It’s all heart-wrenching “glory, from the pretty boy frontman“, as Stratford Festivalmagnetically brings to life the epic Rent, the rock musical that slices together Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème with the deep emotional saga of a group of young starving artists struggling against all odds to survive and create in NYC’s East Village. It’s the thrilling dark and stormy days of bohemia in Alphabet City, heaving breathlessly under the shadow of HIV/AIDS, with awe-inspiring music, lyrics, and book by the magnetic and too-soon departed Jonathan Larson. The tale is tight and strong with a captivating emotionality, digging deep into love and loss in the most energetic of ways possible under the watchful eyes of illuminated apartment windows thirsty for more. It is filled with emotion, this production, taking me back to that thrilling moment in my theatrical history when I first saw the musical in previews on Broadway back in 1996 after it transferred from the New York Theatre Workshop to great acclaim.
I was a young 32-year-old gay man, living and struggling with life in the East Village of New York City. And I knew the distress and exhilaration well. The creation of Rent has a well-known story now, thanks to the numerous documentaries mapping out its birth, as well as the majestic filming of Larson’s “tick, tick…BOOM!” that gives us a strong sense of all that had to happen in order to get this rock opera to the stage. Rent is somewhat of an autobiographical piece of work, as Larson lived and breathed so many of the elements that became part of the details of his show. He lived in New York pushing hard and deliberate as a starving artist with a goal and a dream. He shared many of the same hopes and fears as the epic characters that endeared in Rent, struggling day to day with some of the same poor living conditions, like the illegal wood-burning stove in the middle of their apartment, a bathtub sitting center in his kitchen, a broken door buzzer that made it imperative that his guests call up from the pay phone across the street. These slices of authenticity made their way into the musical creating a piece that breathes with an air of honesty, and Stratford, in ways that I can’t quite put my finger on, has unearthed that same quality, energy, and connection. It feels scrappy yet so solidly produced and performed by a strong cast of singers and actors that give you the right combination of youthful edge and strong fiery devotion to the tale at hand. As directed by Thom Allison (Stratford’s Into the Woods; Broadway’s Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), Rent shockingly does the impossible. It finds its way through, giving you the desperate energy of a young artist, mixed with vocals that soar with the material and the emotional heart of a caring complicated community that fight and love equally. Just like that first batch of actors/singers that I saw when Rent first opened on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre back in 1996.
Shaw Festival Canada Announces 2024 Season
Topdog/Underdog Fires Up the Ring Magnificently for Canadian Stage Toronto
Round one begins with a ringing that transcends the boxing ring apartment over in the corner of Canadian Stage‘s spirited and raw revival of Topdog/Underdog now playing at their Berkeley Street Complex. “Follow the card,” we are told, numerous times (maybe a few too many, to be honest), yet whether it’s the red or the black card that is the winner, this play is most definitively the medicine we all need that doesn’t come in a bottle. Written most dynamically by the legendary Suzan-Lori Parks (Public’s Plays for the Plague Year; White Noise); the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama unsurprisingly for this 2001 play, this vibrant exploration of sibling rivalry and resentment feels as powerful, tense, and engaging as ever. Even after seeing it brought to life most dynamically in the celebrated Broadway production last year. It’s still timely and explosive, particularly as we watch the world we inhabit uncomfortably gripped inside an increasingly violent war of hate and fear layered within the political landscape. Even here in Canada.
The play feels as ripe and raw with meaning as it must have felt some twenty years ago when it first hit the stage at the Public Theater in New York City. Maybe even more. Filled with energy and insight, the Canadian Stage production, directed with a serious intent for unpacking by Tawiah M’Carthy (Obsidian/Canadian Stage’s Fairview), unleashes numerous rounds of difficult troubling interactions between two brothers, fascinatingly (and cruelly) named Lincoln, solidly and magnetically portrayed by an upright Sébastien Heins (Outside the March’s No Save Points), and Booth, captivating and angrily embodied by Mazin Elsadig (Soulpepper’s Pipeline). Their given names send forth a profound message of conflict, both captivating and telling, that plays out a complicated and combative history before our very eyes. It’s a violent conflict in the making, unraveling a replay for us all to see, in close quarters, roped in without any support from the outside world. Especially their abandoning parents, long gone, yet painted with folklore and fantasy.
Heins’ Lincoln, the older of the two, sits straight, framed in a hat befitting his name, finding himself colliding with and crashing into and on his younger brother’s recliner, in need but without a lot of faith in the future. He is newly discarded; tense and separated from the wife we only hear about in a sideways kind of way. He goes to work daily and unapologetically, to a sit-down job with benefits that fits on his impressively tight frame as uncomfortably as that outfit he is made to wear for it. His brother, Booth; handsome, strong, and virile, steals his way through an existence that keeps him combustible, trapped in this rundown room with no running water and a single bed propped up with old porn magazines. Aching for something more grand, he exists, wanting more, even if it is through a con and a lie. And that’s only how the first card is played.
Designed with clarity by Rachel Forbes (Canadian Stage’s Choir Boy), the whole small roomed scenario seems lopsided and uncomfortable; delirious but without hope, shoved a little too claustrophobically in the far corner, when maybe a thrusting forward on an angle would have suited the intimacy more. Yet, Topdog/Underdog still radiates with a tense, angry energy that refuses to go down without a count of ten. With perfectly formulated costuming by Joyce Padua (Factory’s Vierge), detailed lighting by Jareth Li (Factory’s Trojan Girls & The Outhouse of Atreus), and a strong bell-ringing sound design by Stephen Surlin (Outside the March’s No Save Points), the room speaks volumes quietly as is unpacks itself before us. Determined and cluttered, it looks like a boxing-ring firetrap just waiting to be knocked out, and it is, in a way. The energy within this production is of a fight brewing, waiting and wanting, tightened by hardship and ignited jealous rage, and as written by Parks, sparks fly quickly as the two engage in a battle for who will sit on top at the end of the day. And who will be knocked out. Throwing cards in hopes of something more fulfilling, or more exciting, we are riveted and hypnotized by their historic reimagining, even as the play continues to repeat itself again and again. But we are never given an easy out, never quite sure where and when the sparks will land. And who will be counted out by an always-watching, invisible referee.
“We’d clean up bro,” Booth says to the other, hoping Link will return to the cards and they will team up, “ranking in the money” but if history, their joke-namesake set-up, and Lincoln’s white-faced day job are any indication at all, the elder’s days are numbered, at the boardwalk arcade and beyond. Every day he sits down at his job, dressed up like Abraham Lincoln so tourists can walk in and shoot him in the back with toy cap guns. And we can’t help but feel the discomfort and the internalized shame that Link must feel with every trigger pulled. The idea, although historically accurate, feels just so messed up and complicated to comprehend. So it’s no surprise that the future looks dark and bleak to this man. Layoffs or not. And we can most definitely feel it in Heins’ very textured, magnificently tense, tight performance and frame.
Parks is a known admirer of Abraham Lincoln and writes about the legacy of the man and the meaning to those who descend from slaves. Topdog/Underdog, through the unpacking of complicated brotherly love and family identity, tries to explain that legacy inside the complicated textured story of two African-American brothers struggling to stay above water. Heins’ Lincoln lives with eyes stone cold, still but filled with unspoken discomfort, taking a job that is as disturbing as life must be for this man in that single room with no running water, reclining and waiting for something to save him from his situation. It’s clear he got the job because he accepted less than what the white man before him would take. And all one can say, watching the weight of that legacy on his frame is: “This shit is hard” to swallow, like the Chinese food he unpacks on a makeshift table for his angry brother and him to ingest. But Parks does not judge the legacy of Lincoln in this epic play but rather believes the man and his death have somehow “created an opening with that hole in his head.” She enjoys, through her poetic pulsating rhythm, pushing forth the discomfort into her rapt audience through her own Booth and Lincoln, challenging us to see what lies ahead and take note (and maybe some action).
In a way, we all have to pass through that historic hole in Lincoln’s head to understand the quest that lies ahead for us all as we watch world politics, particularly America’s, do collective damage to our psyche. Living large in their small slowly tightening story, the play drives forward, sometimes intensely, while other times, in between rounds, the energy gets stalled. I kept wanting the gathering tension to move forward more succinctly and tightly, like Tom Stoppard’s magnificent Leopoldstadt, gathering tension with each moment and each scene. Like a boxing match, never giving in to the need for too much rest for the boxers in between bells. Topdog/Underdog keeps giving us a bit too much space to fill in, losing its momentum here and there, allowing us the space to disconnect, during intermission and during those intuitive moments inside many of the scenes. But when it does aim its gun sharply, inward, upward, and with continued energy, the bullet, and the internal fire, find their form, sometimes in the beauty of music and guitar, scorching the ropes that surround this decrepit room with a heat that can’t be denied.
The two actors dominate the ring, taking full control of the scripted energy and tensions that enslave them, even if the play sometimes de-evolves into repetitive reenactments a bit too often. The actors play with the cards dealt, and pour out the medicine and morality that lives and breaths inside them with a level of uncomfortable anger that lingers. The messiness and jealousy carry the play forward, born out of their upbringing and family history with magnetic resonance. It’s a sharply constructed interaction, that stuffs dreams and love underneath the bed with such determination. It collides strongly with all that violence and unfairness that lives outside the door, including the Three-Card love and desire that will destroy them all. Reenacting that emotionally charged moment in history at Ford’s Theatre, Topdog/Underdog teases the dream of some sort of better connection for these brothers, but also gives rise to other darker conflicts that were born when a mother shoved her life into plastic bags and left. Inheritance or not, Topdog/Underdog illuminates a shift in position, resurrecting a larger sad family history that is forever steeped in abandonment and pain, that will never release them from its heavy burden. No matter how hard he tries to strut with confidence.
Haunted by a past that refuses to let go, the playing card poetry of the play lives and ignites a flame inside Lincoln’s legacy and his country’s enduring struggle with racism that hangs on the side curtains with a dangerous weight. Topdog/Underdog, brought to life by Parks twenty years ago and finds new life inside Canadian Stage’s Marilyn & Charles Baillie Theatre, raises all of those complex ideas that hang in the background waiting to engulf our world. Take notice of this production and this play, and find your way in so that it may live on inside you as intensely as it was intended. That flame burns strong in American politics and in our collective hearts these days, filling us with dread and fear of a possible chaotic future in the world at large. This play’s presence is needed here, and its legacy, with all the cards played, should not be forgotten or ignored.
The Innocence of Seduction Will Seduce You
The Innocence of Seduction, now being presented in a World Premiere Production by City Lit Theater in Chicago, is the second installment in an ambitious trilogy of new plays by actor, director, and playwright, Mark Pracht, about the comic book industry and the individuals who created it. Although not as interesting a human drama as was the first play in the series, The Innocence of Seduction remains a fascinating glimpse into a little known aspect of pop culture history.
The Innocence of Seduction revolves around a group of artists, writers and publishers who were producing the lurid, violent, and sexually provocative comic books which lead to a congressional investigation into the comic book industry in the 1950’s. The claim that comic books were corrupting our young people and contributing to juvenile delinquency lead to the creation of the Comics Code. That was censorship solely at the personal discretion of one man, Judge Charles Murphy. In a sad parallel to our current times, legislators back then sought to repress access to ideas by their children, rather than teach their children how to think for themselves and live in a world with opposing viewpoints.
The whole story is framed with narration by by Dr. Frederick Wertham, whose book, The Seduction of the Innocent, warned that comic books contributed to juvenile delinquency. In Pracht’s play, Wertham, played with oily, Germanic smarm by Frank Nall, keeps things moving with a creepy comic book gestalt of his own.
The first play in the trilogy, The Mark of Kane, was an excellent, character driven drama. That story was shaped by the personal ambition of artist Bob Kane, creator of The Batman, who stole the credit for all the key story elements added to Kane’s very basic idea for the Batman character by his writer-collaborator, Bill Finger.
In The Innocence of Seduction, largely unchanging characters are dragged through the events swirling around them. That formula, called melodrama, has been around ever since the bad guy twirled his moustache as he tied poor Pauline to the railroad tracks. The focus is on the dilemma rather than character development.
But it takes a long time to get to the central conflict between the creators of early comic art and their would-be censors. When we finally do get to the bad guys, in the person of a grandstanding senator, Robert C. Hendrickson, played with appropriate bluster by Paul Chakrin, and Judge Charles Murphy, the creator and administrator of the Comics Code, played with self-righteous indignation by the fine Chuck Monro, neither antagonist is given enough stage time.
Pracht has no apparent interest in giving the opposing point of view equal time. So both antagonists are quickly reduced to one-dimensional cartoons. What is interesting, however, is that such simple mindedness is frighteningly close to today’s reality, when you look at the behavior of those who are leading the call for censorship in our own times.
The central figure in this story is William Gaines, Jr., a failed teacher who reluctantly assumes the helm of Educational Comics. That company was established by his father, Max, who had created the first American comic book, Famous Funnies, in 1934. Max, embodied by bellowing actor Ron Quaide, visits his son, William, like Hamlet’s ghost, haunting his dreams and stoking William’s feelings of inadequacy. William’s passivity until the very end of the story frequently feels like a big hole in the action instead of moving it forward.
Realizing that nobody wants to buy the illustrated bible stories his father created, William rebrands the company as Entertainment Comics, better known as “EC”. Their bread and butter would be stories with dark, twisted, graphic, sexually provocative and violent imagery. The artists and publishers in this story just see their work as innocent fun, until they run into censorship under the nascent Comics Code.
One of those artists is Matt Baker, played with sincerity if not complexity by Brian Bradford. Baker was a closeted, black, gay artist, who drew the sexiest female characters in the industry. Matt has a clandestine affair with his bisexual publisher, Archer St. John, played with sensitivity by John Blick, while hiding his real sexual preferences from his long suffering lady friend, Connie, played honestly by Latorious Givens. Despite the potential of the juicy ménage a trois, Pracht’s sketchy rendition of their interaction comes off as simultaneously simplistic and overwrought.
Apart from that relationship, the production features a gaggle of really fine character actors who bring lots of individual color to their roles. They include Laura Coleman as Gaines’ wisecracking secretary, Shirley; actor Robin Treveno, who is especially engaging as the good hearted publisher, “Busy” Arnold; Paul Chakrin as Senator Robert C. Hendrickson, who led the congressional investigation against the comic book industry; and affable Andrew Bosworth, doubling both as Max’s friend, Frank, and as artist Jack Davis, whose work would later define the look of Gaines’ greatest success, Mad Magazine.
However, for me, the shining star of this production is Janice Valleau as Megan Clarke. Ms. Valleau was a talented female artist trying to get a foothold in a male dominated industry, and the creator of a pioneering female detective character. Ms. Clarke is an absolutely riveting performer, full of heart, smarts, depth, and personal fire. See her while you can, as Chicago off Loop theater will not be able to contain her for long.
The set, lighting and projection design by G. “Max” Maxin IV is the best I’ve seen from him in this space. Beth Laske-Miller adds some nice, accurate period elements to a slim costume budget. Music composition and sound design by Peter Wahlback were a great enhancement of the foreboding atmosphere. Finally, Tony Donley’s program cover and poster art captured the tone of the story brilliantly.
As his own director, Pracht does a very good job weaving all the elements of his production together, and giving his work a fine showcase.
As with the previous play in the trilogy, you don’t need to be a comic book nerd to enjoy this tale of creative expression battling conservative oppression. The Innocence of Seduction will seduce you as well.
With The Innocence of Seduction, City Lit Theater continues a 43 year tradition of bringing intelligent, literate stories to the Chicago stage. In conjunction with this presentation, they also are presenting readings at libraries across Chicago and the suburbs of works from the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, which have been identified as the “Top Ten Most Challenged Books” facing censorship in libraries and schools. That series is called Books on the Chopping Block. If you live in the Chicago area, be sure to check for a presentation near you.
The Innocence of Seduction continues at City Lit Theater in the Edgewater Presbyterian Church, 1020 West Bryn Mawr in Chicago, through October 8th. For ticket information call (773) 293-3682 or visit www.citylit.org.
“speaking of sneaking” Spins It’s Queer Folktale Web Fascinatingly at Buddies In Bad Times Toronto
Weaving and bobbing, drawing chalk lines with a focused gyrating audacity, a fascinating dynamic radiates out from the central core of an all-encompassing plastic spider web. The actor/playwright squats and shifts his black-clad body close to the ground, teasing us almost to enter the web, and maybe get caught in its arms. It’s a sharply defined space to walk into, fantastically intricate but straightforward in its plastic sensibilities, created with thoughtful intensity by set + costume designer Rachel Forbes (Canadian Stage’s Topdog/Underdog). It makes us feel that we are inside something intimate and intensely important as we make our way to our seats in the main theatre at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto to see and get enveloped by the unveiling of speaking of sneaking.
The new play, performed and written by theatre artist Daniel Jelani Ellis (Buddies’ First Stone), comes alive slowly, seizing the stylistic moment that takes its time connecting. Deep inside this queer Black man’s ultimate navigation through folklore and reality-based hardship, the play shifts itself inward, as directed and dramaturged with a fiery fluidity by d’bi.young anitafrika (Trey Anthony’s ‘da kink in my hair) with a strong sense of movement and momentum by choreographer Fairy J (Obsidian/Canadian Stage/Necessary Angel’s Is God Is), from his youth in one “Yard” to another “Foreign” place, Canada. The tension and engagement are as tricky to outsmart as a folktale spider, that weaves out captivating stories with wisdom, knowledge, and power. The formula engages, even when it loses some captivating focus along the way.
Yet, it is a compelling web that is woven, ultimately feeling important and personal throughout the intersectionalities of identity and culture, playing with the deep multidiscipline unpacking of complicated self-discovery drawn from his familial Jamaican roots and the complexities of gender, sexuality, and class that creep out of the “Yard”. The performance is vivid and vital, frenetic and feisty, combining aerial light-footedness with dance, poetry, and all that lies in between. It attempts with a true heart and unending energy to captivate, and Ellis, as the determined Ginnal, manages, maybe not at first, but eventually, to take us in and snag us, as the web he weaves gets more grounded in the complications of survival alongside familial expectations.
Surrounded by barrels of regret and disappointment in himself, Ellis needs to keep weaving and weaving, “for me, not for you!” He shifts himself around the space, throwing his arms off balance but fully in control, collapsing his past and future from a spider-framed creation from Jamaica to a video web call rubbing his feet and seeing the future for a few PayPal donation dollars. The playful but ancient guide, “Anansi” lifted up from an Akan folktale slides in to the perspective to illicit shouts of “That’s enough” to the symbolic quarreling married sky and earth, trying to weave a web that will keep the collapse from occurring.
These folklore spider tales, which I knew little about, long ago sailed their way to the Caribbean by way of the transatlantic slave trade, and became a mythical model about skill and wisdom, giving praise to Anansi and his ability as a spider, to outsmart and triumph over any and all powerful opponents through the wise use of cunning, creativity, and wit. It’s no surprise Ellis as Ginnal digs into these formulations and folklore, basking in the delicately crafted light designed by André du Toit (Stratford’s R+J) with a strong sound design by Stephon Smith (B Current’s Wheel of the Year Walks). It will take all that cunning creativity to unpack the complexities of culture, homophobia, and ideas of masculinity that are weaved into his Jamaican “Yard” and the family that celebrates unity and care from way over there.
Wrestling with the fraught and trickster dynamics of survival in this new “Foreign” land, the expensive city of Toronto, Ginnal struggles with empty barrels waiting to be filled with donations of a different kind, feeling guilt and shame each time the phone rings. The spider steps in, initiating a journey towards liberation and freedom, after leaving one home to find another. The web is a complex construct, sometimes captivatingly embodied, sometimes not, with Ellis shifting from one well-formulated character to another, generally drawing us in as he straps himself in from above for this aerial journey, bungee jumping and creeping towards a new sense of home and acceptance.
Anansi was seen as a symbol of slave resistance and survival, turning the constraints of those plantation power dynamics around onto the controlling oppressors. Ellis embraces that energy, as he finds his way to generate dancehall-infused formulations by igniting cunning online trickery of his own. Through a compelling examination of colonial imprints on queer Jamaican identities by all those involved, as well as utilizing Afro-Caribbean-Tkarontonian storytelling aesthetics to elevate the spider mode of behavior and performance, the details of the intricate interweaving of bodies and family transcend the battle for survival and shifts it all into the flight for authenticity and identity. It has been written that the symbol of Anansi played a multifunctional role in the enslaved Africans’ lives, inspiring strategies of resistance to establish a sense of continuity with their African past and offering a context and formulation to transform and assert their identity within the darkened boundaries of captivity. It’s fairly clear how that energy resonates throughout the piece.
As he asks for world peace from a bachelor pad base camp created by new family members by choice, the weaving in of Granny Luna to “Petty Labelle” offers itself up into the sky wonderfully, ultimately capturing us in its complex web. Groundwork Redux and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre‘s production of speaking of sneakingdelivers, working its magic, eventually, fulfilling the folktale form with chaotic care. Through a Black queer lens, with the support of Buddies, Obsidian Theatre, and the Toronto Arts Council Black Arts Program, this new weaving finds its way into our collective consciousness, navigating itself through portals of neo-colonial contexts and out of the escape room axe throw party that might have destroyed him. The archetypal Jamaican Ginnal and the mythical African Anansi, together, discover and embody something akin to survival and connection. And in the weaving of that web, we find a different kind of soul rubbed true all for our wonderment and enlightenment.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
The Argyle Theatre Encore! Gala and You Are There
The Argyle Theatre held its Gala, Encore! A Musical Celebration, hosted by Artistic Director Evan Pappas with musical direction by Jeffrey Lodin, on September 22, 2023, at 7:30 PM. Long Island’s premier theatrical showcasing the remarkable talents that ha graced its stages over the past four seasons.
The one-night-only special event featured Becca Andrews (The Argyle’s Legally Blonde, Honky Tonk Chicks)
Tyler Belo (The Argyle’s Spring Awakening, Hamilton National Tour)
Dana Costello (The Argyle’s Cabaret, Broadway’s Finding Neverland, Pretty Woman)
Hana Culbreath (The Argyle’s Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Annie National Tour)
Alex Grayson (The Argyle’s Spring Awakening, Broadway’s Parade, Into The Woods)
Jack Hale (The Argyle’s Rock of Ages)
Elliott Litherland (The Argyle’s Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Opera North Carousel)
Michelle Mallardi (The Argyle’s Elf, Footloose, Broadway Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Les Misérables)
Ellie Smith (The Argyle’s Grease, Miracle Valley Feature Film)
and Ryan Thurman (The Argyle’s Disney’s The Little Mermaid, The Producers).
“It brings me immense joy to celebrate the exceptional talent that has graced our stage over the past four years. Encore! A Musical Celebration is a testament to the dedication and artistry of our alumni, and it’s an opportunity for us to express our gratitude to both the performers and our loyal audience for their unwavering support in creating unforgettable moments.” The Argyle Theatre Artistic Director, Evan Pappas stated.
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