Theater Review

Diagnosis: Hysterical BLINDNESS

blindness.jpgNobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness is a deeply unsettling meditation on human nature and how quickly human society can unravel when people are gripped by irrational fear. In many ways its mood echoes the similarly cautionary tale of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which Godlight Theatre Company adapted strikingly well last year. So one would be justified in expecting that Joe Tantalo (founder/artistic director of the company) would have comparable success adapting Blindness for the stage. Unfortunately, the new production, which opened Tuesday at 59E59 Theatres, does not live up to those expectations. Despite the inherent tension of Saramago’s story, the plot drags here, with the most striking bursts being those of violence, making for a display that is often physically horrifying, sure, but that fails to strike the notes of moral horror Saramago achieved on the page.

Nightmare Travels: Wallace Shawn and the Good Life

thefever.jpgHow often does one go to the theatre and get to hobnob on the stage before the play starts with all one’s fellow theatergoers and the star?

We are served champagne on the drawing room set. It’s a discreet little party, with the guests just slightly shoving in that aggressive New Yorker way towards a moment of discourse with Wallace Shawn. And, yes, he stands there in his tweed sports jacket and discreet tie, beaming, and gabbing away like a genial host.

Tom Stoppard: The Coast of Utopia - Vivian Beaumont Theater - Lincoln Center

coastofutopiaTom Stoppard has bitten off a huge mouthful of Russian history with his trilogy at Lincoln Center, The Coast of Utopia. It’s a brilliant production so far, with the first two plays, Voyage and Shipwreck, having opened. The narrative concerns a group of political revolutionaries—Bakunin, Herzen, Belinsky, and others—from the 1830s and 1840s, precursors of the Russian Revolution of 1917, but so far in advance of their times as to be more dreamers and talkers than actual soldiers of the revolution. Revolutions of a sort were occurring in Western Europe (like the brief one of 1848). But most of Russia was still asleep, under the repressive Tsar Nicholas I, and that situation drives these passionate men first to heated political discourse, and later to travel abroad to Paris and other European hotbeds of exile activity.

The Clean House is a Little Too Clean

cleanhouse.jpgSarah Ruhl’s The Clean House is her first major production in New York City, even though she was a runner-up for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in drama and won a MacArthur Fellowship (otherwise known as the genius award) in 2006. She comes bearing much critical praise, and given that she is only 32 years old, this could prove to be a problem. Will she live up to Charles Isherwood’s effusive claim in his New York Times review that The Clean House is “one of the finest and funniest new plays you’re likely to see in New York this season”?

In a strange way, and despite its apparent experimental techniques, it is a very safe play, just the kind they love at Lincoln Center: pretty, witty, well acted, with nothing too disturbing. And the play has a lot of laughs. But where are the crazy raw edges of life, the truly risky discoveries?

Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘N’ Roll: More than a Trip Down Memory Lane

rocknrollPlaying to full houses at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, Tom Stoppard’s latest play, Rock ‘N’ Roll lays out a theory of art as well as a political story line. Basically the play suggests that art—in this case the music of classic rock ‘n’ roll—thrives on a deeper level in countries that censor it (like those behind the Iron Curtain prior to the fall of Soviet Communism).

Now, this is not a new vision; there was a good deal of talk in the 1970s and ‘80s about how literature, particularly poetry and fiction, held a much more sacred and significant place where it was censored. American poets envied their Russian peers, who lived in a place where a poetry performance might be a major cultural event, where people actually lined up to hear poets read their work and sometimes smuggled banned books across borders for friends.

Dogs at BAM

dogs.jpgAnticipation for Sarah Michelson’s DOGS at BAM ran high. Prior to a premiere, the British-born dancer/choreographer is passionately tight-lipped about her work. Shunning press releases and brochure blurbs, Michelson whips up a frenzy of curiosity that few artists enjoy. With a BAM debut added to the mix, a coveted prize for many “downtown” artists, the pre-opening frenzy reached a fever pitch of expectation -- perhaps unfair, perhaps cultivated –- but nearly impossible to fulfill.

The visual elements, designed by Michelson and Parker Lutz, who both danced in the work, were truly breathtaking.

Sex in the State Department: Foggy Bottom at The Abingdon

foggy.jpgA farce about the State Department in contemporary times could be just what we need, but James Armstrong’s Foggy Bottom only partially hits the spot. The acting is quite fine, and the direction by Rob Urbinati keeps it all moving at a lively pace. The premise is promising: a mid-level employee pretends to be his boss, Pat Simon, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, in order to seduce immigrant women with the promise of green cards. Dan Cordle plays Dick, the lusty bureaucrat, staying after-hours so that he can lure sexy exotic women (all with one accent or another) into the empty office of his boss.

Act one is basically a series of sexual gags, some humorous, but most rather tasteless,

Old Tricks at the Chocolate Factory

oldtricksRed Metal Mailbox has created what at first appears to be a delightful confection of 1890s-style all-female vaudeville. Three talented performers dance, sing, pout, tell jokes, do tricks, and generally create the intimate atmosphere of a Parisian nightclub in the basement of an industrial building just on the edge of Long Island City. Standing outside on a warm spring night, one can see the buildings of Manhattan just across the East River. For a jaded Upper Westsider, it’s worth the trip to Queens.

Presented as part of the Chocolate Factory’s Visiting Artists Program, Old Tricks is the creation of Sarah Maxfield, Rachel Tiemann, Sarah Gancher, and Ali Harmer. Red Metal Mailbox’s mission is to create “investigative performance by linking original text with a highly physical aesthetic.”

Peer Gynt: Directed by Robert Wilson - BAM

PeerGynt.jpgIs Robert Wilson a genius? The answer, I think, is yes. His latest directorial work, Peer Gynt, a coproduction of the National Theatre of Bergen and the Norwegian Theatre of Oslo at BAM, reveals once again how he can bring alive on stage a mesmerizing visual world, reinvent it, ensnare us in it, and take a long time to let it go. His method succeeds particularly well in this early Ibsen work, a strange folktale-like enactment of one man’s life of fierce and often futile adventure.

Ibsen completed Peer Gynt in 1867, and was pleased with what he saw as a play in verse not meant for the stage; its fantastic elements (scenes with trolls and other mythical

A Case of Violent Repression

alba.jpgEarly in the Spanish Civil War, Federico Garcia Lorca was executed by the Fascists. He was only 38 years old. A great poet was lost. The Lincoln Center production of Bernarda Alba is a reinterpretation of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, written in 1936 and initially performed shortly after his death. Lorca’s play presents a tyrannical Spanish mother and her five sex-starved daughters in the context of backward village values in traditional Spanish culture. As a boy, Lorca had spent summers in such a village, watching the chaperoned and cloistered local females from a distance. While he was working on the play, it was described in a newspaper as a “drama of Andalusian sexuality,” and Lorca noted, at the front of his manuscript copy, that the work should resemble “a photographic document.”