Oh My Sweet Land (The Play Company)

Written and directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, Oh My Sweet Land is being staged in kitchens throughout New York City.  The play was inspired by the stories Mr. Zuabi heard when he travelled to Syrian refugee camps in Amman, Jordan.  For this piece, Nadine Malouf performs this solo show while preparing kibbeh, a popular Middle Eastern dish of bulgur, onions, ground meat and spices.  While cooking, she tells us stories.  One is about Ashraf, her Brooklyn lover and a Syrian exile, who she pursues abroad when he returns home to rescue his family.  What will she find when she gets there?

Quite a few stories are told in this deceptively simple play.  Because the dialogue is so efficient and the setting so intimate, the experience is akin to inviting someone into your home not only to share their life but also to deliver news from around the world.  And since this is such a small space, there is no disappearing into the dark theater with a large audience.  This actress intensely meets your gaze.  This is serious stuff.

Ms. Malouf is exceptional here.  The structure of the play allows her to display many emotions and inner thoughts.  From eight feet away, I could see the tears well up in her eyes, full of liquid, sadness, concern, hope and despair.  Unlike the television, newspaper or internet, it’s not really possible to look/click away.  You are confronted with the thought of fellow human beings in distress.  She seems to be making the kibbeh almost as therapy.

We hosted two performances of Oh My Sweet Land for fifteen people each night.  The Play Company brings this all to life with chairs, lighting, sound effects which, from my seat, made our kitchen disappear.  In replacement, empathy.  For the Syrian people, for our immigrants and for humanity’s continual struggle to allow others the pursuit of happiness.  At a little more than an hour long, that’s quite a piece of theater.

www.playco.org

King Richard’s Faire (Carvershire, MA)

Normally, I would expect that theaterreviewsfrommyseat does not cover Renaissance Fairs as there are no seats.  There are wooden benches though, so we shall make an exception.  Plus, on the King’s Stage there was a two act musical comedy entitled, “Marry Me a Little, Bury Me a Lot.”  Essentially this show consisted of reworded tunes not only from Broadway musicals but also from the likes of REM and Whitney Houston.  Best number was a riff on “At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line.  A princess was falling for the Prince’s valet.  “You can be so happy with the valet… with the valet…. with the VALET……(followed by musical flourish).”  Not necessary to know the references to enjoy this silly show, but it significantly adds to the laughs.

Attended this raucous event over the weekend because my son was performing as part of the musical entertainment (trumpets, drums, guitar).  The whole thing was genius, as one would expect.  I saw Snorkel the Trained Pig do a Hoof Bump.  Jacques Ze Whippeur, a Frenchman with a whip and a quip, was fun.  There were jousts and pub sings.  The best show was Washing Well Wenches whose act is described as “wet dirty women, good, clean fun.”  Inspired audience participation at its most hilarious.

Naturally there were manually powered rides and games like the axe throw and knife throw.  The hardworking cast seemed to be having a ball.  Loved the costumes.  And like any good Renaissance Fair, many of the guests and their kids came dressed in their finest medieval (or medieval-ish) wear.  Each weekend there is a special event.  A week ago there was a competition called “Cleavage Contest – where fair ladies of the realm are invited to be daring without baring.”  Although we missed that one, there did not appear to be any shortage of cleavage this past weekend.  Huzzah!

www.kingrichardsfaire.net

WARHOLCAPOTE: A Non-Fiction Invention (American Repertory Theater, Boston)

In the late 1970s, Pop Art icon Andy Warhol taped hundreds of hours of conversations between himself and his close friend, the novelist Truman Capote (In Cold Blood, Breakfast at Tiffany’s).  Mr. Warhol had been obsessed with recording ordinary events in his life from dinner parties to phone conversations and even cab fares.  The tapes between these two celebrities were never released.  After Warhol’s death in 1987, it was determined that the tapes would not become public until 2037, likely due to salacious comments made about other celebrities and fear of lawsuits.  Humphrey Bogart would likely be very unhappy with the Capote story told here.

With persistency, Rob Roth got access to and has adapted these talks into a play.  The nominal plotline here is that these two unique and significant artists from the 1950s to the late 1970s wanted to do a Broadway play together.  Very little of WARHOLCAPOTE is about that or, frankly, anything else.  What we get here is snippets of conversations between two very famous oddities, both notable for their one-of-a kind verbal inflections.  Capote is intelligent and somewhat bitchy.  Warhol is introverted and wide-eyed.  They remain fascinating.

Both Stephen Spinella (Warhol) and Dan Butler (Capote) nicely perform their roles.  One can appreciate that all of the dialogue has been extracted from those tapes.  The Scenic Design by Stanley A. Mayer (Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast) really whets the appetite when you walk into the theater.  The problem for me was that there was no focal point to hold this all together.  Avid aficionados may relish the time to relive these men and their quirky charms.  Most others will be politely bored which may be the most shocking thing about WARHOLCAPOTE.

www.americanrepertorytheater.org

On the Shore of the Wide World (Atlantic Theater Company)

Winner of the 2006 Olivier Award for Best Play, On the Shore of the Wide World was written by Simon Stephens, a 2015 Tony winner for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  The title of this play is taken from  the John Keats’ poem “When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be.”  Here is an excerpt:  Never have relish in the faery power / Of unreflecting love—then on the shore / Of the wide world I stand alone, and think / Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

That quote informs the mood of this play quite effectively.  The setting is Stockport and London in 2004 and centers around the Holmes clan, a working class British family.  This is domestic drama with tensions between brothers, parents and children, parents and their parents, and grandchildren and their grandparents, not to mention between the grandparents as well.  In a way, everyone stands alone and they go forth through life trying to figure it all out for themselves while attempting to see (or not see) other points of view.  It’s a quietly devastating play filled with a pile of interesting, flawed, rich characters.

I cannot imagine that this is an easy play to stage as there are so many scenes and locations, with some of very short duration.  Nicely directed by the Atlantic Theater’s Artistic Director Neil Pepe, we clearly follow the numerous story arcs.  There is tons of movement here:  from homes, city buses and taxis to abandoned hotels with lighting effects illuminating the way.  The staging mirrors the characters’ need for emotional movement as they each consider their lives and their choices, both in the past and towards the future.  All of this adds up to great stuff performed by a stellar cast of actors.  In a beautifully restrained way, the entire ensemble adds layers and layers of meaning and depth.

On the Shore of the Wide World has a lot to say… and not say.  “Of the wide world I stand alone, and think.”  Indeed.

www.atlantictheater.org

KPOP (Ars Nova)

K-pop refers to South Korean popular music notable for its wide range of musical and visual elements.  Songs typically can touch on one or a mixture of pop, R&B, hip hop, rock and electronic musical genres incorporated from the West.  K-pop is a fusion of synthesized music, sharp dance routines and fashionable, colorful outfits.  This is big business entertainment, with young trainees living in regulated environments spending many hours a day learning music, dance, foreign languages and other skills.  Popular?  Psy’s “Gangnam Style” was the first music video to reach over one billion views on You Tube.  A viewing today shows 2.95 billion views.

KPOP is the latest full production at Ars Nova, the theater company committed to developing and producing works by artists in the early stages of their careers.  Perfect example:  before Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail’s Freestyle Love Supreme.  KPOP is performed at the new A.R.T/New York theater space which can house this larger scale, multi-floor piece.  The results are decidedly mixed.

Upon entering a black box space, we meet the owners of JTM, the company that develops talent and wants to make K-pop popular in America.  From that point, the audience splits up and travels through an immersive theater experience, exploring the “factory” where training occurs.  While some of the segments were brief, all of them seemed a bit of a slog, as was the entire evening.  (I’m ignoring the technical delays since this was a preview performance.)  The book was written by Jason Kim, who co-conceived this piece with Woodshed Collective, an immersive theater company.  The story touches on racism, age, appearance and nationalism as we consider, for one, whether the artists may be selling out to reach the American market.  A lot of themes here, both rushed and underdeveloped, in combination with scenes which felt overlong and slow.  The tone varied uncomfortably between satire and documentary, with awkward moments of audience participation.

By far the best segment is the one with MwE backstage.  She’s the current top star who unfortunately is now 26 years old.  The big finale was fun and I loved the song “KPopsicle.”  KPOP is not the best immersive theater experience in New York but it is an ambitious attempt.

www.arsnovanyc.com

www.youtube.com/gangnamstyle

Puffs, Or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic

Are you eagerly anticipating next season’s soon-to-be impossible ticket, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two?  (Registration for tickets starts October 1st.)  Have you read all the books and seen all the movies?  Is Moaning Myrtle your favorite ghost of all time?  Does the idea of sticking a Land O’Lakes label on a brown beer bottle make you laugh?  If you answered yes to some of these questions, perhaps Puffs is the diversion you need.

I have read all the books and loved the series.  My favorite was The Prisoner of Azkaban.  I’ve seen some of the movies.  The Pensieve, a magical memory bowl, was a remarkable plot device.  So I have enough knowledge to comment on Puffs, Or:  Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic.  This play is a take on the series from the point of view of the House of Hufflepuff, the most underrated of the four houses in Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  If you care not, stop reading now.  This show is not for you.

If you are fully aware that the Puffs were perennial losers in competitions and you’d like to see them try again to be great wizards, then this madcap sendup of the series is a silly, funny, entertaining comedy.  The audience roared when a joke was made about the book, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  Only after looking it up afterward did I learn that it was “written” by a Puff.  Yes, it will help to be a total Potter nerd to get every joke.  Those who did – and there were many – seemed to be beside themselves with joy.  For the rest of us, this was ninety minutes of well-directed fun with a high energy cast and some very impressive staging.  One more thing to consider before you go.  The Puffs are a little over Harry Potter, his hero attitude and those two friends of his.  They did not heed the “he who will not be ridiculed” motto.

www.puffstheplay.com

www.harrypottertheplay.com

Anastasia

I will find some good things to say about Anastasia later, but first the sad truth.  This musical is quite bad in very many ways.  Based on both a cartoon movie and an Ingrid Bergman film, this is a musicalized tale of the execution of the Russian Romanoff family and its aftermath.  (They wear Dr. Zhivago white and parade around ghostlike when we need a visual reminder.)  Their daughter Anastasia went missing and was never found.  So, we have an amnesiac heiress named Anya who may or may not be the real deal.  Let’s get her to Paris for the reward money!  Let’s sing “Paris Holds the Key (To Your Heart)” at the opening of the second Act!

I have not seen either movie so my only frame of reference is what I saw from my seat.  A handful of good songs out of 32 in the show.  Music and lyrics are by the often reliable Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Once on this Island, Ragtime).  Act II is significantly better than the first for two reasons:  (1) there is more dialogue so we stop getting bored by the musical monotony, and (2) the main story moves offstage and we get a little fun with Countess Lily and Vlad, played by Caroline O’Connor and John Bolton, in “Land of Yesterday” and “The Countess and the Common Man.”  Never a good sign for a musical to shine when it’s less musical and spends more time with minor characters.

The sets were bad.  The whole show is framed by a Russian palace/rotunda with screen projections that were obviously not working properly.  The creative team here was Darko Tresnjak (Director), Peggy Hickey (Choreographer), Alexander Dodge (Scenic Design) and Linda Cho (Costume Design).  That’s the team behind the Tony winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.  I was not a big fan of that one either but at least it was creatively staged.  This was not.  The leads here, Christy Altomare and Derek Klena, sing nicely but could be any young, in love couple in any show.  Mary Beth Peil was nominated for a Tony for her work here as the Dowager Empress and she brought real depth and heart to her performance.  A story that you might care about was trying to emerge.  That’s the last of the good news about Anastasia.

www.anastasiabroadway.com

 

The Suitcase Under the Bed (Mint Theater Company)

Jonathan Bank, the Artistic Director of The Mint Theater, specializes in finding and producing neglected or forgotten plays.  Teresa Deevy was “discovered” while researching female Irish playwrights.  Her plays were produced in the 1930s and then forgotten.  Since she had been previously published, the search eventually took him to the two-century old family home in Waterford, Ireland.  Stuffed under a bed were two suitcases filled with a treasure trove of typescripts.  Working with Teresa’s grand-niece, the Deevy project was born.

From 2010 through 2013, the Mint produced three of her plays:  Wife to James Whelan, Temporal Powers and Katie Roche (currently running in Dublin’s Abbey Theater).  All three plays were excellent.  What is remarkable about her work is the feminist point of view at the time they were written.  The Suitcase Under the Bed is a collection of four of her short plays, two of which have never been produced or published.  One of those, Holiday House, was so good I wanted a whole play with these characters.  Two brothers going to the family vacation home for the month of August with their wives, one of which had been previously engaged to the other brother.  Tossed into the mix is a nervous, judgmental sister and their Mater.

Two of the other three shorts were impressive as well, notably the final piece, “The King of Spain’s Daughter.”  Aidan Redmond plays Peter Kinsella, a labourer and the father of Annie (Sarah Nicole Deaver), a “wild” child with boys on her mind.  Mr. Redmond appeared in all four plays and inhabited a completely different character in each one.  Surrounded by a very talented cast, he was a standout.  (A side benefit from attending this production is being able to watch actors change roles.)  One of the plays, “In the Cellar of my Friend” did not capture me as much as the others did.

In addition to selecting the shorts to be played, Jonathan Bank directed The Suitcase Under the Bed.  As is often the case with the Mint Theater, the acting was exceptionally good.  The production values at the Mint are usually very high for an off-Broadway company.  Here, the costumes by Andrea Varga were right on target.  If you haven’t had the opportunity to encounter any of Teresa Deevy’s work, this is a nice introduction.

www.minttheater.org

Prince of Broadway

Harold Prince has won 21 TONY Awards.  The titular Prince of Broadway has directed and/or produced some of the most significant musicals of the last sixty years including West Side Story, Cabaret, Zorba, Fiddler on the Roof, Company, Sweeney Todd, Evita, Phantom of the Opera and one of my personal favorites, On the Twentieth Century.  He was involved with dozens and dozens of shows since the 1950s.  Yes, there were some admitted failures, notably Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along which closed after sixteen performances in 1981.  From that abundance of Broadway material, this retrospective has been assembled.

For fans of musical theater, this evening is a rare opportunity to celebrate some historic artistic and commercial successes, along with a few that were not.  Like all “greatest hits” compilations, one can easily find a show or a song which could be added into the mix.  When I sat down, I purposely did not peek at the Playbill so I did not know what was coming.  That’s a nice way to take this show in.  And here I will keep the details to myself.  Eight performers doing a little storytelling and highlighting memorable numbers from major works of Broadway history.  That’s all you need to know.

Also, you need to know this.  Tony Yazbek stole the first Act.  Everything he did was outstanding; the tap dancing alone guarantees a Tony nomination.  Bryonha Marie Parham’s vocals, especially right before intermission, are not to be missed.  Emily Skinner interpreted some well-known classics and nailed them down cold, while looking radiant and gorgeous.  Everyone in the cast had great moments.  Loved the costumes by William Ivey Long; so many periods to be covered.  Beowulf Boritt’s set design kept things moving with interesting and creative hints of what the show was about originally.  The cartoon panel was flawless.  Special mention to Jon Weston for his sound design in which every word was crisp and clear.  To be critical, Act II is not as strong largely due to one segment that did not compare favorably to the frequent revivals.

Yes it helps to be a huge fan of musicals to enjoy Prince of Broadway, directed by Harold Prince himself.  And if you are, it’s a must see.

www.princeofbway.com

The Play That Goes Wrong

Currently, there is a deluge of sharp political humor, for good reason.  John Oliver.  Stephen Colbert.  Samantha Bee.  Most recently Tina Fey’s sheetcake rant.  And on and on.  That’s because the target(s) are big, obvious and, well, it’s oh so easy to stick the landing.  Still, sometimes I want to laugh out loud without being reminded of the shit show that is our government.  When that time arrives (and it is now), head to the Lyceum Theater for The Play That Goes Wrong.  It is hilarious from start to finish.

A 2015 Olivier Award winner for Best New Comedy, this play was created by Mischief Theater and is still running in the West End.  Like another classic British farce, Noises Off, the hijinks are structured as a play within a play but with character development replaced by nonstop tomfoolery.  This time it’s “The Murder at Haversham Manor,”  a slightly run down English manor house with a dead body at the top of Act I.  Think Agatha Christie meets Monty Python in a bad play performed very badly.  If it can go wrong, it does.  The audience with whom I saw this play laughed hard and very, very often.

Everyone in the cast is funny with Dave Hearn’s performance as Cecil Haversham my frontrunner for best in show.  Nigel Hook deservedly won the Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Play.  The set not only gives the actors the platform to be hilarious, it sometimes even upstages them as if it were a character unto itself.  If you are not a fan of farce, slapstick humor or broad physical comedy, perhaps stay away.  If you are, get your tickets and have a great fun night at the theater.  Even the Playbill goes wrong.  Loved it.

www.broadwaygoeswrong.com