Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Select, Shakespeare Theatre Company

When you enter the Lansburgh Theatre to see Elevator Repair Service’s production of The Select (The Sun Also Rises), their adaption of Hemingway’s novel, the lights are already up on the set designed by David Zinn—a bar decorated with empty bottles, portraits of bullfighters, and tables already littered with half empty glasses of alcohol.  As company member Kate Scelsa enters and takes a seat long before the house lights dim, she starts to work her way through the dregs of a few wine glasses.  Soon, we realize that we’re in for a new variation of an old standby: Chekhov’s Booze.  If a glass is set out, by the end of the night, someone is going to have downed it, and the actors of the ERS do so with the relish befitting Hemingway’s story.

The Company in Elevator Repair Service's production of The Select (The Sun Also Rises)
at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Elevator Repair Service, a company of 25 years standing, completes a trilogy of adaptations of literary works with The Select, which they first performed in 2010. The style the company first adopted for their adaptation Gatz (The Great Gatsby) uses the verbatim text of the novel’s narration and dialogue, but finds equal theatrical fodder in staging the expected plot points as in discovering spaces between these moments.  Here, their eye is on Hemingway’s novel of ex-pats, alcohol, and ill-fated interconnections between an all-too-small social circle.  As our narrator and central character, Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson) serves as our introduction to ERS’s style, introducing us to the productions’ conceit of blending Hemingway’s narration and dialogue.  Iveson’s performance and John Collins’s direction compels the audience to buy into this strange theatrical undertaking, and we’d be foolish to say no.

Earlier this season, another theatre’s work reminded me that when adapting a novel for the stage, the best way forward tends to be by embracing theatricality as fully as possible.  Separate yourself from slavish devotion to the source material, and instead turn towards theatrical artifice as much as possible. This adaptation seems to challenge that assumption by using Hemingway’s actual text, but has no fear in diving headfirst into theatrical possibility.  Collins keeps the ensemble moving quickly across the stage, which can as easily transform from one bar to another as to a bullfighting arena.  Sudden choreographed dance breaks demonstrate that what we are watching is theatre, not life. Sound design by Matt Tierney and Ben Williams is run onstage by the ensemble themselves, and serves as a delightful reminder that everything we see is both carefully planned to the tiniest detail and always at risk to the vagaries of theatrical and electronic fortune. 

The ensemble does excellent work, drawing on a larger company of actors than appear on stage on a given night (the program reveals the large amount of double casting).  Iveson’s excellent Barnes is the rock of the production, with Pete Simpson (Mike Campbell), Stephanie Hayes (Brett Ashley), and even director Collins (Robert Cohn) filling out the center of Barnes’s swirling, doomed social circle.  Robert M. Johanson’s Bill Gorton provides the latter half of the production with a welcome jolt of buoyancy and good humor, while Susie Sokol is a riveting presence in the final third of the play as the young and charismatic Pedro Romero.

I’ve never been a fan of Hemingway, with a distinct lack of patience for what can seem like Lost Generation male-centering self-pitying extravagance (I know, I feel your indignation already, sorry not sorry). The difference for doubters such as myself is that here, we also gain the lens of Elevator Repair Service’s perspective on the work that they are performing for us- we never feel like we are encountering Hemingway unexamined.  Elements of Hemingway’s work that come under justified criticism (the anti-Semitism that shapes the entire character of Cohn and his treatment within the novel, for example) come to us presented by actors who can play the text in a way that can still criticize it.  Stephanie Hayes can play Brett as a woman seen entirely through Barnes’s male gaze in a manner that can also suggest that gaze is limited.  If Hemingway’s characters are obsessed with a rigid definition of masculinity, ERS can cast a woman as the character that stands as the pinnacle of that masculine ideal.   

As Chekhov’s booze is drained glass by glass over three hours, the company works very hard to draw the audience in.  At times (particularly late in the second half), that labor shows its edges, but it feels undeniable that the audience is witnessing a great feat of theatre.  Elevator Repair Service is a company that theatre lovers need to know, and it’s our good fortune that the Shakespeare Theatre Company has brought them to DC.  The Select (The Sun Also Rises) is a reminder of how we have to continually question how we make theatre from the ground up, and one I’d highly recommend theatregoers seek out.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

King Charles III, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Dramatization of real people is a tricky thing, even when done in the most speculative fashion.  Shakespeare most often got away with it by creating plays based on history books, not recent memory, much less directly based on the living.  The closest he got was late in his career, in the John Fletcher collaboration of Henry VIII. While that particular play is uneven, in production, its most powerful moments often come by seizing onto the characters’ iconography—utilizing just the right stance or the right costume as depicted in the most familiar portraiture.

In David Muse’s production of Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, which opened this week at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the iconography of one of the most famous families in the world today is drawn upon.  The play opens in a somber requiem, sung by the ensemble in the final moments of the (unseen) Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. The music builds until the ensemble fades back to reveal the Windsors and—despite a cast with an uneven actual resemblance to that family—the audience en masse shares a moment of instantaneous recognition (due in no small part to costume designer Jennifer Moeller’s work).  That iconography has worked its magic and we see before us Charles and Camilla, William, Kate and Harry.  A risky concept has turned the audience into believers for a night.  It’s a hell of a moment of theatre, and the evening has only just begun.

Jeanne Paulson as Camilla and Robert Joy as King Charles in the American Conservatory
Theatre production of "King Charles III, directed by David Muse. Photo by Kevin Berne. 

While it's may seem like a play that premiered in 2014 is a strange fit for a classical theatre, Bartlett’s play works better than I might have supposed. It contains echoes of number of Shakespeare’s plays, from Macbeth and Julius Caesar, to Henry IV and Richard II (indeed, I walked out wondering how exactly the full title of the play wasn’t King Charles III: a modern fantasia on Richard II, with so many parallels on kingship, identity, and hollow crowns throughout the play).  Bartlett also utilizes the conceit of a combination of prose and iambic pentameter, which gives audiences the pleasure of heightened language in our own contemporary vernacular, suggesting a form of theatrical translation for the audience experience of Shakespeare's day into our own.  Just to underscore that shift, when the common man comes onstage to converse with a prince, it's Rafael Jordan and a kebab cart rather than a farmer or old-fashioned tradesman.

The play imagines a near future of Prince Charles’ sudden ascendance to the throne, and the subsequent crisis of political and national identity that besets everyone in short order. Despite its premiere date tracing back three years ago, as most things seem to do nowadays, it carries an unusual resonance in today’s Washington.  Even with the action removed to a different country and an imagined future, questions of democratic principles, complicity, and responsible rule carry a special frisson of familiarity for DC audiences. The play centers on a constitutional crisis when the new King Charles III (Robert Joy) refuses to sign a new law from Parliament; Charles sees a compromise of the English free press, and the Prime Minister (Ian Merrill Peakes) sees a figurehead standing in the way of the will of the people and their elected representatives.  All sides act from their genuinely held principles, but Bartlett is most concerned with how Charles reacts as a new monarch, finally stepping out of the wings and into a role that isn’t quite what he imagined.

The cast, led by Joy, does excellent work.  Joy is a compelling tragic figure, even in Charles’ weakness.  His habitual need to soliloquize to the audience skillfully balances a desperation to be understood with a dangerously stubborn self-centeredness.  Jean Paulson is a sympathetic Camilla, the only one to support Charles unequivocally, while Allison Jean White’s Kate has both sympathy and an underlying steel that shores up Christopher McLinden’s William.  Bartlett gives us a pair of young lovers in Michelle Beck’s Jessica and Harry Smith’s Prince Harry; while it’s a pleasure to see Beck back at STC after an excellent Ophelia in Michael Kahn’s most-recent Hamlet, she seems to struggle with an accent while Smith has a propensity towards bellowing.  The set design by Daniel Ostling allows one Gothic chamber to represent all corners of palace and Parliament that are required by the script, and lighting designer Lap Chi Chu does exceptionally beautiful work shading its corners and the statues of three kings that loom over the proceedings.

King Charles III at STC manages the difficult trick of being both entertaining and thought-provoking, sometimes in unexpected ways.  Bartlett’s script takes a few turns that are questionable, and I found just as much pleasure in debating those after the final curtain as I did in enjoying the intended narrative that was performed onstage.  We all have fallen prey to the old curse and live in interesting times, whether we like it or not, and King Charles III ably challenges us to see its characters’ struggles, and thereby ourselves, out in the light.     

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Hard Problem, Studio Theatre

In Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem, currently running at the Studio Theatre and directed by Matt Torney, the playwright challenges his audiences to consider topics most of us would claim to know nothing about, but are tangled up with fundamental questions that most of us, again, have wrestled with at some moment in our lives.  How do we understand consciousness, the nebulous quantity of what makes us not only human, but uniquely so? How do we reckon with what science can discover and quantify, and what we may never understand at all?  What makes one person see a coincidence, and another find a desperately longed-for miracle?

You know. Typical Stoppard stuff.

Unsurprisingly, The Hard Problem is not an easy play, either for actors or for audiences.  Stoppard has no final answer to the problems he poses, and at times, the play has a hard time making its characters' discursive reckonings with consciousness, human psychology, and financial prospecting matter to the audience.  Torney's ensemble of actors do admirable work at laying out the intricate scientific arguments that provide the framework of the play. As Hilary, the surprisingly theistic scientist at the center of The Hard Problem, Tessa Klein does the production's heavy lifting. It's a testament to her work and the work of other ensemble members like Kyle Cameron, Shravan Amin, and Nancy Sun that we can follow their intellectual labor clearly--the ensemble does, however, struggle with convincing us that these debates are as viscerally vital to them as they need to be to genuinely forge a connection with the audience.

Stoppard has been branded in the past as a playwright who creates intellectually impressive plays that lack heart; Torney's production does create the scaffolding necessary to hang all of these complex ideas upon, but the heart of the play isn't as carefully laid bare for the audience.  Instead, the production invites more rational analysis than it does passionate reaction.  Rather than emotionally investing in the characters, I found myself deconstructing Stoppard's dramaturgy as the play progressed, as interested in the workings of the story structure as the characters were in the mind or the financial market.

This being said, several days have passed between my seeing Torney's production and writing about it here, and I'm still wrestling with the ideas of this play. I've returned to older treatments of similar themes by Stoppard (Jumpers, most notably, and Rock 'n' Roll) and been interested in the way these themes have continued to percolate in his mind over the years with different results.  Even though The Hard Problem is not Stoppard's best, it can nevertheless enrich my own accumulated theatrical experience, and I'm grateful to have seen it here in DC.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Two Minutes' Traffic: The Secret Garden, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Sometimes, theatre can give you a moment that you didn't realize that you needed.  One such moment this holiday season came in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of The Secret Garden.  While I was  familiar with the story as a child, I somehow missed the musical version by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon that was beloved by most of my peer group.  I may not have known the show, but I'd been a fan of Daisy Eagan, the musical's original Mary Lennox, for years- I've knew her writing, bright with insight, humor, and honesty.  When I saw an early performance of The Secret Garden at STC, directed by David Armstrong, I was happy to see an actor that I knew I enjoyed in a show I was curious about.

There's a lot to enjoy in Armstrong's production, which is beautifully staged and sung. This November has been a difficult one for many of us, and when I walked into the Harman, I needed art that would fill me back up and send me out renewed.  As I watched the musical unfold, I was deeply touched by Eagan as Martha, a maid who finds herself reaching out to and caring for the orphaned Mary; I found her performance suffused with the warmth that I was craving.  

 But then Daisy Eagan sang "Hold On," and something inside of me broke down and then built itself back up again by the final chorus.  It was watching Martha react with love, when love has been hard to come by for the young Mary Lennox.  It was knowing how often Eagan had stood there as a child, hearing the song that she now could sing as an adult, with all of the knowledge and the hard-fought grace that comes with years of experience.  It was all of these things and more, the perfect combination of a hard moment out there in the real world, an actress singing from her heart, and a song that told me that I could carry on, that even when there's "man who's raging", I can defy defeat.
I didn't know the show, much less to expect the song, but it was exactly what I needed to hear that night.

The last month has brought me back again and again to the words of Leonard Bernstein: This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. I wasn't explicitly looking for it in The Secret Garden, but it's what I found on a cold November night, and I hope that more of us can do the same.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Sense and Sensibility, Folger Theatre

The Folger Theatre's Sense and Sensibility, in an adaptation by Kate Hamill and directed by Eric Tucker, proves a long-standing hypothesis of mine: when adapting great works of prose, the best adaptations are the most boldly theatrical.  The less they bind themselves to mimicking the exact tone of the source material, and the more they allow themselves free range to find the nuances that most excite them as theatre, the stronger the production will be.

Luckily, Hamill and Tucker as the main collaborators involved here (both members of Bedlam, a theatre company familiar to DC audiences who saw their productions of Hamlet and Saint Joan at the Olney Theatre Center a few seasons back) prove this hypothesis with aplomb, excitement, depths of genuine feeling, and a wealth of unrepentant theatricality and stylization.

Most important in this adaptation is the freewheeling spirit of exploration of a familiar story, shaking loose the centuries that have accrued around the story of the Dashwoods, and putting the emotional focus squarely on the relationship between the two eldest sisters, Elinor (Maggie McDowell) and Marianne (Erin Weaver).  The two actresses play the sisters' tumultuous, but deeply loving relationship with enormous sensitivity; it's very clear from both performances why these sisters can have difficulty connecting with each other, but likewise how much each others' lasting happiness is their first priority.  More so than in any other adaptation I've seen of Jane Austen's story, I felt the love between these two characters and the uncomfortable desperation of their social situation.  The entire ensemble is clearly relishing their various roles, and work and move absolutely seamlessly in the rolling set designed by John McDermott.

The Folger has extended this run through mid-November, and I highly, HIGHLY recommend you take advantage of it and see this production if you haven't already.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Two Minutes' Traffic: Angels in America Parts 1 and 2, Round House Theatre

Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches; Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika (co-produced by Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center, performed at Round House)

Angels in America is the kind of play that looms large in the consciousness of twentieth century American theatre, but the epic scope which demands incredible feats from its cast and inevitably lengthy run times can make it a tricky sell for theatre companies.  Everyone wants it to be done, absolutely- but it's always nice when someone else can produce it, so that you can just go see theirs.  In this case, Round House Theatre and the Olney Theatre Center have combined forces to make the mountain a little more scaleable; each theatre's artistic director helms one half of Tony Kushner's two-part masterpiece, and the two theatres are co-producers of each play.

The two plays have their own distinct challenges, but directors Jason Loewith and Ryan Rilette navigate the shared world of the play seamlessly, as Loewith sets the plates spinning with careful art in Millennium Approaches and Rilette reveals their ecstatic, heartwrenching payoffs in Perestroika.  James Kronzer's stark, yet expansive set serves both plays well, while Clint Allen's projection designs allow the set to tremble and throb as angelic visitors come nigh.

Tom Story's Prior is truly the heart of both plays; his performance is raw and ravaged, but desperately maintaining his dignity as Prior's world unravels bit by bit.  Sarah Marshall is a protean wonder, playing more characters than anyone else, and in particular, imbuing Hannah Pitt with an obstinate vitality.  Dawn Ursula and Jon Hudson Odom are other strong standouts in a spectacular cast that includes Kimberly Gilbert, Mitchell Hébert, Jonathan Bock, and Thomas Keegan.

Angels in America is the type of play that demands to be seen, and you would do well to heed its timely call at Round House.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare Theatre Company

What do you need to create a good Romeo and Juliet? To do any Shakespeare can be a challenge, because of the anticipated struggle with the language, or with twisting and unfamiliar plots. Sometimes, however, a challenge exists because of the opposite reasons: the language and plot are SO familiar, they've become embedded into our cultural consciousness. Such is the case with Romeo and Juliet, where the struggle can come from audiences who think they already know all they need to know about the play. The blasé, self-styled authority is a peculiar challenge all its own, whether they come convinced that Romeo and Juliet is a play about overwrought teenagers who kill themselves for no good reason, or they know every word so intimately they'll be dissatisfied if an actor chooses a "wrong" inflection for a word or phrase. Both can be deadly, so how best to avoid them?

The short version is, Be smart. Choose the story you want to tell about the star-crossed lovers of Verona, and put in the work to MAKE it work. Alan Paul, Associate Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, has here the job of engaging this most basic, most difficult challenge, and doing so in his first foray directing Shakespeare for his company. The great work begins long before the curtain rises, and its a pleasure to say that Paul did indeed put in the time and labor with strong results. It's all too easy to say that Romeo and Juliet are foolish teens who make colossally poor choices, and claim that their fabled great love story is nothing of the kind. The problem with that approach is that it doesn't make for good theatre. Instead, Paul gives us a production that believes in the love story at its core, while not ignoring the danger of the violence and decay imbued in the world that surrounds it.

Ayana Workman is undoubtedly the soul of this Romeo and Juliet. Her youth and vitality bring Juliet vividly to life, from the moment she enters, the effect is instantaneous: you cannot cynically brush aside this young woman's story because she's "only" a teenager or because you know the story too well. That's what makes you twitch in your seat--Workman's Juliet is SO young, so alive, so pulsing with intelligence, bravery, and determination, and before the night is through, Juliet will have died.  The story feels immediate, terrible, and terribly real.  Andrew Veenstra brings the production a Romeo who is as captivated and charmed by her as the audience is, trying hard to distance himself from his first entrance from a fight he wants no part in.
Ayana Workman as Juliet and Andrew Veenstra as Romeo in Shakespeare Theatre Company's
production of Romeo & Juliet, directed by Alan Paul. Photo by Scott Suchman.

I was also terribly pleased with the return of Jeffrey Carlson to STC, last seen in the title role in Hamlet in 2007 and 2008, a performance which I may or may not have seen six times (spoiler, gentle reader: I did).  What I loved best about Carlson's alternatively brooding and manic Hamlet was the prince's ferociously fast mind that moved at a pace ten times quicker than anyone else's in Denmark (with the lone exception of a gravedigger). Carlson's Mercutio shares some of that same energy, with a mind moving at a speed his stillness might belie at first glance, and his Queen Mab speech is the most appealing I've seen.  Audiences always want more Mercutio than we get, but I felt it acutely in Paul's production.

The Capulets, Montagues, and their assorted hangers-on inhabit a dark red, two-level space designed by Dane Laffrey, conjuring something like the decaying, rotting glamor of a hotel or club that used to be the pinnacle of decadence.  The glamour of the surroundings is fading and oppressive, like something you might register dimly through the fog as your week-long bender reels to an end.  Here, the deep red haze is one that comes from marinating in violent and bloody feuds that no one is able to escape, whatever side they take or try to deny.  I confess, I'm not entirely sure why the second level was there, as it wasn't used to particular effect, except that someone probably thought a balcony was de rigueur for any Romeo and Juliet.  Kaye Voyce's costumes were a miss for me; as soon as my companion likened Romeo's look to Justin Bieber, I was done for.  Mercutio's party suit, however, can stay.

The cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Romeo & Juliet, 
directed by Alan Paul. Photo by Scott Suchman.

What I return to when I consider this Romeo and Juliet is not the imperfections, but the way in which, more so than in any other Romeo and Juliet I've seen in recent years, I found myself rooting for these crazy kids: couldn't they, just this once, make it? Could we at least pull a West Side Story here? No?  Ah, well.  I might have some quibbles, but Alan Paul's production reminded me of so many reasons why Romeo and Juliet is a genuinely good play.  With something so familiar, we can sometimes forget that simple truth, but here, it's hard to deny.  I imagine that this production may not be popular with everyone, but for my taste, I can see the thought and care that went into creating its heart. I can appreciate the actors' text work that shapes the verse, and I can hope that this production will grab some students at the school matinee and make them feel the tug on their hearts that Shakespeare can also be for them.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Ed Sylvanus Iskandar’s production of The Taming of the Shrew that opened Tuesday night at the Shakespeare Theatre Company is not exactly Shrew as we’re familiar with it, and it’s going to be up to the audience members if that’s a good thing, a bad thing, or both.  Much has been made in the lead-up to this production of the all-male nature of the cast, but that’s hardly the most daring move made on stage.  Indeed, there’s quite a lot of the night that happens off the stage and into the public spaces of STC’s Sidney Harman Hall; Iskandar is a director known for immersive theatre and has worked very hard to pull the Harman in line with his aesthetic.  On opening night, actors in full costume mingled with patrons and danced outside the theatre. Likewise, much has been made of the Piazza D’Amore market and the Padua Finishing School that take over the lobbies as well, but I’m not clear how these elements really function, as the crowd made the lobby difficult to navigate, much less investigate. It’s not necessarily my favorite thing for theatres to try and do, but I could see plenty of patrons who were delighted by the proceedings.

Efforts to open up the stage of the Harman within the theatre itself (sans proscenium) functioned much more smoothly and seamlessly—Seth Reiser’s lighting design was sumptuous and consistently beautiful throughout the night, while Jason Sherwood’s magnificent gilded set was a wonderful and adaptive frame for the characters.  Many productions find opportunities to let the actors wander amidst the audience, but few actually go as far as Iskandar and allow the audience to enter the actors’ space by coming on stage during the extended intermission, where actors perform both music and extended makeouts.

The cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. Photo by Scott Suchman.

But what of the play itself? That’s where Iskandar makes his boldest choices and where he ventures into the murky territory of adaptation.  It seems as though, while in the early stages of preparing to direct this production, Iskandar created what amounts to a fanmix of Duncan Sheik songs for Shrew and proceeded to weave those songs throughout his production, letting them inform and build upon certain ideas he had for characters.  The result is somewhat jarring—when characters leave Shakespeare’s dialogue and transition into modern pop idioms, the heightening effect of music isn’t quite enough to compensate for the lessened textual complexity.  It’s through these songs, however, that Iskandar adds another layer to the story of Bianca, Lucentio, Tranio, and Biondello. Instead of the (relatively) straightforward story of Lucentio’s courtship of Bianca, Iskandar has decided to complicate matters by having Tranio pining for Lucentio while Bianca sighing over an equally lovelorn Biondello.  It’s an interesting idea, but I found myself much more taken with elements of Oliver Thornton’s Bianca that took place within Shakespeare’s text, rather than outside it. This Bianca clearly adores performing femininity and likewise enjoys how very good at it she is, and how this brings her a certain cachet within her society.  Thornton is exceptionally good at showing that however much Bianca loves the thrill of being beautiful, she doesn’t love the objectification and commodification that her beauty forces upon her.  She marries Lucentio as the best option available to her, not because it’s what she would choose for herself; like her sister, however, she doesn’t have a lot of agency within this world.

The cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company's The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar.
Photo by Scott Suchman.

This is not my first all-male Shrew; that distinction belongs to the 2007 production by Ed Hall’s Propeller theatre company. At the time, I noted that by having the actor Simon Scardifield playing Katherine, the audience saw a Kate that could give as good as she got, before Hall took the production to a very dark place (a place, admittedly, that provided the most tonally consistent and earned reading of Kate’s final speech I’ve ever encountered).  When you removed actual female bodies from that particular Shrew, Hall’s production could heighten the violence beyond what an audience might be able to bear to watch inflicted upon female characters. It seems like a logical conclusion and a reasonable justification for an all-male Shrew, but it’s not the course that Iskandar has chosen for his Shrew.

Instead, this Shrew actually makes the best case I’ve yet seen that these crazy kids Katherine and Petruchio might actually have a ghost of a chance. Instead of staging amusing fisticuffs during the characters’ first meeting, Maulik Pancholy’s reserved and hardened Kate seems inclined to give Peter Gadiot’s Petruchio a chance—if he can earn it.  Pancholy’s Kate wants so desperately to be seen as more than her reputation, and it’s incredibly affecting to watch her torn between the slightest hope that this might be something new, and angry resignation that Petruchio only offers more of the same old scorn.  At several points in the production, we can see hints of their partnership emerging—Kate can take the piss out of someone if she does it with Petruchio as part of a team of equals.  The problem is, of course, that even (especially?) with an all-male cast, it’s just not good enough that Petruchio claims that he can act shrewish himself to teach Kate a lesson, because PATRIARCHY.  Even if Iskandar allows Kate to beat Petruchio while he refrains from hitting back, the fact that this scene comes amidst days of abuse where she has been denied sleep, food, or water means that Petruchio is still an abuser who has all the power in this society and this relationship, not a romantic lead on a noble quest.  It’s the real problem of the play, and Iskandar hasn’t found a way around it, despite making an effort.

I do have to peevishly note my least favorite Iskandar change in the entire play. Andre De Shields plays the role of Gremio in the first half, and plays him admirably—this is no knock against his performance. Unfortunately, Signior Gremio has been transformed inexplicably into Monseigneur Gremio, making one of Bianca’s suitors a member of the Catholic clergy, for whom marriage is clearly off the table. It’s the kind of change that’s not only unnecessary, but simply doesn’t make sense when the text as performed clearly has the character angling for marriage, not sex.  The fact that the program calls him a Cardinal is just embarrassing, as that’s an entirely different title within the church to Monseigneur, but that’s only icing on the cake of a poor choice.

There are many, many good ideas in this Shrew, and STC is absolutely to be commended for bringing a director like Iskandar into their fold and taking the risk that this production entailed.  I always rather see a production overreach than play it safe and boring, and Iskandar certainly didn’t produce a snoozer.  There are so many smart choices made on the stage, from design elements that created a fantastical Italianate eleganza in the Harman, to very smart scenework from the talented ensemble.  Maulik Pancholy’s Kate and Oliver Thornton’s Bianca are creations that will stay in my imagination for a long time and resonate across all future productions that I see, which is exactly why I seek out new productions of familiar plays again and again.  I would love to see this production trimmed of the Sheik, so that I could really see what Iskander did with Shakespeare’s text, but I rather fancy that that’s not a production he’d be as interested in creating.  I’d also be interested in seeing a production even more unfettered to tradition, freewheeling its way through the parts of the text that most interested Iskandar, excising anything that didn’t, and adding all the trappings he’d like.  There’s something about this production that’s more similar to the quasi-Shakespeare that dominated stages of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, where creators new endings that they preferred and added all the songs and dances their hearts (and audiences) wanted.  It’s not that Iskandar’s production goes against tradition—rather, it wholeheartedly embraces traditions that audiences are just a little less familiar with.  Even if this production was ultimately a mixed bag for me, I absolutely applaud its spirit of invention and the daring that brought it onto the Harman stage.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Pillowman, Forum Theatre

Once upon a time, there was a writer named Katurian K. Katurian.  He lived in an unspecified, totalitarian state with a police force that perhaps relied a little too much on torture and execution during its investigations than an ideal police force might. His stories were dark, tortured little fables that didn't so much seek to teach a lesson as to unsettle. He hoped his stories would impress readers with his cleverness and his skill, and above all, he hoped that his stories would outlast him.

In Forum Theatre's production of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, we can't help but be drawn into Katurian's world. Under Yury Urnov's direction and Paige Hathaway's set design, the Silver Spring Black Box has become one central boxed-in police interrogation room, surrounded by three walls of potential interrogators.  The audience itself is seated behind tables, watching as Jim Jorgensen's Tupolski and Bradley Foster Smith's Ariel question, attack, intimidate, and cajole Maboud Ebrahimzadeh's Katurian into revealing his truest stories. In Urnov's production, we are (for the most part) urged away from the occasional vague Eastern European noun in McDonagh's script into seeing this world as our own. Robert Croghan's costume designs for the primary actors place them into recognizable tropes; in particular, Smith seems like he stepped out of an 80s cop drama and Ebrahimzadeh could have walked right off the street and into the cell. It's also undeniable that Urnov has presented us with a scene of a man of color being brutalized by two white members of the police force; this Pillowman doesn't feel the need to lean into this casting to excess, trusting the audience to be aware of the visual and its implications without losing the subtlety of McDonagh's play.

As I've told many friends, The Pillowman is probably my favorite play written in the last 15 years, and it's one of my great Theatrical Regrets that I had the opportunity to see the original production at the National Theatre in London in 2003 (and in fact, was living across the street from the theatre and so could have gone at any time) and just... didn't go.  I saw the wonderful staging at Studio Theatre in 2007 that starred Tom Story, which fully dramatized Katurian's stories for the audience. Urnov's production, by contrast, is scaled down, with each story presented in a different way. At times, it feels like the production tries a little too hard to think of something new for each dark fairy tale, but there is a charm in wondering just what you'll get next.  The ensemble (rounded out by a wonderful James Konicek as Katurian's brother Michal and Emma Lou Hebert in several roles) is truly excellent, rising to the challenge of McDonagh's dialogue and the plot's dark twists and turns.  Ebrahimzadeh in particular is absolutely mesmerizing, from an affable charm in the first act to a haunting desperation as his situation takes an abrupt turn in Act II. Pillowman is a story about stories and the power they hold, and it's a story in excellent hands at Forum Theatre.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

1984, Headlong at Shakespeare Theatre Company

In Headlong’s production of 1984, directed and adapted by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan and currently playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, nothing is comfortable, onstage or off.  Even in the audience, we aren’t allowed to relax comfortably into our seats, safe behind the fourth wall.  We are prey to bright lights shining into our faces, loud noises, visceral stage violence that—we are warned by the placard outside—may cause problems for those of “nervous dispositions.”  But the desire of the playmakers to unsettle its audience goes beyond the physical; from the moment the lights go up, the audience is challenged on what their own relation to a familiar story is going to be for the next 100 minutes.  Just exactly what version of Winston Smith’s story has the ensemble read, Orwell’s or Smith’s own? Does the familiarity of cell phones indicate that we’re in our present day? Or are we somewhere, or sometime, else?  And who exactly are “we” in this story?

The answers don’t come easily, nor should they. Headlong’s production of one of the most familiar stories of the twentieth century is invigorating and potent. The language of Orwell’s dystopian future has become part of our own cultural lexicon, so much so that when the members of the ensemble first speak the words “Big Brother” or discuss the merits of Newspeak, the audience chuckles to hear the familiar back in its original context.  But the power of Orwell’s novel, brilliantly realized in Icke and MacMillan’s adaptation, is that it has always been a story simultaneously about the past, present, and future.  Program notes tells us that in crafting their adaptation, Icke and MacMillan seized upon the epilogue, set in an even more distant future that had also read the story of Winston Smith.  In their production, we in the audience are also implicated—we have likewise watched Smith (, played here by actor Matthew Spencer) when he doesn’t want to be seen, when he believes himself to be most private, on stage and viewed on screens.  We have to interrogate ourselves, both for what we’ve seen onstage, and for what we may likewise see out in the world beyond the theatre.

Adaptations can often be under pressure to justify their existence. We’ve counted 1984 as a seminal piece of literature for decades, why must it now be a theatre piece? Icke and MacMillan find their answer in several ways, first by the deliberate ways in which they challenge the way in which the audience engages with the story and with its own role as an audience, aided by their design team (Chloe Lamford, Natasha Chivers, Tom Gibbons, and Tim Reid).  Through their talented ensemble, the directors are able to take the subjective experiences of Smith’s story and embody them.  We inhabit a murky and dreamlike world where no one is quite as real as Smith, where actors can suddenly appear or disappear in an eye blink, or robotically wipe down a table that isn’t entirely there. It's a tribute to the careful treatment of this world by the actors that no one is quite as real as Winston Smith, and so no one can truly be trusted.  Hara Yannas's Julia comes closest, but we can feel the doom always right on the horizon for them both, whether or not we remember the details of Room 101.

1984 is not an easy piece, but it is an important one.  That said, quite a lot of theatre that gets labeled as “important” can also be called “deathly dull” and “weighted down with their own importance.” This production remains deftly handled throughout, speeding us to our inevitable conclusion, and buoyed by the skillful and unrepentant theatricality of its adaptation.  This production is strongly recommended, both as a high bar in what the theatre can do for a familiar story, but also for theatre’s power to move us, unsettle us, and challenge us to look at the world again—and to not forget all that we’ve seen.