Cloud Nine

Cloud Nine

Smile Option 1

The last time a major production of Caryl Chuchill’s Cloud Nine was seen in New York was in 1981 so I was very pleased to catch the revival at Atlantic Theater Company. This lovely, touching performance is running through November 1st, and I do think it’s worth your time.

Cloud Nine was a popular play to study back in college, especially in my Contemporary British Feminist Playwrights class when I studied abroad in England. How does one sum up this play? It’s about family, love, and sex. Even more so, it’s about oppression and putting people in boxes, forcing them to meet certain expectations, particularly gay people and women.

The first act is set in colonial Africa during the Victorian era, and then the second act jumps forward to 1979 in London. However, the characters have only aged 25 years, something my older seatmates across the way had a little trouble grasping, but don’t worry, we talked it out during intermission. This storytelling twist provides a unique opportunity to view this set of characters in two contradicting worlds, yet ironically, the standards and expectations of society seem not to change much between the two time periods. And as we watch this in the year 2015, we find that the topics of LBGT rights and feminism are just as ripe.

Cloud Nine is point blank and subtle all at once. It’s controversial and ordinary. It’s goofy and serious. Done in the round, this production, directed by James MacDonald and featuring a smart, excellent ensemble, accomplishes just what I think the play intends. I would love for you to go and tell me what you see. Do you think it makes a point? Do you think the point has been made before and it’s becoming trite? Or is this old play still bringing something new to the table?

The older folks sitting by me asked, “Is Caryl Churchill a feminist?” “Yes,” I replied. “Ohh, did she hate men?” I hope they are able to come away from this piece recognizing that those are two different things.

Note: the seating is not very comfortable. The bleachers that were constructed to allow for a more intimate, in-the-round performance are not ideal. The Atlantic is encouraging audience members to bring a pillow or small cushion to make their seat more comfortable. Usually I’m the first to complain about bad seating (my back issues makes me an easy target), but I did okay! It’s not a reason to skip the show.

Cloud Nine
Written by Caryl Churchill, Directed by James MacDonald
Atlantic Theater Company, Closes November 1st
Photo Credit: Doug Hamilton
Pictured: Lucy Owen and Chris Perfetti


Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods

Into the Woods

Talk about the opposite end of the spectrum from this year’s blockbuster movie “Into the Woods.” The film, with its starry cast, lush sets, and special effects, may leave you thinking that this is the production value required of such an epic piece. But what you can witness at the Roundabout Theatre Company right now makes a strong argument for simplicity. By returning to its core – cutting the expensive costumes and even a full orchestra – we see these characters, raw and available, for all their faults, dreams, and wishes.

This is Into the Woods stripped bare. Fiasco Theater has gone back to basics with a much beloved show, throwing away the many interpretations we’ve seen over the years and starting from scratch. What do these characters want? What are they really saying/singing? The company takes the book scene by scene, lyric by lyric, and re-approaches them as if it were new material. And the hard work shows (highlights here). As someone who knows ITW very well, I heard lines in new ways, saw things I’d never noticed before, and to top it off, didn’t find myself missing the old ways. With a minimal set and only a few instruments, this small ensemble creates an entire world for us to behold, and like a fairy tale, many things are left up to the imagination. Take all the prop stand-ins: the hen is a feather duster, the cow a man (an absolute stroke of genius), the horses toy sticks, Rapunzel’s hair a yellow yarn hat, and so forth. Most of the accompaniment relies on Musical Director Matt Castle on piano, but the cast also doubles as the pit, stepping in to play cello, xylophone, bassoon. A few also play multiple roles: Rapunzel is Little Red, Jack’s Mother is Cinderella’s Stepmother, etc.

The orchestrations are unique and beautiful. In an odd way, losing the full orchestra highlighted the music even more. Who knew I’d been craving Sondheim music played only on guitar? The staging is also full of surprises. You never know what’s going to be transformed next. The set is stunning, the stage basically the inside of a piano. Up the proscenium sides are keys, along the wings are the insides of actual pianos, and the back wall is filled with strings that turn into the woods (no pun intended) themselves.

The cast is not that strong vocally (except for a few stand-outs), but it’s actually a testament to the innovation behind the production itself that this doesn’t take away from the show. Of course I missed having a certain power behind a few voices, but they make up for it. There is heart behind each and every performance. Nothing feels glib or mocked; it’s genuine and full of love for the story.

[SPOILER ALERT in this paragraph] This production also serves as a defense of what I wrote about in my movie review. Rapunzel’s death is so, so, so key to the plot, not just for the Witch’s arc, but the arc of the show in general. When that scene is done correctly, it changes the air in the room. Her death, and Jack’s Mother’s, sit in the space, the weight heavy on us, as the two actresses leave those costume pieces behind and move back into roles that live on. These deaths drive the characters, they drive the remainder of the second act, and they drive the message of the show.

It’s likely you’re not interested in seeing a show you’ve already seen or one that you can go see for $15 at a movie theatre (or on DVD soon enough), but I assure you, despite being an old favorite, this Into the Woods is brand new.

Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine, Co-Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld
Laura Pels Theatre, Closing April 12th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: The cast of Into the Woods


Cabaret

Cabaret

Last Thursday, I was fortunate enough to attend the opening night of the revival of Cabaret. And when I say revival, I mean that in the most literal way possible. As you may already know, Roundabout Theatre Company has remounted the Sam Mendes production that opened in 1998 and ran until 2004 (starring the late Natasha Richardson). Sadly, I missed it the first time around. Originally I had questioned the choice of putting up the same show. In my book, the point of producing a revival is to revisit a classic in a new way, to find a different angle. But boy, am I glad they did so I could see it now. It’s rare to get that kind of opportunity. Cabaret is back and once again it’s starring Tony-winner Alan Cumming as the Emcee, and together they are tearing it up at Studio 54.

Cabaret itself isn’t a flawless show – it’s long and certainly drags on in parts. There are a few songs that don’t need to be there (the pineapple song anyone?). Although you could argue that every seemingly unnecessary number contributes to the story as a whole. Every piece has a place in the puzzle – pieces that slowly build (or more appropriately, collapse) the world around us. For example, the songs Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz share aren’t particularly strong, but we need them in order to grow close to these characters and care about their relationship, so we can be even more distraught when things come crashing down.

It’s remarkable to me that a musical I’m so familiar with (Oh! How nice of you to ask – I was in it my senior year of college) can still be so chilling. Like the first time a swastika is revealed, you can practically hear the silent gasp emanating from the audience. And even though I know it’s coming, it’s still a punch in the gut. The same goes for “If You Could See Her (The Gorilla Song),” and basically, let’s be honest, the entirety of Act Two. It’s a one-two punch, over and over again. The fun, crazy world that is initially created is shattered as reality sinks in. That’s the beauty of Cabaret. It’s enough to make you almost forget what’s coming. It’s all fun and games with the Emcee, but the moment the kick line kicks into a goose step, we know there’s no going back.

The majority of this seamless shifting in mood can be credited to the wondrous Alan Cumming who is still ridiculously sexy, sensual, and sleazy in the role. Plus he sounds fantastic. His Emcee is a performance everyone should be lucky enough to witness. He makes it feel like a private show just for you, full of seedy antics and entertaining songs, and at the same time, creates a dark, mysterious sense of foreboding of what’s to come.

All of the supporting characters are also excellent, particularly the Kit Kat Club dancers, Fraulein Kost (Gayle Rankin), and the newly Tony-nominated Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz (played by Linda Emond and Danny Burstein, respectively). And even though the critics can’t agree, I will vouch for Michelle Williams. She impressed me. I’m not sure how I feel about her take on the character (although this could very well be a director’s call). Sally Bowles is larger than life, especially in Act I, and Michelle’s Sally is much more reserved and fragile. I think that fragility should be bubbling under the surface but not necessarily for the entire story. That fear and heaviness seems to be there from the start, rather than the somewhat-oblivious, party-loving girl. Still, it was interesting to see something new. And her performance of “Cabaret” is extremely powerful. I bet her performance as a whole will only get stronger and stronger as she gets more comfortable on stage.

All in all, I give Cabaret two thumbs-up. You should definitely try to see it, especially if you missed the last revival. And even if you didn’t, why not get chills all over again?

Cabaret
Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Book by Joe Masteroff, Directed by Sam Mendes, Co-Directed by Rob Marshall
Studio 54, Closing January 4, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Alan Cumming and the Kit Kat Club Dancers


The Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie

If you’ve spoken to anyone about the newest production of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway, then you already know that not one person has a bad thing to say about it. As a result, I feel like this review might end up being a little bit gratuitous – simply one more positive response to add to the mix. But if you’ll indulge me, it is a beautiful revival, literally and figuratively.

In its natural essence, as Tom states in the opening lines, Menagerie is a memory play, but I don’t think I’ve ever before seen the “memory” factor as effectively portrayed as it is in this production. We revisit Tom’s past by his side and see with his eyes what continues to haunt him to this day. Together we stumble back into his memories. Through stage magic and stylized movement, it feels almost like a dream. Which I’ve come to learn is exactly how this play should feel. This is one of those productions (similar to David Cromer’s production of Our Town at Barrow Street) where you leave thinking, “Oh. That’s how that play is supposed to be done.”

The set and lighting design alone create the space for Tom’s memories to take form. Much of the stage is dark with only certain pieces of scenery highlighted, patchy in the dark corners of his mind. There’s a fire escape that leads to nowhere and a home floating on a reflective surface. We too float in Tom’s memory. The memories are also physicalized through movement, repeated gestures, the appearance and disappearance of characters, private moments as characters loom over the edge of the living room.

Despite the beauty of the design elements, we know that most people see this play for the acting. These are four iconic roles, and across the board, these actors will not let you down. You might think you’re only going for Cherry Jones (Amanda) or to see Zachary Quinto (Tom), but Celia Keenan-Bolger (Laura) and Brian J. Smith (Gentleman Caller) are just as excellent. Quinto is enticing in his Broadway debut. His southern drawl draws everyone in from the opening moments. Keenan-Bolger gives a beautifully subtle performance as the extremely shy Laura. In the first act, she practically blends in with the scenery.

Now my experience of Amanda has always been the ultimate overbearing mother. She is a domineering, angry woman who feels burdened with her children and the abandonment of her husband. But Cherry Jones has changed my view. True, this woman is can be a lot to deal with day after day, but she cares deeply about her children. She wants the best for them and is desperately trying to lead them to “happiness and success.”

The brilliance of this play and John Tiffany’s direction is that the audience reaches intermission craving the arrival of the Gentleman Caller just as much as the Wingfields. We crave the new energy, a new character to shake up the status quo. Maybe he really will be the answer we’ve all been looking for.

Which brings me to the Gentleman Caller scene. I swear, sometimes I think that scene is all Tennessee Williams needed to write. It’s so real and beautiful and absolutely heart-breaking. This particular performance is so incredibly private and fragile; it feels like it’s just you, Jim, and Laura sitting together on the floor for hours. It was also a nice change to see a new interpretation of Jim. He isn’t portrayed as the perfect cut-out of a man. He has struggles of his own – with his work, his future, and his confidence. He and Laura aren’t so different after all. It’s astounding to me that in such a short amount of time, the entire audience can feel the same kind of crushing disappointment that Amanda feels and the guilt that plagues Tom.

The Glass Menagerie is going to be the piece that people talk about all season long. This production made me see this classic play in a completely new light. That’s the whole point of a revival, right?


The Glass Menagerie
Written by Tennessee Williams, Directed by John Tiffany
Booth Theatre through February 23rd
Photo Credit: Michael J. Lutch
Pictured: Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith