Theater Review

New York Shakespeare Exchange's Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus
Adapted and Directed by Ross Williams
Written by William Shakespeare
New York Shakespeare Exchange
at HERE
145 6th Avenue, New York, NY 10013
January 22-February 8, 2015

The New York Shakespeare Exchange has its finger in more than one pie, and not all of them are, as in Titus Andronicus, filled with human flesh. In addition to its current production of Shakespeare’s gory early crowd-pleaser, the group created The Sonnet Project, which develops a short film shot in a “cultural/historic” NYC location for each sonnet. The results can be viewed online or through a dedicated mobile app (available for IOS or Android). It also runs periodic pub crawls called ShakesBEER, which we can personally recommend as a fun way to experience a few new drinking establishments in the City accompanied by themed scenes or mash-ups from the Bard’s dramatic canon.

The Fire That Burns

The Fire This Time 10-Minute Play Festival
Kraine Theater 85 E. 4th St., NYC
January 23-30, 2015

Very short plays are at their most effective when they enter into and add to an existing conversation, and the plays that comprise the Sixth Annual The Fire This Time Festival recognize this. The festival exists as “a platform for talented early-career playwrights of African and African American descent to … move beyond common ideas of what’s possible in ‘black theater’” to demonstrate that “[t]he African American experience is not represented solely by one voice or one style,” and the seven voices that stage these short pieces--this year each inspired by the photographs of Alex Harsley of the 4th Street Photo Gallery, just down the street from the theater and itself worth a visit -- give expression to the diversity of the American experience of people of color in a way that is both particular and inextricable from current (and often longstanding) social flashpoints.

The Legacy of Damage

Wyoming
Directed by Danya Taymor, Written by Brian Watkins
Theater for the New City
155 First Avenue, New York, NY 10003
January 15 - 31, 2015

Spaces on the set of Brian Watkins's new play, Wyoming, are defined almost exclusively by tables -- bar tables, diner tables, kitchen tables, locations that often forge and sometimes force connections between people. Tables are just part of a range of everyday objects, including a locked box, a child's headphones, and a slide projector, that take on symbolic resonance in this meditation on time, choice, secrecy, and -- or perhaps through the lens of -- family. Wyoming, set primarily in the mid-'90s, centers on a Thanksgiving dinner during which the past of the particular family in question becomes unavoidable in various ways and for various, interwoven reasons. This breaking both of bread and of silences is directed by Danya Taymor, niece of the iconic Julie, and features original music from Robin Pecknold, of indie-folk powerhouse Fleet Foxes, and Neal Morgan that appropriately evokes a kind of windswept melancholy.

Let There Be Blood!

Tamburlaine, Parts I and II
Directed and Edited by Michael Boyd Written by Christopher Marlowe
Theatre for a New Audience
Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn, NY
November 1, 2014 - January 4, 2015

Blood, fittingly, gets on everything in Theatre for a New Audience's Tamburlaine, Parts I and II. For the stylized violence in this adaptation of two of Christopher Marlowe's Elizabethan box-office hits, that sometimes means literal buckets of vital fluid; other times, the hem of a white garment trails through a pool of it, or a hand leaves a partial print on a lover’s face. Ably condensed into two 90-minute plays with a half-hour intermission (the minimum amount of time needed to sufficiently de-gore the stage), Tamburlaine's epic military conquests raise him from shepherd to emperor on a bare stage adorned only with hanging plastic strips at the rear that render the world of the play as a meat locker or Patrick Bateman's living room.

Not the Messiah

Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy): A Comic Oratorio based on Monty Python's Life of Brian
Libretto by Eric Idle and Music by John Du Prez
The Collegiate Chorale and Orchestra of St. Luke's/Ted Sperling
Carnegie Hall, December 15-16, 2014

Not the Messiah was superb (albeit with minor overtones of shtick). But what else to expect from Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle, and John Du Prez, one of the composers of Spamalot and composer of the soundtrack for Python's swan song film, The Meaning of Life. This was truly an evening of whimsy on a grand, grand scale, with an excellent full orchestra playing wonderful arrangements, a chorus of one hundred-or-so voices, four outstanding soloists, and of course Eric Idle (who at this stage of his long career possesses whimsy-imprinted DNA).

The Last Ship with Sting

Sting has come to Broadway, as both composer of the new musical The Last Ship and, more recently, in an effort to improve the show's struggling box office numbers, one of its stars onstage. The show itself, while having some book and story flaws, ultimately emerges as an engrossing, touching musical, with an impressive and melodic score that serves the story and the characters. It is an often stirring tribute to the human spirit.

The musical, inspired by Sting's own experiences growing up, takes place in the streets and shipyard of Wallsend, in the northeast end of England. The town and its residents are having problems, as the shipyard has been closed down. For reasons that don't entirely make sense, the residents are inspired to build one last ship. The Last Ship deals with familiar themes: father/son relationships, an economically depressed town, the lure of the sea, and the idea of a community; these are real people whom the audience can care about, and the results are sincere, earnest, gritty, and noble.

Sting himself is a commanding presence as Jackie White, the shipyard foreman. His character is not the lead, but Sting makes the most of it and shows his theatrical skills. The lead character is Gideon Fletcher, who left his home town at the age of fifteen to go to sea and escape the town, then returns fifteen years later. Gideon had issues with his father, and also left behind a young girlfriend, Meg, who he still loves. Michael Esper, who plays Gideon, was out the night I saw the show, but his understudy, Jeremy Woodard, was excellent. Rachel Tucker is glowing as the now grown up woman he left behind; Fred Applegate provides some comic relief and a twinkle in his eye as the local priest, while Collin Kelly Sordelet is impressive as Tucker's teenage son.

The Voices of Reason

EstroGenius 2014
4th Street Theatre
83 E. 4th St., NYC
October 2-November 2, 2014

The EstroGenius Festival, currently in its 15th year, spotlights women artists in theater. It is organized into three separate shows -- Andi’s Night, Deb’s Night, and Sarah’s Night -- that each consist of five short plays totaling about an hour and a half per "Night." At the end of a program, audience members can vote for their favorite performer, writer, and director on a ballot included in the program, and votes can also be cast for favorite play for a one-dollar donation per vote. The winning play receives a special encore performance at the end of the festival.

Turning The Glass Around

Turning the Glass Around
Presented by Work/Space Collective
Directed by Heidi Grumelot
Teatro Circulo 64 East 4th St., NYC
October 16-November 1, 2014

Pia Wilson's new play, Turning the Glass Around, interweaves the naturalistic and the theatrical, the rational and the seemingly irrational, and the everyday and the supernatural in order to interrogate other, contemporary American hybridities.

Oh, Those One-Percenters

That Poor Dream
Directed by Jess Chayes
Presented by The Assembly at the New Ohio Theatre
154 Christopher St., New York, NY
October 4th - 26th, 2014

That Poor Dream was written and developed collectively by the members of the Assembly Theater Project, which describes its goals as creating performances that both "address the complexities of our ever-changing world" and ground artists and audience alike in “a profound sense of community.” The play transposes Charles Dickens's novel Great Expectations onto the social topography of current-day New York City, recontextualizing the social and economic rise and fall of the original, Dickensian Pip in a world of penthouse apartments and $1,000 omelets, a move that highlights that while the world may be "ever-changing," the class systems of Victorian England and the twenty-first century United States remain closer and more rigidly exploitative than we like to tell ourselves.  Indeed, the Metro-North train that serves as the play’s setting (and most of the set) could be seen as a metaphor for, among other ways of looking at the course of a life, the determinism of a society in which, Pip's heretofore secret benefactor Magwitch tells us, one can be only either a shepherd or a sheep.  

The Irish Have Landed!

The McGowan Trilogy
Directed by Kira Simring
The Cell 338 West 23rd Street, NYC 
September 11 - October 5, 2014

Séamus Scanlon's The McGowan Trilogy: A Serial in Three Acts embodies the best things about New York City's annual 1st Irish theater festival. The play’s run at The Cell, which bills itself as a twenty-first century salon incubating new works of art, offers a chance to witness the work of a rising talent in Irish drama in an intimate venue. McGowan's assemblage of three one-act plays creates a satisfying arc centered on the title character, Victor M. McGowan, an I.R.A. soldier and killer played by Paul Nugent, who originated the role in 2012. In the published version of the play, Nugent describes his character as maybe having "a genuine soul under all that devilish sneering bravado," and he succeeds in bringing those emotional nuances out over the course of the evening.