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.

The Chinese Lady

The Chinese Lady, by Lloyd Suh, is on stage through April 10 at The Public Theater in Manhattan, directed by Ma-Yi Theater Company artistic director Ralph B. Peña. The play premiered in July 2018, but disturbing events over the past year have made it poignantly timely.

Based on real-life events, the story centers on Julia Foochee Ching-Chang King, called Afong Moy (played by Shannon Tyo). In 1834, Moy was brought to New York by a shipping magnate named Carnes who bought her from her parents. She was 14 (or so) and arrived at a time when few Chinese men and no (known) Chinese women had been seen in this country. Carnes put her on display, in order to promote the exotic trade goods he imported from the Orient. The exhibit was popular, and Moy was the first Chinese person to receive wide public acclaim and recognition in this country.

The room where Moy gives her performances is outfitted in “Chinese style,” and she describes her life there and her reaction to the New World. She demonstrates eating with chopsticks and the tea ceremony, and part of her act is to walk around the little room to show her audience how the practice of foot-binding inhibits her ability to walk. (The real-life Afong Moy toured America as a “living exhibit” for decades.)

Of course, in the beginning, Afong Moy cannot speak English, so she has a translator named Atung (Daniel K. Isaac), who is her servant and, as she says, “irrelevant.” He brings the food for the chopsticks demonstration and takes it away, he brings the tea service, and he shows audience members various artifacts that Carnes hopes they will buy. She is charming and funny.

Because the two of them talk naturally to each other, you don’t have a sense of how limited Atung’s English is until they meet President Andrew Jackson. You hear Afong Moy’s heartfelt sentiments about crosscultural communication and understanding and Atung’s translation (this is not word-correct, but you’ll get the idea), “She like it here.”

Afong Moy grows up before your eyes, evolving from a lively, optimistic teenager into a world-weary mature woman, now performing in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. As time passes, the play references the anti-Chinese laws and violent attacks on Chinese in America of the late 1800s. It isn’t necessary to dwell on the sad irony that these prejudices still generate violence, especially against Chinese woman and elders, despite the determination of the first Chinese Lady to reach out and teach.

(Watching Moy, in her beautiful blue-and-white costume, and seeing how her life and dreams shattered reminded me of a 2015 Metropolitan Museum exhibit, “China: Through the Looking Glass.” One of the costumes from that exhibit, similar to the one pictured, was fashioned by contemporary artist Li Xiaofeng from pieces of Chinese porcelain, simultaneously beautiful and broken.)

Theater production credits to Junghyun Georgia Lee (scenic design), Linda Cho (costumes), Shawn Duan (projections), Jiyoun Chang and Elizabeth Mak (lighting), and Fabian Obispo (composer, sound design). Contact the box office.

Photo credit for The Chinese Lady: Joan Marcus

Sherlock Holmes at the Grolier Club

This week my friend Nancy and I visited Manhattan’s Grolier Club, founded in 1884, a bibliophile’s paradise. On view there (until April 16) is the special exhibit, Sherlock Holmes in 221 Objects. Every mystery-lover will recognize the significance of that number.

Especially remarkable is that the 221 objects were selected from the riches of one obsessive collector, Glen S. Miranker, and a number of them are one-of-a-kind. His is a collection “rich in bibliographic rarities, manuscripts, books, correspondence, and artwork, all with intriguing stories to tell beyond their significance as literary and cultural landmarks.” Seeing Doyle’s small, careful handwriting as he makes notes about possible stories, or pens his drafts and writes to his publisher and Gillette, is truly a thrill.

If, as the Grolier Club flyer says, Conan Doyle’s creation became “a literary juggernaut,” it was a theatrical one, as well. London’s theater world wasn’t interested in the possibility of staging versions of Conan Doyle’s stories, but U.S. actor William Gillette (pictured) was, and he made it happen, playing the role of Holmes on US stages from 1899 to 1932.

The artwork from theater posters and programs, as well as the book covers of the many editions in which the stories appeared—both legitimately and pirated—often indelibly captures the Great Detective, sometimes in contemplation, pipe in hand, and sometimes on the hunt across the moors. And sometimes just in the Art Nouveau designs in vogue around the turn of the last century.

If you’re in New York in the next month, visit The Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street. Call ahead for a timed reservation, because the number of visitors at any one time is controlled. Masks required.

Baipás

The nation’s English-language premiere of acclaimed Puerto Rican artist Jacobo Morales’s play Baipás, directed and choreographed by, Julio Monge, is currently on stage at George Street Playhouse. It premiered March 4 and runs through March 20 in New Brunswick, N.J.

Live theater has a special role in presenting real, flesh-and-blood people in challenging situations and seeing how they react, live, and, in the process, challenging audiences as well. Baipás (pronounced BI-pass) does that in ninety minutes while managing to be entertaining, romantic, sorrowful, and even funny.

A big part of its success can be attributed to the two performers: Maggie Bofill as Lorena and Jorge Luna as Antonio. They meet in a strange place—a bare room that might be somewhere in a hospital. They are decidedly human in an abstract space.The most recent event she remembers is being on a respirator after a serious suicide attempt, and what he remembers is undergoing coronary bypass surgery. From time to time they are aware of their “real” bodies, wherever they are: His heartbeat stops, to be revived by a kiss from her; she takes a breath on her own. In these moments the play captures the terror and confusion of hospitalization.

Lorena and Antonio wonder about the room. What is it? A waiting room for death? Who are these people watching them (us)? Among us, they believe they see people from their past—a dead ex-wife, a dead mother. Occasionally speaking about and to the audience is odd at first, yet makes us complicit in their search for understanding.

They circle each other like wary housecats, each taking a turn expressing guilt, fear, hope. Lorena repeatedly voices her mantra, “live in the moment,” but can’t quite do it, suffused by regrets and by curiosity about the future. Pre-heart attack, Antonio’s life was a mess. You’re relieved when they finally come into the moment to dance a love song, a bolero. Adrift in a sea of uncertainty, they find their moment in the dance.

The story unfolds in a bare, elevated box, decorated occasionally with projections that mirror what is going on inside Lorena and Antonio’s hearts. Mostly, there’s nothing there for them to hang onto except each other.

George Street should be congratulated for easing back into live-audience theater with such a complex, innovative, and memorable play. Author Morales is a poet, playwright, actor, and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, while director Monge was an artistic collaborator on the recent high-powered remake of West Side Story, a production on which George Street’s Artistic Director, David Saint, served as Associate Producer.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

The Tragedy of Macbeth

If you’re thinking “The Scottish Play” is so familiar, why sit through yet another production of it, even one directed by Joel Coen (trailer)? Well, think again. This is a story that greatly benefits from all of Coen’s noir sensibilities—from the dark portrayals by the protagonists to the look and feel he gives to the Scottish highlands and its stark castles. (Available on streaming)

Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as his wife are in equipoise, as if personal strength were a zero-sum game. In the beginning, she’s strong and he’s weak, then he becomes strong in madness and she diminishes. In an exemplary cast, special mention must be made of Kathryn Hunter’s phenomenal work as the Witches. She is ungainly, crude, and sly. At one point the camera seems to capture her in the process of transforming into one of the ravens circling ominously overhead.

A striking moment occurs early in the film when Macbeth and Banquo approach the witch through the fog, and she stands on the other side of a pond, a black pillar with no reflection. The other two witches are invisible, but their reflection does appears in the pond. (this moment appears briefly in the trailer). It’s an image that shakes you out of your expectations. All is not as it should be. And then some.

This film is the product of a powerful artistic vision, from shooting it in an almost-square format (1.37:1 aspect ratio), to eliminate any distracting elements cluttering the periphery, to choosing stunning black and white, to Carter Burwell’s dark score. The castles are devoid of decoration and seem as cold as the hearts of their occupants. The mist-obscured crows, the dripping water, the knocking. Is that the sun shining through the fog, or is it the moon? Is it day or night?

Near the end, when Macbeth is on the battlements of Dunsinane, and Birnam wood is indeed about to come to him, fulfilling the Witch’s prophesy, he’s surrounded by fallen leaves, a visual reminder of his heart-wrenching speech about what might have been: “My way of life is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf.”

Rotten Tomatoes  critics rating: 93%; audiences 80%.

Dear Jack, Dear Louise

Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson ©

If you’re looking for a show that will ease you comfortably back into the theater, the George Street Playhouse has found the perfect vehicle: Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise. This romantic comedy won the 2020 Helen Hayes award for best new play, and this production isdirected by GSP artistic director David Saint. Of course, 2020 being what it was, hardly anyone has seen it. The story is based on Ludwig’s parents’ epistolary courtship during World War II, and the best word to describe it is charming.

In 1942, the parents of Jack Ludwig (played by Bill Army) and Louise Rabiner (Amelia Pedlow) are friends. It occurs to them that their children—now in their twenties—should meet. Jack is a military doctor stationed in Oregon, and Louise is an aspiring Broadway actor and dancer. The doctor indulges his parents and writes the actress, and a regular, increasingly warm correspondence ensues. As we all know, the road to true love is never smooth, and when two people have never met in person, when one of them ends up being stationed overseas for D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, and when the other starts to achieve professional success and male adulation, well . . .

Pedlow has numerous off-Broadway credits and had the role of Louise in the world premiere of  Dear Jack, Dear Louise at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Army’s most notable Broadway role was in the original company of The Band’s Visit, and he also has numerous off-Broadway, television and film credits. In a play with only two characters, much depends on how strongly they inhabit their roles and the chemistry between them—a job made harder in this play because they communicate through the written word, not the telling glance. Yet, their growing affection for each other shines through convincingly.

As each one reads (that is, speaks) the words of the letter being written, it was interesting to watch the recipient’s reactions. One of the funniest moments was when Louise told Jack about a visit to her parents in Brooklyn and meeting his parents there. The expression of shock and dismay on his face was priceless.

Travel prevented our getting to the theater for the production’s opening in late October, but it is on stage at the beautiful new New Brunswick Performing Arts Center for several more weeks, until November 21. Tickets available here or by calling 732-246-7717. Compliments to the theater for taking patrons’ safety into account with the mask and proof-of-vaccination status requirements.

Singing ‘The Color Purple’

No, not people with synesthesia, but the eponymous song from the musical The Color Purple, was the subject of my second Zoom class on interpreting songs. Led by noted song interpreter Felicia Curry, this class is sponsored by Theatre J in Washington DC. Felicia appeared in The Color Purple in 2014 and is scheduled to do the show again next summer.

When the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alice Walker came out in 1982, I read it, and I saw the film three years later with Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in their first movie roles. Still, reading the synopsis helped me appreciate the lyrics of the musical adaptation. We also read a profile of the trio who wrote the music and lyrics (Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray), and unlike the creator of the song we studied last week—Stephen Sondheim—these three had never written for a musical before. Willis had no musical training and, a pop musician, she wasn’t familiar with the musical genre. Russell was an R&B artist and songwriter with a jazzy bent, and Bray had written hits for Madonna. Yet, this unlikely threesome created artistic magic. Well, they and 17 networked Macs. The result was a rich mix of music with blues, pop, funk and gospel influences.

According to a New York Times interview with Willis by Susan Dominus, the team had to learn to accommodate the plot-driven and visual demands of musical theater. Lyrics needed to connect to action, and usually involved some behavior. The story connection is critical to Curry. She said she always asks herself, “Why is this a song?” a question I pondered too.

Probably you can readily think of many circumstances in which a song is a strong substitute for dialog. One is when enthusiasm just bursts out of a character (“O, what a beautiful morning” from Oklahoma or “On the street where you live” from My Fair Lady). Another is when a powerful emotion washes over the character (“Love look away” from Flower Drum Song, “This nearly was mine” from South Pacific, “Me and the sky” from Come From Away). Sometimes the thrumming of the music and lyrics sets the audience up for what’s to come (“Tonight” in West Side Story or “1956: Budapest is rising” from Chess). There are many reasons to have a song, but each one should have a story purpose, not merely a tuneful filler.

Originally, the composers of The Color Purple hadn’t planned a song built around the show title, but one day, when they were struggling with a musical response to Celie’s profound admission that she was losing sight of God, Willis came up with the lyric that’s now “Like a plate of corn, like a honeybee, like a waterfall, all a part of me. Like the color purple, where do it come from? Open up your eyes, look what God has done.” It worked so well, a version is used to close the show too, memorably performed here by Cynthia Erivo and Jennifer Hudson.