Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Because I could not stop...

Last night I saw Ensemble for the Romantic Century's new show Because I Could Not Stop: An Encounter with Emily Dickinson.

Since its founding in 2001, the Ensemble has produced a number of shows featuring music and texts of the long nineteenth century, including pieces on Van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, Mary Shelley, and the Dreyfus Affair.

I've always been interested in their work, but this is the first time I've made it to one of their shows. My trepidation has always been a feeling of "Yes... lovely... but what exactly is it? A play? A concert? A musical?"

The answer, at least for this show, is all and none of the above. In Because I Could Not Stop we get to hear some lovely pieces of Dickinson's writing, and we also get to listen to gorgeous music by Amy Beach. There's not really a story, but some general themes that bind the evening together. Sort of.

Actress Angelica Page portrays Dickinson, and recites fragments of poems and letters that have been arranged by the musicologist and playwright James Melo. Unfortunately, we only get bits and scraps. Even the titular poem of the show isn't recited in its entirely. Also, director Donald T. Sanders has Page recite poetry and prose with the same cadence, so Dickinson's strong sense of meter is lost.

For me, the real discovery of the piece was Amy Beach, the American composer who was born in 1867, while Dickinson was at the height of her poetic powers, and who lived well into the 20th century, dying in 1944. Interestingly enough, both women were discovered at around the same time. The Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered Beach's Gaelic Symphony in 1896, the same year the third series of Dickinson's poetry was published posthumously.

Because I Could Not Stop uses Beach's 1908 composition Piano Quintet in F#-minor as its musical centerpiece. Other works come from even later in her career, in the 1930s. I found this a bit jarring, since Beach's 20th-century music does not sound like the songs that influenced Dickinson's poems, which closely followed the ballad meter used in church hymns of her time. The show also features soprano Kristina Bachrach, but only one of the songs she sings is a setting of a Dickinson poem (and that one composed by Ricky Ian Gordon rather than Beach).

Putting Dickinson and Beach together has the effect of making us marvel at two great artists side by side, but neither one seems to particularly inform the other one. It would be nice to have a show that felt more unified, but it's hard to complain when the two artists juxtaposed against each other are both so wonderful.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Not One-Woman Shows

I recently saw back-to-back two plays whose marketing makes them look like one-woman shows. Fortunately, both actually provide a diverse cast telling a story far more interesting than the one I had originally anticipated.

Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Theresa Rebeck's new play Bernhardt/Hamlet plays up the star power of actress Janet McTeer, who portrays the divine Sarah Bernhardt. See one of the great actors living play one of the greatest performers ever in what is probably the greatest role of all time! What more could you need?

Well, whether the play needs anything more, it gives us so very, very much more than that. For one thing, the supporting cast of Bernhardt's production of Hamlet is led by the great actor Constant Coquelin, played by Dylan Baker. Coquelin is more than willing to allow Berhardt to take center stage, despite the fact that he himself has played the role of Hamlet numerous times in the provinces.

Today, Coquelin is most famous for originating the title role in Edmond Rostand's play Cyrano de Bergerac, and Rostand himself appears in Bernhardt/Hamlet, played by Jason Butler Harner. Rostand is working on a new play, but Bernhardt's antics keep interrupting his writing. The audience can probably guess that the interrupted masterpiece is Cyrano, and Rebeck gives us a duel between two great artists, Berhardt trying to give a great performance, and Rostand trying to write a great play, both of them in the shadow of the great Shakespeare, who looms in the background like the ghost of Hamlet's father.

As if that weren't enough artists for one play, Rebeck also introduces us to the Czech painter and theatre poster designer Alphonse Mucha, played by Matthew Saldivar. Mucha is deservedly famous for his Art Nouveau posters featuring Bernhardt, and his poster for Hamlet was one of his most iconic creations. Perhaps the most memorable performance in the play, however, is by Ito Aghayere, who plays Rostand's wife Rosamond. The historical Rosemonde GĂ©rard has come to be known as a rather second-rate poet in spite of her fame in her own lifetime, and Rebeck turns her into a portrait of a woman determined to make sure others create great art even if she cannot create it herself.

After being delighted by Bernhardt/Hamlet, I went with a little bit of trepidation to New York Theatre Workshop to see Heidi Schreck's new play What the Constitution Means to Me. I loved Schreck's Creature and There Are No More Big Secrets, but the last play I saw at NYTW was an unimaginative piece of garbage, so I was rather afraid I would be disappointed. Fortunately, I was not. Though Schreck's latest work doesn't have the supernatural elements of some of her earlier pieces, it is filled with a magical theatricality that gives it a similar air of the uncanny.

What the Constitution Means to Me is inspired by Schreck's experience as a teenager traveling to various towns to enter contests by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in which high school students gave speeches about the U.S. Constitution. Schreck's mother was a debate coach, and she created a bit of a racket for her daughter, driving large distances so she could enter what were supposed to be regional competitions for scholarship money. It worked, and Schreck was able to pay for her college education with her winnings.

This all sounds like a set-up for a one-woman show, but again, the play provides us with something much more unexpected, and altogether delightful. Schreck is accompanied onstage by actor Mike Iveson, who plays a VFW moderator giving her warning signs when she approaches her time limit and ringing a bell at the end of sections of her speech. Later, Iveson speaks directly to the audience not as a character, but as himself, as Schreck does throughout the piece. Both speak from the heart about not just the troubled history of our nation, but their own troubled personal histories, emphasizing how the personal and the political intersect.

The third performer in the show is a high-school debater, played on alternate nights by Rosdely Ciprain and Thursday Williams. I saw Williams, who charmingly won over the audience, and not surprisingly beat Schreck hands-down in the debate at the end of the show. Get your tickets now. Both Bernhardt/Hamlet and What the Constitution Means to Me are well worth seeing.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Yes, We Do Need Announcements About Taking Photographs During the Show

When you're sitting in a theatre, and a play is going on, a play that your neighbors probably paid good money to see, you don't take pictures. You just don't.

I remember going to see a musical adaptation of the Euripides play Cyclops and the woman right next to me whipped out a large camera and started taking pictures of the action. I motioned to her to put the camera away, but she didn't respond. "You're not supposed to take pictures during the show," I whispered. "Actors Equity has rules against it."

The mention of Actors Equity seemed to register with her. After the show, she told me that the guy playing the cyclops was a former roommate of her son, and she was very excited to see him. She said she had no idea that the union had rules about that sort of thing, and she apologized for using the camera. I told her not to worry about it. She knew now for the future.

Of course, it isn't just Actors Equity that has issues with people taking photographs of plays. The set of Charles Mee's First Love at the Cherry Lane Theatre was quite extraordinary, and a friend of mine decided to take a snapshot of it before the play began. An usher immediately rushed over and asked her to delete the photo. "Intellectual property," she explained. Set designers don't want their work exploited either. It's simple. When you're at a play, you don't take pictures.

Except when you do. When I saw History Alive present the play Cry Innocent at the ATHE conference in Boston, the performers announced that photographs were permitted. However, they explicitly said that we were not allowed to record any video. Well, during the show an audience member started recording video and had to be told by a neighbor to stop it. As with my experience during Cyclops, a conscientious audience member was able to stop a banned practice.

Unfortunately, audiences these days don't seem capable of policing themselves without an announcement from the theatre. Last week, I waited in line for hours to see The Public Theatre's production of The Gospel at Colonus in Central Park. I then spent most of the first act being distracted by a sea of digital screens belonging to people trying to record video of the performance. At first, the ushers didn't seem to care in the slightest. Eventually, the screens started going out, including (at long last) the one being used by the woman with pink hair right in my line of sight. (You know who you are!) Perhaps ushers did belatedly give some warnings.

Before the play began, though, there were no pre-show announcements. I imagine that was to preserve the artistic integrity of the production, which included actors mingling with the audience, welcoming us all to the town of Colonus. We all know not to behave like animals (right?) and a pre-show announcement might have interfered with the mood the production was trying to create. I agree that pre-show announcements shouldn't be necessary before a play, but the fact is, tons of people (and one very annoying person several rows in front of me) apparently can't be relied upon to just do the right thing.

Last night I saw a great show at the Producers Club called Rum & Pirates. The performers announced at the beginning of the show that audience members were welcome to take photos, but could not take video. In spite of the fact that each member of the audience was served three rum drinks over the course of the show (or perhaps because of it), everyone behaved themselves. There were a few screens visible occasionally as folks took single pictures, but for the most part people weren't jerks, and no one tried to take video for minutes and minutes, annoying fellow patrons.

There's a big difference between a boozy audience at the Producers Club and the cultured spectators going to the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, but if anything you would expect the audience at the Delacorte to be more respectful, and that wasn't the case. The fact is, audience expectations are changing, and if you want audience members to behave themselves, perhaps they simply have to be told what they can and cannot do.

Of course, it wouldn't hurt if the ushers at the Delacorte were a little more quick on their feet, either.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Heartbreak House Remodeled

Last night, I saw Gingold Theatrical Group's exciting new production of Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw.

GTG is billing the version as an "adaptation" as it resets this play about World War I as a play-within-a-play being performed in a theatre basement during the bombing of London during World War II.

The adaptation is inspired by actual events. The actress Hermione Gingold (for whom the company was named) performed at the Ambassadors Theatre during the blitz, and when an air raid began, people both in the theatre and from the surrounding area would take refuge in the theatre's basement. To keep people's spirits up, the actors would entertain the crowd in the basement by performing plays, and the most frequently requested piece was Heartbreak House.

GTG's production recreates this experience by handing out a fake program for the Ambassadors Theatre. (Don't worry. You'll get a Playbill at the end of the evening.) As the audience peruses the vintage advertisements in the program, the cast wanders in, each in the character of someone from the 1940s. Kimberly Immanuel (who was a part of Classic Stage Company's Pacific Overtures last year) is a waitress from a restaurant across the street, and Raphael Nash Thompson (who was wonderful in Fucking A at the Signature Theatre Company) is a night watchman.

After the doors are closed, we are introduced to the producer (Derek Smith) of a musical revue that has been cancelled due to the air raid. An actress (Alison Fraser) is dressed in the type of ridiculous costume you would expect in a revue from the 1940s, and a stage manager (Jeff Hiller) tries to keep order as we all take refuge in the theatre basement. They decide to put on an impromptu performance of Heartbreak House with the actress as Lady Ariadne Utterwood, the night watchman as Captain Shotover, the producer as Boss Mangan, the waitress as Ellie Dunn, and the stage manager filling in for a variety of small roles.

The text they perform, however, is not the one most people familiar with the play will know. Director David Staller assembled a script from various early drafts of the play, which Shaw actually started before the outbreak of the First World War. Though the play was intended as a warning to the audience about the war, it did not premiere until 1920 in a production by the New York Theatre Guild. By that time, the war was over, and the play was received as a reminder of a world that had passed rather than as an urgent piece of resistance.

Staller's production becomes a hymn to the perseverance of humanity in times of darkness. Ridiculous characters like Hesione Hushabye (played wonderfully by Karen Ziemba) and her husband Hector (a delightfully goofy Tom Hewitt) become ennobled in the face of danger, and the earnest Mazzini Dunn (Broadway veteran Lenny Wolpe) comes off as a representative of all that is good and honest in humanity.

This shift requires a different ending than readers of the play will remember. Shaw concluded the final version of Heartbreak House with a fascination with death, as was appropriate for its post-war premiere. Staller changes the finale to match the atmosphere of London during the blitz, which keeps the audience in suspense even if they already know the play.

If you want to see Heartbreak House, it's playing on Theatre Row until September 29th. Get your tickets here.