12/28/09 8:00pm

An innovative, uplifting, sentimental without being treacly show from Great Britain playing at St. Ann's Warehouse for a couple of extra weeks, having sold out its original run, is making lots of critics' Best of 2009 list, and it makes mine, too. Brief Encounter by Kneehigh Theatre is a theatrical confection with substance: it's got 8 vitamins and iron, once you add the milk (that is, the emotional base) that support its fanciful aesthetics. In other words, don't be fooled by the show's sugary surface, particularly in its first fifteen ebullient minutes. The show is a theatricalization of the eponymous 1945 film, itself based on Noel Coward's 1936 play Still Life. That music you hear in the lobby as you enter is provided by the cast—they are not a band in costume as movie ushers from the forties, but the cast themselves. The imagination and skill is jaw-dropping; they seem not to be actors who play but players who magically acquired not just performance but acting chops. The company was founded in Cornwall in 1980 by a village school teacher running theater workshops in his spare time, according to the company's press, written by Mike Shepherd, the Founder and Joint Artistic Director. They use found spaces, including quarries and cliff-tops, which may account for the innovative way they turn the set into a home, a railway station café, a restaurant, a cinema. The players change with each project.

Rarely are press materials so convincingly sincere and appealing that you feel like chucking it all to go join the company (even rarer to feel like giving such materials a shout-out in a review). Kudos to Shepherd for managing to quote Bruno Bettelheim and The Uses of Enchantment without ever seeming pompous. Cornwall, as he points out, is the South West tip of the British Isles, King Arthur country. But the company's mission, its identity, is what has led them to create something so fully thought-through, so daring and so much fun. Nobody's trying to impress you, but just get inside the story and bring you along. And that's what makes it so impressive. Seeing this small-town British troupe makes one wonder if the next innovative American company will come from Maine.

You expect one of two possible outcomes from a theater piece structured around an existing film. The first is a pop culture offering aimed to please children and tourists by its representation of a known quantity—most of the Disney shows (Lion King, with its Julie Taymor costumes and sets, a notable exception), Shrek, the Broadway versions of Footloose, The Wedding Singer, and so on. I actually enjoyed Shrek, and have skipped most of the others, but even with great performances and clever songs, what you don't expect is any surprise. Billy Elliott is a film about dance, so seeing the live dance feels more like a culmination than a lame replication, but even so, it's still very much a known quantity. Ditto 9 to 5, despite sweet songs from Dolly Parton.

The second possible outcome is the arch and avant-garde, in which live action and film interact or comment on one another. See, for example, Ivo Von Hove's staging of John Cassavetes' film Opening Night at BAM last year. Sometimes these projects are an homage to the original film; sometimes they are gently (or not so gently) sending it up. With Opening Night you were caught betwixt and between—if you saw the film just before seeing the show you’d be bored, but if you didn’t, you’d be lost.

Brief Encounter gives you something else again, neither a theatrical "expansion" of the film, nor merely a comment on it, but a complete reinvention of the story, set to music, playfully acknowledging the two genres, the distance between 2009 and 1946, and finally presenting the same sad story of unfulfilled love that was in Coward's film. So if you're wondering whether to rent the film first, do it, but try to let some time go by in between. But really, you should have seen the David Lean classic by now.

11/12/09 4:30pm

If you don't understand just what's going on in Enda Walsh's The New Electric Ballroom (at St. Ann's Warehouse through November 22), you're in good company: Neither does the playwright.

Walsh, who also directs, admits actors find that answer frustrating. "They're pulling their hair out and I say I don't know. What's the answer to this?" When they point out "you wrote it," he replies, "yeah but I can't remember writing the fucking thingâ�‚�¦ From my point of view, I get out of the fucking way, and allow these characters to write the play." The playwright, who calls himself a "middle-class man from Dublin," apologizes for his reliance on the f-bomb. "This is Irish exclamation points," he explains, speaking on the telephone from London, where he's in the process of moving house.

It's the story of three sisters who live in a fishing village on the west coast of Ireland (the cavernous set by Sabine Dargent, who also designed costumes, is evocatively edged at the front with mossy stones). The two older sisters, aged about 60, Breda (Rosaleen Linehan) and Clara (Ruth McCabe) spend their days acting out the story of their heart-break by a rock singer at the New Electric Ballroom when they were teenagers in the sixties. Breda ritually begins with the statement "By their nature people are talkers." It's a play about talk, history, and the possibility of human interaction: Breda says that "the womb is a more desirable place than this 'created world'. We don’t want to be alone but we're alone."

Breda and Clara put on high heels, the puffy skirts of the period, and reenact what happened on that night, while their much younger sister Ada (Catherine Walsh), who's only about 40, prompts them, participates, and serves as audience. She has a job outside of the house that she talks about; the other two seem never to leave.

Patsy (Mikel Murfi), a nervous, gabbling fishmonger appears periodically, dumping off fish, begging to be allowed to stay, and almost imperceptibly angling for Ada's love.

If characters in a room acting out a trauma, complete with costumes and props, rings a bell, you might have seen Walsh's The Walworth Farce, which appeared at St. Ann's last season. In that one, a father and two sons comically, manically, reenact a trauma from their past, while living in self-imposed exile in London.

That the characters use theatrical methods to tell their stories is no stranger than having an audience in the theatre in the first place, Walsh suggests. "Theater as a form of expression is just bizarre, everything shouldn't work. It's all fake, the lights, sets, people pretending to be something that they aren'tâ�‚�¦ it's a complete house of cards and yet it sort of works. It only works on the basis of the audience wanting it to work."

So is The New Electric Ballroom a bit like The Walworth Farce in drag? Walsh admits he wrote the plays back to back, beginning The New Electric Ballroom just days after finishing The Walworth Farce.

"There are huge similarities. Stylistically, they are completely different type of plays. The New Electric Ballroom is strangely more cinematic and expansive. The language has its own feel to itâ�‚�¦ it's crueler, bleaker I suppose. Both are piece about theater in a living room. I'm interested in people trying to express something in their living room, in their own sort of space."

When I ask why he uses this trope and say that it seems a bit device-y, the jovial playwright bristles a little. "I don't think it's device-y," he says. "We all lieâ�‚�¦ spin off and tell stories. These characters use a fuller expression of that. They are using stories to entrap and enslaveâ�‚�¦words can liberate or close down situations."

10/27/09 12:00am

“Niggers.” It’s the last word in Eugene O’Neill‘s 1920 play The Emperor Jones. The white man Smithers says it contemptuously, as the natives of the Caribbean island drag off the dead body of the jumped-up African-American ex-convict Brutus Jones who’s made himself their tyrannical ruler. It’s a word that defines the play and how people have seen it over the years.

Jones knows his reign, intended to make him rich (he’s storing his money in an offshore bank), won’t last forever, but he’s not expecting the natives to become restless as soon as they do. He flees into the jungle, but there, to the pounding tom-tom of the angry oppressed subjects, he encounters his own fears, the ghost of a man he killed, and relives time on a prison chain gang. He also experiences memories that aren’t his own: racial memories. He sees himself on a slave auction block. Going deeper, he finds himself caught in the horrors of the middle passage, with mournful singing going on all around him. A witch doctor draws him into a terrifying dance. He never makes it out of the forest, and the natives find their justice. It’s a bit like an episode of The Twilight Zone, but theatrical, poetically written, and politically challenging.

O’Neill’s play was groundbreaking in its time, visually, theatrically and intellectually—he used masks, sound and lights and other effects to create an Expressionistic world that reflected Brutus’ savage nightmare. It was also groundbreaking for casting a Black actor in a starring role. It’s not a one-man play—in fact, to do it as O’Neill wrote it requires quite a large cast. At Irish Repertory Theater (through November 29), many of the small parts called for in the jungle are played by puppets created by Bob Flanagan, who designed the masks and puppets for the Broadway hit show Wicked. O’Neill’s reliance on contemporary psychological ideas about collective consciousness were also revolutionary.

While O’Neill is not quite the “father of American theatre” that he often gets named (let’s face it, without Susan Glaspell, who produced him at Provincetown Playhouse, we would never have heard of O’Neill, though ironically now, few have heard of Glaspell, not to mention that there have been American playwrights at least since 1787), he did push the boundaries of what theatre could do.

Yet odds are you’ve never seen a production of this play done straight, without irony, without a layer of directorial attitude. O’Neill wrote in dialect, and in a play that features a black man so prominently, the use of the dialect can feel uncomfortable. The Wooster Group did a famous production of the play in 2005 in which Kate Valk played the title role in blackface—thus putting quotation marks around the play, acknowledging contemporary sensibilities and broadening its identity politics to include gender. Speaking the collective consciousness of an ethnic group as written by someone outside of it without noting the inherent problems of the text would probably not go down very well in 2009.

09/18/09 1:00pm

The 1st Irish 2009 is actually the second festival called 1st Irish. The Festival, which is the brainchild of George Heslin, Artistic Director of sponsoring Origin Theatre Company, has doubled in size since it debuted last year—21 playwrights are represented in the Festival, and Origin achieved a special agreement with Actors Equity to bring over three companies directly from Ireland. You’d think that merely presenting so many productions (there are 26 events) would be enough of a challenge for anyone, but Heslin sees the Festival—believe it or not, the first Irish theatre festival in New York (hence the name)—as a cross-fertilization project and so, as he did last year, he commissioned new work from Irish playwrights. He commissioned five of them, whose monologues all appear together in an evening called Spinning the Times. Three of the playwrights are from Northern Ireland, two from Ireland. The Festival goes on through October 4, but Spinning the Times has its final performance on Sunday, September 20, and it’s worth checking out.

Heslin likes to say “If Origin had a gender, it would be female,” and since female Irish playwrights are relatively unrepresented in New York, he decided to focus on women this year. The women were given a specific task: all of the monologues, which were to be 18 minutes in length, had to be inspired by stories in the New York media. Irishness is not directly in the theme, though the playwrights are Irish and some have written Irish characters. “New York media” does not mean New York story, though: the five short plays depict a lute-repairer in Palestine (Lucy Caldwell’s The Luthier), an Iranian-American who loves vintage clothing (Rosalind Haslett’s Gin in a Teacup), an assistant to a songwriter (Geraldine Arons’ Miracle Conway), an Irishman who loses his passport and possibly his identity in a New York fire (Belinda McKeown’s Fugue) and a troubled teenager (Rosemary Jenkinsons’ The Lemon Tree), are nothing if not alive.

Why women? “I see Conor McPherson and a lot of Irish male playwrights playing around with the monologue and thought it would be interesting to see what female playwrights would do with it,” Heslin stated, during the final rehearsals of the plays.

Asked if he noticed anything different in what the women did, Heslin paused and ventured, “what surprised me is that even though they’re dealing with pretty dark issues, some of them, there’s a very gentle quality to the whole thing. I’m just wondering if that’s a female viewpoint on the world. There is conflict but it’s a very different kind of calm conflict. If there’s such a thing.”

Gender disparity in playwriting has been a big issue in New York (and by extension America) these past few months, after a Town Hall meeting with a Emily Glassberg Sands, a senior economist from Pittsburgh who had investigated the subject. For the five Irish playwrights, however, femaleness was what they wanted not to talk about—and yet became most animated when they did.

One thing that does seem clear is that these women all have burgeoning, productive careers—some as novelists and radio dramatists as well—so they feel free to focus on their work itself.

09/18/09 4:00am

We opened the door and found ourselves backstage. It took a good minute and a half before we were convinced that we were backstage, for The Confidence Man, Woodshed Collective‘s odd, beguiling piece inspired by Herman Melville‘s 1857 novel of the same name about a riverboat conman, is staged on The Lilac, a decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard vessel docked at Pier 40. The show presents multiple scenes happening simultaneously, with about six separate storylines. When we opened the door and saw a bunch of characters sitting in a room and one of the “docents” said “hello, ladies” I thought we were still in the show. Not until Lara Gold, one of the actresses, gave my friend a hug and they both laughed, did I understand what had happened. Then my friend and I moseyed on back to where the final scene brought all three sections of the audience together.

Whether or not you find this moment annoying, embarrassing, entertaining, or just funny may determine how much you will enjoy the piece. Paul Cohen, an underrated and sharp playwright, winner of a New York Fringe First last summer for Mourn the Living Hector, wrote a plethora of storylines and narrative interludes for the three “docents” who take three sections of the audience around the boat. Some episodes are Melville’s. Others are riffs on the theme of con artistry. The docents guide the audience but also comment on the pieces and eventually become part of them.

The description perhaps makes it sound far more dada-esque and freeform than it really is. Our group, #1, sometimes followed a nineteenth century story of a con man pretending to collect money for a charity involving Seminole Indians, and sometimes followed the story of a beautiful young woman conning a man she’s writing to on the internet. Our docent, Juliette Clair, played a flighty, neurotic, digressing creature—in a word, annoying, but occasionally funny too. She would corral the group after a scene to tell us about her therapy session, or her childhood love for Bryan Adams. But it was fun when she muttered “” to the poor love interest/mark (earnest with a little too much solidity and strength for a sad sack, Ben Beckley) after “Goneril Case” (charmingly mischievous Pepper Binkley) said a storm in Denver was the reason she was stranded and needed money. Still, it’s irritating enough to be rushed around and tricky enough to figure out what’s going on; more straightforward tour guides, even if they did become sucked into the action, would have been a smarter choice, and let us focus on the experience more fully.

09/02/09 4:00am

Wallace Shawn is one of the most recognizable character actors of the last quarter century. From his memorable turn as the Great Vizzini (“Inconceivable!”) in The Princess Bride to his voice work in countless animated features, the co-writer/star of My Dinner with Andre is as familiar a comic presence to a generation as his actual name isn’t. But don’t be fooled by the prolific commercial career—Shawn is a serious writer and thinker.

Much of the writing in his new collection, Essays, has the same cadence as the dialogue in his award-winning plays and screenplays—bold assertions, often provocative, that outrage and startle. When I first saw Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon in 1985 at the Public Theatre I became so angry I threw up (I was also coming down with stomach flu). The play includes a long, unrebutted monologue delivered by its sweet heroine, Lemon, in praise of the Nazis. I was furious. Why did I have to sit through twenty minutes of offensive ideology? That was not how a play should work. A few weeks later I found myself still arguing with Lemon in my head, still angry, countering her despicable ideas. That was how a play should work, I realized: provocation engendering thought.

Shawn’s work continues to provoke ideas, as this past spring London’s Royal Court Theatre produced an entire Shawn season, including Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever, and Grasses of a Thousand Colours. On top of that, his first collection of non-fiction writing, Essays, is being released by Haymarket books, and Shawn will give a series of book-signings and readings. I talked with him about the collection and his life as an actor and writer provocateur.

What made you want to do this collection now?

My friend Anthony Arnove, who is also a publisher, had the idea. I’m always looking for a way that perhaps I can make a contribution to the world rather than merely being a parasite. At least some of these essays deal with some important subjects.

My oldest essay, which I wrote in 1985, now called “Morality” in the book, I wrote when Aunt Dan and Lemon was done. The original version was published in the book with it, partly to explain my point of view about some of the issues that came up in the play. In all of the essays, I clarified things. There were many that I read and thought ‘Oh, think I could put that a bit better because now I have a little distance and can express it better.’

Some of the writing about you in London connected to the Royal Court season described you as “marginalized” over here. Is that true? Do you think you are more popular in England?
The Royal Court Theatre in London has been very, very friendly to me, over a very long period. In New York, the New Group Theatre has been very, very friendly to me over the last five years or so. When Joe Papp was alive, the Public Theatre did my plays.

Obviously, many writers feel that their work is so outstanding that even a reasonably good reception is not enough; they’re not satisfied! I myself may secretly fall into that category when I’m in a certain mood or talking to certain people or comparing myself to certain people. Compared to most people who write plays, I would say I’ve had very good luck! My plays have been performed by wonderful actors and directors and looked at. On a good day I feel I’ve been very lucky as a playwright. Certainly as a human being, I’m one of the luckiest people I’ve ever heard of.

06/04/08 12:00am

Overheard on the ticket line to In the Heights (nominated for 13 Tony awards): 

"Have the Tony nominations changed ticket sales?" 

Usher’s reply:  "Oh my god; we’re close to sold out for this performance." 

There’s little doubt that the nominations create a buzz that is good for Broadway. Variety reports that In the Heights sales improved by six figures, and Passing Strange had an $80,000 bump — ast year’s Tony-award winner for Best Musical, Spring Awakening, had a $150,000 surge. This year’s Tony Awards, at Radio City on June 15th, is being hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, and you could make some pretty good money on a pool this year, with some long shots ready to pay out.

2007-2008 wasn’t the easiest year for Broadway, with a stagehand strike in November that lasted for 19 days. Still, it was a year that reminded us why Broadway attracts tourists and why New Yorkers can still feel good about it. This season saw a feast of serious, legitimate dramas and innovative musicals that expanded the whole concept of "showtune." At the same time, behemoths like Young Frankenstein, which sold "premium tickets" for  $400, and Disney’s latest movie-turned-musical, The Little Mermaid, got only three and two noms each. Life is good.

You can check off Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County for Best Play — it’s already won the Pulitzer, and this grand family American drama, in the tradition of O’Neill, with an ensemble from Chicago’s Steppenwolf, demonstrates the best in American acting. It has a total of seven noms, and will probably win Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for Deanna Dunagan. Competition includes Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer (McPherson directed, and got nominated for that as well), Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’Roll, and Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps. Go see The 39 Steps (the others have closed) — the four-person spoof of the Hitchcock film has warmth, heart and imagination. Its director Maria Aitken should get Best Direction of a Play — but Anna D. Shapiro will probably get it for August (comedy is hard).  

 for Best Musical: In the Heights, written by 27-year old Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars, brings salsa, rap and hip-hop to Broadway, while Passing Strange brings Broadway into a rock concert. Stew’s fictionalized autobiography of a black kid passing for ghetto in Europe feels newer, so, personally, I’d check Best Musical for Passing Strange, which could also take Best Original Score. Miranda will probably get Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical, and Andy Blankenbuehler from In the Heights will take Best Choreography. Best Book? The campy Xanadu, by Douglas Carter Beane. Best Direction? Arthur Laurents for the acclaimed revival of his Gypsy (check Patti Lupone for Best Actress in a musical) or Sam Buntrock for his innovative, animation-rich Sunday in the Park with George. George’s Composer Stephen Sondheim will receive a lifetime achievement award.

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play could go to Patrick Stewart for Macbeth or Laurence Fishburne for Thurgood, but anybody who’s seen Mark Rylance’s sweet, naïve straight man in the 60s sex farce Boeing-Boeing knows better. Rylance brings such truthfulness (he was the AD of the Globe Theatre in London) to farce that the result is candy heaven. Boeing-Boeing‘s decidedly politically incorrect portrayal of a serial womanizer is weirdly refreshing, too. Check it for Best Revival of a Play. B.B.’s Mary McCormack also got a Featured Actress nom for her dominating German flight attendant, but Sinead Cusack’s turn in Rock ‘n’ Roll was truly heartrending. For Best Featured Actor in a Play, check David Pittu who pranced through several comic roles in Is He Dead, a show that actually debuted on Broadway (it didn’t hurt that the script was by Mark Twain, adapted by David Ives). Musical revivals this year were strong too but, for once, overshadowed — still, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific has a teensy edge over Gypsy.  

What is a sure bet, though, is that the Tonys will be worth watching this year—like the shows they will reward.   

05/14/08 12:00am

No matter what you read in this review I’m telling you now that it’s a little fake and writerly, because no matter how objective and smart I try to be in this review, the truth is that this show has been tugging at me to the point of obsession since I saw it at The Gallery Players in Brooklyn last Sunday.  The truth is, I’m listening to the soundtrack of the original Broadway production as I type, at times with tears, and all week the words "fight for the right" and "virtue shall triumph at last" have been daring themselves to come out of my cynical, 2008 mouth.

I’m describing Man of La Mancha.  Anybody with even a touch of 60s idealist (00s idealist?) should catch it (don’t be put off by the misguided movie). Written by Dale Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, the is based on part of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote.  Its score, with its flamenco rhythms and inspiring balladry, is sophisticated and rousing.  And its book has a rare quality of fervor and compassion that is rare on the musical stage (you see it more in opera). 

It’s being produced at The Gallery in a straightforward, heartfelt style that brings out all the charm of what the original 1965 Village production must have had too.  The Washington Square theatre, though 1100 seats, was small for a big musical.  The Gallery space is just 100.  The cast is refreshingly unmiked—and while not all of the cast are true belters, it doesn’t matter in this space.  They are musical, and more, they are hugely committed to the roles, and they bring the show to life.  The show’s themes—the need to resist oppression, seek a better world in the face of all evidence, and yes, dream the impossible dream—hit home today as much as they did then.   Don’t you yearn for a little hope?  (Obama thinks so!)

The musical, 90 minutes without intermission, is a play-within a play-within a play.   We meet the 16th century author Cervantes (Jan-Peter Pedross), thrown into a dungeon for being a little too enthusiastic in his day-job of tax collector—he’s foreclosed on a monastery.  While he waits for his interview with the Spanish Inquisition, the other prisoners go through his trunk and attack him.   They’re about to burn a packet of worthless papers—his manuscript—when he makes a bargain with the self-styled "governor" of the prison (Justin Herfel).  His "defense" will be to demonstrate his play about a country gentleman, Alonso Quijana, who deludedly believes he’s a knight errant, although it’s been 300 years since the age of heraldry. As Pedross intones "I shall impersonate—a man!" and the snare drums begin (the Gallery makes do with an excellent 5-piece combo backstage, which gives the score a pleasant intimacy—the instrumentation unusually never used strings, so the entire score is by turns martial and folk rock-y) you can’t help but feel excited.  Everyone in the audience has a tiny, embarrassed smile as Pedross got to the stirring cry of "I am I, Don Quixote!" in the title song.

Cervantes "casts" the prisoners in the roles as he needs them (the prisoners who leaped, literally, into becoming Flamenco-dancing horses on the spot, delighted).  Director Tom Wojtunik makes a smart choice to keep the lights up on Cervantes’ onstage audience at all times, and it’s clear that every prisoner has a story to tell, though we don’t hear them.  The acting choices are strong. Cervantes casts the governor as the Innkeeper (to Quixote, who we’ve just seen literally tilting at a windmill, the Inn is a Castle).  At the Inn, Quixote finds his lady fair—the kitchen slut/whore Aldonza, whom he names Dulcinea.  Jennifer McCabe plays Aldonza a little too angrily from the start, but that keeps the contrast strong—her bitter "It’s All the Same" taunts the men who want her favors, while the yearning "Dulcinea" is a love hymn. Meanwhile, Quijana’s niece, Antonia (Dawn Debrow) is worried her uncle’s illness will upset her fiancé, Dr. Carrasco (James Andrew Walsh).  Cervantes casts the prisoner called "Duke" in this role, a prisoner who intensely opposes Cervantes for being "an idealist, and an honest man."  Debrow’s sweet soprano does well with the trio "I’m Only Thinking of Him," and Angela Dirksen as Housekeeper belts her contribution powerfully, as they try to convince a compassionate Padre (Mark Kirschenbaum) that they must bring Quijana back for his own good.

Quixote’s sidekick Sancho (Robert Anthony Jones) sings "I Like Him," more musically than comically– a choice which works surprisingly well—suggesting that it’s possible to be a down to earth follower of a gloriously insane idealist.  If he believes in Quixote,maybe we should, too—and maybe Aldonza should (one of the show’s few missteps is the omission of her gorgeous song "What Do You Want of Me" ).  Quixote even manages, temporarily, to tame the Brutish muleteers—they sweetly sing "Little Bird, Little Bird," led by Anselmo (Alex Pearlman, blessed with particularly strong pipes).   By "Golden Helmet of Mambrino," in which Quixote convinces a traveling barber (Andrew Boyd, flaming humorously) that his shaving basin is a magical golden helmet, Quixote’s charisma has thoruoughly seduced his hostile onstage audience, as well as the people in the "cheap seats" in the audience.  Pedross inhabits "The Impossible Dream," making it freshly inspiring.  Musical Director Chris Tilley keeps all the tempos up.  And the fight in which Quixote and co. defeat a gang of bullies leads seamlessly into "Knight of the Woeful Countenace," sung by the Innkeeper (Herfel has one of the strongest voices of the company).  It’s the Innkeeper who commands Quixote to go on and "fight for the right, and battle all villains that be."  And despite his next comment that "when you do, thank god I won’t be there to see"—it’s the conviction of "fight for the right" that sticks with you.

But dreamers often pay a heavy price.  Aldonza is rewarded for her newfound idealism with brutality by the muleteers of the Inn, in a staged combat/gang rape that is hard to watch (excellent fight choreography  by Ryan Ksprzak) and a mockery of "Little Bird."  And Carrasco’s defeat of Quixote—for his own good—is even harder.  One of the nicest, funniest moments in the play is when the prisoners strongly protest Cervantes trying to end the story there.  But it doesn’t take much convincing to get Cervantes, a bit of a ham, to get up and continue—regardless of the Inquisition’s call.   The reprise of Dulcinea at Quijana’s bedside is angelically sung by McCabe, and all over the audience people rustled for tissues and surreptitiously wiped their eyes. 

Seriously, can we ask for much more than that in theatre?  It isn’t Broadway—the voices, though in tune, aren’t the strongest; the costumes of the Spanish Inquisition look suspiciously ancient Roman (though the prisoners’ are excellent, costume design by David Withrow), though the set of levels and pillars by Martin Andrew serves very well.  Wojtunik’s smart direction pulls strong performances from each performer, and he sends the story home with sucker punch to the gut. 

05/07/08 12:00am

“You know it’s weird when you wake up that morning and realize that your entire adult life was based on the decision of a teenager. A stoned teenager. I know there must be some investment bankers out there who know the feeling.” 
    –Stew, Passing Strange

The electricity in the air at the Belasco emanates from more than the crackling guitars of Christian Gibbs and Jon Spurney (and the rest of the talented band). Take a good look around at the audience — it’s got the largest percentage of people-too-young-to-worry-about-an-IRA on the Rialto. Whatever your age, you can’t deny the palpable surge in energy when this demographic fills the house. They’re there because the show pounds out questions central to the adolescent psyche. If you’re adolescent at heart (and who isn’t), you’ll relate.

Stew (the one-named writer-composer of the whole thing) plays narrator/puppet-master in this fictionalized autobiography. Youth, a middle-class African-American kid from Southern California (Daniel Breaker), seeks his own identity. Stew’s interplay with him has a poignant Scrooge-with-Christmas-Past irony that infuses the show with wry and sometimes melancholy humor. A spirituality-seeking14-year-old, he reluctantly goes to church with his mom — powerfully played by Eisa Davis. There, Youth has a revelation — about the divinity in music.

He forms a punk band called The Scaryotypes and sings: “I’m at war with Negro mores. I’m at war with ghetto norms./My mother stands in doorways beggin’ me to conform.” Actually, Mom comes in to offer the band cookies. Long before Youth does, we see that the “realness” he’s searching for is right there in his family.
Youth’s adventures over the rainbow — beyond the Atlantic — to seek the real, send up European stereotypes. He encounters something like love in Amsterdam, but soon that “paradise” becomes a bore and he finds he has nothing to write about. So he leaves the girl, who, ironically, sings wistfully “right when it was beginning to feel real.”

In Berlin, he falls in with Desi (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and the “Nowhausers.” Impressed with the way these Germans build the real instead of looking for it — a hysterical performance piece by Mr. Venus (Colman Domingo) includes the refrain “what’s inside is just a lie” — Youth begins to feel real. The audience shouts it too. It’s silly and exciting, like the whole show. Desi warns him “Only love is real,” but when his unrevolutionary pop songs are about to get him kicked out, he panics. And he begins “passing” for ghetto black. He says, “Well, let me ask you this, Mr. Know-It-All, do you know what it’s like to hustle for dimes on the mean streets of South Central?” Stew turns to the audience:

“Uh, nobody in this play knows what it’s like to hustle for dimes on the mean streets of South Central.”
The fresh, accurate comment brings down the house. Turns out the politics of identity (not quite the same as identity politics) are great fodder for rock and roll. Onstage, rock musicals often limit identity to what used to be called “the generation gap” (in Hair or Spring Awakening) or sometimes “the gender gap” (Hedwig and the Angry Inch). One thing setting Passing Strange apart is that its vision is much more expansive — like that of the music itself.

Where the play goes next is unexpected and moving. All along, Youth’s mother has been calling him home, but Youth “lost track of her pain.” The catharsis building as Stew tells Youth that “your epiphanies will become fickle friends” is too quickly undercut by unearned forgiveness and a redemptive song. The speed of this turnaround keeps the play from real greatness, but with a mean band, wonderful cast, real rock songs and a fresh story, Passing Strange is no passing fancy.

04/23/08 12:00am

Red and yellow and pink and green can make a rainbow… or, when smooshed together, can make a brown muddy mess. The many shades of The Walworth Farce are more brownish than glorious — there’s a little bit of Ionesco, a little Beckett, a little McDonagh, a touch of Friel. The play by Irish writer Enda Walsh comes much ballyhooed; it was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe 2007, and the writer has a bit of a "next new thing" reputation — a writer with his own voice whose flights of fancy seem to have no relation to the metaphysical riffs of Conor McPherson or the comic violence of Martin McDonagh. Instead, he works in absurdist veins with a lunatic poetry. Garry Hynes, cofounder of Ireland’s Druid Theatre, who brought us DruidSynge last year (the Synge marathon at Lincoln Center), and who is the first female director ever to win a Tony for her work (yup, Enda’s a guy, and Garry’s a girl), bring us this production running at St. Ann’s through May 4th, directed by Mikel Murfi.

But what it feels like may instead be an overlong Saturday Night Live sketch with overtones of significance. It takes a while to get your bearings on what’s happening. The play opens on a stage split into three rooms, in which each character silently prepares for something, we don’t know what: a middle-aged man runs in place, a young man irons a skirt, another, in the kitchen, is doing something at a stove. The apartment is a hole, as run down as they come (set design by Sabine Dargent). Soon the three men launch into what is clearly some kind of performance or rehearsal, involving frantic wig-changing, prompting for cues, cheap cardboard props (involving coffins) and rushing about from room to room. The story they are reliving is a preposterous one involving murder after a funeral, and gradually we realize that it’s a fictionalized version of how the father, Dinny (Denis Conway) came to leave Cork and end up in this awful place. The other two "actors" are his sons, Sean (Tadhg Murphy) and Blake (Garret Lombard). Blake plays the female roles, holding a wig up to indicate where one should be when two are needed. They do this every day, competing for a trophy that the father always awards to himself.

This is the "farce." It’s played at breakneck speed, with such incongruous, hilarious touches as a man learning to be a brain surgeon when he patches up a skull with duct tape — the more it plays the odder it gets. Murfi’s direction here really shines; in the hands of anyone less skilled the farce wouldn’t work at all. But entertaining though the farce-within-a-play may be, we don’t really care what happens to the tellers or the tale. So Walsh ups the tension: we realize that Sean, the more sensitive one, who is bald on the front (no doubt to make his various wig and cap changes easier) dreams of leaving the apartment — in which he and his brother have been virtual prisoners since the age of five. We see that Dinny terrorizes the boys into the endless playing of the story in order to forestall their departure. And not long after we realize that Sean has had an actual conversation with someone on the outside, a checkout girl at Tesco’s, the very same checkout girl, Hayley (Mercy Ojelade) arrives.

The second act is all about whether or not Hayley will get out alive and if Sean will go with her. It’s a pretty conventional arc — see 1984 or Logan’s Run. Hayley’s entrance makes Act II much livelier, although it’s less frenetic, because there’s a question hanging in the air. But in "grounding" the story in the real world, Walsh creates other problems — he seems to want us to really believe the three men have been up in the flat for 15 years and nobody’s noticed, but this, of course, is not possible. We’re neither in a purely absurdist world nor in a plausible one. Where we are, in fact, is in the dodgy land of symbols.

Walsh wants his play to make us think about the dangers in storytelling, the cyclical nature of violence, and he’s got something to say about Ireland and emigration too. "London’s not like he tells it," Sean says to Blake, about how the world outside isn’t really full of cannibals. That Hayley is English and black is no accident — she represents the multicultural world they could enter if they left their devotion to their story behind. Walsh has the characters play "A Nation Once Again" on the tape recorder before they go into the tale. But the play is not a picture of contemporary Ireland, which has been prosperous, terror-free and decidedly multicultural (see Once, the 2008 Academy-Award winner, set in Ireland and involving an immigrant Czech) for a good ten years now — and if it’s just a picture of a family of maniacs, why should we care? Nineteenth-century French dramatists wrote Symbolism in verse; Walsh uses jokes, some evocative setpieces and slapstick, but he bumps into the same roadblocks: the characters neither quite convince as individuals nor or broad enough to convince as symbols. By the time Dinny admits "The telling of the story… it helps me, Shawn" we’re far ahead of him. Long before we get to the end, we know it can only end one way. The excellent cast gets a thorough aerobic workout and do bring passion and conviction to the roles. Much of the imagination in the play-within-a-play has a zany quality. Ultimately, whether you’ll enjoy the play will depend on whether you chuckle at set-piece routines involving an exploding dog.