Sunday, January 14, 2018

BURNED at The Duplex

The composer Joshua H. Cohen and I will be premiering four songs from our new musical Burned at The Duplex Cabaret Theatre on Sunday, January 28th.

We'll be presenting the songs as a part of "In The Works," an evening put together by Honeck-Moss Productions. It will also include songs by Sean Mahoney, Patricia Noonan, and Pretty Sad White Girls. The evening is being hosted by Andrew David Sotomayor.

Singing for us will be Owen Beans, Erin Leigh Peck, Joan Barber, and Andrew Mayer. Owen will be reprising his role as Bob, which he sang when we debuted four different songs from the show last May as a part of Golden Fleece's Square One Series.

The show begins at 9:30 pm. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door. There is also a two-drink minimum, and you must be 21 or over to enter.

The Duplex is located at 61 Christopher Street, at the corner of 7th Avenue in Greenwich Village. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Stories By Heart

Last night, I had the pleasure to see John Lithgow's one-man show Stories By Heart. Toward the beginning of the piece, he turned to the audience and said, "So, what the heck is this?"

It's a question many of us were wondering ourselves. The website for the Roundabout Theatre Company calls the play "a singularly intimate evening" containing "equal measures of humor and heart" that "evokes memories of family, explores and expands the limits of the actor's craft, and masterfully conjures a cast of indelible characters from classic short stories by Ring Lardner and PG Wodehouse."

Well, yes, it is all of that, but what does that really mean? It means you're going to hear Lithgow both tell stories and talk about stories, how important they are to him personally, how they shaped his family, and what they mean to the theatre and to humanity in general. As usual, they play becomes more universal the more particular it gets. Rather than musing on human nature, Lithgow spends more time talking about his own family, and in particular about his father, who started a string of Shakespeare festivals across Ohio, but never himself performed on a Broadway stage.

After introducing us to his family and the big book of short stories his father would read to them when Lithgow was a child, he performs Lardner's most famous piece, "Haircut." We get to see his virtuosic acting as Lithgow inhabits the story's famously unreliable narrator and gives a shave and haircut to an invisible barber-shop patron. After an intermission, Lithgow returns to reminiscences about his father, but as an old man rather than a young, energetic parent. He then performs what his family called "the funny one," P.G. Wodehouse's 1935 short story "Uncle Fred Flits By."

I must admit, I'm not a fan of P.G. Wodehouse, but "Uncle Fred Flits By" is legitimately funny, and all the more funny when Lithgow inhabits all of the different characters, including (most outrageously) the parrot. If you get a chance to catch Stories By Heart, it's well worth seeing.

Monday, January 8, 2018

End of MLA

Yesterday was the final day of the Modern Language Association conference in New York. I was pleased to be able to present two papers at the conference, one on Charles Dickens and the actor William Charles Macready, and the other on George Bernard Shaw and the Italian playwright Luigi Antonelli.

There were many interesting talks given this year. Frances Ferguson, speaking at the "Romantics at Two Hundred" program arranged by the Keats-Shelley Association of America, spoke about William Hazlitt's criticism in 1818. Hazlitt criticized the poet James Thomson, though he credited him with being the most popular poet among his contemporaries. Thomson was dead by 1818, but his poem The Seasons remained popular. According to Hazlitt, Thomson could not enter into the minds of others, which made him a poor playwright. Thomson's Tragedy of Sophonisba, which opened the same year as George Lillo's The London Merchant, is largely forgotten today.

Speaking of The London Merchant, Laura Rosenthal on Saturday gave a really interesting paper on Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton ghosting 18th-century tragedy. She drew parallels between Hamilton and The London Merchant, which both have scrappy protagonists trying to rise up in the world. In both plays, the protagonist is the victim of a set-up in which a conniving woman gets him to have sex with her, and he then has this event used to get money out of him. In Lillo's play, the protagonist tries to confess his sin to his master, but since Hamilton does not have a master, Rosenthal said, he confesses to the public. Ultimately, she said, Hamilton is sad, but not tragic, because the institutions Hamilton created endure, even as he dies ignobly.

Later on Saturday, Heidi Holder gave a wonderful paper about the popular Newgate drama Jack Shepherd. Shepherd was a real criminal who in the 18th century was arrested for burglary, but managed to escape from prison four times, sometimes with the help of female accomplices. Daniel Defoe wrote an account of Shepherd's life, and in the 19th century W.T. Moncrieff wrote a melodrama about him. William Ainsworth wrote a novel about Shepherd in 1839, which became the basis for numerous other plays, including one by John Baldwin Buckstone, which featured scenery by William Telbin in its original production. Eventually, authorities became concerned that these plays were encouraging crime, and in 1848 the government passed a formal ban on Jack Shepherd plays.

Sunday was the Shaw session I was a a part of, which also included Virginia Costello talking about Shaw and Emma Goldman, Martin Meisel talking about Shaw and Sean O'Casey, and Ellen Dolgin talking about Shaw and J.M. Barrie. It was an honor to join them!

Next year, the MLA conference will be in Chicago. We'll see if they can top the amount of snow we had at the conference this year!

Friday, January 5, 2018

MLA Has Begun!

Yesterday, I began attending my first conference of the Modern Language Association, which is meeting in New York City this year.

I'll actually be presenting two papers. On Saturday morning (at 8:30 am) I'll be a part of the "Dickens and Resistance" session arranged by the Dickens Society. Diana Archibald put together the session, which also includes talks by Sophie Christman-Lavin, Jolene Zigarovich, and Jonathan Farina.

My paper is called "A Blot in the Theater: Dickens, Macready, and the Quest to 'Revive the Drama'." It deals with how Charles Dickens championed Robert Browning's play A Blot in the 'Scutcheon even as his friend, William Charles Macready was ensuring the play's demise.

Macready got along much better with playwrights if they were dead. He famously revived William Shakespeare's King John with lush period costumes and scenery painted by William Telbin (who based his work on existing medieval buildings). Macready also turned Lord Byron's play Werner into a star vehicle for himself. You can see here a painting of Macready as Werner. (It currently hangs in the Victoria and Albert Museum.)

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending another Dickens panel called "Ephemeral Dickens" that was put together by Susan Zieger. Elizabeth Frengel and Janice Carlisle gave a talk called "Disposable Dickens" on researching Dickens ephemera in the archive. One interesting item they brought up was a call slip from the British Library on which a young Dickens had requested the book Greenwich Hospital. That book is a collection of short comic sketches illustrated by George Cruikshank, who went on to illustrate a book of short sketches by Dickens, Sketches by Boz.

Lillian Nayder, who I had heard speak before at a meeting of The Friends of Dickens New York, gave a talk called "Dickensian Jottings" about how Dickens's celebrity has frequently moved his marginal notes to center stage, and allowed his postscripts to replace scripts. I was particularly intrigued by the last talk of the session, in which Rebecca Mitchell spoke on the famous "Dolly Varden" dress inspired by the character in Barnaby Rudge. The style was based on the polonaise dresses popular in the 18th century, but it received a revival in the nineteenth century after it was worn by the actress Augusta Thomson as Dolly Varden in an 1866 stage adaptation of Barnaby Rudge.

The Dolly Varden dress caused quite a craze in the 1870s. Many songs were composed about it, and you can see the cover of some sheet music for one at left. The Franco-Prussian War might have had some affect on the craze, since the latest fashions from Paris where temporarily unavailable. When Dickens died in 1870, though, one of the items in his estate was a painting of Dolly Varden William Powell Frith had done in the 1840s. After that sale, the style became all the rage.

If you're still around on Sunday at noon, one of the last sessions of the MLA conference will be "Revolutionary States: George Bernard Shaw, 1918." Jennifer Buckley is presiding, and I'll be giving a second paper called "Staging Immortality in 1918: Bernard Shaw and Luigi Antonelli." The paper takes a comparative approach to dramatic responses to the end of World War I and the emergence of state communism, examining Shaw's Back to Methuselah and the Italian playwright Luigi Antonelli's A Man Confronts Himself.

I gave a similar talk at the Comparative Drama Conference in Baltimore in 2014, but did some new research that has changed the focus of my comparison. I will be joined by Virginia Costello talking about Shaw and Emma Goldman, Martin Meisel talking about Shaw and Sean O'Casey, and Ellen Dolgin talking about Shaw and J.M. Barrie. Hope to see you there!

Monday, January 1, 2018

CAPITAL One of Detroit's Bests in 2017

The Detroit Free Press has named my play Capital one of the best 2017 moments in the city's arts and culture.

In a special section run on New Year's Eve, theatre critic John Monaghan recalled some magical moments on area stages, and singled out Capital for special praise. Here's what he wrote:

"Capital" (April, Detroit Repertory Theatre): This slapstick farce, in which Karl Marx tried to impart his socialist beliefs on a teenaged daughter, was the year’s biggest surprise. This appropriately economical production (Harry Wetzel both starred as the Father of Communism and designed the sets) highlighted an especially hit-and-miss year at the 61-year-old Detroit Rep.

Monaghan wrote a four-star review of Capital in April. Martin F. Kohn also gave the show a rave in Encore Michigan, and blogger Daniel Skora gave it a great write-up in It's All Theatre. Skora also named Detroit Rep's production of the play one of the best of the 2016-17 season.

Capital portrays Karl Marx, not when he was a famous philosopher, but when he was a lowly journalist in London, struggling to pay rent and constantly arguing with his teenage daughter. He mistakenly gets hold of a scandalous letter by the novelist Charles Dickens. And then all hell breaks loose....

If you're interested in the play, check out the website I set up for the piece, or feel free to contact me directly.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Best Plays of 2017

It's that time again when I look back on the best new productions that opened in New York City over the past year.

This list is only for plays in the five boroughs, so great productions farther afield like The Secret Theatre and Romeo and Juliet as well as the productions at the Shaw Festival are ineligible. My own play Capital which opened in Detroit this year doesn't qualify either, even though it was named one of the Best of the Season for southeastern Michigan.

Also not included are shows that opened in 2016 but that I didn't get to see until this year, like Dear Evan Hansen and the Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Last year, A Doll's House, Butler, and Hadestown topped the list. But what were the best productions of 2017? Read on to find out!

10. The Liar - Truth is, this adaptation by David Ives of the classic comedy by Pierre Corneille was one of the best (and first) plays I saw in 2017.

9. Fucking A - Of the three Suzan-Lori Parks plays the Signature Theatre Company produced this year, this was by far the best. A riff off of The Scarlet Letter, the play had its first off-broadway run back in 2003, but its dystopian view of a society where abortion is legal but practitioners are literally branded seems all-too prescient.

8. Once on This Island - This beloved Ahrens-Flaherty musical is currently getting an amazing production, so get your tickets now. Lea Salonga is excellent as Erzulie, the goddess of love and beauty, but the rest of the cast is strong as well, and Dane Laffrey's set makes the most of Circle in the Square's intimate space. If you're concerned about seeing a play in the round, don't worry. Director Michael Arden makes sure there isn't a bad seat in the house.

7. The Government Inspector - The Red Bull Theater Company is dedicated to the aesthetic of Jacobean drama, but this year they put on Nikolai Gogol's nineteenth-century farce about a minor bureaucrat mistaken for the Inspector General from the capital. The split-level set was best viewed from further back in the audience, but even if you sat up front like I did, you got to see some amazing performances from the likes of Michael Urie, Mary Testa, Michael McGrath, and Talene Monahon.

6. A Midsummer Night's Dream - It wasn't too long ago (ten years) that The Public Theater previously did Shakespeare's supernatural romantic comedy in Central Park, but the 2017 production was indeed a dream. Annaleigh Ashford gave a stand-out performance as Helena, which is saying a lot, considering that the show's headliner was Phylicia Rashad as a queenly Titania. The most memorable aspect of this production was having the attendant fairies played by older actors wandering around the forest in what looked like their pajamas. It was creepy in all the right ways.

5. Ernest Shackleton Loves Me - Two-person musicals are hard to pull off, and it's difficult to imagine this one with anyone else in the lead but Val Vigoda, the show's lyricist who also acts, sings, and plays the drums, keyboard, banjo, and electric violin! The book by Joe DiPietro tells the story of a sleep-deprived single mom composing music for video games who tries Internet dating and ends up being matched with the early-twentieth-century explorer Ernest Shackleton. Who cares that they're 100 years apart and he's currently in Antarctica? This witty and wonderful piece was a ray of sunshine in a dark year.

4. Desperate Measures - Speaking of witty and wonderful new musicals, the surprise hit of 2017 was Peter Kellogg and David Friedman's Desperate Measures, which sadly closes today at the the York Theatre Company. Based very loosely on Shakespeare's problem comedy Measure for Measure, the play is reset in the Old American West, where an un-elected governor is able to abuse his power and try to force a virtuous young woman about to enter a convent to sleep with him. If she refuses, her brother will hang. That might not seem like the stuff of musical comedy, but joyous music and dialogue in perfect rhyming couplets keep the laughs coming even through bleak material.

3. Julius Caesar - No doubt the most controversial production in New York this year was also one of the best. Conservative snowflakes cried foul over a play showing a Trump-like figure being assassinated. (Never mind the numerous past productions of Julius Caesar with Clinton and Obama stand-ins as Caesar.) Few--if any of them--actually saw the production. Had they gotten off of their hypocritical high horses long enough to actually see the show, they would have witnessed a biting critique of the left, and a warning that political violence, as tempting as it may seem, only leads to more violence, and ultimately despotism. The brutal assassination scene left some audience members physically sick to their stomachs. Julius Caesar was truly visceral theatre.

2. HOME/SICK - This collaborative project by The Assembly has been around for a while. (The group first workshopped it in 2010.) However, the production that opened this year at JACK in Brooklyn benefited from a long incubation process and past exploratory runs across the country. The story it tells of the Weather Underground in no way romanticizes the movement. Instead, much like the Public's Julius CaesarHOME/SICK presents a cautionary tale of what happens when well meaning people turn to violence. During intermission, the audience watched a recreation of an event members of the Weather Underground had planned to bomb. It was chilling. Director Jess Chayes deftly led her cast to explore the complexities of taking on the injustices of the world when you yourself might through your own strident militancy become part of the problem.

1. Sweeney Todd - While Ernest Shackleton Loves Me and Desperate Measures were massively entertaining, and Julius Caesar and HOME/SICK were deeply disturbing, the Tooting Arts Club production of Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theatre managed to be both. The show is still playing through the end of May, though sadly not with Norm Lewis, who opened this New York production as Sweeney. Fortunately, you can still catch Carolee Carmello as a hilarious and horrifying Mrs. Lovett. The Stephen Sondheim musical has a brilliant score, and you might think a stripped-down version in a reproduction of an actual London pie shop would lose something. Instead, this intimate production allows you to appreciate the music in a deeply personal way. Having the actors literally leap up onto tables right in front of you is shocking, but no more so than some of the acting choices, which remind you of the true trauma some of the characters suffer in this story.

So those are my picks for this year. Honorable mentions go to The Tempest at St. Ann's Warehouse, Everybody at the Signature, and the Metropolitan Opera's production of Fidelio. Hopefully 2018 will be an even better year for theatre in New York City!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Kelton House Commedia

I recently got back from celebrating Christmas in Ohio, and while I didn't see any theatre in Columbus, I managed to stumble across some theatrical memorabilia.

While visiting the historic Kelton House, I was surprised to see in a bookcase the complete works of Hannah More. Today, More is rarely remembered, but her 1777 drama Percy (which opened the same year as The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan) was the most successful English verse tragedy of its era.

Even more exciting was a glass case filled with ceramic figurines of commedia dell'arte characters. Such porcelain miniatures of stage actors were popular during the nineteenth century. How they got to the house and whether or not they were collected by the Kelton family (which incidentally also ran a stop on the underground railroad) I don't know.

Next to the case of miniatures was a series of prints of commedia actors modeled off of the illustrations done by Jacques Callot. In the 1620s, Callot did a series of etchings he called Balli di Sfessania. These etchings give us an idea of how commedia performers dressed in the seventeenth century.

Here we see Captain Zerbino and Scapino. Zerbino is one of many braggart soldier figures popular in commedia, but Scapino is particularly famous for inspiring the character of Scapin that Moliere frequently played. To see these treasures and other curiosities of the past, take a tour of Kelton House Museum in Columbus. It's worth a visit!