By William Wolf

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA  Send This Review to a Friend

Whenever I see a Shakespeare play in an updated setting I always wonder whether there is a useful purpose to the modernization. So it was when John Glover as Cressida’s uncle, Pandarus, was seated with a laptop computer at the outset of this Public Theater Free Shakespeare in the Park production of “Troilus and Cressida” (July 19-August 14). But in the final stage of the drama the updating usefulness became loudly apparent.

Instead of hand-to-hand combat among Trojans and Greeks, the fighters turned up with so much modern weaponry unleashing powerfully simulated, automatic gunfire that someone nearby in the park might have thought there was a terrorist attack in progress.

Does this directorial gambit by Daniel Sullivan help illuminate the Bard’s difficult play, not one of his best, but a challenging one to mount? Well, it does make for blazing action. The battles in a way overshadow the thwarted love story that is key to the plot.

Andrew Burnap makes a handsome Troilus, the Trojan who falls in love with Ismenia Mendes as Cressida. But their love is upset when Cressida is bartered to the Greeks for the release of a prisoner, and she has to find a way to survive in her unwanted situation.

Meanwhile, grudges surface and battles loom, focusing attention elsewhere. Among the stalwarts are Bill Heck as Hector, Louis Cancelmi as Achilles (he took over the role when David Harbour was injured), Alex Breaux as Ajax and Corey Stoll as Ulysses.

Glover plays Pandarus with a severe limp, which commands attention, and he also locates humor in the portrayal. The production is dynamic, but overlong (some three hours), and director Sullivan obviously has worked hard to find ways to keep our attention, especially with the gunfire onslaught that erupts with appropriate, smoky scenic effects.

Since “Troilus and Cressida” is rarely performed in comparison with Shakespeare’s more popular plays, this mounting provides a chance to freshly evaluate it. On that score alone, it is worth seeing. There is also an interesting addition—Spanish subtitles are projected on both sides of the stage. At the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, accessible by entering at 81st Street and Central Park West, or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue. Reviewed August 10, 2016.

CATS  Send This Review to a Friend

My late mother, Charlotte, had a cat that would ring the doorbell. Even watching her do it, I found it hard to believe. The cat figured out that if she jumped onto the railing at the back door of the ground-floor apartment and tapped the bell with her paw, my mother would come to let her in. The smart feat came to mind as I watched the actor-cats cavorting or slithering about the stage in the current revival of “Cats,” intact with the Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music and based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” My mother’s cat might have been gloriously at home amid the simulated ones in this showy musical.

Let’s face it. This is above all a spectacle with appeal to those who get theatergoing kicks from costumes, lighting, cast members roaming the aisles to sing to spectators, and assorted scenic stunts. It is a treat for youngsters, and addresses the curiosity of members of a generation who have never seen the show but have repeatedly heard its most famous song “Memories.” There is another breed of theatergoer who prefers something more sophisticated. You know which camp you are in.

This show, again directed by Trevor Nunn, is among the most steadily choreographed productions on Broadway at the moment, with hot shot Andy Blankenbuehler (“Hamilton”) credited with the choreography “based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne.” The excellent cast of principals and supporting cats, decked out in the colorful assortment of costumes designed by John Napier, who is also the scenic designer, are almost constantly on the move. (My eyes kept navigating to the cat in the tight-fitting, plain bronze-toned body suit--consistently a knockout.)

The show is enlivened by individual turns that are appealing by any standard. The iconic “Memory” now gets its due from impressive Leona Lewis, an imported British singing star. As Grizabella, chosen in the hocus pocus of a plot as one chosen to ascend to everlasting cat heaven, Lewis leaves her firm imprint, although Betty Buckley’s blazing original performance lingers in my mind.

Another outstanding performance comes from Georgina Pazcoguin of the New York City Ballet as Victoria, the white cat, who provides élan and some fancy footwork. Quentin Earl Darrington makes an impressive Old Deuteronomy, and Tyler Hanes is is especially effective as Rum Tum Tugger. Chritsopher Gurr connects with the audience as the cat who sings about his long career on the stage, and manages to be both amusing and poignant.

The thrust of “Cats” is to offer as many as possible individual personalities, and although the costumes are elaborate, there is the wisdom to let the individual faces be cat-like expressive rather than use excessive make-up adornment. Interestingly, unlike what sometimes occurs in a show, the second act is much stronger than the first, because that’s when we get the preponderance of the individual personality performances.

Scenic designer Napier has decorated a good part of the sides of the theater to resemble junkyards, where cats presumably would congregate. But nothing about the show is a junkyard, as it delivers what it promises to its fans-in-waiting. At the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed August 3, 2016.

QUIETLY  Send This Review to a Friend

At first all starts out “Quietly,” as the title of the play by Owen McCafferty says. Robert (Robert Zawadzki) is tending bar at a typical pub in Belfast, Ireland, where the play is set. Jimmy (Patrick O’Kane) enters and is served a pint as he awaits an arrival for an intended meeting. But don’t be fooled. By the end of this intermission-less 75 minute drama, an Abbey Theatre production presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre in association with The Public Theater, emotions will have exploded against a back story of Irish history, deftly revealed under the intense direction by Jimmy Fay.

O’Kane as Jimmy, through actions and angry comments, is clearly a human time-bomb of emotions ready to explode at any moment. His barely suppressed fury is evident. We wonder for whom he is awaiting and why. There is conversation between him and Robert about the soccer game they are watching on the television screen that we do not see, and there is talk about a past match. Robert is of Polish origin and is rooting for the Polish team against the British players.

The suspense builds as stoic Declan Conlon playing the mysterious Ian arrives and we see the palpable tension between him and Jimmy. There is a quick initial burst of violence as Jimmy head-butts Ian, who does not attempt to retaliate. The play settles into verbal confrontations between the two men, while the bartender quietly looks on without interjecting himself.

What is the story between Jimmy and Ian? Why the hostility? What happened to fuel the gulf between them?

It would be a spoiler to say more, as step by step we get the information going back to troubled Protestant-Catholic battles of 1974 and come to understand what is motivating these two men, Jimmy driven by anger, Ian standing in mostly in poised control of himself for the mission he is on in this planned meeting.

The skill of the writing, the acting and the direction combine to mesmerize the audience in the relatively brief time span. By the end, one is ready to applaud what has emerged as a riveting theater experience and food for thought about past events that may remind one of unrelated happenings going on now elsewhere in the world. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Phone: 212-727-2737. Reviewed July 29, 2016.

BUTLER  Send This Review to a Friend

Although the situation and confrontations are rather far-fetched, “Butler” is an entertaining, meaningful drama set in the state of Virginia at the outset of the American Civil War. Sharp writing by playwright Richard Strand and superb acting create tension and sparks, enabling an audience to get caught up in what is clearly an anti-slavery treatise.

The play, presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company and smartly directed by Joseph Discher, takes place at Fort Monroe, a Union bastion. We meet newly-arrived Major General Benjamin Butler, based on the real Union commander and played to the hilt by Ames Adamson, who overflows with bluster aimed first at Lieutenant Kelly, a stalwart Benjamin Sterling. The lieutenant reports that an escaped slave demands to see the general. Butler does not take kindly to demands and keeps exploding with outrage as the conversation thickens and the lieutenant attempts to navigate the relationship with his commander.

When we finally meet the slave, Shepard Mallory, who has shown up at the fort with two fellow escapees, there is an entertaining face-off between him and the general. John G. Williams portrays Mallory as a determined, arrogant individual who stands up for his rights and refuses to bow and scrape before the general, who has the power to send him back into captivity, which the laws at the time regarding slaves as property dictate that he should do. It is apparent that Mallory most likely would be executed if sent back.

The situation becomes a face-off between these two strong characters, and the playwright pumps plenty of witty lines into the discussion. While it may be hard to believe that such a confrontation could occur, the back and forth is vibrant, amusing and poignant. What Mallory wants is to serve the Union side while achieving his freedom. Butler is appalled at the slave’s nerve, but also duly impressed, especially by Mallory having learned to read and being clever with words, most notably with reference to the key term “contraband.”

The issue is forced when Major Cary (David Sitler) of the Southern side turns up to demand that Mallory be returned. Thus another confrontation ensues, with Butler, who has no use for the arrogant Cary, trying to find a way out despite his exasperation with Mallory, who won’t take no for an answer. When Butler tells Mallory he will be allowed to escape, he refuses to go, exclaiming that he would have no chance to survive on the run.

Williams’s acting as Mallory is so winsome that one may especially root for him to prevail, and also can be sympathetic to Butler, who, despite his short temper and thundering speech, is shown as a basically decent human being trapped in his time as the Civil War starts to unfold.

“Butler” provides plenty of food for thought, along with the fine performances, the issues raised and the humor that flourishes even when the stakes are so seriously high for so many. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed July 28, 2016.

AUSTIN  Send This Review to a Friend

Add “Austin” to the list of dysfunctional family plays, but I’m afraid the play itself is not too functional. The drama by Edla Cusick, directed by Ed Setrakian, is built around Austin Cassidy, a failed mess of a husband who is an alcoholic trying to recover and exasperates his wife by turning up with promises that this time all will be different, and yet we --and she-- know it will not.

The setting is mostly in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. To further complicate matters, Austin’s brother, Martin (James McCaffrey), is having sex with Austin’s wife, Petra (Rochelle Bostrom). I should also mention that Austin also has gay tendencies, coupled with suicidal tendencies. What a Cassidy casserole! There is also AJ Cedeño as Andy, who in the process of helping Austin with rehab teaches him to garden. Austin has a daughter, Dory (Michaela Waites).

Thomas G. Waites gives his heartfelt all in the title role, but his performance is so consistently and hysterically over the top that one is hard pressed to believe anyone could stand ihs presence for more than a few moments. The tone, for all of the sincerity in Waites’s acting, undercuts possibilities to sympathize with him. Playing Austin more moderately as a tortured soul might have been far more effective.

It takes 90 minutes with no intermission for all of this to be worked out, but in the end, despite the intensity, it is hard to care much emotionally for what has happened. At the Lion Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed August 5, 2016.

BROADWAY UNPLUGGED 2016  Send This Review to a Friend

With an impressive roster of singers without mikes, after a while it all seemed so natural to hear performances as they used to be on Broadway before the age of amplification took over and one could forget that this was the exception to the norm. Once again creator/writer/director and host Scott Siegel has done a service with the staging of “Broadway Unplugged 2016” at The Town Hall last night (July 25).

Although more men than women were on the bill, each woman performer was a standout with the requisite voice and charisma for the task. The production got off to a rousing start when Bill Daugherty gave a mighty interpretation of “I Am What I Am” from “La Cage aux Folles.” That coming-out anthem has been heard many times, but Daugherty, with his rich voice, put a personal stamp on it.

Chuck Cooper is always an asset to any program and he brought humor into the show early on with his fun-filled, animated interpretation of “Your Feet’s Too Big” from “Ain’t Misbehavin.” Cooper later flashed his versatility with his ultra-poignant “Lost in the Stars” from the legendary musical of that name.

Another ever-favorite of mine is the wonderful voice of William Michals, who poured his heart into “The Last Time I Saw Paris” from “Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood.” Michals succeeded in putting across the meaning of that song, a moving, protest ode to Paris as it existed before the Nazi occupation. There was a book by that title by Elliot Paul, a volume that had special meaning for me as a guide for my first visit and exploration of that city, where I lived for a year in my youth. I got a special kick out of listening to Michals’s caressing of the song as the tribute it was meant to be.

The audience also heard Michals and Bill Daugherty provide a stirring duet of “Lily’s Eyes” from “The Secret Garden.” By singling out the above performers, I in no means underrate the powerful contributions by the other men: Douglas Ladnier singing “If Ever I Would Leave You” from “Camelot” and “Body and Soul” from “Three’s a Crowd;” Brian Charles Rooney” singing “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise” from “The New Moon” in the tango rhythm that was originally meant for the number; Ryan Silverman performing “Private Conversation” from “Side Show” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from “Carousel;” Kyle Scatliffe thrilling with “This Nearly Was Mine” from “South Pacific;” Joseph C. Townsend performing “This is the Moment” from “Jekyll and Hyde;” Pepe Nufrio scoring with “It All Fades Away” from “The Bridges of Madison County,” and the inimitable Tom Wopat, from the original cast of “The Will Rogers Follies,” entertaining us with “Look Around” from that show.

Although the women were outnumbered, they were not outshone. Alix Korey was dynamic singing “Lesbian Love Story” from “The Wild Party.” Stunning Jeannette Bayardelle, who played Celie in “The Color Purple,” excited the audience with her voice range and rousing, intensely original riff on “Fools Fall In Love” from “Smokey Joe’s Café.” It was not just a song from her; it was an experience.

One of the evening’s brightest turns came from Molly Pope singing “Broadway Baby” from “Follies.” I’ve heard many versions, and Pope perkily expressed the hope for success with her voice and a grab bag of poses and expressions all conveying the determination and quirky passion to be an original and a star.

Scott Siegel in his “Broadway by the Year” series created the Broadway by the Year Chorus of discovered talented young performers, and they impressively concluded the event singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from “The Sound of Music,” and of course, as with everyone else (except host Siegel), without amplification.

The music, which had to be tailored to the matching of numbers with the assorted singing talent, was provided by music director and band leader Ross Patterson, also skillfully on piano, veteran bass player Tom Hubbard and Mairie Dorman, who had gratifying solos, excelling on cello. Holly Cruz did the musical staging, with Rick Hinkson as assistant director and stage manager and Joe Burke as assistant stage manager. At The Town Hall, 122 West 43rd Street. Reviewed July 26, 2016.

PRIVACY  Send This Review to a Friend

If you think when you use your cell or iPhone you are enjoying privacy, you are delusional. If you doubt that, the frighteningly entertaining and ingenious tech play “Privacy” proves the point. The presentation by the Public Theater and London’s Donmar Warehouse, where the work originated, is a dazzling array of internet dynamics and production know-how created by James Graham and Josie Rourke, with Graham as writer and Rourke as director.

Fueling the show is audience participation, with attendees encouraged to leave their phones on and at various points send messages and selfies. At the performance I attended a large percentage of the audience enthusiastically got into the spirit of the request and participated.

It helps considerably that Daniel Radcliffe leads the cast, playing a befuddled Brit known as The Writer, who visits a psychiatrist (Reg Rogers) after a breakup and reveals his frustrating inability to communicate effectively in personal relationships. People in his life, enacted by versatile cast members, turn up. Soon The Writer is off to New York. The character and his problem become the linchpin on which the exploration of communication through cells. iPhones and computers is explored.

Radcliffe’s effectiveness as an actor keeps the plot and events spinning amusingly. The show’s technical prowess provides glittering support of projection design (Duncan McLean), lighting design (Richard Howell), sound design (Lindsay Jones) and scenic design (Lucy Osborne). Research and digital associate Harry Davies has made a significant contribution, and real-life notables are portrayed at various points. Cast members include Rachel Dratch, Michael Countryman, Raffi Barsoumian and De’Adre Aziza, all talented in adding to the mosaic of secrecy and assault on privacy. The theme is amusingly complemented in the Playbill, with sections of bios and other information, including a huge research bibliography, blacked out.

At the curtain call, Radcliffe directly urges the audience not to talk about what occurs so as not to spoil the experience of others. I’d like to fudge on this with only one instance necessary to dramatize the far-reaching privacy invasions depicted by all of the goings-on involving audience participation. Phone calls enable the detection of exactly where a caller was when using a cell. Enough said. You will have to discover all of the rest of the shenanigans, data revelations and audience participation gambits for yourself.

My one criticism of the show is its being overlong, with the creators not knowing when they have accomplished enough. Parts seem over-extended, especially in the events-crammed second act. But overall, “Privacy” is delightfully original as a show loaded with technology and up to the minute in recognition of the whole new world of contemporary communication into which a a new generation is tapping. The show skillfully makes the point of how scary loss of privacy can be. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-967-7555. Reveiewd July 23, 2016.

OSLO  Send This Review to a Friend

It is challenging to say the least to portray bigwigs gathered in conferences to thrash out thorny international problems and hold audience attention for three hours. The miracle of “Oslo,” a play by J. T. Rogers directed by Bartlett Sher and presented by Lincoln Center Theater, is that the give-and-take efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement burst with excitement throughout and make an intellectual theme come vividly alive. “Oslo” is the weightiest play around at the moment but also the most dramatic.

What Rogers does, based on his research, is explore the back story of negotiations that ultimately led to the 1993 handshake in the Rose Garden of the White House between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Neither shows up in the play, but Rogers depicts the tense negotiations by their emissaries in Oslo, Norway between April, 1992 and September, 1993. The playwright has made it clear that although the characters and events are based on fact, the words they speak spring from his imagination.

The working out of the Oslo Accords is facilitated by Norwegian Terje Rød-Larsen, director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences, brilliantly played by versatile actor Jefferson Mays, and his wife, Mona Juul, an official in Norway’s Foreign Ministry, intriguingly portrayed with unyielding determination by Jennifer Ehle, who also has the task of stepping forward periodically to explain events to the audience.

Those meeting regard the facilitating couple as bystanders, which they essentially are. The heavyweights who argue vehemently and flash their individual personalities include Anthony Azizi as Ahmen Qurie, P.L.O. Finance Minister; Dariush Kashani as Hassan Asfour, Official P.L.O. Liason with the Palestinian Delegation at multilateral U.S.-sponsored talks; Daniel Oreskes as Shimon Peres, Israeli Foreign Minister; Adam Danniheisser as Yossi Beilin, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister; Michael Aronov as Uri Savir, Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Joseph Siravo as Joel Singer as an influential Jewish Washington lawyer. All of the acting is first-rate.

Those cited above, and other cast members, move about frequently, which keeps the play lively as well as giving those sitting in the side sections the ability to connect with the action. In addition to director Sher’s achievement of keeping the drama dynamic, there is the accomplishment of Michael Yeargan’s set design, a simple classic space in which furniture is slid swiftly in and out to provide variety to the scenes. At times there are also background projections to tie the negotiations to goings-on elsewhere. Production elements are unified with the overall effect of giving the drama impetus and importance.

After all the furor, the infighting, the battles over what to do about territory and Jerusalem, and the sense of triumph at having gotten any kind of an agreement at all, cast members step forward to tell what has happened since. As those who follow events in te Middle East know, the promise of Oslo has faded and Israelis and Palestinians remain lethally apart. The pleasure of having seen a top-notch drama gives way to sadness. But what we have witnessed still leaves hope that others may one day succeed in the spirit of what happened in Oslo. At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed July 14, 2016

2 BY TENNESSEE WILLIAMS  Send This Review to a Friend

The double bill of one-act Tennessee Williams plays, directed by Marilyn Fried, consists of “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” and “Kingdom of Earth,” neither of which is all that special. The former, written in the 1940s, is most significant for the basis of an expansion by Williams into his screenplay for the 1956 film “Baby Doll,” which stirred a controversy for being at the time considered sexually daring and received condemnation from the Catholic Church.

The skeletal play seen on this occasion, “27 Wagons Full of Cotton,” set in Blue Mountain, Mississippi in 1946, has three characters. There is Flora, the dim-witted, abused wife of Jake, who has secretly set fire to the cotton gin of a a rival, Silva Vicarro, who comes to call when Jake is away and has his suspicion aroused by Flora. That is not all that’s aroused in Silva, who gets revenge by seducing Flora.

Kathryn Luce Garfunkel plays Flora as dumb and emotionally beaten down at the outset, recoiling unhappily as Jake, well-portrayed by Michael Keller, browbeats her into being prepared to lie for him. Justin Holcomb nails the aggressiveness of Silva. (In the film “Baby Doll” the role of Sylva was played by Eli Wallach.) There is too much of a contrast in Flora as she emerges from having had sex with Silva as a flauntingly liberated woman, although it is nice to see that she has betrayed her mean brute of a husband.

“Kingdom of Earth,” set in the Mississippi Delta in 1950, is the more interesting of the two plays, although in certain ways it seems far-fetched. Michael Keller this time acts the role of Chicken, who owns a home that is about to the inundated with water when a nearby property owner plans to dynamite a levee to save himself. Along comes Justin Holcomb as Lot, Chicken’s half brother, to whom we learn has been left the property by their late father. Lot, desperately ill, has returned with his newly-wed bride Myrtle, whom he married after knowing her for only a day.

Myrtle, sexily played by Judy Jerome, and Chicken confine Lot to an upstairs bedroom, from which he repeatedly moans for help, while Myrtle and Chicken bond. There is much talk about getting up to the roof to be rescued by helicopter when the house is flooded. Chicken is beguiled by Myrtle, and with the sexual vibes throbbing, they tear up the marriage certificate and begin to emerge as a couple.

The play succeeds in projecting the greed in individuals, but much of it doesn’t make sense. Why fight over a property about to be ruined? Exactly why did Myrtle marry the fatally ill Lot? Myrtle’s attraction for Chicken, portrayed as a slovenly, unappealing type, is hard to believe. Nevertheless, the actors succeed in grabbing our attention, also commanded by the sheer nastiness at work.

There is always interest in seeing Tennessee Williams plays, even when inferior to his iconic work, and this is one of those situations. At St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 West 46th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed July 16, 2016.

THE GOLDEN BRIDE (DI GOLDENE KALE)  Send This Review to a Friend

You’ve heard of “Brush up your Shakespeare.” With the return of the delightful Drama Desk-nominated musical “The Golden Bride,” some may want to brush up their Yiddish. But for the non-Yiddish speaking, there is no need to worry. Supertitle translations are flashed in English and Russian. The story itself, corny but charming, can easily be followed through the bursts of song and expressive performances by an excellent cast.

“The Golden Bride,” with music by Joseph Rumshinsky, lyrics by Louis Gilrod and libretto by Frieda Freiman, dates from 1923. Its current revival is by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at its attractive new theater in the Museum of Jewish Heritage at Battery Place. It was staged during the last theater season and has now returned.

The story first occurs in a shtetl in Russia, and then in the second act the action shifts to America a year later. The tale involves a young woman, Goldele, appealingly played and sung by Rachel Policar. Goldele was abandoned as a child by her mother—why is ultimately explained—and she longs to locate her long-lost mom. Meanwhile, she has been raised by a kindly couple.

Of course, there must be romance, and her prime suitor is Misha, given a strong performance by excellent singer and actor Cameron Johnson. Goldele’s status is enhanced by an unexpected inheritance, for which she heads to America to claim. She will be partial to the man who locates her mother. The plot becomes amusingly entangled, but plot is not the operetta-style show’s strong point. The fun injected into the rollicking numbers and the romantic ballads drive the production, which is also spiced with comedy and a few broad performances.

“The Golden Bride,” co-directed by Bryna Wasserman and Motl Didner, with Zalmen Mlotek as conductor and musical director and Merete Muenter in charge of choreography and musical staging, is a boon to those who prize keeping Yiddish culture and the Yiddish language alive. If you go to see the show, I would strongly recommend that you also plan to devote a few hours before it to visiting the museum in which it ensconced. The Museum of Jewish Heritage, with its three floors of exhibits, spans Jewish history before, during and beyond the Holocaust. There is a lot to see. “The Golden Bride” is performed in the Edmond J. Safra Hall, 36 Battery Place at First Place, accessible from the 4 or 5 train at Bowling or the 1 or R train at Rector Street. Phone: 212-945-0039. Reviewed July 10, 2016.

  

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