Intimate Apparel

Intimate Apparel

Quincy Tyler Bernstine & Tasso Feldman; photo: T. Charles Erickson

As Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat continues on Broadway, you can see her much-produced earlier work, Intimate Apparel, at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton.  It opened May 12 and continues through June 4. Directed by the award-winning Jade King Carroll, Intimate Apparel takes place in 1905 on New York’s Lower East Side.

In Nottage’s story, reportedly based in part on the experience of her own great-grandmother, a lonely 36-year-old African American corset-maker reaches out, by post, to a distant male correspondent she has never met. As she cannot read or write, Esther, the corset-maker (played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine), relies first on a wealthy white client (Kate MacCluggage), then her more amorous-minded friend, the prostitute Mayme (Jessica Frances Dukes), to compose her letters.

Her correspondent is George (Galen Kane), a young Barbadian engaged in the grueling work of building the Panama Canal. Typical of people in epistolary relationships, Esther and George read between the lines of these exchanged letters, creating an image of the other that doesn’t line up with who they actually are. Inevitably, their meeting will be a challenge in reconciling dream and reality.

The two strangers finally do meet, on their wedding day. Esther wears a beautiful dress made from yardage of white lace, a gift from a man who does know, understand, and appreciate her, the gentle Jewish cloth merchant, Mr. Marks (Tasso Feldman). He and Esther visibly yearn for connection, while all-too-aware of the cultural and religious barriers that separate them.

George, by contrast, turns out to be rough-edged, sexually demanding, and costly in every way. Esther can’t say she wasn’t warned. Her cautious landlady (Brenda Pressler), gossiping and busying herself around the boarding house, is into everyone’s business. However, she is genuinely fond of Esther, her boarder for almost two decades.

The cast of the McCarter production is excellent, especially Bernstine, who appears in every scene, and the ragtime-playing Dukes. Although her piano-playing is a theatrical illusion, she pantomimes playing the jazzy tunes with gusto. Thanks to Nicole Pearce’s lighting, the set design from Alexis Distler enables a half-dozen different “rooms” within a single scaffolded backdrop and minimal furnishings, and it echoes the “New York under construction” meme of Hamilton.

Those strengths aside, the play itself is disappointing. The story is sadly predictable, and Nottage has chosen to tell it almost entirely in two-person scenes. Interspersed is an occasional monologue (George reading “his” letters to Esther—a bit of a puzzler there, since it turns out he didn’t write them). It’s like going to a concert of nothing but duets. You long for a trio or a chorus number to break up the pattern and provide an energy boost. There’s too little of the vitality of the time and none of the cacophony of the locale, which may be a feature of this production rather than the play itself. But see it for the fine performances.

Additional production credits to Dede M. Ayite (lovely costumes); Karin Graybash (sound design); and Thom Jones(dialect coach).

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

TV’s Charles III

Charles III

Tim Pigott-Smith in Charles III

Sunday night, PBS’s Masterpiece Theater will present the Tony-nominated play, Charles III (trailer). Mike Bartlett wrote both the blank verse play and the adaptation. I saw it on Broadway—see my review for more details—and if the televersion is as good as the stage one, it will be well worth seeing. “Part political thriller, part family drama, and a timely examination of contemporary Britain,” says PBS.

In a nutshell, the Prince of Wales is finally able to ascend to the throne following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, England’s longest-serving monarch.Then the games begin, pitting the unpopular and lackluster Charles against the lively and ambitious Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton (played by Charlotte Riley). And Charles almost immediately starts making a hash of things by injecting himself in a vital policy debate.

In real life, of course, Charles’s succession is considered a dubious outcome of Elizabeth’s reign. Polls suggest that more than half of Britons actually would prefer he be skipped over entirely, putting William on the throne. William V, that would be.

In a her article “Most Likely to Succeed: Where Prince Charles Went Wrong,” New Yorker writer Zoë Heller talks about his persistent unpopularity. One source of it is that he puts his oar into waters about which he knows little, taking stances that “do not follow predictable political lines but seem perfectly calibrated to annoy everyone.”

An exceedingly promising aspect of the television presentation will be the carryover of West End and Broadway cast-members Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles (“the role of a lifetime,” London critics said), Oliver Chris as Prince William, Richard Goulding as Harry (“the ginger idiot”), and Margot Leicester, practically a body double for the galloping Camilla.

WINK

Wink, Joshua de Jesus

Joshua de Jesus as Wink

We braved the Amtrak/New Jersey Transit/Penn Station debacle last Sunday to go into New York to see an off-off-(perhaps a third off is needed here, I’m not sure)-Broadway play in which our nephew-in-law is appearing.

It was fun to rub elbows with intrepid theater-goers, trying a performance that might be a little risky, perhaps hoping for something a little risqué and figuring out which cast member they are related to. The play is Neil Koenigsberg’s WINK, directed amiably by Ron Beverly, and playing at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, just south of 10th Street through May 7.

Since we’d allowed so much extra time for train delays, we had ample time for a long cross-town walk and fortification with blood marys at the bar across the street from the theater, where a baby shower was in full swing.

The cast did a terrific job (nephew-in-law included), but the play itself is problematic. It takes place in Hollywood today, and its major conflict is between the desire of a teenage character, the eponymous Wink, to not declare a gender—“I’m just Wink”—and the determination of a Hollywood agent to find out. If Koenigsberg—a former Hollywood public relations luminary-turned-playwright—had set the play in 1950 or somewhere other than Hollywood, this obsession might be more believable. The gender identity wars are being fought on different ground.

A good reason to see this play, though, is to see Joshua de Jesus as Wink. He does a heartfelt job on territory that’s pretty well trodden. Joe Maruzzo is engaging as a past-his-prime actor, Jose Joaquin Perez is a homeless counselor, and Nikole Williams a public relations consultant struggling with how to describe Wink and getting no help from anyone. The awful agent is our nephew, Joe Isenberg.

As Director Beverly told me after the show, “Joe has to be willing to be not liked,” and he paraphrased a reviewer who said, “you may not like this character, but you can admire Joe’s portrayal.” We did! And we liked all the do-wop music too.

When Stage Productions Fail

Rose, red

photo: Vineetha Nair, creative commons license

Ouch. When a stage production doesn’t really work for you, who’s at fault? Are you having a bad day? Is it the play itself? Is it the production? We’ve all found ourselves at stage events where we thought—what??? This is Supposed To Be Good?? Remind me, how much did I pay for these tickets?

The Tony-award-winning Book of Mormon, was incessantly advertised as the best musical of the 21st century, after only one decade of that century had elapsed, but I didn’t even bother to review it. I found it so offensively racist and, this is a technical theater term, moronic, why bother? The problem was not the fault of the hard-working cast, but the cupidity of the original writers and producers.

This last weekend we saw a local community college production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1932 classic tragedy, Blood Wedding, immensely popular in Spain, I’m told. The plot of the original is probably a bit simplistic and over-familiar for modern audiences. There’s a deadly feud between two families and the daughter of a third family is involved with young men on both sides. Nothing good results.

What drew me to it was the promise of dance—tango, Argentine tango, and flamenco—integrated into the production. Plus, I’d never seen the play. A bad case of too-high expectations.

My notes for the producers:

  • The dancing is interesting, both the ensemble numbers and the sexy tango between the bride and her lover – good job!
  • Don’t conceive of staging that is beyond the capacity of the technical staff to implement; the moving curtains were tricky and slow
  • Yes, the mother of the groom bears great grudges, but let her develop a broader palette of emotions. Constant kvetching doesn’t maintain audience interest.
  • Eliminate redundancy. Even Shakespeare is trimmed for modern audiences. The mother doesn’t need to describe her complaints more than twice. Respect your audience. We get it.
  • Pick up the pace. Show you value the audience’s time.

Of course, I don’t know what happened in Act II with this production, because we cut our losses and went home. (Would that we had done that with Book of Mormon.) We weren’t the only ones.

This isn’t a complaint about Garcia Lorca, who wrote in and of a particular culture and time, and I’ve appreciated his House of Bernarda Alba, with Blood Wedding, part of his unfinished rural trilogy. You’ll recall that Lorca was only 38 when he was assassinated at the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Nor is my complaint about the mostly student cast, who soldiered gamely on with material so foreign to modern life, language, and ways of thinking. A number of them did fine jobs. Rather, my disappointment is with the theater director and producers who needed to shape a production enabling the whole team—cast and crew—to be part of a big success.

Does a play or musical come to mind that seriously disappointed you? How did it let you down?

Come from Away

ComeFromAwayLogoThe affirming new Broadway musical Come from Away is lively and warm-hearted, with a special tug at the heart for every American remembering 9/11. On that terrible September morning, dozens of planes carrying thousands of passengers were en route to the United States when the country closed its airspace. Those planes had to land somewhere else, and 38 of them landed in Gander, Newfoundland, the rock in the sea.

Suddenly, Gander’s population nearly doubled. The nearly 7,000 passengers and crew were from all over the world. They had all sorts of issues. They—and the 19 animals with them—needed food, places to sleep, their medications, phones, and . . . someone to talk to. Come from Away tells how the people of Newfoundland rose to this unprecedented occasion with amazing generosity.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the book, music, and lyrics based on hundreds of  interviews with the people of Newfoundland, as well as many of the stranded passengers. A cast of twelve plays multiple parts—both townspeople and passengers—and most have been with the ensemble continuously since its first production at the LaJolla Playhouse in 2015. The cast is uniformly strong, with good singing voices, good energy, and a well-honed ability to switch from one role to another so there’s never any confusion.

Although the production has many characters, there are definite stories and relationships. One is the experience of an American Airlines pilot. She wanted to fly since childhood, because when she flew, “nothing was between me and the sky.” She gets a job flying corpses at first, then corporate jets, and ultimately became the airline’s first female pilot. Now, to think her beloved airplanes were used as bombs, “something’s come between me and the sky.”

The music is provided by an eight-person band, split on either side of the stage and featuring instruments you might associate with Irish music—pipes, and the Bodhran (flat drum)—as well as guitars, a violin, and percussion. Occasionally, the musicians join in the dancing, and most of the songs are sung by the whole cast, with only brief solos. This creative choice emphasizes the show’s theme of community pulling together.

Christopher Ashley directed the 100-minute show, which is performed with no intermission. Ian Eisendrath is the musical supervisor and Kelly Devine, the choreographer. The simple and versatile set is by Beowulf Boritt, with costumes by Toni-Leslie James.

Come from Away has been performed at the La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Rep, Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, and, the program says, the hockey rink in Gander, Newfoundland. It’s now at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

“Because we come from everywhere, we all come from away.”

Behind the Scenes at Murder on the Orient Express

set model, dining car

3-D Printer Model of Dining Car, Beowulf Boritt; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

McCarter Theatre Center’s annual Backstage Tour was expertly timed this year. Participants got the inside scoop on the fantastic sets and costumes created for the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s Murder on the Orient Express, directed by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann.

Because McCarter does an elaborate version of A Christmas Carol every December, the production team couldn’t start creating the sets and costumes for Agatha Christie’s iconic story until early January, explained David York, the quiet genius who is McCarter’s Director of Production.

By then, they had the costume sketches from six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long, and the set designer, in this case Tony Award-winning Beowulf Boritt, had presented the production team with a highly detailed model of the set produced by a 3-D printer. Creating the sets and costumes involved  thirty-five crew members and some seven thousand hours of labor, first in the construction and costume shops, then, in a week of very long days, making everything work on stage.

Stage set

Portion of the stage set, Murder on the Orient Express, McCarter Theatre; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The production team built two and a half truly spectacular railway cars that travel back and forth across the stage, using a braided wire rope system, much like San Francisco’s cable cars. The production also required a gorgeous new curtain, which has moving panels that can mask portions of the set, as needed. (Four painters spent four {?} days stenciling the Turkish design on the curtain.) Once the timing of every aspect of the play was finalized, managing the rail car and curtain movement is computer-operated.

Prop Master Michele Sammarco described the high degree of authenticity the production crew strives for. In a brief scene, the railway conductor delivers a tray with a roll and coffee. The prop department decorated both sides of the cup with the period-correct Orient Express logo, a detail probably no one in the audience can see, but which conveys a sense of being “really there” for the cast. Similarly, eight characters need passports from different countries. All eight look different and include the correct cast member’s photo and information.

Getting both the big, splashy elements—like the railroad cars—as well as the innumerable small touches right makes a big difference in the quality of the theater-goer’s experience. They are why eighteen thousand people have rushed to see this show in its two and a half-week run. If you’re not one of them, you have until Sunday, April 2, to try to get tickets! Call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

Murder on the Orient Express

Hercule Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express - Corduner

Allan Corduner as Hercule Poirot in McCarter Theatre Center’s Murder on the Orient Express; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Here’s a play for people who like fun! Agatha Christie’s masterpiece, Murder on the Orient Express, has been adapted for the stage by award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig. This world premiere opened March 17 and is on stage at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through April 2, directed by McCarter’s artistic director, Emily Mann. Already the buzz about the show is at a high pitch, and it is reportedly on track to sell the most tickets in McCarter history. The popularity of the theater’s earlier foray into Christie-land, last year’s The Mousetrap, required an extended run.

Starting from the opening scene in an elegant Istanbul restaurant, the production design transports you to the menacing—and in Ludwig’s adaptation, humor-laced—world of the story. Tony Award-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt has created a stunning representation of the ill-fated train, the luxe Orient Express, for the cast to play on. Beautifully surmounting the technical difficulties of staging a play whose action mostly occurs on a train, the cars move, the snow falls, the whistle blows, and you are off on a theatrical adventure.

In true Christie (and cozy mystery) style, the violence is minimal, clues are everywhere, red herrings and all, and the ensemble cast is peopled with quirky characters, confined in a setting where every interaction is significant. All gather for the final dramatic reveal, led by Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Allan Corduner), in the train’s dining car.

The cast includes an exiled Russian princess (Veanne Cox), a Parisian conductor (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), a showtune-singing, multiply-married, Minneapolis mahjongg-player (Julie Halston), a dewey nanny (Susannah Hoffman), a glamorous Hungarian countess (Alexandra Silber), an English manservant/secretary (Juha Sorola), an African missionary (Samantha Steinmetz), a military veteran and the murder victim (Max von Essen), and the manager of the Wagon-Lits company, Monsieur Bouc (Evan Zes).

In order to preserve his company’s reputation, Monsieur Bouc is determined to enlist Poirot in solving the murder of an American gangster stabbed in his sleeping car. Poirot finds himself presented with too many clues, and it’s delightful to see Carduner and the cast sort through the information and disinformation presented. Each of the actors brings verve and sharp definition to their performances, especially noting Corduner, Halston, and Silber.

In attendance on opening night was Matthew Pritchard, grandson of Dame Agatha and in charge of her estate. In pre-opening conversations, Pritchard said his grandmother had a great appreciation and love of live theater. How effectively her work transitions to this medium testifies to that sensibility. He commissioned Ludwig to choose one of her stories for a stage adaptation, and Orient was Ludwig’s first choice. Not only is it a story not previously presented on stage, the unusual setting, the striking characters, and dramatic plot create the “sense of occasion” Ludwig strives for.

In addition to Boritt’s glamorous set, the production enjoys wonderful costumes by six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

Incident at Hidden Temple

Incident at Hidden Temple, Pan Asian Rep

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto – photo: John Quincy

Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s current production—the world premiere of Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple—is an evocative reminder of a pivotal piece of World War II history, and its title reminiscent of my favorite mystery novels—the Tang Dynasty adventures of Judge Dee. Part noir murder mystery and part political showdown, the play takes place in Southwest China in 1943. Under the direction of Kaipo Schwab, the production opened January 26 at Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row.

U.S. Flying Tigers squadrons are helping the Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek (played by Dinh James Doan). In the first of the play’s many short scenes, an American pilot (Nick Jordan) is murdered by a Chinese woman (Rosanne Ma).

Nearby, a train stops at a place called Hidden Temple, and journalism student Ava Chao (Ying Ying Li) disembarks to stretch her legs. She meets Chinese-American pilot trainee Walter Hu (Tim Liu) and a mysterious blind man (also played by Dinh James Doan).

Ava’s younger sister Lucy (Briana Sakamoto) also talks to the blind man, who tells her a story. In one of the play’s most charming moments, he and she act out the story using classical Chinese gestures and body movements. When Lucy disappears, Ava seeks help in finding her from U.S. General Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles), head of a Flying Tigers squadron.

Soon, several mysteries are in play. Why was the pilot killed? Why is Walter Hu pretending to be someone else? What happened to Lucy? Will any of the characters ever be pure enough in heart to see the hidden temple?

Meanwhile, on the stage of world power politics, larger issues are unresolved. Van Holt wants to cooperate with Chiang and build a forward air base in the eastern region of China from which U.S. planes can attack the Japanese islands directly. General Stillwell, through his aide (Nick Jordan), opposes this plan. The Japanese are the immediate threat, but Mao’s Communist forces in the north also must be reckoned with.

Act One does a good job in setting up the multiple conflicts and questions. While Act Two has resonant moments, it isn’t as strong, relying on some unlikely coincidences and encounters. Ultimately, though the story questions are answered (except the biggest one, which the playwright leaves to the audience), there’s almost too much to bring together smoothly.

The staging and the acting overall are excellent, with Dinh James Doan and Ying Ying Li deserving special mention. Set designer Sheryl Liu, in tandem with Pamela Kupper (lighting), creates just the right amount of moody atmospherics on a stripped-down stage.

For tickets, call Telecharge: 212-239-6200 or telecharge.com. Special performances and discounts are detailed at the Pan Asian Rep website.

Saint Joan

Saint Joan

Andrus Nichols & Eric Tucker in Saint Joan; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Bedlam Theater Company is presenting, in rotating repertory productions, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through February 12. Each of the plays is done with the same four cast members playing all the parts, which makes for some quick persona changes.

Due to scheduling difficulties, I’ve seen only the Saint Joan—a difficult choice, because Hamlet is always revelatory, and the experience of each is meant to shed light on the other. As with any Shaw, a good twenty minutes near the end could be ditched. Good old G.B.S. seems determined to bang audiences over the head with his messages. Still, you’ll never see a more vigorous interpretation of this work, one that easily keeps you going through a full three acts (in direct contradistinction to the growing trend for one-act, 90-minute affairs), as religious dogma and divine inspiration cross swords.

The cast members manage to be simultaneously energetic and nuanced, and they wring every bit of humor out of the play’s early scenes. Bedlam founder Eric Tucker was terrific in Saint Joan, especially as the Earl of Warwick, but then all the actors (Andrus Nichols as Joan), Edmund Lewis and Tom O’Keefe (both in numerous parts) keep your interest and your intellect on their toes. I’m as much a fan of gorgeous sets and inspired costumes as anyone, but Bedlam’s stripped-down, bare-stage version has the virtue of showing how brilliant actors can conjure people and relationships to life unaided.

Bedlam has a commitment to using “all the house,” and for Saint Joan, the first few rows of audience seats were on the stage, and a cast member occasionally emerged from somewhere in the main house. Not to worry, audience members aren’t called upon to do more than observe.

Despite having been a patron of the Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Shaw Festival for more than 20 seasons I’d never seen Saint Joan. And, if you also feel this classic is worth getting to know, you might never find a more approachable and engaging mounting of it than this one.

For tickets, call the McCarter box office at 609-258-2787, or visit the box office online.

The Ghostlight Project

Ghost Light

photo: David Nestor, creative commons license

Safety considerations bolstered by a healthy love of superstitions led theaters to always leave a light burning on stage at night. A bulb in a simple stand will do. (I see Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly dancing with one of these, but that may be my imagination). This tradition inspired The Ghostlight Project.

Yesterday at 5:30 in each U.S. time zone, outside some 700 theaters across the country, people gathered to create/shine/be a “light” for values the creative community holds dear, particularly “the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone.” Here in Princeton about a hundred people and one dog met outside McCarter Theatre Center to hear pledges from the organizations that use the building—McCarter, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Princeton Triangle Club—to uphold those values.

Most important, these efforts are not meant to be a one-off. From these initial seeds, many more activities are expected to grow. If you’ve wondered how you can respond in a positive and ongoing way to negative trends in our country, you may want to track what your local theater community is planning going forward. Artists have always led the way, let us hope they can do so again, despite the increasingly uncertain funding future for the arts.