Tent Revival: Online Theater

Last Monday was the premiere of Tent Revival, a play by Majkin Holmquist directed by Teddy Bergman, as part of the series, Bard at the Gate. This is the third season for the series, which is co-curated by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel and McCarter Theatre Center Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson, and co-produced by McCarter. Its goal is to create an audience for groundbreaking new plays that are “ambitious, quirky, and smart.

Tent Revival takes place in rural Kansas, 1957. The strong cast is led by Robert (played by Michael Crane), a farmer unable to make a go of it who turns to preaching. He’s strongly supported by his wife, Mary (Lisa Joyce), injured in an auto accident a decade earlier. Daughter Ida (Susannah Perkins) is the most interesting of the three, because she’s the most up-front with her doubts. She isn’t sure she buys into all the professions of faith and “Jesus is sitting right beside me,” and spends her Sunday mornings roaming the farm fields looking for snakes to have as pets. When Mary, in a frenzy of defending her husband from doubters, rises from her wheelchair and walks again, Ida’s convinced. For a time.

Someone who doesn’t share these doubts is the extremely vulnerable teenager, Joann (Allegra Heart). Joann willingly fakes a stutter so Robert can “heal” her, in order to convince people he truly has a gift. In addition to the four cast members mentioned, a fifth actor (Amy Staats) takes on multiple roles, usually as a skeptic.

The crowds grow, the pressure mounts, the demand for healing intensifies. When Mary relapses and ends up back in her wheelchair, Bob tries to exile her from the show (bad publicity). But he has to produce something to satisfy the crowds of people coming to be healed, and he talks Ida into snake-handling—with rattlesnakes. Mary has other ideas and decides to test Robert’s faith. Is it real? The ending is ambiguous, but I think he does have faith, just not in the way the tent revival audience believes.

The performances were filmed in a particular way—in closeups projected side-by-side, in color and, when Ida is narrating rather than participating in a scene, in black and white. This gives a feeling of action in what is a minimalist production. You can access Tent Revival (video on demand) through Broadway on Demand.

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Newman and Woodward: Acting Up!

This week in New Plaza Cinema’s entertaining lecture series on the movies and the people who made them, film historian and author Max Alvarez talked about the 50-year creative partnership between Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, illustrated with numerous film clips. More than half a century ago (can this be true?) Paul Newman became my favorite actor with his portrayal of Ari Ben Canaan in Exodus, a status he cemented the next year in The Hustler.

So many of his great roles, were in the late 1950s and 60s (Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [1958], Hud in Hud, Luke in Cool Hand Luke, Butch in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Henry Gondorff in The Sting, Frank Galvin in The Verdict [1982]). Just the films mentioned garnered him twenty-five major award nominations, including seven Academy Award Best Actor nominations. Yet he didn’t receive an Oscar until 1986, for reprising his Hustler role as Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money.

While Newman was a dominant screen presence in those years, Woodward stayed more in the background, keeping her career secondary to her family role. (The couple has three daughters.) Nevertheless, accolades came early for Woodward. She won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her performance in The Three Faces of Eve (1957). Over his career, Newman acted in 57 feature films, and she in 27. They worked together—as actors, or with him directing—on 14 projects.

Newman and Woodward both arrived in New York in 1951, and, two years later, they met as understudies in Josh Logan’s Picnic, which gave Newman his Broadway debut. He arrived after Yale Drama School, and she, five years younger, studied in New York with Sanford Meisner in the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. She never completely lost her Georgia accent. Though they both worked on Broadway, they’re best known for films. As Alvarez emphasized, in that era, Hollywood was willing to produce a fair amount of serious adult drama, many based on literary works, which was lucky for them.

Alvarez found screen tests of each of them with James Dean for the 1955 film, East of Eden, based on the John Steinbeck novel. Judging by their tests, either or both of them might have been at least as good as Elia Kazan’s ultimate picks, Richard Davalos and Julie Harris. (Commentators frequently note that Dean’s untimely death opened up roles for Newman that otherwise might have gone to the then better-known actor.)

Newman and Woodward’s first film together was The Long, Hot Summer (1958)(trailer), based on William Faulkner’s stories. During filming, they became a couple. Newman, already married with three children, needed a divorce before he and Woodward could wed.

Other notable collaborations for the pair were 1959’s From the Terrace (trailer), based on a John O’Hara novel. It was filmed mostly in New York to accommodate Newman’s Broadway acting schedule for Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth. In 1961, they appeared together in Paris Blues (trailer), with Newman on the trombone and Sidney Poitier on the saxophone. A jazz aficionado says Newman faked it pretty well. Newman directed Woodward in the low-budget Rachel, Rachel (1968)(interview with Newman and trailer), based on a novel by Margaret Laurence. The movie turned out to be both an artistic and surprise financial success. It was Newman’s directorial debut and led to his winning the Golden Globe and NY Film Critics Circle Award. Woodward also won those two awards. He also directed her in a 1986 film version of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (full movie), which features a young John Malkovich (worth seeing for that alone!).

Their final film together was the 1990 Merchant/Ivory production, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (trailer), about a sheltered Kansas City couple who must grapple with the profound social changes surrounding World War II. To keep costs down, the film was shot in real locations in Kansas City and received donations of costumes and props, modest and not-so: 100 gallons of paint from Benjamin Moore and a dozen Tiffany lamps and 1930s paintings from a local law firm, for example. Woodward’s performance was especially praised. The New York Times said “there is a reserve, humor and desperation in their characterizations that enrich the very self-conscious flatness of the narrative terrain around them.”

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Death of a Salesman

Having missed the opportunity to see a performance of Death of a Salesman in Portuguese last spring in Lisbon (I’m kidding), we eagerly bought tickets for the current Broadway version. It stars Wendell Pierce as Willie Loman and Sharon D Clarke as his wife, Linda. Both could not be better and gave affecting, memorable performances. Pierce was nominated for an Olivier award for his performance in a London production of the play.

I know I’ve seen this play several times, including when I was much younger, possibly even as a college student, as Arthur Miller had roots in Ann Arbor. The current version at the Hudson Theater offers whole new vistas of meaning for me now. I remember it being talky and, frankly, a little dull, but it shimmers with life in this version, almost as much as Willie shakes trying to pull his thoughts together. The themes of life disappointments, deluded parenting, and coming to the end of a road, all mean more to the older me, I suppose.

The New Yorker review wasn’t wild about the performances of Khris Davis as Biff Loman and McKinley Belcher III as his brother, Happy, young men in their late twenties. I found them energetic and mesmerizing. They carry out the stylized movements signaling events from their teens with verve. André De Shields appears as the ghost of Ben, haunting his younger brother Willie with his tales of brilliant success in “the diamond mines.” His mantra that all it took was hard work is a lesson that has failed Willie.

Director Miranda Cromwell has subtly updated the production of this 70-plus-year-old gem. There are a few references to its original era, but you don’t feel trapped in a time capsule. Plus, it fits the Black cast so well, you may think the Lomans should have been cast with Black actors all along. Certainly, some ways in which Willie is treated become freighted with new meanings.

So glad I saw it; you will be too!

Florence and Mojo

These two short plays by pioneering Black playwright Alice Childress are now on stage in a riveting production at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, under the direction of Lindsay Smiling. Premiering October 26, the show runs through November 13.

Childress wrote, produced, and published plays for forty years. Born in Charleston, she said “Coming out of the Jim Crow experience was what I and many others had to do,” and the first of the plays (Childress’s first play), Florence (1949), addresses this experience directly. It takes place in a small-town train station waiting room in the South. The room is divided into two sections, alike except for the “Colored Only” and “Whites Only” signs and the segregated bathrooms. Oh, and the whites are offered a battered standing ashtray.

Mama (played by April Armstrong), is waiting for a train to take her to New York to check on her daughter, an aspiring actress, whom Mama fears is near destitute. Her younger daughter Marge (Billie Wyatt) tries to persuade Mama to bring her sister home. After Marge leaves, a white woman, Mrs. Carter (Carey Van Driest) appears, and the two talk. The ingrained attitudes and structures of racism are revealed, made even more painful when Mrs. Carter makes a gesture she intends as kind, which is anything but.

Mojo (1970), the longer of the two plays, takes place twenty years later, near the tail-end of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. The setting is the mid-century modern Manhattan apartment of Teddy (Chris White). He’s preparing to meet his white girlfriend and make arrangements for a poker game he feels confident he’ll win. As he’s off-stage, a woman opens the door with a key. She’s laden with a suitcase and shopping bag of gifts. Clearly, she plans to stay a while.

Irene (played brilliantly by Darlene Hope) is Teddy’s ex-wife, and through the sparring between them, their backgrounds and secrets gradually emerge. When Renie divulges how she looked for the face of her lost daughter in every child she saw, Hope’s intensity brought tears to my eyes.

Childress was raised in Harlem by her grandmother, who encouraged her to write and challenged her to focus on people struggling to get by. She does exactly that in these two plays. She creates especially complex female characters in both Mama and Irene.

It would be interesting to know how today’s Black audiences regard Irene and Teddy’s attitudes toward the Civil Rights movement. They speak as if they are indifferent to it, yet in the two decades between the stories, much had changed and much hadn’t. In the fifty years since Mojo was written, you could say the same.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.

The Wolves

Photo Credit: © T Charles Erickson Photography

On stage at Princeton, NJ’s McCarter Theatre Center through Sunday, October 16, is the Sarah DeLappe play, The Wolves, directed by McCarter artistic director Sarah Rasmussen. Among its several award nominations, The Wolves was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017.

“The Wolves” is the team nickname for a girls’ high school soccer team, and you see them in warm-ups and post-game chatter. As in any group of nine teenage girls, there’s a lot of talk, a lot of overlapping conversation, and a lot of feeling each other out and jockeying for status. The girls are identified only by their player numbers, DeLappe says, because she wants to emphasize the team as an organism, and thinks of their involvement as a kind of warfare, with “a bunch of young women who are preparing for their soccer games” instead of battle.

But of course, it’s the individual girls who stand out, and the cast does an excellent job at creating distinctive personalities—not just through the dialog, but also body language, voice, the whole package. Much as the girls want to be integral to this team, not everyone fits in. And some who think they do, don’t. If you remember high school at all, this can be painfully realistic.

The girls do more than gossip. They also engage in halting discussions of the news of the day. The trial of leaders in Pol Pot’s regime, for example. Oops, now the whistle blows and they’re off. Trying to connect with the realities of other lives and places is a lifelong challenge. The whistle of quotidian demands blows for each of us.

On the whole, I enjoyed it, and the scenic design by Junghyun Georgia Lee and lighting design by Jackie Fox put you right in harsh glare of an indoor stadium.

For tickets, contact the box office online.

On Stage: The Caretaker

Fans of Harold Pinter should make a point of seeing The Caretaker at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. The production, directed by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte, opened September 23 and runs through October 9. Monte deserves considerable credit for bringing such a challenging play to the stage—and so successfully.

Like many absurdist plays, The Caretaker has its moments of commingled comedy and tragedy and a slapstick scene reminiscent of Godot or the Marx Brothers. Mick (played by Jon Barker) has set up his older brother Aston (Isaac Hickox-Young) in a derelict apartment, which Aston is supposed to be renovating, but clearly isn’t. One night Aston brings home the garrulous tramp, Davies (Paul Mullins), whom he rescued from a fight. Davies is full of complaints and always searching for an angle, trying desperately and unsuccessfully to get on the same wavelength with first one brother then the other.

Each brother, separately, suggests to Davies that he become the caretaker for the building, though, he admits, he “has no experience in caretaking.” The brothers each have a job description in mind, and both include tasks Davies is unable and unwilling to perform. His sole preoccupation is getting a roof over his head and doing as little work as possible.

The three actors’ performances are impeccable. Barker is always a master at physical movement and repartee, and Mullins—whining, wheedling, looking out for number one—is simultaneously endearing and repellant. Hickox-Young doesn’t come to the fore until the second act, when Aston describes his mental hospital experience in an affecting monologue.

All three characters spin their wheels in ways both familiar and outrageous, and their flashes of humor and insight illuminate a great many truths. As Pinter himself said, “These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other.” The Caretaker lets audience members pursue their own truths, amidst the clutter of Aston’s apartment.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.

The Metromaniacs

In case you thought “catfishing” was a phenomenon enabled by the anonymity of the Internet, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is here to disabuse (and amuse) you. The theater’s second main-stage production this season is David Ives’s wildly charming play, The Metromaniacs, adapted from Alexis Piron’s 18th century French farce, La Métromanie, directed by Brian B. Crowe. “Metromaniac” means a person addicted to poetry—think meter, as in metronome, not metropolitan—and the plot is based on a real-life scandal.

The action takes place in the yard of Francalou (Brent Harris), a wealthy playwright and poet. He’s seriously annoyed at the critical reception his work has been receiving from some young upstarts and begins writing poems for Parnassus, the local literary taste-setter, under the assumed name, Malcrais de La Vigne. His fictional Breton poetess becomes the toast of Parisian literary circles, though no one has actually met her, and Francalou’s biggest critic—would-be poet Damis (Christian Frost)—falls in love with La Vigne, sight unseen.

Meanwhile, Damis and his long-time friend Dorante (Ty Lane), who knows nothing about poetry, are incognito for various reasons. Dorante wants to woo Francalou’s romantically-inclined and poetry-loving daughter, Lucille (Billie Wyatt). He haltingly pretends to be poetic, only to see Lucille briefly wooed away by Damis’s servant, Mondor (Austin Kirk). Lucille’s maid Lisette (Deshawn White) has mischief up her sleeve too, and convinces Mondor that she is actually Lucille.

I could go on, but it may be sufficient to quote David Ives’s 2015 introduction to the play: “The Metromaniacs is a comedy with five plots, none of them important.” While the details of the plots are frothy as meringue, the skills of the actors (also including John Ahlin, who plays a judge intending to straighten out his nephew Damis) are such that you keep everyone straight.

Ives’s work is a witty, nonstop display of literary fireworks. The dialog is written in rhyming couplets, and before you think that might become tedious, it doesn’t. The rhymes are so inventive and the wordplay so apt that you can almost forget the degree of artifice. The entire cast enters into the antic spirit and embellishes the worldplay with entertaining physical comedy.

The seven characters are themselves rehearsing one of Francalou’s plays, involving suspiciously similar characters, akin to a hall-of-mirrors effect. And it gives Mondor several opportunities to claim “I’m not a servant, but I play one.” And play he does.

Francalou’s backyard, transformed into a stage set representing a woodland, is complete with painted cutout trees—perfect for lurking behind or stashing prop pistols. And the costumes are beautiful, perfectly reflecting the characters who wear them.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.

Broadway Babies

Two plays in two days hardly competes (except in price) with our five plays in four days sojourns at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival. Still, last weekend we were on the go!

The room in our hotel near Penn Station was technically larger than the bed, as long as you crabbed along sideways. We didn’t plan to spend much time there, so hardly cared, until the middle of the night when . . .

Our first stop was the Museum of Arts and Design at 1 Columbus Circle. In its exhibits on now–“Garmenting” and art jewelry–some of the jewelry could technically be worn. The garments, probably not (see the teepee dress). Afterwards we had some time to kill so sat a while in Central Park. After several big inhales there, it’s possible we were stoned.

Off to our first play: Tracy Letts’s The Minutes! If you’ve ever sat through a public officials’ meeting that’s struggling to stay on track, you’ll totally get the humor in the play’s first hour. A new member of the Big Cherry City Council is trying to find out what happened at a meeting he missed and why a fellow-councilman has mysteriously been removed. No one wants to tell him. Once they do, the last 15 minutes could be from another play altogether. On the whole, it was entertaining, well acted, and we were glad we saw it. (Tracy Letts is in it.)

Lovely dinner at Trattoria Trecolori on 47th Street, very crowded with the pre-theater seating, but quieted as curtain time approached. Husband Neil has a broken toe, so we couldn’t walk to the restaurant and decided to grab a pedicab. We’d never ridden in one. I think he’s at the bank now trying to negotiate a second mortgage. We chalked it up to a nice “experience,” which, on such a lovely warm evening, it was.

Sunday morning, we saw the special Winslow Homer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. Really, really wonderful. Lots to like, including Maine seascapes you could drown in. As you probably know, he’s considered a greater artist with watercolor than with oils. On one occasion, he produced a watercolor, and when the buyer was told the price, he said, “But it only took you an hour to paint it!” “An hour to paint, a lifetime to learn how.” (Now you know my full repertoire of artists’ quips.)

Next up, the matinee of The Music Man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. When the railway coach full of traveling salesmen appeared for the opening number, such an excited din arose, I thought I’d teleported to a high school football game somewhere in Texas. Then, when Hugh Jackman stood up at the rear of the train car, it was, wow, must be the championship game! Excellent singing, lively rendition of the score, choreography fresh and inventive, I liked the sets. The whole show is an exceedingly pleasant package.

During intermission, the drama continued in the long line for the men’s room. A belligerent man behind Neil complained loudly and incessantly, as if he were the only person who had to wait his turn. The usher tried to settle him down, but the man totally lost it. When Neil got back to our seats, he started to tell me about it, but I’d already heard the whole story from the two guys sitting behind us. Never a dull moment!

We topped all this off with a sushi dinner, made a 7:14 train. Arrived home, greeted by cats.

Enchanted April — Last Weekend!

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey leads off its 60th season with Matthew Barber’s charming romantic comedy, Enchanted April, directed by theater artistic director Bonnie J. Monte. You may be familiar with one of the story’s earlier adaptations, including the 2003 Broadway production, with its Tony Award nomination for Best Play, or with 1991’s star-studded British film. Perhaps you even read the 1922 book, The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim, which made an Italian sojourn a rejuvenating aspiration for Britons. In creating the stage version, Barber adjusted some of the plot but lost none of the appeal.

It’s set in the early 1920s, when the devastating effects of the Great War and the ensuing Spanish Influenza epidemic have left their mark. The ebullient Lotty Wilton (played by Monette Magrath) and uptight Rose Arnott (Carey Van Driest) are very different in personality but alike in being trapped by unhappy marriages. Lotty’s husband Mellersh (Greg Jackson) is controlling and penny-pinching; Rose, a highly religious woman, is offended by the scandalous books her husband Frederick (Anthony Marble) writes. The sympathetic Magrath and Van Driest are the core of the story and carry it forward brilliantly.

Spying a newspaper advertisement for a month-long stay at a castle on the Italian Riviera—wisteria! sunshine!—sounds like paradise to Lotty, compared to the oppressive gloom and rain of London. She and Rose can’t quite afford the rent and recruit two additional women to join them, the waspish Mrs. Graves (Elizabeth Shepherd), firmly rooted in Victorian era mores, and her opposite, Lady Caroline Bramble (Samantha Bruce), a jazz age society star.

The first act powerfully demonstrates what Lotty and Rose are desperate to get away from. Mrs. Graves wants to join them and run the show according to her tastes, and Lady Caroline has her own ghosts. In Act Two, the bright and beautiful atmosphere of the castle retreat shows its transformative powers. In this optimistic play, every heart can be opened and healed, and the actors movingly portray their emergence from cocoons of resentment, fear, and grief.

Castle owner Anthony Wilding (Aaron McDaniel) also has a lacuna in his life, you discover. Meanwhile, the cook/maid, Costanza (Celeste Ciulla), whose dialog is almost wholly in Italian—as is her attitude—brings laughter to every scene she’s in. Impatient with the demanding Mrs. Graves, affectionate with the castle owner, she sees and understands all. It’s pleasant, upbeat summer fare, now in its last weekend. Don’t miss out! For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.

Photo: Daniel Rader

A Walk on the Moon

© T Charles Erickson Photography tcharleserickson.photoshelter.com

George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, is presenting the new musical, A Walk on the Moon, May 6 through May 21, based on the 1999 movie. The story takes place in the Catskills, summer of 1969. Neil Armstrong is set to take his iconic moonwalk, the Woodstock music festival is imminent, Civil Rights and anti-war demonstrations roil the nation’s streets, and second-wave feminism is on the rise. It’s a time of ferment, a time of questioning, a time when the old ways, the old ideas seemed disposable.

In the opening scene, Pearl Kantrowitz (a role superbly performed by the powerhouse Jackie Burns), her husband Marty (played by Jonah Platt), their teenage daughter Alison (Carly Gendell), young son, and Marty’s mother Lillian (Jill Abramovitz) arrive at their annual vacation destination, Dr. Fogler’s Bungalows.

The family spends every summer there with the same quartet of couples and the same routine. During the week, the women relax, cook the meals, and watch the kids, while the men return to the city to work. While the routine is comfortable, Pearl has glimmerings that life is passing her by.

Into these lazy, predictable days enters someone completely different, Walker Jerome (John Arthur Greene). He’s the Blouse Man, and the attraction between him and Pearl is immediate. You know she’s in trouble. Perhaps you can predict where her personal journey will take her, but plenty of drama and honest emotion awaits.

The musical is stuffed with song, and Pearl reveals her mixed guilt and desire through the heart-rending “Ground Beneath My Feet.” While I appreciated the live seven-piece orchestra and the clever and melodic songs, they tended toward the belt-it-out style, which might have worked even better interspersed with additional quieter numbers. Marty’s singing to his daughter, “We Made You” is a lovely example.

Even though the show’s run time is two and a half hours, there’s never a lag. The excellent cast of fourteen assures something is always going on, from the four couples’ fun dancing, to the energetic mahjongg games, to the teenagers testing their wings. The skillful use of projections establishes the verdant camp, the mesmerizing night sky, the psychedelia of Woodstock, and the blackness of a really black adolescent mood. Actual news footage of the moon landing provides an indelible sense of the moment.

A Walk on the Moon is on stage at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Tickets available here or by calling 732-246-7717. Check the website for current information on NBPAC’s covid requirements.