Fathom Events' "Tales of Hoffman": Thrice the Vice

Vittorio Grigolo in "Les Comtes d'Hoffman"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Fathom Events’ latest HD broadcast is the popular Metropolitan Opera production of “Tales of Hoffman” (first introduced in 2009). Produced by Bartlett Sher with Set Design by Michael Yeargan and Costume Design by Catherine Zuber, this is a complex and complicated creation, as it covers a lot of territory throughout nineteenth century Europe, quite literally, including Nuremberg, Paris, Munich and Venice. With Music by Jacques Offenbach and Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michael Carré , it continues to be one of the company’s favored pieces.

In the Prologue, in a tavern, Hoffman (tenor Vittorio Grigòlo), having had a bit of an altercation with Lindorf (baritone Thomas Hampson), begins to tell the stories of three past loves, accompanied by his muse disguised as his friend Nicklaus (mezzo Kate Lindsey). In the first tale, in the workshop of the inventor Spalanzani (tenor Dennis Petersen), Hoffman falls in love with his mechanical creation, the wind-up doll Olympia (soprano Erin Morley) but the mad scientist Coppélius (Hampson again) destroys her. In the second tale, Hoffman falls in love with Antonia (soprano Hibla Gerzmava), the daughter of Crespel (bass-baritone David Pittsinger), and this time is thwarted by the evil Dr. Miracle (Hampson yet again) who fiddles while Antonia burns. In the last story, Hoffman falls in love with Giulietta (mezzo Christine Rice) but is doomed to heartbreak when the malicious Dappertutto (one last evil turn by Hampson) intervenes. Hampson thus gets to provide thrice the vice via this trio of vile men. In the Epilogue, Hoffman is exposed as being in love all along with the same woman, Stella (Gerzmava again), but he collapses and the storytelling ends.

The singing by the Metropolitan Opera Chorus under Chorusmaster Donald Palumbo was again a high point, as was that of Morley, hitting a high A-flat as she managed to be hysterically funny as well. Lindsey too was wonderful, and Grigòlo made for an emotional and believable title character. As Conducted by the dashing and dynamic Yves Abel, this was a tale to relish. It will be told again at the encore broadcast next Wednesday at a theater near you.


Huntington's "Second Girl": A Long Dazed Journey

Kathleen McElfresh, MacKenzie Meehan & Christopher Donahue in "The Second Girl"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Huntington Theatre Company’s current production is the world premiere of “The Second Girl” by Ronan Noone (whose “Brendan” and “The Atheist” had previously been staged by the company). It was the playwright’s expressed wish to write about the Irish in America, specifically Irish-born Americans, and he had the clever idea of portraying a day in the life of the three servants in the employ of the Tyrone Family made famous in Eugene O’Neill’s beloved “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. In these days of the rabid popularity of “Downton Abbey”, as well as the ubiquitous “reality” programs now in vogue, the temptation to present the downstairs flip side of that venerable classic must have been too great to resist. After all, in the original O’Neill work we were given only a brief exposure to the “second girl”, Cathleen (here performed by MacKenzie Meehan), and the rather dismissive description of her as “amiable, ignorant and clumsy, and possessed of a dense well-meaning stupidity”. Surely there was more to her than that, and it’s this premise that Noone has decided to explore.

The play begins in virtual darkness (just before sunrise) on that famous August day in 1912 in the Tyrone’s summer home, Monte Christo (named after the role the elder Tyrone played some six thousand times in his acting career). It starts, fittingly enough for this story, with a prayer. The cook Bridget (Kathleen McElfresh) has risen early, as has been her daily custom, to prepare breakfast for the family, the first of endless minor chores she faces each day. She’s shortly joined by Smythe (Christopher Donahue), a garage mechanic who has been moonlighting as a part-time chauffeur for the family. Finally, Cathleen, niece to Bridget, arrives to assist with the preparations. As they go through their mundane daily tasks, it becomes clear that their lives are pretty much defined by the work they do, and it’s tedious and repetitive work at that, interminably boring. They bicker, tease and flirt, as we are gradually given clues as to their past, and glimmers of what their futures might be. We learn that Cathleen (a survivor of the Titanic four months earlier) has spirit and gumption, that Bridget is rigid and frigid, and that Smythe, in his quiet and awkward manner, has dreams of a better life. Throughout the course of a day, loneliness becomes almost a fourth character, and all three change a bit, while remaining pretty much the same. Although there are revelations to be learned, they’re not the sort of critical developments of which great theater must consist.

All three actors are completely credible, natural, and comfortable in their roles, with occasional opportunities to rise above the superficial tedium of their lives. The direction by Campbell Scott is consistent with the author’s portrayal of these lives of quiet desperation. On both the creative and technical levels, the production is up to the company’s usually impeccable standards, especially with respect to the Scenic Design by the deservedly renowned Santo Loquasto (who has earned three Tony Awards, and fifteen nominations over his lengthy career). The kitchen, which seems almost an afterthought appendage to the house, is a marvel of intricate detail and practicality. Loquasto also provided the Costume Design, which is simple and appropriate. The Sound Design by Ben Emerson is unobtrusive, though curiously, although there are at least two references to the fog (which Mary Tyrone loved), there is no sound of the horns (which she despised). The Lighting Design by James F. Ingalls is a crucial element in its passage from one morning to the next with varying degrees of the light of a long summer’s day, and is very strikingly present at the first moment of the intermission.

At the end of the day, this is a well-constructed and painstakingly accomplished treatment of the often overlooked meaning of the menial in the everyday lives of people in service. It might profit from a bit of trimming and the omission of an intermission, as there is insufficient dramatic arc to support the need for a break in the action. It should also be noted that the first action after the initial prayer is a hasty gulp of spirits, signaling we’re once again in the land of the Irish stereotype. This becomes, for at least one character, a long dazed journey.


ART's "Father Comes Home": From the Servile War

The Cast of "Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva/ART)

ART’s current production, “Father Comes Home from the Wars, parts 1, 2 & 3”, by Suzan-Lori Parks (Pulitzer winner for “Topdog/Underdog”) is, by the playwright’s own admission a “mashup”. The first clue is the laid-back and low-key design scheme that visualizes her complex mix of the historical (the African-American experience since the Civil War) with the surreal and the magically real (a Greek chorus, mythological namings and literary allusions, grunge garb including Crocs and a Rolling Stones t-shirt). It’s not every play with major social themes like this one that could metaphorically mix the classical with the clowning as successfully as this work, and it’s not every playwright who could carry this off with such fearless focus and energy. Parks knows her sources well and utilizes them with all the aplomb and dexterity of a master juggler with a firm eye on the jugular. Pity the temerity of a theatergoer who’s unwilling or unable to surrender to the almost-lost art of storytelling at its purist.

Part 1, set in the spring of 1862 on a modest Texan plantation, and entitled “A Measure of a Man”, begins with a lively debate by the “Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves” (Charlie Hudson III, Tonye Patano, Jacob Ming-Trent, and Julian Rozzell, Jr.) and The Oldest Old Man (Harold Surratt) about whether the slave Hero (Benton Greene) will make the choice to accompany his “bossmaster” into battle, and leave behind the love of his life, Penny (Jenny Jules). Also involved in the issue is another slave, Homer (Sekou Laidlow). Part 2, in the latter part of the summer of the same year, set in “a wooded area in the South, pretty much in the middle of nowhere”, is entitled “A Battle in the Wilderness”, involving Hero, his master The Colonel (Ken Marks) and their captive Union soldier, Smith (Michael Crane). Part 3, set in 1863, again in a modest Texan plantation, featuring a group of runaway slaves, is entitled “The Union of My Confederate Parts” in which Hero’s fate is revealed by his faithful Odyssey Dog (Jacob Ming-Trent), in a sort of deus ex mongrel. There is much revelation to come, but won’t be divulged here. Suffice it to say that there are secrets that will inform you not just about these characters themselves, but about the playwright’s themes of faithfulness and freedom. Actually, if truth be told, Parks seems less interested in the abstract notions of pompous themes as she is in how her characters lived them or failed to do so. She’s not focused on “faith” and “freedom” as much as on what it means to be faithful and to be free. As the otherwise obtuse Colonel (who actually thanks God he was created white, a courageous bit of playwrighting in itself) asks, once the Union wins the war and they’re granted “freedom”, “What then?”; it’s the story of “what then?” that one looks forward to in Parks’ remaining parts.

This cast, first introduced in the production done in partnership with New York’s Public Theater last fall, is uniformly wondrous. It seems unfair to single out individuals, but Jules is so strong she commands that attention must be paid. And there’s that mutt, as incarnated by Ming-Trent, looking like a shag rug cross between an ottoman and Ozymandias, in a verbal and physical marathon of comic (and cosmic) acting that would split anyone’s sides. And both Greene and Laidlow are unforgettable, as directed by Jo Bonney, who’s quite an adept and adaptable, even astonishing, ringmaster. The technical crew is in keeping with this theatrically entrancing circus, from the Scenic Design by Neil Patel to the Costume Design by Esosa, Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu, Sound Design and Music Supervision by Dan Moses Schreier, and Music Direction by Steven Bargonetti (who provides continuity with his live performance of Songs and Additional Music by Parks).

At one point, we’re advised: “keep your treasures close”. That would presumably include creative artists like Parks, who has already lived up to her earlier promise. Her writing runs, nay races, from the sublime and lyrical to the (intentionally) low and ridiculous. Hers is a voice to be reckoned with, now and in the remaining six parts to come. As several of her characters in the current trilogy might say: Mark it.


Trinity Rep's "Middletown": Life is an Oreo Cookie

Justin Blanchard as Astronaut in "Middletown"

At the start of Trinity Rep’s production of “Middletown”, a 2010 play by Lowell native Will Eno (“The Realistic Joneses”), we are all (including the “newly departed”) welcomed to the little town, an ordinary place at an ordinary time, as aren’t they all. Later comes the kicker: “No, they are not, all”. We’ve been hearing from the Public Speaker (Fred Sullivan, Jr.), who is often compared to the Stage Manager in Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town”, but to overstress this brief similarity would be to miss the uniqueness of Eno. The playwright has said that he wants to convey the “difficulty of consciousness, and the various complications of even the simplest-appearing life”. As very well directed here by the company’s Artistic Director Curt Columbus, it soon becomes clear that this is not meant to be enjoyed as yet another nostalgia trip. One could put it that life is like an Oreo, with birth on one side and death on the other, with a lot of stuff in between. Before the play’s end, we know there will be both a birth and a death, but this doesn’t spoil the fun. It’s a very wise and wonderfully funny work.

The storytelling begins with Mary Swanson (Angela Brazil), pregnant with her first child, who has just moved into town next door to chronically troubled John Dodge (Mauro Hantman). Hoping to enjoy the closeness she expects from small town life, she finds that neighbors are strangers to one another and lack connection. There seem to be two lives being led, one visible and ordinary, the other invisible, and very mysterious, even epically poetic. Through the lives of what first appear on the surface to be ordinary lives being led by ordinary people, we begin to appreciate what the playwright is up to. These townfolk include the brash Cop (Joe Wilson, Jr.), a wacky Librarian (Janice Duclos), an Astronaut (Justin Blanchard), a kindly Doctor (Sullivan again) and a Mechanic (Lee Osorio). There are also some visitors touring the town (Rachael Warren and Tracy Allard) with a Tour Guide (Rebecca Gibel).

Eno knows just how to set you up for a warm and fuzzy scene (the one between Mary and the Doctor is especially lovely), then blindside you with absurdist humor. Note the Mechanic: “people don’t stop to think how lucky they are. I do. And, I’ve realized, I’m not that lucky. But I get by. If I had more self-esteem, more stick-to-itiveness, I might have been a murderer.” Or the Librarian quoting a Native American who first lived in the area: “Someone is born, someone will die. Both are you. Unwind, unknow.” And especially the Cop: “People come, people go…crying, by the way, in both directions”. Then there’s the tongue-in-check Tour Guide: “Sunglasses were almost invented here”. Eno is all about words. In one truly hilarious scene he has one character working under a sink inaudible to us, but another character can hear and respond, so we get a fractured half conversation. At the base of all of this is, in the Doctor’s words, love and forgiveness.

The entire cast is extraordinarily effective with just the right pacing by Columbus. Standouts are Brazil, Hantman, Duclos and Wilson, not to mention Blanchard in one beautifully cosmic scene. The Set Design by Deb O is mischievous and subtle (when a character does die, the light is quietly put out in his dollhouse-sized “home” set on a pole). The Costume Design by Alison Walker Carrier is smart and on target, while the Lighting Design by Josh Epstein and Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz convey a good deal of the underlying mystery.

Eno is a playwright to be reckoned with, whose lyricism even in the simplest of exchanges is spellbinding. As he says in the play, birth is both real and surreal. The same could be said for this groundbreaking new play. It makes us feel lucky, as one character sums it up, to be a human person. And a theatergoer, one might add.


New Rep's "Muckrakers": Weak e-Leaks

Esme Allen & Lewis D. Wheeler in "Muckrakers"

For the first half or so of New Rep’s current production of “Muckrakers” by Zayd Dohrn, there’s a good deal of realistic dialogue between its two characters, Mira (Esme Allen) and Stephen (Lewis D. Wheeler). The acting, and direction (by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary), are first rate, but the play soon becomes tiresome as one waits for something more dramatic to occur. Since we don’t really know much about these people, their sexual sparring isn’t particularly interesting, and neither comes across as remotely likeable. Though it strains credulity at first, she has invited this man, whom she doesn’t know any better than we do, to a sleepover at her apartment; it seems her organization (which she describes as an “online agitprop news source”) has just given him a journalism award because he has leaked sensitive government info (a la Julian Assange). He’s more than a bit paranoid about being followed (perhaps justifiably), though he assures her it’s “nothing personal, I don’t trust anybody…I assume they’re watching me at all times”. After a considerable amount of naturalistic banter, the true priorities of the playwright begin to emerge. It’s all about personal privacy vs. the public’s right to know, and related issues, certainly timely in today’s world.

What they are not, despite the author’s convictions, are sufficiently developed arguments. There are a lot of allusions to openness (“It’s all becoming clear…transparent…visibility is the beginning of morality”). But though the play makes a pass at some major contemporary issues, it never really tackles them. It feels somewhat like a laundry list of power points, first obscured by sexual politics, ultimately revealed (via two personal “secrets”, one telegraphed) but even then not very compelling in the context of this play. Any significance one would attach to this work comes from the topicality of the issues as demonstrated by external current events. The technical contributions to this production are all worthy, from the Scenic Design by Alexander Grover (early eclectic agitprop décor), to the appropriate Costume Design by Tyler Kinney, to the effective Lighting Design by Christopher Brusberg and eerie Sound Design by Edward Young.

There is surely grist for the theatrical mill in the issue of personal privacy, but not here: It presents a concrete invasion of privacy in having the female lead urinate in sight of the male lead (at his request, not ours)…the ultimate Wikileak. It’s a graphic illustration of the work’s lack of subtlety. While an admirable effort by an obviously sincere playwright, in the end it’s not groundbreaking, just more agitflop.


Underground Theater's "St. Joan": It's Bedlam

Eric Tucker, Andrus Nichols, Tom O'Keefe & Edmund Lewis, the Entire Cast of "St. Joan"
(photo courtesy of Bedlam)

What do you get when you have four actors playing some two dozen roles over the course of three hours? Why, bedlam, of course; that is, New York’s Bedlam Theater Company, now performing in Underground Railway’s current presentation of “St. Joan”, by George Bernard Shaw. Named as one of the New York Times’ Top Ten Plays of 2013, it’s an admittedly lengthy show (it is Shaw, after all), but goes by amazingly quickly, thanks to its pluperfect pacing, as directed here by Eric Tucker, Bedlam’s co-founder. The company’s other founder is Andrus Nichols, who plays Joan. The other actors in the company are Tom O’Keefe, Edmund Lewis (the latter seen recently in ART’s “The Tempest”) and Tucker himself. They’re all accomplished actors individually, but as a unit they’re a dynamic quartet indeed. All of them perform at breathtakingly full throttle, in what can truly be called immersive theater. At several points, sections of the audience had to move their seats, a strikingly concrete metaphor for the company’s revelatory approach to Shavian wit and wisdom.

This Joan’s arc is presented as neither progressing from peasant girl to saint nor as evolving from activist to madwoman. Straight off the farm, she’s pure and simple, as the company’s note puts it, an “illiterate intellectual, a true genius whose focus on the individual rocked the Church and the State to their cores”. Genius or not, this Orleans maid is unquestionably one of the most controversial figures in the herstory of Christianity. Condemned in her lifetime as a heretic (for reasons more political than doctrinal), she was canonized four hundred years later by the same hierarchical body that had reviled her. Putting aside for the moment the fact that her vision (and visions) of God was that of a bellicose one who chose sides, one can’t but admire her virtuous if naïve steadfastness. As Shaw puts it, her crime was simplicity, seen as heresy, and her punishment one of political necessity. The play gets off to a relatively slow start, given the amount of necessary exposition and historical context. Once Joan has confronted her accusers, both religious and secular, the question hangs in the air: are her voices from God coming from her imagination? (To which her answer is, where else?). Disbelievers are converted when the wind changes (quite literally, as a result of her prayers). Shaw then presents a fascinating debate about the new “protestant-ism” and “national-ism”.

Then it’s back to the viscerally protesting protagonist and the question of her pride or humility; she’s convinced she’s right to do as she does, so is this arrogance or obedience? As Shaw has her say about confronting the religious and secular authorities, “If there were no if and then, no pots and pans, there’d be no need for tinkers”. Joan herself exacerbates her fate by choosing to break rules, whether of organized religion, class, or gender. Her life inspired the likes of Voltaire and Mark Twain, Brecht and Schiller, Anouilh and Shaw, Cecil B. DeMille and Otto Preminger, among countless other re-creators. In an era when any women, much less peasant farm girls, were listened to or had their words and deeds recorded, on this basis alone she was miraculous. As Tucker notes in the program, this production, unlike most that are concerned with sheer length, includes the epilogue in which Joan argues that if she had been a man, they would not have been so frightened of her; she forgives them all, as everyone thought that she or he was doing the right thing.

In the hands of this stalwart group, aided by the simple Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski (including the projection of a subtle rose window), Shaw and his version of the Maid of Orleans (a force for social justice if there ever was one) once again come back to life. It’s an exemplary and inspiring troupe, this Bedlam, providing the sort of ensemble acting for which one dreams. And, in the end, the irony is that all of the players in the real-life drama are today remembered because of Joan, and she because of them: “They would not remember me as well if you’d not burned me”. So it often is with ardent activists who inflame the establishment of their day. In the end, as Shaw has her proclaim, “It is to God that we (all) must answer”. And, with this production, the theater gods must be very well pleased.

Fathom Events' "Merry Widow": Met Lite

Kelli O'Hara & Alek Shrader in "The Merry Widow"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

             Screened at Regal Cinemas Kingston; Encore presentation Wed. Jan. 21 @ 6:30pm

Composer Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” was a crossover triumph long before the term was even coined, gracing operatic and musical comedy stages. When this critic first saw this work at the Theatre am der Vien some forty years ago, it was in fact performed very much like a musical comedy, with the singers bowing after every number. Its premiere was also in Vienna, in 1905, and, fittingly, it was the Metropolitan Opera’s New Year’s Eve offering this year, in all its effervescent splendor. As its Librettist Victor Léon declared, this operetta was “not caviar for the people; it’s purpose was to serve as entertainment, pure and simple”. Here in its new English translation, from the original German, by Jeremy Sams (who also conceived and translated the Met’s recent “The Enchanted Island” as well as “Die Fledermaus”), it has appropriately updated lyrics , for example, the rhyming of “chantoozies” with “floozies”. This production boasts the work of Broadway’s Susan Stroman, (winner of five Tony Awards), as both Director and Choreographer, important in a work such as this that highlights several forms of dance (the waltz in first act, the traditional Slavic folk dance the kulo in the second, and of course the can-can in the third). As Conducted by Andrew Davis, this was a joyous romp.

The setting was Paris, filled with diplomats from the mythical Balkan nation of Pontevedro (thinly based on Montenegro). The Pontevedrian envoy (baritone Thomas Allen) wishes to keep in his country the hefty taxes paid by widow Hanna Glawari (soprano Renée Fleming at this performance, to be played by mezzo Susan Graham in April and May) by setting her up with Count Danilo (baritone Nathan Gunn). What the envoy doesn’t know is that they were romantically involved long ago but are now apart. A subplot involves the ingenue Valencienne (soprano Kelli O’Hara, five-time Tony nominee), a dancer or grisette at the famous cabaret Maxim’s, pursued by the French aristocrat Camille de Rossillon (tenor Alek Shrader). The action takes place to the accompaniment of some of the loveliest and most approachable music ever written. While the best known aria is the folk song “Vilja”, this production also features a solo taken from another Lehar work, “Paganini”.

To evoke an Epoque this Belle requires a host of gifted craftspeople. These would include Set Designer Julian Crouch, Costume Designer Broadway veteran William Ivey Long (making his Met debut with gorgeous work), and Lighting Designer Paule Constable (though, as is often the case with the Met, one could wish for more illumination and less darkness. The operetta itself provides a great deal of enlightenment, especially due to the always dependable Met Opera Chorus, under Chorus master Donald Palumbo, providing support and color.

There were several standouts in this production. First and foremost of course is the titular soprano, with Fleming offering a nice edginess to the often overly sugary role; too much schlage can make for too sweet a widow (especially since the original title is Die Lustige Witwe). She sang beautifully, as one might expect in a role carefully chosen as she winds down her illustrious career. What one doesn’t necessarily expect is that O’Hara is equally at home with this frothy world of delirious high notes and delicious low humor. This is in part the work of Sams with his versatile translation (such as “fan fatale”). Then there’s the marvelously adroit Gunn, no stranger to the musical comedy world as well as opera, and the exciting new discovery tenor Alek Shrader, with boyish good looks and the best voice on this stage. And who could forget the hilarious antics of theatrical veteran, actor Carson Elrod, as the jesting Njegus? But the true star of this excellent production, hands (and feet) down, was Stroman, whose helming was witty and whose choreography and movement direction was on view everywhere. It’s an extraordinary debut.

Some were critical of the use of so much dialogue in such a huge house as the Met. This was certainly no problem in the HD broadcast, which may in fact have provided a better venue than the Met itself. And if you were unfortunate enough to miss it, you’re in luck; you’ll find all the merriment repeated this coming Wednesday at a theater near you. It’s a delightful way to start off the HD broadcast New Year.