The Acting Company has come to the Polonsky Shakespeare Center to present William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a show that I just recently saw and reviewed last December when the Fiasco Theatre brought the same festive play to Classic Stage Company‘s lovely sweet theatre in the East Village. The Public Works will also present a joyful musical adaptation this summer as part of their free Shakespeare in the Park. It’s one of Shakespeare most playful and endearing, but also one that requires a delicate hand in finding the correct comic pacing and the joyfulness within the sometimes mean-spirited revelry. Twelfth Night refers to the twelfth night after Christmas Day, called the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany. It was originally a Catholic holiday and like many other Christian feast days, it gave rise to an occasion for fun and mischief, with one of the themes being the inversion of the social order; a fairly direct cultural parallel to the play’s gender confusion-driven plot. When the Fiasco Theatre presented their telling of this tale, I wrote in my review that it is “enjoyable and fun, landing firmly in the esthetic of the festive ritual it honors“. And although The Acting Co. (TAC) with an assist by the Resident Ensemble Players (REP) finds its playfulness here and there within the text and the players, this is not the most fun revelry to be invited to, and just like in real life, they might want to consider banning fire arms, because when these gentlemen come packing heat, the party becomes darker, and odder, than it ever needs to be.
But this is Twelfth Night, and it seems NYC is in love with this tale. And as the story goes, a shipwreck, naturally as Shakespeare loves a good storm, causes a sister and brother to be washed ashore on the coast of Illyria, separate and unknowing of the other’s fate. Both believe their very similarly looking sibling has died in the tempest that brought down their ship, but each on their own seek salvation and safety in the same welcoming land. The time line doesn’t really add up, and it’s odd they never meet on the street, but we go along with the scenario, as it is Twelfth Night, and it’s Shakespeare. The young lady and sister, Viola, played by the spirited but physically awkward Susanna Stahlmann (TAC’s Macbeth) after crawling ashore, disguises herself as the young man, Cesario, and somehow manages to enter into the service and trusting heart of the influential Duke Orsino. The Duke, played by the dashing and well-voiced Matthew Greer (Broadway’s Seminar) seems a bit unstable, but welcomes the young man into his fold. He hopes that with Cesario’s sweet soft demeanor, the young man might help him in his unsuccessful bid to woo the beautiful and desirable Olivia, a woman deep in mourning for her recently deceased father and brother. Is this really true love, or just a man of privilege wanting what he wants but can’t have, regardless of anyone else’s thoughts or desires.
Drapped in black, giving us a rich silhouette of Madonna/Evita-style mourning courtesy of costume designer, Candice Donnelly (Broadway’s Fences), Olivia refuses pleasure and festivities of all shapes and sizes, especially the company of men, shoving away all advances for marriage, love, and even fun. Viola’s Cesario doesn’t have to work too hard to get past her servants, especially the pompous Malvolio, played with conviction by Stephen Pelinski (“Sweet Land“) and as in the case of many Shakespearian romantic comedies, Olivia, charmingly realized by the lively Elizabeth Heflin (REP’s Heartbreak House) falls for the feisty young Cesario. Why she throws away her pledge of mourning as fast as she changes her dress, claiming to be desperately in love with this young messenger is beyond me, as their interactions never really flutter into romantic territory, making it very difficult to figure out what this kind of love truly is. To make matters worse, or more fun depending on how you look at it, Viola has in turn, fallen for the handsome Duke, and in this one, it is slightly more believable. He’s quite the catch, and although a bit pompous and erratic, the scenes between these two are some of the most enjoyable and sexy moments in this stark comedy. Although entirely unbelievable in their ‘handsy’ interaction, these two are endearing and ridiculous, giving us hope for unadulterated and blind infatuation at first sight. Is that really what love look like, or just pure blind lust? All the while, Viola’s identical appearing brother, Sebastian, portrayed playfully and sensually by the handsome and frisky John Skelley (TAC’s Hamlet) wanders the coastal town taking in the sights with Antonio (Hassan El-Amin), a sea-captain who previously fought against Orsino, by his side. We all know how this love triangle/rectangle is going to play out eventually, and it does, with a charm and energy emulating from the cast, but that the production and the director doesn’t really deserve. Is this a projection of all the different shades of love? Or just the clumsiness of lust and ego revealed for all to see? But more importantly, does love really require a loaded gun?
Plainly directed with a good ear for music but not for symbiotic revelry by Maria Aitken (Broadway’s The 39 Steps), the production surprisingly doesn’t find its groove on that oddly orchestrated stage. The bland set brings to mind the plain dull architecture of condos in Florida rather than the exotic and romantic atmosphere of the ancient region of Illyria. Designed by Lee Savage (Theatreworks’ The Lightning Thief), the setting is made up of a few doors, a modernist balcony, a strange and detracting cut-out window to frame a far off bucolic coast line, and a wide and formidable set of stairs that run from one end of the stage to almost the other. It feels more like an obstacle rather than a strong device, and a far too concrete one. The lighting by designer Philip S. Rosenberg (Broadway’s It’s Only a Play) seems spotty and flat, leaving much of the festive quality outside in the Brooklyn air, with the only bit of joyful spirit coming from Donnelly’s costumes that thankfully seem to have been borrowed from a number of different productions, all from varying time periods, but all far more stylish than the one before us. I have to wonder though, where did those ridiculous policeman come wandering in from? A Monty Python film remake of the Holy Grail? Because they should not be taken seriously.
Musically this production embraces the lovely joy of the play’s reference, especially with Joshua David Robinson (59E59’s Sense of an Ending) and his playful enactment of the fool, Feste. He poses the question that we’ve been asking since the beginning, “What is Love?” but doesn’t get a good enough answer from anyone, especially the gaggle of revelries sitting before him; Olivia’s riotous uncle, Sir Toby Belch un-memorably played by Lee E. Ernst (REP’s Tartuffe), a silly squire named Sir Andrew Aguecheek, gleefully played by the hilariously over-the-top Michael Gotch (TFANA’s Svejk), and Olivia’s servants, Maria deliciously portrayed by the enchanting Kate Forbes, and Fabian, portrayed flatly by Mic Matarrese (Hay Fever). These four play a nasty but funny trick on the arrogant Malvolio, punishing him for his attempt to chastise the lot for being too jovial. Sir Toby famously exclaims, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”. Malvolio pays a price for his attempt to reestablish order within the house, and in this production, the trick gets uncomfortably mean-spirited and dark, as dark as that odd chamber he finds himself trapped in. The fun, it seems, is sorely missing throughout, and it and love are awkwardly resurrected for the final scene. It all comes together as clumsy as Viola’s foot work, stumbling around the stage until all is made right. Is Love a contagious breath blown forward? If that is true, it misses its mark in this mediocre telling of a Twelfth Night celebration, filling the flatness with missteps and sexual attraction, masked as true love and devotion.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
Off Broadway Girl Talk Madwomen of the West
Right now at the Actors Temple Theatre, 339 West 47th Street is the New York premier of Sandra Tsing Loh’s Madwomen of the West. The show in a way reminded me of the 1996 play Love, Loss, and What I Wore, where celebrities joined on stage. Here you have Caroline Aaron, Brooke Adams, Marilu Henner, and Melanie Mayron, all actors who have performed on film, TV and stage. They are like long lost friends, they are so familiar.
The four have gathered together for Claudia’s (Mayron) birthday. It is being thrown at the Brentwood home of Jules (Adams) and Marilyn (Aaron) has decorated. Enter the long lost Zoey (Henner) and what you think you know about these friends, isn’t what it seems. As a matter of fact, this birthday brunch is about to turn into the brunch from hell. These Baby Boomers, are also feminists admiring Hilary Clinton and Gloria Steinem, though not always on the same side. They break the 4th wall, as they banter back and forth to themselves and to us, the audience. They confront, encourage, justify and talk about transgender, health, the horror of Trump and those “pussy hats”, sex and so much more. Think “girl-talk” to the max.
They sit on couches, as a backdrop of palm trees, and a lone piñata take center stage, thanks to set designer Christian Fleming. The play has no money, so the production is bare bones…. so they say. Everything about this show is tongue and check and is well directed by Thomas Caruso.
Each actor here shines and in an out of the way aside, each has pieces of their real selves written into the roles they play. Not having seen Aaron on stage before, I was impressed by her vocal quality and humor. Adams brings sophistication and Mayron adds that knowing, we are all in the same messed up boat. Henner will make you want that body and her sex appeal.
These women knocked down doors for the women to come, but I was surprised that the one issue they missed out on was that women are still not equal in this country. It takes 1, count it 1 state to approve this and yet plays about feminism leave this vital information out.
The show ends with “The Bitch is Back.” they sing in glee. I guess it is ok when we call ourselves that.
Madwomen of the West: The Actors Temple Theatre, 339 West 47th Street through December 31.
“Stereophonic” at Playwrights Horizons Sings Solidly
It’s July 1976, in a recording studio in Sausalito, CA and we are being invited into a space that only a select few get to visit, let alone witness. This is art in the making, pure and simple, with ego and love, getting mixed and faded in through the process most musically. In Playwrights Horizons‘s magnificent new play, Stereophonic, written most delicately by David Adjmi (The Blind King Parts I and II), a band on the cusp of greatness has assembled, and they are tasked, casually and with great intent, to something magnificent and meaningful, a lasting piece of musical art, to follow up their last album that has become, over the timeframe, a breakout hit.
The play is exceptionally well framed and constructed; both musical and meandering, in the best of all possible ways, yet somewhere inside Adjmi’s engaging Stereophonicand its three-hour running time, a deeper level of contextual art formulation is unpacked quite beautifully. It saunters forward, with a complicated level of exhaustion, angst, and inspiration, unearthing something that almost defies expectations and compartmentalization. It’s a 1970s rock saga, clearly modeled on the legendary Fleetwood Mac and their dynamic backstage friction, that leans into and plays with the problematic relationships within this unnamed band as they try to create magic behind a glass wall, while also trying to fulfill their emotional needs in the confines of the studio and real life.
It’s all emotional breakups and reconciliations, with a layer of bored and sleep-deprived banter; around a broken coffee machine and the annoying reverberations of (not only) the drum. It’s electric and conflictual, playing havoc on every one of these characters’ insecure hearts, while offering up no grand solutions or final product. Stereophonic is all about the tiny details and the little frustrations that grow and become emotional cannonballs bent on destruction, leveled and defused out of an undercurrent of love and need for creation. It is incandescent in its artful construction, displaying and writing about a realm few of us can understand. It’s the agony and ecstasy that lives and sings inside the magnificent creative process of musicians, arts, singers, and writers, who hear aspects that most of us can’t understand, let alone hear or comprehend. And we have been invited in, to bear witness to its creation, in all its meticulously dull and exhausting detail. Giving light to the darkness of the process, and how art can both create and destroy those involved in its coming to life.
Vineyard’s “Scene Partners” Gets Stuck Between Floors
“This is exactly how it happened “ we are told, followed by a big wide screen opening that descends upon us, but it does not quite land where it, and our leading lady’s character, most likely intended it too. Finally escaping the 11th floor on a folding chair and faulty pulley system, Meryl Kowalski, as portrayed as only the magnificently gifted Dianne Wiest (Broadway’s All My Sons; “Purple Rose of Cairo“) could, finds flight and falter inside this fascinating exploration of some sort of demented dream. Giving the “correct response“ to abstract questions and assignments, Wiest delivers a befuddled and determined performance that elevates a play that fractures realities every chance it gets. As written with a wild wandering spirit by John J. Caswell, JR. (Wet Brain), the play is an absurdity of utter invigorating complexity, playing with and sometimes delivering itself forward in a fascinating but distancing dementia. Is it a post-traumatic disassociation of epic proportions or a fractured descent into grief and mental illness, played for a laugh or a tug at the heart? Or is it something quite else that was lost on this avid fan of this Oscar-winning actress? And I don’t even know if there is a clear correct answer to this. But that is half the fun in this half-fun exercise in abstractionism and determination.
It’s big on ‘concept’, directed with a strong forward vision by Rachel Chavkin (Broadway’s Hadestown), obviously enjoying the ride and the wandering with glee. The visuals ride and slide in and about, thanks to the incredibly detailed and smooth work of video and projection design by David Bengali (Broadway’s The Thanksgiving Play), lighting designer Alan C. Edwards (Vineyard’s Harry Clarke), and scenic designer Riccardo Hernández (Broadway’s Indecent), giving depth and clarity to this otherwise meander into fractured and fantastical thinking. Supported by clever extravagances by costume designer Brenda Abbandandolo (Broadway’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window), the effect is a fevered dive into the mind of a woman beaten down hard to the ground by a now-dead husband whose death has freed her to her desire; her dream and determination to be a big famous movie star, and she’ll point the barrel at anyone who might stand in her way or say otherwise.
Scene Partners feels anything but safe and secure, as we join Wiest’s 75-year-old widow from the Midwest as she steadily abandons her needy mess of a daughter, played with clever calculations by Kristen Sieh (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit), to jet, train, or sled herself off to Hollywood to become a big gloriously famous movie star even before her now-dead violent abusive husband has been buried six feet under. The framing is slanted, with efforts to keep us off balance. Finding a flavor in its madness and splitting. The name of Wiest’s woman is Meryl Kowalski, and she’s not to be ignored. She is told quite clearly and quickly that she must change it if she really wants to be an actress, as that first name of hers has already been taken by that other, already famous and award-winning actress with the same first name that we all know and love. But this Meryl holds firm, inside and out of her first acting class somewhere out there in Los Angeles. It’s there, when confronted by her over-the-top acting teacher, played with wild abandonment by the perfect Josh Hamilton (Broadway’s The Real Thing), that she reveals another level of strong abstractionism. This particularly twisted Meryl’s dead husband was named Stanley Kowalski, and her Streetcar husband made Tennessee Williams’s character seem like quite the gentle nice guy.
At this point, the play stands shakily in some abstract parallels that are fun, clever, complicated, and a bit distancing, playing with fragments of trauma and grief that don’t fully come together. It pulls and pushes at about the same level of conflicted engagement, until Johanna Day (Broadway/MTC’s How I Learned to Drive) as Meryl’s half-sister comes into play, shifting the formula with a centered grounding that makes us sit back and question what’s really going on. When a doctor also enters the picture, played well by Eric Berryman (RT’s Primary Trust), a medical diagnosis once again adds a different framework that could alter the whole process. Where are we with these two half-sisters and their shared knowledge of a non-collaborated trauma of abuse? Especially after a (pre-recorded) interview with a very well-positioned Sieh asking pertinent questions that illicit praise from Hamilton’s pompous character and a disappearing act of a half-sister who might never been. It plays with the head, in both an engaging and disassociating manner that works, and doesn’t.
Scene Partners doesn’t play easy with our unpacking, leading us down blind endless alleyways decorated with an abundance of movie imagery that either leads us to brick walls or bottomless pits to fall into. Wiest’s Meryl has necessarily immersed herself in these vintage cinematic panoramas, probably to unconsciously avoid the abusive reality she found herself trapped in, and in that trauma response, Wiest has found the perfect embodiment for Mrs. Kowalski, bringing feisty and forceful complexities to the forefront as she shuffles and stabs herself into frame. And even if it doesn’t, in the end, add up to much, this Vineyard Theatre production is flavorful in its twisted construction and projections. The “Doctor Zhivago” impressions and pop-culture references overwhelm, not just our heroine, but also our connections to emotional clarity and authenticity, leaving us hanging halfway down and in between floors waiting for something to fully make an impact.
Make Me Gorgeous Tells Of One Man’s Authenticity
Make Me Gorgeous! playing at Playhouse 46 in a nut shell is about the life and times of LGBTQ+ trailblazer Kenneth Marlow. Embodying Marlow is Wade McCollum, who tells us how he was born in 1926 in Des Moines, Iowa, and how he became a hustler, private hairdresser, stripped in mob-controlled nightclubs, became a female impersonator, a madam of a gay prostitution ring, until in the 70’s when he became Kate, throwing a “Ball to End all Balls” to fund gender-affirming surgery. We learn how she documented her life in books. In between he was a private in the U.S. Army; a Christian missionary; a mortuary cosmetologist and a newspaper columnist.
In a sense Marlow was raised to be who he was dressed in girls clothes as a child, then became drawn to feminine clothes and his female relatives encouraged him. In high school he ran around in drag. in Iowa in the 30’s took some kind of guts. His father never showed him love and left, his mother was a raging alcoholic. He took to the cinemas populated by men to find what was missing in life, then to the church. When he is shipped off to California, he meets and hangs out with the transgender prostitutes finding feeling at home. He ends up with a sugar daddy who is unattractive, ends up in Chicago, ends up as a hairdresser and then a stripper in Calumet City as “Mr. Keni Marlo, Exotic Queen of the Boys” and that takes us to the 40’s.
In the end he ended up becoming the hairstylist to Phyllis Diller, Lucille Ball, and Gypsy Rose Lee, among others. His side job need up being documented in Mr. Madam: Confessions of a Male Madam, Cathouse Mother, Male Oral Love, and Around the World with Kenneth Marlowe.
I have loved McCollum’s work ever since Ernest Shackleton Loves Me. This man is a consummate actor, whose rich voice and glamours gams make him perfect to tell this story. He brings everyone he is talking about to life. You feel as if you know each character. McCollum’ has oodles of charisma, so the tawdry tale he is telling comes off less crass. With lines like “I liked that men paid to have sex with me. And those who appealed to me usually didn’t have any money…so I did a lotta pro-bono work” if you are not exactly open this may not appeal to you. A couple walked out the night I went. McCollum is a natural with Sally Rand’s Fan Dance and glorious performing a song Marlow wrote with jazz pianist Reggie DuValle. The most pignut part of the story comes when he is drafted and is raped by 14 men. There is however a disconnect as on a book cover he wrote “He was raped by fourteen men in his barracks — and enjoyed it!”
The theater is styled like a cabaret, with velvet curtains and bistro tables. Black and white photographs of drag queens hang on the walls. On the stage Walt Spangler’s set looks like a cross between Barbie’s house and cotton candy. I really want the black dress designed by Jeffrey Hinshaw and the lighting by Jamie Roderick’s and sound by Ien DeNio’s really help to enjoy the evening
Smartly directed and written by Donald Horn, I was on the edge of my seat the whole performance and definitely learned a thing or two or three about this culture.
Make Me Gorgeous! Playhouse 46, 308 W 46th Street, through Dec. 31st.
Here We Are Or The Search For The Meaning of Life
Let me just state that I love the Stephen Sondheim/David Ives musical/play Here We Are. It’s as if the genius, known as Sondheim was trying to resolve his life. The first act is cynical and the characters are hypocritical, while the second act is about coming to with grips with life’s choices and surrendering to the inevitable.
The music is like playing Sondheim jeopardy. His motif’s from other shows are blended into new songs that make you want to have a pen and paper to play the game. I can’t wait until the CD comes out. I’ve been told that it is being recorded in January.
The show is highly surreal, with life’s journeyIn question. Think “The Outer Limits” or “The Twilight Zone,” very Rod Serling.
Based on two Luis Buñuel films “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) and “The Exterminating Angel” (1962). Act one has Leo Brink (Bobby Cannavale) a entitled tycoon whose opinion is the only one that matters, his wife Marianne (Rachel Bay Jones) who lives for beauty and is a bit on the vaped side, their friends Paul Zimmer (Jeremy Shamos), a plastic surgeon celebrating his 1,000th nose job, his wife, Claudia (Amber Gray), an agent who lives for the celebrity of it all, Raffael Santello Di Santicci (Steven Pasquale), an ambassador from Moranda who lives for the number of notches on his belt and Fritz (Micaela Diamond), Marianne’s younger sister, who wants a revolution, while also wanting to live the good life, searching for brunch. It turns out Leo, Paul and Raffael run a drug cartel. As the day goes down the hill Marianne keeps asking Leo to “buy this perfect day for her.”
Act two is a little more dark. While they finally find food, the consequences of their choices keeps them trapped in purgatory. Enter a colonel (Francois Battiste) whose parents were killed for $26.15, a soldier (Jin Ha) who has feelings for Fritz due to his dreams and a bishop (David Hyde Pierce) who wants another job, has a shoe fettish, and plays piano, until there is no more music. This act is very reminiscent of Steambath. I love the homage to “The World According to Garp” and the bear.
Playing butlers and maids and assorted restaurateur’sare the incredible Tracie Bennett and Denis O’Hare. Kudos has to go out to the wigs by Robert Pickens and Katie Gell and the neon various establishments. white box set and costumes by David Zinn.
Joe Mantello’s staging is exquisite, allowing for each of these brilliantly talented performers to take center stage. This is true ensemble acting and I hope when the Drama Desk is giving out awards this wins.
Where many have criticized the lack of music in the second act, it makes perfect sense. The music stops. The concept very much reminds me of Davids Cromer’s Our Town, when Emily dies and suddenly things are in color and have smells. It makes complete sense that once you are trapped the music would die.
Natasha Katz’s lighting really helps the shinny set take shape, Tom Gibbons’s sound makes the inner world come to life and Sam Pinkleton’s choreography is just enough to make this move seamlessly.
Alexander Gemignani, and Jonathan Tunick, make Sondheim’s music an art and I for one appreciate the subtlety and musicality. Many may not know that Sondheim was a game master and in this it is like he won the final game of “putting it together”.
Here We Are, is intelligent, witty with so much to say and if you ponder the meaning of life you to will walk away extremely fulfilled.
Here We Are, The Shed, 545 West 30th through January 21st
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