Indian Ink #43

indian inkI have an ongoing pact with a close friend to see as many of Tom Stoppard’s works as possible. A noble goal, all will agree, and not an undaunting task. Mr. Stoppard has been staging a play every 2-3 years since the mid ‘60s! And he’s still writing! Nevertheless, we are resolute and that is how we came to spend a lovely fall afternoon in a darken theater.

I really enjoyed the show, it was entertaining, well-acted, well written and even educational but at the end I’m not sure what the point was, or if there was a point. Being a work by Mr. Stoppard it possible that meaning is too subtle for me to discern or that the play is no more than it was, a snapshot of a person and a time. Which is entirely acceptable. Not to say that the play is irrelevant, there was conflict, and character growth and culture and history, but at the end none of it seemed to tie together, at least to me. Still, an enjoyable afternoon of theater.

IndianInk063rThe play takes place in two time periods and two places, 1930’s Royal India and 1980’s England and India. The story follows the adventure of a slightly known (and fictional) poet Flora Crewe who travels to India for her health. Her story is recounted from letters she wrote to her younger sister, Eleanor Swan, who as an old woman in 1980’s England is sharing the letters with an English professor who is attempting to write a biography of Flora. Flora has had minor success as a poet and is known for having a scandalous life, although she intimates that her life is less scandalous than most credit. Although there is almost certainly an affair with the artist Modigliani, which may or may not be the source of her illness. The majority of the story focuses on Flora’s relationship with an Indian artist, Nirad Das, who befriends her and asks to paint her portrait. He is the main conduit through which Flora experiences the culture of India. During this period of history British Expats in India had done a pretty good job of making India Britain, except for the heat and humidity. Flora is disappointed with the portrait when she sees it as the artist has rendered her in a continental style. “I thought you were and Indian artist,” she says; she quite clearly wanted a portrait in a “native” style, while he was attempting to please her by painting in a style he thinks she would prefer.

One of the mysteries that Ms. Crewe’s erstwhile biographer is attempting to solve is a reference to a nude portrait and her travels to India to find it. For some reason, not explained, both Flora’s sister and Nirad Das’s son conspire to keep this information from her biographer, initially independently of each other and them in collusion with each other. This is a curious point of the story, why does it matter to them now that this be kept secret when all other aspect of her life have been revealed. It’s not like in this day and age a nude portrait would hardly be shocking, it was barely shocking then. I suppose it’s a way to keep a piece of her for themselves or perhaps they are merely trying to protect Flora’s and Nirad’s memories from further exploitation for someone elses ambition.

The performances were all very good. Rosemary Harris as Eleanor was quite charming and funny. Firdous Bamji was excellent as the artist Nirad Das, I really enjoyed his performance very much as I did Romola Garai as Flora. In enjoyable and entertaining afternoon of theater and for 2-1/2 hour play very well paced.

A Streetcar Named Desire – NT Live #39

AStreetcarYes, this show is out of order but I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say about it. Every so often there are those shows that I really want to like but I just can’t seem to work-up any real enthusiasm for. I had heard generally good buzz about this show and about Gillian Anderson’s performance; I had heard especially good things about her recent performance in A Doll’s House so while I like A Street Car Named Desire I really was going to see this performance to see “what all the fuss” was about (plus I’m a Scully fan). I mostly came away feeling…fine. This was part of the NT Live series (which I am a HUGE fan of) so perhaps the performances just didn’t translate on screen but for me the show never really became engaging. So we’re going to keep this simple.

What I liked:

The acting was good, generally, I especially enjoyed Ben Foster’s Stanley, he seemed to properly encapsulate his bravado and insecurity simultaneously.

The rotating stage was a cool, especially when I realized it would sometime be rotating in the middle of a scene not just as a set change. It could almost be seen as a metaphor for the whirling dervish that is Blanche DuBois psyche. You know, if the second thing out of your mouth is “wonderful set design,” that’s not really a good thing. The set should always be in service of the actors.

Wow that might be it…nothing else was particularly note worthy.

What I didn’t like:

The southern accents just did not work for me. They did not at all bring to mind the languorous speech patterns of of the Deep South. It bugged just a little bit. Okay, a lot.

Minor anachronisms in the props; the play mostly seemed set in the 50’s – ish but then why are they using a cordless phone? It’s stupid but it really stood out and became a little distracting.

The penultimate scene, Blanche is descending a serious spiral of delusion, emotionally and physically. She’s a make-up smeared, drunken mess laying on the floor when Stanley comes in and this, this is the moment he decides it’s time to put an end to the “tension” between them? When Stanley rapes Blanche it is an act of dominance of bringing her down to his level, or more a confirmation that she was already at his level. The sodden mess he finds on the floor is most pathetic and hardly a challenge to his vanity or manhood.

I think the performance just lacked chemistry. Each actor did a good job but the performance never seemed to gel. The passion between Stanley and Stella, eh; the sexual tension between Stanley and Blanche, non-existent. I wonder if the rotating of the stage (it was relatively slow when they were in scenes) somehow made it harder for the actors to connect on stage. I can see it being disconcerting.

So this show falls into the “fine” category; it did not offend but neither did it excel. Never the less, still a huge fan of what Nation Theater is doing and I think my 2015 resolution is going to have to be a trip to the West End. I think it’s time I see some of these NT Live performances, live.

 

 

Elmer Gantry #42

elmergantry01The theme at Signature Theater last month appeared to be people who love each other but are still capable of exploiting their lover for their own personal benefit. You have the wonderful “Sex with Strangers” which explores the perils of modern day love, lust, publishing and the cyber age and “Elmer Gantry” which explores lust, love, faith and salesmanship in the prohibition era. One was more successful than the other. Not to say this was a bad show, but it is obviously a work in progress. It is not, as I had first thought, a revival of the original Broadway show “Gantry”  (which closed on opening night) but a new version that has been bouncing around the regional theaters for several years.

The baselmergantry02is of the musical is Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel of the same name and follows the exploits of a down on his luck salesman of, shall we say ‘loose,’ moral character. He is having little luck selling his wares and finds a much more appealing product to peddle in the beautiful, self determined Evangelist Sister Sharon Falconer and her traveling tent revival troupe. Gantry, taken by the sisters beauty and light that passed through her white dress if you sitting to the left of the pulpit, decides to insert himself into the revival troupe and help them sell God to the masses, for a cut of the gross receipts of course. Our Sister Falconer, knowing you can’t spread the gospel if you can’t get them into the tent, agrees to bring him aboard. Gantry, with seeming free reign, proceeds to rework their acts to be more “commercial” and inserts himself into the service as a repentant sinner who wandered off the path but has found salvation in the oratory of Sister Falconer. Hallelujah! The act works and pretty soon they’re sad little revival tour is the the hot ticket coming to a small town near you. As the tour progresses so does Gantry’s efforts to seduce the seemingly virtuous (yes, I said seemingly) Sister Sharon. She hints pretty early on that she is not all that she seems, she is no less ambitious that Gantry but the nature of her ambition is quite different and in the long run much more dangerous. Gantry’s ambition for money and easy sex are simple compared to Sister Sharon’s ambition for validation and recognition. It’s apparent that Gantry misreads the Sister from the beginning and when he final succeeds in seducing her, or more like when allows him to seduce her, he assumes they are cut from the same cloth and thinks he’s found a soul mate.

elmergantry17I like the concept of the story a lot, it hearkens back to the 80’s when television became a powerful tool to spread the “word” to a much larger audience and the line between providing genuine ministry and using flash and bang to sell God (and make a buck) was distinctly blurred. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” There is also an attempt to relate the depression era story to the current economic climate where the fat cats on Wall Street are “skimming the cream” and the businessmen who offer Sister Sharon her fondest desire, her own church, while they feign piety in a blatant effort to make a profit on the backs of the poor. In a not terribly surprising turn, Gantry, even with his less than moral behavior, I mean he fakes a healing so well even Sister Sharon thinks she’s actually healed someone, decides is a bridge too far. He’ll bilk the believers out of the hard earned dollars but foreclosing on their houses is wrong; rob a little not a lot! Sister Sharon is to blinded by her ambition for a her own church that her ministry is most important, since now she’s a faith healer, that she ignores the issue, or just doesn’t care.

elmergantry11It’s quite clear the intent is for Gantry to be wastrel with a heart of gold, a la Han Solo or Rick Blaine or Jack Sparrow kind of way. The charming lothario who saves the day, except he doesn’t and I’m not sure there was enough character development to take him from the 1920’s version of a Bro to a dark horse hero. Or at least it seems abrupt. Part of the problem there may have been the less than stellar chemistry between our leads. The passion just didn’t come across perhaps if it had our protagonists “conversion” at the end would have been more believable. For me, Sister Sharron was the less believable character, she’s either a honest pious woman overwhelmed in her zeal for God or she’s a shady lady looking to get ahead and starts to believe her own hokum; it’s kind of unclear which she’s supposed to be.

In all, it’s a good effort that with a little more work, and a little recasting the show could be much fun. The music is quite good and I’m always glad to hear other musical genres explored. The rousing gospel numbers made it easy to believe how people could be lured into the show and would leave feeling energized and excited. I thought the supporting cast and ensemble were quite good but this show rises and falls with the leads.

Broadway World – Columbus

I’m not one to generally promote such things but a talented young actress who I happen to know has been nominated in multiple categories for her local chapter of BroadwayWorld.com.

She’s been treading the boards for the better part of her life (a brief time it may seem to some) in one form or another, be it dancing, acting or singing, and sometimes all three. While her career is yet young their is such potential for much more.

taryn 1taryn 2She can be as dainty and delicate as a princess …

Or as gruesome as the ghouliest of ghouls …

trayn 3To say she has great flexibility is an understatement …

This is a way of saying that if you were to go to Broadway Wold.com-Columbus (as in Ohio) and voted for a Taryn Huffman under the categories of “Person to Watch,” Leading Actress in a Musical” and “Best Young Actor Under 18” it would not be a vote ill-spent.

Galavant – A Fairy Tale Musical

Obviously ABC is attempting to cash in on the relative success of the “Once” franchise and the “Glee” trend of making musicality on TV acceptable. The more I watch this clip the more I want to see the show. It helps that they’re not taking themselves seriously at all, and that there’s a distinct touch of Python to the whole thing. I give serious credit to anyone who had the courage to pitch this show and to the people who approved it. It may be an abysmal failure, I mean has there been a successful musical TV series? “Glee” really doesn’t count, it’s not truly a musical; “Smash” started out strong but faded fast; even the star power of Hugh Jackman couldn’t save “Viva Laughlin;” anybody remember “Cop Rock?” Plus, it’s nice to see something new on TV that isn’t another CSI-esque drama or rom-com sit-com.  This could be the only good three minutes out of all 8 proposed episode but it looks just ludicrous enough to work, at least in the short term. Coming up with decent musical numbers week after week is going to be difficult; although, Mr. Menken is certainly prolific. I will be totally annoyed if there’s only one or two musical numbers per episode, that is not a musical; in a hour format, a minimum of 4 is what I would require.

The plot seems pretty standard, but then again it is a Fairy Tale, there are standard tropes one must hit in a good fairy tale. They have a handsome prince, check: damsel in distress, check; evil but not particularly dangerous villain, check; thwarted romance, check; galloping horses, check; but at the same time they’re poking fun at the genre as well. We will have to wait and see if this will be a fun bit of escapism or just bad. Either way I’ll be tuning in, assuming it doesn’t play against Sharknado III.

It starts January 4th, put it on your calendars.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HebCU8X34JE

A Thurber Carnival #41

Thurb-250x250I have a pretty strict policy of not reviewing community theater productions that I attend. It’s just not fair to compare amateur productions on shoe string budgets to the regional production or national tours. I have a great deal of respect for people who take the not small amount of effort and time it take to put on shows for often small audiences. That’s some serious love a performing. The Thurber Carnival is a series of skits based on the life and writings of author James Thurber. They were clever in the keeping the costuming and set design monochromatic. The feel of the show had a modern day Laugh-in feel to it, especially in the opening and closing numbers.

 

Sex With Strangers #40

sexThere is just something about really good piece of theater where all the elements, the writing, the directing and the acting, even the set design, come together to form this perfect  morsel of theater that is entirely satisfying and still leaves you wanting more. This is what keeps me coming back to the theater time after time; sitting through bad shows, mediocre shows, the merely good shows and the really good shows, every once in a while you find these tasty morsels of goodness that tip over into an exceptional piece of theater. Frankly, I’m usually happy to come out of a show entertained but occasionally you hit that wonderful trifecta of entertainment, talent and content that make a great show; that’s Sex with Strangers.

Ethan and Olivia meet on a dark and stormy night in a secluded retreat. Olivia is a talented writer who was traumatized by the unsuccessful launch and criticism of her first book years ago. Ethan is a bros bro who has gotten wealthy from turning his blog (about his escapades having sex with strangers) into a couple of successful books and a movie. These divergent people, both who are trying to escape what they have become and become what they would like to be, meet in the woods one night and the paths they choose makes all the difference. I’m not going to give too much away, the discovery of the characters and there action and motivations is part of the fun.

SexWithStrangers2The show does a wonderful job of maintaining this undercurrent of tension throughout the play about the characters feelings and emotions. There is always that soupcon of doubt about their true motivations. These are two people who are genuinely attracted to each other, have not insincere feeling for each other but who also find they may have a use for each other. There is this back and forth on which is the stronger motivator in the relationship. From the beginning you’re certainly skeptical of Ethan’s motives, at least I was, but at the same time you are really rooting for him to be the person he’s attempting to be as opposed to the person he has been or may still be. His persona, the one he mostly lets you see, is so damn likable and charming that you want to believe this is a person genuinely seeking change.

Olivia, well, you like Olivia from the beginning. She’s smart and talented with a droll sense of humor and aside from her fear of trying to publish again she is the epitome of the modern urbane woman but not in a stuck-up way (okay a little stuck-up.) Olivia secures the high moral ground pretty early on but there comes a moment in the play where the decisions she makes related to Ethan, spurred by the possibility of success, may be as much about his utility as her affection for him. The real tension blooms when what is best for each of their ambitions stops following the same path.

SexWithStrangersThe playwright, Laura Eason’s, writing is witty and insightful and very relevant to the hurdles of love and ambition in the digital age. In exploring these characters relationship we’re also exploring numerous modern day issues; the pervasive nature of social media and how it affects how we interact with the world, the on going objectification of women and their bodies for entertainment, women’s complicity in the that exploitation, the bros will be bros culture of men (to be fair, of some men.) All issues we see and talk about nearly daily and rarely have consensus on. Yes, social media is every where but damn if it’s not a useful tool. The bro culture isn’t positive but this is America and a bro’s got a right to be a bro. (But be careful, when you’ve decided you don’t want to be a bro no more, social media may object to that!)

This wonderful and witty writing is beautifully performed by Holly Twyford and Luigi Sottile (I’ll let you figure out who plays who.) For the tension in this play to work you really have to believe that these two characters are truly attracted to each other and Ms. Twyford and Mr. Sottile have on-stage chemistry that is simply off the charts. You expect a play with “Sex” in the title to be at least a little sexy and they deliver steamy passion. And if that isn’t enough they are also quite good in the parts of the play that require speaking. They’re equal to the witty intelligent dialog and bring these two characters to life and bring into reality their emotions and conflicts. You care about these characters and you can’t help but root for them but at the same time you must acknowledge that  life doesn’t always, actually rarely, allows for the perfect happy ending. Of course I’m not saying it’s not a happy ending, or actually an ending at all. Just like life there are always new decisions and new conflicts to be resolved.

One final nod to the set designer, I loved this set, I want to live on that set. Like the performance the design had wit and charm.

The show is playing through the first week of December at Signature Theatre and I really can’t recommend it enough.