The Close Up Archive
Present – 2004
Churchill’s take on love and on information seems a bit chilly. There may be a lot of both love and information out there, she appears to intimate, but it’s not usually of very good quality. Much of Churchill’s frostiness is, however, presented with a comic touch, emphasized by Dierdre McAllister’s direction, by the energetic and youthful ensemble, and by the audience, which seemed to be goading on the performers with constant and frequently loud laughter.
Neil Simon’s indecision about genre in Brighton Beach Memoirs was related to his problem being direct about his parents. A true account would necessarily have revealed their fighting, his father’s desertions and infidelities, and the eventual failure of their marriage, and could only have been presented as a tragedy or melodrama. A comedy (and Brighton Beach is formally a comedy) would need to present a sanitized version of what Simon remembered; it would satisfy his audience (which expected comedies) and his parents, but it would also come further from the flavor Simon wanted to present. What we get in consequence is a play in three somewhat inconsistent genres.
New Modes of Representation Forcing Reexamination of Oldtime Heroes: MEN ON BOATS at Baltimore Center Stage
Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men on Boats, now appearing at Baltimore Center Stage, is a gently amiable but persistently subversive take on America’s age of exploration. It recreates the 1869 expedition of John Wesley Powell and nine others down the Green and Colorado Rivers and into the Grand Canyon on a presidentially-ordained voyage of discovery. As the play is at pains to show us, the trip was a voyage of discovery only from the perspective of certain white Protestant men, since Native Americans lived along the route – and white Mormons dwelt close by as well. But only when the river and surrounding lands were surveyed and mapped by certain kinds of white men could they truly be considered part of the American imperium. While the travelers can acknowledge that various people “have run these streams” before them, including “natives” and military deserters, these predecessors were persons whom “no one counts.” That laughably foreshortened perspective does not rob the travelers of bravery, resilience, or grit. It just makes their heroic sacrifices less consequential than they understand.
Clearly, the story of a king who would, legally speaking, seem like the safest person in the land, but who nonetheless is slain, as is his lover, because their relationship is considered taboo, seems facially like a perfect vehicle to provide that treatment. But it simply isn’t, or at least not without more work. There are too many complications unique to a royal situation, as this play cannot help showing.
And thus the struggle over ways of thinking and dealing commences. For Hicks, the past that Sterling and Barlow are protecting has no value, and the validity of Barlow’s legal claim is irrelevant. From his standpoint, when the powers that be have firmed up their plans to a certain point, mere legality must step aside. For Wilks, abandoning the rule of law leads to chaos, even if following that principle leads to results that disappoint the oligarchs. I’ll leave it to audiences to discover how the clash of perspectives works out, but it is clear that, regardless of what becomes of Aunt Ester’s home, Wilks’ choice to adhere to the rule of law and to honor his roots and ancestors would destroy his great plans, his business partnership, and probably his marriage. Though, of course, regardless of the outcome, such a choice would also make him a hero.
An Old But Surprisingly Modern Comic Treasure: THE KNIGHT OF THE BURNING PESTLE at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory
The Knight of the Burning Pestle is rarely produced, and it certainly deserves the occasional outing, if only as a reminder that our forbears were just as interested in trying experiments with theatrical genre and form as we are.
Getting Americans in a frame of mind where they’ll despise British aristocrats is like shooting fish in a barrel (unless they’re Americans who happen to be still in a daze from a viewing of Downton Abbey). And here the setup provides all the inducement we Yanks need to salivate for Limey blue blood: a highborn family, the D’Ysquiths, disowning a daughter because she eloped with a lowborn foreigner, and (most of them) behaving in impeccably beastly ways towards her son Monty.
One of the things drama does so well is to make us think and feel about the vectors a society is following. And one of the things happening in our society that drama needs to address is our headlong rush into technology with a personality verging on personhood. Proxy is a thoughtful and perceptive consideration of that rush.
All politics is personal, as the saying goes. Seldom is this point made with greater dramatic clarity than in Miss You Like Hell. The ending is powerful, but because of the politics. Miss You Like Hell illustrates, in a very personal and detailed way, how deportation policies damage and destroy lives and families, even away from the border. An enjoyable and uplifting evening of theater.
Bright Half Life is presented in a totally nonsequential fashion, and at nearly breakneck speed much of the time. We are left to piece together the whole story from dozens of fragments that appear and pass quickly, which can be both exhausting and exhilarating. And not just for us in the audience; this calls for enormous flexibility on the part of the performers too. Moments of ecstasy are juxtaposed with moments of terror, joy and sadness arrive cheek-by-jowl, and certain incidents are repeatedly revisited. The two performers must be emotional quick-change artists, and I found myself amazed watching as Ayesis Clay and Katharine Vary worked their way intrepidly through those changes.
Keeping us gasping is what Cabaret in all of its incarnations has always been about. Gasping at the opulence, gasping at the decadence, gasping at the heedlessness and the horror. It is intentionally strong stuff, and if it delivers, then it succeeds. And by that yardstick, this version, whatever it may or may not owe to its predecessors, is a smashing success.
The title Perfect Arrangement refers to the compact of a male gay couple and a lesbian couple to hide in plain view from the disapproval of the world in 1950 by posing as two straight couples living in adjoining halves of a Georgetown duplex. The two halves are secretly connected through the residences’ respective front closets, a passage that enables each real couple to reunite at night, unnoticed by the world outside. Such a setup is custom-made for farce.
Support Group for Men will send you away happy. There is nothing profound or challenging in this show: just a well-crafted and very funny comedy of manners, specifically the manners of the male of Species Homo Americanus, youthful to mid-life, as observed in a middle-class Chicago habitat.
Then the government, represented by its functionary Lucius (Michael Rogers), brings in Shimeus (Wade McCollum), a derelict of another sort, whimpering and traumatized by an arson that killed everyone else in his family. Lucius orders the Browns to harbor Shimeus as a guest. Almost immediately, however, Shimeus stops whimpering, and, more importantly, stops behaving like a guest, and more like an invader – well maybe not a declared invader but a lot like a space alien whose intentions toward neighbors aren’t entirely clear but don’t seem encouraging, a la the plant in Little Shop of Horrors.
Dougherty unspools the stories of Chester and Dr. Cotton, his treating physician, with novelistic skill. The feeling of truly being in the World War II period never lifts. The stories reel us in: Chester’s of the way he deals with his injury, and Cotton’s of hospital life in wartime, with its politics, scandals, and sexual misbehavior. This show is the whole package: a polished, intriguing, thematically-consistent but otherwise dissimilar pair of stories well-told, leaving one profoundly moved.
It’s an old trick, but a good one: Set two contrasting dramatic tones (usually domestic comedy and dread) against each other and let them fight it out throughout a play. It’s the trick playwright Greg Kalleres employs to advantage in Wrecked,
MY LORD, WHAT A NIGHT! at Contemporary American Theater Festival: Clashing Views on Resisting Racism
The drama works because of the intriguing way the characters’ ideas about how to act in response to Marian Anderson’s two provocative exclusions (first from Nassau Inn and then from Constitution Hall) shift repeatedly in response to new information, so that consensus is almost impossible to achieve, at least until the play’s very end. Anderson seeks progress through song, unimpeachable behavior and an avoidance of politics; Albert Einstein wants an end to both racism and antisemitism, and by the end is very worried about the Bomb; Mary Church Terrell embraces confrontation because all else seems to fail; and Abraham Flexner tries hard to protect the Institute as a means of keeping the Holocaust from consuming absolutely all Jews, even though he can save only a few.
And now of course we are into the story of Antonio’s family of origin, and the world of his origin, which has conditioned him to behave this way, which implicitly and explicitly looks to its men to solve problems with violence.
Necessity and Realism Prevail Along with Enchantment in LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
Berowne gloomily foresees: “Necessity will make us all forsworn Three thousand times within this three year’s space.” And by “necessity” we can be sure he means not simply the logistical necessity of dealing with women but what we might call Jurassic Park Necessity: Life finds a way. As Shakespeare himself wrote in a similar context: “The world must be peopled.” And for peopling, you need relations between the sexes.
A thinly-disguised parable of the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui may have been written in 1941, but it may as well have been addressed directly to Americans of 2019.
Disaster! lovingly pokes fun at two staples of 1970s popular culture: disaster movies like Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure and the disco-heavy pop music of the era. Whether to go is not going to present any great dilemmas. This is a perfect summer evening’s smart-alecky entertainment.
The strange thing about this lyrical cornucopia: it doesn’t stick in the mind much as one departs. There is a deliberate effort to craft just such a song, ‘I Feel So Much Spring,’ as the closer, and it feels and sounds good, but by the time the song finishes, there have been so many harmonic variations sung by the various characters that the core melody has largely been overwritten mentally. What will not be overwritten is the joyous feeling that the song, and the ending, bring about.
Indecent is about the power of theater to dazzle and uplift. Playwright Vogel has discussed plays that make the hair stand up on her neck. That is exactly what Indecent does: makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck, and we may be at a loss to explain.
Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I (1597), now being revived by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, is at its heart a family story. It certainly bears the traditional characteristics of Shakespeare’s history plays, but it is, first and foremost, a story of two fathers and two sons, and only secondarily about dynastic struggles.
The play seems to be a retrospective of Shakespeare’s career, with a strong note of self-parody. And with a playwright as fecund as Shakespeare, a ‘greatest hits album’ would have to be full to bursting. And so that’s what Cymbeline is: a ‘greatest hits’ that refuses to take itself seriously, and invites us to participate in Shakespeare’s gentle laugh at himself.
Even though sometimes funny, even to the extent of farce, and filled with a manic vitality, Jerusalem is not easy theater, but it is infinitely rewarding. It will be surely be one of the most ambitious shows local audiences see in this new year.
I suspect that the choice to do more of a Wilde fantasia than a Wilde play was as carefully deliberated as any other. Perhaps, because the play is so defective in its conception, the impulse was just to mess with it and see what happens. Even Homer nods – and when Wilde does (as he certainly did here), maybe all bets should be off.
This is an excellent contribution to the canon of operatic musicals, richly melodramatic, beautifully acted and sung, with outstanding production values (yes, there is a helicopter!), and intelligent about the effects of war, and intelligent too about the particular clash of cultures that the war in Vietnam effectuated.
While basic questions about what the characters are doing or why are never fully resolved (nor do they need to be), the debatable and sometimes contradictory answers each character gives to these questions form the basis of a relationship that dramatically and comically changes as the play progresses.
Audiences should approach Stick Fly, with the expectation that they will not understand all of it, fully grasp any character’s motives or thoughts and/or playwright Lydia R. Diamond’s position on many of the issues she aerates – and that that’s okay. The fun is in just watching it happen.
The play will certainly keep challenging you the way a puzzle does. It begins, no doubt portentously, with a question that it never completely answers (Olivia to Ethan ‘Who are you?’) and it ends with deliberate lack of clarity over whether the characters have any future. In short, this is theater which keeps the audience on its toes, no matter what label you slap on it.
In a short 2016 profile in American Theatre, Russian emigre director Yury Ornov expounded on the freedoms of theater: ‘You can hate people; you can do a hate show about Putin, for example, or about your ex-wife.’ It seems that Lola B. Pierson’s Putin On Ice (That Isn’t the Real Title of This Show) is the hate show about Putin that Urnov, a close associate of Pierson through Baltimore’s Acme Corporation, had in mind. (That said, Genevieve de Mahy, the Artistic Director of Single Carrot Theatre, on whose premises that show, a joint production with the Acme Corporation, is now playing, claims in a program note that the idea came from Single Carrot.) In the same profile just mentioned, Ornov emphasized how important and liberating it was to laugh at the things that distress us. Putin On Ice is nothing if not funny, though, as my companion on press night pointed out, there was a risk, throughout most of the show, that the laughs would ultimately obscure the seriousness and the threat of its subject.
Because Williams has so successfully gotten us cheering for Maggie, we in the audience would very much like to see Maggie triumphantly dragging Brick into bed in the final frame, and an interpretation like director Judith Ivey’s, which all but promises that, is bound to be a crowd-pleaser. But if a director chooses to make that easy initial choice, that will be about the last easy thing the director will find in this play.
With acting and singing at this level, and with such a strong, moving work, this rendering of Spring Awakening packs a punch, and will reward any evening’s theater-going.
Every so often a production comes along that has an enormous amount going for it, but you cannot enjoy it much because of technical problems that tend to overwhelm an audience’s capacity for pleasure. Unfortunately that is the story with Urinetown, a musical now being revived by Stillpointe Theatre in a space in the United Methodist Church at Mount Vernon Square. Here, at least on press night, both problems were consequences of the space in which the show was being staged: the acoustics were unspeakably bad and the air was almost unendurably hot.
I started my theatergoing on my seventh birthday in 1956. Reviewing each play I saw in my youth, as I have recently done, I am struck not merely by the absence of explicit GLBT subject-matter but by its paradoxical abundance under the surface. In retrospect, there was a huge closet at work: a closet that obscured or concealed not merely gay theater creators themselves but also the work they did. But being a young straight boy in a society that granted scant official recognition to queer sexuality in any form, the emanations from the closet either did not register with me at all, or, if they did, they merely confused me.
A show about Reagan that does not explore how his personality gave rise to so much destructiveness is not going to satisfy any well-informed theatergoer. Yet such a show is unfortunately what playwright Michael Weller has given us in A Late Morning (in America) With Ronald Reagan.
THE HOUSE ON THE HILL Revisits a Trauma in Tears and Anger and Healing at the Contemporary American Theater Festival
Alexandra and Frankie are shown tacitly agreeing to steer clear of the secret not merely because such circumspection is calculated to heighten audience interest; once we understand what the secret is, we can see that the characters know that if they address it, a long-buried grievance between them will have to be put on the table, and worse, they will need to rip off the emotional scabs that have formed over a terrible trauma.
Great Recall During the Great Terror: MEMOIRS OF A FORGOTTEN MAN at Contemporary American Theater Festival
If you come to this show, do not expect to participate in a truly topical think piece about memory in a time of tyranny. You will witness instead a pair of entwined tales about rare mental abnormality and a somewhat overexposed aspect of totalitarianism. It is the telling of the tales, the acting and the scenery and, the evocations of synesthesia, by which Memoirs will work for you, or not.
It is plain that Della’s resolution of the issue whether to bake a cake for Jen’s same-sex wedding will call for a gingerly reassessment of her faith and her life. Realistically, it will not be solved wholesale by Della’s discarding of her allegiance to what Macy dismisses as ‘a book that’s thousands of years old.’ If Della is to find a way, it will require more subtlety and compromise.
Bianca Laverne Jones gives us a Berta a man would want to compose a song about. Her face, her eyes, the modulations of her voice, like the song Berta, Berta itself, communicate so much more than the lines she delivers. “Berta is a voluptuous, stately Black woman with a striking countenance,” say the directions. Just so.
What a trail of stardust the whole musical leaves! There are the sets and lighting which dazzle in their nimble evocation of the wonders of Paris, with a side-step into a fantasy nightclub that seems to be Radio City Music Hall, complete with spangled leggy chorines and dudes in top hats and tails. There is the dancing of the athletic McGee Maddox and the graceful Allison Walsh. (How many performers out there can claim true balletic chops, skill at acting and singing – and the aforementioned hotness?) And the word ‘dazzling’ seems to have been coined for Gershwin’s music, generously ladled over the entire enterprise, and beautifully performed.
The bad guy is supposed to proclaim how much he despises American values. But when we boo him, what are we booing? The foreign, the unknown, the threatening, the challenge to our self-righteousness. We don our Make America Great Again hats. But in a world where more and more of us, like the villain, are from the Outer Boroughs in one way or another, can the viewpoint hold?
We want the same songs we (or our parents or grandparents, as the case may be) grew up with, every note of the horn arrangements, and the original singer’s voices, imparting each smidgen of intonation and pacing that the original singe added to the song. A historical frame for the musical is perfect for catering to that simple but demanding taste: You want to see Otis Redding singing (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay? Fine, we’ve reached 1967 in the story, so here he is! And damn, doesn’t he sound good?
So what are we usually welcoming children to listen to when we take them to the theater? The key element, I think, is what Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism called mythos, the reduction to story form of socially agreed insights into the processes of life. Mythos is seldom presented pure in any art form, but these days the shows to which children are taken tend to mash together several of them to what I would consider an unprecedented extent, precisely because we are increasingly torn about what we impart to our children.
This attack on sanctimonious pretensions is put across by a spirited ensemble, game with lascivious behavior, violence, f-bombs and sock-puppets, and blessed with considerable talent, including the manual dexterity to bring socks to life.
When you hear the first few notes of the rollicking overture, you know Bernstein is genuflecting hard to Johann Strauss. Yet this is a story in which the principal characters are bayoneted, hanged, maimed, raped, prostituted, ravaged by disease, and enslaved, among other things, a story which, thematically, takes the characters and us right to the edge of the Nietzschean abyss and gives us a good long sobering look into it – not the sort of thing Strauss or Gilbert and Sullivan ever did.
The true selling point of this production is not so much a reimmersion in Orwell’s masterpiece as a reminder, if we needed reminding, of the collective nausea that overtakes us in one of those periodic moments when totalitarian assaults on truth, justice and human dignity are winning.
Ben’s character may be a phony pastiche, and Elaine’s a confusing cypher, but in Elaine’s mother Mrs. Robinson, novelist Charles Webb struck gold. Bored, lecherous, alcoholic, deeply dishonest, vengeful, and possessed of a twisted motherly loyalty, she is real and vital and scary as hell. Dyana Neal’s Mrs. Robinson is pretty much perfect. She has the intimidating stare, the commanding manner, the resolute lack of curiosity about any aspect of the world aside from sex, tobacco, and alcohol, the maternal protectiveness, all down pat. If Anne Bancroft is looking down from heaven, she probably approves.
All She Must Possess does not suggest that the Cone Collection was Etta’s work alone, but rather depicts it as the emanation of the entire community, including not only Etta Cone, but her sister Claribel, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude’s brother Leo, Alice Toklas, and the artists, for whom Matisse stands in as representative. It was out of that community’s joy in creation and discussions of it (Expressionism vs. Cubism, for instance) that the collection, a thing of transcendent value, is shown as having emerged, with Etta’s role as being the primary shaper of the final product. But the play is generous in giving all of these participants in the joint creation some “screen time” in which to demonstrate their contributions to the enterprise, whether it be Leo’s joie-de-vivre, Matisse’s artistic exuberance, Gertrude’s self-assuredness in exploring the limits of what speech can do, or even Alice’s bitchy possessiveness as Gertrude’s helpmeet.