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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Binge or Nibble? Watching Slow Horses

A new season of the wildly (and deservedly) popular British TV series Slow Horses puts fans like me in a quandary (trailer). Do watch the whole thing in can’t-get-enough mode, or do I parcel it out, one or two episodes a week, to make the experience last longer? I did wait until the distractions of the December holidays were over before starting the new season, and so far, I’m taking it slow. But when an episode’s closing credits roll, it isn’t easy to turn away.

If you’re a fan of British crime/spy/mystery dramas, you probably already know that Slow Horses is based on the Slough House novels of Mick Herron. The first season aired on Apple TV+ last spring (6 episodes) and the current season began in December (6 more).

The premise is that MI5 agents who’ve messed up in some way are transferred to Slough House, where the “slow horses” are put out to pasture. There, under the harassing oversight of profane and obnoxious Jackson Lamb, they receive mind-numbingly dull assignments in the hope they will quit the service altogether. With everything going on in the world and in the U.K., MI5 faces innumerable internal security challenges. Even agents on the far fringes of the security establishment can find work to do.

New Yorker staff writer and historian Jill Lepore spent time with Herron recently and her article on Herron appears in the December 5 edition of the magazine.

Apparently the books were a bit of a hard sell in the beginning. Publishers didn’t know what to make of it. Too much humor. “Is this a thriller or is it comedy?” In fact, the audio narrators say they have to stop recording occasionally, so they can laugh off-mike. The Daily Telegraph has called Slow Horses one of the best spy novels ever written and Herron is widely considered the heir-apparent to the late John le Carré. Heavy burden, that.

What makes the books and the tv show so irresistible are the great characters. And, in the tv version, the cast is absolutely up to it. Lepore says Jackson Lamb (played by Gary Oldman, who makes Colombo look like a fashion plate) is “an old joe who’s straight out of Dickens, if Dickens had ever invented a character who used the word ‘twat’ all the time.” A decade ago, Oldman received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of George Smiley in le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. According to Lepore, Oldman believes Jackson Lamb “is Smiley if everything had gone wrong, although arguably, everything has.” In the age of Brexit, she says, Lamb is like Britain—“angry, embarrassed, and coming apart at the seams.”

If you’ve missed the books or tv series so far, do yourself a favor and get acquainted. And don’t miss the show’s theme music sung by Herron fan Mick Jagger. Just the right notes of discord and the impression everything is going off the rails.

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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!

Indelible Film Memories

The creative partnership between Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro has produced some of the most memorable cinema of the last half-century. From Mean Streets (1973) to Raging Bull (1980) to The Irishman (2019), their movies “can be hard to watch and hard to shake off,” said film historian Max Alvarez. Alvarez presented his survey “DeNiro and Scorsese: An Intense Collaboration” last week as part of New Plaza Cinema’s highly entertaining lecture series.

Scorsese, a born New Yorker, grew up in Little Italy in a family where all four of his grandparents were immigrants from near Palermo, Sicily. Scorsese wasn’t a particularly good student, but he was fascinated by the movies. He has said the only college he could get into was NYU, where he eventually attended the Tisch School of the Arts. There, he started making short films, and his first feature-length film—1967’s Who’s That Knocking on My Door—signaled the start of another long-time collaboration, this one with Harvey Keitel.

Robert DeNiro, also a lifelong New Yorker, has a more ethnically diverse background. He was the only child of two artists, who separated when he was two. He grew up in the Greenwich Village and Little Italy neighborhoods, in what Alvarez called a “cultured and cultivated household.” He was sent to private schools and knew many artists of all types, who were friends of his parents, including Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, and Henry Miller. He began studying acting in high school and went on to study at the Stella Adler school.

Interestingly, despite the cultural touchstones many of their movies have become, few of them actually made money. The exceptions were Taxi Driver (1976)and Goodfellas (1989). By the time that was made, DeNiro had already won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Godfather Part II fifteen years earlier.

Scorsese’s films pioneered many techniques common today; the pop music soundtracks, the profanity that was uncommon previously, the film noir touches, especially in lighting, through the introduction of fast editing and CGI (used to de-age DeNiro in the early scenes of The Irishman, for example).

But even as he tried different projects—a musical, a comedy or two, a religious drama, a couple of psychological thrillers, a costume drama—and even though he’s worked with many other top stars—including Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Paul Newman—he keeps coming back to DeNiro. Maybe it’s that trust that allows the frequent use of improvised (or improvised, then polished) dialog that you sometimes see, as in Goodfellas. Scorsese says that DeNiro is gifted at bringing humanity to “characters who ordinarily would be villains.”

For a treat: Watch this YouTube video of Scorsese and DeNiro have dinner with Don Rickles (who played a straight role in Scorsese’s movie Casino, shown in the photo alongside).This filmed dinner was Rickles’s last performance.

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.

Weekend Movie Pick: See How They Run

Reviews of this movie are mixed, but if you’re looking for something fast-paced and fun, it might just do the trick (trailer). Written by Mark Chappell and directed by Tom George, alcoholic police detective Sam Rockwell and ambitious constable Saoirse Ronan try to solve the mysterious death of an obnoxious American film producer (Adrien Brody). Ronan is completely charming here.

It isn’t a matter of their not having any suspects, it’s having too many. In 1950s London, Brody’s character, Leo Kopernick, has managed to offend pretty much everyone involved in a West End production of The Mousetrap that he’s hoping to make into a Hollywood movie. Lots of backstage shenanigans and back-stabbing theater folks.

The buzz about the movie may have struck the wrong note with audiences when it inevitably compared this story to the work of Agatha Christie. Still, it’s a light-hearted spoof with a super cast. If you remember your nursery rhymes, you’ll hear them echoing throughout, though I never saw even one blind mouse. That particular mouse was already trapped.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 74%; audiences: 69%.

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.