Precious Little Talent – Theatre Review

Precious Little Talent program cover by StageLightMagazine.com

Ella Hickson’s Precious Little Talent, hailing from Edinburg and London, is making its New York City debut with a limited-run on the west side.

The play proceeds on two tracks – the first, a romance between Sam and Joey (whose real name is Joanna) who meet by chance and have a fling, but…  Sam’s relentless American optimism and Joey’s British cynicism collide head on, as do their realities, when Joey discovers that Sam is the caretaker for her father George, whom she hasn’t seen for several years.  While trying to decorate George’s apartment for Christmas, Joey discovers that her father – a former professor and the smartest man she knows – is suffering from Alzheimer’s.  What she can’t see is his private agony over letting the outside world, especially his daughter, know about his condition; his refusal leads George to push away the people he loves, and who love him.

Precious Little Talent  is chock-a-block with ideas:  in addition to its poignant depiction of dementia,  and its comic depiction of culture clash, the play also highlights the problems today’s recent grads have entering the workforce.  At times it seems to want to take a political turn – there’s a scene at the Obama inauguration that feels dropped in – but overall the play conveys how unsettled the world can easily become, and the consequences of our decision to share or not share our private struggles with others.

All three actors  – Connor Delves, Eliza Shea and Greg Mullavey give really fine performances.  The set, by Maruti Evans is quite imaginative.  Under the direction of George C. Heslin, the play moves along, keeping you engaged.

Precious Little Talent is playing only until September 30th at The West End Theatre, at The Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew, 263 West 86th Street.

The Art of Running a Theatre Company

Jonathan Hopkins (right) talking to Patrick Harvey, Smith Street Company member

At the end of June, I caught a performance of Richard III by Smith Street Stage, held outdoors in Carroll Park in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.  The production was fabulous – the actors, especially Michael Hanson who played Richard, were great – despite the occasional horn or siren or screaming kids.  I later spoke with Jonathan Hopkins, who not only directed that particular production, but is also the Executive Director of Smith Street Stage.  Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Liz: Tell me a bit about your background.  I see you came to New York to study acting at NYU. How did you discover theatre? Shakespeare?

Jonathan:  I like Shakespeare because in my senior year of high school we read Hamlet, and it had a really big impact on me.  It’s one of those experiences that people have with the arts and with literature, where you feel that something speaks to you or makes you think about something in a different way.  And for me that was reading Hamlet in Ms. Hobeika’s senior English class, in Blacksburg, Virginia.

I came to New York as a freshman at NYU.  I had done theatre and speech debate in high school, so I was already into performing, and I wanted to pursue it professionally.

In the NYU training program, you’re placed in one of several conservatories;  I was placed into the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting ….  a studio that puts a lot of focus on the classics, particularly Shakespeare, so that cultivated the curiosity I had coming into school.

 Liz:  In addition to acting – on stage and film – you’ve also directed, you run the Smith Street Stage, and you teach at the Stella Adler school.  How is it moving among these different roles?  Is there one you might like to do more of?

Jonathan: I think all of them have skills and insights that help with all of the others, but you have to pick and choose what skills and insights are most appropriate, especially going from acting to directing. Acting is a subjective experience; it’s about something that directly connects you to your character or performance of that character – an experience inside something.  Directing is the opposite. Having the vocabulary is helpful, having the experience is helpful.  You do, I think, have to adjust your viewpoint a bit as you go from one to another.

Liz:  You’ve acted both on stage and in film; is there one you prefer?

Jonathan:  I like both of them.  I’ve done so much more stage, so I have more experience and more of a sense of whether something will work or won’t work.  I don’t have nearly as much experience in film so I just have to try my best and hope that it’s ok. 

Liz:  And what about teaching – you teach at Stella Adler.

Jonathan:  The last six or so years I’ve been teaching at Stella Adler, and I really love the opportunity to work with young actors. These are not Shakespeare classes, they’re voice classes – training actors to use their instruments in a healthy, effective and compelling way.     I love trying to help actors understand how to approach the material, how to rehearse the material, how to use their breath and their voices and the sounds of the language to help make acting material easier. In Richard, a lot of the actors were students I had had. That’s fun too, you can see the students develop and then work their way up to a professional stage.

Liz:  While we’re on the subject of Richard, what led to the founding of Smith Street Stage in 2010?  

Jonathan:  It wasn’t me at all, I never would have done it.  It was my girlfriend at the time – she’s now my wife – Beth Ann Hopkins.  We had worked for a Shakespeare theatre in New Jersey,  and developed a small cast Romeo & Juliet that we did there in a workshop format. We wanted to do it there for a full production, [but] we couldn’t and that was very disappointing.  At the time Beth Ann was living in Carroll Gardens and had the idea that we could do the show in that park.  That was the beginning of it.  She wanted to start a theatre company and I didn’t.  So we did a 5-actor Romeo & Juliet [in the park].  It was our first production, and the response was very positive. Beth Ann said, “We’re starting the company.”  I don’t think I would have had the courage to do something that difficult, so it was Beth Ann who started the company. 

Liz:  It seems like you’ve grown the company very well – you’ve got around 20 actors.

Jonathan:  Yes, 20 actors plus musicians, designers, production help, someone working on marketing/publicity and someone working on our graphic design.  The number of actors we have is contingent on the needs of the show.  But we are able to increase our audience, increase our production support, staff support, and we try every year in someway to increase the quality of the production we present in the park. 

Liz: What are the challenges of running a theatre company in New York?  I think first of all you’ve got the challenge of growing the company, and then there’s the second challenge, separate from that, of doing a production in a public space like the park where you have many limited facilities ….

Jonathan:  The second part of your question is easier.  The challenges of the space – noise. Ambulances, helicopters, kids.  But I’m of the mind that in many ways those challenges are a benefit, in that it makes our audiences more appreciative of our efforts to present something in that space.  The idea is that the show we’re making should serve an audience, provoke thought in an audience, entertain an audience, and make an audience think about human conflict and things like that. I think that there’s an element of those challenges that makes our audiences more appreciative of our efforts to produce something in a space that’s public and easy to access, and free. 

The hard thing about running Smith Street Stage – it’s hard to give a concise answer because the challenge is everything.   When you manage something, you’re more or less responsible for everything, and that’s not a challenge that is particular to theatre, or to our theatre company, but I would say that’s one of the hard things.  Because in New York there is a lot of arts programming available, trying to carve out your company’s voice in that space can be a challenge, [as can] trying to maximize the resources you have to present something of top quality. 

Liz:  Besides the park, what other venues are you using? How is it finding rehearsal space?

Jonathan:  Finding rehearsal space can be tricky – we have some luck because when rehearsing the park shows, we can use the park and the park house, which ultimately becomes our dressing room.  Because I work at the Stella Adler Studio, that body is very generous to us; when their space is available we can use some.  This summer we were lucky, one block down Carroll Street there’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and on multiple occasions when we lost rehearsal space, that parish came through and allowed us to rehearse there.  So we’ve been very lucky but it certainly can be a tricky thing, especially for a small to medium sized company like ours.

Liz:  How often do you do shows in a year?

Jonathan: We do 3 to 4.  We do one main stage production, that’s in Carroll Park, and then the last couple of years we have also done readings and workshops throughout the year.  We just did A Winters Tale, directed by Erik Pearson, in April.  In August we’re doing an adaptation of An Enemy of the People, which is being directed by our Artistic Director Beth Ann Hopkins. The last couple of years we shifted our model, so to speak, to still be centered around the Summer Shakespeare in Carroll Gardens but also to produce different writers and to include workshops and readings that take place in different venues, that are done with different directors, and can be performed in different styles.  It’s all an effort to diversify what we produce. 

Liz: You’ve sort of touched on it, but what makes running a theatre company in Brooklyn easy?

Jonathan:  The people – that was one of the easier answers. This feeling that you’re building an artistic home for people, the ability to control the way you work and what you value in the work, and being able to nurture a community of talented and smart and conscientious artists is, I think, consistently the most rewarding thing, along with the response from the audience, the feeling from the audience that you’re doing something that has value for them.  They look forward to the shows and they come out every summer.  I was talking to one audience member who said, “I come every year. Last year you did Tempest, right, and before that you did Henry IV,” and we went down the list – he had seen every show except our first.  That’s really rewarding, the idea that you are fostering an appreciation and a respect and a relationship with that literature and the audience members who come to see it.   

I guess the question was “What’s the easiest part” and I’m sort of changing it to the most rewarding … but being able to work with those artists and create a home for those artists and learn from them and from how they work is very rewarding.

To answer the actual question, I would say the easiest part is working on the shows, rehearsing the shows, that part doesn’t feel like work … fundraising can feel like work, and getting our park permits in on time can feel like work, but when you’re actually in a room with the actors, acting a scene or directing a scene, or talking about a scene, that doesn’t feel like work. 

Liz:  Do you know what you’ll be presenting next year?  How long is your lead time?

Jonathan:   Before we do An Enemy of the People (August 31st & September 1st) we’ll be having preliminary discussions about the Summer Shakespeare shows and the other shows and making our decisions for that in the fall.  Then we have an end-of-year fundraiser in November/December, which is usually when we announce what we’ll be doing in the next year.  So we’re now in preliminary discussions, brainstorming about what will come next for us.  The year after next will be our tenth year in Carroll Park so we’re already talking about that and trying to make it something special.

Liz: What can people expect when they go see Enemy of the People?

Jonathan:  This will be an indoor production. From what I’ve heard, this will be a more experimental adaptation of the story.  Enemy of the People is a great play, it’s a terribly relevant play.  Beth Ann is taking the story that is at the heart of the play and finding a way to express that through movement, through dance, through music, as well as through scenes and monologues that she and her assistant director, Matthew Sciarappa are adapting.  One of the reasons we’ve done this workshop series is to give us an opportunity to work in styles of theatre that may be more experimental, or bold, or more strange, or take more risks.  So I think that that could be one expectation for people who come, that they will see the story of An Enemy of the People but they will be seeing it through a really new and unique lens. If they saw Richard, they could now expect to see something quite different in its style.

Smith Street Stage will be performing An Enemy of the People on August 31st and September 1st at The Actors Fund, 160 Schermerhorn Street in Downtown Brooklyn.

You can find more information on Smith Street Stage on their website.       

Smith Street Stage cast of Richard III taking a curtain call in Carroll Park

           

Kim’s Convenience – Theatre Review

The play takes place during one day in Kim’s Convenience Store, located in the Regent Park section of Toronto, which is being developed. The store was opened many years ago by Mr. Kim, who left his teaching job in Korea and immigrated to Canada with his wife.  One day, a former customer visits and offers Mr Kim a large sum of money (we don’t know how much) for his store, telling Mr. Kim that this could insure his future, as Walmart is thinking of moving in, which would devastate Mr. Kim’s business. 

Mr. Kim refuses the offer, and the customer’s parting question to him – “What is your exit plan?” – spurs the action of the play, as Mr. Kim now has to confront the existential dilemma of his legacy; not only his store’s future, but also his relationship with his children:  Janet, a 30 year-old photographer who is still single, and Jung, his 32 year old son who left home at 16 and hasn’t been back since.

Even though the play is centered around an immigrant family, its themes are universal, touching on our relationships with the people around us – neighbors, customers, friends as well as family members, and questions such as, How do we pass on life’s lessons to the next generation?  How do we let go?

The play illustrates the ways in which we do or don’t communicate our expectations of one another to each other, and like many in the audience, including me, you may find a tear running down your cheek at some point… There’s an especially moving scene when Janet uses the adding machine to calculate the dollar value of the “free labor” she’s put in at the store over the years, and her father parries back with the cost of school, piano lessons, camp….

The play runs for 85 minutes – a perfect length – and alternates between the comedic and the dramatic, keeping the piece from getting maudlin, and moving it along nicely.  The playwright, Ins Choi, has a good ear for the way people really talk (he’s also an excellent actor) , and the cast of five is very strong, keeping you engaged all the way through.

The play closes on July 15th;  see it before it leaves.  

More information on Soulpepper’s website

Soulpepper in the Big Apple

On July 9th, I attended a performance of the fabulous play Kim’s Convenience Store (review in separate article), which is part of a month-long theatre festival by the Canadian theatre company Soulpepper  at the Signature Theatre on 42nd Street.  Afterwards, a few audience members had an informal, free-ranging discussion with Albert Schultz, Artistic Director and one of the company founders.  Below is an excerpt.

How did you decide to come to New York?

Albert:    I had the idea since 2014, so we’ve been planning for a long time.  This is the first month of our twentieth year.  Because our 20th anniversary lined up with the 150th of the country, it seemed a kind of poetic confluence.  This is the largest collection of Canadian artists outside of  Canadian soil – we got a lot of support from back home; …then Come From Away the musical from Canada comes … And everyone was talking about that in May and June, and through the award season, and we ended up riding on the Canadian coat tails of that. 

Irene Sankoff, Robert McQueen, David Hein, Albert Schultz (l-r) in the Signature Theatre

At this point  Irene Sankoff and David Hein, writers of Come From Away, and Canadian theatre director Robert McQueen, who were coincidentally in the theatre, stopped by to chat with Albert for a few minutes. (Editor’s note:  you can find my review of Come From Away here)

Why didn’t Soulpepper come to New York earlier?

Albert:  We’re a repertory company. So if you saw Of Human Bondage, and then you saw Spoon River in the space of one day, you’d see twelve members of the company who are doing this beautiful, deeply dramatic play, [then later they] would then be acting sort of silly, playing trombones and trumpets and all sorts of stuff; our company is all diverse in what they can do.  That’s the kind of company we develop, so if we need a band, they’re in the company.  Because of that, our work at home is very interwoven. 

Of Human Bondage is a 4-year old production, Spoon River is a 4-year old production, Kim’s Convenience is a 5-year old production, we toured it all over,  everywhere else, but we couldn’t get things out because everyone’s in another show at home.  The Kim’s Convenience run is only two weeks long because we’ve made a national television series out of that play – it’s a huge hit and it got picked up last year on our national broadcast, the CBC.  We produced it, so Soulpepper was able to keep quality control;  the playwright is the head writer and producer with us. It’s been a huge artistic and commercial success at home, and hopefully will be here, but it means that the actors are busy shooting all the time, so we had to put the series on hiatus, but we couldn’t do more than two weeks because you’d loose the crew, that’s why that run is short.  It’s a very complex organization in that way, any individual artist is involved in so many things.  What we had to do was to plan to bring not a show – we had to bring the company to New York.  We have 65 artists here and 10 support staff.  It was a major military operation. 

We found this space, which is grander than our space – we have a central lobby which is about 70% the size of this body;  but outside of this it is very similar, we have little portals just like this, we have four spaces off of ours, so when we walked in here we went, “This is just like home.”  This is the only place we could bring our company because we needed several spaces, we needed public space where we could do conversations like this because that’s what we do at home.  Last night we had 60 youth from a program called Epic Theatre Ensemble, out of Harlem [and we also] set up partnerships with the 52nd Street Partnership. Because we do youth programs at home, we wanted to do one here. 

Tell us about Soulpepper…

Soulpepper came out of the gates in 1998.  There were twelve artists who founded the company, myself and eleven others – five of those 12 are here.  Twenty years later, 9 or 10 of them are still actively involved in the company.  In our first season we had a massive splash.  Everything came together right.  We’ve grown the company exponentially, so we’re now by far the largest employer of theatre artists in Toronto, which is our main city.   

And [Soulpepper] has been very progressive in the way we’ve welcomed new audiences and new voices, Kim’s Convenience being an example of that.

We started a school 10 years ago, the Soulpepper Academy.  We train directors,  playwrights, designers,  performers and now producers.  Our very first class had 10 artists.  We took in one director, Weyni Mengesha, who’s an Ethiopian-Canadian.  Lorenzo Savoini was the designer in that Academy – he did the lights for [Kim’s Convenience], Weyni directed that show.  Our second class had Ins Choi, who wrote the play and is in the play, and Ken Mackenzie who designed the set and costumes.  Of Human Bondage was designed by an Academy grad; Spoon River is composed by an Academy grad, and designed by an Academy grad…

How did you find this theatre – did you know people here?

Albert:  We hired a general manager to help us with all the New York connections: how do we get a production team?  who do we use as a press agent?  marketing?  This is all very new to us so we hired someone based here, and she took us on a tour of four spaces, and she very craftily had this one be the last.  We walked up the stairs here, and Leslie, my life partner and Executive Director walked in and said, “I want the whole building.”  That was the first thing she said.

Well you have three things going at once here…

Albert:  We have a show happening in the [Irene Diamond stage], we have a show that just came down in the  [Alice Griffin Theatre], we have a show going in the [Alice Griffin Theatre] at 8:00pm, we’ll have a cabaret happening in this space [Signature Cafe & Bar].  Some days we’ll have 4 spaces running, we have the fourth theatre behind us where we have 3 shows in rep – so we have 12 productions here, plus a different cabaret every single night.

Tell us about the cabaret…

Albert:  The cabaret is from our company – there’s so much musical talent – sometimes it’s poetry, but mostly it’s music  of all styles.  We have in the company for example, Jackie Richardson, and Jackie is someone who could exist only in a country like Canada.  Because we don’t have a real star system in Canada, there are a handful of people in our country who attain a level of dominant excellence, so Jackie Richardson is the best gospel singer in the country, the best jazz singer in the country, the best blues singer in the country, the best reggae singer in the country.  She’s 70 years old – because she’s been doing it for 55 years, she’s the first call for every gig.  On opening night here – we had 500 people in this lobby, and all I did was get up and thank people, then introduce Jackie [who sang] Bridge Over Troubled Water, and she ripped the roof off this place. She sings it in our New York Melting Pot program, which we’re doing the 21st and 22nd.  She will be appearing in the cabarets next week, and in fact, at the end of next week, there’s a concert called First Ladies with Alana Bridgewater – she’s in her 40’s, she’s the next generation; Sophie Milman, an extraordinary jazz singer and leader in her generation – she’s in her 40’s – between them and Jackie is Mollie Johnson, who’s around 60 and a legend in Canada.  We have maybe the best jazz musicians in Canada who are coming here to be the band to support those four ladies.  You can’t go wrong seeing it – it’s the 14th and 15th.  And then the Friday and Saturday matinee of the following week we have a show called The Melting Pot which I host and wrote, with several singers.  My thesis at the top is that three refugee cultures, the Jews, the Irish, the African-Americans, all refugee cultures – and I wrote this before Trump –  those three cultures in one neighborhood on the Lower East Side created the soundtrack of the 20th Century, whether it be Broadway, or music from the Brill Building, so much of it came from those cultures listening to each other and learning from each other.  That’s on the 21st and 22nd. 

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee who played the father [in Kim’s Convenience] was wonderful, I thought.

Albert:  Wasn’t he!  And he’s done almost exclusively this since 2012.  He’s done over 600 performances of the play.

And he still manages to keep it fresh.

Albert:  And he keeps it completely fresh.

Jean who plays the mother, was a pioneer in the Asian Toronto theatre scene at a time when there were no Asians on the stages.  Immigrant parents didn’t arrive here saying [to their children], “Now make yourself an actor and a playwright,” – it’s only right now in this generation that immigrant families are allowing their children to even think about the arts.  And why this play has been so huge – and the series is even bigger – is [because] for the first time ever, Canadians, particularly immigrant Canadians, are watching a national broadcast television series in their living rooms and saying “I can be that girl.”

And I can see it happening in front of my face in Canada.  Our production of Kim’s Convenience has been on the stages of the nation since 2012 and now the series … When we cast the series after five years of doing the play, it was a different thing than when we cast the play five years before.  We had choices to make in every single part, which five years before we didn’t have. So it’s happening at home and it’s exciting, and I hope it’s gonna happen more.

Will you come back?

Albert :  The challenge with coming back, and its a huge challenge – it’s big, it’s expensive and it’s complicated.  But, a week in, both critically and in terms of audience and feedback it’s been an unmitigated success.  And we did not know that – you go and you have no idea what it’s going to be.  So that’s already shifted my brain – I’m sure that everyone back home is saying “Oh dear, it’s going well,”  because I’m now actually thinking we should do this semi-regularly, maybe every two to three years we should do something like this. 

Soulpepper  will be at the Signature Theatre  through July 29th.  You can find the complete schedule on Soulpepper’s calendar.

Spotlight on Canada

Photograph taken by Jared Grove (Phobophile) with a Nicon Coolpix 3200. (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

July 1st marks the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation as “one Dominion under the Name of Canada” – whereby the colonies – Provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Canada (later to become Ontario and Québec) – were unified per the British North America Act of 1867.

The sesquicentennial got off to a great start earlier this year when Canada was named The Best Place to Visit in 2017 by The New York Times.   On a personal note, one of my favorite vacations was a 2001 cross-country trip where I returned to NYC via Canada, going from Vancouver to Toronto via train.  The Canadian Rockies were absolutely magnificent (photo below), as were the skies over Alberta.

Canadian Rockies August 2001, photo by ER Daly

The good news kept coming this spring when the critically acclaimed musical Come From Away  went on to win a tony for Best Direction.  It’s still playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre – if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to – you can find my review here.

The evening of July 1st, the Empire State Building will be lit in red and white to mark Canada Day, and other festivities include:

Canada Day Cookout  at Dirt Candy, 86 Allen Street from 5:30pm to 11:59pm

Joe’s Pub will host the 15th Annual New York Rocks the Great Canadian Songbook,    once again produced and emcee’d by Jeff Breithaupt and featuring an all-star line-up of singers backed by Don Breithaupt and the WORKIN’ FOR THE WEEKEND HOOSE BAND, no Canadian hit song will be safe from (northern) exposure. This year’s all-star line-up includes: Marissa Mulder, Ophira Eisenberg, J’Sun, Carolyn Leonhart, Jamie Leonhart, Jeremy Kushnier, Christina Bianco, Alyson Palmer, Tyley Ross, Greg Naughton, Shelley McPherson, Michael Halling, PJ Griffith, Victoria Lecta Cave, Amy Cervini and The Breithaupt Brothers.  7:00pm, Joe’s Pub at the Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette Street.

The festivities aren’t limited to just one day.  During the entire month of July, you’ll be able to see a diverse collection of Canada’s finest theatre, literary and musical artists, when the Soulpepper Theatre of Toronto will be in the Big Apple with a full company of artists to present a month-long festival  at The Pershing Square Signature Center on 42nd Street, performing their adaptations of classics such as On Human Bondage and Spoon River, as well as ensemble creations such as Cage and Alligator Pie, no to mention a concert series and forums on innovations in the performing arts.  Every evening there will be a free cabaret performance in the Signature Cafe and Bar (check the schedule for show times;  most start between 8:30pm and 9:30pm).

If you’re looking for more information on Canadian events in NYC, check out the Canadian Association of NY (CANY)  a member-run organization that has been the focal point for the Canadian community in the NYC area since 1864.  CANY hosts social, cultural and business events throughout the year;  on their website you can fin a list of Canada Day 150 events. 

You can find more information on Canada, and Canada in NYC on the Consulate General’s Facebook page  and their Twitter feed .

This year also marks Montréal’s 375th birthday – Fort Ville-Marie was founded in 1642.  You’ll find more information about Québec and Québec in NYC on the Facebook page of the Québec Government Office in New York  and also on their Twitter feed .

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CANADA!!

Come From Away – Canada Puts Its Best Foot Forward

Last week, the Canadian Consulate began celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Federation of Canada by inviting some 600 guests (including your intrepid blogger) to see Come From Away, the new musical that opened at the Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre. 

If you’ve read any of the reviews about this work, you’ve probably seen it described as big hearted, heart warming, feel good… which it is – all without being treacly or sentimental.   The plot revolves around  true story of the almost 7,000 passengers from around the world who found themselves stranded in Gander, Newfoundland and surrounding towns on September 11, 2001.  The opening scenes convey the sense of chaos that prevailed on that day (and many of the following) not only in Gander, but around the world, as US airspace was closed, and every person and aircraft that would be traversing it was treated as a potential weapon.  A small town with a huge airfield (until the advent of long-haul aircraft, flights to Europe would refuel in Gander) has to figure out how to cope with the sudden influx of people from around the world who need food, shelter and information. Plus a pregnant chimpanzee and other animals.

Then there are the passengers on 38 planes who find themselves far from their final destinations, with no information as to why or how long they would be stuck on the planes or in Gander.   

Through the stories of a few characters, the play gives us a window into the wider events on the ground: the Mayor of Gander, who has to scramble to create accommodations for the newcomers;  the American Airlines pilot whose pride in her profession has been profoundly shaken by the weaponizing of airplanes;  a master chef from Egypt who is ostracized and treated as a potential terrorist; and the mother from New York City trying desperately to contact her son, an NYC firefighter.  But there is also a more comforting, joyful side to this tale, as the locals volunteer at the makeshift shelters to cook for these strangers, and even invite them into their homes.  There’s an especially fun scene where the newcomers become honorary New Foundlanders (alcohol and cod kissing are involved).   After a few days, the strangers board their planes to their ultimate destinations, but the bonds created with the townspeople remain strong, despite time and distance – a reunion was held in 2011.  (The play is based on interviews the playwrights held in Gander on the 10th Anniversary commemoration)

The cast of 16 does yeoman’s work, each taking on several roles as both passengers and townspeople.  I liked the use of the revolving stage to move from one scene to another.  And the score, inspired by Cletic-based Newfoundland music, is played by an outstanding 8 piece ensemble.

Don’t come expecting  high drama or show stopping tunes – this is the story of common human decency and generosity in extraordinary circumstances, and the book and score are in that vein, with characters rendered in broad strokes.  I was very glad that the play isn’t sentimental, although every now and then it dances close to the edge.  But you’ll leave this charming musical – with book and music by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, and a first rate cast – feeling uplifted, but also with a sense of the loss that is never far from our happiness. 

So get over to the Schoenfeld Theatre and see Come From Away as soon as you can!

Liz’ Picks to Catch Before They Close

A few weeks ago I got to attend a working rehearsal of Jules Massenet’s  Werther at the Metropolitan Opera.  Based on the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe, the opera tells the tale of a young poet, Werther, who falls in love with Charlotte, but, alas, she is to marry Albert.. which she does…  They meet again on Christmas eve, but Werther’s love remains unrequited and he commits suicide.  The story of the lovelorn poet can seem like an outdated trope, but the performances are absolutely spectacular, and the score is delightful. See Werther before it closes on March 9th.

On the theatre front, I attended a preview of Jitney, a rarely performed play from August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle, that centers around a group of African-American men trying to make ends meet by driving unlicensed taxis, or jitneys in a run-down section of Pittsburgh. Their livelihoods are threatened when the City announces it’s going to board up the building they operate from, and if that weren’t enough, the boss’ son returns from prison only to argue with his father, adding more tension.  By focusing on this particular group, their personal stories, their relationships with each other and the place to which the larger society wants to consign them, Wilson opens a window to the conflicts and struggles that we all face, no matter what our race, social strata or location.  The acting is brilliant, as is Wilson’s dialogue.  Be sure to see Jitney before it closes on March 12th.

Poison – Theatre Review

poison-playbillPoison, by Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans, opens slowly, almost listlessly… The stage is bare, but for a white bench and a large soda machine.  There’s a man, standing still, looking at his phone, taking a few steps, stopping… But if you stay with it, you’ll be rewarded when the action kicks in.  Not that there’s momentous physical movement or vocal fireworks.  Rather it’s through the tension between the torrent of words and the silences, and the thrust and parry of the dialogue, that the play exerts its hold on us.

Poison revolves around a couple who lost a child ten years ago, and haven’t seen each other in the intervening years. They’re meeting to ostensibly talk with the cemetery manager about the need to move their son’s grave, due to soil contamination.  Over the course of the play, the characters (only known as She and He) try to reconnect, reestablish a relationship, and remember why they fell in love in the first place, as well as understand why they were torn apart.  The dialogue captures ordinary people caught in an extraordinary situation, and their attempts to use language to clarify and heal, or wield it as a weapon. The silences reinforce both the inadequacy of language to express feelings and the hesitancy people sometimes have to speak for fear of offending the other person.  We see the characters’ defenses break down as they say things they’ve previously been unable to and slowly realize they can’t go back to the way they were…  The play clearly shows us that only by reconciling with the past can we move forward.

The sparse setting is perfect for this production – you won’t find any excess (which would be so easy given the subject) – and there’s nothing to stop the characters from saying what they need to say or what they’ve wanted to say to each other.

This production by Origin Theatre, directed by Erwin Maas, features fine acting by Birgit Huppuch and Michael Laurence, as well as lovely vocals by Jordan Rutter (who sings Richard Strauss’s Morgen).

Poison is at the Becket Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. See it before it closes on December 11th.

Vietgone – New Perspectives on an Unresolved Era

vgposterI’m so glad I got to see Vietgone,   the terrific play that just opened at City Center.

VietNam is all too often seen in the US through the lens of war:  the period roughly from the early 1960’s to 1975 when US soldiers fought to keep the southern half of the country from being ruled by the North Vietnamese.  The war created deep fissures in American society, ranging from Francis Cardinal Spellman’s  “…but right or wrong, my country” to the Berrigan brothers burning of draft files.  The war was raging when I was in high school, and many of our conversations revolved around it, especially about the boys we knew, or were dating, who had been drafted or were likely to be, or who had served and died.  Today, the war occupies an unresolved place in Americans’ consciousness, and for many politicians it’s become de rigeur to say that they would have served, had it not been for …[insert phony excuse of your choice here]…   But we really haven’t heard a lot from the Vietnamese who resettled here – now Vietgone gives them a voice.

The plot revolves around a couple, Tong and Quang, who meet in a refugee camp in Arizona after the American evacuation of Saigon.  At the beginning, the “playwright” announces that the play is not based on real people, (but we know that Qui Nguyen has essentially recreated his parents’ story). 

vgleadsThe story moves back and forth not only in time, but also between Saigon, Arizona and California – the ingeniously placed screens with their graphic-novel projections  let us know where and when the action is taking place.  There are three central threads:  Tong and her mother adjusting to life in the refugee center in Arizona; Quang and his buddy Nhan as they leave the refugee center, via motorcycle, to California, where they hope to then go back to Vietnam; and, Tong and Quang’s love story.   We also see flashes of their former lives and the family members they left behind.  Music plays a key role in this play – throughout are snippets of great Motown songs (especially Marvin Gaye) that set the tone for the scenes.  The songs created for this play, mostly in rap, provide insight into the character’s inner turmoil as they try to answer questions many of us will hopefully never have to ask – do I have to leave? will I see them again? how can I cope? can I go back?… 

All of the actors are superb – Jennifer Ikeda and Raymond Lee who play Tong and Quang – and hats off to Jon Hoche, Samantha Quan and Paco Tolson, each of who play no fewer than 4 roles. 

The dialogue, while often pointed, is very witty.  At the end, it takes a more serious tone, but it works as Quan tries to explain to his son that VietNam is more than a war.   I think this sentiment is relevant not only to VietNam, but also to places in the world that we’ve come to know through conflict and flight – Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo….   The play also vividly brings home how some people view American intervention as the possible salvation for their war-torn countries; for them our pacifist tendencies are rooted in naiveté, and will not produce peace. Perhaps that’s the greatest strength of this play – it makes us realize that there are many points of view, and whether or not you agree, they’re worth listening to, because they come from a different experience of the same event.

Be sure to see Vietgone.  Yes, it’s a play about war, but it’s also a celebration of resilience. 

You’ll come out thinking, but also laughing.

Ist Irish – Growing the Theatre Community

George C. Heslin, Artitist Director, Origin Theatre

George C. Heslin, Artitist Director, Origin Theatre

This past Monday, Origin Theatre held its awards ceremony for the 9th edition of its annual 1st Irish Festival  (to see the list of winners, click here).  Held at the American irish Historical Society, the evening featured wonderful tap dancing and singing, but it really showed how much this festival has to celebrate

This year I got to one book reading and  three performances – Quietly (reviewed earlier); How to Keep an Alien, a droll and heartwarming tale of how playwright Sonya Kelly fell in love with Australian Kate, and her dealings with the Irish immigration authorities as she tries to get Kate the necessary papers so they can live together in Ireland; and Appendage, which follows the encounter of Peter and Jack, and their revelations about each man’s relationship – or the relationship he thought he had – with Peter’s late wife Jill.

I’ve been attending this festival since it began, and what I find so wonderful – besides the exceptionally high caliber of the productions – is the way it brings together not only playwrights from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (they’ve presented the work of over 160 playwrights in 9 years), but also its embrace of the wider NYC theatre community. While it is still rooted very much in Ireland, the festival has reached out beyond its natural base.  Shows are not only in venues such as the Irish Arts Center or the Irish Rep, but also in theatres like The Cell and 59 East 59th Street – this year the festival collaborated with 32 cultural institutions in the US and Ireland.

What I find most encouraging are the number of young people who are now being drawn to this art form.  Broadway is becoming more expensive and less accessible, so its audiences are older, or people who may take in a performance only once in a while.  It’s festivals like 1st Irish that replenish live theatre and take it to new audiences, assuring it’s renewal and survival.

Kudos to George Heslin and his team for another wonderful 1st Irish!  I can’t wait for next year!