BLKS (Steppenwolf Theater Company, Chicago)

Consider this improbable yet entertaining question:  what comedies would Neil Simon write if he was a new black lesbian playwright emerging today?  Written by Aziza Barnes, BLKS is about women in their twenties going about everyday life.  They are black.  Some straight, some gay.  They go to work.  They have relationships in various states of disrepair.  They go to the clubs.  They are dreaming and searching and dealing.  And one of them is undergoing a “pussy apocalypse.”  Some of this absurdity is laugh out loud funny.

The aforementioned disaster opens the play when one of our characters discovers she has a mole on her clitoris.  I do not lie.  A friend who lives with her declares, “when you find a mole on your clit, it’s definitely a day drinking day.”  The bottle appears and situation comedy via Brooklyn ensues.  Another friend soon appears to join them as she’s also having a bad day.  Turns out she discovered her boyfriend has been cheating with a woman who drinks red wine with her Popeye’s fried chicken.  We are in the land of big, broad comedy  used as therapy to laugh through life’s misadventures.

Of course the play has its more serious moments and they feel a bit contrived.  Too much happens over the course of one night and the messaging moments can feel heavy handed.   Suspending disbelief, which is what we normally do with situation comedies, is the way to go.  The cast here is excellent.  The opening scene of Act II between our smart gal June (Leea Ayers), her new suitor from the club, Justin  (Namir Smallwood) and her medically traumatized roommate (Nora Carroll) is the definition of farce.  I have never been to Steppenwolf before but I’ve seen  their work and their troupe on the New York stage.  BLKS was my pick while I was visiting Chicago.  Funny stuff from a great new voice.

The Royale (Aurora Theatre, Berkeley, CA)

The Royale is an excellent play written by Marco Ramirez, loosely based on the story of boxing champion Jack Johnson.  He was also the basis for The Great White Hope which made James Earl Jones famous and won the 1969 Tony Award for Best Play.  Having never seen that play, I knew only a little of this story.  In 1908, Mr. Johnson was the first African American boxer to claim the crown of World Heavyweight Champion when he was finally allowed to fight a previous white champion.  The resulting victory was followed by race riots around the country.

Visiting San Francisco for Thanksgiving, I decided to see the Aurora Theatre’s production of this play, one that I missed in New York last year.  I have been rewarded with an exemplary production of an absorbing period piece.  While The Royale has a small cast of five, it is populated with some larger than life characters.  Boxing is certainly a focal point, ingeniously directed and choreographed by Darryl V. Jones.  The real battle here is the racial tensions percolating underneath and also in full view.  For that reason, this play beautiful demonstrates the importance of reflecting on past injustices to help illuminate a saner future.

A marvel of perfect casting in both talent and appearance, everyone excels from the white promoter (Tim Kniffin) to our hero’s sister (Atim Udoffia).  The star of the show, here named Jay, is Calvin M. Thompson in a rivetingly intense performance that is both physically and emotionally complex.  Additionally, I loved Satchel André, a non-equity actor, who gave a completely effective characterization of Fish, the novice up-and-coming African American boxer.  This is high quality stuff from start to finish.  The Royale is an outstanding, thought-provoking, and relevant drama.

ReOrient 2017 Festival of Short Plays (Golden Thread Productions, San Francisco)

Golden Thread Productions is celebrating its twentieth anniversary as the first American theater company devoted to works from or about the Middle East.  My fall theatergoing has already included Oh My Sweet Land and The Band’s Visit, freshly opened on Broadway to spectacular reviews.   Stories based in or about Middle Eastern people and cultures seem to be getting an opportunity to inform and enlighten us in theaters big and small.   ReOrient 2017 is a collection of seven plays.  The festival features artists and stories from Armenia, India, Iraq, Japan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

War on Terror takes place at an airport TSA checkpoint.  A comedy, this play demonstrates the perils of air travel when your Arabic speaking mother is cranky.  A is for Ali considers a multi-racial couple debating what to name their baby.  A Syrian girl and her friend in Dearborn, Michigan, the son of two grieving parents, is a memory play entitled Manar.  A double monologue from Osama bin Laden’s wife and the mistress of the President of the United States is the unlikely but wildly effective short, Make No Mistake.

In The Rehearsal, three actors are pretending to work on a British farce but are secretly also working on something more subversive.  Shelter is a spoken poetry piece that describes itself as “an audio love poem from Hiroshima to Beirut.”  Opening line:  “We are the children of bombs of broken glass and shrapnel shadows.”  The last, and perhaps best, play of the evening was Thanksgiving at Khodabakhshian’s.  New in town, a boss and his wife are invited to the home of his Iranian co-worker.

With the short play format, there is a company of a seven actors playing all the parts.  The women (Atosa Babaoff, Naseem Etemad, Jessica Lee Risco and, especially, Bella Warda) shine most brightly.  The impressively creative and efficient set design features about a dozen doors, some hanging.  They are used for projections, doorways, refrigerators, beds, security screening machines and entranceways depending on the needs of each play.  Golden Thread Productions is a company worth seeking out.  I thoroughly enjoyed ReOrient which enabled me to listen to voices not everyday familiar to me.  In addition, they are going to produce Oh My Sweet Land in various kitchens around the Bay Area this spring.  Golden Thread is a needed resource for our theater and our enlightenment.



Hamilton (Chicago)

My first visit to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was on Broadway during the first month of the run.  The hype was enormous.  The show was even better than its blaze of publicity.  I remember leaving the theater commenting that I would pay to see it again just for the lighting.  Hamilton is the rare theatrical experience where every creative element is spectacular, from the direction to the choreography to the performances.  The storytelling through the book and lyrics is perhaps even at a higher standard.  Characters are written with music and words which match their personality and stature.  Hamliton is a riveting, dense history lesson told in a wildly entertaining fashion.

After experiencing the original company and enjoying the fantastic cast album, how does Hamilton hold up?  I decided to take in a performance from the Chicago company.  Here I define “decided” as “lucky enough to score a great orchestra seat.”  The show remains brilliant.  A second viewing (and greater familiarity with the score) allows the opportunity to really take in different elements.  At one point in the second Act, I just looked at the audience.  Staring at the stage.  Focused.  There is a lot going on and much story to be told.  Hamilton demands your attention.

Another highlight for me was the chance to see different performers tackle this now iconic show.  As an example, in the performance I caught George Washington was played by Colby Lewis, a standby for the role.  A tall man, physically he loomed large over the cast around him.  Mr. Lewis’ presence and vocal abilities made George seem a bigger character than when I first saw the show (where Christopher  Jackson was a Tony nominee).  “One Last Time,” the moment our first president decides to retire and not run for reelection, was an emotionally intense highlight.  Powerful themes about democracy, immigrants, politics, war, family and sacrifice are scattered throughout this musical.

Hamilton is this generation’s West Side Story.  Similarly, the cast album has permeated our culture far beyond the Broadway diehards.  Another tale of immigrants and an analysis of their American experience and our country’s founding.  Given our painful current political maelstrom, Hamilton is essential viewing.  As the cast sings early on, “history is happening…”  Do not miss this historic piece of theatrical bliss anywhere you can.

Bewildered (Hell in a Handbag Productions, Chicago)

Halloween night.  Visiting Chicago.  What to do?  How about Bewildered? The  show is described as “a bewitching new musical?”  Some readers may (fondly) remember the television sitcom Bewitched.  Essential plot data:  Samatha Stevens is a witch married to Darren, a mortal, who works in advertising and does not want his wife to use her magical skills in suburbia.  Toss in a slew of memorable, oddball characters and let the nose twitching begin.

One of the great mothers-in-law of all time was Endora.  Here she is (naturally) played in drag by Hell in a Handbag’s Artistic Director David Cerda.  The premise of Bewildered is to consider the Bewitched experience through the eyes of the Stevens’ noisy neighbor Gladys Kravitz (Caitlin Jackson, excellent).  As musical spoofs and high camp require, there is plenty of material to work with:  Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur, the two different actors who played Darren, daughter Tabitha and her not often seen younger brother Adam.  Each of these were funny bits but overused.

Conceptually the show is a great idea but the jokes (and characters) wear thin.  So much more material could have and should have been skewered here.  Samantha was nicely played by Elizabeth Morgan but she was not given enough to do.  The evil twin sister Serena perhaps?  Two actresses won supporting Emmy Awards for Bewitched, one was Alice Pearce, as Gladys Kravitz.  The other was Marion Lorne, unforgettable as Aunt Clara, mistakenly not included here.  (Interesting fact:  both of these actresses won their Emmy posthumously.  A camp moment?)  Darren’s boss, Mr. Tate, was represented and his wife Louise (Robert Williams) was hilariously portrayed as an alcoholic, vodka chugging Louise Jefferson.

And on Halloween, shouldn’t we have had a little Alice Ghostley?  Esmerelda was a bumbling incompetent witch who may have added needed goofiness.  Overall I’d describe Bewildered as an underdeveloped sketch with so-so music.  (The bar for drag entertainment is significantly higher these days.)  Kudos to Roger Wykes for the effective scenic design on a budget.  The office, the house, the backyard, and the kitchen all were cleverly executed by the ensemble, simply called “Magic Stage Hands.”

In 2005, Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell attempted a movie remake which the New York Times called “an unmitigated disaster.”  With Bewitched, there is so much ripe material.   With Bewildered, there is so much opportunity missed.

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!

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.

Unsung Heroes (Alive & Kickin, Minneapolis)

Alive & Kickin is a troupe composed of seniors who sing together periodically throughout the year in private concerts for a variety of senior focused organizations and fundraisers.  In addition, they put on an original full length theatrical show annually that runs for a couple of weeks.  The cast members range in age from 65 to 92.    I was in Minneapolis to see my partner’s father in this year’s show entitled Unsung Heroes.

Wow, this one sort of blew me away.  The show is constructed around voice over stories for each members’ selected unsung hero.  There are the type of heroes you would expect – family members, teachers – as well as the types that surprise – the little red cabin that was the bedrock for one woman as she travelled through the seasons of her life.  The stories were deeply felt and, alternatively, very dramatic, funny or heartfelt.

The songs which followed the stories ranged from Broadway to rap to rock to inspirational ballads, performed individually, or in groups of many different sizes and configurations.  What made this evening extra special was that these intimate and personal stories were staged so beautifully.  The cast was all in white amidst a handful of white pillars, candelabras and drapes.  They remain seated onstage throughout the performance, standing and rearranging as the night progresses.  Everyone was bathed in a beautiful white light as their pre-recorded unsung hero stories played prior to their musical numbers.  The effect was a hauntingly elegant and almost ghost-like atmosphere, fitting for conjuring up stories of heroes and memories from their lives.  The lighting was superb overall and enhanced the moods of the numbers from the Bojangles-inspired duet “I Hope You Dance” to the rock belting of Aerosmith’s “Dream On.”

Michael Matthew Ferrell is the Founder and Artistic Director of Alive & Kicking.  As I understand, the members created their Unsung Hero stories and then Mr. Ferrell uses that information to shape the song selections for the show.  The quality and depth of realness presented here – plus a healthy sprinkling of fun and variety sustained over three hours – point to a huge talent.  And it that weren’t enough, Mr. Ferrell performs and leads the troupe in a fantastic white kilt.

I understand there is a senior themed dance show currently named “Half Time” planning for a Broadway run, directed by Jerry Mitchell.  Jerry, we will be watching you.  If you can manage at least half of the emotional storytelling and visual theatricality developed for ‘Unsung Heroes” in your show, then I will expect a big hit.

Refugia (Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis)

Visiting Minneapolis for a family event (see next post), I decided to finally see  a performance at the renowned Guthrie Theater.  The piece is Refugia, a meditation of sorts on displaced people, climate and other stuff.  This was developed by The Moving Company, which emerged in 2009 from the Tony Award winning Theater de la Jeune Lune, presumably known for its visually rich style combining clown, mime, dance and opera.  I can firmly report that all of that is present in Refugia.  At intermission, my partner ran into a local theater friend from high school who perhaps said it best:  “it’s very Jeune Lune.”  He and his companions were planning to skip Act II and go to the bar.  Enough said but I’ll add a little more.

When entering the theater, the set is a magnificent airline hanger or warehouse or industrial complex.  Expectations are raised to a grand scale.  What follows cannot begin to match the surroundings.  The vignettes are a hodgepodge of simplistic, one dimensional storytelling, combined with unrealized attempts at slapstick farce and pretentious operatic seriousness.  Plus there is an tribal painted African woman dancing with a polar bear.  While watching the Syrian refugee section, I kept thinking about the intense Oscar nominated documentaries this year instead of this basic dialogue.  On the plus side, there were a few moments when the piece seemed to be approaching lift off, only to jarringly morph into something stupid.  I did enjoy everything Rendah Heywood did with her roles.  However, having sat through this three hour contrivance, I understand why the bar option was chosen.

Watch the great documentary shorts on the Syrian refugee crisis instead:  4.1 Miles, The White Helmets and Wantani:  My Homeland.