs. Jarley at first sends Nell out through the streets in a light cart with a wax figure of a notorious brigand. This attempt to drum up interest in the show works so well that the proprietress later keeps Nell in the exhibition room and sends the brigand out alone, not wanting to cheapen the value of her live exhibit.

Comically, the waxworks figures turn out to be interchangeable. A wax figure of the famed clown Joseph Grimaldi is altered to resemble the grammarian Lindley Murray, and a figure of a murderess is transformed into the imminently respectable dramatist Hannah More, author of the moralistic tragedy Percy. A nightcap and gown are added to a waxwork of William Pitt to turn it into the likeness of the poet William Cowper, and Mary Queen of Scots is dressed in male attire to become Lord Byron!

Not everyone was a fan of the waxworks, however. Miss Monflathers, who runs a school for young ladies, tells Nell that working for a waxworks is "very naughty and unfeminine, and a perversion of the properties wisely and benignantly transmitted to us." As hard as Mrs. Jarley works trying to induce visitors to patronize her establishment, the public increasingly just comes to the entryway to peek inside at the figures there rather than pay their sixpence admission to see the whole show.

Dickens acknowledges the difficulty of art forms that position themselves as middle-brow culture. Punch and Judy, which has no pretensions to being great art, remains popular with the working class, and the temples of culture at Drury Lane and Covent Garden continue in operation. Mrs. Jarley's exhibition, while it has pretensions of appealing to the gentry, earns the scorn of uppity people like Miss Monflathers and fails to draw in the sixpences of working class folks who find the cost of admission to be prohibitive.

The continued presence of Madame Tussaud's wax museum in Times Square proves that waxworks today can still be economically viable, but many other middlebrow arts continue to struggle. One need look no further than the Broadway shows nearby Tussaud's waxworks. They are frequently forced to exhibit star actors as their main attraction, rather than the plays themselves, which can sometimes seem as interchangeable as Lord Byron and a Scottish queen.