Sunday, February 16, 2020

Lady Gregory

Last night, I saw Irish Repertory Theatre's production of Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory. The piece explores the life and work of Augusta Gregory, one of the most important figures of the 20th-century theatre.

Lady Gregory is also the subject of an upcoming exhibit at the New York Public Library. Together with the poet William Butler Yeats and Sinn Fein activist Edward Martyn, she founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Yeats also freely credited her with contributing to his play Cathleen Ni Houlihan. It was she, he said, who was responsible for getting the dialect of the local peasantry right.

Though she was born into the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland and married into an aristocratic family, her sympathies were always with the common people, and she relished the Irish language, in spite of being forbidden from learning it as a child. After her husband Sir William Henry Gregory died in 1892, she threw herself into collecting folklore and trying to establish an Irish national theatre.

When the Abbey Theatre officially opened in 1904, it performed her short play Spreading the News along with Yeats' On Baile's Strand and Cathleen Ni Houlihan. Her biggest challenge as a producer came when the Abbey put on John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. The audience rioted, and when the company toured the United States, the play suffered the same fate in New York.

Irish Rep's piece goes over much of this history, with Una Clancy portraying Lady Gregory and a trio of other actors taking on a variety of roles. The production also fully stages two of Lady Gregory's one-act plays: Workhouse Ward and McDonough's Wife. These are rarely performed works, so get your tickets now!

Monday, February 10, 2020

Punch Drunk

This past weekend, people all over the world celebrated the 208th birthday of Charles Dickens. Here in the city, the Friends of Dickens New York held its annual Birthday Luncheon, inviting two professional puppeteers to give a presentation on the history of Punch and Judy.

Each year, the Friends of Dickens chooses a different novel to study, and this year we are reading The Old Curiosity Shop. The book tells the story of Little Nell and her wanderings through the countryside with her grandfather. At one point, they come upon two showmen who display a Punch and Judy show. Though the novel makes numerous allusions to the story of Punch, it never comes out and tells what that story is, since its original audience was already familiar with it and didn't need to be told.

In the 21st century, however, such puppet shows are far less familiar, so we were happy to welcome Gretchen Van Lente and Brendan T. Schweda to tell us a bit more about the Punch tradition. Gretchen is the Artistic Director of the puppetry company Drama of Works and wrote and starred in The Sid & Nancy Punch & Judy Show, which combines the story of Punch and Judy with that of the tragic tale of punk rocker Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. I first met her, though, when she designed the puppets for an adaptation I wrote of A Christmas Carol.

I had never met Brendan before, but he is a producer, performer, and author who started the Puppets Come Home! series to celebrate the history of puppetry in Coney Island and to welcome in the contemporary puppet community. In addition to being a Punch and Judy expert, he produces and hosts puppet shows with IBEX Puppetry and Coney Island USA. On Saturday, though, Brendan didn't just talk about puppetry, he briefly became a puppet, donning a giant Punch suit, complete with rubber mask!

The pair began by telling about the Punch character's origins in commedia dell'arte, the first recorded appearance of a Punch marionette in Covent Garden in the 17th century, and the famous engravings by George Cruikshank of hand puppets from a Punch and Judy show. Later, the puppet shows became beloved attractions at seaside resorts. Gretchen and Brendan showed slides of people watching these shows, including one slide of a Punch and Judy play at Coney Island at the beginning of the 20th century. We could almost smell the salt in the air!

Because Punch and Judy shows are a slapstick comedy (sometimes employing a literal slapstick wielded by Punch) they are easily adapted for a variety of purposes. Gretchen's The Sid & Nancy Punch & Judy Show is best seen live, but if you want to get a taste of it, there is video available. Instead of throwing the baby out the window, Punch/Sid throws the Sex Pistols out the window. Judy/Nancy beats him with a giant heroine needle, and he beats her back with his bass guitar. The aesthetic is pure punk rock.

A more traditional Punch and Judy show can be seen here. It still doesn't show us exactly what such a performance would have been like in Dickens's day, but it is a start. In any case, I was much obliged to Gretchen and Brendan for transporting us, at least for a little bit, back to an earlier era.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Barn is BURNED Tomorrow!

Tomorrow, New York Theatre Barn will be presenting songs and scenes from my new musical Burned at Improv Asylum Theatre.

Composer and lyricist Joshua H. Cohen and I have been working on Burned for a while now. The play is inspired by A.A. Milne's drama The Lucky One, but is reset during the 2007-2008 financial collapse.

We had a great rehearsal today. Brian Charles Rooney is playing Bob Farringdon in the reading, and Danny Harris Kornfeld is playing his brother Gerald. The amazing Taylor Iman Jones is portraying Gerald's fiancée Pamela. All three of them have wonderful voices.

In addition, we've got a fabulous supporting cast, including Loni Ackerman as Aunt Harriet, Amy Griffin as Cecilia, Miguel Jarquin-Moreland as Marcus, and Alex Getlin and Daniel Plimpton as the adorable couple Letty and Tommy. Jace Reinhard is also helping us out by reading stage directions.

Aaron Simon Gross is directing the reading, and Paul Rigano has done a wonderful job with music direction. The show goes up at 7pm, so get your tickets now!

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Cast of BURNED Announced

My new musical Burned, with songs by Joshua H. Cohen, will have a presentation next month at New York Theatre Barn, and we can now announce the cast.

New York Theatre Barn will be presenting an abridged version of the first act of Burned on Monday, February 3rd, at 7:00. It will be accompanied by selections from J. Douglas Waterbury-Tieman's new musical Johnny and the Devil's Box.

The cast of Burned will include Taylor Iman Jones (who was murderously good in Scotland, PA), Brian Charles Rooney (who memorably played Lucy Brown in The Threepenny Opera), and a number of other brilliant performers, including Loni Ackerman, Alex Getlin, Miguel Jarquin-Moreland, Danny Harris Kornfeld, Audrey Heffernan Meyer, and Daniel Plimpton.

Aaron Simon Gross is directing the reading. Previously, we've presented songs from the show at The Duplex and as part of Golden Fleece's Square One Series. The musical tells the story of two brothers whose long-standing rivalries come to a head when they find themselves ensnared in the financial crisis of 2007-8. Burned asks what we owe each other, and what we are owed.

The show has a rock score, and you can hear Owen Beans performing the title song here. February 3rd's reading will be held at Improv Asylum Theatre, 307 West 26th Street. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Hope you can make it!

Monday, January 13, 2020

Toy Theatres from the Girard Collection

Last month, I was in New Mexico and happened to visit the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. They had on display a number of toy theatres collected by Alexander Girard.

This is one of the oldest toy theatres in the collection. It comes from England, perhaps the 1820s. The Orientalist stage costumes are fairly common in British toy theatres, but I can't identify which play this is supposed to be.

This French toy theatre really fascinated me, in part due to what's written on the proscenium. The theatre enshrines the names of four writers popular in the early 19th century: Stéphanie Félicité, comtesse de Genlis (author of numerous moralizing dramas), Maria Edgeworth (most famous for novels like Castle Rackrent, but who also wrote plays for children), August von Kotzebue (a master of German melodrama whose plays are now mainly known for the music they inspired), and Vladislav Ozerov (a Russian dramatist whose tragedies were later overshadowed by the work of Alexander Pushkin).

Another French toy theatre caught by eye because the Théâtre de l’Ambigu-Comique was one of the more popular houses for melodrama in the early 19th century. It was located along the Boulevard du Temple, and helped to give that street the nickname of the Boulevard of Crime. This was not because crimes were committed in the neighborhood. You were quite safe walking on the street. But if you happened to be one of the characters in a melodrama being performed along the Boulevard du Temple, you better look out! All sorts of dastardly villains might be after you.

Here we see a puppet booth portrayed in a toy theatre. The French equivalent of Mr. Punch was Guignol, a puppet who also came out of the commedia dell'arte tradition. At the end of a century, when a non-puppet theatre named itself the Grand Guignol, the name was a bit of a joke, since the tiny character of Guignol was anything but grand.

Toy theatres were also popular in Germany and Denmark. This one comes from Germany. I like the Fairy-Tale aesthetic. Could this be the story of Sleeping Beauty? Hard to tell. I'm glad I got a chance to see it, though!

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Act One of BURNED Next Month

Next month, New York Theatre Barn will be kicking off the 13th season of their New Works Series with a reading of an abridged version of the first act of Burned, a new musical with a book by myself and music and lyrics by Joshua H. Cohen.

The reading will be held at 7:00 on Monday, February 3rd. It's being directed by Aaron Simon Gross. Josh and I are very excited to work with him, and while we can't announce our cast just yet, it's going to include some really talented people.

Burned was inspired by the play The Lucky One by A.A. Milne. It tells the story of two brothers whose relationship comes apart when one of them is arrested for financial fraud. Set against the 2007-08 financial crisis, the musical asks what we owe each other, and what we are owed.

Songs from Burned have been presented by the In the Works series at The Duplex, and by Golden Fleece's Square One. Josh and I have worked on two other musicals together, Ordinary Island (previously titled Maggie the Pirate) and (together with Lavell Blackwell) Keep on Walkin'.

Burned will be presented together with a selection from Johnny & the Devil's Box by J. Douglas Waterbury-Tieman, who is a member of The Lobbyists and was co-writer of the Drama Desk Award nominated musical SeaWife. It tells the story of a young man who believes he's the best fiddler that ever was, and aims to prove it, in spite of a diabolical challenge.

The full evening will be about 70 minutes and will be held at Improv Asylum, 307 West 26th Street in New York City. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. You can purchase advance tickets here.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

A Soldier's Play

Last night, I had the pleasure of seeing A Soldier's Play presented by Roundabout Theatre Company.  Charles Fuller's drama about the murder of an African American soldier outside a military base in Louisiana during World War II remains just as explosive today as when it first premiered in 1981.

Among other things, A Soldier's Play is a detective story, which is why it went on to become a popular film (retitled A Soldier's Story) and won an Edgar Award for mystery writing in addition to the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The plot is tightly constructed, and the acting in this production is impeccable, which is small surprise, since it was directed by Kenny Leon, whose staging of Much Ado About Nothing was one of the most remarkable productions of last season.

David Alan Grier, who is perhaps best known for his comedy, gives an exceptionally dramatic performance as the murdered sergeant, whose story is told in flashback throughout the piece. Grier was also in the original production of the play, albeit in the much smaller role of Corporal Cobb (now played by Rob Demery, making his Broadway debut). As Sergeant Vernon Waters, Grier doesn't flinch from portraying a man who is as cruel to others as he is treated, both victimizer and victim.

The sergeant's death is investigated by Captain Richard Davenport, an African American lawyer of considerable skill and training, who admits to the audience toward the beginning of the play, "The Army didn't know what to do with me." At first he suspects the local Ku Klux Klan of perpetrating the murder, but soon he finds signs pointing to a member of the military committing the crime. Blair Underwood, who is perhaps most famous from L.A. Law, is quite at home playing Davenport as the attorney drills his way to uncovering the truth.

What makes A Soldier's Play remarkable is that it turns the familiar genres of police procedural and legal drama into a probing exploration of race in America and the complexities of innocence and guilt. All of this is set against the background of the Second World War, with the threat of imminent death always hovering in the air.

The original Off-Broadway production boasted some rising stars, including Denzel Washington as  Private Peterson, and Samuel L. Jackson as Private Henson. Nnamdi Asomugha is playing Peterson in this production, and McKinley Belcher III is playing Henson. Both are more than up to the challenge of their roles.

A Soldier's Play will only be on Broadway until the Ides of March, so get your tickets soon!