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Archive for the ‘Sam’s Theater Reviews’ Category

by Sam Juliano

      Few classical or opera afficionados have even heard of British “Queen of Early Music” Emma Kirkby, much less have been aware that she is considered one of the ten greatest sopranos of all-time according to BBC Music magazine.  A former classics student at Oxford and English teacher, Kirkby made her mark as a soloist with little-known renaissance and baroque repetory, and in 2007 was appointed “Dame Commander” of the British Empire in the Queen’s birthday honor’s list.

     Declaring the lute as the biggest inspiration of her career, she has in recent years collaborated in concert with renowned lutist Jakob Lindberg, with whom she appeared on Sunday, Nov. 1 at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in an afternoon “Orpheus in England” venue that featured music by John Dowland and Henry Purcell on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of the latter’s death.  The soothing timbre and controlled vibrato of Kirkby’s expressive voice was magnificently complemented by the seductive tone of the lute, which Lindberg strummed with his fingertips on an instrument several hundred years old.  Between Kirkby’s solos, which he underscored with his gentle accompaniment known in the baroque period as basso continuo, Lindberg offered some exquisite solo work of his own, including Dowland’s “Prelude and Fantasia” by a sixteenth-century composer known for his own glorious lute playing.  Unquestionably the most sublimely beautiful moment in this nearly two-hour concert occured right before the intermission when Kirby sent shivers down the spine of those in attendance with a faultlessly modulated, piercing delivery of Dowland’s electrifying In Darkness let me dwell, where the singer lingered over the predominantly one-syllable phrases that comprised one of Western music’s most shattering compositions:

“The ground shall sorrow be; The roof despair, to bar/All cheerful light from me.  The walls of marble black That moistened still shall weep; My music hellish jarring sounds To banish friendly sleep.  Thus wedded to my woes And bedded to my tomb, O, let me living die, till Death do come.  In darkness. (Anon.)  The lyrical beauty and dexterity of the passage is conveyed powerfully by the melancholy progression, especially the unresolved harmony that ends the song, which sounded all the more trenchant as it echoed through the church. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

     The beauty about Manhattan theatre going is that diamonds are often found in the rough.  Straddling the precarious line between endearment and sappiness, Korean-American Lloyd Suh’s new short play, American Hwangap unearths some valid emotion from a story of abandonment and return.  Making superlative use of a sparsely-adorned stage, which includes a symbolic kitchen table, director Trip Cullmanachieves the intimacy that rarely informs larger productions with more elaborate sets.  The key to the effectiveness of this piece is that there is rarely more than two people on stage at the same time, and as a result there is a sense of urgency which often sheds light on the inner feelings of the work’s protagonists.  The four family members who were left behind by Min Suk Chun 15 years earlier are divided on whether to forgive him and extend to him the welcome carpet on the occasion of his 60th birthday.  Chun lost his job as an engineer and returned to Korea, while leaving his family in suburban West Texas to fend for themselves.  While the ex-wife professes surface indignation, she’s quite willing to engage in an extended ‘tumble in the hay’ which illustrates sustained deprivation in more ways than one.  She and her youngest son are willing to great clearance for an amicable reunion, but the daughter and the older son refuse to excuse past indiscretions, which are candidly revealed in some stimulating off stage monologues by the older son, speaking on a phone.  The older daughter confesses with irony:  “You weren’t there for either one of my weddings, “but I did get the toaster sent after my first divorce.”  (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The dramatic fireworks that have always informed the tempestuous relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots has always fascinated biographers, historians and filmmakers, yet the proper venue for the high-stakes power games between the royal cousins is the stage.  After an absense of 40 years, Frederick Schiller’s Mary Stuart has been revived, in a dramatically exquisite production that showcases two of Britain’s finest actresses, Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter.  Mc Teer won a Tony Award in 1997 for her compelling performance as Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll House, while Ms. Walter is an acclaimed Shakespearean. 

      The new version of the play by Peter Oswald and directed by PyllindaLloyd is an examination of entrapment, which in literal terms informed Schiller’s interpretation of the imprisonment of the Tutor monarch Elizabeth, who for a period of four years was incarcerated in the Tower of London, before her triumphant return to cheering throngs to become Queen of England.  Once in power, Elizabeth was assailed as “illegitimate” by Mary, who her herself  is imprisoned.  Her nurse Hanna declares emphatically that she’s “bricked up alive.”  The question of course as to who will survive in this scintillating battle of the wills is easily answered by a cursory look back at history, where both woman are revealed as intelligent, savvy and politically adroit, but where one uses her new-found power and popularity to expectedly prevail.  Yet, even though the emotional and fiery Catholic Mary is far different in this sense than the icy Protestant Elizabeth, both are reliant on the support of the masses, who could change on a dime, and both were raised on a public stage, and know what it takes to remain in favor. 

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by Sam Juliano

      The first thing that catches the attention of theatre goers finding their way to seats at the cozy Pearl Theatre Company’s St. Mark’s Place location for a staging of Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carre, is the peculiar presence of a cast member onstage before the show begins.  An older woman with disheveled hair and a poverty-row bathrobe sits at a kitchen table staring ahead with a blank expression, while drinking coffee from a mug.  The actress Carol Schultz is playing Mrs. Wire, the lonely but cantankerous, and autocratic landlady of a New Orleans boarding house who menaces her tenants with shrill threats. 

     Mrs. Wire is one of a strange group of characters who subsequently appear onstage, characters who are based on events and people in Williams’s own life.   The central character is known as “the writer” and he moves into a seedy boarding house at 722 Toulouse Street, New Orleans, much like Williams did in 1939.  The argumentative “maid” known as “Nursie” assists Mrs. Wire, and all in attendance are a consumptive gay artists Nightingale, two old ladies Mary Maud and Miss Carrie, who pretend to dine at all the best restaurants in the city, despite being penniless; an affluent New Yorker named Jane, who may be suffering from a blood disease,  and her audacious boyfriend Tye, (think Stanley and Stella) who admits to working in a strip joint.  Williams has always stated that the ‘writer’ in this play was his ‘alter-ego’ and Mrs. Wire and the tubercular Nightingale are based on real people. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Which is the Christian and which is the Jew?” intones the Duke of Venice at both the beginning and ending of the new production of The Merchant of Venice, recently staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre. An all-male cast navigates one of the Bard’s most problematic plays in a three-storied jailhouse that incarcerates those in conflict.  The play is updated to a contemporary period, and the language is again manipulated to accommodate audiences who wouldn’t negotiate a traditional staging without the text in their hands.  Merchant is an uneasy hybrid of comedy and tragedy that has always perplexed audiences, even in traditional transcription, so the bold adaptation here by Edward Hall and Roger Warren is doubly difficult even for Shakespeare aficionados, let alone the laymen.  Scholars have classified the work as a comedy, but audiences are far more intrigued with Shylock’s dilemma than they are with Bassanio’s mission to win Portia.  The Bard apparently did not figure that Shylock’s acute intelligence and humanity would overcome his apparently intended role as a droll reprobate, but his love for his daughter is feral, and certainly more deeply conveyed than his devotion to ducats. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

“Ain’t Misbehavin”, which raised eyebrows after winning the Tony Award for Best Musical of 1978, is innately a musical revival of the works of celebrated jazz pianist Fats Waller (1904-43).  The show can justifiably be defined as a musical revue, with song after song evincing a complete immersion into a less complicated time when every little woe, complaint and joy was most eloquently expressed with a ditty.  The show is actually wall to wall music and dancing, with comedy fused to the bones of the lyrics and choreography.  Every song is a brief but grand performance piece all its own, with colorful characters and attitude galore.  The show’s musical direction take the audience into swinging dance halls, down to Dixieland, stops briefly to a case of the delta blues and comes back again to rejoin the bump and grind of the neighborhood gin joint.   Some voters have maintained that this category belongs to ‘book’ musicals, yet so much of Waller’s stylistic individuality–scintillating jazz melodies, playfully bawdy lyrics, felicitous spirits–is evident in this compilation that it’s a better reflection of the late musician’s personality than a conventional bio-musical could deliver. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, Our Town may well be the most popular American play ever written, even eclipsing in audience affections the most prominent works of Eugene O’Neil and Tennessee Williams.  The play, the penultimate conscription of Americana, explores religion, family, community and life’s simple pleasures, while simultaneously instituting innovative permutations including minimalist stage sets, a Stage Manager, who serves as narrator and administrates the action, and another character who speaks from the grave.  The play’s ‘events’ are commonplace and focus on everyday life , yet erstwhile playwright Thornton Wilder addresses universal themes such as mortality, unfulfilled dreams, the human condition and the value of everyday life.  Wilder himself states: “Our Town is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death….It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.”  There is little question that Our Town is staged more often than any other American play and the fictional Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire is one of literature’s most sensory locations, a place that defines a place and era lost forever but always affectionately imagined.  Productions regularly appear in community and regional theatres, several Broadway versions have enjoyed long runs, and the work was filmed successfully in 1940 by Sam Wood with Martha Scott and William Holden in starring roles and Aaron Copland composing the score.  Unfortunately the film is in the public domain, and all DVD releases have been abysmal in both sound and picture quality.  A fine recent televised production is available. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Still basking in the glow of his successful 2008 run of Almost an Evening, an off-Broadway production that played for an encore after it’s initial run, Oscar-winning filmmaker Ethan Coen is hoping to again wow theatre goers with his second theatrical offering.  Offices, like it’s predecessor, is comprised of three interrelated one-act skits that tap into Coen’s experiences of working in offices years back after finishing college.  They all take place in offices or places of business and involve white-collar workers, and much like Almost an Evening, (which is similarly structured) showcases Ethan Coen’s inimitably distinct and dark comical tone.     

The first segment, “Peer Review” features a disgruntled worker named Elliot, who is fired after he is accused of harassing other employees, and some sexual escapades in a female’s office.  Joey Slotnick, who gave an excellent performance in Almost an Evening, again delivers the goods with a scene-stealing over-the-top, comically emotional turn, while as an executive, Cassidy, F. Murray Abraham is inflexibly wry in delivering his potent one-liners.     

“Homeland Security” pokes fun at governmental bureaucracy, and features John Bedford Lloyd as Munro and C.J. Wilson as Wilten.  One of the funniest skits in the piece involves a domestic scene involving a child, played by Daniel Yelsky.       (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The true story that informs Irena’s Vow, a new one-act play running at the Walter Kerr Theatre clearly recalls the heroic actions of Miep Gies, an Austrian-born Dutch citizen who hid the family of Otto Frank on the top floor of a factory warehouse for over two years.  Gies’s loyalty and cover were betrayed and the Frank family was arrested on August 4, 1944, with the two daughters Anne and Margot Frank perishing months later in concentration camps.  Still Gies is rightly considered a heroine, much as Oskar Shindler is for his acts of bravery, and the little-known Polish woman, Irena Gut Opdyke has accomplished the same kind of selfless subterfuge in the shadow of the worst kind of human atrocities known to man.     

There’s little denying that Irena’s Vow is pat and manipulative in the way it exploits material with incomparable emotional weight, and there’ nothing new here that we haven’t seen in the Holocaust literature, yet, this stage work has it’s heart in the right place, and Tovah Feldshuh as Irena is simply extraordinary.  The actress creates high drama with superlative use of her eyes, clenched fists and telling pauses, and she’s never maudlin.       (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

With so many productions of Hamlet being produced on stages worldwide, and with a number of others permanently captured on film (many available on DVD), it’s little wonder that  a minimalist transcription with contemporary garb is hardly a cause for celebration.  In fact the new three hour and forty minute production from the Theater for a New Audience Company, isn’t for patrons hoping for a faithful and unabridged reading of what is generally acknowledge as the greatest play ever written.  As such, it’s enigmatic, philosophical and contemplative central character provides an actor with the greatest role in the theatre.  A weak Hamlet invariably dooms the staging he appears in, and such is the case with a company who just a few weeks ago dazzled the theater world with an extraordinarily well-acted version of Othello, which unlike the current staging boasted a superlative turn in the title role.     (more…)

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