by Hazen Cuyler
The National Theatre at Home series continues their YouTube presentations throughout July, but I’ll be stepping away for just a few weeks to focus on my work within The Greenhouse Ensemble. Critiquing digital theatre is rewarding and I’m looking forward to jumping in again soon. The National’s latest production is The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett. Directed by Adam Penford, it streams on YouTube through June 18.
Longer than anyone before him, King George III reigned over England for nearly 60 years. When George experiences severe abdominal pains, his resident doctor recommends a precise dose of medicine. Ignoring that recommended dosage, he drinks to outrageous excess and goes mad. His ailment presents his son (George IV) a window through which to seize power with the help of Parliament.
Alan Bennet’s script follows a merry (yet resentful) and arrogant ruler’s journey through an abrupt mental crisis. Mr. Bennet’s bouncy dialogue flutters with blunt playfulness. In the opening scene, George introduces us to his trustworthy colleague, Mr. Pitt. “Yes, you. What, what? You’re my Prime Minister. I chose you. Anything happens to me you’ll be out, what, what, and Mr. Fox will be in. Hey, hey.” Mark Gatiss’ vocal buoyancy and pompous charm brings our King to life. Any time George is on stage, we revel in satisfaction, relieved to find a self-important leader who happens to be a work of fiction.
Transitioning from health through sickness, Mr. Gatiss’ body takes on extremes. When we meet George, he is upright, well formed and perfectly in control of himself and his subjects. At the height of his illness, he battles writhing muscles and compulsively spurts out unintelligible rants. His barbaric doctors torture him with unconscionable procedures while Mr. Gatiss howls in pain. Torn from his wife, he sobs like a baby, cradled in a rustic wheelchair.
Set in Windsor Palace, Kew Palace and Parliament, Madness’ deliberately shabby appearance (designed by Robert Jones) is peculiar. Aged, chipped and fading green walls evoke a long-since abandoned home—a puzzling residence for the King of England. Furthering our disconnection, the play’s designed settings rarely suggest any unique location and most scenes appear practically indistinguishable from one another. Although walls are rearranged—with a fireplace added here and multiple doors added there—most configurations remain so empty in feeling and unused by actors that they may as well be painted backdrops.
Madness’ vapid set negatively affects actors who, without a clear connection to place, often appear arranged like cardboard cutouts. Three doctors debate potential remedies for the King. They stand side by side in a line, facing the audience, directing their speech beyond the glowing footlights of a blackened auditorium. A fourth doctor (Dr. Willis played by a commanding Adrian Scarborough) stands across the barren stage among a group of haphazardly positioned servants, all floating in space. Here, no design element articulates any specific environment. Consequently, no actor’s behavior reveals any significant relationship to their character’s setting. Mr. Penford’s oversight removes our belief in environmental circumstance and we find ourselves experiencing a well-articulated story much as one might hear an audiobook.
Exceptions do exist. Stiff and restricted in his bursting corset, George’s son (Wilf Scolding) lays across a cushion-y love seat in a candlelit lounge surrounded by government officials. In a later scene, to achieve the illusion of additional bodies in Parliament, actors hold up paper faces attached to the tops of dowel rods. This simple idea is playful, effective, and we perceive a much fuller crowd. But as the only moment of self-awareness throughout the entire production, it sticks out as another unrefined element.
Whether an actor or anyone else, when our environment is not what we believe it should be, people feel uncertain. Between COVID disruptions and civil rights protests and, as we are concerned here, theatre’s current state; uncertainty is where we’ve found ourselves. As we march across our pandemic choked reality, these disruptions will lead to change. While live theatre grows distant and we settle for its digitized shadow, I hope The National Theatre, and others like them, seize this opportunity to expand theatre’s visibility to fresh audiences. Audiences who might have otherwise never thought to see a play. Those are the voices our theatre is missing. And as new, diverse voices collect, their perspectives will contribute to a greater art form. A more precise mirror for more people. A finer reflection to help instill greater compassion and enact more precise social change than what may have been imagined before.
by Hazen Cuyler
Each time I have leafed through “Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man,” within a few pages I’ve set it down, always determined to return but never quite having the needed patience for James Joyce’s disjointed, stream of conscious writing. Thankfully, Guild Hall has provided an easy introduction. The East Hampton theater celebrated Bloomsday by presenting an online reading of Joe Beck’s biographical one man play about Joyce’s life. James Joyce: A Short Night’s Odyssey From No to Yes was directed by Elizabeth Falk and starring Austin Pendleton.
I studied under Austin for half a decade because he is one of the best actors I’ve ever seen. He’s directed me in a production for my company, and his life story can be heard on my podcast, “Portrait of an Artist” (I recognize the odd coincidence). So, one might say I retain a certain bias.
In Mr. Beck’s play, James Joyce recalls growing into the celebrated artist he always knew he’d become. Upon meeting WB Yeats, Joyce recalls Yeats saying, “Never have I seen such pretension with so little to show for it.” Mr. Pendleton’s humbled eyes look directly into the camera, “But when you know, you know. I knew it.” For a moment, we witness the merging of two men. Joyce and Pendleton. An unfiltered honesty binding two legendary artists. Mr. Pendleton, who achieved success immediately upon arriving in New York City, and James Joyce who, though it took more time, was acutely aware of his destiny.
James Joyce: A Short Night’s Odyssey From No to Yes, like everything these days, was performed through Zoom. I was more excited to see Austin’s work than I was to sit through choppy camera resolution, poor sound, ugly lighting and unstable internet. To my delight, as the reading started, none of those aesthetics bothered me at all. They were there, of course, as they always are, but because the acting and writing were so well accomplished, nothing else mattered. Zoom won’t replace theatre, but during a pandemic, it’s not a bad way to enjoy a reading.
by Hazen Cuyler
We’re isolated. Locked inside wrapping our heads around this strange new world. Live theatre hovers in limbo and its immediate course remains difficult to predict. To help us heal, The National Theatre has provided audiences around the world free access to their filmed theatre productions. Their latest installment on YouTube is the celebrated production of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre directed by Sally Cookson.
Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel follows Jane Eyre from birth through adulthood. Jane’s parents die from typhus. Her uncle takes her in. He dies and his wife becomes her caretaker. Almost no one is kind to Jane here. She’s sent off to a religious boarding school for orphans and eventually finds her way to Thornfield Hall where she becomes the governess of Mr. Rochester, with whom she later falls in love.
As Jane, Madeline Worrall is a knot of relentless, socially conflicted suffering. Look into her forever-distressed eyes at any moment throughout this three hour epic. Beads of sweat puddle and fall from her brow not only from stage lights and layered outfits but from Jane’s constant mental strain. Rochester describes Jane. “I see at intervals the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close set bars of a cage. A vivid, restless, resolute captive is there. And were it but free it would soar cloud high.” Ms. Worrall’s eyes dart, her face is strained even listening. Her arms clung tight, angled like wings afraid to spread.
Matched in eccentricity and volatile loneliness, their relationship is a masterclass in chemical romance. Felix Hayes’ Rochester is a intelligent, crotchety, socially-detached aristocrat – a loner whose best friend is Pilot, his dog (played with uplifting charm and attention to detail by Craig Edwards). A match strikes. In the darkness we see flickers spark across the stage. Smoke and flames burst, surrounding Rochester. “Someone has tried to hurt you” Jane says after the blaze is extinguished. A resolute Rochester gives Jane his coat and runs off. Alarmed but his responsibility overrides panic. At the end, Mr. Hayes’ moving discovery of returned love is neither mawkish nor devoid of circumstance. Now blind, he sees without eyes. A faint whisper moments away. As a someone approaches, his body retreats. Discovering moment by moment, touch by touch. Music swells in reunited embrace. “Are you real?” No artifice. No indicated tears. He remains the pillar we met long ago.
A dynamic ensemble juggles multiple characters. Among them, Laura Elphinstone plays Jane’s childhood friend, Helen Burns, and later the clergyman, St. John. Burns is self-sacrificing, ill and dying. “I’m very happy, Jane. And when I’m here and dead, you must be sure and not grieve. There’s nothing to grieve about.” She shivers, gasping for breath beneath a blanket shared by Jane. Ms. Elphinstone shows us this child, sensitive beyond her years, and then late in the play she embodies St. John whose arrogant self-importance is cringe-worthy and revolting.
Big white curtains, clean lumber and black metal ladders structure Michael Vale’s set. A makeshift birdcage of platforms and fake windows in a protective corner of Jane’s mind. But protection becomes unstable when a noisy band is sunken and nestled in the center of the stage.
Benji Bower, Will Bower and Phil King’s music propels us forward mixing genre with ease and impressive unpredictability. A raucous song erupts, elevating us to youthful traveling excitement. Somber violin, a guitar quickly and steadily plucked, frequent operatic ballads. We hear a household pop-song which, although initially crude when compared to the sophistication of prior orchestrations, perfectly captures a question hovering over the entire play. Am I crazy? Is my mind ill? The words echo through Jane’s cavernous mind. A birdcage burned to the ground.
Every layered element is molded by Sally Cookson. Under a lesser director, certain measures could appear flimsy or even shallow. For instance, a fireplace is set in front of Jane. But we don’t see a fireplace only in our imagination or through an expensive set purchase. Instead, actors hold dim-lit lightbulbs and gather at Jane’s feet. I’ve seen many novels adapted for the stage but have never experienced a more active, honest and perhaps accurate attempt at expressing narration. The Ensemble embody voices within Jane’s head. They fight each other. Interjecting thoughts sail by and land on Jane. We watch Ms. Worrall’s eyes strain, aching for clear guidance. Examples of masterful direction are abundant and we’re fortunate to have this online resource.
We don’t have theatre right now. We can’t be in that space together anymore. But when great theatre is filmed in front of an audience you can witness how the crowd affects, works with and changes a performance. For now, we must observe magic from a distance rather than experiencing it at close proximity. Near the play’s conclusion, a house burns to the ground and a man is severely injured. But as the ashes clear following this momentary disaster, a child is born to begin anew. To live some time not so far from now. To quote Jane, “Toward a bright and sunny day when the rain is over and gone.”
by Hazen Cuyler
In the beginning, Jim’s grandmother effortlessly lifts a treasure chest onto her shoulder. And the audience laughs. Although we imagine the riches within, we know it must be an empty box. Though mostly successful, The National Theatre’s latest online showing favors gold-plated blockbuster spectacle over authentic human interaction. Adapted by Bryony Lavery and directed by Polly Findlay, Treasure Island is free on YouTube, relatively brief and, regardless of considerable criticism, a sight to behold.
Billy Bones arrives at Jim’s grandmother’s inn. A drinker and a fighter, Bones is a treasure chest carrying pirate who wont pay rent. A slew of uninvited pirates arrive, searching for him. After surviving a stroke and several violent confrontations, Billy Bones collapses and dies. When opening his prized chest, Jim, his grandmother, Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney discover a map leading to buried treasure. They assemble a crew and set sail toward unimaginable fortune.
Where Robert Louis Stephenson’s classic novel contains few female characters, Bryony Lavery’s adaptation moves women center stage. The novel follows Jim, a boy, while Ms. Lavery’s adaptation follows Jim, a girl (portrayed by a commanding Patsy Ferran). Other characters follow suit- Pirates are now women, Dr. Livesey (Alexandra Maher) is a woman. In part, The National’s inclusionary decision stems from historical accuracy: female pirates existed, Stephenson simply didn’t write about them. Ms. Lavery’s additions add significant texture, complimenting an already vibrant world while never seeming out of place, awkward or detrimental.
During this period of increased digital exposure, The National is clearly flexing with Lizzie Clachan’s accomplishments. Her jaw-dropping set is Treasure Island’s main course. Turning, growing, raising, dropping, bubbling immersive environments overwhelm your senses. A noxious island floor boils, pulsating like infected skin while green toxic fog crawls across its barren landscape. A cavernous tunnel system emerges from the earth below. The main deck of a monumental pirate ship hoists beyond the proscenium’s upward reaches. Cabins filled with light and life and elegance. A sail too high to see the top. Towering rope ladders soar into a constellation-accurate starry heaven night.
Piled sky high with live music, magician-inspired illusions, animatronics (including an impressive, charm-filled parrot), etc. Treasure Island is pure spectacle. Unfortunately, focus on excess peripheral stuff deprives the adventure of meaningful character development and careful attention to circumstance. Lacking proper guidance, actors resort to cliche mannerisms within unmotivated staging.
After discovering Bones’(Aidan Kelly) treasure map, Squire Trelawney (Nick Fletcher) jumps to his feet and runs downstage, facing the audience, “Oh my heavens. It’s a treasure map! Ahh!” He exclaims, crossing right and dancing a predictable jig in place. “Stop dancing,” demands the doctor, “… treasure yes, but will any treasure amount to more than home and happiness?” Her elbows locked at 90 degrees, fingers frozen tight, sawing air, adjusting her gaze abstractly toward the general audience and the general characters with whom she shares the stage. The squire urgently crosses back in her direction, not driven by any specific motivation other than to move across the stage. The doctor counters him, balancing the stage, mirroring a lack of circumstantial intention. Similar patterns persist with each character throughout the production’s entirety.
A slapdash crew is assembled. Gathering at the harbor to introduce themselves to a suspicious captain, a cluster of four, idle, would be pirates stand side-by-side. One at a time, they step forward offering a clever piece of self description. The large Red Ruth says “all this sea airs given me a rare appetite..” Lucky Mickey steps forward “A seagull just s*** on my head… luckiest man in the whole wide world!” He smiles and puts his hands on his hips. Job Anderson, “My misses says no drinking grog…” and Silent Sue mugs a tense grin and says nothing. Although entertaining, each moment happens in a void. Each statement is without desire for anyone to receive information; spoken out to the general wind like students during a high school presentation.
Polly Findlay conducts this bold, expansive undertaking and despite disappointing acting work, Treasure Island’s story is told with clarity, respect and contains enough spectacle to impress and entertain just about anyone. Certainly, she should be commended for her astonishing ability to juggle so many elements even if one very important element was mishandled.
In the beginning, a grandmother easily lifts a large treasure chest and we imagine the riches within. By the end, we realize the treasure inside is less fulfilling than we had imagined. Spectacle. Now a month into our COVID daze, we are forced into refining our relationship to substance. Substance in family and friendship and how we use our time. Treasure Island is an example of what money and producers can accomplish in entertainment theatre. Comparing last week’s Jane Eyre to this week’s Treasure Island, we see the difference between meaningful art, with all its components working to accomplish a piece aiming to elevate humanity, and entertainment- glitzy, astronomically expensive, jaw dropping impressive entertainment. But ultimately like the easily lifted chest, empty.
By Hazen Cuyler
Continuing their efforts to battle our theater-deprived quarantine blues, The National Theatre’s showcase this week is William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Directed by Simon Godwin, featuring a fantastic cast and only streaming through April 30, you should catch this necessary piece of theatre before it’s too late.
Set in modern day, Viola and her twin brother Sebastian are separated after a ship wreck. Believing her brother has drowned, Viola disguises herself as a man to gain employment under Duke Orsino. He is in love with Olivia, a beautiful and wealthy countess, and tasks Viola, now called Cesario, with relaying his admiration. Complications materialize as Viola falls in love with Orsino, Ophelia with “Cesario” and her twin brother Sebastian emerges on the scene.
Mr. Godwin wisely incorporates subtle changes within the play’s environments. For example, his production’s opening scene substitutes Orsino awaiting news from Olivia within his palace for Orsino proposing outside Olivia’s front gates, more directly establishing the play’s initial conflict. Later, we find ourselves in an intimate pool area with Cesario, Olivia and others. The expectation for everyone to be in bathing suits further layers suspense; increasing enjoyment to an already engaging scene full of talent.
In the written play, Malvolio is a man and servant to Olivia. He is stuck up and cruel to those beneath him. A trick is played on him and we view it as justifiable punishment for his distasteful behavior. However with Tasmin Greig’s Malvolia, a woman, her punishment offers a fresh perspective, shining light on sexual repression and traumatic emotional abuse. I’ve always seen Malvolio played by a man. Never before have I felt such pangs of heartbreak as from Ms. Greig’s Malvolia.
Neither indulgent nor out of place, the scene in question provides an interim from Twelfth Night’s elevated comedy. Ms. Greig’s Malvolia is a sterile, domineering, hopelessly robotic servant of Olivia. Stumbling upon a love letter, evidently from Olivia, Malvolia is instructed to smile and dress in yellow stockings if she accepts her master’s admiration. The letter is fraudulent, but she adheres to the instructions and meets Olivia in sexy, lemon-yellow tights adorned by a pair of battery-operated spinning tassels. When we see her again she’s blindfolded and bound within a hopeless brick corridor, lit by a single naked lightbulb hanging in the background. Her once vibrant and sexually expressive outfit now clings tarnished and muddied. The oppressive scene is balanced with charm and laughter thanks to Doon Makichan’s commanding work as Feste, Olivia’s fool, pretending to be a priest condemning Malvolia. Through Ms. Greig’s work, we bear the shame of a regretful, shattered woman. An innocent person fettered, stained and lying on cold earth. When the stage revolves to a fresh location in this lavish world, Malvolia sits hunched atop a small stool, floating away as if suspended by air.
Malvolia’s confidential love, for Olivia, leads to her destruction. Malvolia loves Olivia who loves Cesario/Viola who loves Orsino who is working to court Olivia. Sir Andrew loves Tony who loves Maria. Antonio loves Sebastian, kisses him and invites him to a gay club where a drag queen sings a rendition of Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be” speech. Viola’s infatuation is secret. Orsino hides his love for Cesario. When Orsino kisses Cesario on the lips, we posit the peck may be more than platonic.
As Viola’s confident alter-ego Cesario, Tamara Lawrence unearths boyish machismo and camaraderie while under constant threat of being discovered. Ms. Lawrence loses neither Viola’s soft femininity nor her bold sexual attraction to Orsino. During his birthday party, Viola not-so-subtly licks his shoulder delivering momentary relief from the caged-in sexual energy pervading this entire production. Near the play’s conclusion, tightly strung tension finally snaps and Ms. Lawrence leaps into Orsino’s arms, cheered on by an adoring audience.
All this bursting amorous energy is contained within Soutra Gilmour’s multi-layered folding triangle set of architectural fascination—an Art Deco arrowhead accentuated by wealth. Windowed walls make worlds extend forever; hospitals contain countless roaming doctors and beds. A stairway strides to eternity. A grey cement barrier reinforces Olivia’s honeycomb home where every corridor reveals a new, opulent habitat.
At the beginning, Malvolia is an emotionally tethered person. Tightly held and incapable of venturing beyond her self-imposed captivity. A servant dogmatically rejecting freedom. Then, drastic misfortune strikes; A mean-spirited trick masquerading as jest derails the conventions of her old way of life. Although an isolating experience, necessity inspires opportunity to transcend her dissatisfaction. Survival desiring more than a compromised existence. An opportunity to live again, for the first time, as rain washes over us all.
By Hazen Cuyler
As we approach The National Theatre at Home’s final chapters, we find ourselves inside the spray-painted walls of a starved, dystopian empire. We meet General Caius Martius, a legendary force of nature driven by violent willpower. Played by Tom Hiddleston, his superhero star status continues The National’s celebrity-studded YouTube season. Directed by Josie Rourke and streaming thru June 11, William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus urges us to recognize when enthusiastic leaders persuade with anger and destructive wills.
Caius Martius is a powerful Roman General at a time of hunger and civil unrest. After leading a successful battle against the Volscians (a territory near Rome), he is awarded the honorary surname, “Coriolanus” (Conqueror of Corioli, a town in Volsci). Encouraged by his mother, he runs for Consul (highest elected Roman office), is nominated and quickly betrayed by other Senators. Exiled, Caius Martius Coriolanus returns to Volsci, driven to lead their army against Rome.
Many actors, regardless of experience or accomplishment, cling onto anger’s often-generalized passion as a source of secure-feeling, immediate inspiration. This universal trend is supported by audiences as we inaccurately celebrate passion, confusing it with talent. Coriolanus’ title role demands this passion’s intensity and the talented Mr. Hiddleston’s Caius Martius Coriolanus is compelling but his anger’s unwavering rhythm washes over nuance and leaves his performance feeling a bit flat. A similar pattern persists through Ms. Rourke’s moody direction, favoring consistent tone over detail.
Coriolanus’ wife and child beg for an end to his campaign against Rome. Isolated under harsh white light, he speaks as through a dreamlike haze. Here, Mr. Hiddleston’s relationships appear almost interchangeable, providing few significant indications of personal history. Whether surrounded by Roman army peers or Senator foes, Hiddleston’s widespread scorn is seldom targeted. Campaigning for citizen’s votes, we witness identical insincere smiles, unaffected by any person’s individuality. Hiddleston’s work feels motivated by an inner, generic energy, mostly anger, placed on top of Shakespeare’s words, approximating relationships and circumstances; driven more by impulsive waves of passion than by Coriolanus’ relationship to other human beings and circumstances.
The ensemble plays multiple Roman and Volscian citizens but a lack of discernible character identity causes momentary confusion. Rochenda Sandall plays such characters. In Rome, she fearlessly confronts a high-ranking political official and in Volsci, she fearlessly confronts Coriolanus. In both instances, her distinct features and behavior are so similar it takes a moment to realize she is representing different people.
Within Ms. Rourke’s timeless Roman setting (simple and adaptive design by Lucy Osborne), we trudge through grungy moods but frequently ignored details cause irritation. Coriolanus’ battle-torn body bears deep, gruesome scars and a sling supports his damaged left arm. Voter ballots are dumped at Mr. Hiddleston’s feet. On his hands and knees, he grasps them impulsively, forgetting any injury or handicap his sling supported. In speaking to his mother and in speaking to the Roman Senate, his damaged arm gestures without consequence. Others remain insensitive to this injury as well. Mark Gatiss, playing Menenius, unnecessarily shoves the injured warrior in the chest without caution or consideration. Cominius (played by Peter De Jersey) grabs the injured arm before thinking there might be a better option from which to choose. These moments are consistent and widespread enough that to blame individual actors, scene by scene is irrational.
Deborah Findlay plays Volumnia, Coriolanus’ hardened mother. Tightly bound hair, dark maroon lipstick and clothed in conservative dress, she demands excellence. Ms. Findlay and Mr. Hiddleston share a moving, trust-filled relationship. Obedient to his mother’s devastating plea, tears stream down Mr. Hiddleston’s cheeks. Grasping the cost of her request, Ms. Findlay’s body hollows. Her empty eyes stare across the infinite landscape of despair. A seasoned life of endless fall. She stands empty in a field, locked in time, alone forever among descending crumpled leaves.
Today we reside in ambition’s society. A winning-obsessed world of the cheering masses; worshiping charismatic victory over difficult to understand realities. We watch Coriolanus– a play rarely seen by or read by or known by those who would follow mad men. A play depicting tyrants who would lead us beyond our aim. A play revealing our mad ambitions, gently soothed as in a dream, guiding us from our misadventures.
by Hazen Cuyler
Williams, Kazan, Brando, Leigh: unforgettable figures in modern theater history. The play classified Tennessee Williams as a great American writer. The Elia Kazan-directed film skyrocketed Brando to fame while simultaneously ushering in an awareness of new American acting methods. Regardless of any subsequent productions, the 1951 film is sealed in modern culture’s collective memory. Nearly 70 years later, The National Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire is streaming on YouTube until May 28. Directed by Benedict Andrews and starring Gillian Anderson, A Streetcar Named Desire reminds us to care for others more vulnerable than ourselves.
Stella is pregnant. Stanley is a brute. And they’re married and crazy about each other. They live in a small one-bedroom apartment in New Orleans. At the edge of financial and mental collapse, Blanche DuBois arrives at Stella’s doorstep (via a streetcar named “Desire”). Blanche is Stella’s ineffably nervous sister who’s just lost their family’s estate—a Mississippi plantation called Belle Reve (“Beautiful Dream”). Blanche has arrived unannounced to stay in their tiny apartment—in New Orleans, in the unbearably hot summer—for an unspecified amount of time.
Director Benedict Andrews further accentuates the highs and lows of this unstable community by intensifying Streetcar’s alcoholism and violence. During a poker game, a blind-drunk Stanley smashes a radio and punches Stella in the face. Bloodied and crying, she and Blanche escape to a neighboring apartment while the men restrain Stanley and abandon him, unconscious, in the bathtub. Reawakening alone and realizing what he’s done, he howls for his wife, pleading for forgiveness. In the film, Brando’s harrowing bellow, “Stella!” is among the most famous moments in film history. Fortunately, Ben Foster provides a refreshing and even more debilitated Stanley. Stumbling out from his watery tub, Mr. Foster’s reeling body crawls across the outside pavement. Snot and spit and tears dribble down his face. Aside from Under Armour boxers, he is naked and howls like a 10-year-old boy encountering horrific despair. After only momentary uncertainty, Stella returns to her lover.
At the bottom of a fire escape, Vanessa Kirby’s Stella meets her pitiful husband. Desperately, she oscillates between logic, physical pain, emotional shock and ferocious sexual desire. Like a snake, Stanley lurches and clings to his wife. Ms. Kirby’s Stella battles him off, feigning resentment. Grasping and pulling at skin, they burst through their home and to their bed in a flight of passion. While in bed, Stanley rises to his feet, Stella lying under him, and walks past her, leaving her abandoned body to writhe under hot red lights as the turntable stage revolves into forever.
On Blanche’s birthday, Stella unexpectedly goes into labor, leaving her sister intoxicated and alone within their shadowy apartment. After learning of Blanche’s scandalous past, Stanley’s friend, Mitch (Corey Johnson), shows up drunk. “I won’t cross examine the witness. I’ll just pretend I don’t notice anything different about you,” she says before gripping her ears: “There’s that music again . . . ” Gillian Anderson’s tormented body doubles over and her frail arm reaches into black distant nothingness. Her thick tongued voice, trembling from strain, continues onward. Though destabilized by intense effects from alcohol and stress, Blanche’s vocabulary, speech pattern and congenial disposition remain intact. Ms. Anderson unifies Williams’s language with Mr. Andrews’ direction and reveals ingrained and lasting social habits operating within the individual.
Magda Willi’s set drops us on the sidelines of a modern-day rotating IKEA showroom. We don’t get the dark and dreary, dirty, makeshift, intimate home from Kazan’s film. Here, we have an exposed apartment framework without walls, fastened upon a never-ending turntable. Ms. Willi’s materials express the upper-low class Amazon age: mass produced, clean and white, uniform and cheap.
Bred from an extinct, genial South, the fragile Blanche DuBois cannot survive in today’s polarized world. Hopelessly preyed on by beasts, we watch her gradual destruction. Director Benedict Andrews, with the help of an inspired Gillian Anderson, heightens Tennessee Williams’ more desperate and arresting moments. Late in the play Blanche states, “Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. It is the one unforgivable thing in my opinion and it is the one thing of which I have never, never been guilty.” Great plays survive throughout time because their lessons have not yet been learned. In one of history’s greatest plays, we watch a gentle, though frightened, human being desperate for warmth, flutter like a moth toward flame before meeting her end.
by Hazen Cuyler
We enter a barber shop. Not a discount franchise money-maker but an indispensable cultural refuge. Certain rules exist here. Fighting isn’t allowed, talking is a requisite and elders must be respected. We enter a barber shop where generations of black men disentangle nuances from their traumatic past to progress forward.
More symposium than drama, Barber Shop Chronicles visits shops across Africa (and one in London) where loosely intertwined story arcs provide a vehicle to frame discussions. Directed by Bijan Sheibani and penned by Inua Ellams, The National Theatre’s latest must-see production streams on YouTube until May 21.
Within Mr. Ellams’ inspired script, daily conversations spark diverse and broad-scoped societal debates. A hilariously crass endorsement on dating white girls seamlessly turns to ethical debate on racial slur usage. Another scene, praising local music, segues into a dissection of disingenuous national pride. Mr. Ellams’ fascinating debates on fatherhood, capitalism, racism, love, music and shifting generations all begin with a haircut.
Maynard Eziashi plays a black South African drunkard glued to a beer can. He boasts, “In school, I had power over them. Used to charge white kids to call me kaffir.” Laughing, proud and disillusioned in the face of this harsh racial slur, the good-humored revelation quickly turns volatile. A customer, mid-haircut interjects, “I moved to the suburbs, white people area . . . they used it every day! Assaulted my mother . . . beat up my cousin.” We know little about the stumbling, drunken man but we label him as a fool. Later, he reemerges, weeping over the same beer can and we learn of his absent father. Of enduring an abusive past and crippling poverty. We learn how disgraceful money helped him eat.
Barber Shop’s most pronounced story arc resides in London. Until he was imprisoned, Samuel’s father co-owned a barber shop alongside Emmanuel (Cyril Nri). Now, Emmanuel owns the shop and Samuel (the talented Fisayo Akinade) works here. A destructive father and a compassionate guardian holding a secret reminds us of Fugard’s “Master Harold”… and the boys. With heartwarming compassion, Mr. Nri’s Emmanuel counteracts Samuel’s compulsive agitation. This painful and caring relationship brings Barber Shop Chronicles its most emotionally moving plotline, relaxing the play’s constant more-intellectual debates.
Back in Africa, we arrive in a dimly lit Zimbabwean shop. An overhead fan casts a circulating shadow on two men below. Bob Marley’s “One Love” plays on an aging boombox. The young barber (Hammed Animashaun) is timid and reserved and respectful. An older musician expects a complimentary haircut. He had left Zimbabwe during more difficult times, fortunes changed, and he returns to restore national identity. “For what?” The young barber demands. Unaccustomed to conflict, Mr. Animashaun’s uncertain eyes dart side to side. His compulsive feet shift awkward weight. Obedient arms stick glued at sides. The barber pushes onward. “By playing your s*** songs? Pretending to care? You left . . . when things got tough, you left. Now things are better you’ve come back just in time . . . We don’t want your dictatorship, Mugabe was enough.” Still, silent air passes. The musician responds. “You know before I left, young people would never speak to their elders like this.” Respect your elders: a once-assumed virtue, now unresolved and questioned by this new generation.
Bijan Sheibani’s staging further emphasizes ideas over behavior, resulting in the play’s ideological discussions outshining its excellent performances. Song and dance transitions, though electric, do little to bridge story or character elements. Instead, they further isolate chapters of logical debate.
Representing each unique country, Rae Smith’s designs reveal specific socio-economic circumstances. Samuel’s squeaky-clean conservative London shop houses leather armchairs and fluorescent lighting. Their clothing and equipment is clean, sharp and professional. The barber we meet in Nigeria wears pink flip flops, cuts hair on a pink rolling computer chair beside an unmade mattress lying on his dimly-lit bedroom floor.
Barber Shop Chronicles actively seeks paths forward from trauma’s lasting burden. Near the play’s conclusion, a young man enters the London shop. He’s a masculine, black actor about to audition for the role of a young, masculine, black man. Light skinned, baby-faced and comparing himself to abstract likeness of black masculinity, he feels inadequate and expects not to be cast. Quickly moved moments later, Emmanuel sheds heavy tears and we adjust our views on what it means to be masculine. These barber shops aren’t designed as economic growth machines or 15-minute vanity stops. Black men (there are no women in this play) come here to cut loose outdated ideas and seek greater understanding. They come here to discover revealing generational similarities and differences. They come here arguing and laughing at old jokes retold. Jokes recited again and again, sustaining joy and solidarity under a shadow of suffering.
by Hazen Cuyler
Hideous and scarred and abandoned, a nameless creature roams the countryside. He’s shaped like a man and educated by a blind, retired professor over the course of a year. After learning of love, The Creature ventures to confront his maker—leaving a trail of devastation in his wake.
The National Theatre has revived Frankenstein (their acclaimed adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel). This critique dissects two versions of the same production featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating as Dr. Victor Frankenstein and The Creature. Academy Award winner Danny Boyle directs and each production streams free on YouTube through May 7. If The National’s digital showings aren’t already in your weekly routine, they should be. Because they don’t disappoint.
We can’t help envisioning some variation of Boris Karloff, a large man in a pleasant suit, bolts through the neck, a tall and flat skull, arms straight ahead and not much of a talker. The Creature (Dr. Frankenstein’s unnamed creation), portrayed by both Mr. Cumberbatch and Mr. Miller, could not be further from these presumptions.
With evocative dancer-like sensitivity, Mr. Cumberbatch accomplishes a primal, grotesque physicality as The Creature. Awoke in fear on cold earth, sewn together limbs thrash, desperate to escape a foreign torso. We imagine nerve endings soldered haphazardly. He struggles ceaselessly while learning to walk but with an infant’s gaiety The Creature laughs upon accomplishment. We watch him discover food and rain and grass and snow and sunrise and cold night. When alone and starved or unjustly beaten, we feel heartache and pity. We watch him mature with experience, knowledge and hatred. And we experience betrayal as he commits each new atrocity, justly earning the title of Monster.
Mr. Miller presents more man than Creature, less science experiment monstrosity and more abandoned miscreant coping with a severe head injury. This more-human interpretation is thrilling but ultimately sacrifices mystery and insight for relatability.
Full of delicious contradictions, incentivizing any actor to play The Creature is straightforward: a philosophical monster created for an unknown purpose and abandoned, containing child-like sensitivity and satanic wrath. On paper it’s a complex, iconic dream role. Dr. Victor Frankenstein, on the other hand, is complex but less sexy. Where both actors produce fine work as The Creature, entire scenes featuring Mr. Miller as Dr. Frankenstein suffer.
“Why?” asks Elizabeth (Naomi Harris), Dr. Frankenstein’s wife, after learning of his monstrous creation. “Why did you do that?” He looks off, stunned from a question he hadn’t considered. “Because I had a vision. A vision of perfection.” With Mr. Miller’s Dr. Frankenstein, we encounter strained speech heaved at an impassive wife. Circumstantially their relationship is intentionally devoid of sexuality but an overarching lack of chemistry exchanges visionary magic for indifference.
The same scene of the alternate production featuring Mr. Cumberbatch is more revealing. After being confronted, his eyes glow and we witness precision to his astonishment. Describing his vision of perfection, his inspiration appears within our mind’s eye. Of greater value, we empathize with his irrational, compulsive need to realize a dream regardless of consequence.
Mr. Cumberbatch’s Dr. Frankenstein scenes also contain more consistent comedy. When instructing men to deliver a plentiful supply of organs, lighthearted tension emerges as two gravediggers find themselves in over their heads. Whether speaking to his wife or father or creature or dead brother, Mr. Cumberbatch brings his expected brand of unaware, self-involved neurotic wit which, though familiar, enriches his scenes.
Consequently, if you’re looking for the best show overall, the production featuring Mr. Miller as The Creature and Mr. Cumberbatch as Dr. Frankenstein is a more balanced production because both leading men produce excellent work. If you’re looking for the better monster, I recommend Cumberbatch.
Nick Dear’s adaptation under Danny Boyle’s direction challenges our relationship to God. The production follows an imperfect man creating life without permission. A creator unwilling to destroy his creature, despite its sins, because of his own need for knowledge which he cannot possess. In the case of Dr. Frankenstein: love.
“But if you wanted to create life . . . then why not just give me a child?” Elizabeth asks. “I am talking about science,” Replies Victor. “No. You are talking about pride.” This play asks us to articulate a precise reason for why we must compulsively move forward. A scientist creates a monster because he can. That monster pursuits love because he discovers it. Two characters, God and Man, perpetually marching forward, desperate for more and never knowing satisfaction. A ceaseless progression toward an infinite white abyss.
By Hazen Cuyler
About Love faithfully celebrates Ivan Turgenev’s 1860 coming-of-age novella, First Love. It’s an engaging production, preserving original prose, adding songs, and running 95 minutes. Precise staging alongside a charming ensemble make About Love a compelling way to experience great literature, but ultimately it struggles to overcome disappointing character development caused by persistent narration. Written and directed by Will Pomerantz, with music and lyrics by Nancy Harrow, it’s playing at the Sheen Center through March 22.
While preparing to attend university in the fall, Peter and his family vacation at a large summer home. On the premises is a small cottage rented to a (relatively) impoverished princess, her spellbinding 21-year-old daughter, and their servants. The princess’ daughter, Zina, is worshiped by every man she encounters— including 16-year-old Peter. This is the story of Peter’s first love.
With each scene Mr. Pomerantz’s steady hand grasps our attention, conducting unexpected experiences. Now Peter and Zina are together‚ quiet, held beneath a light silk scarf and inescapable warm breath, surrounded by topsy-turvy drunken adult onlookers. Now we’re engulfed in raucous celebration. Now a solemn Peter lays in tree-shielded moonlight isolation— clutching desperate, fading memories.
Jeffrey Kringer (Peter) and Silvia Bond (Zina) portray singular roles while the rest of the ensemble alternates between three characters each. The novella and play consist of Peter’s account of events: Mr. Pomerantz assigns narration to ensemble members who communicate— as either the voice of Peter or as the voice of their own character— directly to the audience while scenes play out simultaneously. In one instance, surrounded by adoring men, Zina playfully smacks suitors over the heads with flowers while narrating her own action. While only momentary, the pattern continues throughout the production’s entirety, trapping actors into commenting on circumstances rather than fully experiencing them. Placing distance not only between the actors and their characters, but also between audience and the play’s reality.
Mr. Pomerantz’s dynamic compositions are further dampened by a desire to charm. A talented ensemble is led not through the depths of Turgenev’s entangled circumstances but toward a more shallow mirage in order to entertain. In nearly every ensemble member’s narration, their character’s circumstances are sacrificed to communicate an appealing story. In the previously mentioned Peter/Zina scarf scene, we don’t experience characters immersed in a drunken utopia but actors standing, happily telling Peter’s story without any specific characterization. The problem stems from a structural requirement of the play itself: Peter’s narration is shared among the ensemble while they must simultaneously embody their own characters in the scene. You can imagine how confused an actor might become while portraying two characters at the exact same time. The production’s priority becomes telling the story with charm, by default, which sacrifices characterization on stage.
Song and melody heighten theatrical presentation: Ms. Harrow’s sharp lyrics offer character insight while remaining neutral enough to leave Turgenev’s prose undisturbed. Her varied work— arranged and orchestrated by Owen Broder, Daniel Dickinson, and Alphonso Horne— enhances the production’s enjoyment. The titular song, “About Love,” roars into jazzy ‘20s Americana. The lively “Life is Short,” celebrates Russian-influenced melancholy. Peter lays in isolation as a “A Storm is Brewing” swells, following a lively night’s intoxication.
Youth’s journey from adolescence to adulthood anchors Jeffrey Kringer’s Peter. At 16 he’s alone, naive, and stumbling, while unsettled love aches within his chest. Four years down the road he’s wearing a more protective skin while horseback riding alongside his father, mistrust having guided him to the kind of maturity learned from having something forever broken.
Silvia Bond’s Zina holds every man under her spell with subtle magic but less capriciousness than Turgenev may have intended. Regardless, you never doubt her ability to captivate. The rest of the ensemble features Helen Coxe, Dan Domingues, Tom Patterson, and Jean Tafler.
This is Turgenev’s most autobiographical story. About Love is not about the attainment of love. It is about our desire to pursue love. It is about a profound connection to unrequited First Love— something that stays in our cells forever. The play is a voyage traversing awkwardness and pain but never stopping for regret. It is a mirror mocking possession and reflecting back only pursuit. Whether glimpsed or realized, Turgenev (and the artists giving us this work) tell us it is love which moves us forward. And the memory of its first encounter stays with us forever.
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