Category Archives: NYC Theater Reviews
‘Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,’ The Astounding Power of Soul Transformation Gloriously Alive on Broadway
Tina-The Tina Turner Musical with equal parts magnificent entertainment, profound lessons on life, survivor’s tale, series of club performances and recording studio sets recalling the wonders of our musical past is breathtaking. And that is before the final triumphant concert where Tina (the unparalleled Adrienne Warren) emerges in her glorious manifest destiny as the icon we’ve come to celebrate and adore. The concert IS Tina! Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, choreographed by Anthony VAn Laast, with musical supervision, arrangements, additional music and conductor Nicholas Skilbeck, Tina currently runs at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
The musical sends a heroic message that the impossible is possible. And it reveals how Tina Turner broke through the limitations of race, class, gender and the white male-dominated music industry with grit, determination and panache. But all Tina is a measured, profound reveal at how connecting with one’s inner spiritual being can bring peace and love to uplift others to heal.
Writers Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins have written a stunning book of memory, beauty and emotional chronology, interlacing songs to illustrate the resonance of spiritual evolution in a human life. They’ve chosen to open Tina with Adrienne Warren as Tina chanting, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” before a concert in Brazil, 1988. Chanting with her in consciousness (we discover later) is one who influenced her from her past, Gran Georgeanna (Myra Lucretia Taylor) who is part Cherokee Native. Emerging to bring her back to the past is a different spiritual influence, her father Richard (David Jennings) pastor of a small congregation in Tennessee.
These forces from her childhood which thread the spiritual elements throughout her life are included in the production. They symbolize the foundation of Anna Mae Bullock’s soul and ethos. Her transfiguration from Anna Mae to iconic solo performer Tina Turner is forged by the creative team of Tina with keys that open the doors to that revelation: Tina’s and Ike’s songs, Tina’s songs, and the design teams’ elucidation with historical musical references, symbols and themes reflected in the lighting, sets, screen projections, costumes, hair/wig/make-up designs which are magnificent reflectors of her process crafting a new identity.
Director Phyllida Lloyd’s staging of the opening, her choices and vision for this musical remain acute and profound. For example, not only does the first scene ground us in the importance of Tina’s life approach (Buddhist meditation), her face, symbolizing “self” and “being” is shielded from us. This brief scene sets up the overarching flashback which will answer the question: who is this woman sitting in a humble position as if at the bottom of a well, with lighted stairs leading upward to the distant audience waiting to see her perform?
As Tina connects to oneness in her meditation (Nichiren Buddhism) the chronicle of her past opens. The musical unspools an exploration of her persona that metamorphosed with wheel and woe to make its glorious impact on us today.
During her chanting, the character evokes the past from which she attempts to redeem herself (“Etherland-Song of Mystic Law”). We empathize with her journey toward ego manumission. A condition of the musical is that the writers of the book and Adrienne Warren’s performance as Anna Mae/Tina strike human truths with emotional authenticity and power.
Vital events in this process are structured as turning points. These are intensely heartfelt to reveal Tina’s physical, mental and emotional abuse. However, the pain informs the artistically rich through line of creation and that spurs her transfiguration toward wholeness. Thus, as we go back in time with her, we become fellow seekers receiving the wisdom of how this particular sojourner traveled into soul darkness, came to the end of herself, survived and emerged to embrace light, love and life.
From the outset Lloyd cleverly, carefully structures the musical’s chronological arc of Tina/Anna Mae’s spiritual development rendered painstakingly by Hall, Ketelaar and Prins. The musical is without narration eschewing what has come to typify some other “bio-theater musicals” that have been reduced, stereotyped and dismissed as “juke box theater.” It would be folly to buzz-saw through Tina with such an opaque understanding. The musical is layered, the empathetic themes are instructive and the creative team’s efforts from ensemble acting to spectacle design manifest their greatness with prodigious ingenuity.
In the Act I flashback the scene shifts to a spare setting, symbolic, ancient-looking, gnarled tree of meagerness in Nutbush, Tennessee 1950, which reflects Anna Mae’s roots. We are at an unadorned church service that Young Anna Mae attends with her family as father Richard (David Jennings) preaches. The choir/congregation sing (“Nutbush City Limits”). Then, it happens, a defining moment from which all the other events flow. Anna Mae, like Thespis (the first actor of Ancient Greek Choral Theater) emerges from the choir. Anointed by “The Holy Spirit,”with unrestrained passion she sings, dances and gloriously ignites all in the church to worship and lift themselves out of the misery of their lives.
From the moment Young Anna Mae (the phenomenal Skye Dakota Turner whose golden singing can charm dragons) sings and dances, sparks of joy electrify us. Nevertheless, her judgmental mother Zelma (Dawnn Lewis gives a steely, spot-on performance) sits annoyed. Obviously, Young Anna Mae has a voice with destiny in its timber. Zelma’s selective hearing deigns that it’s “too loud,” and in the next scene at the dinner table she cruelly upbrades Anna Mae for her lying pretense, “acting” like she has a relationship with God! As Zelma raises her hand to slap Anna Mae, Richard physically intervenes.
We understand why the ongoing physical and verbal abuse from Richard drives off Zelma. But we empathize with Anna Mae especially when her mother without explanation takes only Alline (Mars Rucker) with her to St. Louis, and Richard abandons her to Gran Georgeanna. It is her grandmother who encourages her singing and spirituality with great love.
The scene shifts again and it is another turning point years later where Adrienne Warren as the teenage Anna Mae and Gran sing the poignant (“Don’t Turn Around”). Gran affirms Anna Mae must leave her hard scrabble life in Nutbush (she has three jobs one of which was picking cotton) to take advantage of God’s vocal gift. Regardless of Anna Mae’s protest, Gran sends her to live with Zelma and Alline, but the explanation we discover later is that dying Gran spares Anna Mae her loss. Yet, writers clarify throughout the production that in Anna Mae/Tina’s consciousness during crisis-filled moments, Gran is everpresent in spirit to strengthen her.
Anna Mae embarks on her journey to greatness as Gran’s vision for her comes true. Despite her positive relationship with band member Raymond, (the attentive, sensitive Gerald Caesar) who tries to protect her from Ike and with whom she has a child, (“Let’s Stay Together”) she marries Ike Turner. By then Ike has “christened” her his “Queen,” the “Tina Turner” of the Ike and Tina Turner Review.
The Ike and Tina segments meld the songs from Tina’s career with thoughtfulness. These enlighten us to their meet-up and growing bondages in their relationship: (“Shake a Tailfeather,” “She Made My Blood Run Cold,” “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” A Fool in Love,” “Better Be Good To Me”). By then Ike is doing backup with his band The Kings of Rhythm. The Ikettes (the superb Holli Conway, Kayla Davion, Destinee Rea, Mars Rucker one of whom introduces her to Buddhism) are the movers and shakers with Tina in the lead. Additionally, Ike hires a sometime mistress Rhonda (Jessica Rush) to manage the group. As a duo Tina and Ike R and B it to Rolling Stones Magazine’s #2 out of “Twenty Greatest Duos of All Time.”
The musical’s set design projections, lighting design, costumes, wig and hair design, orchestrations, musical supervision, arrangements, etc. are historically appropriate and inform the appearance and the sound of the Ike and Tina Review. The performances of the songs are signatures of the time and bring a superb reckoning of our American musical past when the culture and society was burgeoning and roiling, and black artists were looking for breaks into the music industry.
However, the cost that Anna Mae/Tina pays to manifest Gran’s vision is almost too great to bear during the years she and Ike are married, have one child together and raise her child with Raymond. Tina is the doll Ike fashions her to be. He controls every aspect of her life and intimidates her to put up with his adultery and drug use. To subordinate her and keep her close he pays her no salary and micromanages what she does, even to deciding after she has Craig (their child together) she cannot rest but must work in the studio to cut a record and stay up all hours, eroding her well being.
Adrienne Warren’s Tina is emotionally riveting. Not only does she hit every nuanced feeling that we imagine Ti.na felt when she ended the relationship with Raymond (“Let’s Stay Together”). She also beautifully intuits Tina’s growing soul destruction through self-recrimination and despair. We note each time Tina allows Ike to abuse her mentally and emotionally and bullies her to subvert her personal choices into his “Tina Turner” wind-up puppet, she loses dignity, confidence and self-worth. Even the “Tina” identity is wholly owned by Ike. Warren’s vocal resonance as Tina singing through the pain is bar none.
Because she cannot leave him and forsake her career, livelihood and her public identity, Tina stays through the intensifying physical abuse, despite warnings by Rhonda and the Ikettes who have become friends and try to “watch her back.” With every blow, every mercenary act she receives from Ike, Tina’s inner self withers battered by her own self-hatred for forgiving him and remaining silent. Warren’s uncanny performance reveals Tina’s inward progression into an abyss of despair.
Because Daniel J. Watts’ portrayal as Ike is a striking, intensely human counterpart to Warren’s, we understand the dynamic of their relationship and why Tina doesn’t leave him the moment he throws a symbol at her. Watts has a difficult role as Ike in not making him the complete devil that the Ikettes attribute him to be. But Watts is not cardboard malevolent. He reveals Ike is one hot mess who is edgy and charming and at heart obsessed with music, Tina and what he has crafted “their star power” duo to be. Watts authenticates Ike’s great fear of losing Tina that converts to jealousy for as lead, she is the better performer and should leave him. On his knees he makes her promise to stay; of course, she does.
His insecure, fear-filled behavior augments after the wonderful music studio scene with Phil Spector (Steven Booth) who gets Tina to sing to the “god” in herself (“Deep River Mountain High”). Watts infuses Ike’s ambition, his wanting to “be someone” in life with underlying anger-sorrow. Ultimately, he is shaped by the vicissitudes of Southern bigotry, a lack of personal restraint and the music business’ penchant for exploiting artists or rendering them invisible. Like Warren’s, Watts’ portrayal is acute, authentic, empathetic. He especially reveals the nuances of Ike’s character in all of his scenes with Tina keeping them dynamic and menacing (thanks to the fight direction by Sordelet Inc.).
The musical’s action heightens organically with escalating emotional rawness as Ike’s and Tina’s relationship spirals downward during the last scenes of Act I. Warren’s singing becomes more frantic as she is manipulated and seduced by Watts’ Ike in their exceptional “Be Tender With Me Baby.” In the performance of the song we note the chains of fear, desolation, self-hatred yet love of their mutual identity together. However, Tina is end stopped; there is no way for Ike to let her go and for her to leave. As a way out of self-loathing and stalemate, Tina takes 50 Valium before going onstage. Ike’s comment, “Bitch, you die on me I’ma kill you,” is hysterical if it were also not tragic. The writers have fashioned her suicide attempt as a quick break seguing into a short scene with her mother who, with sardonic encouragement, encourages her to stay with Ike and beat him like she did Richard the next time Ike abuses her.
After her mother’s jarring, callous injunction typical of the times, Tina’s frenzy increases to a visibly heartbreaking climax as she sings, “Proud Mary.” In Warren’s interpretation and vocal majesty the song becomes a metaphor for the overcoming power of Tina as “riverboat queen.” She is Proud Mary! She will “keep on burnin,” “keep on turnin,” and “keep on being proud,” not for Ike, but for herself. And when she keeps on “rollin’ down the river” of life, it will be as a whole person, spirit, soul, body. As Warren stops the concert and leaves the stage, to stand up to Watt’s Ike matching his blows, we know she’s come to the end of herself. Hall and the others state in the stage directions, “this is her Garden of Gethsemane.” No one but she can act for herself. Alone, she must confront her inner hell and be courageous enough to to leave it.
Like a slave seeking freedom, in a symbolic, iconic scene, Warren’s Tina runs out of the concert hall and across a highway (effected by screen projections and sounds of horns blaring and lights and music from the past) to arrive at a roadside hotel, bruised, bleeding, dark hair in disarray, dressed in just a slip. A shaking Adrienne Warren imbues Tina’s emotions of hope, fear, sadness, desperation as she reaches out to receive the room key from the night manager (hand stretched toward the audience). The key is symbolic of freedom and with it she unlocks the door which opens into a new ethos which only she can forge with the help of hovering spiritual ancestors, hope, Buddhism and more.
Poignantly, as Warren sings with the ensemble, “I don’t Wanna Fight No More,” she sings to herself, and her past (represented when the characters of Gran, Young Anna Mae and others minister to her and clean her up.) With the flash-forward to the present she is in meditation back where we began in Brazil 1988 as Act I ends where it began. Just incredible.
Act II chronicles how Tina uses her freedom, extracting herself from Ike’s power litigating only for her name and at Rhonda’s suggestion establishing the new “Tina.” The second act is equally thrilling as Tina’s lotus bud rises from the mud to shine its beauty becoming the lion-maned Tina adored globally. Helping along the way are Australian Roger Davies (Charlie Franklin) who becomes her manager and shepherds her toward a new sound, Rock and Roll with crossover appeal to white audiences, which she chooses to sing, and a new look she effects for herself.
But she must continually meditate and throw off her past and Ike who haunts her in her lonely sadness (“I Can’t Stand the Rain”) which Lloyd directs as an evocative scene of the lonely London landscape replete with umbrellas and screen projections. A romantic answer to loneliness is Erwin Bach (Ross Lekites) who she eventually ends up with. Everpresent are Gran and even visions of the anointed Young Anna Mae who encourage her before and after Capital Records hears her London showcase and rejects her until she sings “What’s Love Got to Do With It” at the Ritz in New York City, 1983.
With Davies Tina establishes she is the boss and not a puppet. This is reinforced with Ike, a point clarified after her stunning success and before the concert when she mails back a doll he sends her in an attempt at forgiveness. In a final scene between Tina, Ike and Zelma who is in the hospital, though Ike attempts to apologize in a written letter, he cannot say it “to her face” and leaves with silence on his lips. But Zelma makes amends apologizing that she could never be the mother to Tina that she should have been. We empathize with Zelma’s explanation: Tina was like holding “fire,” and “fire illuminates your own flaws” and of course, fire burns. In saying goodbye to the pain, hurt and abuse from their past Tina and Zelma sing (“Don’t Turn Around” reprise). Tina is finally able to move on and climb the steps to perform for the nearly 200,000 waiting fans in Brazil, 1988.
The concert in which the set revolves and Tina manifests the bright light of transformation, Warren effects with relaxed confidence as she “lets go and lets God,” coming down the stairs to welcome us, her concert audience. As Warren sings/dances with the company, “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” (Simply) The Best” and “Proud Mary,” she is the spectacular Tina Turner. She sings in dazzling array with lion mane and shimmery costume. The regal stage, her platform to shine, sparkles. The metaphor of the steps (i.e. a Jacob’s Ladder) which she ascends and descends reflects that she is the messenger of joy to emotionally uplift her fans. The lighted stairs may also symbolize how she has traveled “up from slavery,” up from the abyss and down into her settled spirituality and wholeness assured of bringing her gift of love to her audience. Realizing that every detail of her past cements her current greatness, one cannot help but divine that she spiritually has been influenced to this destiny to encourage us to “keep on burnin,” and “rollin on the river,” with verve, in celebration of our lives.
Tina will be an award winner. The book is sensational as is the stellar performance by Warren which deserves its own created category. Watts’ portrayal is outstanding and the ensemble is first-rate. Finally, kudos go to Anthony Van Laast (choreographer) Mark Thompson (set and costume designer) Nicholas Skilbek (musical supervision, arrangements, additional music and conductor) Ethan Popp (orchestrations) Bruno Poet (lighting design) Nevin Steinberg (sound design) Jeff Sugg (projection design) Campbell Young Associates (wig, hair and makeup design) John Miller (music coordinator). All serve the director’s vision and enhance the musical beyond expectation.
Tina-The Tina Turner Musical runs with one intermission at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (205 West 46th). For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
David Henry Hwang’s awards and honors are too numerous to list here. Suffice to say he won the Tony Award, Drama Desk and Outer Circle Critics Award for M. Butterfly (1988). He is a prodigious author, playwright, librettist and screenwriter who was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize three times. With Soft Power, directed by Leigh Silverman, Hwang has crafted a mesmerizing production. Soft Power is a genre hybrid, a musical-fantasy-farce within a satire-comedy with autobiographical overtones. Primarily, the musical within a play concerns Chinese/American custom disparities, U.S./China relations and events around the U.S. 2016 election and afterward. To my mind it is Hwang’s finest theatrical production to date.
I saw a number of his works including the original production of M. Butterfly (1988) and the revival (2017), productions at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Dance and the Railroad-2013, Golden Child-2013, Kung Fu-2014) and an Off Off Broadway production of Yellow Face in 2009. I saw Chinglish on Broadway (2011) twice.
For Soft Power, Hwang wrote the lyrics, with Jeanine Tesori composing the music and additional lyrics. With choreography by Sam Pinkleton and a large Asian cast, Leigh Silverman, a long time collaborator with Hwang, shepherded the creatives and ensemble with sensitivity. Her adroit mastery pushing the envelope to achieve the right balance of comedy, irony, satire, humor, musical-fantasy-farce and stark reality to elucidate Hwang’s varied themes is a prime achievement of this production.
Hwang’s themes in this play/musical are on steroids to his credit. One should see this production a number of times; it is replete with concepts to think about including these: the U.S. is considered a dangerous country and visitors from abroad are warned of the mass shootings and white nationalist terrorist attacks. Among other concepts Hwang confronts with irony in the musical-fantasy sequence are the proliferation of guns. There is a sardonically funny song the Veep sings with the ensemble, “Good Guy With a Gun.” Hwang highlights the increasing bigoted, racist, xenophobic attacks on those who are not “white and right.” And he ironically underscores China’s move toward westernization with the U.S. creep into autocracy under an unnamed (Hwang will not dignify his name, again to his credit) lawless president and the culture his lawlessness promotes.
Another important theme the entire play and the musical presents is what it is to be an American who lives in a democracy whose constitution guarantees the freedoms it does and most especially the right of every citizen to vote. In the musical-fantasy sequence and even in the play that frames the musical, Hwang’s protagonists go head to head arguing the benefits of freedom and democracy vs. China’s autocracy and selection of leaders. Throughout, the playwright zeroes in on what it is like to be a Chinese-American in a nation that had deep xenophobic roots and anti-immigrant sentiment that since the last election have surfaced and would continue to grow into a poisonous tree overshadowing constitutional freedoms unless the equivalent of weed killer in the form of love dissolves it at the root!
The opening scene of the play is autobiographical. DHH is on the street with groceries in front of his home, right before he was stabbed in his neck and nearly died. Played by Francis Jue who is nuanced, innocent, astutely honest, funny and sings with gorgeous resonance and power, DHH questions whether he will be “able to live in the country anymore.” Then the scene quickly shifts. Hwang cleverly dislocates us in time and we follow along to the next scene unaware of what will happen to him and the import of his comment.
In the next scene DHH meets with Xūe Xíng (Conrad Ricamora is near perfect as the debonair, well-meaning, sophisticated, musical lead-Chinese style) head of the North American Division of Dragon Entertainment based in Shanghai. Xūe Xíng presents the “soft power” idea to commission DHH to write a musical based on a film with a hysterical title roughly translated, “Stick With Your Mistake.” Xūe Xíng tells the dubious DHH that because he is a renowned and successful Chinese American playwright, he would be the perfect candidate to write a musical that will open the Dragon Palace in Shanghai when it is finished. But when Xūe Xíng tells him what the film is about, DHH disagrees with the ending based on cultural American values. The film is about a couple who love other people and desire to split up; following Chinese mores, they remain together. We discover later that this film is “close” to Xūe Xíng’s heart, though the Chinese populace is changing and may find the ending “old-fashioned” as DHH suggests.
DHH must leave because he is off to see The King and I then meet Hillary Clinton at a presidential candidate reception. He invites Xūe Xíng to go with him and the married Xūe Xíng brings his lover Zoe Samuels (Alyse Alan Louis). Louis also plays Hillary Clinton in the musical-fantasy sequences and is hysterical when she sings as Hillary the “Song of The Campaign Trail” and then in full throated, uplifted glory, the smashing “Democracy.” She is sensational.
In this scene between DHH and Xūe Xíng and then with Zoe, Hwang establishes many of the humorous tropes that will follow throughout the play. The playwright references differences between Chinese culture and American culture regarding politics and election of leaders. The dialogue reveals the differences in understanding and behavior. And there is the usual mangling of the Chinese language by Americans which is humorous, especially as DHH doesn’t know how to speak his Dad’s and mom’s birth language because he was born in the U.S.
For the Chinese, duty and obligation are paramount. For Americans following one’s heart is paramount. Chinese rarely show emotion; Americans as a group show emotions and allow their feelings to be expressed. Also, during this exchange we see the exemplification of China’s concept of “soft power“ in what Xūe Xíng hopes to accomplish with Chinese-American DHH. DHH will be perfect to write a smash hit for the Chinese in a cross cultural exchange. Humorously, Xūe Xíng references Lion King and Mama Mia, but since they will be seeing The King and I before meeting Hillary, Xūe Xíng hopes DHH will write that type of musical hit for China. Considering the elements of colonialism, DHH ironically points out the problems with the Rogers and Hammerstein II musical as something he would not want to write.
When Xūe Xíng suggests that China be in the position of the colonial power (the “I”) schooling the “King” (the U.S.) the implication is absolutely hysterical. Xūe Xíng’s sardonic riff about the U.S. barbaric Asian war policies abroad (with Japan, Korea, Viet Nam, China) and at home (the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment during WWII) needing to be refined toward civility (as the teacher schools the King and the children in The King and I) is priceless. Also, the concept of China being the advanced and the U.S. being the inferior (it is happening as I write this thanks to the current U.S. president’s policies from Climate Change to tariffs) is not only funny it is incredibly ironic.
Hwang riffs on himself with humor as character DHH responds ironically about his plays-they are not quite in the same vein as Lion King, nor is his idea of a smash musical being “Sticking With Your Mistake.” But it is at this juncture we understand the underlying premise of China’s initiative to curry favor with globalists by “leveraging their cultural assets and spending large sums of money” to create initiatives in the arts, etc. This is how to influence, how to find an acceptable way into other countries’ minds and hearts. When DHH suggests that such a film may not be what the younger Chinese want that they are modernizing toward America, Xūe Xíng suggests that America may become more like China. Hwang’s portentous meaning cannot be understated.
The scene shifts again and DHH’s America is falling apart; Hillary lost. DHH argues with Xūe Xíng about the efficacy of everyone having the right to vote and electing the most qualified candidate in the popular vote and losing in the electoral college which Xūe Xíng finds appalling and illogical. It is a humorously frustrating exchange. The scene shifts; DHH is alone in front of his home in Brooklyn. Xūe Xíng has rubbed his point in about the election in the U.S. DHH questions how he can remain in a country that “voted for a guy that doesn’t believe we belong here,” and remain in a country to be nothing more than “supporting characters in someone else’s story.”
It is then Hwang brings us full circle out from the flashback into the opening scene of the play. As he ruminates about being a second class citizen as a Chinese American in the U.S., something happens that confirms his estimation, but it is beyond expectation. Reality slams into him and us. DHH as David Henry Hwang is stabbed by some white guy. Luckily, he yells in UNACCENTED ENGLISH, “WTF!” and the attacker runs away. As DHH applies pressure to the wound as per the Boy Scout instructions he learned as a kid, he walks toward the hospital and just before losing consciousness and fainting, he hears violins. And the musical-fantasy-satire emerges with chorus, dancing, orchestra and more as DHH hovers between life and death in what is a also a metaphoric rendering of his identity as a Chinese American.
Act One of the musical begins as DHH’s dream. The previous action repeats but with intensified be-spectacled musical numbers sung by Asian actors in white face. In another sardonic twist we are back in time at the beginning of Xūe Xíng’s story revealed from his perspective about his time in the U.S. After he says goodbye to his daughter (Kendyl Ito) who warns him about going to the dangerous country (“Dutiful”) he lands at Kennedy airport (“Welcome to America”) in what Hwang describes as a “deeply militarized, religious fundamentalist, violent society.” Hwang’s focus on Xūe Xíng’s perspective reveals what it is like for a foreign traveler nearly getting defrauded. However, Xūe Xíng, the hero, humorously turns the situation around by hiring a body guard Bobby Bob (the funny Austin Ku) who is always in the shadows to protect him. After all, this is a positive musical.
In this segment, DHH again converses with Xūe Xíng about the play he might write, and they go to meet Hillary (“I’m With Her,” ). In Hwang’s roiling unconsciousness he dreams Xūe Xíng and Hillary bond together as Xūe attempts to teach her his name (“It Just Takes Time”). They satirize the reverse of the relationship in “The King and I” with Hillary in the barbaric country position and Xūe Xíng as the “I.” The scene is sardonic, considering the idealized players; Alyse Alan Louis is an exuberant Hillary (she looks like Chelsea) and Conrad Ricamora is the civil, gentlemanly, Asian leading man. The satire and irony here are profound as they dance a waltz referencing, The King and I.
As the election results are tabulated, the song “Election Night” is sung by the Chief Justice (the very funny Jon Hoche) and the ensemble. They sing a LOL description of the American election process and the dire Electoral College. But at the announcement that the “guy who hates China” won, white nationalists storm the building and in the process DHH is stabbed. In a dramatic duet (“I Am”) beautifully sung by DHH (Ju) and Xūe Xíng (Ricamora) DHH realizes he has been a fake, neither Chinese, nor American in a full blown identity crisis. With Xūe Xíng’s encouragement, he affirms he is one whole not separate and distinct cultures. That viewpoint is one of love. Holding the bleeding DHH, Xūe Xíng counsels himself to the Chinese way of not showing feeling or emotion. As he faints, DHH states “Democracy has broken my heart.” The angry white nationalist mob marches with tiki torches, guns and bats. Xūe Xíng poignantly questions, “What is this America? Why do I cry for America?” as Act I chillingly ends with an emotional and heart-wrenching flourish.
Soft Power as a musical is maverick. It is revolutionary theater breaking genre molds. It diverges in the arc of development which swings like a pendulum including flashback, framing of the main story of DHH’s stabbing and his interactions and impact on Xūe Xíng and vice-versa. The action in the musical loops back revealing the story focusing more on Xūe Xíng’s perspective and the quasi love story between him and Hillary which could be read as symbolic of two countries brought together by love. Of course in DHH’s dream to recovery, there is the realistic component, but the musical is fantastic truth; in it DHH has supplanted Zoe with Hillary.
Additionally, in another amazing twist of the plot and in full on irony in a theater of the absurdist style, Act Two begins with a commentary interlude as a panel sits to discuss the impact of Soft Power fifty years later. Hwang’s panel comments on DHH’s stabbing as a “secondary character” and they argue about the form of the musical being developed in China by Xūe Xíng as “spoken and sung drama.” One expert states there are no American artists, only native craftspeople.
In this brief scene, we as audience members have been shifted via sci-fi to the future. We get to view the play in a retrospective as Hwang comments on himself ironically. The experts (one who specializes in second-world nations-that is what America has become) argues with an American expert, Adjunct Professor of American Folklore at Columbia University about the genre. The Professor argues that some of the New York entertainments were sophisticated: “One of the most popular was entirely about cats.” Clearly, Hwang gets to dish on Broadway’s tourist fare which rankles New Yorkers especially at the holidays. The Chinese refer to these American shows by “a second-world nation” as “regional folk art” which the Chinese as a first world nation elevated. The ironies are telling.
Sadly, their discussion of why DHH was stabbed is Hwang’s factual indictment of white supremacy which his experts fifty years later also refer to as a “random act of violence.” Hwang’s theme of the U.S. as a dangerous country for a traveler is brought to bear for all Americans, especially the politician who would refuse to bring the gun legislation that has been passed in the House to the floor of the Senate.
In reality, David Henry Wang was stabbed before the 2016 election. The violent undercurrents in this nation have been there in each century. America as fantasy-land of the golden dream has many caveats, one of them gun violence, the other xenophobia. These two have been merged into companions by the current president whose rhetoric has exacerbated the violence. Hwang uses the musical to unleash the satire about the election, guns, etc., because when all has been said, satire hits the target most memorably and is unforgettable.
The musical resumes and ends with Hillary overcoming her losing blues and upholding “Democracy,” perhaps the finest song in the show. DHH awakens and the ensemble joins him in singing the reprise of “Democracy,” which is beyond uplifting for not only Americans but for those remaining democracies in the world. Finally, DHH encapsulates what the citizens of this nation believe, “good fortune will follow; if we somehow survive in America.”
Kudos to all creatives involved Clint Ramos (scenic design) Anita Yavich (costume design) Mark Barton (lighting design) Kai Harada (sound design) Bart Fasbender (sound effects design) Bryce Cutler (video design) Tom Watson (hair, wig and makeup design) Lillis Meeh (special effects) Danny Troob (orchestrations) with John Clancy (dance music arrangement/additional orchestrations), Larry Hochman (additional orchestrations) Antoine Silverman (music contractor) Chris Fenwick (music supervisor/music director).
Currently playing at the Public Theater until 17th November, Soft Power is sold out after a number of extensions. Someone may donate their tickets to the Public, so check the theater in the remaining days. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait until Soft Power goes to Broadway which it must. The show is astonishing. David Henry Hwang has exceeded even himself and it would be a shame if more people didn’t see it, especially this next year before the 2020 elections. In its hope, its simplicity and complexity, its truth, its charity, it is what we need right now and for as long as we are able to maintain our democratic republic.
The New Group’s presentation of Cyrano in a musical adaptation by Erica Schmidt of the iconic Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmund Rostand really soars with the entrance of Peter Dinklage as Cyrano stationed in the darkened audience, bellowing out witty insults to the actor, Montgomery played by Scott Stangland. As Dinklage spirits himself into the light he signifies he is the driving force of the play’s action. His casting as Cyrano is spot-on. For Cyrano is a genius with poetry and epithets and is a charismatic, charming and ferocious swordsman, clever in besting all foes in every situation. Indeed, in his genius, he is similar to Tyrion Lannister, the brilliant, good-hearted warrior in the smashing series Game of Thrones for which Dinklage garnered four Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe.
Intuiting divine intelligence and rapier wit, Dinklage’s Cyrano shines throughout the production. He is riveting and I say this not having watched Game of Thrones avidly as many of the others in the audience most probably had done, mourning its conclusion this year. That said, the role of Cyrano de Bergerac even in a version without music, Dinklage most certainly would have triumphed in, with or without the humongous nose attachment. In this version he looks attractively normal. However, when reference is made to his nose, he responds with a subtle gesture invoking his height and we understand he is twitting himself and in this instance demeaning the disdainful and villainous De Guiche (the superb Ritchie Coster).
Dinklage is an actor’s actor so he brings thoughtfulness and grist to each and every character he undertakes. The gesture invoking his height is enough; the obviously fake prosthetic nose is unnecessary.
Jumping to an immediate conclusion it would appear to be a shame that a good deal of the poetic beauty, humor and grace of Rostand’s Cyrano speeches (which Dinklage would have delivered with thrilling verve, power and panache) have vanished. They have been supplanted by soulful melodies that sound similar with a few exceptions. The music changes the mood and tenor of Cyrano de Bergerac into Cyrano which Rostand fans may find difficult getting used to. No matter, there is enough to provide interest in this version which is filled with symbolism and irony, even to the point where Cyrano shades most everyone except his friend Le Bret and Schmidt alludes to this at the outset when Cyrano speaks in the darkened audience.
This version has a somberness not necessarily found in other versions of Cyrano de Bergerac. The character’s hearbreak is also more manifest as is Roxanne’s sorrow at the conclusion. Even the music picks up the darker tones, so a revision of understanding is necessary for this version. Cyrano, Christian and Roxanne are more tragic victims whose choices are made rashly and come to haunt them after they are made.
Nevertheless, this Cyrano is inspired by the older play via its plot twists and masking of identities. The arc of development is also similar and the addition of musical numbers elucidate the characterizations and love themes. For example the opening number sung by Jasmine Cephas Jones’ Roxanne “Someone to Say” is particularly lovely and tuneful. The melody’s themes of love are reprised by Christian (Blake Jenner) who wants what Roxanne wants. After he meets Cyrano who befriends him as per Roxanne’s wishes, their union is guaranteed; Cyrano is a man of his word and a man of action who can get things done. Thus, they plot to woo Roxanne with his looks and Cyrano’s intellect and passionate heart for her…masked by his poetic words.
In their exchange, Cyrano will make Christian “eloquent, and Christian will make Cyrano “handsome.” For the love of Roxanne, two men will make up a whole, adorable and perfect man. Hence, we are reminded of another of the play’s themes: no one man has everything a woman wants or needs. And if he looks that perfect, percentages are he isn’t and something is up!
The music is by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner and the lyrics are by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser. Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner are members of the Grammy Award-winning band The National and Matt Berninger is the group’s singer/songwriter. Their score is ambitious and for those who enjoy their music, Cyrano will resound and the machinations of love, intrigue, humor and irony, with Dinklage as Cyrano and Jones as Roxanne (in Hamilton she played the mistress who lures Hamilton into a blackmail scheme) will just be icing on the deliciouss cake.
This quasi “modernized,” Cyrano iteration shows the arc of the plot development moving the story of Cyrano, Roxanne and Christian along the shores of romantic tragedy with love realized too late at the foot of death and sorrow. The themes of exceptionalism, the contrast of the beauty of the soul vs. the superficiality and vapidity of prizing outer appearance ride high in Schmidt’s rendering. And irony underscores the relationships between Roxanne and Christian, and Cyrano and everyone else, as he slips in and out of the shadows, stirring the action while all along hiding his true feelings, like a grand master pulling everyone’s strings.
With scenic design by Christine Jones and Amy Rubin, we are transported to locations that enhance the action’s through-line: the theater, the pastry shop, Roxanne’s wisteria-laden balcony (beautifully rendered) the battlefield (with accompanying thunderous fire and flashes of distant cannonade) and finally the nunnery. Each are suggested with a simplicity of design. Also they are enhanced with acutely appropriate and well -thought out props and effects (snow, leaves, etc.) accompanied by sound effects (Dan Moses Schreier).
The back wall with what look like hundreds of words is a nice thematic touch as are other elements of spectacle superbly coordinated to emphasize emotional poignance. For example, during the pastry shop scene, the actors perform balletic movements as they work with flour, dough, mixing, then shaping their rolls and pastries. This is fine choreography by Jeff and Rick Kuperman as Cyrano sings the haunting ” Need for Nothing.” The combined effect among the bakers, and Cyrano and his friend Le Bret (Josh A. Dawson) ratchets up the mood and further draws us to empathize with Cyrano’s situation with Roxanne and his elevated character in not needing material things. Again, what this production beautifully manifests in its design elements reflects Cyrano’s character as anti-materialistic, filled with faith and hope in the power of words and the unseen spiritual realm of faith and hope.
For those unfamiliar with the dynamics of plot and characterization of Cyrano de Bergerac, they will appreciate the twists of fate and the evolution of Christian’s character as well as the emotional strength and magnanimity of Cyrano as he helps a rival succeed in love while he restrains his own feelings. It is an act of pure goodness and sacrifice that Roxanne only realizes at the conclusion when she understands that in grieving Christian, it was Cyrano’s soul she loves.
The ending of this version of Cyrano in being heavy-handed removes the life-blood of feeling that could be experienced when Cyrano dies. Roxanne’s crying out with too late tears becomes maudlin and melodramatic. In the original version and a few later iterations, Cyrano de Bergerac is in bed and dying of a hidden head wound. Conquering the pain and his fading strength, he cheerfully tries to rally hope with Roxanne by his bedside. She has realized his love for her and expresses her love to him. Cyrano sees in the distance his old and most ancient of enemies that he’s fought all his life. He draws his sword once more to fight and flails at the reprobates all of us encounter and must overcome in life-“falsehood,” “prejudice” and “compromise.” When his sword drops from his grip as he dies, Roxanne covers his face with kisses.
This ending of Cyrano haplessly fighting these wicked spirits resonates for us especially today. Is it a missed opportunity NOT to conclude with the ancient evils Cyrano battled throughout his life and to his end, evils timeless and modern: “falsehood, prejudice, compromise”? To my mind, yes.
Despite the conclusion I enjoyed this intriguing and effort-filled musical of Cyrano for its performances, the choreography and movement (the battle scenes are unusual and excellent) and the risks taken by the writer/director and the Dessners, Matt Berninger and Carin Besser to form a new approach toward a timeless play.
Finally, kudos to the creatives who made Cyrano come thrillingly alive: Christine Jones and Amy Rubin (scenic design) Tom Broecker (costume design) Jeff Croiter (lighting design) Dan Moses Schreier (sound design) Tommy Kurzman (hair, wig and make-up design) Ted Arthur (music direction) Kristy Norter (music coordinator) Mary-Mitchell Campbell (music supervision and arrangements). Bravo to all!
A developmental production of Cyrano was presented by Goodspeed Musicals in August 2018. This version in its New York premiere runs with one intermission at the Daryl Roth Theatre (101 East 15th St.) until 22 December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
The Michaels written and directed by Richard Nelson Tony Award-winning playwright (Best Book of a musical for The Dead) is in its world premiere at The Public. The play is part of the Rhinebeck Panaroma cycle of eight plays which include The Apple Family Plays and The Gabriels.
The Michaels takes place in Rhinebeck, New York on the Michaels’ farm in the kitchen of Rose Michaels (Brenda Wehle) a celebrated choreographer who is facing the trial of her life with an acute illness. Present are David, Rose’s former husband, a producer and arts manager (the continually on point, always listening, fiercely authentic Jay O. Sanders) Sally, David’s wife and a former dancer with Rose’s company. Sally is finely portrayed by Rita Wolf. Joining them are Irenie Walker (Haviland Morris) a former dancer with Rose’s company and Kate Harris, a retired high school history teacher. As Kate Maryann Plunkett is superb and equally on point in her moment-to-moment performance. The next generation of the Michaels family includes Lucy Michaels (Charlotte Bydwell) dancer/choreographer who is Rose’s and David’s daughter and May Smith, (Matilda Sakamoto) Rose’s niece who also is a dancer.
The Michaels is a “slice of life” drama where the development occurs within the characters as they gather for a reunion of sorts together in mindfulness of Rose’s upcoming exhibition and retrospective. They enjoy reminiscing about the past dancing. And they discuss experiences and highlight issues of currency and more. The interactions are laid back and flow like wisps on the wind that are there and gone. Their comments reveal Richard Nelson’s mastery of “everyday” dialogue. With this he manifests the importance of the little things, of appreciating what appears to be the insignificant detail that surrounds our lives, but which indeed, makes up the substance of the days and hours that we live. By emphasizing the apparently unimportant, these elements become the most crucial materials that saturate our beings in wonder.
The drama is layered with various textures. Although on one level, there isn’t much overt action, we note with the passage of time, the “how” of when friends and family are together. In the coherence there is a dynamism. During the process of gathering themselves, Rose physically reveals the nature of her condition: she is exhausted and must rest. In the first segment she goes upstairs to rest and we glide through this without much thought listening to the conversations generation about various subjects related to family, etc.
Nelson builds this situation as the play unfolds, first with lighthearted easiness then with heavier tones. Rose’s illness becomes more and more central to this evening which in fact is a turning point in all of these characters’ lives. But it is the first night they are all together to celebrate Rose’s contributions and celebration of the dance in a coming exhibit. And gradually we realize that the gathering is a reckoning that time is fleeting and their lives are moving in wheel and woe toward a rise and close on the next part of the journey.
As the conversation touches upon the dance world (primarily in New York) where everyone knows everyone else, and subjects come up about the country, politics and more, eventually Lucy and May are inspired to show the dances they are working on. They have a quasi rehearsal in the kitchen which is more of a presentation and we wonder if there is room to dance in the tight space. There is and we are amazed at their grace, their movements, their physicality and comprehension of every inch of the area they make theirs to rehearse in.
Interestingly, their dance becomes symbolic as Rose watches their progress. Another generation is rising as the previous generation of dancers is passing. We appreciate Lucy’s and May’s energy and vibrance which is a counterbalance to the stasis of the conversation which isn’t a climactic series of revelations, but of small personal observations, opinions, shared memories and moments.
As Rose’s daughter and her niece dance, Rose, may be overcome by the realization of what once was that will never be again. She falters in her strength, exhausted from the illness. She must leave the gathering once again to rest and Kate goes with her a caretaker of sorts. This is a recognition for Lucy who goes for a walk with May to deal with this incident and perhaps consider the increasing changes that will continue to occur in her mother’s condition..
In this segment where Rose is in excruciating pain and must go up for her pills assisted by Kate, a chain reaction like a surge of current ripples through the group. Expressions of what will happen spill out. It’s an irony. Mortality has a way of sneaking into the conversation when friends with a history together sit with drinks and food. Rose’s pain attack delivers a hushed response from friends and family. The characters’ sub rosa emotional ebb and flow breaks the surface and we intimate how they may be thinking what life will be like without Rose. But as David characterizes it succinctly, Rose’s condition “is what it is.” Kate will continue to help Rose deal with all practical matters. And when Kate returns to continue the dinner preparation, she mentions that Rose and she did discuss Rose moving in with her into town, leaving the farm, at some point in the future.
These are telling moments toward which all of the other “unimportant” details actually move. And we understand that this is a network of individuals who have circled each other and had their being around Rose who has been an artistic leader and the fountain from which they have been drinking and receiving their nourishment. Indeed, it is a credit to Rose and her congeniality and generosity that her former husband and she have remained friends and that David and Sally are welcome there, integral to this dinner at her farm.
As Kate finishes preparations, they converse and the others help set up the table and begin to eat, there is a familiarity that is stunning and exceptional. All of us have been in this place; we bond with the actors’ characterizations and their acceptance of “what is is, and what’s next is next.”
In revealing what is mundane and ordinary, the precious actions and conversations of these unique individuals are lifted to a “once-in-a-lifetime” event. They are there, in this space around the table eating and communing. It is a holy event. And because the ensemble brilliantly appear to be so “matter-of-fact” about it, we understand that for them such an event will never return again.
Kudos to the scenic designer Jason Ardizzone-West whose functional, well-thought out spacial arrangements and utilitarian props and set pieces i.e. stove, etc., appeared authentic. Likewise, co-costume designers Susan Hilferty and Mark Koss conveyed the mood and tenor of this family unit of relatives and friends in their dress. Jennifer Tipton (lighting designer) Scott Lehrer (sound designer) rounded out the creative team. The dances based on Original Choreography by Dan Wagoner were superb and kudos to Sara Rudner for her dance coaching.
The Michaels runs with no intermission until 24 November at The Public Theater. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Edgar Degas, French artist (1834-1917) who has been called an Impressionist but disavowed the term during his lifetime, is most known for his paintings of his ballerinas and dancers. His sculpture of “The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years” has become an iconic work whose miniature replicas parents purchase for daughters pursuing ballet. Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was a maverick, forward-thinking and successful American painter who lived most of her life in Paris, France where she became friendly with Edgar Degas. The Independents currently at the Theater Center chronicles their extraordinary relationship and reveals fascinating information about the two artists who were geniuses in their own right.
Christopher Ward, director and writer conceives of these two individuals based on extensive research after being inspired by a 2014 Degas-Cassatt exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Ward was compelled to write about their relationship which seems counter-intuitive until one revisits their biographies and understands what bonded them together. Ward’s characterizations and delineation of their interactions are grounded in fact and imagined by the truth and mores of the time which limited women’s options and designated they be wives and mothers, spinsters or prostitutes. However, Mary Cassatt’s uniqueness, intelligence and artistic abilities are most probably what triggered Degas’ interest in becoming friendly with her after he saw her work. Ward’s understanding of these two individuals makes for a profound historical view of great artists, their influence on each other and the time in which they lived, Belle Epoch, Paris.
As the play opens Mary Cassatt, portrayed with reserved control, grace and subtle, ironic humor by Natasa Babic arranges to meet Edgar Degas in her studio. Degas’ reaction is unpredictable; he leaves. Mary sighs disappointed, but is nonplussed. Then Degas returns to further comment. Already, Ward has encapsulated the particularity of their natures which he unspools with surprises throughout the play.
Degas, portrayed with an arrogant disdain by André Herzegovitch, softens and becomes more good humored as their relationship progresses. Eventually, he reveals that he respects Cassatt’s achievements as a woman painter, a rare breed. He also recognizes the strength, autonomy and fearlessness required to pursue a career in painting that eschews a family and husband in order to become great. In short he admires her industry and work ethic which is like his. They both sacrificed marriage and a family for the sake of their work to constantly innovate and evolve. In this they are like “two peas in a pod,” and indeed, Degas tells her he respects her more than he does the painters in his group of “Independents.”
For her part Mary Cassatt, as the playwright depicts, holds her own with the venerated, successful Degas. She calls him down in response to his churlish comments some of which fall just short of demeaning insults, a criticism he denies. She admires his work and secretly yearns for even a crumb of support from him when he looks over her work. Interestingly, Cassatt doesn’t fawn over Degas though she might very well have done so. But Ward reveals her to be a powerful woman, a feminist in her time. Her personal well-spring of confidence serves her as she goes head-to-head with Degas whose presumptuous demeanor, though based on true brilliance, is often hard to take.
Indeed, both artists were headstrong and complex individuals. Christopher Ward superbly unveils the dynamic of their unique friendship and mentorship, and he indicates that Cassatt even gave Degas ideas. The director acutely shepherds the actors who portray Degas and Cassatt authentically, as they move forward with their work sometimes with excitement but always with irony, suspicion, aloofness and reserved warmth.
The play is largely a character study about two renowned artists who circle each other in competition and veneration like atoms that need each other to form something new, but never get too close for fear of colliding and destroying themselves. Ward’s characterizations are fascinating in showing who they are and how they inspired and competed with each other. With their dialogue he succinctly captures the undercurrents-conflicts, strains, admiration, humor and collegial acceptance. The interchanges between Degas and Cassatt, adroitly acted by Babic and Herzegovitch engage throughout.
Various events highlight their relationship and Ward builds the arc of development around these. The most vital one occurs when Degas upon finding the Salon has rejected Cassatt’s last two works is thrilled and invites her to exhibit with his “Independents” (a group of artists who have broken away from the salon) that some refer to as ‘Impressionists,” a title Degas despises. Cassatt is excited, but manages to restrain her overwhelming joy in receiving the great honor. She keeps her stance with measured, balanced grace. Degas is intrigued.
During an intimate conversation about herself, Babic’s Cassatt reveals that she has had suitors, but refused to become engaged because her work was paramount. She could not allow a man to interfere with what she wished to accomplish. However, she leaves a door open for Edgar Degas when she indirectly proposes that he might be the right man to marry because they have painting in common and he would understand her driving passion for her work. Degas’ response is ironic. Indeed, it sets the tone for their future relationship. Their shared sensibilities kept their friendship intact for almost forty years, despite arguments and strains. But they obviously enjoyed sharing artistic experimentation and freedoms and had secrets between them which have gone into the ethers. Neither were letter writers, or they destroyed all their correspondence. Ultimately, their bond retains mysteries for us today.
Another event Ward expands is based upon a discovery and revelation by art historians and experts at the National Gallery over 130 years later. Cassatt is painting a work which is not finished. When Degas looks at it, while Cassatt is otherwise engaged, Degas corrects the perspective adding a corner to the painting that wasn’t there before. At first Cassatt becomes infuriated at Degas’ effrontery adding something to her work and implying she is an “inferior.” Then she realizes that it is an improvement and she apologizes and the enhancement remains. In the process of exploring Degas’ addition to Cassatt’s work, the curators and experts at the National Gallery established the Degas-Cassatt exhibition in 2014. See Art news!
Ward’s inclusion of such a scene in the play reveals volumes. Both Cassatt and Degas obviously supervised each other’s work critically and benefited from each other’s influence. This is one more important moment of many in this play. Such dynamic events illuminate both artists and their dependence on each other. As far as history has revealed, Mary Cassatt appears to be Degas only female artistic friend.
The set design is simplistic and appropriate. Paintings that Cassatt finished appear on easels and the walls of her studio. Interludes for costume changes work with music filling in the gaps. I particularly like the Erik Satie additions which I found haunting and expressive of how these two individuals were friends but kept a portion of themselves secret so that they were ultimately not completely accessible to each other. The costumes are exquisite and appropriate for that time. Additionally, Cassatt’s dresses mirror dresses worn by herself as a subject of Degas’ work. Cassatt modeled for him on a number of occasions, sometimes not appreciating how Degas rendered her.
Rather than go on with more detail, I will not spoil it. You must see this production especially if you love Degas and Cassatt. Your eyes will be opened and you will be amazed as I was at the portrayals beautifully effected by Ward’s writing and directing and the actors’ intriguing and nuanced work. But the show is in a limited run and closes 10th November. So make arrangements immediately! You will be glad you did.
The Independents runs at the Theater Center (210 W 50th St. at Broadway) with a very brief intermission. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
‘The Great Society,’ by Robert Schenkkan, Starring Brian Cox, Richard Thomas, A Triumphant Reminder of an Adult President
Lyndon Baines Johnson became president in a landslide vote in 1964. The wheeler dealer of the senate as Democratic Majority leader who could count votes and get bills passed, came from a hard scrabble childhood. He witnessed his father devastated by broken dreams. But President Johnson despite his crude ways, ferocious wit and uber competitiveness had the people of the nation at heart. Cramped and curtained as President Kennedy’s poor ‘ole boy, shunt ’em to the side Vice President, taking the reins of power after Kennedy’s death in 1963, President Johnson accomplished the impossible. He did what Kennedy hoped to do but couldn’t; he got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.
In Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award winning All The Way, LBJ is a man of destiny and reckoning. Played by Bryan Cranston who won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play, we follow the 36th president through passage of that iconic Civil Rights Act to his election campaigning. It was an amazing journey considering the obstacles of bigotry, racism and the obstructions by the Southern Democrats. Schenkkan’s play concludes with Johnson riding high on his success of the Civil Rights Triumph and his election win as the full term 36th president of the United States.
Directed by Bill Rauch who helmed All the Way, Schenkkan’s sequel, The Great Society is equally majestic in its revelations about Johnson as one who greatly desired to bring Franklin Roosevelt’s ideas of a more prosperous nation into being. With Johnson this was an obsession which Brian Cox realizes authoritatively and sensitively. As Cox’s Johnson lays out the policies of “the great society,” Schenkkan includes quotes from Johnson’s speeches where he affirms the principles of the constitution regarding economic equality, voting rights and other essential American freedoms.
What a joy to hear Cox’s superb delivery of Johnson’s own words. This is especially so in our time when the current president has laid siege to our election freedoms, demeaned freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and abrogated checks and balances with monarchic pronouncements and behaviors that as president, he can do “anything he wants,” and lift “presidential” criminality to new heights with impunity and the assistance of William Barr head of the Department of Justice. In The Great Society, the portrayal of Cox’ Johnson is a poignant reminder that there was a time in our history, when consensus between Republicans and Democrats could be reached. The play reminds us that Johnson knew how to compromise and work toward legislation that would improve the lives of American citizens. Above all he was an adult, he cared about those who were economically disadvantaged, he loathed racism, yet understood how to get his opponents on his side.
The arc of the play’s development chronicles Johnson’s four year term during which the country roiled with upheavals and protests that represented the raging tide of times. Schenkkan unfolds events from the mountaintop of Johnson’s win to his struggles through passage and implementation of the Voting Rights Act. Schenkkan reveals Johnson’s relationships with Civil Rights leaders from Ralph Abernathy to Stokley Carmichael to Martin Luther King Jr. to conflicts with Robert Kennedy and Governor George Wallace.
The actors who portray these celebrated individuals do an excellent job. Most acute and colorful in the development of their relationships with Cox’s Johnson are Grantham Coleman as Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Marchant Davis as Stokely Carmichael. Some of the most dynamic segments of the play are Johnson’s confrontations with Martin Luther King Jr. and the other iconic black activists to insure that blacks would be able to register and vote without being lynched or beaten. Dynamic arguments with all the important high stakes players move like a riptide as Johnson negotiates and spars with Martin Luther King Jr. (Grantham Coleman) Stokely Carmichael (Marchant Davis) Governor George Wallace (David Garrison) Robert Kennedy (Bryce Pinkham) Senator Everett Dirksen (Frank Wood) Richard J. Daley-Mayor of Chicago (Marc Kudisch )and others. Often at his side is Hubert Humphrey (the fine Richard Thomas) who serves as a counsel to him and could be looked upon loosely as his friend, a generosity not given to Johnson by the Kennedys when he was Vice President.
Identifying searing events, (via video projections and archived photos, the “Bloody Sunday” march on Selma, Alabama, “Turnaround Tuesday” march, the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the Chicago protests, the Watts riots, etc.) Schenkkan reveals how Johnson attempted to balance all the invested players and handle the black – white unrest. With the Watts riots, he eventually brought in the California National Guard.
Brian Cox demonstrates Johnson’s forcefulness, vigor, passion and rationality with regard to his positions on civil rights and with regard to bringing in key influencers for other programs, like Dr. James Z. Appel (Marc Kudisch) head of the American Medical Association. Under Johnson’s term, medicare and medicaid were created and passed into law.
Interesting are his exchanges with Robert Kennedy portrayed with privileged aloofness and irony by Bryce Pinkham. The tensions between them are obvious and stem back from Johnson’s Vice Presidency. When Johnson is not surprised that Kennedy is looking to run in 1968, we understand his humorous reaction to that news. Kennedy uses Johnson as his bête noire on the war to gather support for his platform and candidacy. It is an ironic moment considering his brother was the first to send troops over to Viet Nam. The irony of this and horror of the Robert Kennedy assassination is shown representational style; Johnson’s reaction is telling.
If Johnson’s greatness as a president was in the passage of forward legislation to improve all of the citizens’ lives, Schennkan reveals the greatness is undone by his “Waterloo,” the Viet Nam War. Based on reports from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Matthew Rauch) and head of U.S. forces in Viet Nam General William Westmoreland (Bryan Dykstra) Cox as Johnson shows the president’s mettle as he wrangles with the notion that the war will stop the spread of communism. Listening to them, he escalates troop deployments and engages in the bombing of North Viet Nam. These are steps on the road to the nation’s infamy.
On a backdrop projection periodically listed are the ever increasing numbers of American dead and wounded. Indeed, as Johnson battles the two main issues of the day, civil rights and the war, we note that he, himself, is fighting his own war with himself whether more bloodshed will be useful or a travesty. We hear the rationale for escalation as we note the figures expand and rise up as protestors march and individual protestors represented by Quaker minister Norman Morrison (David Garrison) immolate themselves. (Buddhist monks also set themselves on fire to protest the war).
For those unfamiliar with this time in history, Schenkkan relays events with meticulous and accurate detail. Clearly, he identifies the seminal themes and concepts from which we still feel the impact today evidenced by the numbers of homeless Vets and suicides from that generation. We shudder as we witness Cox as Johnson be persuaded by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and General William Westmoreland knowing the numbers will continue to rise and behind each number is a family in mourning. Letters Johnson writes to families in condolence become a devastating scene. Schenkkan evidences Johnson’s turmoil which ironically reflects the growing divisiveness in the country. Money spent on the war and defense contractors could have been spent on his social programs which must be curtailed to make the budget. Johnson is stuck between a rock and a hard place with nowhere to go but the abyss, Schenkkan reveals.
An important feature of this production is in how the playwright and the director and ensemble coalesce our history with salient, acute representational actions that become a mentorship in what an adult president can be like. This reminds us of what we do not have today. Cox’s Johnson reveals a president who had the temerity not to seek re-election but wanted to extract himself from the rat wheel of the killing fields of Southeast Asia during a horror that fomented protests, divided his country and party. And it was particularly grating for him to hear college students’ chants, “Hey, Johnson what do ya say, how many kids did you kill today?”The words hit home because he knew they were true. He bore up under it badly remembering a time when he was popular and not despised.
Rather that to be elected for four more years, which he would have won, he stops and hands the opportunity to Hubert Humphrey. We laugh at his humor and the irony of what happened next: Richard Nixon (played by David Garrison). A key point in this production, look for it, reveals Nixon’s hunger for the presidency so that he put himself before the country and our soldiers. Treasonously, deceitfully Nixon upended the ongoing negotiations for peace with North Viet Nam by making an arrangement that peace would be accomplished after he got in office. Cox’s Johnson ironically nails him for this when Nixon comes in to assert himself in the Oval Office, even before he is inaugurated. The parallel to today in how the Trumpists were making quid pro quo deals even before they took the reins of power is clear.
When Johnson stated he would not run again and posed the reasons, what many believed would be better for the country, actually was worse, especially since Nixon stalled the peace negotiations with North Viet Nam, something that Johnson had believed in throughout his bombing policy. But a worse than Johnson took office and the implication in the play is that Johnson knew this as Cox portrays ironically when Nixon comes to visit before the transfer of power. In one of the most dramatic scenes Cox pulls out all stops to deliver Johnson’s ringing words: “I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes. . . . Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” The ramifications of this in Nixon getting in, the country has paid for ever since.
Interestingly, Schekkan, Rauch, Cox and the ensemble reinforce American values, exemplified by what Johnson attempted in his plan for “the great society.” These values which Johnson fought hard to uphold against those like Governor George Wallace, Southern Democrats and Southern law enforcement whose bigotry Johnson understood, countermanded, and decried, become reinforced as the gold standard of the nation. Johnson was capable of dialogue with those who disagreed with him. And he was capable of bringing them to his side to realize and bring us closer to the tenets of the constitution and a “more perfect union,” if even for a time until the war upended the fullness of his efforts. The production uplifts these characteristics of Johnson as a patriotic American. And it indelibly reinforces this greatness as that which we must embrace if we are to define ourselves as a nation of equal opportunity for all.
Finally, The Great Society has special import for us because what Johnson attempted was actually supported in a bi-partisan effort. Johnson not only looked out for the well being of the poor and the uneducated regardless of race or creed, he had the negotiating power and skill to bring his dreams into reality. He understood congress, and with his landslide victory, was able to bring many liberal Democrats with him to establish a foundation by which his social programs could be instituted and funded. He declared a “war on poverty” and attempted to eliminate institutional racial injustice. If not for the vicissitudes of the Viet Nam War, who knows what else may have been accomplished?
With passion, ingeniousness determination and sociability, Johnson attempted the impossible and managed to push through the most sweeping civil rights legislation and other legislation that benefited whole swaths of the nation which are still in practice today though Republican white supremacists continue to erode the Voting Rights Act with gerrymandering and strictures at polling places.
Cox authentically portrays Johnson with grace, humor, vitality and power. His masterful performance is an illumination which we need especially now.
The sum total of the benefits the 36th president brought to this nation (including the 25th Amendment) is laudatory. He also was driven into a war from which it has been impossible to recover. For that and other reasons he did not want to continue as president. Again, admirable. Importantly, the play reminds us that presidents and politicians do have the ability to stand for all of the people and to push for equal opportunity for the betterment of the general good. That used to be a value of this nation, a sign of patriotism, Americanism, something to strive for. How this current administration has strayed from those values with the help of the Trumpists and big money is earth-shattering. Schenkkan’s The Great Society is a warning we must not allow this erosion of democracy to continue.
The theme of this production is an imperative, and uplifting for us in these times. For this reason, the portrayals, the historical details and the crafting of events, Schenkkan’s portrayal of Johnson, beautifully delivered by Cox as a president of cultural hope and justice is a must see.
Special kudos to the design team. The projections, the archived photos and videos were well done. the scenic design melded well with the lighting. As for the costume design, yes, that is really how folks dressed! Notice, no red ties. Calling out: David Korins (scenic design) Linda Cho (costume design) David Weiner (lighting design) Victoria Sagady (projection design) Paul James Prendergast and Marc Salzbert (sound design) Paul James Prendergast (music).
Scotland, Pa directed by Lonny Price, with book by Michael Mitnick and music and lyrics by Adam Gwon is a rollicking musical with clever twists, sardonic comedy and a morality tale tucked somewhere in between the all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on three sumptuous brioche buns. Well, perhaps I got carried away with the bun concept. Adapted from the film of the same title by Billy Morrissette which was produced by Richard Shepard, Jon Stern and Abandon Pictures, Scotland, Pa the musical, currently running at Laura Pels Theatre Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre is a take-off of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. There are even three stoner witches whose marijuana-toking hallucinations serve as the powder-keg to turn sweet protagonist Mac into a reprobate rapscallion.
Like the film the musical loosely reconfigures the “Scottish Play’s” key characterizations, plot and themes against the backdrop of a sleepy town Scotland, Pennsylvania hamburger joint. Nothing ever happens there, and no one anticipates that in a decade outsourcing and Reganomics will destroy unions, winnow high paying factory jobs and attenuate American workers’ pay checks making the situation in Scotland, PA even worse.
For in this backwater of Pennsylvania, the economy is already rust belt before outsourcing vanishes the nation’s industries. There is little opportunity for high school graduates except working at fast food hamburger joint Duncan’s owned by Duncan (a humorously overweening Jeb Brown). Duncan (unlike King Duncan in Shakespeare’s Macbeth) is a horrible boss, penurious, abusive and greedy. He shortchanges and mistreats his workers, just like the corporate CEOs today. That is about the most forward thinking thinking that Duncan accomplishes for his business where he is slothfully satisfied to dump on Mac (Ryan MCartan) Pat (Taylor Iman Jones) and their friend Banko (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and keep any and all profits for himself. A poor businessman, he will not reinvest or motivate his workers to help his business expand.
Mac who is electrified by the business angle of fast food restaurants presents amazing ideas to Duncan who rejects them out of hand deeming Mac’s ideas dumb. Humorously, the ideas are famously brilliant having been implemented in Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s years later. Duncan’s arrogant stomping out Mac’s intellectual smarts, ambition and concern to accelerate Duncan’s bottom line reveals the “CEO’s” vapid bone lazy idiocy.
Beyond frustrated, Mac spurred on by ambitious Pat comes up with an incredible idea and presents it to Duncan who once again demeans and tortures Mac with insults. As a final “hurrah of hope” Mac proves that the manager is stealing, believing that Duncan will reward him with a raise and the managerial position. Instead, Duncan gives his uninterested son Malcolm (Will Meyers brings down the house in his song “reveal”) the manager’s position. Malcolm who would rather play football rejects his father’s offer and leaves when Duncan tries to teach him the business.
Throughout, hippie stoners Jessie (Alysha Umphress) Stacey (Wonu Ogunfowora) and Hector (Kaleb Wells) sing about the town and Mac’s situation and effect the wicked transition in Mac and Pat’s destiny toward doom. In an argument with Mac, Duncan ends up falling head first into the hot oil of the fryer, an incident which just skirts manslaughter. What prompted this? Duncan catches Mac and Pat stealing and their guilt prompts them to struggle against Duncan though his death is largely accidental. But crime begets crime: in the commission of their theft, Duncan dies, they pin Duncan’s death on someone else and use Duncan’s money to buy out Duncan’s from his son. As Mac and Pat step deeper and deeper into the evil foretold and instigated by the witches, the musical progresses toward more twists, an investigation and scramble to hide the truth in an ironic, black comedy conclusion which is also poignant.
The surprises are many and the jokes are uproarious. The musical numbers are well staged and equally riotous and energetic. As Mac, Ryan McCartan is not only an adorable innocent turned miscreant, his vocals are smashing and his authenticity is spot-on in a role that one could make ineffectively campy which would have been a mistake. McCartan shines and we find ourselves empathizing with him as he stands up to detective Peg McDuff (the suspicious, inquisitive Megan Lawrence) and deflects her investigatory skills. Likewise, Taylor Iman Jones portrays wife Pat with sincerity and her voice is gorgeous. How can he not be loyal to her dreams and wishes though they include malfeasance?
Driven to seek a better life upward from their poverty, Pat motivates Mac toward with conniving subtly. The witches’ provocations spin and contort so that benign dreams morph into the nefarious and damaging, first with stealing the cash in Duncan’s safe then with manslaughter, then a cover-up murder. The crime dominoes fall and Pat is always there to “screw Mac’s courage to the sticking place,” as they enjoyably couple to commit even more dastardly deeds.
How Mitnik and Gwon transform a well-meaning, average, lower middle class husband and wife into thieves and murderers is humorous with all the stops removed. On the one hand, Jeb Brown’s Duncan is so loathsome, we are not surprised at the comeuppance he gets. His mistreatment of his workers, abuse of his son and arrogant insults and rotten demeanor drain all our sympathy upon his death. However, the black comedy deepens when investigator Peg McDuff comes upon the scene. Fear of discovery and the need to cover-up become the linchpins that send the “well-meaning” capitalists Mac and Pat right into hell with betrayal, murder and suicide.
As their friend and foil Banko, Jay Armstrong Johnson is flat out marvelous in the role of the lame-brained, stoned out hippie who can’t get out of his own way. And Armstrong can do more than carry a tune; he has a show stopper number to boot. As with the others in the ensemble, his vocal power is prime. The surprise in his characterization occurs when he reveals he is more sentient than we imagine and actually is a threat to his two friends in blowing apart their alibi.
The arc of development moves toward a swift conclusion and the “bedazzled by wickedness” Mac fulfills the prophecy of the witches, despite himself. We are left with the themes: “the love of money is the root of evil,” “crime begets cover-up and more crime,” “overweening, unrestrained ambition destroys.” Each are their own moral lessons. At least in this bucolic town, ethics still abide and “crime doesn’t pay,” after all. Of course that is because Peg McDuff believes in serving justice, not serving herself or any corrupt cronies, unlike our present times. In this the play’s small town folkways and ethics are charming reminders of the past. Oh how long ago and far away this America was!
Scotland, PA remains a lovable, smash hit worthy of seeing a few times for its sardonic humor and the ensembles’ masterful delivery of clever humor and pacing to full effect. The songs are not earth-shattering in meaning, but they are tuneful and effervescent. Everyone in the cast from the three stoner witches to Peg McDuff are focused. Their portrayals have been well shepherded by Lonny Price’s incisive, thoughtful direction.
Set design elements thanks to Anna Louizos are funny in the transformation between the Duncan’s of Act I to the spoofing of the real Ray Kroc and McDonald’s in Act II. From the thunderous lightning cracks to additional lighting elements created by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew and accompanying sound design elements by Jon Weston, Scotland, PA’s tenor, mood and irony shift and change providing a fabulous medium to stir the actors to hit their marks! Likewise, costume design by Tracy Christensen and hair, wig & make-up design by J. Jared Janas combine elements of the modern and throwbacks to the 1970s. I loved the look of the witches. And the restaurant outfits in Act 2 are a hoot!
Music Direction by Vadim Feichtner, orchestrations by Frank Galgano & Matt Castle and choreography by Josh Rhodes help to make this a great entertainment. Bravo once and bravo twice for good measure to the creative team, Lonny Price and the ensemble of Scotland, PA.
The production runs with one intermission until 8th December at Roundabout, Laura Pels Theatre Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th St). For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Macbeth directed by John Doyle currently runs at Classic Stage Company. The production is minimalistic. It is stylized toward removing any extraneous feature that would slow down the race toward the conclusion of one of the most performed of Shakespeare’s plays. The production clocks in at a slim 90 minutes with no intermission, few props, the barest scenic design, no bulky Byzantine elements or interpretations. It eschews the spectacle, sturm und drang of previous maverick, heavy-handed iterations of Macbeth that have come to New York- Broadway, Lincoln Center or Off Broadway stages in recent years or have been presented at the Armory. Only the costumes whisper Scotland with each of the actors sporting a plaid tartan shawl and appropriate dress.
For those very familiar with the “Scottish Play,” this spare production will be fascinating. Its emphasis resides in the fine performances of Corey Stoll as Macbeth, his partner Nadia Bowers as Lady Macbeth, Eric Lochtefeld as Banquo and the adroit ensemble. For those unfamiliar with Macbeth who are looking to become more acquainted with the play that has superstitious actors refusing to speak the title anywhere near a theater stage, this is not the production to see. Better to see a film version to get a handle on the plot, characterizations and themes before you stop in to see the CSC production. Then you will be able to understand and appreciate Doyle’s direction that concentrates on the grist of Shakespeare’s arc of development and characterizations, especially of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
There are many fine films of Macbeth; one directed by and starring Orsen Welles (1948); Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) and most recently an incredibly visual and cinematic Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender directed by Justin Kurzel (2015). There is even a sardonic, comedic take-off on Macbeth (Scotland, PA, a film-2001) and the Off Broadway comedic musical adapted from the 2001 film currently running at the Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre.
Knowing the play as well as I do, I had little difficulty in appreciating the singularity of the performances and the rapid pacing of the events which fall in on themselves from scene to scene like dominoes. The pacing is important thematically and reveals much as an expression which manifests characterization. We, like Macbeth, are often hurled into a whirlwind of rapidly cascading events that occur around us, forged by those in power. Indeed, we barely have time to consider what is happening to take stock of circumstances. Instead, we must make quick deliberations and because of the speed, often make bad choices. This conceptualization pertains to this pared down production in the characters of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth.
In Doyle’s version we note Macbeth, a Scottish general who is driven on a course of loyalty to king Duncan to be valorous in battle. Stirred up by the voices of the culture (represented by a chorus of players who recite the dialogue of the three witches) to extend his ambitions in competition with Banquo, both generals receive a prophecy. Each encourages the other to believe what the chorus of witches speaks in their incantations. The prophecy concerns Macbeth becoming king and Banquo’s heirs becoming kings and ruling the kingdom for generations. Banquo’s and Macbeth’s imaginations ripen without prayer or meditation to become obsessed with their futures. Macbeth, rather than to consider that the chorus of witches may be evil, shares the “news” with Lady Macbeth who leaps to the assassination plot of killing Duncan who will stay at their castle.
The events pick up speed, unhindered by Macbeth’s doubt or unsettled nervousness because Lady Macbeth moves without delay to influence him to kill Duncan and murder the guards in retribution, laying blame on Duncan’s sons who flee. Macbeth assumes the throne without question, then with growing fear and paranoia betrays his friend Banquo and has him killed. When Macbeth attempts to be a proper statesman and ruler holding a banquet for his Lords to ingratiate himself to them, Banquo’s ghost appears upending Macbeth’s peace of mind, rest and attempted diplomacy. Afterward, confusion and mania escalates into psychotic paranoia and guilt. Macbeth’s seemingly unstoppable reign of tyranny and civil war grows in ferocity and wickedness toward an inevitable and swift conclusion.
Indeed, Doyle reveals an aspect of Macbeth not typically focused upon. Events unfold like a storm for which no preparation can be made. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are largely transactional. Their motivations overwhelm them without thoughtful consideration. These upend them so quickly they leave no time to check themselves and consider what the consequences of their dishonorable actions will foment. Rationality leaks into insanity. It is as if Macbeth has allowed himself to be submerged underwater and is drowning in his own bloody imagination and frenzied blood-letting. This happens so rapidly and so smothers him and Lady Macbeth in guilt, he cannot breathe or rest easily once they’ve murdered their king and usurped his power. After the regicide, they are incapable of ruling wisely or well. They are consumed with maintaining the power they don’t understand and cannot keep because they are illegitimate and unfit.
Regicide drives Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to devastating guilt. But they are incapable of seeking redemption from an ocean of blood that stains their minds and hearts and propels them toward masochistic betrayals of themselves and each other in infamous deaths. For Lady Macbeth it is suicide which Macbeth does not have the time to mourn. For Macbeth it is arrogance that leads to his downfall in not making the proper alignments to keep the throne or recognize that he is not immortal as the chorus of witches have duped him to believing. The vortex does not stop spinning until Macbeth comes up for air, as it were, and dies. He is killed by McDuff who was “untimely ripped from his mother’s womb” a fulfillment of the prophecy that Macbeth will be killed by one “not born of woman.”
The pared down version eliminates various characters and scenes, some comedic, some ironic and foreshadowing. The platform stage acting area allows for the audience to sit on three sides. Toward the back of the playing area is the focal point of the production, the throne and seat of power. The rustic, wooden throne’s placement at the end of the platform allows for a “theater in the round” effect.”
The audience becomes immediately engaged with the heightened action of Macbeth’s obsession with the throne and what that means for himself and the country. The only way to gain the modest-looking, oversized wooden chair is by usurping power illegitimately through regicide. That is easy. But to maintain his illegitimacy, he must use the weapons of tyranny, brutality, murderous betrayal of Banquo and destruction of his country. His guilt knowing he is not a true king makes his paranoia and psychosis all the more explosive. Thus, against the country he wishes to govern, ironically, he instigates civil war to protect what he never deserved and was never truly his, the throne of Scotland. What Macbeth and many leaders who lust for power never understand is that powerful men serve others first. Power means acute responsibility to govern over all the people, not just the sycophants and toadies. To be powerful, one must be, like Duncan revealed beneficent and just. Macbeth proves what a king isn’t. His lust for the throne is a tragedy.
One of the themes of the minimalistic design and but vibrant staging is that whomever sits in the throne chair takes the power of the position. Whether they realize it or not, it is assumed they understand power. Initially, we see Duncan (Mary Beth Peil) resting easily in this power as the King gives commands and bestows honors with legitimate authority and probity It is a dangerous “game for the throne” which Macbeth initiates stirred by the cultural “witchy” voices of the time that emphasize ambition and position without achievement, without grace and without ethics and honor to perform the hard work to deservedly wait for the possibility of becoming king through divine means. Macbeth cannot wait. Lady Macbeth will not wait. They lift their will above Scotland and God and reap the requisite fate.
Duncan’s success in war indicates his wisdom. When the treasonous Thane of Cawdor, (the title position Duncan awards Macbeth for his valor) repents his treachery to Duncan and is forgiven, but must suffer the consequences, we understand Duncan’s worthiness and justice as a beneficent ruler. Macbeth’s hasty leap to steal what he can never fulfill is all the more wicked and horrifying for Scotland. Sadly, Macbeth, instead of learning from the Thane of Cawdor’s behavior and repentance, thinks nothing of it. Too much the transactional man of action, imbalanced and not given to thoughtful consideration, his end is manifest the moment he takes on the mantle of Thane of Cawdor. Unlike the Thane, Macbeth never humbly repents and admits what he has done.
This production is revelatory and acute. The performances by Stoll, Bowers, Lochtefeld and Peil are resonant. They and Doyle’s direction elucidate important themes for our times about power, leadership, justice, illegitimacy, unfitness, accountability. The ensemble work is seasoned. Macbeth runs at CSC (East 13th Street between 3rd and Madison) until 15th December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
How well do we know ourselves? If we don’t, then how can we truly discern others to help them, and get them to help us? Of course, that is if we indeed admit we need help! Adam Rapp (Pultizer Prize finalist for Red Light Winter 2006) touches upon themes of self-knowing, being, consciousness and the perception of others in The Sound Inside. Commissioned by Lincoln Center Theatre the play premiered at the Williamston Theatre Festival and now is at Studio 54 until 12th January.
Directed by David Cromer (Tony Award Winner for The Band’s Visit) and starring Tony® and Emmy® Award winner Mary-Louise Parker, with Will Hochman in his Broadway debut, the 90-minute production is spare and ironically humorous. Opaque, wisps of the mysterious slip into the arc of the play’s development. By the conclusion uncertainty is king; we must admit circumstances of character are unknowable as our understanding intrudes with imprecise interpretations about what the events may mean. Rapp strikes unusual timbers in this work and suggests the sounds we listen to inside of our minds and hearts remain elusive.
Rapp’s characterizations are drawn to entice. They loop around us and double in on themselves pinging our empathy. Despite their austere headiness and sometimes aloof demeanor, Rapp does allow Bella’s (Parker) and Christopher’s (Hochman) sensibilities to shine and soften as their relationship appears to deepen. With their responses to each other’s questions they attempt to connect and dissolve their gritty isolation. Parker and Hochman effect intriguing encounters with stirring, nuanced authenticity and exceptional feeling
The play begins and ends as a one-person narration, specifically with Bella’s direct address to the audience, a matter-of-fact revelation of her life up to and including her experience with a prodigy, a freshman in her writing class. Yale professor and writer, she initially elicits our attention speaking in complete darkness then gradually emerging from the shade as the spotlight grows brighter to finally make her visible. When she steps down front toward the audience, director David Cromer leaves the rest of the stage in darkness and shadow. It is as if she begins speaking from a vacuum, or a dark space somewhere in her own being and then seeks an audience of readers/listeners who will appreciate her story and remain with her while she tells her tale of self-discovery, healing and the uncertain apprehension of an individual who brings meaning into her life.
Cromer’s direction is pointed, symbolic and acute. With a minimalism of sets, he suggests Bella’s apartment, office and a local bar without distracting us from the most curious of relationships and events which occur between Bella and Christopher. The spareness and the directed lighting help to reinforce the dynamic tension between the teacher and her student.
Throughout, the director uses light and surrounding darkness interpretively. The symbolism of light and darkness assisted by Heather Gilbert’s excellent design suggests the intimacy of their conversation and undergirds the theme about never really knowing/ understanding the thoughts, consciousness and souls of others. Indeed, the lighting implies a possible theme, that we see others “through a glass darkly,” if they allow us to “see.” And if they do, it is merely bits and pieces of their larger unseen whole.
The lighting prepares us to be receptive to the personal stories that Bella and Christopher tell us as we watch their relationship move in a direction we cannot anticipate. We only know what they relate; we have no outside knowledge of the accuracy of what they express. Thus we must trust Bella and Christopher as narrators. However, Rapp twits us. We must also doubt them as he characterizes with vast indefiniteness, almost with a dream-like quality, though Bella appears more solid than Christopher.
Therein lies the rub! To what extent are Bella and Christopher reliable narrators? Both of them address the audience and discuss their perceptions of each other without particular effusion of feeling. Actually, we receive more from their interactions and the stories they have written.
However, that too ends in an opaque blind because their stories which have autobiographical and symbolic components, are indeed, fiction. Yet, they are metaphorical and may even parallel their real lives and their portentous deaths.
Christopher details a synopsis of Bella’s novel whose character’s last name is the same as hers and who dies proving a point about the culture and human nature. Christopher relates the synopsis of his novel in which one of his protagonists (Shane) dies. The other character whose name is the same as Christopher’s takes Shane’s place and cares for his son whose name is the same as Bella’s protagonist who dies (Billy). In both Bella’s and Christopher’s novels, deaths occur and these complicate our understanding of Bella and Christopher because they are related to Bella’s narration of events about Christopher and her interactions with him.
In a further complication and twist, Christopher’s novel contains allusions to particular novels he’s read in Bella’s class: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, etc., as well as a references to Christopher’s favorite book, Old Yeller by Fred Gipson. The reference to Wild Palms by William Faulkner a favorite of Bella’s and Christopher’s, Rapp uses as an allusion to The Sound Inside. In Rapp’s play the lives of Bella and Christopher are narratives of isolated individuals. These individuals are momentarily arrested from their aloneness on the venerable college campus where they connect, energize, impact one another then move on having made an indelible and irrevocable exchange which Rapp alludes to at the conclusion. You will just have to see The Sound Inside to find out what that is; no spoiler alert is coming to reveal the final impact of this play, shimmering with the ineffable, the uncertain, the intangible.
Rapp teases us with the references to celebrated novels and their tie-ins as well as the mystery of the final events of Bella’s narration about her relationship with Christopher: the help she needs from him and the help her gives her. All are under the penumbra of Bella’s story-telling which spins outward into a cloudy firmament. Indeed, as she importunes Christopher toward the end, she has “reached into a dark room for something.” Christopher helps her with her fateful request with an even more fateful response.
Parker’s Bella concludes with us emerging from her flashback into the present in her last address to the audience. She stands in the spotlight, the darkness of the park behind her. This is where she solicited us and sparked our curiosity at the top of the play, so we are back at a beginning. Throughout we remained rapt, engaged and constantly questioning. However, at the last in the park with Bella, we finally must accept what she has told us is both a reflection of her own consciousness and meaning and ours, in a meld of fiction, imagination and faith.
Parker and Hochman take us on this incredible journey toward connection reminding us of the impact we do have on others despite our assumptions to the contrary. Ironically, however, we cannot always state with certainty what that impact is or might be. In Rapp’s thrilling play, opacity and its companion uncertainty about human nature, knowing and consciousness are paramount.
That Rapp breaks the third wall to tell Bella’s then conjointly Christopher’s stories is vital. As we tell our own stories or write them, we constantly intrude to watch ourselves in the telling. Objectivity is a canard as is connection. Our consciousness is ours alone, a key theme of Rapp’s work. We can move parallel with others, but we move alone. After we come to the end of ourselves, the journey may be great fun. But along the way, as it is for Bella (until after she meets Christopher) and for Christopher, the pain of discovering identity, and settling comfortably into our consciousness tears us like a cancer which must be healed.
Kudos to Alexander Woodward (scenic design) David Hyman (costume design) Heather Gilbert (lighting design) Daniel Kluger (music and sound). The Sound Inside runs with no intermission at Studio 54 (West 54th Street between 7th and 8th). For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
‘The Rose Tattoo,’ Marisa Tomei Is Tennessee Williams’ Fiery, Sensual Serafina, in a Stellar Performance
Atmosphere, heat, the heavy scent of roses, candles, mysticism, undulating waves, torpid rhythms, steamy melodies, fantastical rows of pink flamingos, a resonant altar of the Catholic Madonna. These elements combine to form the symbolic backdrop and evocative wistful earthiness that characterize Roundabout Theatre Company’s The Rose Tattoo at American Airlines Theatre.
Tennessee Williams playful, emotionally effusive tragic-comic love story written as a nod to Williams own Sicilian lover Frank Merlo, is in its third revival on Broadway in a limited engagement until 8th December (the Catholic date of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception). Reflecting upon Marisa Tomei’s portrayal of Serafina in The Rose Tattoo, this is an ironic, humorous conclusion in keeping with the evolution of her character which Tomei embraces as she exudes verve, sensuality, fury, heartbreak and breathtaking, joyful authenticity in the part.
If any role was made for Tomei, divinity and Tennessee Williams have placed it in her lap and she has run with it broadening the character Serafina Delle Rosa with astute sensitivity and intuition. Tomei pulls out all the stops growing her character’s nuanced insight. She slips into Serafina’s sensual skin and leaps into her expanding emotional range as she morphs in the first act from grandiose and joyful boastfulness to gut-wrenching impassioned sorrow and in the second act to ferocity, an explosion of suppressed sexual desire and its release. All of these hot points she elucidates with a fluidity of movement, hands, limbs, head tosses, eye rolls which express Serafina’s wanton luxury of indulgent feeling and effervescent life.
The contradictions of Serafina’s character move toward a hyperbolic excess of extremes. When speaking of her husband Rosario and their relationship, their bed is a sanctum of religion where they express their torpid love each night. She effuses to Assunta (the excellent Carolyn Mignini) how she mysteriously felt the conception of her second child the moment it happened. A rose tattoo like the one her husband Rosario wore on his chest appeared like religious stigmata without the dripping blood. And it burned over her heart, a heavenly sign, like others she receives as she talks to the statue of the Madonna, and remains a worshipful adherent to Mother Mary, praying and receiving the anointed wisdom whenever necessary.
Rosario’s family is that of a “baron,” though Sicily is the “low” country of Italy and an area fogged over with undesirables, thieves and questionable heritages as the crossroads of Europe. We know this “baron-baroness” is an uppity exaggeration from the looks on the faces of her gossipy neighbors and particularly La Strega (translated as witch) who is scrawny, crone-like and insulting. Constance Shulman is convincing as the conveyor of Ill Malocchio-the evil eye. Her presence manifests the bad-luck wind that Assunta refers to at the top of the play and to which Serafina superstitiously attributes the wicked event that upends her life forever.
Williams’s characterization of Serafina is brilliant and complex. Director Trip Cullman and Tomei have effected her intriguing possibilities and deep yearnings beyond the stereotypical Italian barefoot and pregnant woman of virginal morals like Our Lady. It is obvious that Tomei has considered the contradictions, the restraints of Serafina’s culture and her neighbors as well as her potential to be a maverick who will break through the chains and bondages of her religion and old world folkways after her eyes are opened.
We are proud that Serafina disdains the gossiping neighbors with the exception of Assunta and perhaps her priest. Though Serafina’s world does not extend beyond her home, the environs of the beach, her daughter Rosa (Ella Rubin) and Rosario, a truck driver who transports illegal drugs under his produce, she is a fine seamstress. And in her business interactions with her neighbors and acquaintances, we note that she has money, is industrious, resourceful and a canny negotiator.
It makes sense that Rosario (whom we never see because he is a fantasy-Williams point out) treats her like a baroness filling their home with roses at various times to reassure her of her grandness. And the poetic symbol of the rose as a sign of their love and the romance of their relationship is an endearing touch, reminiscent of the rose tattoo on his chest signifying his commitment to her. At the outset of the play, a rose is in Serafina’s hair which she wears waiting for Rosario to come home. As she does, we believe she is fulfilled in their love and the happy status of their lives in a home on the shores of paradise, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.
What is not manifest and what lurks beneath becomes the revelation that all is not well, that her Rosario is not real, but is an illusion. Typical of Williams’ work are the undercurrents, the sub rosa meanings. The rose is also a symbol of martyrdom, Christ’s martyrdom. And it is this martyrdom that Serafina must endure when word comes back that Rosario has been killed, burned in a fiery crash which warrants his body be cremated. Unfortunately, the miraculous son of the burning rose on her chest that appeared and disappeared, she aborted caused by the extreme trauma of Rosario’s death.
The rose as Williams’ choice symbol is superbly complex. For Rosario’s rose tattoo also represents his amorous lust for women, one of whom is Estelle Hohengarten (Tina Benko) who asks Serafina to make a gorgeous, rose-colored silk shirt for “her man.” When Estelle steals Rosario’s picture behind Serafina’s back, we know that Rosario led a double life and we are annoyed at Estelle’s arrogance and presumption to ask his wife to make such a gift shirt. But in William’s depth of characterization for Estelle, most probably Rosario is also philandering on Estelle who, to try to keep him close, gives him expensive gifts like hand-made silk shirts.
Williams clues us in that her faith and passion for Rosario has blinded her judgment and overcome her sharp intellect and wisdom. In fact it is an idolatry. Her religion stipulates that no human being should be worshiped or sacrificed for. Serafina’s excessive personality has doomed her to tragedy, betrayal and duplicity with Rosario. Ironically, his death is her freedom, but she must suffer his and her son’s loss ,a burden almost too great to bear, even for one as strong as Serafina who does become distracted, unkempt and uninterested in life.
Because Rosario, the wild rose with thorns is not worthy of Serafina’s love, after his death there is only pity for the cuckholded Serafina and a finality to her exuberant life until the truth of who Rosario really was lifts her into a healthy reality. Tomei’s breakdown is striking and Williams creates the tension that in weeping for the “love” of her life who indeed has betrayed her, she will be wasting herself. He also affirms the huge gulf between her ability to live again and her lugubrious state which continues for three years as she mourns an illusion.
The question remains. Will she come to the end of herself? The romantic fantasy held together with the glue of her faith and the enforced, manic chastity of her old world Italian mores must be vanquished. But how? It is in the form of the charismatic and humorous Alvaro Mangiacavallo. But until then Serafina withers. Isolating herself, she implodes with regret, doubt, sorrow and dolorous grief, as well as anger at her daughter Rosa who wants to live and find her own love like her mother’s.
The mother-daughter tensions are realistically expressed as are the scenes between Tomei and Jack (Burke Swanson) Rosa’s boyfriend, which are humorous. Altogether, the second act is brighter; it is companionable comedy to the tragedy of the first act.
When she meets Alvaro, in spite of herself, she responds with her whole being to his attractiveness. As they become acquainted, she accepts his interest in her for what she may represent; a new beginning in his life. It is a new beginning that he tries to thread into her life to resurrect her sexual passions and emotions of love. Thus, he pulls out all the stops for this opportunity to win her, even having a rose tattooed upon his chest in the hope of taking Rosario’s place in her heart.
Emun Elliott is spectacular as the clownish, emotionally appealing, lovable suitor who sees Serafina’s worth and beauty and attempts to endear himself to her with the tattoo. Along with Serafina’s discovering Rosario’s betrayal, Elliott’s portrayal of Alvaro solidifies and justifies why Serafina jumps at the opportunity to be with him. He is cute. He is real. He is as emotional and simpatico as she is. He is Sicilian and above all, he is available and interested in her. It is not only his steamy body that reminds her of Rosario’s, but she is attracted to his humor, sensibility and sensitivity of feeling which mirrors hers.
After discovering Rosario’s duplicity, understanding Alvaro’s concern and care for three women dependents and his honesty in admitting he is a buffoon disarms Serafina. Alvaro’s strength and lack of ego in commenting that his father was considered the village idiot is an important revelation for her as well. Indeed, as she views who he is, she senses that his humility and humorous self-effacement is worth more than all of Rosario’s boastfulness that he was a baron which he wasn’t.
As the truth enlightens her, Tomei’s Serafina evolves and sheds the displacement and her sense of confusion and loss which was also a loss of her own imagined “secure” identity as Rosario’s “wife.” Wife, indeed! Rosario’s mendacity made her into a cuckhold and a brokenhearted fool over a man who was not real. At least Alvaro is real. The comparison between the men reinforced with Rosario’s unfaithfulness, which she can now admit to herself, prompts her to reject the religion that kept her blinded and the antiquated mores that made her a fool and kept her alone and in darkness.
Shepherded by Cullman, Elliott and Tomei create an uproarious, lively and fun interplay between these two characters who belong together, like “two peas in a pod” and have only to realize it, which, of course, Alvaro does before Serafina. Tomei’s and Elliott’s scenes together soar, strike sparks of passion and move with the speed of light. The comedy arises from spot-on authenticity. The symbolic poetry, the shattering of the urn, the ashes disappearing, the light rising on the ocean waves (I loved this background projection) shine a new day. All represent elements of hope and joy and a realistic sense of believing, grounded in truth for both protagonists.
Tomei, Elliott, Cullman and the ensemble have resurrected Williams’ The Rose Tattoo keeping the themes current and the timeless elements real. Duplicity, lies, unfaithfulness, love and the freedom to unshackle oneself from destructive folkways that lead one into darkness and away from light and love are paramount themes in this production. And they especially resonate for our time.
I can’t recommend this production enough for its memorable, indelible performances especially by Elliott and Tomei shepherded with sensitivity by Cullman. The evocativeness and beauty of the staging, design elements and music add to the thematic understanding of Williams’ work and characters. Kudos goes to the creative team: Mark Wendland (set design) Clint Ramos (costume design) Ben Stanton (lighting design) Lucy Mackinnon (projection design) Tom Watson (hair and wig design) Joe Dulude II (make-up design). Bravo to Fiz Patton for the lovely original music & sound design.
The Rose Tattoo runs with one intermission at American Airlines Theatre (42nd between 7th and 8th) until 8th December. Don’t miss it. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.