Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Streets of New York

Last night, I was privileged to attend the first preview of the magnificent revival of The Streets of New York now at Irish Repertory Theatre.

Dion Boucicault originally wrote the play in 1857. He was already famous for penning such comedies as London Assurance and Used Up when he set about adapting a French melodrama called The Poor of Paris by Edouard-Louis-Alexandre Brisbarre and Eugene Nus. He reset the story in New York City and opened it as The Poor of New York at Wallack's Theatre on Broadway.

The action of the play begins during the Panic of 1837, then jumps ahead 20 years to the Panic of 1857, a crisis that was still ongoing when the show opened. This present adaptation, known as The Streets of New York (as most other revivals of the play have been called) includes original songs by director Charlotte Moore that turn it into a full-blown musical. And when did Irish Rep last stage the show? Why, 20 years ago, in 2001!

In a program note by Moore and Irish Rep's producing director, Ciaran O'Reilly, the theatre states that they first did the show in the wake of 9/11, and now faced with the challenge of our present crisis, they "have chosen to meet it head-on and celebrate with music and fun and laughter." None of those things--music, fun, and laughter--are in short supply in the present production, which stars Ben Jacoby as our hero, Mark Livingston, and David Hess as the villainous banker, Gideon Bloodgood.

The production does not shy away from its melodramatic origins. There is even a song called "Villains" with Bloodgood and his accomplice Badger (played magnificently by Justin Keyes) all but twirling their mustaches. Instead of being embarrassed by the over-the-top dramatics, however, the audience eats it up and asks for seconds. When Badger collapsed unconscious right before revealing the location of a vital document, the audience last night burst into applause.

Moore even manages to improve upon the original play with the introduction of Dixie Puffy (played by Jordan Tyson), the pistol-toting daughter of the the beloved bakers in the play who becomes a love-interest for Paul Fairweather, best friend of the hero and brother to the virtuous heroine Lucy Fairweather. Ryan Vona and Delaney Westfall do great jobs as the Fairweather siblings, but Amanda Jane Cooper threatens to steal the show as Alida Bloodgood, the villain's spoiled and scheming daughter.

The production is only playing until January 30th, so get your tickets now!

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Christmas is Coming!

It's A Christmas Carol season again, and as I previously announced, Passage Theatre Company in Trenton, New Jersey will be presenting my two-person adaptation of A Christmas Carol on December 11th.

Not everyone will be able to get to the event, or feel comfortable doing so in the current Covid environment, especially if they happen to be vulnerable to the virus. That's why the theatre is also offering an opportunity for people to stream the performance from home.

If you're interested in attending this one-night holiday event, either virtually or in person, click here for more information. Tickets are $50 for the in-person performance and $25 to watch streaming. Your contribution will also help to support an important non-profit theatre serving the greater Trenton community.

Doors will open at 6pm with carolers, warm beverages, and sweet treats in the courtyard. The performance begins at 7pm. If you do come in person, masks and proof of vaccination are required.

Whether you watch the show live or streaming, I hope you can join us!

Friday, November 26, 2021

Sor Juana at the Grolier Club

In September, Red Bull Theater Company sponsored a virtual reading of the play Love is the Greater Labyrinth by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and Juan de Guevara. That play is just one of the many works by Sor Juana, a 17th-century nun from "New Spain" (now Mexico).

If you happen to be around the Grolier Club in Manhattan, they currently have a free exhibition called "Treasures from the Hispanic Society Library" which showcases, among other things, some of the early printed work by Sor Juana. She was particularly well known for her Villancicos, dramatic carols sung in Spanish inside the cathedral on feast days.

Generally, only works in Latin could be performed in the cathedral repeatedly, so each year a new Villancico had to be composed for each feast day celebration. Being written in the vernacular, the pieces were meant to appeal to all classes of people, including not just colonists of Spanish descent like Sor Juana herself, but also Indigenous people, enslaved people of African descent, and those of mixed background.

Many of Sor Juana's Villancicos use conventional dialects and smatterings of Indigenous languages to note the differences among the diverse population coming to the cathedral, but the works always emphasize the commonality of the worshippers, who are equal in the sight of God. In a Villancico written for the Feast of Saint Peter, for instance, after several verses, a Black man enters, playing upon a gourd and proclaiming salvation for those who have been enslaved. Then, an educated Spaniard with a heavy Castilian accent enters, sprinkling his speech with Latin. Then a Mestizo singer come on, speaking both Spanish and Nahuatl.

Sor Juana had already anonymously published three other Villancicos when her Villancico for the Feast of Saint Peter was published in 1677, but it was the first printed work to actually bear her name. There are only two copies of this printing known to exist, one of which you can see on display at the Grolier Club:


Sor Juana was equally known for her secular verses. In fact, the 20th-century Mexican poet Octavio Paz later identified her as the Founding Mother of Latin American poetry. Here's a picture of a book of poems Sor Juana published in 1689, including some rather biting indictments of the foolishness of men:


Perhaps Sor Juana's most well known work, however, is her religious play The Divine Narcissus. She famously added to this allegorical drama a loa, or introductory piece, which was conventionally quite simple, but in Sor Juana's hands, the loa grew into a full one-act play, in this case staging the conquest of America and the conversion of Indigenous people. The Divine Narcissus was originally published in Madrid as part of a collection of her work, but it was subsequently printed in Mexico City in 1690.


The exhibition at the Grolier Club is running until December 18th, so if you haven't seen it, make your plans to go soon. Tickets are free, but they ask that you make reservations in advance and bring proof of vaccination.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Giving Thanks Again

This time of year, it's always good to give thanks for all that we've received. With the devastation we've all witnessed in the past couple of years, it can sometimes feel like there isn't much left to be grateful for, but the fact is there are many out there trying to make the world a better place, and using theatre to do that.

So first and foremost, I'm grateful to Passage Theatre Company, which will be performing my adaptation of A Christmas Carol next month in Trenton, New Jersey. C. Ryanne Domingues is directing the two-hander about Scrooge's visitation by his deceased partner and a trio of other spirits. It will be a one-night holiday event on December 11th.

I'm also grateful for Actors' Theatre in Santa Cruz, California. Their 8 Tens @ 8 Festival, billed as the longest running short play festival in America, will be including my short play Kew Gardens next year. The festival runs from January 14th to February 6th. Bill Peters is directing this one-woman show that stars Sienna Thorgusen.

Closer to home, Gingold Theatrical Group is another group I'm grateful to have around, not just for their wonderful production of Mrs. Warren's Profession, but also for kindly inviting me to take part in a panel discussion about the play earlier this month. They also will be having a special staged reading of Bernard Shaw's Village Wooing next month.

During the height of the pandemic, it was scrappy companies like Irish Repertory Theatre that did the most to keep theatre alive, putting many of the larger organizations in New York City to shame. I'm grateful to Irish Rep both for all of the virtual performances they put on and for their coming return to live performance with a production of Dion Boucicault's The Streets of New York.

The nights are getting longer, but there is a light in the darkness, and the dark has not overcome it. Let's be grateful for that as we try to build back something better than what we had before.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Mrs. Warren Redux

Tonight, I participated in a lively panel discussion about the play Mrs. Warren's Profession hosted by Gingold Theatrical Group, the company currently producing the show off-Broadway on Theatre Row.

Bernard Shaw wrote the play back in 1893, but it was immediately banned in Britain and did not receive any production until 1902, when the Stage Society presented a private performance for one day only. Audience members had to nominally join a special club in order to evade censorship rules.

A production three years later in New York City resulted in the entire cast getting arrested. Shaw kept trying to get the play produced in London, periodically resubmitting it to the censor's office. Critics attacked the piece for its frank discussion of prostitution, but Shaw knew that wasn't the real reason they hated it. He wrote in 1917:

I greatly doubt whether it will ever be licensed in this country, because it has against it the huge commercial interests in prostitution.... I think a really good performance of Mrs. Warren's Profession would keep its audience out of the hands of the women of the street for a fortnight at least. And that is precisely why it encounters an opposition unknown in the case of plays which stimulate the sex illusion.

Well, it wasn't literally the commercial interests in sex work that kept the play banned, but Mrs. Warren's Profession does expose how the entire capitalist system reduces human beings to the lowest states of degradation. Because of the play's history of censorship, tonight panel included Christopher Finan, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. He warned that censorship is increasing in the United States, in spite of a recent Supreme Court decision.

Other panelists included Stephen Brown-Fried, who directed a wonderful production of Shaw's Misalliance at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Ellen Dolgin of the International Shaw Society, esteemed Shaw critic Martin Meisel, lawyer Ethan E. Litwin, Liam Prendergast, who assistant directed GTG's production of Caesar and Cleopatra, and Sarah Rose Kearns, who penned the adaptation of Persuasion recently staged by Bedlam. David Staller, who directed the current production of Mrs. Warren's Profession, moderated.

It was great to be in such distinguished company discussing such a fascinating play. If you haven't seen it yet, the production is still running until November 20th. GTG will also be doing a one-night-only staging of Shaw's delightful comedy Village Wooing on December 13th, with Maryann Plunkett and Jay O. Sanders.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

The Curious Case of the Missing Playwright

Last night I saw Alice Childress's play Trouble in Mind in its long-delayed Broadway run. The piece, which features an actor and a director arguing over whether or not to change the ending of a play, was rather remarkable for leaving a key figure out of the story: The playwright.

Of course Alice Childress was herself a playwright, and a rather accomplished one. By the time Trouble in Mind had its original off-Broadway run in 1955, she had already written (and starred in) Florence, her one-act play about a struggling young actress, and adapted for the stage Langston Hughes's novel Simple Speaks His Mind, and scored a professional success with her play Gold Through the Trees.

Why, then, did Childress portray a debate about how a play should be written with no playwright on stage, and with the fictitious dramatist hardly even mentioned? In the 1950s, playwrights were typically integral to rehearsals of new plays, so the absence of a writer at the rehearsals portrayed in Trouble in Mind is curious, and I don't recall the play giving any reason for his absence. Yes, his. Unlike Childress, the imaginary dramatist in the play is a man, and also unlike her, he is white.

In addition, unlike Childress, he doesn't know how to write. The scenes we get of the play-within-the-play are pretty dreadful, and generally overacted to the point that we start to wonder if Michael Frayn was thinking of Trouble in Mind when he penned his backstage farce Noises Off. Had Childress portrayed the writer of these bumbling scenes, he probably would have looked like a fool. Still, to cut him out of the process completely, and to portray writing decisions as being power struggles between actors and directors seems... odd.

Childress herself directed the original production of Trouble in Mind, during which she was ironically pressured to change the ending of the play. In her case, the pressure came from the producers rather than the actors, which makes sense, as such decisions are supposed to be between producers and playwrights, not directors and actors. Childress's sympathies in the play seem to be mainly with actors, and their powerlessness to choose the words they have to perform.

As a playwright herself, though, Childress left an absence at the center of the show that mirrors the American stage today. Unlike in the 1950s, dramatists today are frequently being left out of decisions, for the simple reason that compared to the mid-twentieth century, almost no new plays are being performed. According to BroadwayWorld.com, almost 70 plays and musicals opened on Broadway in 1955, the year Trouble in Mind premiered. Those plays included A View from the Bridge, Bus Stop, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

In 2019, the last pre-pandemic year, there were only 34 openings, most of them revivals or musicals. It seems unsurprising to me that Trouble in Mind is finally making its Broadway premiere only after the playwright is safely deceased and unable to object to any choices made by actors, directors, and producers. The disappearance of the dramatist from Childress's play is in some ways oddly prophetic, since playwrights are increasingly being erased from the American theatre in general.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

The Alchemist

The prologue to Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist begins: "Fortune, that favours fools, these two short hours / We wish away..." It is a reminder that Jacobean plays rarely ran much over two hours.

If you have the good Fortune to see Red Bull Theater Company's production of The Alchemist, currently running at New World Stages in an adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher, those hours will seem short indeed.

The cast is entirely game, and they bring off Jonson's witty comedy with remarkable aplomb. The setting, a London house abandoned by its owner during an outbreak of the plague, seems remarkably apt for New Yorkers in 2021, especially those of us who stuck it out during the height of COVID-19 deaths, having no country houses to retreat to when the going got rough.

Staying in the house are a trio of con artists: a servant named Face (Manoel Feliciano, who played the villainous De Flores in Red Bull's production of The Changeling), a fraudulent alchemist named Subtle (the oily Reg Rogers), and a cunning vixen named Dol Common (a stunning Jennifer Sanchez). It is Dol who takes the lead in this production, though, using her wit, beauty, and sexual prowess to get what she wants.

And what is it she wants? The same thing everyone wants in the world of The Alchemist: GOLD! Few people lust after the yellow metal as much as Sir Epicure Mammon, though, who is perhaps Jonson's most memorable character in the play. Mammon is a larger-than-life figure whose appetites rival those of nearly any other character from the period. In order to find his equal, one would have to look to such behemoths as William Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff.

Fortunately, Mammon is played in this production by Jacob Ming-Trent, who starred as Falstaff this summer in the Public Theater's production of Merry Wives. He fills the stage with laughter whenever he appears, aided by over-the-top costumes designed by Tilly Grimes (who also designed Red Bull's hysterical production of The Government Inspector, likewise adapted by Hatcher).

Other brilliant cast members include Stephen DeRosa as the anabaptist Ananais, Nathan Christopher as the tobacconist Abel Drugger, and Carson Elrod as the gambler Dapper. The plot picks up steam when Face and Subtle both get designs on a rich, sexy widow named Dame Pliant, played by Teresa Avia Lim (Cleopatra in GTG's Caesar and Cleopatra). But to get to her, they'll have to deal with her choleric brother Kastril (Allen Tedder) and the appropriately named Surly (Louis Mustillo).

Director Jesse Berger ably conducts this magnificent cast, and the set designed by Alexis Distler looks nice enough to live in--even if you have to weather a plague in order to stay there. Tickets are available now, so get them soon. The show is currently only running through December 19th.