A Tale of Two Cities – Synetic Theater

As the frequency with which I go to the theater has expanded from casual attendance to OCD levels of attendance (that some may say required professional intervention,) I have made it a conscious decision not to just attend the traditional theatrical performances of a known quantity/quality, but to widen my scope to include what some would call “fringe” productions; of course a production is only fringe until it’s successful critically and financially; Rent is a good example of such a transition. This is how I came to be a frequenter and often admirer of Synetic Theater productions; this is a group that is not afraid to push boundaries and take risks that other theater companies are less inclined to take.  It is one of my favorite things about them but this is also my way of sugar coating a bitter pill.

Two-Cities-03With risks there is always the danger of failure. If I’m being kind I would call this production “uneven;” if I’m being less than kind I would have to say it fell more into the category of “hot mess.” I’m not sure if this is a failure of material or method but as in most things it’s likely a combination of the two; although I’m not sure anyone could make this material work.

The material was tough. The conceit of the show was that a budding drag queen finds an abandoned baby on her door step and in an attempt to calm the baby she reenacts the majority of the movie of “A Tale of Two Cities.” Something that complex with that many characters and backstory being relayed by one person, that’s a lot of acting.  Thanks goodness she wasn’t reenacting the book we’d still be there, Dumas Dickens was not known for brevity. If you were not familiar with the story being depicted, I’m not sure at all that you would have gotten a handle of it from this material. I think greater clarity would have come from brief periods of narration to help ground the tale; this show seemed to rely on the assumption that audience was familiar with the characters and their relations to each other. Granted, I’m assuming the retelling A Tale of Two Cities was not the point of the story but what was is not quite clear to me. If I was digging for some relevant modern day meaning, one could draw parallels between the persecution of people (not just the aristos) during the French Revolution with the persecution and marginalization of LGBTQ community, that’s not a difficult reach.

Two-Cities-01As far as the execution of the work goes, it definitely did not feel…what’s the word? settled? gelled? fully formed? any and all of those really. I appreciate keeping the show with-in it’s 2 hour run time, especially with no intermission, but the entire production felt rushed and frentic and it needed a better construct to help contain all the characters that inhabited that stage. Alex Mills, who’s work I’ve enjoyed at Synteic and elsewhere, cannot be faulted for lack of effort, he’s selling those characters as fast as he can but he can’t seems to find a good rhythm with which to progress the narrative. I am curious if the decision to make the baby character interactive was part of the original off-Broadway production or if that was an invention of Synetic to give Mr. Mills a foil to play off of on stage. The Vato shaped baby-head worked better than I would have expected had anyone forewarned me of it; it was simultaneously amusing and just little disturbing.

It was not an awful production and there were a couple of instances where Mr. Mills landed on one character long enough to create a moment that was quite good but then we were off to the races again. It was obvious by the paucity of attendance that the concept of this show is not appealing to their typical audience but I must admire Synetic Theater’s willingness to take risks and I will likely meet them on that limb again.

Their next season has been announced and I think there’s great potential there and I am especially looking forward to them bring back their wonderful production of Twelfth Night.

The Audience – Broadway

The latest Broadway Blitz* was a lovely, lovely weekend of theater with not a dud in the bunch! And I’m already plotting as to how I can get up there again, preferably before I the Tony Awards, I’m a little low on the play quotient this year; I’ve only seen one of the Tony nominated plays! But that’s for another post.

audience01We kicked off our weekend of show-tasticness with something that really could not be missed, Dame Helen Mirren as QEII(Queen Elizabeth the 2nd, not to be confused with the ship) in The Audience. This really was a simple decision, I’d heard great things about this show when it played in London and was very excited when they announced it was coming to Broadway. Dame Mirren is one of those actors that you just go see; although, not to brag, it was not the first time I got to see her on stage. Several years ago she was in a quite wonderful in a production of Phèdre at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, right here in our modest little city on the Potomac. See… not at all braggy.

But back to the show; The Audience depicts 60 years of the Queen’s meetings with the different Prime Ministers that have served during her reign…but it is actually quite interesting and entertaining. It’s an interesting journey through a history I admit I’m a bit lax in knowing. I always love the shows that make me go back to my computer and google things. It is also a very interesting glimpse beyond the stoic royal faςade, that may or may not be accurate, but you leave the play hoping that it is. The play portrays the Queen not only as intelligent and thoughtful, even at a young age, but also as kind of wickedly funny.

audience02The play does not follow a strict chronology but bounces back and forth between the different decades of her reign; Dame Mirren’s (yep, going to keep calling her that) first transformation, from the Queen in her mid-60’s to her mid-20’s, which they manged to do almost seamlessly on stage, was rather awe inspiring. Yes, the costuming does help, but the subtle and not so subtle changes in the portrayal was quite exceptional. You start with the 65+ year old queen with 4 decades of rule under her belt and you regress to the 26 year old woman, not yet even crowned, dealing with the onset of a vast amount of responsibilities and having to wrangle with a Winston Churchill, who has distinct ideas of how things should be done. As you move forward and backward through the history her reign Dame Mirren continuously transforms herself, yet maintains a continuous thread of who Her Majesty is beneath the required royal protocol. Flashbacks to Elizabeth as a child lays what seems to be a pretty good argument that QEII has always found the Royal Life rather chaffing and restrictive and having been given her druthers she would have been quite content with a life in the Scottish highlands, having been able to take her husbands name as “normal” women were wont to do.audience04

The Prime Ministers, and don’t worry you don’t go through all 12 of them, only seven of them, were a diverse and varied group of actors. Dylan Baker is nominated for his role as John Major, although I have to say that amongst all the other excellent actors he did not leap out as exceptionally better. Not that I’m disagreeing with nomination, just and observation, all the actors were quite good. I found it interesting that of all the Prime Ministers it seemed that Margaret Thatcher got the least sympathetic portrayal; and that’s even with Anthony Eden causing the whole Suez Canal Crisis (look it up, it’s and interesting early slice of the West meddling in the Middle East over oil.) Although my understanding is that the Queen actively disliked Mrs. Thatcher and since this is her story perhaps it is not in appropriate.

audience05One interesting construct in the play is that Queens Equerry (Majordomo/Factotum) did not change at all throughout the play, obviously this position would have been filled by different people throughout the 60 years but he is our guide/narrator for the play and remains unchanged. Perhaps this is a nod to the consistency of the Queen’s reign, or perhaps even of the British Empire? Or I’m just reading too much into it. The coronation scene that ends the first act is one of the most moving scenes of the play, it brought a tear to my eye, and is a wonderful argument to give Dame Mirren the Best Actress Tony, besides the fact that she’s Dame Helen freaking-Mirren, and we should all just shut up and give her the award already!

All that aside, an excellent and entertaining evening of theater, would I give it the Best Original Play Tony? Probably not, I still think Disgraced is a much better play.

Coming up Next my review of the new musical, Fun Home. Don’t let the name fool you.

*Broadway Blitz = a weekend spent seeing as many shows as possible