GunpowderPlot, quills

(artwork: Scott McKowen for STNJ)

Regrettably, this review comes after the run of Equivocation by award-winning playwright Bill Cain has ended at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Still, I hope you’ll watch for this sharply witty and thought-provoking play locally or, if you’re from the NJ-NY region, will take a good look at STNJ’s future offerings. They’re having a terrific season.

It’s 1606, King James I is on the English throne (one of the country’s Scottish kings), and he has written a story. Powerful Prime Minister Sir Robert Cecil asks Shag (Shakespeare) to turn the king’s story into a play, with the promise of considerable reward to the Globe theater company if he is successful, and, if he is not, well . . . best not dwell on the details.

The story deals with the very recent event known as The Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of Catholic men tunneled under Parliament, smuggled in 36 barrels of gunpowder, and would have blown up the king, his family, many notables, and the whole House of Lords on Parliament’s opening day. A mysterious letter alerts the king, and the plot is foiled. A man named Guy Fawkes is caught, and the plotters, whose names are gradually extracted via torture, are hideously murdered. Cecil knows a dramatization by Shag will fix the treasonous details about the powder plot in the memory of history.

While the theater company is overjoyed by the prospect of a royal commission, Shag resists writing about current-day events, especially as he comes to doubt the truth of the official version. The risks of being truthful are grimly evident, yet he won’t write a lie.

But what is a lie? The arrest of Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit who wrote a book called Equivocation, brings this question to light. The priest asks his inquisitor, “If the king were in your house, and his enemies came to your door asking if he were there, would you say ‘yes’—and betray him—or would you say ‘no’—a lie?” Equivocation, the priest tells Shag, allows you to look at the question behind the question. And the real question in this instance is, “May I come in and kill the king?” And the answer is “no.” This is the key to resolving Shag’s struggle with the king’s powder plot story, too.

Cain’s play is deeply interesting historically, politically, religiously, theatricallly, and, as director Paul Mullins said in a post-show discussion, if you want to see it as current-day political allegory, “that’s OK, too.” At the same time it’s fast-moving, full of action, humor, and clever ripostes. Only six cast members play all the parts—many of them taking on 10 or more roles—and yet the staging was so expertly managed and so well acted that who they were playing was perfectly clear, moment to moment. This production had some shocking special effects too.

STNJ newcomers this year Matthew Stucky as Sharpe (a player, the King, plotter Wintour, etc.) and Dominic Comperatore as Nate (a player, Cecil, etc.), and long-time company utility infielder Kevin Isola as Armin (a player, a witch, states’ attorney, Lady Macbeth, etc.) deserve special mention, though all performances were strong.

Regarding The Gunpowder Plot, the program notes say, “The only thing we know with certainty about the event itself is that it could not possibly have occurred in the way the government claimed.” Accepted at face value for centuries, the government’s story has elicited more recent doubts, and even Parliament’s official website suggests the plot might have been the work of agents-provocateurs who wanted to discredit the Jesuits and cement the Protestant religion in the land.

Weekend Double-Play

The Guardsman

Jon Barker, Victoria Mack, The Guardsman, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Jon Barker & Victoria Mack in STNJ’s The Guardsman

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ) continues its 2015 season—a celebration of Bonnie J. Monte’s 25th season as artistic director—with another play about actors, this one The Guardsman, by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár. In it, a young actor begins to suspect his wife is tiring of him and pretends to be a member of the Royal Guard—he can do wigs and costumes after all—to see whether she’ll be tempted. At the end, it seems he’s learned more about himself than he has about her constancy.

The play has many laugh-out-loud moments as the actor struggles to maintain two personas at the same time. Should he be flattered that the actress seems attracted to the dashing guardsman, or offended? He’s both, alternatingly. Talented company regular Jon Barker conveys every bit of this confusion with his expressive body language. Victoria Mack as his wife plays a more opaque character, and in the talk-back at the end, the audience was divided about whether she saw through his disguise. Brent Harris was excellent as the Critic, who is the foil to both actors’ longings.

The play has been mounted several times in English, and is usually played as romantic farce, but Monte believes its frivolous exterior has obscured darker messages at its heart. To pursue this line of thought, she obtained a new literal translation by the playwright’s great-grandson and used that for her adaptation. She found it has “an extraordinary provocative, ground-breaking, heart-breaking, and disturbing inner core” that provokes gales of laughter at the same time it “questions identity, reality, perception and what it takes to validate our existence.”

Love’s Labour’s Lost

On Sunday, we saw Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of his many comedies about romantic confusion, this year’s outdoor stage production by the STNJ. Excellent comedic performances by the entire cast. I had both my sun and rain umbrellas with me, though the threatened rain never materialized. These productions are always a highlight of the summer, and the cast manages not to faint in the heat, despite their elaborate costumes and the play’s lively staging, including running up the stairs of the amphitheater at the College of St. Elizabeth.

outdoor theater, STNJ

Set for the outdoor production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, STNJ

Coming Up Next

Yesterday was the last performance for both these plays, a successful continuance of this anniversary season. Next up: Shaw’s Misalliance, August 5 – 30, in which Shaw “gleefully exposes and dismantles the idiosyncrasies of the British classes and their various ‘family values.’”

Also, some critics believe The Guardsman inspired Harold Pinter’s The Lover, whose similar plot likewise melds comedy and drama and has been played both ways. STNJ will have a reading of The Lover on Monday evening, August 17, to explore those possibilities.


Flight_film_poster_convertedNetflixed this 2012 movie (trailer) on the recommendation of a friend, and she was right that Denzel Washington gives a strong, persuasive performance as the alcohol- and drug-addicted airline pilot, Whip Whitaker. The first half-hour of the film, when his airliner gets in trouble, is “the finest and most terrifying plane crash sequence ever committed to film,” says The Atlantic (you can see the crash scene here).

John Goodman, as Whitaker’s dealer, is congenially over-the-top as only Goodman can do it. Just a bit obvious when he sashays in with the Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil” in the background. Excellent performances also by Kelly Reilly, as Whitaker’s drug-addict girlfriend, Bruce Greenwood as the airline pilots’ union rep, and Don Cheadle as the lawyer the union hires.

Thankfully, director Robert Zemeckis and writer John Gatins chose not to include a lengthy and harrowing detox segment, which movies about addiction so often include (Ray, for example). I especially liked the solid contributions from the supporting cast—Melissa Leo, Tamara Tunie, and Brian Geraghty, in particular.

Real pilots, of course, find much to quarrel with—or laugh at—in the flying sequences, but they are not the point of the movie, anyway. They’re there to get your attention. If you’ve seen the movie, you might find this pilot’s assessment amusing (contains spoilers). The Atlantic piece objects to the theme that “a miracle” landed the plane, but I understood that it was Whitaker’s creativity, skill and nerve, even when impaired, that accomplished it. What other characters thought was what they thought. And, yes, some people do talk about miracles and “God’s hand,” because that’s the way they see the world.

If you missed this movie the first time around, for fine acting and an engaging plot, it’s worth seeing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 77%; audience ratings 75%.

Two Days of Theater Bliss!

library, Morgan Library

Morgan Library (photo: Jim Forest, Creative Commons license)

Spent two days in Manhattan this week and highly recommend these highlights. First up was a walk from the train to the Morgan Library (225 Madison Avenue), a treasure-trove of art and the written word, in which lots is always going on. This visit was to see the special exhibit “Lincoln Speaks: Words that Transformed a Nation,” which includes many original documents Lincoln wrote, with helpful context. Take the docent tour.

This exhibit is on view only through June 7, but afterward the library will be putting on “Alice: 150 years of Wonderland” (June 26-October 11). For the first time in 30 years, the British Library will send the original Alice in Wonderland manuscript to New York, and its display will be augmented by original drawings, letters, and other material. Another good reason to visit the Morgan—a terrific café! Order the duck confit salad. I had a Gilded Age Manhattan, which had flakes of gold floating on its surface—irresistible in that fabulous mansion—and needed an afternoon nap.

Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II

In the evening, thrilled beyond words, we saw Helen Mirren in The Audience, where she reprises her role as Queen Elizabeth II. Each week, the monarch has a half-hour private audience with the current Prime Minister, to learn what the government has been up to for the past week and what’s ahead. Mirren’s portrayal of the Queen over the years—from the time of her accession at age 25 to age 89 today—is completely believable. The Queen always backs the government, but that has not always been easy or comfortable. And the government hasn’t always served her well, in terms of candor or protecting her principal leadership interest, the health of the Commonwealth.

If you know or remember anything at all about the dozen political leaders who have served her—from Winston Churchill up through a prickly Margaret Thatcher to today’s David Cameron—you will enjoy these different portrayals. Sets and costumes were perfect. We may think of the Queen is being a bit bland of affect and possibly not as full of terrific one-liners that playwright Peter Morgan gives her (in the first scene, PM John Major confesses, “I only ever wanted to be ordinary,” and the Queen sympathizes: “And in which way do you consider you’ve failed in that ambition?”). But Mirren brings her to well-rounded life, and Morgan even gives her a rationalization for this persona, writing that a monarch’s very ordinariness is what makes for success. Mirren’s line is something like “if we were tremendously creative or brilliant, we’d be tempted to meddle, and that would cause no end of trouble.”

St. Patrick's, cathedral, New York, stained glass

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Wednesday morning, out for a stroll, we found St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the throes of a monumental restoration effort. The exterior where the work has been completed must appear as it did when it was first constructed, with all the grime cleared away from stones and stained glass, and, more important, but invisibly, many structural repairs made. Absolutely beautiful.

Inside, the work continues as well, and the altar is obscured by a mare’s nest of scaffolding. A bit cacophanous, but the completed parts are truly spectacular.

Lunch at my favorite NYC spot, where I’ve eaten so many times, Osteria al Doge at 142 W. 44th Street, a half-block from Times Square. Lovely food and service.

Wolf Hall , playAs if we hadn’t had enough excitement already, off to the Winter Garden Theatre for Part Two of Wolf Hall (Part One reviewed here). I suppose it isn’t too great a spoiler to say that Anne and Cardinal Wolsey’s antagonists get their comeuppance. Though Mark Ryland’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in the tv version seems perfect, Ben Miles is mighty fine in the play, too (a comparison). I enjoyed Hilary Mantel’s books, on which these dramatizations are based, and like both versions. Again, I was struck by the efficiency of the stage play, with its stark set and minimal props, which has a powerful focusing effect.

See The Audience and both parts of Wolf Hall, if you have the chance! But soon. Limited engagements.

Wolf Halls

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

A lot of Wolf Hall for one weekend–the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version on stage at the Winter Garden Theatre on Saturday, and on Sunday, the first episode of the BBC’s 6-part television version. Author Hilary Mantel, who won the Man Booker Prize for both Wolf Hall and part II of her Tudor trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies (on stage later this spring), edited and reportedly likes both rather similar versions.

Having enjoyed these books, I felt well prepared for their intricate power politics, not to mention the confusing English naming conventions, in which the Duke of Norfolk is sometimes called “Norfolk” and sometimes by his given name, Thomas Howard (all anyone needs to know is that in any Henry VIII story, Norfolk is never a good guy). But the theater audience was on the ball, got the jokes, followed the plot, and enjoyed the show terrifically. I know I did. Of course, Mantel’s narratives (combined, almost 950 pages) were stripped down for both stage and tv, yet the essentials powerfully remained.

On stage, the leads were Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, Nathaniel Parker (Henry VIII), and Lydia Leonard (Anne Boleyn). Miles’s Cromwell comes on slowly, but strongly. After his mentor Cardinal Wolsey is exiled, he finds a place at Henry’s court by following the advice “Stand in his light until he can’t help but notice you.” But Cromwell is the son of a blacksmith, and the nobility never let him forget it.

He makes himself indispensable at every turn, particularly when it comes to the King’s Great Matter: having his 24-year marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so that he is free to marry Anne Boleyn—partly out of lust and partly in the quest for a male heir. Here’s where the politics get dicey. England and Catherine are Catholic, and the Pope won’t agree to ending the marriage. Henry’s rupture with Rome over this issue led to formation of the Church of England, with him at its head. The split occurred in the intellectual context of the Protestant Reformation, supported by Anne. For some, this was heresy, and heretics risked burning.

Catherine won’t agree to an annulment, in large part because it would make her daughter Mary a bastard. Anne presses for her daughter Elizabeth to head the line of succession. Eventually, Henry tires of Anne’s badgering and . . . oh, wait. That’s Bring Up the Bodies, coming to theaters later this spring and to tv later in the series.

Meanwhile, in the television version, accomplished actor Mark Rylance is Cromwell, skinny Damian Lewis, wearing a hugely padded costume, is Henry VIII, and Claire Foy is Anne Boleyn. In only an hour, the seeds of the controversy are laid, and we haven’t heard much from Catherine, Henry, and Anne yet. Rylance, too, is a taciturn Cromwell, though you have the impression he misses nothing.

In the theatrical version, the costumes are lush, but the set was beyond minimal, no time for shifting setting in the fast-paced scene-changes. Yet I didn’t feel deprived. This minimalism allowed the drama to dominate. Switching to the tv version, it’s obvious how much time is spent walking from room to room and place to place when sets are involved. Both versions: time well spent.


Baskerville, McCarter

Lucas Hall & Gregory Wooddell in Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville

In the fan fic spirit I wrote about yesterday, the current production at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, Baskerville, is a yet another take on the perennial Sherlock Holmes favorite.

Playwright Ken Ludwig wrote this version as a romp through the moors. Aside from the commercial differences with fan fic, another difference–and one that weakens the show–is that it so closely follows the original tale (“canon” in the fan fic vocab). Ludwig doesn’t have the freedom for farce of his Lend me a Tenor or Moon over Buffalo. Though it lacks fic’s mind-bending flights of fantasy, the production is massively entertaining, nonetheless, and no doubt some audiences prefer a retelling versus a reimagining.

The two main characters are ably played by Lucas Hall (Dr. Watson), who has the occasional chance to mug at the audience when encountering some particular absurdity, and Gregory Wooddell (Holmes). Ludwig has written both of these parts mostly as foils for the other actors, and they often come across as excessively bland. All the other characters, whether playing significant roles or walk-ons, whether servants or opera stars, whether German or Castilian, are played by Jane Pfitsch, Stanley Bahorek, and Michael Glenn. This calls for manic pacing and lightning fast costume changes, which become part of the fun. Can they do it? Pfitsch calculates that during a week of this production she makes 200 costume changes.

An early decision was to make this a fully costumed show, giving every character a full outfit, as if they were on stage for twenty minutes, not two. Costume “stations” are set up all around backstage, and a specific costume is positioned where a player will exit or enter. Often two costumers help get the old off and the new on—sometimes over the old outfit, sometimes as the character is walking. Michael Glenn wears the same shirt throughout, but has individual neckties for each character he plays. With no time to tie them, the secret is magnets.

The crew that enables all the costume changes and special effects to occur precisely on time deserves special recognition. The production makes full use of McCarter’s generous under-stage traproom with its elevators and hoses for smoke and fog effects and has other surprises in store.

Baskerville is a co-production with Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage, and although it was rehearsed and the effects all mapped out here in Princeton, it played in D.C. first. You don’t have much time: It closes March 29. Tickets here.


Boyhood, Ethan Hawke

Ellar Coltrane & Ethan Hawke in Boyhood

Probably every American interested in film saw Boyhood (trailer) long before I did last week, but somehow I missed it in theaters and, as Boyhood emphasizes, time passes . . . ! From the beginning, the idea of a film following the same actors over a protracted period was both interesting and risk-laden. What if some calamity or professional conflict overrode the cast’s ability to continue? I wonder whether director Richard Linklater cast his daughter Lorelei in the film as a partial insurance policy against that eventuality? She plays as the main character’s annoying older sister Samantha. Quite nicely, too.

Cast intact, filming proceeded off and on for a dozen years, following Mason Evans, Jr. (played by Ellar Coltrane), from ages six to eighteen, and the continuity of characters across situations, levels of maturity, and the ups and downs of life makes for a compelling narrative concept. All the main parts are well acted, including the kids, the parents (Ethan Hawke and Academy Award-winner Patricia Arquette), and the mother’s problematic husbands. The script grew organically, evolving based on what went before (like life), as well as on experiences in the real lives of the actors.

Ethan Hawke, who plays Mason’s biological father, is a person of local interest, having grown up about a mile from where I live. (A few local junior high girls helped answer his fan mail in the early years.) The stage was set for this feat of filmic time travel in Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight trilogy, in which Hawke also starred, and he calls this latest film “human time-lapse photography.”

While many wonderful things can be said about the slow unfolding of personality that the movie conveys, to me it was about a half-hour too long (at 2 hours, 45 minutes), perhaps because I felt insufficiently engaged with the characters at any age. Having shot footage at all these different ages and stages, it’s as if the filmmakers felt obliged to use more of it than they absolutely had to.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%; audience rating: 83%.


J.K.Simmons, Miles Teller, Whiplash

J.K.Simmons and Miles Teller in Whiplash

Another Oscar movie (trailer) with a Princeton connection. Director Damien Chazelle was “inspired by” his musical experience at Princeton High School to explore how the drive to excel can become all-consuming. Not that the character Fletcher, superbly played by Oscar-winner J. K. Simmons, the tightly wound and sadistic studio band leader, mirrored Chazelle’s own band leader (“fear inspires greatness”), he is at pains to say, but still . . . Chazelle wanted the film to explore the line between a healthy passion and an obsession, and, boy, did he do that, garnering five Oscar nominations in the process.

Miles Teller is terrific as the young drummer pushed to the limits of his skills and endurance—and beyond—by teacher Fletcher, “sworn enemy of the merely O.K.,” says Anthony Lane in The New Yorker. Characteristically, Fletcher says, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” The Hank Levy tune “Whiplash” is the rack of a tune upon which the drummers in Fletcher’s jazz band are broken.

Here’s a movie where I really felt the tension—it made me clench my fists to the point where my hands, too, were almost bleeding. The playing of the drums enters your skull, and your heart must keep time. If you missed it in theaters, Netflix has it!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 95%; viewers, 96%. “Bring a welder’s mask to ward off sparks,” advised critic Donald Clarke in the Irish Times.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Michael Keaton, Birdman

Michael Keaton in “Birdman”

Given this movie’s underlying premise, I should say up-front that I have a love-not-love relationship with it. Yes, the acting is terrific. Given a script with substance, Michael Keaton, Ed Norton (truly amazing), and Emma Stone all received Oscar nods. I’m also big fan of Amy Ryan, who plays Keaton’s wife in one of her trademark low-key performances, of the kind she perfected in The Wire. The story itself, however, of a middle-aged man’s struggle to find himself amidst the debris of his messy family affairs and dwindling career is, for me, less interesting. (Trailer here)

In telling it, Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu pays homage to magical realism of the South American kind (an armful of calla lilies appears on a monument somewhere to Gabriel García Márquez at every showing of this movie). What appears to be happening on the screen—Michael Keaton levitating in the lotus position or, yes, flying—can be accepted on either a literal or a metaphorical basis, or both, depending on the viewer’s taste and tolerance.

In the story, Keaton is a Hollywood has-been (a former superhero called Birdman) tackling Broadway for the first time, directing and starring in a production of the Raymond Carver short story, “What we talk about when we talk about love.” The play is in rehearsal, and whether it will be successful is a toss-up. It looks unlikely. Meanwhile, Birdman himself keeps appearing like a nudgy pal, alternately flattering and browbeating Keaton and trying to lure him back into the gloriously popular action movies of his youth.

The Carver story recounts an alcohol-soaked evening when two couples try to sort out what love is, a question that has baffled sober people from time immemorial. Because of his own extreme vision of love, the ex-husband of one of the characters shot himself but “bungled it,” says the play. Later, he died. This might be a clue to the movie’s unwinding or not, because the extent to which the play-in-production is supposed to illuminate the movie is deliberately ambiguous. (I didn’t understand the subtitle, either, as it seemed to me that the characters were all too knowing.)

Numerous possible explanations (waking dreams, fevered thoughts, daydreams) could explain some of the action—especially the Michael Keaton character’s flying—which if you’re not overly hung up on trying to explain it rationally is thrilling. This is a movie that you have to decide to “just go with it” or face frustration. But the acting—and the bird costume!—is worth the price of admission. Liked the drumming. Rotten tomatoes critics rating 92%; audiences 84%.

N.J. Theaters Surviving (Thriving in!) Winter


(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Caught revivals of two 1972 plays at two of New Jersey’s fine local theatres last weekend for completely different experiences.

In partnership with Syracuse Stage, Princeton’s McCarter Theatre brought to the United States the production of Sizwe Banzi is Dead as recently remounted by Johannesburg’s Market Theatre. McCarter has presented several other South African plays in the past few decades, and this work, written by John Kani, Athol Fugard, and Winston Ntshona is much livelier than I remember those created by Fugard alone.

In two main parts, the play illustrates through humor the frustrations of life in an autocratic system and how the only solution, when one is painted into a corner by rules and regulations, is to leap over them and start life anew. Thus, Sizwe Banzi, the pass book holder is dead, but Sizwe Banzi, the man, lives free. The actors, whom Emily Mann says are “two of the most promising young actors in South Africa”—Atandwa Kani (son of the playwright) and Mncedisi Shabangu—gave unforgettable performances. The play was most effective when it worked by humor, rather than harangue, and there was a bit of that, but not much.

Upstate New Yorkers—this production starts at Syracuse Stage 2/25. And if it comes your way, don’t miss it! The struggle for dignity belongs to us all.

Pure comedy was on stage at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, with Alan Ayckbourn’s classic, Absurd Person Singular. Its three acts takes place on three successive Christmas Eves in the kitchens of the three couples who form the cast: one on the way up in society and life, one on the way down, and one decidedly mixed. Much of the comedy comes from Ayckbourn’s wry and exact observations of human behavior and motivation and his characters’ obliviousness to it. Jessica Stone directed the cast’s six members, who were uniformly up to the precise timing, physical agility, and intelligence needed to make this play work so well