Category Archives: Broadway

Manhattan Theatre Club’s ‘Choir Boy’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Directed by Trip Cullman

Manhattan Theatre Club, Choir Boy, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Nicholas L. Ashe, Trip Cullman, John Clay III, Caleb Eberhardt, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope,

(L to R): Niholas L. Ashe, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope, Caleb Eberhardt, John lay III in ‘Choir Boy,’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney, directed by Trip Cullman (Michael Murphy)

Choir Boy written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, superbly directed by Trip Cullman is a tour de force that thrills with its beauty and grace and grieves with its recognition that a fine education may advance one in the world, but it doesn’t answer the longing in one’s heart for individual love and acceptance. And so it goes for Pharus Jonathan Young a super achiever who places all his investment in his golden voice and ambitious pride to excel and be someone despite the abuse he receives at the hands of the adult male black community in his hometown and the teenage black students at The Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys. Drew, as it’s affectionately known, is an elite, religious, black, male prep school which shapes black men to be accepted into Ivy League Schools and shepherds them toward sterling behavior to succeed in their careers and in life. The question is, as always in Prep Schools. Are the sub rosa mores being transmitted a benefit or a nullification?

Choir Boy opens with the 49th Commencement for Charles R. Drew Prep’s graduating seniors. The gorgeous voice of Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope in a vibrant, nuanced and fierce portrayal) rings out into the auditorium as he leads the choir in a song about “Trusting and Obeying Jesus” as the only way to happiness. The irony of the song and what occurs during the singing is reflective of the play’s underlying themes. It also is the linchpin upon which rests much of the action to follow.

Jeremy Pope, Chuck Cooper, Choir Boy, Manhattan Theatre Club, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Trip Cullman

(L to R): Jeremy Pope, Chuck Cooper in ‘Choir Boy,’ directed by Trip Cullman, Manhattan Theatre Club (Michael Murphy)

What the staff, family and friends of the graduating seniors do not hear are the whispered insults and defamations by Bobby Marrow one of the choir members who clearly disdains and despises Pharus. Upset, distracted, Pharus stops singing and turns around to confront Bobby in a stare down. Bobby who achieves what he wants, to upset and deflect Pharus from his concentration, silences his whisperings. These opening salvos of raw animosity and tension between Bobby (J Quinton Johnson’s aggressions and rage are sustained throughout) and Pharus reveal the conflict which McCraney intensifies and escalates in this thrilling production that is currently at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

After the ceremony, Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper employs his adroit acting skills with moment-to-moment precision) reprimands Pharus for stopping in mid-song, however, Pharus cleverly responds and we understand that he will not be cowed and will maintain his dignity and honor.  Though Marrow presses him to explain, Pharus who has been voted as Choir Lead because of his hard work and golden voice evokes the “behavior of a “Drew man.” He tells Headmaster Marrow (the name is more than ironic), “A Drew man doesn’t tell on his brother. He allows him the honor of confessing himself.” The conflict is clearly expressed, and we understand Pharus is proud of being elected to head the choir which school-wide is considered an honor. However, we wonder why Bobby has chosen to slur Pharus’ sexuality and use the “N” word to demean him. Is this mere jealousy? Or has Pharus provoked him?

Choir Boy, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Manhattan Theatre ClubNicholas L. Ashe, Jonathan Burke, John Clay III, Caleb Eberhardt, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope

(L to ): Nicholas L. Ashe, Jonathan Burke, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope, Caleb Eberhardt, John Clay III, Gerald Caesar in ‘Choir Boy,’ Manhattan Theatre Club (Michael Murphy)

Thus, from the outset, McCraney and the fine direction and staging of the opening scenes by Trip Cullman have engaged us. From this point on we are intrigued to learn about these two individuals and discover whether they will resolve their differences by themselves or with the help of the Headmaster and their friends in the choir.

McCraney’s play is a hybrid (musical, comedy, drama). It is not easily defined or pigeonholed and this is just one of its astounding brilliances. For at crucial junctures in the arc of the plot development, the boys’ chorus breaks into shimmering songs during various practice sessions. And there are dance and rhythmic numbers that relate to the themes. Additionally, humor abides throughout. Yet, there is pathos. In short all the emotional peaks and valleys in life are pinged and resonate with truthfulness.

McCraney’s characterizations are right-on. The leads are distinct individuals; they are finely drawn and by the conclusion of the play we note their development. In an irony reminiscent of our current divisive culture, the young men align either with Pharus or Bobby and the behind-the-scenes dynamic of support and friendship escalates the conflict between the two adversaries throughout. the action.

Choir Boy, Austin Pendleton, Nicholas L. Ashe, John Clay III, Caleb Eberhardt, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Trip Cullman

The cast of ‘Choir Boy’ on Broadway (Michael Murphy)

Additionally, McCraney reveals how the characters negotiate the mores of Drew with lip service and sometime sincerity. Intrigue and surreptitiousness are necessary to get along. And it is the intrigue that crashes into the barricade of Drew “do’s and don’ts” that the characters cannot help but contravene. Thus, they bloody themselves. As a result the explosive scenes bring this incredible social and cultural expose of a black young men’s prep school into the same territory as any white male prep school. Though Drew has a religious fundamental base, the rages, the conflicts, the loves defy class, color, economics. The human heart and human nature unfortunately run true to form. Overcoming evil intent is hard won everywhere. How the protagonist Pharus manages to triumph despite his own self-destructive impulses and need to “be Pharus” is the crux of the play.

The themes relating to division, separation, isolation and, remaining proud and courageous when others attempt to destroy you, McCraney explores with these individuals using humor, song, dance. The plot twists startle. The play’s dynamic is well constructed. From the initial conflict, Bobby, Pharus and their friends and foes are sent spinning until they reach their destinations.

Importantly, from the outset, we understand that the stakes for Pharus and a few other non-legacy young men are very high. Non-legacy men have advanced to Drew by merit based upon their efforts and skills. Pharus has worked very hard to receive a scholarship which he must maintain to take the shot he’s been given or fall by the wayside like other young black men. Thus, in his discussion with Headmaster Marrow, we learn that for Pharus, his newly appointed position as Choir Lead means everything to him. But would he risk that for something even more important?

Jeremy Pope, Choir Boy, Manhattan Theatre Club, Caleb Eberhardt

(L to R): Jeremy Pope,Caleb Eberhardt, ‘Choir Boy,’ Manhattan Theatre Club, Broadway (Michael Murphy)

On the other hand, legacy men like Bobby don’t have Pharus’ worries. Additionally, Bobby enjoys the favor of his uncle’s being the Headmaster. As the arc of development moves toward its climax, we note that Bobby is hell-bent on unseating Pharus and taking the honor for himself. Who will win, who will lose? Clarity of conflict and the high stakes are the genius of this production along with the sensational choral work, the dancing, sensitive acting and the extraordinary meld of the ensemble, all of which makes Choir Boy a uniquely enthralling work..

During the course of the production, we discover the dynamic interplay of the young men who are part of the chorus that Pharus has been chosen to lead because of his academic excellence and golden voice. All who have lead roles are just terrific. Junior Davis, foil of Johnson’s Bobby, nearly stops the show with his hysterical dancing to impress Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton, is humorously grand. Yet he’s expressively and authentically emotional when he reacts to Bobby’s use of the “N” word. It’s a hallowed, stirring moment.) Caleb Eberhardt’s David Heard is sensitive and solid in his portrayal. The sadness he evokes as he walks away from the school is an injustice we take to heart. As Pharus’ roommate and friend Anthony Justin ‘AJ’ James, John Clay III is superb. His comedic timing is spot on and his poignance and humanity is what is needed to help Pharus deal with the acute pain of life-long devastation he is trying to work through.

The production would not be as superb as it is without the following creative artists’ efforts. Special and heartfelt kudos to Jason Michael Webb (Music Direction, Arrangements & Original Music) David Zinn (Scenic & Costume Design), Peter Kaczorowski (Lighting Design) Fitz Patton (Original Music & Sound Design) Cookie Jordan (Hair & Makeup Design) Thomas Schall (Fight Direction) Camille A. Brown (Choreography).

Don’t walk, run to see Choir Boy at The Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. The production has no intermission and runs one hour forty-five minutes until 24 February. You can call for tickets at 212-239-6200, go in person to the Friedman or get tickets online at their website.

 

‘The Lifespan of a Fact,’ Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale

Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale, The Lifespan of a Fact, Leigh Silverman

(L to R): Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale in ‘The Lifespan of a Fact,’ directed by Leigh Silverman (Peter Cunningham)

What are facts? What is truth? Can you state truth without a factual basis? These questions debated for centuries have been redefined in every age. Playwrights Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell refine the debate in an intriguing and humorous go-around between a fact-checker and his essayist in The Lifespan of a Fact. The play incisively directed by Leigh Silverman is comically paced for its light side. And its darker side leads to questions about how information, “facts” may be misused in the wrong hands. The production suits in our time of “alternative facts,” and truths skewed to make a larger point about the human condition.

Based on the titular book/essay written by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, the “true” story tells what happened when Jim Fingal fact-checked John D’Agata’s poignant essay about a teen’s suicide at a Las Vegas resort. The play explores their individual perspectives about the importance of writing for impact despite the inaccuracy of ancillary background details. But more importantly, it explores personality types and the very funny heightened alerts that sound when an obsessive compulsive, detail-driven nerdy researcher clashes with a loosey-goosey, poetic, symbolic, “going meta” writer with panache.

The conflict generates when Emily Penrose accomplished, saavy editor of a magazine chooses John D’Agata’s piece because of its social import. In hoping to get the article turned around for publication in less than five days, Emily appoints Jim Fingal. As the fact-checker he will ground the details of D’Agata’s piece for consonance and coherence to reality.

Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, The Lifespan of a Fact, Leigh Silverman

Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, ‘The Lifespan of a Fact,’ directed by Leigh Silverman (Peter Cunningham)

Cherry Jones portrays editor Emily Penrose with humor, good will, yet stern determination. Strong-willed and no nonsense, yet measured, she selects her new hire, Jim, quickly assessing him and asking all the right questions. Happy with his reasonable answers, she sets him spinning off on his journey. Indeed, her expectation rides on Jim’s assurances that he will make the deadline. Ironically, the opposite occurs. Not because the fact-checker is incompetent. But because his magnificent competence strains the credulity of time and patience.

As Jim, Daniel Radliffe reveals his gifts for timing. He employs the right amount of deadpan edginess. And his ironic delivery isn’t quite over the top, but appears organic with his researcher ethos. Though he exasperates Emily, he does so out of ego pride of meticulousness. Indeed, she does not fault him for doing a fine job. And despite Radcliffe’s history with owls and wands, we appreciate  his portrayal of Jim’s excellence, however a tad outrageous. When you see this too good to miss production, consider the traffic map which Jim uses to prove John’s inaccuracy on the day of the teen’s suicide.

Bobby Cannavale stands on the opposite continuum of Radcliffe’s Jim and pushes back with parries, jibes and wordy counter punches. Cannavale’s portrayal has John D’Agata’s indignation finely tuned. And we respond with riotous laughter. His initial attitude toward the fact-checking assaulter of his exquisite prose reveals a huge ego. Despite all the word talk, these male egos can barely be in the room together. What a pleasure to watch Radcliffe and Cannavale go head to head.

Indeed, after the two meet, we note their reactions pair beautifully with their physical types. Jim, fits the researcher twerp type, diminutive in stature and voice but a giant in intellect and research skills. By comparison John D’Agata’s muscular presence and bruising confident carriage signals macho. The irony that he is a romantic and goes for the meta sources the humor between them. However, the fact-checker holds sway. And D’Agata becomes affronted by the miscalculations Jim tells Emily that John has made. How dare this guy attempt to restrain and retrain his ineffable, high-minded prose?

Daniel Radcliffe, 'The Lifespan of a Fact,' Leigh Silverman

Daniel Radcliffe in ‘The Lifespan of a Fact,’ directed by Leigh Silverman (Peter Cunningham)

Of course the humor explodes every time Jim attempts to toggle John. And the exceptional Bobby Cannavale’s bite challenges worse than his roar. Indeed, only Emily can straighten out the warfare between the two. How this evolves and resolves remains as the meat of the play. Indeed, she exquisitely maneuvers the two male egos, forces them to recede and calls upon “their better angels” to emerge.

This ensemble piece moves quickly. It arrives at its non resolution resolution with delectable, sometimes rolling in the aisles comedy. The philosophical arguments hold worthwhile import. Emily as the arbiter explains why responsibility for accuracy must be taken with extreme seriousness for publications. And yet, the vitality of striking the readers’ emotions with well-written prose that sings also must be taken seriously. Thus, the two perspectives must combine with equanimity. One must not submerge the other. Indeed, John’s intimation at truth is not enough. Facts secure it and make our feelings about an essay indelible and irrevocable.

Silverman’s direction and staging works well. The emails written among Emily, John and Jim provide the opening salvos of humor. Through screen projections we get to read and appreciate the writing styles of both the researcher and the essayist. Of course, the humor and explosions escalate during their live interactions as the notorious Jim investigates the scene of the suicide and visits the uber frustrated John. How Emily arrives at the scene to stem these two embattled paces with LMAO humor.

You will enjoy the superb cast who Silverman has brimming with fast-paced quips that slide down easily. Their finest scenes take place in John’s Las Vegas home when each faces off against the other. How they negotiate their own ire, frustration, and need to harangue mentors us with the silence of their inner thoughts and the power of their words. With intellect, logic and rationality they persuade. How refreshing!

Kudos go to Mimi Lien for Scenic Design, Linda Cho for Costume Design and Jen Schriever for Lighting Design. For Original Music and Sound Design we have Palmer Hefferan and for Projection Design, Lucy MacKinnon. For Hair and Wig Design, kudos to Charles G. Lapointe.

The Lifespan of a Fact currently runs at Studio 54 (254 W 54th) with no intermission until 13 January. You can purchase tickets at their website.

 

 

 

 

‘Network’ on Broadway, Starring Bryan Cranston

Bryan Cranston, Lee Hall, Network, Paddy Chayefsky, Ivo Van Hove, Lee Hall

Bryan Cranston and cast in ‘Network,’ adapted by Lee Hall based on the Paddy Chayefsky film, directed by Ivo Van Hove (Jan Versweyveld)

Paddy Chayefsky’s gobsmacking 1976 film satire Network (directed by Sidney Lumet), provides a searing example of the noxious morphing of Broadcast News toward lurid entertainment. Also, its timeless themes about the ubiquity of corruption even in the banal news delivery business cauterize with laser-like precision. In transferring this amazing work to Broadway, only a devilishly adroit director could improve upon an already ingenious rendering of the nullification of the free press by corporate greed.  It takes genius to tackle the already fantastic. Unsurprisingly, Ivo Van Hove has applied his brilliance to bring Network to Broadway after its London run last year.

The innovative Van Hove and the inestimably formidable Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale, the uncanny, knight-errant, news anchor of fictional UBS make Network a mind-blaster. Cranston’s performance leaves one speechless. With humanity and ferocity, Cranston believably renders Beale’s epiphany about his own life. As a result he elicits our compassion and captivates us into astonishment. We watch open-mouthed as he steps into Beale’s cavernous soul-depth. And we feel the emotional pull of Cranston’s Everyman and journey with him to the Beale abyss. Cranston achieves an immediacy and truth that coheres with our own empathetic understanding. We’ve been there! Truly, even if we remain complacent with every privilege in the world, we feel “mad as hell and refuse to take it anymore!”

Exhilarated with wonder after seeing the production, I recall the profound themes Van Hove’s exalted direction and Lee Hall’s succinctly adapted script present. Indeed, these resound for us today in the fake news Trumposphere. Increasingly, the news spills out “shock and awe” entertainment. For the sake of profits, facts, information and sourced material shift to the back burner. Judgment and reason become sacrificed to the audience lust for titillation. The difficulties of divining the differences between truth, reality, lies, obfuscations increase. Content appears subject to media company editors who must carefully negotiate around the mission of profit and not upset advertisers. The confounded viewer eventually stops seeking to be informed as a civil obligation. Notably, viewers have been overwhelmed by the cacophony of lies from the media nexus which depends on advertising dollars.

Sadly, as Network illustrates, if truth and a truth deliverer do somehow break through the confusion of white noise and find a following as Howard Beale seemingly does, he and his opinions, “the truth” are commoditized. Finally, when the truth is hijacked for its profitability, the service of one whose opinions authoritatively voice society’s zeitgeist will be undermined. Truth can never be commoditized, regardless of how much its seekers long to hear it. The once noble concepts of a free press and information sharing to keep the public informed and knowledgeable disintegrate in CEOs bank accounts.

Van Hove and Hall have reconfigured the already brilliant Paddy Chayefsky script to another level of currency with a few modifications. Though the time period and characters appear similar, in the case of Max Schumacher (the fine Tony Goldwyn), and Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany distills all we dislike about the rapacious female executive), their self-destruction appears to be more trenchant.

The ironies of Network’s plot development are still precious. The fired Howard Beale whose ratings slump cannot be overcome states on the air that he intends to kill himself on next week’s program. His unauthorized announcement creates a furor and a ratings spike. Indeed, competitor news media make Howard Beale front page headlines. From this point on Beale’s inner unraveling moves to center stage. Beale becomes the stuff of media legend. As the journey of his personal enlightenment grows with power and truth, he and it are commoditized. Enabled by his friend Max Schumacher (Tony Goldwyn), and ambitious up-and-comer Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany), who usurps Max Schumacher’s job with seductive abandon, Beale ends up becoming the superlative ratings darling of UBS.

Tony Goldwyn, Tatiana Maslany, Network, Ivo Van Hove, Lee Hall, Paddy Chayefsky

Tony Goldwyn, Tatiana Maslany in ‘Network,’ directed by Ivo Van Hove, adaptation by Lee Hall based on the Paddy Chayefsky film (Jan Versweyveld)

Essentially the dynamic twists of Hall’s adaptation follow Chayefsky’s sardonic overload brought to an absurdist conclusion. Beale’s breakdown drives him to the edge of sanity and a fool’s genius. Notably, as Cranston negotiates Beale’s travels from the hackneyed to sublime revelation, he leaves us spellbound. His “mad as hell” rant arises from Cranston’s core of understanding the human condition. As he explodes with humanity and inner beauty, we align ourselves with his emotion. We marvel at what he has made us feel.

Despite Max’s plea for decency to take Howard off the air and stop exploiting his breakdown, Diana Christensen promotes Beale as the angry “prophet” of the airwaves. As spokesperson for millions of individuals, Beale enamors his fans with unscripted “truths.” On “The Howard Beale Show,” converted into something akin to a game show with us as the live audience, Beale’s ravings resound with passion.

Meanwhile, confounded by his own immorality and dissipation, Max leaves his wife Louise. I love what Alyssa Bresnahan does with Louise’s aria. Going against his own best interests, Max has an affair with the obscenely ambitious Christensen. As their relationship begins to crumble, the climax of the cacophony of chaos peaks. Cannily, Beale crosses a line that must never be crossed. He mucks with the corporate restructuring of debt. And Arthur Jensen, the CEO of CCA, the parent company, gets mightily pissed. Nick Wyman’s subtle, grinning malevolence as Jensen is just great.

Largely due to Bryan Cranston’s fantastic performance as Howard Beale, Network echos in our remembrance. As Howard Beale communicates truth to his television audience, Cranston brings our consciousness into the greater understanding of who we are as human beings. In Beale’s realization of who he can be, he reminds us of our value and our spirit and soul worth. When Cranston’s Beale expresses the anger which is more than anger and rage that is more than rage, it is as if he grasps our being, and we tie in with him forming a collective consciousness.

Indeed, Beale takes us to a level of human sanctity that was unimaginable at the top of the production. When at one point Cranston’s Beale joins the audience and sits next to two individuals for a confidential moment (he’s incredible in delivering the irrevocable ineffability of live theater), Van Hove turns the cameras on us. We see ourselves projected on television. It is impossible to ignore the truths of what we experience in the shadow of Beale’s soul light. Irrevocably, we awake and feel intensely because Cranston trusts Beale’s heart and conjoins himself and us with it.

Bryan ranston, Tony Goldwyn, Network, Ivo Van Hove, Lee Hall, Paddy Chayefsky,

(L to R): Bryan Cranston, Tony Goldwyn and the cast of ‘Network,’ directed by Ivo Van Hove, adaptation by Lee Hall based on the Paddy Chayefsky film (Jan Versweyveld)

For his part Van Hove has rendered the dynamism, artificiality and hyperbolic humming chaos of the TV production newsroom with seamless facility. We watch the recreated TV Studio live! Thus, we see the news projected on the big screen as camera operators live-capture Cranston’s Beale. And we note his various pilot fish (make-up, hair and clothing assistants, etc.), fussing over him. The immediacy of their actions powers up to build suspense about watching the “TV show.” Of course it is a show within a show. And we all become players!

Interestingly, the authenticity and the boardroom scenes reinforce the theme that “profit-motives propel television content” (we think of social media), to addict and brainwash. Media folks need us to appreciate sensationalism over rationality. And their obsession with the bottom line strips and devours the decency of all who work for the CCA company. Most importantly, we note the downward trend away from kindness, generosity and concern for others in Christensen, Frank Hackett (Joshua Boone), Harry Hunter (Julian Elijah Martinez) and others. In fact all who create such entertainment news reflect a craven  amorality.

Additionally, Van Hove’s striking re-imagining of a TV studio and news room as a live play by play brings the action into our laps. We serve a dual function. With sardonic humor, Van Hove makes us a live and interactive, participatory audience as we applaud to “Applause” signs. Yet simultaneously, we watch the action on smaller screens featuring various channels which morph to the large screen for Beale’s news program. We participate, yet we distance ourselves as the voyeurs of TV’s “non-participatory experience.”

Interestingly, this meld of the two roles we play as audience members during “The Howard Beale Show” creates dissonance. For ultimately, we “get” that as the media audience (especially social media), we choose/control the content which is as good as our viewing tastes.

This production and all who create its fever, furor and fabulousness from actors to scene and technical designers impart a momentum that runs like an electric wave which ignites all it touches. The encounter provokes. It is as if by watching the downfall of Howard Beale, UBS, CCA and everything that was once moral and decent in the news business, we watch our own participation/contribution to it.

Chayefsky’s and Hall’s Network is the harbinger of the current social media devolution. “The news” has been atomized to fit every opinion or position based on skewed information and ear tickling “facts.” And it is these statements “of fact” that force us to a site like Snopes for fact-checking. Ironically, the site speaks more credibly of its being relied upon by non-readers and non-researchers than for its accuracy.

Bryan Cranston, Network, Ivo Van Hove, Lee Hall, Paddy Chayefsky

Bryan Cranston and the cast of ‘Network,’ directed by Ivo Van Hove, adaptation by Lee Hall based on the Paddy Chayefsky film (Jan Versweyveld)

The greatness of this production is in its expression as an immersive consciousness-raising satire/comedy/drama. For it compels us to interact with cognition and emotion in a weird connect/disconnect. On one level, Network, especially in its addendum video clips (no spoiler alert-you’ll just have to see it), becomes an intriguing call to action. We can be better if we demand better and do not settle for less. On the other hand, Van Hove shepherds Cranston, the excellent ensemble and the artistic designers to provide an incredible one-of-a-kind entertainment that makes us think long after we’ve left the Belasco Theatre.

Special kudos to Jan Versweyveld (Scenic & Lighting Design), Tal Yarden (Video Design), An D’Huys (Costume Design), Eric Sleichim (Sound & Music).

Don’t miss this one. You will regret not seeing Bryan Cranston and this fiery re-imagining of Network at the Belasco Theatre. The production runs with no intermission at the Belasco Theatre (111 44th Street), through 17 March. You can pick up tickets at their website.

 

 

 

Broadway Theater Review (NYC): ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ Starring Janet McTeer, a Stunning Portrayal

Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer, Matthew Saldivar, Bernhardt/Hamlet, Theresa Rebeck, Moritz von Stuelpnagel

(L to R): Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer, Matthew Saldivar in ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Joan Marcus)

Theater scholars, dramatists, and actors are familiar with the legend of French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), referred to as “The Divine Sarah.” Renowned for her indomitable theatrical greatness, she lived and breathed drama, melding her life and her art so that each informed the other. Alluding to this synergy of living artistry, Theresa Rebeck’s play Bernhardt/Hamlet explores the French actress’s acclaimed reinterpretation of the role of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which she imbued with her own maverick genius and courage. Examining the actress’s work, the play, thrillingly directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, shows us thematic parallels to our times.

As Sarah Bernhardt circa 1897, confronting Shakespeare’s best-known character, Janet McTeer’s dynamism astounds. Her Bernhardt is a whirlwind of delight and shimmering brilliance. She propels the light and dark of human ethos with a range that bounds and swirls and captivates. In short, McTeer infuses her Bernhardt with an infinite variety of emotional hues so that we believe how and why Oscar Wilde referred to her as “the Incomparable One.” Additionally, we appreciate that Bernhardt was not only a visionary in enforcing her will to create opportunities for herself. For women who witnessed her heroism, she drove the platform of freedom, despite and because of a culture and society expressly controlled by men.

Dylan Baker, Janet McTeer, Bernhardt/Hamlet, Roundabout Theatre Company

Dylan Baker, Janet McTeer in ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet,’ Roundabout Theatre Company (Joan Marcus)

Rebeck intimates that Bernhardt accomplished what every female actress covets. The actress intrepidly portrayed the complexity and angst of Hamlet’s human spirit with the realism of the mysterious feminine gone rogue, as only an exotic like Bernhardt could do. From her affairs with some of the crowned heads of Europe, to her re-imagining herself through her relationships with authors and playwrights, Bernhardt proved her exceptionalism. Continually, as she gained power and fame, she pushed the envelope of female propriety. And amazingly, the public adored her for it.

However, when she takes on the role of Hamlet to bring it to a larger, more profitable theater, her closest allies sound warnings. Edmond Rostand is one such ally. Jason Butler Harner skillfully portrays the poetic, conflicted author of Cyrano de Bergerac, who worked with and wrote for Bernhardt. Her lover in the play (a relationship that was rumor in real life), he must choose between his career and hers. Of course this is an irony. Rarely did women have the opportunity to have choices as Bernhardt did. In this instance, the hard choice becomes Rostand’s with regard to their work on Hamlet.

We see that the two consume each other in their relationship, which is a blessing and a curse. Harner’s potent by-play with McTeer when he challenges her “demented idea” of rewriting the iambic poetry in Hamlet’s speeches is particularly striking. His forcefulness stands against McTeer’s indomitable will in Rebeck’s exceptional characterizations. Their equivalent passion reveals the high stakes for each. Thus we appreciate the inevitability of their partnership taking a turn after he becomes famous with Cyrano and she moves on with an interpretation of Hamlet sans poetic rhythm and written by others.

Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer, ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, Theresa Rebeck

Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer in ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, written by Theresa Rebeck (Joan Marcus)

The other ally who opposes Bernhardt’s endeavor is critic Louis, played by the stalwart and stentorian Tony Carlin. He argues with and attempts to influence Rostand in an important scene. Here we see the dangerous, shifting ground Bernhardt must negotiate as Louis questions her Hamlet choice. Perhaps the scene could be less expositional, but it is a necessary one for advancing the stakes and presenting the seeds of themes.

For example, women’s stage roles traditionally remained weak asides to fascinating, dominant male protagonists. Male roles, complex and intelligent, provided the driving dynamic that women’s roles did not. To take on a man’s role, a woman must have the power and even greater acumen and ambition to accomplish it well. Unsurprisingly, both men question whether Bernhardt has the chops to meet the Hamlet challenge.

Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer, Dylan Baker, Bernhardt/Hamlet, Theresa Rebeck, Moritz von Stuelpnageln

(L to R): Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer, Dylan Baker in ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ (Joan Marcus)

Through the real-life characters of Rostand and Louis, the playwright highlights the conflicts and problems McTeer’s Bernhardt faces. Additionally, Rebeck shows us how the staging, costuming, and promotion of this new, interpretative Hamlet must be conquered.

Wonderful in supporting roles are Dylan Baker, Matthew Saldivar, and the fine Brittany Bradford as actress Lysette. Baker portrays Constant Coquelin, Bernhardt’s acting contemporary and friend. Notably, Baker gets to have fun playing Hamlet’s father in a hysterical rehearsal scene. Experienced in the role himself, Coquelin guides Bernhardt as a quasi acting coach. Coquelin’s wisdom and sound judgment reflect his greatness as an actor. Eventually, Coquelin took on the role of Cyrano with great success. Baker’s versatility shines in his speeches as Cyrano, Hamlet’s father, and various roles including the great Coquelin himself.

Saldivar portrays Alphonse Mucha, whose artistic skills must beautify Bernhardt’s poster productions. Humorously, he expresses his upset with the task at hand. Indeed, Bernhardt’s hair, her clothing, her stature as Hamlet must enthrall and entice paying customers, a novel feat even for one of his skill. He cannot easily produce advertising artwork that will please Bernhardt, himself, and his public. Thus, as Bernhardt navigates new ground with her incredible decision to play Hamlet, so must Mucha and the others in her circle deal with the “dire” consequences. What a delicious conundrum her “simple” need to play Hamlet creates for these men whom she frustrates yet enthralls!

Janet McTeer, Brittany Bradford, Bernhardt/Hamlet, Theresa Rebeck

(L to R): Janet McTeer, Brittany Bradford in ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ (Joan Marcus)

The symbolism presented by Bernhardt’s desire to enforce her will upon the culture electrifies. Subtly, when she donned the pants in Hamlet, Bernhardt symbolically freed all women from fashion folkways. Her pants-wearing signals a needed change. Women’s mores were held fast by paternalism and manifested subtly in binding corsets, bustles, and long sleeved-high collared blouses. Worn even in heat waves, these sometimes smothered the wearers, who died of heat prostration. Fashion trends, as painful as they were, laid subservient female stereotypes at women’s feet. And they dared not transgress them. Do such trends abide even today? Sometimes.

In Rebeck’s characterization of Bernhardt, the more restrictive the “thou shalt not,” the more the actress embraced it, conquering fear. In her revolutionary behavior she dismantled the “double standard.” And because she did this with aplomb, sophistication, joie de vivre, and the audacity of wit and whimsy, who could censure her? As she developed her dramatic art, she empowered herself. Memorably, McTeer takes this characterization and with precision lives it in two acts. She evokes the marvelous “Divine Sarah” and makes her a heroine because she can. How McTeer creates her Bernhardt with adroit skill, subtle intelligence and determination is a Bernhardt-like feat.

What a breathtaking reminder of magnificent women in this twisted, political tide of times. Assuredly, Rebeck’s work (McTeer’s speech to this effect rings out beautifully) remains vital and insistent. With commanding power, McTeer’s Bernhardt corrects the historical record, striking forever at the literary and dramatic canon with a tight phrase. She proclaims to Rostand that she will not play the “flower.” The night I saw the production, the women in the audience applauded these words. “I was never a flower, and no matter how much you loved how beautifully I played the ingenue, it was always beneath me. It is beneath all women.”

This moment electrifies. For though women may be compared to flowers, they are not flowers. And Bernhardt, like all women, understands. For women are power brokers, however hidden, however “passive.” Regardless of how much men nullify this truth, “woke” women grew and grow to learn and champion it. And many achieved and achieve momentous feats even from the position of “second.”

Bernhardt captured opportunity and molded destiny so it served her, not the other way around. Strengthening and illuminating her own identity, she wrote her own history, not the one the culture intended to write for her and but couldn’t. McTeer’s inspiring depiction proclaims this with every card in the deck. Indeed, when Bernhardt says about Hamlet, “I do not play him as a woman! I play him as MYSELF,” we glean the full truth of her meaning.

Rebeck wisely selects the most vital of Hamlet’s speeches. Their themes meld aptly with Bernhardt’s conundrums. Indeed, Bernhardt is “a rogue and peasant slave.” At the time she rehearses that speech, she, like Hamlet, divines how an actor uses his skills to portray a character. The double meanings are ironic. But unlike Hamlet, Bernhardt is active, assertive. As Hamlet struggles with acting crazy to hide the knowledge of the truth of his father’s murder, she struggles with a Hamlet too passive to kill. Indeed, the humor comes in watching Bernhardt’s frustration at portraying an “inactive” Hamlet who comes up with philosophical obstacles to delay killing Claudius.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel, Janet McTeer, Bernhardt/Hamlet, Theresa Rebeck, Roundabout Theatre Company

Janet McTeer in ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Joan Marcus)

Rebeck interweaves in a complex way Hamlet’s speeches to emphasize Bernhardt’s conflict in deciding how to approach and interpret the role. One must work to catch all the ironies. So revisiting the play to enjoy this profound rendering is worthwhile.

Through active dialogue, we learn of Bernhardt’s promotional savvy and ability to reinvent herself for every decade. Naturally, this excites comparisons to today’s long-lasting actresses and others who could learn a thing or two from Bernhardt. Without fear, she capitalizes on rumor, innuendo, and extraordinary behavior that’s verboten for women. Cleverly, she makes critics her friends and generously remembers those who might have turned enemies.

Never an invisible woman, she will play men’s roles. In an affirmation about playing Hamlet and being a woman, she states to Rostand: “Where is his greatness? Where? Is it not in his mind, his soul, his essence? Where is mine? What is it about me you love? Because if in our essence we are the same, why am I otherwise less?”

Thus, Rebeck’s choice of this pivotal, “make or break” moment in Bernhardt’s career is an inspired, complicated one. The turning point reveals the grist, bravery, and revolutionary fervor Bernhardt required of herself to overturn centuries of dramatic tradition. Bernardt’s choice to conquer the greatest role written for men propels her to theatrical heaven. It is sheer artistic genius in a time when women were the “incapable,” “inferior” ones mastered by man’s sham invincibility. Bernardt/Hamlet through the seminal performances of McTeer and the ensemble informs and encourages us to realize that Shakespeare also speaks of women when Hamlet says, “What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason…”

Assuredly, kudos go to the spectacular artistic team. I particularly loved the sets (Beowulf Boritt), costumes (Toni-Leslie James), and hair (wig design by Matthew B. Armentrout). Lighting is by Bradley King and original music and sound design by Fitz Patton.

Bernhardt/Hamlet will be a multiple award winner. It is a must-see TWICE! This Roundabout Theatre Company production runs at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street. The show until 11 November. Visit the Roundabout website for schedule and tickets.

Bryan Cranston in Conversation With David Edelstein, Tribeca TV Festival 2018

Tribeca TV Festival 2018, Bryan Cranston, David Edelstein, Tribeca Talks, Tribeca TV

Bryan Cranston, Davie Edelstein in Conversation, Tribeca TV Festival, 2018, Tribeca Talks (Carole Di Tosti)

Bryan Cranston, one of the most versatile actors of his generation, spoke with David Edelstein (film critic New York Magazine) in a Q and A during the 2018 Tribeca TV Festival. They discussed salient points about his high-velocity career on TV, film, and stage. Always interesting and vibrant Cranston, spoke about acting considerations and the process. Notably, he attributes his success to hard work and luck. Obviously, Cranston’s passion melded with humility drives him with the knowledge that he must continually be in learning mode. This attitude pays off. For at this point he excels at whatever task he endeavors. Cranston’s quietly forged, dogged determination shines a beacon even for established actors, producers and directors.

When Cranston made a showing in films like Little Miss Sunshine (2006), he already had found a home on the small screen. Notably, his TV credits amass from appearances beginning in “One Life to Live.” As he took acting classes, he accomplished parts on various TV series. And shows like Raising Miranda (1988) and Matlock (1987, 1991) gave him longer stints. Work begets work and for longer work periods. Various films and TV series crossed his path like the TV Mini Series Macross Plus (1994) and The Louie Show (1996).

Bryan Cranston, Tribeca Talks, Tribeca TV Festival 2018

Bryan Cranston, Tribeca Talks, Tribeca TV Festival 2018 (Carole Di Tosti)

After two decades, he began to strike gold. As Dr. Tim Whatley on Seinfeld, he made an indelible mark. And as the amiable dad, Hal on Malcolm in the Middle (2006), cultural phrases sprang from his character portrayal.  Thus, his hard work cemented the bricks of experience to build a fortress of a career. This fortress enabled him to weather world wide acclaim. And it allowed him to possess the grace within to receive the numerous accolades for subsequent one-of-a-kind portrayals.

Who can imagine the character of Walter White in Breaking Bad without Cranston? White, so incredibly fleshed out by Cranston, will live in our cultural memory for decades. Morphing from a “Goodbye Mr. Chips” teacher to drug empire maker “Scarface,” Cranston pulled every range of emotions from his acting toolkit. Through the show’s seasons, he won numerous awards.  Cranston’s power grid solidified. The starpower gained from his four time Emmy success, enabled him to become one of the producers during the series’ fourth and fifth seasons. And he won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series twice.

Ever since, Cranston has been on a roll swallowing up experiences to learn all aspects of “the business” he obviously loves. Reviewing the decades long arc of his career reveals that marvelous events come to those who “put in the time” and “make the most” of opportunity’s breakwaters. In 2014, Cranston won the Tony Award for his portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in Broadway’s All the Way. Subsequently, having created his production company Moonshot Entertainment, he reprised the role for the HBO adaptation of the same name.

Bryan Cranston, David Edelstein, Tribeca Talks, Tribeca TV Festival 2018

Bryan Cranston, Edelstein, Tribeca Talks, Tribeca TV Festival 2018 (Carole Di Tosti)

During the conversation Cranston discussed how his teenage years and personality gave him the juice to create characters in a TV series he co-created and co-produces i.e. Sneaky Pete. The exceptional casting stars Giovanni Ribisi and currently moves through its second season.  Cranston mentioned that as a teen he manifested a “sneakiness.” But his life took another turn away from “true crime,” and becoming an LAPD officer which he had been working toward in college. His direction switched when he took Acting Class as an elective. Nevertheless, he used the behaviors (lying, cover-ups), and that M.O. to create characters and story. As the positive reviews flow in Season 2, Sneaky Pete remains fresh, bold and smart. And as Cranston enjoys mixing up expectations, they’ve added conflicts and developments that do not allow the protagonist to breathe any relief from his own self-inflicted lying machinations.

Cranston clarified that success builds upon success. As a result his company developed various television series along with Sneaky Pete, in The Dangerous Book for Boys, and Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams for Amazon. Included is the Emmy-nominated animated series SuperMansion for Sony/Crackle. The foundation of incredible effort built throughout his career remains stalwart. For indeed the vicissitudes happened upon him in Cranston’s early years, a factor he referred to during the conversation. However, all events in one’s life provide acting and storytelling grist. Though painful, they can be culled and transformed into art.

Bryan Cranston, Tribeca Talks, Tribeca TV Festival 2018

Bryan Cranston, Tribeca TV Festival 2018, Tribeca Talks (Carole Di Tosti)

This year Cranston was nominated for a 2018 Emmy for his guest-starring role as Larry’s therapist on Curb Your Enthusiasm. And after coming off a sold-out, award-winning run in London, Cranston stars on Broadway as Howard Beale in Paddy Chayefsky’s ever timely Network by Lee Hall, adapted from the film script. I had tried to see the production in London at the National Theatre in December when I visited the UK. The production was sold out and for good cause. Cranston’s performance was spot-on. He won the 2018 Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Best Actor. He was nominated for the WhatsOnStage Award for Best Actor in a Play. Also, he won the 2018 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor.

Like many actors, Cranston does not read reviews of his work. He stated that the reviews if negative or positive could impact how he works the character through his own acting instrument. He took many acting classes over the years and left when he received continual praise. Interestingly, Cranston felt he needed to learn more. And if he plateaued in a class, the time had ripened to move on and pick up another tool for his acting kit. Being his own coach and critic, reviews provided nothing useful. Indeed, onstage, the interaction with the audience changes a performance nightly. He mentioned new ideas and a reliance on imagination which infuse the evocation of a character. Being in the moment is paramount.

Bryan Cranston, Tribeca Talks, Tribea TV Festival 2018

Bryan Cranston, Tribeca Talks, Tribeca TV Festival 2018 (Carole Di Tosti)

Some interesting points that Cranston made concerned acting. He remarked that actors must give in to their impulses. Indeed, he said, “The more I do that and get off kilter from the norm, the better.” He added that if one “does make a mistake, one apologizes and if one’s life is clean, the mistakes will be minor.”

Edelson bounced back with the adage about the difference between greater and lesser actors. He suggested that “the greater actors are not afraid to appear foolish.” Cranston concurred. And he added that actors must take risks. He cited the quote, “You’re only as good as you dare to be bad.”

David Edelstein, Bryan Cranston, Tribeca TV Festival 2018

Bryan Cranston, David Edelstein in Tribeca Talks, Tribeca TV Festival 2018

Taking chances Cranston credits to be a vital part of great acting. Inherent with good performers is the prerequisite that actors have to be willing to take chances. Not only does this refer to physical chances, but emotional ones. According to Cranston, actors put themselves in emotional jeopardy often. He explained, “When you go through a process like that, your body does not know the different between acting and real life. If I’m putting myself in a position where I’m weeping or heaving with upset, anger or fear, my body does not know I’m acting.”

And Cranston continued about the sacrifices of actors when expressing dense emotion. “Your body can be shaking. It takes a while to come down from that. It can be exhausting but also exhilarating.”

Edelson referenced that Cranston doesn’t show an image persona and one that remains private.  Indeed, the public has seen actors who are schizoid. Sometimes they manifest the artificial “show biz” personality and the separate family or off screen persona. As a compliment, Edelson remarked that Cranston appears measured, relaxed, himself with no difference between public and private individual. He joked that Cranston didn’t appear to have schisms. Cranston used this praise to quip, “Oh, I got a lot of schisms.”

However, the conversation came back around to the work. Cranston reinforced that he is not one to stand around at parties schmoozing, drink in hand “yelling” above the music and din of people talking. He said he didn’t think the atmosphere seemed conducive to making a connection with anyone. He proclaimed, “I’m not good at that.” He also commented that while he has a tremendous amount of energy, he prefers saving it for those things that he wants to do.

In effect he must husband the enthusiasm and grist he does have for projects. Clearly, he has other irons in the fire that he will use to continue to work on that fortress of a career.

See Bryan Cranston on Broadway in Network before the tickets are sold out. Most likely the production and Cranston will be up for additional awards in the US, including a Tony.

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