Theater review: “The Winter’s Tale,” Brown/Trinity, October 2012

I saw last week that Brown/Trinity was going to stage Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” downtown, in the Pell/Chafee Center. I bought tickets immediately.

“The Winter’s Tale” isn’t staged very often. It is an odd play, which Shakespeare most likely wrote late in life. It’s about the king of Sicily, Leontes, who becomes irrationally jealous of his wife Hermione, who (he’s completely sure) is having an affair with his best friend King Polyxenes of Bavaria. He tries to kill his friend the king, unsuccessfully; he imprisons his (pregnant) queen; he has his little son sent away.

The Oracle of Delphi tells him that he’s wrong about everything. He erupts into a rage, and then his wife dies, and his son. Unrepentant, he sends his newborn daughter to be eaten by wild animals.

One of his courtiers takes the baby girl to “the seacoast of Bohemia” (there ain’t no such place). He abandons her there, and is then (in Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction) “pursued by a bear,” who kills him.

The play’s last two acts are about redemption. The wife, Hermione, lives, and so does the baby girl. The son of the King of Bohemia marries the daughter of the King of Sicily. And so on.

It is sweet, and bittersweet.

This production was lots of fun. The sets were minimal: some sheets, a toy ship. A few of the actors are worth mention: Elise LeBreton, a dignified Hermione; Catherine Dupont, a wonderful Emilia; Ben Grills, a funny / dignified Shepherd; Mark Larson, a very funny Clown; and Zdenko Martin, a convincingly roguish Autolycus.

At the end of part one – “exit, pursued by a bear” – there was a whole chorus line of bears, performing a very athletic dance number. Then they ran up into the audience, and one of them stuck her bear-masked face into my face and growled, and I laughed like hell.

Then, at the beginning of Part II, after the intermission, the minstrel / scoundrel Autolycus came onstage, wearing a hat that looked just like the one I bought two weeks ago on Montmartre.

He’d taken it from under my seat. He came up into the audience after his musical number and returned it to me, very sweetly, and told me to be more careful in future.

Imagine! My hat’s a Shakepearean actor!

Theater review: “Timeshare,” at Brown/Trinity Playwrights Rep


Partner and I saw the last play in the Brown/Trinity Playwrights Rep series, “Timeshare,” on Saturday night.



I love a good farce. I have a very childish sense of humor; I love it when people run in and out of rooms, and scream, and dress in ridiculous outfits, and hide inside coffee tables. (Of course, it has to be done well.  Silly is good; stupid is quite another thing.) Also, you need actors with good timing, who can scream, and cajole, and wheedle, and make funny faces, and do long ridiculous takes.



We were fortunate to have pretty much all of the above on Saturday night.



This is a traditional mixed-up family comedy: everyone (mother, father, married daughter + husband, unmarried daughter + boyfriend) shows up at the mountain cabin on the same weekend. Misunderstandings ensue. Two engagement rings are hidden, misplaced, given to the wrong recipients.



As in all good farce, there is a happy ending.



I especially liked the use – and subtle subversion – of stereotypes. There’s an unbearable Jewish mother, who turns out to be a convert. The whiny emasculated Jewish dad is also a stoner. The handsome black boyfriend (a shaygetz if I ever saw one) is Jewish. The banker son-in-law is as dumb as a bag of hammers.



All in all: nicely done.



(This is a brand-new play, and a very nice one. It takes a teeny bit too long to set the scene in the first act; I think we could have met the characters more speedily. I kept wanting it to be funny during the first few scenes, but it felt sitcom-watery. Once all six of the characters were introduced, however, the fun began in earnest, and there were few dull moments after that.)



I give high marks to three of the performers: Mark Cohen, the father; Anne Nichols, the mother; and Ben Chase, the goofily stupid/charming son-in-law. (He was my favorite: he’s tall and lanky, with an expressive face and a voice that goes from cornball to Yalie to falsetto seamlessly. We got a lot of laughs out of him.)



From “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”:



No royal curse, no Trojan horse –

And a happy ending, of course.

What is the moral? Must be a moral . . .

Here is the moral, wrong or right:

Tragedy tomorrow – comedy tonight!


Scowling all the way


I come from a long line of scowlers. My maternal grandmother had a scowl that could peel paint (see above, scowling over her birthday cake). My uncle Primo (who wasn’t a bad-looking bloke) ranged between a frown and a scowl most days. Grandma’s father, whom I never met, had one of those melancholy Polish faces that seemed to be set permanently on “unhappy.”



This is fine with me.



I stick to the scowl as much as I can. It keeps people off-guard. I work with people who are grinny and cheerful all the time; some of them can’t say “Good morning” without giggling. I abominate this. I have worked for years on my scowl and glare, and I have it almost right; it’s nearly at Grandma intensity, and (if I live long enough) I may get it up to an even higher power level.



There have been times when I think we’re one of those families who have the gift: the Evil Eye, the malocchio. We can blight your cattle and stunt your children and make your well run dry with a single glance.



You think that’s silly? Here’s a testimonial.



A few weeks ago, as I’ve already written, Partner and I were at a play at Brown. There were two clueless women sitting behind us, passing a bag of potato chips back and forth. I turned and gave them The Scowl, and it silenced them (mostly).



A few days later, I received this email from Joe Zarrow, who wrote the play we saw that night:





I was, as playwrights tend to do, googling around for review quotes I could pull on Principal Principle when I came across your blog. Thanks for your thoughtful review, but extra double thanks for getting those women with the potato chips to be quiet. I was glaring at them impotently from one of the other seating sections, and I totally saw you turn around and give them the evil eye. You are a hero.







Moral: don’t belittle the evil eye. It has its uses.





“Principal Principle,” and teaching, and teachers


Partner and I saw a brand-new play called “Principal Principle,” by Joe Zarrow, at Brown the other evening. It’s a funny / serious look at a year in the life of four high-school teachers, seen from the teachers’ workroom. Overall, it was excellent: crisp dialogue, good use of devices like the P.A. system (what would school be without one?), and (as usual) really excellent performances by the five actresses in the show.



(It was a new play, and not perfect. The ending was a little unsatisfying. Some of the moral dilemmas seemed a little too pat. And the passage of the school year – we began in September, so we knew that intermission would be December and the ending would be May – was a little too clockwork-predictable, like the passage of time in a Harry Potter novel.)



But it made me thoughtful about the teaching profession.



Firstly, it made me (again) grateful that I did not choose teaching as a career. I am not built for it. I have tried it, fitfully, over the years, in harmless small doses that did no real harm to my “students,” and I know for a fact now that I was not constructed to be a teacher. I am tough, in my lotus-blossom way, and (in the words of Elinor Wylie) I have faced out a hundred dooms, but if I’d ever tried to be a real honest-to-god teacher, I’d have been a gibbering wreck by mid-October.



This leads me, secondly, to give honor and respect to the very many good / great teachers I’ve had in my life. One of them is actually now my Facebook friend, forty years later. She was a wonderful teacher, and is now retired, and has now dedicated her life to being an all-around wonderful human being. Other great teachers – from grade school, intermediate school, high school, college, grad school – crowd to mind. They were distinctive, and authoritative, and knew their onions. Some were funny; some were stuffily serious; some were alternately remote and chummy. (I guess that’s to say that they were, in general, various types of human beings.)



This leads me, thirdly, to say that I feel vaguely nauseous when I hear people (mostly Republicans, strangely enough) talk about teaching as if it’s a well-paid racket run by crooked unions. I wonder, sincerely, if they’re playing to the fact that there’s a significant chunk of the population that hated school, and always regarded teachers as the enemy. (You know: dullards and idiots. And there will never be a shortage of those.)



So I suppose “Principal Principle” was a pretty good play after all, if it caused me to do all this deep thinking after seeing it.



(Of course, there were two women sitting behind us eating potato chips for a while. But I turned suddenly and gave both of them the Deadly Radioactive Stare a few times, and it seemed to quiet them down (although one had a nasty cough, and kept spraying Partner with dengue fever, or whatever she had).)



(But isn’t that what theater is all about?)



For Sunday: “Snoopy,” from “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”


I love this musical, and this song. This is an animated version, and I don’t know the name of the singer; I wish I could have given you the original Broadway version, with Bill Hinnant as Snoopy, but this will do. And the animation is nice.



This is dedicated to all of us who, now and then, need to bite someone.





Theater review: “A Perfect Wedding,” at Brown University’s Leeds Theater


Partner and I saw the latest Brown theatrical production, “A Perfect Wedding,” on Saturday night.



These college kids are talented!  They can act, they’re funny, they can sing and dance and play instruments.  Most of them (by the laws of averages) will almost certainly not be going into entertainment-related careers. (This is sort of a shame, in a way, because most of them are just as talented (if not more so) than most of the people in movies and TV.)



Then there’s the youth effect.  Partner put it best: “I like going to these shows,” he said, “because they’re all so energetic, and it makes me feel young too.”  Ditto for me. 



So: this show.  Some negatives first (which feels harsh, like bopping a puppy on the nose for making a mess on the carpet): the play was far too wordy.  Too many endless repetitive speeches.  A little too much overacting here and there.  Lots of peculiar stage accents, which did not make for a terribly comprehensible evening. 



And long, dear Jesus, the show was long.  The first act was ninety minutes, with only a few good laughs in the whole thing.  Partner and I commiserated with one another during intermission; we were trying to make the best of it, but we were both moodily considering how long the second act was going to be, and whether we’d be home by midnight.



But the second act was the payoff.  It began with some terribly long/wordy scenes too, but the atmosphere quickly changed: there was a bizarrely concocted funeral scene, with cymbals and bagpipes and conch shell, and a procession with a coffin. 



And, finally, the play took flight. 



The whole thing ends with three dynamite musical numbers, each as different from one another as night from day, and all of them done with that raw college-student energy and talent that makes the whole enterprise worthwhile.  (I won’t tell you what the musical numbers are. If you see it – and I hope you do – it would spoil it for you, I think.)  All I will say is that everyone is romping around, dancing, leaping, playing instruments and singing.  The choreography is good, and the staging works beautifully.  



We were promised audience participation, and we got it.  We even got something to eat and drink (which was perfect for me, as I was starving).  During the wedding preparations in Act Two, one of the characters came over and politely asked Partner to help him change clothes, and they worked together like professionals, and carried on light conversation the whole time.  (And a cute little bugger the actor was too.)  Whenever I hear “audience participation,” I think of getting drenched with seltzer water, or dragged on stage to be part of a Theater of Cruelty bondage/torture session.  In this production, the “audience participation” was light and funny and harmless.  “What side of the family are you on?” the character asked Partner.  “Groom’s side,” Partner said smoothly, without missing a beat.



We got home at eleven p.m., giggling, having had a wonderful evening at the theater.



I need not tell you that the play is partly about sexual politics, and gay marriage, and straight marriage, and the meaning of marriage in the first place.  These issues are beside the point.  It’s about love, and commitment, and the rituals we use to commemorate both of those things. 



The play could easily be thirty minutes shorter. And maybe less screaming.



But please keep the musical numbers just as they are.



It’s running through next weekend: the last performance is Sunday April 22.



Those of you in southeastern New England should come see it.



It will bore you a bit at first, but it will leave you laughing and singing.


For Sunday: Martha Raye sings “No Time At All” from “Pippin”


Partner and I saw “Pippin” on stage at Brown a year or two ago. It’s a charming (if slightly dated) musical, with some nice songs. 



This number is one of them.  It was first sung by Irene Ryan (Granny on “The Beverly Hillbillies”), who famously died just after performing this song on stage back in the 1970s. 



This is a video of Martha Raye doing the cutest imaginable version of Pippin’s grandmother Bertha in a 1980s production, with William Katt (who used to be on a really dreadful TV show called “The Greatest American Hero”) playing Pippin.






George M. Cohan


Providence, in case you didn’t know, is the birthplace of vaudeville legend George M. Cohan.  He never really lived here; his parents were entertainers and happened to be here in Providence when he was born, on the third of July, 1878.  (Not the fourth of July, please note.  Please get that song out of your head.)



It’s amazing how prolific he was: he performed, composed, wrote shows.  We still know his songs: “Give My Regards To Broadway.”  “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”  “Mary Is A Grand Old Name.”  “You’re A Grand Old Flag.”  “Over There.”



There is a perfectly hideous statue of George down in Fox Point, a block away from George M. Cohan Boulevard.  It’s just the top half of him, from the waist up; he’s got his hat in his hand, and is (I think) supposed to be singing.  Why did the sculptor lop him off at the waist?  And why does he have that horrible grin on his face?



Much better is the living monument that James Cagney created for him.  In 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and later when he reprised the role in 1955’s “The Seven Little Foys,” Cagney is a delight.  He is tough and funny and energetic, and he dances like a demon.



Funny what we know about people.  George M. Cohan was enormously famous in his time; then he became – what? – just a name.  Then he was revived by someone great like Cagney, who transformed the image brilliantly.  (I hope the real George M. was only half as entertaining as Cagney’s portrayal of him.  The story goes that Cohan, dying of cancer, saw Cagney’s performance in the 1942 movie, and said, “What an act to follow!)



Few now living probably remember Cohan as a performer.  Many of us know his songs.  Many of us have also seen Cagney as Cohan.



So what do we really know of him?



I ask myself this question a lot lately.  I think about what remains of us after we’re gone, and how we remember people who have died, and how those people are remembered after we’ve died.



It fades, children.  You end up with grotesque statues and strangely twisted stories.



But sometimes it flickers to life: you hear a good song, and see a good performance, and think: this guy must have been terrific.



Something inside me rejoiced when, recently, I watched “The Seven Little Foys,” with Cagney dancing down the table in his wonderful eccentric way.



Maybe good things, and important things, survive after all.



Let’s hope so.



Actors acting like actors


Partner was watching “Stage Door” a while back on TCM. If you haven’t seen it, kick yourself seven or eight times, then run out and see it. Not only does it have a dream cast – Katherine Hepburn, Gail Patrick, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball – it’s one of those perfect combinations of corny sentiment and real feeling that makes 1930s movies fun, and it’s got some good laughs.



But I had an epiphany while watching it over his shoulder the other night. It was Hepburn’s big “calla lily” scene; I won’t spoil it for you, but she’s supposed to be a Broadway actress, and she’s had a big personal shock in real life, and it makes her stage performance very intense. And I suddenly realized why so many of the best movies, and musicals, and plays are about show business. The performers understand what they’re doing. If you’re an actor, you may have a hard time getting into the mindset of a plumber or a priest or a call-girl, but it’s no trouble at all imagining what it’s like be an actor – you understand all of the motivations, and all of the situations. Start listing all the good shows about show business in your head: “A Chorus Line.” “All That Jazz.” “42nd Street.” “The Band Wagon.” “Gold Diggers of 1933.” “All About Eve.” “Sunset Boulevard.”



Oh, that last one. It’s a hall of reflecting mirrors. You see Gloria Swanson screening footage of her unfinished / unreleased silent movie “Queen Kelly,” which had been directed by . . . Erich von Stroheim, who plays the sepulchral Max. Even Cecil B. DeMille has a cameo! But, for me, the creepiest scene is that of Gloria playing bridge with the group of silent-movie survivors that William Holden calls “The Waxworks”: Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nilsson. They look like the living dead.



How aware were they of themselves in that scene? How aware were they that they were playing themselves: washed-up, forgotten has-beens?



Oh, they were completely aware.



Too depressing.



Cue the Gold Diggers!



The Brown / Trinity Playwrights Repertory Theater, 2011


Last weekend Partner and I attended the third and final production of this year’s Brown / Trinity Playwrights’ Rep. Every summer for the past six years, this mini-festival has produced three brand new plays and presented them serially and – as a grand finale on the last day – as a three-play marathon. (And God bless Lowry Marshall for bringing this to fruition.)



We have seen some real winners. We were in one of the first audiences to see “Boom,” which was last year the most-produced play in America. Some years ago we saw a screamingly funny play called “Chicken Grease Is Nasty Business!,” about love and marriage and friends and a Southern chicken restaurant, and I laughed harder than at pretty much anything else I’ve ever seen in the theater. We have seen plays about police dogs, and video games, and a musical based on Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons.” Another favorite was a musical called “Torah! Torah! Torah!,” about a bar mitzvah gone wrong, with some really good songs, and featuring Mr. Peanut.



A few duds, too. One of the worst was last year: I won’t name it, it should rest in peace. I will only say that, unless you’re Chazz Palmintieri or Patrick Stewart or Hal Holbrook or Lily Tomlin, you shouldn’t attempt a one-person show. Enough said.



This year:



She’s Not There.” The description was unpromising: a couple whose lives are “upended by a new person in their lives.” Sound like a lot of movies you’ve seen? It started out in familiar territory: a couple in their 30s, comfortable but not ecstatically happy; the man meets a younger woman who lives in their apartment building, and –



But it built from there. The dialogue was fresh and witty. The three characters try making friends, ignoring one another, eviscerating one another. At the end of the day, things aren’t quite the way you thought they would be.



But it was too long. Also, there was a gimmick (whether specified by the playwright I don’t know), in which the scene-changes were done by “hipster movers,” who made minimal changes to the set and did little hipster dance moves. Funny the first couple of times; tedious for the rest of the evening.




The Killing of Michael X: A New Film By Celia Weston.” This was loads of fun: it integrated a lot of film into the stage action. It was dreamlike and surreal at times, and almost everyone played at least two parts, but (and this is always a good sign) we never felt lost. We kept learning more and more about the characters, and it got funner and funner as we got higher and higher in the stratosphere. I have never laughed so hard while watching someone about to have her leg amputated with a buzzsaw.



On the downside: it was too hip. Too much in-joke chatter about movies, especially Godard’s “Breathless” – and if you haven’t seen “Breathless,” you really have no idea what they’re talking about. But this is a minor cavil. The play was generally excellent.



Finally: “My New Best Friend.” Technically, it was the best play of the three. Absolutely brilliant staging: when characters are talking on the phone to one another, they stand, they face one another across the stage, they pace and circle one another. The minimal set décor is torn apart and assembled several times. The dialogue is very witty and sharp.



But – and here’s the thing – the play is, among other things, about the dichotomy between New York and California. The New York-based characters are all smart and practical and a little rueful; the California-based characters are self-absorbed, silly, vain. “It reminded me of Woody Allen,” Partner said later, and he was absolutely right.



But you know what? We saw it first.



You might see it in local theater, or on Broadway, or maybe as a movie.



But we saw it first!





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