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“Big Love” Romances Audiences @ Signature Theatre

If you thought graphic violence, insightful prose, and Jason Mraz covers can’t exist in the same play, think again. Big Love, now playing at Signature Theatre, has all of the aboveand still manages to make room for tomato throwing and trampolines.

biglove1
“Not Getting Married Today.”

Still, like many plays, Big Love is centered on a wedding—fifty of them, to be precise. Lydia (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and her forty-nine sisters have been pledged by their father to marry their cousins. Wisely, playwright Charles Mee simplifies the onstage number of runaway brides, focusing on Lydia and her sisters, strong-willed Thyona (Stacey Sargeant) and sweet Olympia (Libby Winters). Clad in stained and tattered wedding dresses, each sister has a different point of view on men. Thyona can’t stand them, Olivia loves them, and Lydia falls somewhere in between. But all three women do not want to be forced into marriage, and have left Greece for Italy. There they hope to find a haven in the home of Piero (Christopher Innvar), as his mother Bella (Lynn Cohen) takes pity on the girls’ plight. But the sisters are not alone for along, when the wannabe grooms arrive–repelling from helicopters, no less.

biglove4
The boys are back in town.

The men, like the women, are represented by only three brothers. Constantine (Ryan-James Hatanaka) is their leader, and is determined to fulfill their family’s marriage contract. His brothers Oed (Emmanuel Brown) and Nikos (Bobby Steggert) are in full support, especially since Nikos has feelings for Lydia. As the brides and grooms fight for and against the wedding, Lydia and Nikos form a dangerous connection across enemy lines.

biglove2
I’d ship it.

Inspired by Aeschylus’ play The Danaids, Big Love has some trappings of ancient Greek drama. There’s enough spectacle to make Aristotle proud, with a bed of flowers hanging from the theater’s ceiling, wall-to-wall projections, and musical numbers that include songs by Leslie Gore and Michael Jackson. (The musical numbers were also a wonderful way to remind us why we love to see Bobby Steggert and Rebecca Naomi Jones in Broadway musicals.) But the play has a style and sensibility that is unique to Charles Mee, with dialogue that is closer to poetry than prose.* This exchange between Nikos and Lydia shows the verse-like quality of the dialogue:

NIKOS

I want a love really that’s all-consuming
that consumes my whole life

LYDIA

Sometimes people don’t want to fall in love.
Because when you love someone
it’s too late to set conditions.
You can’t say
I’ll love you if you do this
or I’ll love you if you change that
because you can’t help yourself
and then you have to live
with whoever it is you fall in love with
however they are
and just put up with the difficulties you’ve made for yourself
because true love has no conditions.
That’s why it’s so awful to fall in love.

Mee tackles many challenging concepts at once: the nature of romantic love, of course, is prominent in Big Love, but there’s also themes of justice and forgiveness, especially in the play’s powerful final scene. Other memorable moments involve the brides and grooms proclaiming their issues with gender roles and how they relate to them, repeatedly throwing themselves to the floor. The violence of their careening and crashing bodies physicalizes their conflicting expectations and desires—and it’s all at once engaging and shocking.

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Girls vs. Boys. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Despite all of its disparate elements, Big Love succeeds in telling a story about love trying to conquer all.

“Big Love” runs until March 15th. For more information, click here.

*If you are interested in reading more of Charles Mee’s work, you’re in luck. All of his plays are available for reading (and performing!) on his website here.

“Honeymoon in Vegas” Brings Fun, Farce, and Fourth-Wall Breaking to Broadway

Sometimes, Broadway producers decide they need to turn a long forgotten movie into a musical. To do so, they usually rope in talented composers and lyricists to cobble together some songs.  And to really seal the deal, they hire someone famous (anyone famous, it seems) to entice ticket buyers and make theatergoers wonder: can so-and-so really pull it off?

Honeymoon in Vegas, now playing at the Nederlander Theatre does all of the above, and succeeds so well you almost forget all the times Broadway has gotten it wrong. Based on the 1992 film, Honeymoon in Vegas has music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (our very own 21st-century Sondheim) and stars American sweetheart Tony Danza. It’s a complex equation, but one that makes a fantastic musical. Let me count the ways:

1) The storyline is perfect for a madcap musical.

Honeymoon in Vegas begins with a silly premise: that Jack (Rob McClure) can’t marry his long-suffering girlfriend Betsy (Brynn O’Malley) because his mother (Nancy Opel) cursed him on her death bed. When Betsy confesses that she isn’t sure if she can stay in the relationship without commitment (“Anywhere But Here”), Jack decides that they’ll elope in Vegas. But when high-rolling gambler Tommy (Tony Danza) sees that Betsy looks just like his deceased wife, he’ll do anything to break up the engagement.

Yes, this is the plot of the show. It relies on weird coincidences, family curses, and some good old-fashioned sexism. (No, Tony Danza, “stealing” a woman from another man like a prize farm animal is bad, and you should feel bad.) But those ridiculous elements make up an excellent farce that would have Moliere laughing in his powdered wig. Not only does Honeymoon in Vegas (with a book by Andrew Bergman and direction by Gary Griffin) have impeccable comedic timing, but it also has well developed characters whose actions always have logical reasons. Even better, they aren’t afraid to point out how wacky things are getting. When Betsy spurns Jack to spend a weekend with Tommy, she does it out of anger for Jack’s continuing hesitance to be married. She also points out to Tommy that this is a “crazy arrangement,” aware of the unusual circumstances she’s experiencing.

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A troupe of parachuting Elvises, providing more unusual circumstances and a rousing eleven o’clock number.

What makes Honeymoon in Vegas even more complex and enjoyable is its awareness of the audience. In “I Love Betsy,” Jack sings, “I like Broadway (once a year),” a fun aside for theatergoers. Later in the show, while Tommy is singing and dancing in front of a golden curtain, his henchman (Matthew Saldivar) enters and looks up confusingly at the the glitzy set piece. This doesn’t stop him from joining the number and singing in perfect harmony, though.

honeymooninvegas3
I mean, who could resist the allure of a musical number?

2) Jason Robert Brown can do commercial oh-so-well.

Known for writing heart-wrenching musicals like Parade, The Last Five Years, and most recently The Bridges of Madison County, Jason Robert Brown is the widely known as the musical writer who makes you cry.

This is what Jason Robert Brown does to his characters. (Source: Daily Mail UK)

I had wondered how Jason Robert Brown was going to handle the music and lyrics to Honeymoon in Vegas, a story that doesn’t resemble his usual work. As it turns out, he’s ace at it, from catchy up-tempo numbers like “I Love Betsy” and “Friki-Friki” to sweeter fare like “You Made the Wait Worthwhile.” There’s even a “classic” JRB song in the mix (and of course, it’s my favorite): “Anywhere But Here,” Betsy’s soaring solo where she needs more from her relationship with Jack. Honeymoon in Vegas has one of the best original scores Broadway has seen in a long time, and I look forward to seeing what else Jason Robert Brown has up his composer and lyricist sleeves.

3) Tony Danza and the cast are incredibly charming.

Now an amazingly written and directed musical is all well and good, but you don’t have actors who can sell it, it can still fall flat. Luckily, the cast of Honeymoon in Vegas has talent and charisma for ages. Rob McClure (my new Broadway crush), is adorable as hapless Jack, bringing boundless energy into the role. Brynn O’Malley is definitely enjoying herself as Betsy, and it shows. She tries to be calm throughout the madness, but sometimes she can’t help having fun, downing drinks and trying on wedding dresses in “Betsy’s Getting Married.”

And Tony Danza, the celebrity in our Broadway production equation, is a perfect addition to the show. He can sing. He can act. He also wows the audience in a tap number, and delights them when playing the ukelele. While he does it all, it’s with a knowing smile, the consummate showman throughout his performance.

honeymooninvegas1
Tony Danza, being charming as hell.

So if you haven’t seen Honeymoon in Vegas, you totally should. Broadway’s made a gamble that might just pay off.

Oh, Mother: “Our Lady of Kibeho” @ Signature Theatre

In the second act of Our Lady of Kibeho, now playing at the Signature Theatre, one priest admonishes another with the line, “You have a weak stomach for faith I see.” The same could also be said for New York theatre audiences, who prefer religious motifs to be accompanied by biting satireor a big musical number.

You know how musical nuns do. (Source: nytimes.com)

Written by Katori Hall, Our Lady of Kibeho does neither, going the route of a drama based on true events. In 1981, Alphonsine Mumureke (played by Nneka Okafor), a student at an all-girls Catholic school in Kibeho, Rwanda, starts to have visions of the Virgin Mary. At first her visions are thought to be the imaginings of a young girl. Then another classmate, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka (Mandi Masden) begins to have visions too. Both girls face the threat of expulsion from the school, and are mercilessly bullied by Marie-Claire Mukangango (Joaquina Kalukango)… until the Virgin Mary visits her, too. The school’s head priest, Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera) wants to believe the girls’ visions, while Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford), the head nun, does not. Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith), a priest sent by the Vatican, investigates the truth behind the girls’ visions. What they all soon discover is that the Virgin Mother’s messages also warn of a dark future for Rwanda.

OUR LADY OF KIBEHO

At first, I wasn’t sure what narrative direction Our Lady of Kibeho was going to take. Was it going to be like Doubt, where the mystery depended on the veracity of the characters? Or was it going to treat the religious material with an excess of derision or reverence? Thankfully enough, none of these scenarios play a part in Our Lady of Kibeho. Yes, Mary’s apparitions are presented as fact rather than fantasy (with breathtaking special and aerial effects, designed by Greg Meeh and Paul Rubin). But the strength of the show lies not in its religious stance, but in the faith of its characters. Yes, Alphonsine is the first to receive visions of Mary, and actress Nneka Okafor embodies the role with grace. Still, she feels the burdens of the visions, and is tempted to try and sin to make the visions stop.

OUR LADY OF KIBEHO
Spoiler alert: the sexy priest might be the source of said temptation.

Some of the play’s best scenes involve the character’s responses to the visions. Father Tuyishime wants to believe the girls… but he has not prayed in eight years. Sister Evangelique seems to thwart the girls at every turn… but it’s because she wonders why she cannot see the Virgin Mary, too. And Father Flavia is skeptical if miracles can truly come to a village in Rwanda.

OUR LADY OF KIBEHO

The play’s acceptance of the girls’ visions also allows audiences to focus on another dramatic current running through Our Lady of Kibeho: the ethnic tensions in Rwanda that led to the country’s horrific genocide in 1994. In the same way that Cabaret slowly reveals the future devastation that Nazis will bring to Berlin, Our Lady of Kibeho continually makes references to the Hutu/Tutsi conflict. When Alphonsine is initially mocked for her visions, her Tutsi background is also used against her. Marie Claire, who first bullies Alphonsine, is actually pretending to be Hutu… and will later die for it. (The real life Marie Claire was killed in the genocide; in the play, Marie Claire has a vision of her death.) And when Father Tuyishime and Sister Evangelique disagree over the girls’ well-being, there is the underlying knowledge that Father Tuyishime is head of the school because he is Tutsi… and Sister Evangelique is not.

OUR LADY OF KIBEHO
The head priest in charge—and the head nun waiting in the wings.

Our Lady of Kibeho is a definite must-see. Katori Hall’s play about three girls who inspire a nation the brink of destruction is as exhilarating as it is devastatingand that is truly a miracle.

“Grand Concourse” @ Playwrights Horizons

The average theater-goer may not find Grand Concourse, a large boulevard spanning the Bronx, to be a source of dramatic inspiration. But as someone who’s been riding the Bx1 bus all her life, I can point out a few treasures:

1) The Pregones Theater, a fantastic theatre company just a few blocks away that has recently teamed up with the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater,

2) The Bronx Supreme Criminal Court, where real life courtroom dramas play out five days a week, and

3) The Butternut Street Theatre at All Hallows High School, located on Grand Concourse and East 164th Street. It’s where seventeen-year-old me got serious with Shakespeare in the Drama Club’s production of The Winter’s Tale.

So when I heard that Playwrights Horizons was producing a play named after Grand Concourse, my interest was totally piqued. I wanted to know how playwright Heidi Schreck was going to utilize this underutilized setting. I was also desperately hoping that this wouldn’t be one of those narratives where the one white cipher character is forever changed by the other lively but troubled minority characters.

No. Stop that. (Source: http://www.post-gazette.com)

Fortunately, my fears were completely unfounded. Grand Concourse is as complex and captivating as its namesake. Set in a Bronx soup kitchen, the play follows Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a veil-less nun who is questioning her faith–and is setting her one-minute prayers to the kitchen’s microwave timer. She’s assisted by Oscar (Bobby Moreno), an affable twenty-something who works at the soup kitchen, and is pestered by Frog (Lee Wilkof), a soup kitchen regular who sneaks carrots out of the refrigerator. Enter Emma (Ismenia Mendes), a nineteen-year-old college dropout who wants to start volunteering at the kitchen. Shelley takes Emma on, not knowing the devastating and life-changing consequences it will bring.

GRAND CONCOURSE OCTOBER 17, 2014 – NOVEMBER 30, 2014 PETER JAY SHARP THEATER Written by   Heidi Schreck Directed by  Kip Fagan WORLD PREMIERE Called to a life of religious service, Shelley is the devoted manager of a Bronx soup kitchen, but lately her
Emma, Oscar, and Shelley putting the Soup Nazi to shame. (Source: Joan Marcus)

Heidi Schreck’s play is a breath of fresh air in contemporary theatre. Having the play set not only in the Bronx–but in a basement soup kitchen–allows for new actions to take place that wouldn’t occur in, say, a living room in a home in New England. The diverse cast also actually resembles New York City’s colorful population. Their diversity isn’t just interesting in terms of ethnicity and gender, though. The varied characters (a young woman, a young man, a nun, and a homeless man) allow for different relationships and conflicts to occur: ones that we don’t often see in a standard two couples/family living room drama. I found it particularly engaging to watch Shelley’s progression as she struggles with her identity, her religion, and her ability to forgive. Shelley’s difficult yet triumphant journey makes her the fiercest nun in theatre since Audra McDonald’s Mother Superior.

So holy. So fierce. (Source: vanityfair.com)

Grand Concourse’s other strength lies in its humor. The cast, directed by Kip Fagan, has excellent timing in bringing Schreck’s comedic moments to life. Grand Concourse’s ability to make the audience laugh further accentuates the poignancy of the play’s more serious moments. It shows that there’s plenty drama to be found in the Bronx–and some smiles, too.

“On the Town” Shows Broadway How a Musical Revival is Done

Broadway revivals are a staple of New York’s theatre tradition. While producers’ motivations are obviously marked by dollar signs, revivals also provide theatergoers with an opportunity to see a beloved production live–and not just subsist on cast recordings, film adaptations, and memories of performances past. This season’s revival of On the Town, now playing at the Lyric Theatre, offers audiences a chance to see a Golden Age classic–and have a rip-roaring good time in the process.

The plot of On the Town is simple: sailors Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson), and Ozzie (Clyde Alves) are on leave in New York City for 24 hours. They all have something they want to accomplish that day. Chip wants to see all the sights. Ozzie wants to see all the girls–and is probably the inspiration for these kind of posters:

(Source: Mentalfloss)

Gabey’s goal ends up to be the most pressing, as he wants to meet the latest Miss Turnstiles: Ivy Smith, (Megan Fairchild), whose poster captures Gabey’s imagination and heart. The boys split up to find Ivy, finding romance along the way. Chip meets Hildy (Alysha Umphress), a taxi driver intent on bringing Chip to her place. Meanwhile, Ozzie falls for Claire De Loone (Elizabeth Stanley), an archeologist who is more unhinged than she seems. Though Gabey does find Ivy, it isn’t certain if he will join his dream girl in a musical happy-ever-after.

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(Source: onthetownbroadway.com)

On the Town is a delightful musical, and this production seems to have no difficulty in bringing that delight to the stage. With John Rando’s perfectly paced direction and Joshua Bergasse’s stunning choreography, On the Town dazzles from start to finish. The musical numbers are brilliant, being both hilarious (“Carried Away,” “I Wish I Was Dead,” and many more) and poignant (“Lonely Town,” “Some Other Time”). And while I’m not the biggest dancing enthusiast, the dream ballet sequences in On the Town (which surprisingly outnumber the ones in West Side Story) are a must see. They are mini-productions in their own right, with gorgeous dancing narratives supported by Leonard Bernstein’s lush score.

onthetown2
(Source: onthetownbroadway.com)

On the Town’s cast is another winning element. First off, it is wonderful that a musical revival has a cast more diverse than its original mounting. People of all ages, body types, and ethnicities round out the ensemble, which is something refreshing–and welcoming–to see. There are also standout performances by all: New York City Ballet principal dancer Megan Fairchild is an adorable Ivy, as well as being the reigning queen of dream ballet sequences. Elizabeth Stanley embodies kooky fierceness as Claire De Loone, while Alysha Umphress slays the role of Hildy with her voice alone. The three actors playing our lovable sailors are also fantastic with their roles. Having playful energy and the dancing and singing chops to back it up, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves are the embodiment of musical theatre fun. And Tony Yazbeck, with his beautiful voice and soulful eyes, is the perfect protagonist to root for. He’s also a welcome member of the shirtless men in musical theatre guild.

(Source: broadway.com)
Ramin Karimloo, the guild’s president. (Source: broadway.com)

On the Town is a revival that has energy, focus, and most importantly, has fun. And with a great musical, that’s all you need for a night at the theatre.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” on Broadway

Another National Theatre production has made its way to American shores in the Broadway mounting of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. As an Anglophile with no money for British Airways tickets, (and as someone who missed out on NT Live’s filmed performance), I was more than happy to catch the stateside version of Curious Incident, which is currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on the novel of the same name, follows Christopher (Alex Sharp), a fifteen-year-old autistic boy who discovers the dead body of his neighbor’s dog. Christopher is determined to find the dog’s killer, despite his father’s warnings not to. As he journals the story of his investigation with his teacher Siobhan (Francesca Faridany), Christopher uncovers family secrets, discovers more about himself, and finds that maybe he can do anything–and sitting for A-level Maths is only the beginning.

As a novel, Curious Incident’s strength was immersing the reader into the mind of an autistic teenager. The play does it one better, immersing the audience member not only into Christopher’s mind, but also his heart. Alex Sharp’s performance as Christopher is one of the best I’ve seen on stage–even more remarkable since it’s his Broadway debut. His Christopher is not a simplistic rendering of someone autistic–he’s neither a quirky maverick or a disturbed troublemaker. Instead, he’s a complex character whose autism can be a source of constant struggle, but can also bring him to achieve remarkable things.

curious incident 2The other stars of Curious Incident are the genius set, lighting and video designers (Bunny Christie, Paule Constable, and Finn Ross, respectively). The Tron-style grid that makes up the stage on all sides resembles an old game console before you press “Start.” But it quickly becomes a thing of delight, with hidden drawers in floors and walls, lights that can change your mood with a single cue, and projections that make the London Underground come alive. The innovative, transformative nature of Curious Incident‘s set is something that needs to happen more often on Broadway.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Ethel Barrymore Theatre
Look at this set. Just look at it.

Curious Incident is a visually stunning work of theatre that will also give you all the feelings. If you need to see one play this season, this is the one. And if you do, be sure to stay in your seats after the curtain call for a special surprise.

 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is now playing on Broadway. For more information, click here

“The Pawnbroker” Delves into Untold Stories of Bertolt Brecht

As much as I love the New York Fringe Festival, I was only able to see one production in this year’s fest. I was spending the rest of August engaging with theatre in a very different–albeit sweeter–way, as I reprised the role of Jenna in Vital Theatre’s production of Peace, Love, and Cupcakes The Musical. The one FringeNYC show I was able to see was directed by my PLC director, Jennifer Curfman, and it made my short foray into this year’s Fringe Festival totally worth it.

pawnbroker

The Pawnbroker: Lies, Lovers, and Bertolt Brecht’s tagline is “the controversial story of Brecht’s legend–and what five women lost to create it.” Actress and playwright Katelin Wilcox portrays all five women, who not only had romantic affiliations with Brecht, but also shaped the plays he wrote–and were forever shaped by him in return.

I’m not going to lie: one-person shows fill me with a sense of trepidation, unless your first name is John and your last name is Leguizamo. I would rather see the drama of a theatrical performance take place because of a conflict created by more than one character on stage. (This is almost a conundrum regarding fringe festivals, as a good portion of their programming includes solo acts.)

Despite my fears, The Pawnbroker exceeds all expectations. Katelin Wilcox transitions seamlessly from woman to woman throughout the piece, using distinctive red accents for each character she inhabits: a flower pin, a knit hat, a pencil, a handkerchief, and silk scarf. Wilcox’s performance is nuanced and fully-lived. With every woman she portrays, she is not just becoming another character: she is taking on their circumstances, experiencing their triumphs and tragedies, and giving voices to their untold stories. While I’ve read and enjoyed many of Brecht’s plays–especially for their complex and intriguing female characters–I had no idea how many women collaborated on his works. While I was grinning at the sly comedy in The Threepenny Opera, I didn’t know that Elisabeth Hauptmann, a German writer, was Brecht’s key collaborator on the book and lyrics. When I empathizing with the plight of Shen Te in The Good Person of Szechwan, I wasn’t aware her story wouldn’t have been the same without the collaboration of Margarete Steffin, a German writer, and Ruth Berlau, a Danish writer, director, and actress. What makes their absence in Brecht’s legacy even more striking in The Pawnbroker is a series of Brecht-style projections that feature quotes from theatre greats (such as Peter Brook and Tony Kushner) praising Brecht for his achievements in the theatre. While Brecht’s achievements should continue to be known, understood and celebrated, The Pawnbroker makes the excellent case that the women who created with him should spend as much time in the spotlight.

Even though FringeNYC has closed its doors for another year, The Pawnbroker returns as part of FringeNYC’s Encore Series. Learn more about its extended run here.

“Between Riverside and Crazy” is yet Another Reason to Love Stephen Adly Gurigis

I have the hugest playwriting crush on Stephen Adly Guirgis. Back when I was writing under the pseudonym “critickate,” I wrote a post detailing all the reasons why I love his plays. Despite my admiration for his work, I had never seen one of his plays live.

Until now.

Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Guirgis’ new play Between Riverside and Crazy is now playing at the Linda Gross Theater, and I got to hear Guirgis’ dialogue on stage for the first time.

And I loved every second of it.

Between Riverside and Crazy has your standard Guirgis elements: New York City setting? Check. Diverse cast of characters? Double check. Shady goings on? You know it. Dramatic moments punctuated by diaphragm-ruining comedy? Oh, yes.

Its focus is Walter “Pops” Washington (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a disabled ex-cop whose years-long lawsuit against the NYPD is endangering his rent-stabilized apartment on Riverside Drive. He shares said apartment with his son Junior (Ray Anthony Thomas), a middle-aged manchild who is illegally selling electronics out of his room; Lulu (Rosal Colón), Junior’s not-so-bright girlfriend; and Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar), Junior’s friend who is a recovering addict and needs a place to stay. As Walter interacts with his crazy housemates, his NYPD colleagues, and a meddling church lady, he tries to trade in his troubled past and present for a brighter future.

Between Riverside and Crazy has many strengths. One is its cast, led by the brilliant Stephen McKinley Henderson. Walter’s character is not an easy one to play. He’s hugely imperfect, and at times, downright reprehensible. But Henderson plays the role with such nuance, humor, and joy that watching his performance is in itself a masterclass in acting. The rest of the cast also provide solid performances, from Victor Almanzar’s sincere Oswaldo to Rosal Colón’s delightfully air-headed Lulu (a far cry from her sharp character in last summer’s Basilica). Liza Colón-Zayas has a unforgettable turn as Church Lady, a character who doesn’t appear until the second act… but when she does, Walter is changed forever.

Another strength is the play’s gorgeous set, designed by Walt Spangler. If you’ve been missing the revolving stage from Lincoln Center’s Act One, it has taken an Off-Broadway turn in this production, showcasing every room in Walter’s apartment in exquisite detail. The plot of the play, too, has its share of surprises. The end of the play’s first act is so explosive, it had audiences bursting into applause at the performance I attended.

Unfortunately, my love is not blind. The second half, as many plays tend to do, doesn’t pack the same dramatic punch of the first half. But that is my only qualm with Between Riverside and Crazy, which is a fine addition to Stephen Adly Gurigis’ body of work. I can’t wait to see the next set of characters he’ll commit to paper, and who will bring them to the stage.

PTP/NYC Presents “GERTRUDE—THE CRY” @ Atlantic Stage 2

The Potomac Theatre Project returns to Atlantic Stage 2 this summer with two main-stage productions. I was immediately interested in Gertrude—The Cry, a play examining the passions of a woman mostly known for being the mother of a famously temperamental Danish prince.

This is not a regular “retelling” of a well-known story–nor should it be, under playwright Howard Barker’s pen. His work, a favorite of PTP (last year they tackled The Castle), is known as “theatre of catastrophe,” because Barker makes “no attempt to satisfy any demand for clarity or the deceptive simplicity of a single message.” Though Barker’s dialogue can be difficult to find meaning, it doesn’t fail to shock and titillate with its combination of heightened language and obscene subject matter.

Pamela J. Gray as Gertrude and David Barlow as Hamlet. (Photo by Stan Barouh)
Pamela J. Gray as Gertrude and David Barlow as Hamlet. (Photo by Stan Barouh)

Barker’s Gertrude (a stunning Pamela J. Gray) is not a misunderstood figure who has been wronged. She is just as culpable of her husband’s murder as Claudius, if not more so, taking on a Lady Macbeth level of glee as she plots with Claudius to kill the king—and in a shocking turn, have sex over the king as he is in his final death throes.

Later in the play, Hamlet (David Barlow) laments that “it’s so hard to shock them.” At first, Hamlet’s assertion rings false, as Gertrude’s pursuit of sex and betrayal bring about a host of lewd acts and words. But the second half of Gertrude—The Cry becomes a forgone bloody Shakespearean conclusion (It’s still based on Hamlet, after all). Its shock value decreases not because it’s a tragedy, but because the characters’ motivations are never fully defined.

Do not let that stop you from seeing this play, though. Fantastic performances abound, from Alex Draper’s all-knowing servant to Pamela J. Gray’s poised and devastatingly sensual Gertrude. My favorite had to be David Barlow’s Hamlet. His performance allowed me to finally see why a grown man (“student” though he may be) is a man-child overly obsessed with his mother’s sex life. Major props also go to Barker evening the gender quota, adding Isola (Kathryn Kates), Claudius’ mother, and Ragusa (Meghan Leathers), a much more capable foil to Ophelia (nonexistent in this play). And Barker’s language is a perverse delight to hear.

Gertrude—The Cry is not your mother’s Hamlet, nor would you want it to be. It is a fascinating and frustrating portrait of a woman who usually stands silent in another fascinating and frustrating play.

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