Category Archives: theater

Admit it Josh Harmon’s “Admissions” is Important and Amazing

Entertainment » Theatre

Admissions

by Wickham Boyle
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Apr 2, 2018
A scene from "Admission." Photo: Jeremy Daniel

A scene from “Admission.” Photo: Jeremy Daniel  

Let’s admit it, Joshua Harmon is a playwright to follow, stalk and revere. His previous plays “Significant Other” parsed the bumpy road of gay relationships, and “Bad Jews” one of the most produced recent plays in America, tackled religion. All of these garnered praise, guffaws, deep thought and great entertainment. His newest work, currently gracing the stage of the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, is called “Admissions.” And it covers the full range of what that word can mean: something divulged and maybe a tad secret, or the act of letting someone in, usually to a place that requires some standards and not just an open door policy.

This is Harmon’s most serious, and yet still giggleable play. He says he worked at it on and off for 12 years and it is obvious that he turned the idea of preferential admissions for people of color, as well as inborn white privilege, over and over and viewed it from inside out and upside down. In Harmon’s words, “I’d never seen a deep exploration of being a white liberal or white privilege. What does privilege look like?”

The premise of “Admissions” is that at a posh New England Prep School the Admissions Officer, Sherri Rosen-Mason, played with taut whining and good-hearted perfection by Jessica Hecht, is keen on increasing the percentage of students of color. It is perhaps her life’s mission. An elderly, long time school administrator, Roberta, is in charge of the school brochure, and she seems only able to find pictures of white students to include, thus thwarting Sherri in her mission. Ann McDonough plays Roberta with bumbling aplomb.

Sherri is married to Bill, The Head of School, given gravitas and fatherly humor by Andrew Garman. These two have a son, Charlie, a senior at Hillcrest Prep. Charlie’s best friend is Perry, a bi-racial kid who attends the school. Perry has a pastry toting, white woman mom named Ginny (Sally Murphy) who is often given to frantic, air headed dithering or proselytizing. Sherri and Ginny are also fast friends. Both boys, Perry and Charlie, apply early decision to Yale. Perry gets in; Charlie is wait-listed. The drama ignites and unfolds between December 2015 and April 2016.

A scene from “Admission.” Photo: Jeremy Daniel  

There are five characters in this tight hour and forty minute non-stop action satire. All of them Caucasian, by author’s design. Perry and his African American father are never seen, but referenced extensively. (In an interview with Harmon on NPR, he said he felt it was more genuine to write what you know, hence white characters and white privilege.)

Charlie, played by Ben Edelman, must be mainlining Red Bull as he has some of the most intense, energy infused monologues (along with endless stairs to run up and down) and still flip and flop like the hormonal teenager we are to believe he is. He delivers a rant on the issues of diversity. Is it fair how society decides who is a person of color? If Penelope Cruz is a person of color, why isn’t Sophie Loren? Charlie says his grades and SAT scores were better than Perry’s. If Charlie is half Jewish and his grandfather outran the Nazis, why isn’t he given preferential treatment? After all, decades ago, no Jews were admitted to Yale (or any women).

Then the rant veers to why some hapless girl named Olive was awarded the position of editor-in-chief of the school newspaper over Charlie. Charlie continues to run up the stairs, flop on the sofa, veritably foaming at the mouth and traversing the excellent set by Riccardo Hernandez, which serves both as Sherri’s office and the family home. This extended monologue wins actor Edelman applause as our heads are spinning. You can watch the audience wordlessly agree or squint as they parse the multitudes of positions presented on how diversity works or doesn’t work from the perspective of a well cared for, dare we say, privileged white boy. All of this action is given taut attention through the directing chops of Daniel Aukin who helmed “Bad Jews” and is scheduled to direct “Skintight,” the next Harmon play set to open later in the spring.

Following up on the monologue, Harmon allows the father to voice his thoughts. Garman’s character rises from his perch in the chair after his son has exhausted himself. He calls Charlie spoiled, says he has no gratitude. And chides him that he will always be fine, always ascend because he is a privileged white male from a prep school background who will no doubt go to an excellent university. He will always have a seat at the table, people like him built the table, and therefore a seat is saved.

The mother, whose job it is to constantly assess and split the infinitesimal difference between deserving candidates, is now stuck realizing that her son may or may not have gotten into his childhood dream school because some dedicated admissions officer, just like her, gave an edge to a kid of color. Or the kid wrote a better essay, had more compelling recommendations, or a host of other marvelous attributes that would make him a fit for what the class would need.

There is a plot twist that allows Harmon to explore a further notion of how far do our scruples and morals extend when it comes to potentially allowing our children to harm themselves. I won’t divulge this, since it is a good one and unconsidered by this viewer until it popped up.

In the end, we the audience, who resemble the people of privilege the play is shaking its fist at, are left admitting that we have questions. When our children, whether of color or not, get into a program, or a school, or get a promotion, do we think they earned it outright? Or do we, will we, wonder what other factors went into their, or our, admission to the next level.

Harmon’s “Admissions” is the kind of work we need in profusion. It pushes us to think about our country and what is going on when a white racist president strips rights from immigrants, LGBTQ citizens, and women. When people of color are disproportionately shot and we have a Justice Department that turns a blind eye espousing that the rampant police killings are a “local matter.” This play is so powerful because it considers multiple facets of diversity and instead of bludgeoning the audience with statistics, and horrors, it allows us to laugh at our neighbors, our often very serious children, and ourselves. Bravo to Harmon and Lincoln Center for producing such an audacious work.

“Admissions” continues through May 6 at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater,
Lincoln Center ,150 West 65th Street, New York, New York. For further information, visit the Lincoln Center Theater website.

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Nico Muhly Celebrates Philip Glass at Carnegie Hall

Entertainment » Music
Nico Muhly and Friends Investigate the Glass Archive/Carnegie Hall, NYC/February 8, 2018
by Wickham Boyle
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Feb 12, 2018

Nico MuhlyNico Muhly  (Source:Associated Press)

The iconic American composer Philip Glass turned 80 this January and we who adore him and his music are lucky in that during his 80th year we will be feted with many different concerts in his honor.

 

I am sure one of the best was held February 8 at Carnegie Hall’s intimate Zankel space. It was an evening entitled “Nico Muhly and Friends Investigate the Glass Archive.” There could be no one more adept and intimate with Glass than Muhly, who as a teenager was an intern archivist in Philip Glass’ publishing and recording studio. According to program notes, “I am sure I was the worst archivist in the history of the discipline. Any semblance of efficiency went out the door when I realized how layered and shuffled the pages were, and how many gems were hidden there.”

For this evening Muhly arranged a selection of Glass work both known and a tad more obscure. In his opening remarks, with characteristic pluck and humor, Muhly announced that the works are not listed in the program ” Mostly to drive Carnegie Hall crazy, but also to allow us to find the best order for things. So I will announce the works from the stage.” This was wonderful as each announcement gave Muhly a chance to say why it had been picked from the extensive Glass archive.

Philip Glass  (Source:Associated Press)

Muhly’s “Friends” for this performance were the clear voice of Estelli Gomez, long time collaborator Nadia Sirota on viola, Lisa Kaplan on Piano, Chris Thompson on percussion and Caroline Shaw on violin and vocals. Muhly also played piano or keyboards and conducted the evening with nods and smiles to each performer. The works unfolded with a precision that would be admirable in a military environment, but instead, this was glorious modern music. The sounds, the drones, the nuanced change in scales and rhythms, for me all combine to create a true vibration of the spheres. All around one could see heads nodding, bodies swaying and New York City nerves unjangling by virtue of the magical sounds.

 

The evening began with what Muhly describes as “three little bits” from “Etoile Polaire:” “Are Years What,” “Étoile Polaire” and “Lady Day.” The next offering was from Monsters Of Grace, a work created in collaboration with Robert Wilson. It has texts by the mystic poet Rumi. These pieces are: “Like This,” “Don’t Go Back to Sleep” (link below) and “Boy on Fire.”

As an incredible treat to those of us, especially who have followed Glass’ works for many decades, Laurie Anderson intoned the text to “The Civil Wars” in her signature style which always renders the most from spoken word since she launched her recording career in 1981 with “Oh Superman.”

The evening wrapped up with Muhly, in his self-deprecating way saying how difficult it is for composers to end pieces, but that Philip Glass seems to be so adroit and on point with his endings. And so we were treated with the endings to “Mishima” and marvelous 1980 opera “Satyagraha.” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHKUt5fDbH0)

Although this was a one-off concert, look to the immense and inspirational Philip Glass cannon that will be in performance throughout out the year.

Watch “Don’t Go Back to Sleep”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5zvcgIQsYw)

Farinelli and the King

Farinelli and The King
by Wickham Boyle
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jan 8, 2018
Mark Rylance in "Farinelli and the King."

Mark Rylance in “Farinelli and the King.”  
Often what passes for holiday fare has a lackluster quality as if the mothballs were shaken off and some bits of tinsel applied to give it the luster of newly fallen snow, however “Farinelli and the King” is truly a wonderful show full of magic and dashes of wisdom.

 

The beyond marvelous Mark Rylance, who is a three-time Tony winner and an Olivier and Oscar winner, leads the cast in a work that began in London in 2015 at Shakespeare’s Globe. The work was written by Claire van Kampen, who should well be able to pen work that exhorts Mr. Rylance to his very best, as the two are married.

The very beautiful production, designed by Jonathan Fensom and transformed by the light of hundreds of candles, evokes the spirit of Baroque times. As the work opens Rylance, as King Philippe V of Spain, is plagued by insomnia and lies awake in his chamber fishing in a goldfish bowl and talking to the fish about the philosophy of going round and round and getting nowhere. Anything to divert himself from his fear that he is not up to the task of being King and that the world is whirling dangerously close to war around him. The Queen, played charmingly by Melody Grove, is desperate for a cure. She hears of Farinelli, who is a castrato with a voice so divine it has the power to ensorcelled all who hear it. In a great twist, Farinelli is double cast. He is well acted by Sam Crane and given voice by the glorious the countertenor Iestyn Davies, most recently seen at the Met in ” The Exterminating Angel.”

Philippe is astonished when Farinelli sings and begs him to stay. Here the plot thickens with agonies and ecstasies sung and acted as we watch Farinelli, one of the greatest celebrities of his time, decide between a life of solitude over fame and fortune in the opera houses of Europe.

The work is directed by John Dove and it seamlessly incorporates a Baroque orchestra on stage, dripping candles, Mark Rylance’s flights of fancy and humor and the interchange of actors who alternate between a sung or acted persona. The music is authentic Handel arias performed by Farinelli in the 1730’s, played live on Baroque instruments.

All of this misty beauty and glorious tones transport us for a time from our own very fractious “king,” who questions everyone as we question his sanity and hope that he can keep us from war.

“Farinelli And The King” continues through Sunday, March 25 at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street. For more information, visit the show’s website.

“The Mother Of Us All” in marvelous Hudson New York

The Mother of Us All
by Wickham Boyle
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Nov 14, 2017

“The Mother of Us All”

The Mother of Us All
“The Mother of Us All,” is composer Virgil Thomson’s second operatic collaboration with the avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein. It bowed at Columbia University in 1947, close after Stein’s death, and has often been performed in many smaller venues worldwide. Now it is gracing the newly renovated Hudson Opera House built in 1855, renamed Hudson Hall in upstate New York.

The simple, often melodic piece, embodying folk music and Protestant hymns as paeans to composer Thomson’s rural Missouri childhood, is a tribute to Susan B. Anthony who pioneered the American suffrage movement along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Susan B. Anthony lectured at the Hudson Opera House in 1860 and 1898 as she stomped her way across America. Although she was a staunch abolitionist, she still eschewed tying the vote to full manumission for African Americans. Anthony believed in freedom from slavery, but not the right to vote. This is referenced in the opera in a rather oblique Steinesque approach, but still the point comes across. New York State celebrates the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote, and it is a tribute to mount this ambitious production.

The entirety of Hudson Hall is given over to the work. Campaign signs abound, the downstairs gallery space honors the work and the times, and there are many conversations and lectures scheduled to enhance eager audiences. This is a very exciting addition to the ever more artsy town of Hudson.

The production is directed and conceived by the young, much lauded and obviously not reticent to praise himself, director R. B. Schlather. Schlather is a Hudson resident, and he has culled and unearthed a trove of talent along the shores of the Hudson. The cast, crew, and musicianship in this work are top notch, which for this viewer made the over-active, nearly frantic direction and costuming seem like a distraction rather than an adornment for this jewel-like work.

Schlather utilizes the entire second floor including the half floor galleries and the proscenium stage, as well as, platforms within the thrust set up. The cast parades, wanders, marches forward and backward, as they sing the glorious music. Often the overly active motion obscures the melody and certainly the words. True, it is not a linear work, but words and music are meant to be heard and savored.

In an unusual turn, the program generously credits everyone including the carpet layer and the pop-up canteen, however, it leaves the Composer and Librettist off the list. Listed is the director, who credits himself as “brunch chef” and many great collaborators, from video to wardrobe, hair, and make-up.

Also in the program, Schlather admonishes the audience to experience theater where “There are no borders. We are free. Get up, move around, slow down, go get a snack, come back, create your own experience.” This was one of the busiest audiences I have ever seen. They took the exaltation to heart and marched freely in and out, between performers and back to their seats, stood up in the aisles or sat on the floor.

I am not uninitiated to immersive theater, environmental productions, or major international works where the audience is folded fully into the evening. I have been a longtime producer and audience member for this beloved genre. However, “The Mother Of Us All” I believe, is not one of those works.

This production has a vast and diverse cast of nearly 40, all of whom live or are associated with the Hudson Valley. This is remarkable and marvelous. Many must be singled out, including the extraordinary Michaela Martens, recently in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” who sings a full-throated Susan B. Anthony, Nancy Allen Lundy as Gertrude Stein, Teresa Buchholz as Anne (a constant companion and supporter of Susan B.) Dominic Armstrong, as Jo the Loiterer, whose diction and clarity were a gift, and the ever-alluring Robert Osborne as Daniel Webster. These all dazzle and fill the hall with glory.

Stay tuned when new executive director Tambra Dillon, recently of Bard and BAM takes over fully in January. Then I think we will see more productions that strive, in her words to “envelop and embrace our goal of bringing our city’s town hall back to life as a gathering place reflective of its unique and vibrant community.”

“The Mother Of Us All” runs through November 19 at Hudson Hall, 327 Warren Street Hudson, New York 12534
For information or tickets, call 518-822-1438 or visit http://www.hudsonhall.org

Hudson Valley Professional Theater Rocks Tivoli

Constellations
by Wickham Boyle
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Oct 10, 2017

Constellations
“Constellations,” written by Nick Payne, bowed at the Royal Court Theater in London in 2012. It then had its American premiere at the Manhattan Theater Club in 2015 staring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson. It is roaring back to an upstate stage produced by the small, plucky Tangent Theater.

Tangent, a company founded in 2000, occupies a former Carpentry shop on a back alley in sleepy Tivoli, New York, but their production is anything but somnambulant. You enter the small space with seating for perhaps 50 and discover that for this production there is seating in the round, surrounding a floor painted with a swirling cosmos designed by Caitlynn Barett so skillfully realized by painter and artist Joel Griffith (and who happens to be Tivoli’s mayor). This is where the two-person play unfolds.

We find Roland, played masterfully by artistic director Michael Rhodes, and Marianne who, as embodied by Molly Parker Myers, spits great dialogue and provides an anchor for the sometimes-complicated work. This is a boy meets girl, sometimes falls in love, sometimes marries, sometimes health overwhelms them, but they keep moving forward.

He is a beekeeper; she is a cosmologist a purveyor of the principles of string theory, relativity, and quantum mechanics. They are perhaps an unlikely pair in a play written in an unusual, Groundhog Day style. This means that many scenes are played repetitively with twists and quirks, little differences designed to show that at any, and every moment in our lives situations could go this way or that.

If I knew more about the scientific theories pursued by Marianne I might be able to discourse on how the paths of stars, or the vibration of the spheres influences and changes the course in our lives, spinning new webs or universe. Or as they refer to in this play “the multi-verse.”

What we all can relate to, and this production does much to illuminate this, is that our lives are fragile and going left rather than right, being late for a train, or taking one course of action over another, eventually all strings together to create our lives. If we looked back, regarding our choices, and adjusting them, we might have envisioned or created a different us.

In this 70-minute work, which at times feels like a musical fugue where one trope overlaps another and then reappears slightly morphed, we begin to let go of a linear expectation for a theatrical encounter. This is tough stuff, the lines have to flow and lap like water kissing the shore and this little company has done a great job of presenting an evening that will shake audience members to reevaluate how their lives have come together in lesser and greater ways.

“Constellations” runs through October 22 at Tangent Carpenter Shop Theater, 60 Broadway, Tivoli, New York.
For information or tickets, call 845-230-7020 or visit tangent-arts.org

The Principles of Uncertainty at BAM

Entertainment » Theatre
The Principles of Uncertainty
by Wickham Boyle
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Sep 29, 2017

The Principles of Uncertainty
What is the dance/theater work called “The Principles of Uncertainty” by John Heginbotham and Maira Kalman?

The Principles of Uncertainty

It is a calm, funny, hour-long evening filled with words, wonderful and quirky line drawings, a fake cake tossed stage left, soaring or soothing live music, and a lovely coterie of seven dancers all moving across the stage like the autumn leaves we wish were outside, rather than the soggy, sodden late summer that took our city hostage.

Maybe this still needs unpacking. Over the course of a year, the beloved author and illustrator Maira Kalman kept an online journal filled with words and her inimitable drawings for the New York Times. She called it “The Principles of Uncertainty.” The entries range from musings about the weather, the passing of time, useful objects, and the quotidian that enriches our lives.

John Heginbotham is a former Mark Morris dancer who began creating his own works shortly before retiring from the company in 2012. They met when Kalman designed the set for Morris’ “Four Saints in Three Acts” at the turn of the millennium. Together Kalman and Heginbotham set out to capture the shards of events, thoughts, and movements that knit together and make our lives.

Kalman and Heginbotham describe their work as “a basket of things we’ve fallen in love with,” and the evening is certainly that. There is a musical ensemble, which provides an original score composed, arranged, and curated by Brooklyn Rider and Colin Jacobsen of the Silk Road Ensemble. The music punctuates the dance as the four women and three men, all members of Dance Heginbotham, navigate across the floor and into boxes or hold an aquarium aloft so that a projected whale can swim inside.

The ensemble is costumed perfectly by Kalman, who also provides projected illustrations, other scenic pieces, and has even covered each seat with a muslin cover proffering kicky phrases like “a platter of frogs,” all rendered in her recognizable hand. In each program is a pretty pink painting of a potato and a reading list from both Kalman and Heginbotham. There is no detail ignored, and yet nothing is earthshaking.

The choreography is languid and lush and often humorous, as is the text, read by Kalman, who also does a tiny dance or two. All the elements unite to bring an evening to pitch perfect.

“The Principles of Uncertainty,” part of the BAM 2017 Next Wave Festival, runs through September 30 at BAM Fisher Space, 321 Ashland Place in Brooklyn. For tickets or information, call 718-636-4100 or visit http://www.BAM.org

Peter Pan Still Flying High at 70

For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday
by Wickham Boyle
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Sep 11, 2017

For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday
“For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday” is Sarah Ruhl’s third New York premiere at Playwrights Horizon, following “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” in 2008 and “Stage Kiss” in 2014. Ruhl, a two-time Pulitzer finalist and Tony-nominated writer, is a bit of a darling among the young thespian circle, and her plays rarely disappoint. Her newest is no exception.

The work opens with the ever-radiant and talented Kathleen Chalfant standing in front of the curtain speaking to the audience about her childhood playing Peter Pan in her hometown theater in America’s heartland. Honestly, for a few beats I didn’t know if this was a vamp-until-ready moment where the star comes out in a heartfelt way and connects to the audience.

Chalfant’s demeanor and her delivery is so easy, natural and warm that it was as if she was telling each of us, in a packed house, her personal tale. She was transported back to a girlhood where she flew across a stage, met Mary Martin, and was handed flowers by her usually taciturn father. We are charmed.

And then the curtain opens to reveal Chalfant as Ann, the eldest in a gaggle of five adult children, all nervously surrounding their father, as he lies dying in a hospital bed. The children are John, a wonderful Daniel Jenkins, Michael played strongly by Keith Reddin, and Wendy, the always luminous Lisa Emery (following the names as the Darling children in J.M. Barrie’s tale.) There is also another brother, Jim, who didn’t become a doctor but stayed home and took care of their father as he aged. He is wonderfully poignant as embodied by David Chandler.

The siblings take turns hovering. Wendy rubs and anoints her father’s feet; Michael and John both medical doctors read charts and kibitz about care and Ann tells stories and worries about every errant sound emanating from Ron Crawford, who plays the dying dad.

The kids discuss augmenting morphine to ease pain and also hasten death. They tell some stories about their youth and their parents. They miss their mom and the family dog. They sit in hospital chairs, or sleep fitfully on the floor. Behind them is a set that resembles what must be their childhood home.

When the father finally does pass, Ron Crawford rises from the bed and continues to act out some of the things being discussed, including playing with the long gone dog, the sparky and winsome Macy, a rescue dog from Oklahoma City.

This work unfolds in ninety minutes with no intermission, but there are breaks in the action where artfully the hospital furniture is wheeled to the side and the backdrop of the house becomes the home where after the wake the siblings sit and drink, except the youngest Wendy, who seems to be more sober in many facets of her life.

The range runs wildly from humorous recollections, to long held resentments, to confusions about their parents. This is the stuff of every family, but it is done well and we believe every speech and the actors are so suited to their characters, that it is as if we are eavesdropping on an actual family.

In and out of every recollection are specks of memory about Ann’s big role, which seemed to recur often, playing Peter Pan. As the third act opens the house has resolved itself, in a genius set by David Zinn and has become the Darling home in London and the adults we met earlier are in nighties and top hats, all the trappings of the beloved Darling children. Even Macy the dog returns as Nana for a glimpse into the reverie.

Ann has found an old trunk, and again in front of the curtain, she changes into her old Pan costume, allowing for time for the set to morph and for us to once again feel that intimate rush. It is this portion of the play that for this reviewer holds the meat and the emotional payoff. Again the siblings taunt and tease each other, but the gist is about how to fly, how to be buoyantly happy so that you rise into the air and also age.

We all struggle with the unresolved issues from childhood, last week, decades ago, or what we might do wrong tomorrow, so letting go, filling our hearts and minds with lovely and lovelier thoughts is a tall order. And yet on the stage of Playwrights Horizon in the middle of 42nd Street, we watch adults born aloft, swinging, flying across the stage because they could finally find their “lovely thoughts.” This play is well imagined and helmed by director Les Water’s, who also steers the artistry of the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville.

As the siblings argue in the Peter Pan dreamscape, including a masterful appearance by Peter Pan played by David Chandler, about who has grown up, who hasn’t and why not, we all confront and imagine the places where we have missed being an adult, or might relish a tad more childishness. In the end we are all inching toward a certain ending, the alarm clock is ticking, and that either prompts buckling down or cutting loose. For some it is a mixture of flight, fancy and seriousness. Sarah Ruhl mixes an excellent concoction.

“For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday” runs through October 1 at Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street in New York City. For information or tickets, call 212-564-1235 or visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org

New York Theater Reviews
This story is part of our special report titled “New York Theater Reviews.” Want to read more? Here’s the full list.