Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Hot or Not 2007: Theater's heroes & villains

by Joe Dzienmianowicz

Hot: CASTS THAT CLICK Extraordinary ensembles enlivened Broadway in three productions that opened during one week in December, "August: Osage County" (the best and my favorite show of 2007), "The Seafarer" and "Is He Dead?" Earlier in the year "The Coast of Utopia" crackled with its group dynamics.

Not: ADS THAT TRICK The brains behind the Broadway revival of "Grease," whose leads were cast on a reality TV show, ran a newspaper advertisement misrepresenting critics who didn't exactly endorse the show. Brains behind the Off-Broadway musical "Walmartopia" also got a little too creative with the quotes.

Hot: THE SUMMER OF LOVE The Public Theater's superlative productions of "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, along with a staged concert of "Hair" there, meant great theater in the great outdoors.

Not: THE AUTUMN OF DISCONTENT The Broadway stagehands strike that began on Nov. 10 and shut down most of Broadway for the next 19 days cost the city upwards of $40 million. The expense to theatergoers who missed chances to see a show: immeasurable.

Hot: SIZZLING FIRSTS Claire Danes, as the flower girl-turned-proper lady in "Pygmalion," Bobby Cannavale, as a schemer and a dreamer in "Mauritius," and Fantasia, as a woman who finally triumphs in the musical "The Color Purple," all made their Broadway debuts magical and memorable.

Not: FIZZLING SECONDS - AND 13THS Lackluster revivals of the boy-meets-girl mood piece "Prelude to a Kiss" in February, "Old Acquaintance" in June, the gay bathhouse farce "The Ritz" in October and the swashbuckling romance "Cyrano de Bergerac" in November (its 12th Broadway redo) made us wonder why the producers even bothered.

Hot: SMALL MUSICALS, BIG DELIGHTS At $4 million, cheap for Broadway, the flop movie-turned-hit stage musical "Xanadu" is 90 minutes of campy hilarity. Off-Broadway, the Civilians' "Gone Missing," about New Yorkers who've lost personal possessions, found its way into my heart and head.

Not: MASSIVE MUSICALS, PUNY PAYOFFS Massive and misguided shows remind us that bigger isn't always better. "The Pirate Queen" cost $16 million and sank after 85 performances. The even more expensive "Young Frankenstein" is currently running, but it disappoints as often as it dazzles.

Hot: MULTITASKING Of several actors who played a variety of parts on stages this year, two stand out. Boyd Gaines went from playing a reassuring soldier in "Journey's End" to a devoted companion to Patti LuPone's Rose in "Gypsy" to a levelheaded Col. Pickering in "Pygmalion." Meanwhile, Martha Plimpton revved up the stage whenever she was on it in "The Coast of Utopia," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Cymbeline."

Not: COMPOUND FRACTURES James Carpinello dropped out of "Xanadu" when he broke his foot and was permanently replaced. Director Daniel Sullivan busted some ribs when he took a fluke header while rehearsing "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the Park.

Hot: INGENIOUS PRICING Producers of "August: Osage County," "The Homecoming" and "November," which begins previews Thursday, offer a subscription series in which you can buy orchestra or front mezzanine tickets for all three plays for $199. Thanks.

Not: RAVENOUS PRICING Producers of "Young Frankenstein" offer $450 "premium" seats in the orchestra. No thanks.


Monday, December 17, 2007

The Play's the Thing for 2007

by Eric Grode

This year was a bleak one for musicals. The only really exciting "new" show has been kicking around off-off-Broadway for several years. But 2007 was wonderful in many other ways. Tough-minded political theater, Shakespeare productions, and (best of all) serious Broadway dramas all made heartening resurgences this year. Note: I left "Voyage," the stirring first third of Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia," off my 2006 list on the assumption that the rest of Tom Stoppard's Russian epic would live up to it; while that assumption proved mistaken, "Voyage" in and of itself does warrant mention as among Mr. Stoppard's very finest work.

1. "Black Watch": The closest Broadway came to addressing the dislocating horrors of modern-day war came via a play that's almost 80 years old (see No. 4). St. Ann's Warehouse, however, was happy to step into the bloody breach and address the Iraq war. Author Gregory Burke, director John Tiffany, and a staggeringly versatile company from the National Theatre of Scotland used a blend of you-are-there intensity and you-could-be-anywhere surrealism to create a profane, hypnotic, scorching tribute to Scotland's Black Watch Royal Highland Regiment. Wars have taken so much from so many, but they have also given us Wilfred Owen and "Paths of Glory," Britten's "War Requiem" and Dylan's "Masters of War." The 21st century may have its first worthy addition to that list.

2. "August: Osage County": Foreign wars may have been all but AWOL on Broadway, but the take-no-prisoners intra-familial combat waged by the Westons of Pawhuska, Okla., fueled either the saddest comedy or the funniest tragedy on display in a good long while. Noted genre screw-twister Tracy Letts ("Bug," "Killer Joe") made a quantum leap with this massive — and massively entertaining — conflation of Albee, Shepard, O'Neill, Faulkner, and just about any other author you'd like to see a wonderfully talented playwright conflate. Deanna Dunagan and Amy Morton led a flawless ensemble from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre — yet another implicit rebuke to New York's woeful lack of a repertory company.

3. "The Taming of the Shrew": Edward Hall's all-male Propeller troupe brought a Shakespeare double bill to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in March, and while its "Twelfth Night" was elegant and persuasive, "Taming" was a ground-breaking. Unsparing in his examination of the play's brutal sexual dynamics, Mr. Hall nonetheless found a way into the humor that was so instrumental in cementing Shakespeare's greatness but that remains out of reach for nearly all modern-day companies.

4. "Journey's End": The year's most unforgettable image of wartime carnage came not in the mortars-and-porn bedlam of "Black Watch" but at the finale of David Grindley's murky, muted, gorgeously acted revival of R.C. Sherriff's 1929 World War I chestnut — and without a drop of blood. The entire cast (playing a British infantry company in the trenches of St. Quentin, France) stood at attention in front of a devastatingly long list of names — actual British soldiers missing in action during the War to End All Wars. Except for the World War II years, the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium, has saluted one of these names every evening since 1929. The last one will be honored in 2083.

5. "Gone Missing": This entry is a mild cheat, as several of my colleagues have been singing this musical's praises since 2003. But the "investigative theater" troupe the Civilians finally touched down with a commercial run of this smart, sad, and effortlessly tuneful piece, created through a wide-ranging series of interviews about things people have lost — necklaces, dogs, a beloved sock doll, innocence.

6. "Hokaibo": World theater is often good for the brain (teasing out how and why we Americans do theater the way we do it) and the muscles (stretching our notions of narrative, stagecraft, etc.). But sometimes it does all those things and, as a bonus, can be riotously, almost illicitly entertaining. Such was the case with Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII and his revered Kabuki company at the Lincoln Center Festival this summer. First came the dance-theater spectacle "Renjishi," followed by this pell-mell sex farce, complete with dancing severed limbs, English-language jokes about James Bond and metrosexuals, and the cross-eyed freeze frames known as mie. I left "Hokaibo" feeling depleted, disoriented, and delighted.

7. "The Merchant of Venice": The second Shakespeare to make the list, with Daniel Sullivan's shimmering Central Park "Midsummer Night's Dream" very nearly making the list, too. Theatre for a New Audience examined Elizabethan anti-Semitism by pairing Shakespeare's revenge drama with the Christopher Marlowe melodrama "The Jew of Malta." And while the latter production fizzled, director Darko Tresnjak created a crisply modern, achingly timeless telling of "Merchant." The King Lears of Kevin Kline and Ian McKellen got the headlines, but Mr. Abraham delivered the year's most memorable Shakespeare performance as a cautious, fatalistic Shylock.

8. "Rock 'n' Roll": Now that "Utopia," the Tony-winningest play of all time, has receded into the horizon, has Tom Stoppard fatigue set in? If so, audiences are passing on a much better play — one of those alchemical blends of intellect and emotion that periodically spur people to proclaim that modern theater's greatest mind has finally located his heart. He's done it before, and he'll do it again, but "Rock 'n' Roll" is indeed a rich exploration of music, Marxism, and mortality, with Brian Cox and the splendid Rufus Sewell serving as tour guides. It's got a great beat, and you can think to it.

9. "Dividing the Estate": The authors of "Bug" and "The Trip to Bountiful" are unlikely bedfellows, but Tracy Letts and the imperishable nonagenarian Horton Foote each displayed flinty wit and a palpable compassion for the inevitable failings and frictions of an extended Southern family. Mr. Foote may be painting with a wider brush than usual, but his hard-won detail and capacious wisdom remain a bracing example for any and all writers dipping into these familiar waters.

10. "Gypsy": If reports are to be believed, "Dividing the Estate" will make its way to Broadway in 2008, as will this pairing of Patti LuPone with the role she was born to play in perhaps the ultimate Broadway musical. Her Mama Rose was talkin' loud and lettin' loose at City Center this summer, and she most certainly had the stuff. Note to director Arthur Laurents: Don't forget to bring Boyd Gaines, as Rose's memorably beleaguered suitor, along for what deserves to be a long run.

Honorable mentions: "Blackbird," "The Brig," "The Brothers Size," "The Fever," "Marat/Sade," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Central Park, "Naked in a Fishbowl" at the Fringe Festival, "Oliver Twist," "The Seafarer," and "Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell."


Friday, December 14, 2007

Actors picks six

by Judith Egerton

After reading hundreds of new plays, Actors Theatre of Louisville has chosen the six new full-length works it will produce for its 2008 Humana Festival of New American Plays, Feb. 24 through March 30.

The 32nd year of the prestigious festival welcomes back an early contributor, prize-winning playwright Lee Blessing, whose previous Humana premieres include "Oldtimers Game" and "War of the Roses."

Blessing returns with "Great Falls," a two-character drama about a father and stepdaughter on a cross-country journey. "It's a fine example of excellent writing; it has maturity and complexity," said Actors' artistic director, Marc Masterson.

The festival also will feature New York theater group The Civilians with a new documentary-style play, "This Beautiful City." The show explores the nature of faith and is based on interviews with evangelical Christians in Colorado Springs, Colo. The group currently is performing "Gone Missing" at an off-Broadway theater. Louisvillians saw that funny, poignant show about loss as part of Actors' Discover Series in September 2006.

For the Humana Festival, Actors commissioned a new play by Gina Gionfriddo, who made a national splash at Actors in 2004 with her first play, "After Ashley," a blistering satire about the public's insatiable appetite for sensational stories and the allure of TV celebrity.

Joining Gionfriddo in the lineup will be three young playwrights: Texas native Jennifer Haley, New York poet-writer Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Carly Mensch, a fellow at the Juilliard School's playwriting program. Their new works concern the blurring of reality and online video games, hip-hop culture and sibling responsibility.

The festival format remains the same this year: The staging of six new full-length works; a production of an anthology created by multiple authors and performed by the apprentice company; and the performance of several 10-minute plays.

All productions will be staged at the theater's complex, 316 W. Main St. Last year, Actors staged "Batch," an experimental Humana play, at Connections, a downtown gay nightclub. In 2004, Naomi Wallace's play about the Butchertown neighborhood, "At the Vanishing Point," was performed in a Butchertown warehouse.

Off-site Humana productions are rare because they put a considerable strain on Actors' production staff during its busiest, most difficult time of the year. "It's a huge investment of time and energy," Masterson said.

The festival -- founded by Jon Jory and supported by funds from the Humana Foundation -- has been a pioneer in new-play development. But now, the competition is more intense. Many regional theaters, city theater alliances and presenters, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., are producing new-play festivals. And there is less opportunity for commercial success in New York and on Broadway, which is dominated by splashy, expensive musicals, revivals and Disney-related productions.

Actors' mission with the Humana Festival, Masterson said, is to develop new works that will go out into the world and find homes in diverse venues that include regional theaters, touring groups, alternative theaters, art galleries and museums.

A play may go on to New York, where it may win top awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, as three Humana plays have done, but Actors' goal is to "move the work out into the American theater and global theater," Masterson said. "It's about being aware of a spectrum of possibilities."

Here's a closer look at the full-length works:

"Great Falls" (opens Feb. 27 in the Bingham Theatre) -- Lee Blessing, 59, is best-known for his 1986 play, "A Walk in the Woods," about an American and a Russian nuclear-arms negotiator. It was a finalist for a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Blessing's new play isn't about avoiding global apocalypse, but audiences can expect universal themes involving the human condition in this story of a man and his stepdaughter who are trying to rebuild their lives. New York director Lucie Tiberghien, who was involved in the development of the play, will direct.

"This Beautiful City" (opens March 7 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium) -- Written by Steven Cosson, 39, and Jim Lewis, 50, this play with original music examines the difficulty evangelical Christians and non-evangelicals have finding common ground.

The Civilians spent months interviewing residents in Colorado Springs, Colo., the home of the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family. During that time, a scandal arose involving evangelical pastor Ted Haggard, who admitted to having sex with a male prostitute. The play evolved into a work about faith and how a community steers through such a crisis.

The play, which will be directed by Cosson, was developed in a workshop at the Sundance Institute. After its premiere at the Humana Festival, the show will go to The Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C.

"Becky Shaw" (opens March 2 in the Bingham Theatre) -- After her breakout success at the 2004 Humana Festival, Gina Gionfriddo landed a job as a writer-producer on NBC's "Law and Order." Her play "After Ashley" was produced off-Broadway with Kieran Culkin, who won a 2005 Obie Award for his performance.

In her new, dark comedy, a newlywed couple's attempt at matchmaking takes them into strange territory. Masterson said he commissioned Gionfriddo to write a play because "I love her work, and I want to see her continue to write for the theater."

The play will be directed by Peter Dubois, associate artistic director of The Public Theatre in New York.

"Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom" (opens March 20 in the Victor Jory Theatre) -- "This is a comedy, but it is truly scary. The hair on the back of your neck stands up kind of scary," Masterson said of this play by Jennifer Haley, a Los Angeles playwright in her 30s.

In a subdivision with identical houses, teenagers become addicted to an online video game of horror. Their parents are clueless about the children's activities and how blurred the line between reality and virtual existence has become. "It's a really sharp piece of writing," Masterson said.

Kip Fagan, co-founder of Printer's Devil Theatre in Seattle, will direct.

"the breaks" (opens March 11 in the Bingham Theatre) -- Dancer and poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph, 32, of New York City, was named one of America's Top Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences by Smithsonian magazine.

This new work by Joseph, a Stanford University resident artist, tells a personal story about being a multicultural person in a multicultural world. Joseph intertwines film, theater and dance in his narrative about hip-hop culture. Masterson predicts "the breaks" will have a long life after its Humana Festival debut.

The production will be directed by Michael John Garces, who provided imaginative direction to last year's Humana hit, "dark play or stories for boys" by Carlos Murillo.

"All Hail Hurricane Gordo" (opens March 15 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium) -- The lives of two brothers go haywire when they take in a female houseguest in this new work by Dartmouth graduate Carly Mensch, 24, of Harrison, N.Y. Masterson said the play is "smart and interesting" and Mensch "has a real gift" for playwriting.

The play will be directed by Actors' associate director Sean Daniels. After its Louisville premiere, the play will be staged at the Cleveland Playhouse.

"Game On" (opens March 21 in the Bingham Theatre) -- This anthology looks at sports in America and what society's obsessions with sports tell us about ourselves. The contributing playwrights are Yale School of Drama graduate Zakiyyah Alexander; Rolin Jones, a Pulitzer finalist for his play "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" and a writer for the Showtime cable TV show "Weeds"; Alice Tuan, who wrote this year's Humana play "Batch"; Daryl Watson, co-creator of the Disney show "Johnny and the Sprites"; Marisa Wegrzyn, resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists; and Ken Weitzman, whose full-length play "The As If Body Loop" was presented at this year's Humana Festival.

The 10-minute plays will be announced later.

Reporter Judith Egerton can be reached at (502) 582-4503.