Monday, December 9, 2019

Present Laughter and Pride and Prejudice: Present-Day Laughter

Andrew Scott and Indira Varma in Present Laughter. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

The relentless updating of classic material continues apace with the Old Vic revival of Noël Coward’s 1942 Present Laughter (recently broadcast in the NTLive series) and Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, currently being performed at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre. Present Laughter stars Andrew Scott as Garry Essendine, the narcissistic stage star Coward wrote as self-parody and starred in himself in the West End. The director, Matthew Warchus, has queered the material by making Garry explicitly bisexual and gender-switching the roles of his backer, Hugo, and his wife Joanna, still an outsider to Garry’s inner circle, who almost ruins everything by first carrying on an affair with Garry’s producer, Morris, and then seducing Garry himself. In this version, Hugo has become Helen (Suzie Toase) and Joanna is now Joe (Enzo Cilenti), so his dalliances with both Morris (Abdul Salis) and Garry are same-sex. Plus, as Garry reveals in the last act, Helen is sleeping with another woman.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Secret Life of a Recipe Tester

Liz Baer in the kitchen.

Liz Baer earns her paycheck teaching Latin, but she’s been moonlighting for a little more than a year testing recipes for the forthcoming Berkshires Farm Table Cookbook by Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner. Perhaps it hasn’t crossed your mind that cookbooks need recipe testers, but they do, in the same way that all books need copy editors – or perhaps more urgently, because readers aren’t generally required to eat typos. (For an exception to that rule, keep reading to the end.) For The Berkshires Farm Table Cookbook, Baer didn’t test every single recipe herself, but each one was tested more than once. Two authors and two independent testers meant a total of four people who checked and double-checked (and sometimes triple-checked and quadruple-checked) every single recipe.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Blacks and Whites: Slave Play, Hansard, and Michael J. Pollard

James Cusati-Moyer and Ato Blankson-Wood in Slave Play. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

This review contains spoilers for Slave Play.
Slave Play, written by Jeremy O. Harris and directed for Broadway by Robert O’Hara (who also staged the professional premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop last season), begins with three broadly satirical vignettes about interracial couples copulating on pre-Civil War southern plantations: a white overseer with a black female slave, a black male slave with the white mistress of the house, and a black foreman with an indentured white male servant. The style is familiar, especially to anyone who lived through the downtown theatre of the sixties and seventies; only the gay content of the last sketch and the racial reversal, as well as a few outré details (like the huge black dildo the white woman useson the black buck and the fact that he serenades her with his violin after coition), seem fresh. But then two contemporary characters appear above the stage to halt the proceedings for a Brechtian effect and we wonder if we might be watching a rehearsal. They turn out to be not stage managers, however, but therapists, Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), another interracial couple who are running a program called Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy – which, they assure their clients, has had tremendous benefits for their own relationship. Each of the pairs we have just seen performing in the sketches is a couple that has enrolled in the group because the black partner has been unable to respond sexually for some time. The idea of Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy is that the source of the problem – the reason these African Americans have closed down – is that any sexual connection with a white lover invariably evokes the legacy of slavery and these farcical re-enactments are intended to break through the block. The reason the two therapists stop the exercise is that it turns out to be so startlingly effective with Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) that he has an orgasm and then dissolves in tears, while his partner, Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), not only is caught off guard but feels superfluous, even though he knows he’s supposed to be happy for Gary. The subsequent group discussion gives rise to turbulent emotions for all six of the participants.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Classics Without Inspiration: Quixote Nuevo and An Iliad

Emilio Delgado and Hugo E. Carbajal in Quixote Nuevo at the Huntington Theatre Company. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Octavio Sollis sets Quixote Nuevo, his updated version of Don Quixote, in Texas, substituting a town called La Plancha for Cervantes’ La Mancha. In this version, a co-production of the Huntington Theatre Company, Hartford Stage and Houston’s Alley Theatre – currently playing at the Huntington – the hero, Jose Quijano (Emilio Delgado), is a retired literature professor sinking into dementia who, as Don Quixote, rides around on a bicycle with the skull of a horse hoisted on the handlebars – the horse, when it was alive, was the companion of his lonely childhood – performing heroic deeds in the name of his muse, Dulcinea. His sister Magdalena (Mariela López-Ponce) and his niece Antonia (Sarita Ocon), who have been caring for him, chase after him in the hopes of getting him into assisted living; his other pursuers are his parish priest (Orlando Arriaga) and his therapist (Gisela Chípe). His Sancho Panza is Manny Diaz (Juan Manuel Amador), who drives an ice cream wagon and whose anxious wife (Krystal Hernandez) is also trying to track down the pair of fantastic adventurers.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Divine Entertainment: The Young Pope

Jude Law and Silvio Orlando in The Young Pope on HBO.

Now that Paolo Sorrentino's new limited series The New Pope has premiered at the Venice Film Festival and has a rumored end-of-year release date, it's a good time to look back at its prequel, The Young Pope (2016). Michael Lueger has written about the pilot episode on this website, but I think a comprehensive appraisal could yield a different perspective.

The Young Pope is a deeply thought-through meditation on the two perennially warring factions of the Catholic Church and, despite what it seems, it displays a solidly Catholic perspective. But to really get it, you’ll have to go farther back in the history and traditions of the Church than the Second Vatican Council – which, ironically, is exactly what Lenny Belardo, Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) – I’ll call him Lenny – would have wanted you to do.

Monday, November 18, 2019

New Works for the Theatre: The Michaels, The Height of the Storm and Admissions

Brenda Wehle and Charlotte Bydwell in The Michaels: Conversations During Difficult Times. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The Michaels: Conversations During Difficult Times is Richard Nelson’s first play since he directed his own translation, with the wizardly translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, of Uncle Ványa in the Hunter Theatre Project a year ago. Now he’s back at the Public, where he presented (also as both playwright and director) his tetralogy The Apple Family Plays and his trilogy The Gabriels, and like those plays – and like Uncle Ványa – the style is what you might call conversational realism. The venue is LuEsther Hall, the smallest space at the Public, and those of us who didn’t obtain a listening device in the lobby leaned in to listen as soon as the actors had created the set out of piled-up tables, chairs and benches, rolled-up rugs and props laid out in trays. Then the lights come up and Jay O. Sanders, as David Michael, a producer and arts manager, tells the assembled kitchen in his ex-wife Rose’s Rhinebeck house about having to appear in place of an ailing actor in his latest show. He describes what it was like to experience the sacred performance space actors and dancers claim that isn’t normally open to mere producers. (Rhinebeck, in upstate New York, is also the setting of The Apple Family Plays and The Gabriels.)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Colson Whitehead: Shredder of Illusions

Author Colson Whitehead. (Photo: Chris Close)

Most of us do not harbour a benign view of slavery, namely the belief that the owners of slaves were reluctant masters who generally cared for the well-being of their human property. There are, however, egregious exceptions. In 2016 a curious children's book appeared, A Birthday Cake for George Washington , that portrayed happy slave children baking a cake for the first president; it was a whitewash of slavery that produced a swift and sharp backlash, prompting the publisher to withdraw it. More disturbing is that Roy Moore , the Republican Senate candidate for Alabama in the 2018 election – who subsequently lost in one of the America's reddest states – publicly stated that America was great when slavery prevailed because black families were kept together, a grotesque misrepresentation of the historical reality, which was that slave families were frequently and viciously torn apart.

Instead, we are likely to view slavery as harsh, ruthless, even tragic, though these adjectives do not fully capture the systemic cruelty visited upon slaves by sadistic overseers and psychopathic owners. That gritty reality is viscerally evoked in Colson Whitehead's 2014 The Underground Railway, which earned both the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards, and Esi Edugyan's 2018 Washington Black, which won the Scotiabank Giller award. The trajectories of the two novels are vastly different but the opening chapters bear a striking resemblance: a harrowing captivity narrative illustrating the Hobbesian adage that life (in this case on a slave plantation) was "solitary, poor nasty, brutish and short."