Staging and Choreography: Theater Magic

She Loves Me dance

For our deep dive into staging and choreography (generally, on-stage movement), my “how to watch a play” class viewed Roundabout Theatre’s 2016 production of the musical She Loves Me. You’ll recognize the story from its many incarnations, most recently in the film, You’ve Got Mail. Amalia and Georg are clerks in a perfume shop who really get on each other’s nerves. Yet they have the same secret: a pen pal with whom they are falling in love. Each other, of course.

Our class learned a handy theater word during the discussion of this musical, diegetic: Diegetic elements of a production—sounds, singing, dancing, movement—grow out of the story’s narrative. If there’s dancing, the actors know how to dance and know they’re dancing, as when the King of Siam and Anna waltz away to “Shall We Dance?” Quotidian action, by contrast, encompasses the daily, undramatic tasks the actors perform—buttoning a shirt, tying a shoe. The story doesn’t depend on these actions. When the Kyra Hollis character in Skylight makes a spaghetti dinner onstage, she’s engaged in quotidian action. A third type of movement is termed abstract, and it is neither of the others—like the Sharks and Jets of West Side Story singing their anthems while dancing in the streets. A high school classmate of mine scoffed at the film (which I loved passionately) because “guys don’t do that.” Abstract.

Why does analyzing the type of movement matter? Because, explained course director Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington D.C.’s Theater J, “it forces you to think about the purpose of the choreography (movement),” and what that choice conveys about the mood, the character, the story’s time and place, or even the plot. When an actor puts a gun in a desk drawer, you know that weapon’s coming out again. Or, recall the movement created by the turntable in Hamilton. Why did the creators choose to have that? To me, all that swirling expressed the turmoil of the era, the passage of time, and the evolution of multiple characters’ relationships.

When deconstructed for our class, the patterns of movement in She Loves Me turned out to be unexpectedly intricate, creating satisfying, if subliminal, messages. Movement—even abstract movement—needs to be motivated, which means that actors can move on certain lines, but moving on other lines will create confusion. As Amalia is about to meet her pen pal, her movements in “Will He Like Me?”—alternately walking forward and backtracking—were timed perfectly to the anticipation and hesitation expressed in the lyrics.

A musical typically has a lot of staging and choreography, but even the two-person play Red we watched had a lot of movement (much of it diegenic). In fact, with only two actors, movement is critical to keeping the story going and the audience interested. Staging helps the audience know where to look, as characters emerge in prominence and others melt into the background. And some staging is created just for the beauty of the composition. Nothing wrong with that.

If you’d like to take one of these excellent courses, check out the Theater J website. New classes are starting soon!

Seeing a Play Twice: The In-Between

This fall I’m taking a five-week ZOOM course on “How to Watch a Play,” led by Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Theater J. Prior to the first class, everyone watched online a 2018 production of the Tony-award-winning play Red by John Logan. I’d seen it a few years ago and didn’t remember it all that well.

This London version had Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko (born in 1903; committed suicide in 1970) and Alfred Enoch as his assistant, Ken. In the script, Ken arrives to help Rothko with the task of creating nearly 40 enormous canvases to hang in Manhattan’s then-new Seagram Building. He stretches canvas, he mixes paint. Red paint. The paintings are undeniably red, in varying shades, and it’s a tribute to both artist and playwright that audience members can go from “my kid could do that” to “I get it” in about 90 minutes.

A filmed play has plusses and minuses. Closeups are an advantage. Actors and directors manage stage elements so that you’re looking in the right place at the right time; with the camera, the decision where to look is made for you. What’s lost is the sense of community a live audience provides. (Adam cited a 2017 study that found audience members’ hearts begin to beat in sync.)

Adam distinguishes between a play and a production. The play is the script. Everything that brings it to life (actors, sets, costumes, lighting, music) is the production. And, when it comes to production, he says, “Everything’s a choice.”

When you see different productions of the same play, those choices become apparent. One version may be immensely enjoyable, another a big disappointment. A few years ago, Princeton’s McCarter Theatre produced an intimate version of My Fair Lady with no orchestra, just two pianos. A delightful choice. We’ve seen six or seven productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—from Broadway to community theater—and enjoyed each one. Great choices.

Then, the disasters: Romeo and Juliet in a tiny theater where the set design included a traditional second-floor balcony and, when Juliet was up there, the audience could see her only from the knees down; a particularly awful Hamlet (referred to at our house as “the nude Hamlet”); and A Christmas Carol with Tiny Tim played by an adult. Cue eyeroll. Yet, whatever their choices, a production team doesn’t totally control your reactions. External factors intrude. Say you eat a bad dinner before the show, or an actor reminds you of someone you loathe (or love!), or the set calls to mind your terrifying Aunt Gertrude’s living room. Between my first and second viewing of Red, as it happens, I visited Houston and saw the Rothko Chapel, hung all around with his large, dark, ominous paintings. Because of that experience, when Rothko says, “There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend. . . One day the black will swallow the red,” I took so much more from that line. To me, that’s exactly what happened with Rothko, both literally and metaphorically.

Conscience

George Street Theatre, Conscience

On stage at George Street Playhouse is the world premiere of Tony award-winning playwright Joe DiPietro’s play Conscience—a timely examination of the political risks and imperative for elected leaders to stand up to a demagogic bully. The production, expertly directed by George Street’s artistic director David Saint, opened March 6 and runs through March 29.

DiPietro focuses his historical drama tightly on four people: Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith (played by Tony-winner Harriet Harris) and her aide William Lewis, Jr. (Mark Junek), on one side, and Senate Republican Joseph McCarthy (Lee Sellars) and his researcher—and later wife—Jean Kerr (Cathryn Wake), on the other.

As the drama begins, Smith—the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate—is a political whirlwind. McCarthy, elected in 1946, clearly doesn’t take his Senatorial duties nearly as seriously as he does his flask. Their two aides effectively and efficiently stake out the opposing political positions. You dread the vicious confrontation to come, when she remarks on McCarthy’s two essential qualities: “the ability to hate and the skill to communicate it as virtue.”

McCarthy’s virulent anti-Communism crusade begins when, before a group of Republican women in Wheeling, West Virginia, he waves a piece of paper that he claims contains the names of 205 Communists who work in the U.S. State Department. Fueled by alcohol and drunk on power, he rides high for the next few years, making wild accusations about Communists in government that stoke public fear.

By 1950, the appalled Smith is the only Senator brave enough to take him on. She believes her colleagues will support the Declaration of Conscience she delivers on the Senate floor. But only six senators sign on, and later disavow it. The declaration makes McCarthy her implacable enemy, and Smith and Lewis, a homosexual, become a target of his smear tactics.

The demagoguery, defamation, and mudslinging continue, until McCarthy takes on the U.S. Army, a quest that ends with the famous statement: “Have you lost all sense of decency?” It’s a comeuppance the audience savors after so much one-sided verbal violence.

Despite the unsettling resonance with the current political moment, DiPietro avoids cheap political shots, focusing instead on the intense interpersonal dynamics. Smith is a powerful, complex character—a woman with a sense of humor—in DiPietro and Harris’s hands, and Sellars’s McCarthy slowly unravels before your eyes. Junek movingly confesses his homosexuality, and Wake adds an effective touch of sanctimony to Ms Kerr/Mrs. McCarthy.

George Street Playhouse has great skill in bringing such focused biographical works to life, having previously excelled with DiPietro’s The Second Mrs. Wilson and Joanna Glass’s Trying (about aging US Attorney General Francis Biddle). Even though this important play is about politics and therefore, mostly about talking, David Saint’s lively direction never lets its momentum slow. It is mesmerizing.

Conscience is on view at George Street’s beautiful new home at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Avenue. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or contact the Box Office online.

Movie Picks: 1917, Just Mercy

1917

I was sorry not to like 1917 better, because that conflict is cinematically neglected (trailer). Director Sam Mendes was inspired to make it by his grandfather’s stories of World War I (a rare veteran who would apparently talk about his war experience).

Lance corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given the near-suicidal task of crossing nine miles of hostile territory to reach the commander of some 1600 British troops, Blake’s brother among them. They carry orders for the commander to call off an offensive that is a certain trap. The power of the opening scene, one long take, and the two lads’ perilous trek across no-man’s land dwindles into predictability. There’s an overlong chase scene through a bombed-out town, and an unnecessary encounter with a Frenchwoman and baby (why?). Still, audiences not familiar with The Great War may find it bracing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audiences 89%.

Just Mercy

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name, Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is the story of Stevenson’s early days as a legal advocate for prisoners (trailer). His organization, Montgomery, Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative, has freed more than a hundred wrongly convicted death row inmates.

In the film, Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) has taken on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), convicted to murdering a young white woman on evidence so flawed no court should have accepted it. Jordan and Foxx do a terrific job—Jordan, unwavering; Foxx, afraid to hope.

Stevenson, in real life, and in one scene in the movie, says the issue is not the fate of a single individual, but the system that institutionalizes discrimination and thwarts equal justice. (See his inspiring recent Firing Line interview here.)

Half a century after the Civil Rights movement’s heyday, those battles are not over, and the movie, though bringing out familiar tropes in both black and white characters, is a good reminder. As Danny Leigh says in the Financial Times, “The markers of the story are so familiar (venal law enforcement, leaned-on witnesses, the courtroom), it takes nerve to tell it this simply.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 99%

Romeo and Juliet: On Stage

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare

“For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opened its production of this classic tragedy, directed by Ian Belknap, runs through November 17.

You know the story. An implacable hatred has arisen between two Verona families: the Capulets and the Montagues. Prince Escalus (played by Jason C. Brown), fed up with the constant street-fighting of the two households, vows to have any future combatants executed. Romeo (Keshav Moodliar) attends a banquet hosted by the rival Capulets in disguise. He sees their daughter Juliet (Miranda Rizzolo), the two instantly fall in love, and Friar Lawrence (Matt Sullivan) secretly marries them. Meanwhile, Juliet’s father (Mark Elliot Wilson) intends her to marry wealthy Count Paris (Ryan Woods).

Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Joshua David Robinson) is slain by a goading Tybalt of the house of Capulet (Torsten Johnson), and Romeo slays him in revenge. Instead of executing Romeo, Prince Escalus banishes him. Though the sentence is merciful, Romeo regards it as a heart-breaking separation from Juliet. From there, everything goes downhill.

Over the years, seeing this play and reading David Hewson’s admirable Juliet and Romeo, I’ve come to recognize that, although Romeo is an effective swordsman, with at least two notches on his scabbard, he’s something of a weakling. He’s dreamy, falls in love too easily, and even his father laments his lack of focus. Yet he needs to be a credible lover, a person who would inspire passion and passionate acts. The weakness of this production is the lack of chemistry and connection between its two eponymous characters.

Perhaps in trying to make the play approachable for new generations, Belknap encouraged the actors to hurry along and avoid becoming ensnared by the rhythms of Shakespeare’s prose. If so, it didn’t work for me. At times, the main characters spoke so quickly I couldn’t follow (from the front row). Romeo and Juliet is a wonderful play. I want my full measure of enjoyment out of it.

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. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Skylight

McCarter Theatre Center closes its 2018-2019 season with David Hare’s Tony-award winning play Skylight. Directed by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann, the play opened May 11 and runs through June 2. I’d seen the Bill Nighy – Carey Mulligan version, in which the acting was great, but I actually think I got more out of this current one.

When it premiered in 1995, Skylight was a timely exploration of a clash of values between wealthy restaurateur Tom Sergeant (in this production, played by Greg Wood) and his former lover, now a teacher in a bottom-of-the-barrel school, Kyra (Mahira Kakkar). Now in 2019, gulfs between people in terms of income, attitudes, and basic values appear even more unbridgeable. Can anyone still believe love conquers all?

The play takes place in Kyra’s very downmarket apartment (exquisitely tatty, by way of Beowulf Borritt), deprived of most luxuries, including heat. Unexpectedly, she’s visited by Tom’s 18-year-old son Edward (Zane Pais), who comes bearing dubious gifts (beer and rap music). He wants to tell her how much he’s missed her since she moved out of the family home three years earlier. She decamped when Tom’s wife discovered Kyra and Tom’s long-running affair. Edward feels abandoned by Kyra and by his mother, who has subsequently died of cancer. His immediate problem, though, is with his father, who in his unresolved guilt and grief makes his son’s life miserable.

Edward leaves and Tom arrives. Tom and Kyra circle each other, the magnetic waves of their attraction so strong they’re practically visible. Yet, like magnets with matching poles aligned, they repel each other with their words.

Witty and voluble, Tom can’t accept that Kyra lives the way she does, devoid of comforts, teaching in a school where a student spit on her, a dinner lady was mugged, and the head teacher’s cat was baked in her oven. Kyra retreats to the high-ground arguments that she’s helping society, helping the most needy kids, even if only one. While Tom acknowledges, on the surface, the nobility of her effort, he can’t stop his scorn for her choices from breaking through. “You don’t have to live this way.”

Ultimately, their attraction is too powerful, and Act One ends in a satisfying clinch. But are their differences really irreconcilable? Can they adjust, recalibrate, soften? That’s Act Two.

Wood and Kakkar , with Mann’s direction, keep the dialog blazing. Wood is all over the stage, flopping in a chair, pouring a drink, never still an instant, until something makes him alight like a dragonfly, only to dart away again. Kakkar is the steady one, not as amusing, but just as passionate. (Also, she makes a spaghetti dinner onstage, in a kitchen about three feet by three.)

For centuries, stories of impossible love have been a theater staple. This compelling McCarter production lets us confront its contemporary face. A highly satisfying theater experience!

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants.

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

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Weekend Entertainments, 2/1-2/3

In Washington, D.C., summers, we’d go to a movie theater to cool off. You may be considering the same strategy this weekend just to warm up! If so, here’s my take on two movies currently on view and one riotous play sparking the New Jersey theater scene. Let’s take the serious one first.

KiKi Layne and Colman Domingo, If Beale Street Could talk

If Beale Street Could Talk

When James Baldwin published the book this movie is based on back in 1974, it was out of sync with the times and not a success. Americans had turned attention from their civil rights concerns, distracted by Watergate and the windup of the Vietnam War, perhaps, or perhaps it was another sorry indicator of how short our national attention span is for issues that defy quick solutions.

Now writer/director Barry Jenkins has timed the book’s film version perfectly (trailer). All the issues Beale Street raises remain relevant, and our persistent racial injustices are once again top-of-mind. This is a love story with many threads, and each is knotty, whether the love is between a young man (played by Stephan James) and woman (KiKi Layne, the film’s gentle narrator), between parents and their daughter, or between an incarcerated father and his pre-school son, living apart. The acting is all top-notch, and I particularly enjoyed Tish’s parents, Colman Domingo and Regina King, who doesn’t have to say anything to reveal her heart to you.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 95%; audiences: 69%.

Stan & Ollie

Stan & Ollie

As a kid, I was a big Laurel and Hardy fan, and this Jon S. Baird film, written by Jeff Pope, about the duo’s late-stage career, is necessarily bittersweet (trailer). They’re approaching the top of the hill they’re about to go over. Genius British comic Steve Coogan is Stan, the writer of most of the skits and bits, and John C. Reilly, in an unbelievably natural fatsuit and rubber chin is American comic Oliver Hardy.

Although it’s a movie about two slapstick comedians and about what it means to have and be a partner, some of the funniest moments come from the sniping between Ollie’s devoted third wife Lucille (Shirley Henderson) and Stan’s fourth wife Ida (Nina Arianda). The two women can’t stand each other, but even Ida softens when Ollie’s precarious health is endangered. Well worth the price of a ticket!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences: 88%.

Noises Off

Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, is presenting this non-stop Michael Frayn comedy on stage through February 3. Directed by Sarna Lapine, you may run out of breath laughing well before the end of Act I and the absurdities continue to pile up.

In case you’re not familiar with the story, in Act I, a lackluster theater company is in the final rocky rehearsal for a show called Nothing On, which takes place in an English country house. The house is supposed to be empty, but is soon filled with people trying not to be found there. During the cast’s conversation between scenes, you learn about several ongoing love affairs and problems among them.

In Act II, the set is turned around and, though you hear some of the play dialog on the other side of the wall, the action is backstage, mostly in pantomime, as the lovers quarrel, try to make up, and generally behave badly. There’s a pause before Act III, and the set turns again to the front. Now it’s the play’s last performance, and situations have spiralled totally out of control. Sheer mayhem!

Ellen Harvey plays the housekeeper in the play-within-the-play, Jason O’Connell the homeowner and Kathleen Chloe his wife; Michael Crane is the realtor and Adrianna Mitchell his somewhat dim would-be paramour (when the show is falling apart, she keeps delivering lines that no longer fit what’s happening); Philip Goodwin is an aging actor whose sobriety must be constantly monitored; Gopal Divan is the play director, Phillip Taratula the stage manager, and Kimiye Corwin his assistant. I named them all, because they were all so good!

The Two River ticket office online; or call 732 345 1400.

Weekend Movie Picks – 1/18-1/20

Green Book

By now you may have heard of the Shirley family’s reservations about director Peter Farrelly’s movie, despite its winning a Golden Globe for best motion picture (trailer). Based on a true story, the script was written by Nick Vallelonga, Peter Farrelly, and Brian Currie, who won a Golden Globe for best screenplay

There’s no faulting the acting, Mahershala Ali (Golden Globe) portraying sophisticated jazz pianist Don Shirley, and Viggo Mortensen as his rough-around-the-edges and racist chauffeur, (Nick Vallelonga in real life), are both tops.

They embark on a concert tour of the Deep South in the early 1960s, before the Civil Rights movement, and encounter all the expected restrictions, slights, and prejudices. And that was part of the problem. I’d already imagined, known about, and seen these situations in many other films back when this type of content was an eye-opener.

I fear it gives today’s white people a too-easy win, encouraging us to think “I’m sure glad I’m not like those Southern racists.” Racism can’t be just put in a drawer as if a piece of the past that no longer needs attention. Black Americans traveling today still encounter racism.

Perhaps a new generation needs these reminders, and perhaps younger people will take from the film the powerful lesson that connection and friendship and respect can grow between people who are so unlike each other. That’s something to hope for.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 81%; audiences 94%.

On the Basis of Sex

Having seen and enjoyed the documentary RBG, I was prepared tro be disappointed in Hollywood’s version of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career, directed by Mimi Leder with a script by Daniel Stiepleman (trailer). To my delight, I was not. Felicity Jones as RBG and Armie Hammer as her devoted and amazingly patient husband Marty do a fine job, Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) of the ACLU is busy being political, and the courts are against her, but Ruth soldiers on to victory (as we know beforehand). I particularly liked the scene where opposing counsel waved a list of the hundreds of U.S. statutes that applied differently to women, thinking to show how “normal” the practice was, and RBG instead used it to show the practice was pervasive and pernicious.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 71%; audiences 72%.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Haven’t heard of this one? Me neither, until I found it in the Academy Award shortlist of nominees for song and music. This Coen Brothers experiment appeared ever-so-briefly in theaters then went straight to Netflix (trailer).

It’s an anthology of six short stories, alike only in the brothers’ trademark dark vision and black humor, and it won the best screenplay award at the Venice International Film Festival. There’s music too, of the cowboy lament variety.

Each of the six tales has its own cast, including Tim Blake Nelson (Buster Scruggs), Liam Neeson, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly, Tom Waits, and Bill Heck.

There is violence, of course, but most of it is cartoonish. While there’s humor, there’s wistful sadness as well. Most memorable, I think, is the story “Meal Ticket,” in which a young man with no arms and legs but a wonderful voice for oratory (Harry Melling) performs for a dwindling audience of shantytown residents. In the story, “All Gold Canyon,” featuring Tom Waits, you’ll see the most beautiful valley imaginable.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences: 77%

Weekend Entertainments

It’s the season to squeeze in viewings of prospective Academy Award nominees. All four of these films and their cast members are in contention. Nominations to be announced January 22, and the awards ceremony will be February 24.

Vice

Word on the street is that this grim yet funny biopic, written and directed by Adam McKay (trailer), is slow. I didn’t find it so, absorbed as I was by McKay’s version of the dark mind and hollow soul of Dick Cheney, long-time Republican operative and George W. Bush’s vice-president.

Since everything is relative, we of short attention span might be tempted to look back on the Bush II Administration with some nostalgia, given . . . This movie is a bracing corrective to that impulse.

As Cheney, Christian Bale gets better and better as the film progresses and Cheney ages, from an irresponsible drunk to master puppeteer—“resilient, back-stabbing, front-stabbing, ruthlessly ambitious,” says Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sun-Times. Early on, we see the 9/11 scene in the White House situation room. (Our President, recall, was reading to a bunch of schoolchildren when that catastrophe unfolded.) While all the other national leaders sequestered in the White House basement are in shock, the narrator says, Cheney “saw an opportunity.”

He saw another one when approached by W (Golden Globe winner Sam Rockwell) to be his vice president. At first he demurs, but he recognizes that Bush is a blank slate. The guy hasn’t a clue. Cheney does. And the power-grab is on. Eventually, tasked with identifying a vice presidential candidate, he identifies himself.

Amy Adams revels in her role as Lynne Cheney/Lady Macbeth, and there’s even an apocryphal pillowtalk scene where she and Dick recite Shakespeare’s lines to each other.

As he did in The Big Short, McKay breaks the fourth wall to demonstrate what he’s suggesting with visuals puns and sly humor. If this film is slow, it’s slow like a steamroller, flattening everything and everyone in its path. Stay for the credits. There’s a bit more movie partway thru.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 62%; audiences: 54%.

Beautiful Boy

Director Felix Van Groeningen’s film recreation of the stories of David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff, and their family’s struggle against Nic’s drug addiction is tough to watch (trailer). But only if you’ve ever been the parent of a teenager or been a teenager yourself. There are times and circumstances when parental love becomes unbearable for them all. Although, like the relapses of addiction itself, the action occasionally becomes repetitive, Steve Carell as the frantic father and Timothée Chalamet as Nic are heartbreaking. Maura Tierny as Nic’s stepmom and Amy Ryan as his biological mother provide powerful performances too.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 67%; audiences 77%.

The Favourite

An entertaining costume drama about three real-life women, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (trailer). Poor Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) was truly a sad character in real life, plagued by ill health, and, despite 17 pregnancies, leaving no heir. Her reign was short (1702-1714), and she was a widow for half of it. Several strong women were her dueling confidants (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone). Beautiful costumes, fantastic acting, especially by Colman. I wish the filmmaker had been drawn less to the rumors of lesbianism, which are discounted by many historians, and more to the politics of the time. It was in Queen Anne’s reign that Great Britain was formed, for example. Plus, the Worst Credits Ever.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 94%; audiences: 61%.

Roma

Beautiful black and white photography in this highly praised autobiographical movie written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón (trailer). And compelling acting by the nonprofessional cast, particularly Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, the put-upon maid of a four-child household in domestic turmoil. She keeps them together, literally and spiritually. I thought I’d read that she is unappreciated, but she isn’t or perhaps the filmmaker is atoning for a lapse in his own history. It’s pleasant and pretty but breaks no new ground—“quotidian and extraordinary at the same time,” said Gary M. Kramer in Salon.com. Now this one is slow.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 96%; audiences: 83%.

On Stage: The Merchant of Venice

Merchant of Venice

Rachel Towne as Nerissa (left) & Melissa Miller as Portia; photo: Jerry Dalia.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opens its 2017 season with Shakespeare’s dark comedy, The Merchant of Venice, about, as the theater describes it “A money-obsessed, patriarchal, dysfunctional society where wealth bestows power; one in which women cannot determine their own fate, and one marked by religious and racial prejudice.” Hmm. This production, which opened Saturday night, May 20, runs through June 4, and is directed by award-winning actor Robert Cuccioli.

Perhaps this play is not often performed because modern playgoers (and producers) are uncomfortable with its blatant anti-Semitism. Such views persisted in England, of course, through the eras of Dickens, Disraeli, Holocaust denial, and may even be again on the rise. It’s talking about them that’s so uncomfortable. Cuccioli, the cast, and the theater deserve praise for not soft-pedaling the ugliness of racial hatred. Shylock (Andrew Weems) is as intransigent in his demands as his foes expect him to be.

The gist of the story, you may recall, is that prominent Venetian merchant Antonio (Brent Harris), loans his friend Bassanio (John Keabler) money so he can woo the estimable Portia (Melissa Miller). Convinced several of his ships will soon arrive and refill his coffers, Antonio borrows the needed sum from his old adversary, Shylock, and agrees to the whimsical idea that, if he cannot repay the debt, he’ll let the Jew take a pound of his flesh.

When Antonio’s ships are lost, Shylock invokes that clause. Portia, disguised as a learned young judge, argues the case to save Antonio (“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath”) , aided by her maidservant Nerissa (Rachel Towne), her pretended law clerk.

That part of the story has all the makings of tragedy, certainly high drama. The comedy comes from the suitors for Portia’s hand, made to choose among caskets of gold, silver, and lead, only one of which holds her portrait and her promise to marry. With great shows of manly confidence, they uniformly guess wrong, until Bassanio . . . you can guess the rest. Portia and Nerissa tease their men mercilessly, but not so frivolously as to form too great a contrast with the blacker heart of the play, the downfall of Shylock.

Weems, Harris, and Miller give especially strong and moving performances. However, the entire cast does an admirable job keeping the action going and creating interesting, compelling characters. They’re believably outraged at Shylock and charmed by Portia and Nerissa. In addition to those named, the cast includes Ademide Akintilo, Amaia Arana, Jeffrey M. Bender (his Prince of Arragon is priceless), Byron Clohessy, Ian Gould, Robert S. Gregory, Jay Leibowitz, Anthony Michael Martinez, Joe Penczak,  and Tug Rice.

Production credits to Brian Ruggaber (excellent set design); Käri B. Bentson (sound), Michael Giannitti (lighting); Candida Nichols (lovely 1900-ish costumes); and Alison Cote (production stage manager).

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 http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!