main street carcassonne

carcassonne panoramaLooks can be deceiving: Carcassonne is not a castle. Surrounded by almost 2 miles of fortifications it’s the largest walled city in Europe. The first signs of settlement in this region of Languedoc date to about 3500 BC, but things didn’t take off until the Romans identified the hilltop site as strategic and started building fortifications. Next came the Visigoths, who expanded the fortress into a fiefdom – until the Papacy stuck its nose in. Pope Urban II arrived to bless the foundation stones of a new cathedral and turned the growing city and its environs into a secondary seat of church power – all the better to launch a crusade against the pesky Cathars, a religious group which rejected Catholicism as the Church of Satan. Holy war, as we all know, is very good for business. More ramparts went up, dungeons were built, and towers were erected to house the Inquisition. Carcassonne became a border citadel between France and Spain that remained unconquered until the 17th century, when an economic revival under Louis XIV trumped the city’s military significance. In truth Carcassonne wasn’t so much conquered as absorbed into a burgeoning colonial empire. Cite de Carcassonne, as it’s now called to distinguish it from the modern-day town of Carcassonne down the hill and over the river, is no longer a functioning city – technically. Yet it’s been restored to varying degrees of authenticity in an example of artistic simulacrum. Populated with shops, hotels, and tourists eating ice cream at outdoor cafes, the city appears at first glance authentic. But not unlike Disneyland’s Main Street USA, it’s all a facade. And yet I have to give someone serious props because it’s an awfully good one at that.
carcassonne main street



it’s good to be the queen

72634611June 2 1953, Elizabeth II was crowned at Westminster Abbey in London. Six decades on, England is celebrating her 60-year reign with a range of events across the country, from river pageants and big lunches to concerts and a royal appearance by a miniature monarch. As if I needed another excuse to visit the UK, here are just a few of the celebrations fit for a Queen. The Coronation Festival, Buckingham Palace, July 11 – 14: This one-off event in the gardens at Buckingham Palace will see over 200 companies with the prestigious Royal Warrant of Appointment exhibiting. By day, visitors will be able to explore the Buckingham Palace Gardens, which will feature four areas showcasing the very best of Food & Drink, Design & Technology, Homes & Gardens and Style, Pursuits & Pastimes. By night, visitors will be taken on a musical tour of the Queen’s 60-year reign, with performances by the National Youth orchestra, the English National Ballet, Katherine Jenkins, Russell Watson, Katie Melua, Laura Wright and The Feeling. Rowing Regatta, Windsor, June 15 – 16: Her Majesty The Queen has given permission for a unique regatta to take place on the River Thames at Windsor Castle to celebrate the Coronation anniversary. Rowing crews will race side-by-side over a distance of 1,000 meters between Prince Albert and Queen Victoria bridges, and spectators will be granted entry into the normally private grounds of the castle to watch the race. This special event will be the first regatta on the Thames at Windsor for 44 years.


Mini Me, Windsor and Manchester, May 25 – 27, Windsor; May 31 – June 2, Manchester: The Queen of Miniland will put on her real crown jewels in Windsor before taking a carriage north for a guest appearance in Manchester. Visitors can watch the tiny 10 cm high LEGO model of Her Majesty The Queen, complete with a 48 tiny cut diamond encrusted crown, twinkle as she waves from the balcony of her miniature Buckingham Palace, alongside minute figures of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry. Coronation!, Westminster Abbey, May 1 – September 30: A new exhibition of archive pictures of the 1953 Coronation is now on display at Westminster Abbey through the end of September. The Abbey has partnered with Getty Images to include some of the best black and white news pictures of the time alongside some never-seen-before pictures illustrating the pomp and magnificence of the joyous celebrations that swept the nation. Coronation River Pageant, Henley, June 2: To mark the 60th anniversary, the Coronation River Pageant will showcase 130 classic and traditional boats on the River Thames at Henley. The boats will be moored at Marsh Meadows and will travel upstream to Phyllis Court Club before making the journey back. Boats will be dressed for fun with plenty of bling, colorful characters and historic look-a-likes. Gloriana, the Royal Opera House, June 20 – July 6: Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana was commissioned by the Royal Opera House to mark the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. This year marks the centenary of this great composer and to mark the occasion, Richard Jones is directing a new staging of the opera, which explores tensions between affairs of the state and of the heart.

Ox roast Brierley Hill 1927

Ledbury Ox Roast, June 1 – 2: In June 1953, the townspeople of Ledbury in Herefordshire rallied together to hold a huge Ox Roast to celebrate the coronation. Now, 60 years on, the community has come together again to recreate this special event. And you don’t have to be local to attend: everyone is welcome. The Big Lunch, Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire, June 2: Dust off your bunting and start packing your picnic as Broad Street in Chipping Sodbury prepares to welcome one and all for The Big Lunch. The market town also plays host to a three-day jazz festival from May 31 – June 2 to keep everyone in celebratory Coronation spirits.


two-word review: far from heaven

IMG_1754Because life is short and summer tests my patience, and quite frankly, despite the estimable talent of all the artists involved, some theatrical experiences do not warrant more than a paragraph, let alone an exhaustive examination, I’ve decided to start an occasional post called Two-Word Review. Reserved for those rarest of birds – the earnest, well-intentioned misfire and the spectacular, ill-conceived flop - I promise to use it sparingly. But suffice it to say that at the root of every Two-Word Review is the inherent wish that I could get the time I spent watching them back. Richard Greenberg, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie’s musical adaptation of Todd Haynes’ film Far from Heaven, now at Playwright’s Horizons, has the dubious distinction of inspiring me to create the Two-Word Review, so it only seems fitting that it be honored first.  Far from Heaven: far indeed.


at the theater: hands on a hard body & i’ll eat you last

hands on a hard body & i'll eat you lastDo you ever feel like you’re floating somewhere in the outer orbit of the cultural zeitgeist? I’ve felt that way all season, at times amazed by the brave work which has gone virtually ignored and astonished by the dreck which has floated to the top. With the Tony Awards quickly approaching I find it bewildering that two of my favorite evenings at the theater this season have – to quote Julie Andrews – been egregiously overlooked. Hands on a Hardbody – now shuttered, alasis one of the best new musicals I’ve seen in years. Based on the 1997 documentary of the same name, Doug Wright, Amanda Green, and Trey Anastasio’s show takes the pulse of a country where desperate economic times call for desperate measures: ten contestants commit to a grueling endurance competition in hopes of winning a pick-up truck. The premise is simple: last man (or woman) standing with a hand on the hardbody wins. And while in other more experienced Broadway hands that might have been the starting point for a detour into fantasyland, the writers of Hardbody, employing an effective soundtrack of blues, gospel, and honky-tonk, have crafted a sincere portrait of the dimming American dream. In short, they don’t insult the intelligence of the audience. These are real people, small-scaled and human; a cultural cross-section of small town Texas. And if the show doesn’t wow you with literal pyrotechnics, it still touches your heart. Could there be a bigger prize at stake than the elusive American dream? Whether it’s real or not, well, that’s another musical for another time, but everybody loves a winner still the same. Sue Mengers would have been the first to agree with that statement, too. Hollywood’s first female superagent came from poverty, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany. In that uniquely American way she invented herself, and by the 1970’s she represented almost every major star in Hollywood in addition to being the town’s most renowned hostess – one who could make a career with an invite to one of her twinklie-studded dinner parties. Bette Midler has been lured back to Broadway after a 30-year absence to star in I’ll Eat You Last, playwright John Logan’s solo portrait of Mengers now at the Booth Theatre, and the result is an ecstatic synergy of two talented foul-mouthed divas with a gift for the gab who hold their audiences spellbound. Ok, maybe it’s not Chekov, but who doesn’t enjoy a juicy night of gossip. And straight from the horse’s mouth no less. “Think of me as that caterpillar from ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” Sue seductively tells us from her couch at the top of the show, radiant in a flowing muumuu and seemingly as immovable as Gertrude Stein. “The one with the hash pipe.” And for the next 70 minutes she lights it up and we breathe deep the ruthless, rarefied dish like it was unadulterated oxygen. But what’s ultimately so appealing about Mengers is not her quickness with a vulgar turn of phrase – though in Midler’s hands it is an art, beautifully perfected – it’s that in an industry built on so much ego and bullshit she heedlessly managed to (mostly) tell the truth. In a male-dominated field, she worked her way to the top through pluck, charm, and a legendary wit. We love her in spite of the excesses she might represent because her version of the American dream wasn’t won by luck, it was built through sheer force of will. And that’s showbiz, kids.


at the theatre: orphans

orphansLyle Kessler’s Orphans is a curious little play. The story of two brothers – one a grifter, the other a shut-in – and the mysterious gangster that upends their lives has long been a regional theater favorite. It’s slight, but affecting, and the three roles have enough meat to give any actor interested in delving deep into a character study a lot to chew on. (Maybe that explains why chunks of the play so often turn up as audition pieces.) But to be impactful as an evening of theater those three actors need to be evenly matched, which is not the case in director Daniel Sullivan’s production debuting on Broadway at the Schoenfeld Theatre. Tom Sturridge, an actor heretofore unknown to me, gives a performance of such feral specificity as Phillip, the autistic shut-in, that it leaves you wondering what might have been had his partners in crime been able to rise to his level. As Treat, Ben Foster, who replaced Shia LaBeouf after a surreal and very public spat involving creative differences, has his moments but lacks the urgent desperation which comes with assuming the mantle of being his brother’s keeper after Mom and Dad…well, we really don’t know what happened, but it’s obvious that Treat and Phillip have been left to fend for themselves for a long time. Treat gets by as a petty criminal, without any aspiration except to provide for him and his brother – a couple of orphans clinging to each other and enabling their own askew reality in a seedy Philadelphia neighborhood. (The City of Brotherly Love, natch.) Enter Harold, played by Alec Baldwin, a dapper, connected “businessman” lured home from a bar after a night of serious drinking by Treat, who’s hatched a cockamamie plan to hold Harold hostage for a tidy ransom. After passing out Harold wakes the next morning to find himself tied to a chair and it seems that perhaps the ridiculous plan was indeed sublime. Yet playwright Kessler subverts our expectations: Harold easily escapes his ropes, and rather than flee becomes a surrogate father to these two lost boys. You could say he gives them a lesson in self-actualization, helping Phillip to conquer his fears of the big bad world beyond the front door and giving Treat a job, along with a taste for fine suits and bourbon. Suffice it to say this happy domestic arrangement doesn’t last long and things don’t end well. There’s no emotional payoff, however, if we don’t believe these boys are fully invested in Harold. Which brings us to Mr. Baldwin. It’s disconcerting to watch an actor of such estimable talent stumble so demonstrably. His stylized shuck and jive often comes across as funny but it’s emotionally hollow, leaving you to question Harold’s existence as anything other than a metaphor made flesh. And his rapid-fire delivery a la Jack Donaghy too often threatens to turn this production into an extended sitcom – albeit one with an unfortunate ending. What subtle thrills this play provides should come from the shifting dynamics of power in the family love triangle but Baldwin is clearly the alpha male here and his persona can’t seem to find the backseat. Maybe ShiaLaBeoufwas right after all. Or maybe he was just too terrified by the dizzying bar set so high by Mr. Sturridge.


at the theatre: pippin

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 11.11.41 AMHell isn’t other people; it’s a revival of Pippin. Does that make me sound cynical? At the risk of drawing the ire of community theatre groups and teenagers everywhere, I can sum up in two small words the particular reason why this show hasn’t been revived on Broadway until now. And no, they are not “Bob” and “Fosse” – but more on that later. It’s crap. There, I said it: the elephant in the room. Despite an infectious easy-like-Sunday-morning score and high-concept theatrics, Pippin, at its core, is an amateurish bore. It isn’t so much a musical as an EST training run amok at Ye Olde Renaissance Faire; an exercise in self-actualization wrapped up inside the comforting embrace of that familiar trope: hey kids, lets put on a show! Would it originally have been produced without Fosse at the helm? I doubt it. But Fosse being Fosse – I told you we’d come back to him – did more than slap a bit of lipstick on a pig. He twisted the unforgivably earnest story of one young man’s (one very privileged man, I might add) quest for purpose into something tailor-made for a generation dabbling in consciousness raising, creating a surreal and disturbing metaphysical entertainment that seduced its audience with the director’s trademark hot and cool razzle-dazzle and a healthy dose of social commentary. (A confrontational style that would reach its apotheosis, I might add, three years later in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago.) Director Diane Paulus doesn’t seem so interested in the meta-theatrics of her production at The Music Box, except when it’s convenient – or unavoidable. But she does take the instructions of the title song quite literally: “we’ve got magic to do.”  The show-within-a-show conceit of this Pippin is not some mysterious white-gloved performance troupe, but a big top circus, providing Paulus (and a very game company) ample opportunity to distract and amuse us with feats of strength, illusion, and derring do.  Life as a circus is a tenuous metaphor; a wholly non-threatening 180-degree turn away from the original production, but that’s the beauty of shows like Pippin and its precursor, Godspell: they are skeletons on which a director can boldly stamp any theatrical vision. Paulus takes advantage of this without ever connecting the storytelling with the style and throws everything but the kitchen sink at the audience, served by an athletic and adventurous group of acrobats and a (mostly) top-drawer cast of leading players. Only Matthew James Sweet, as our titular hero, fails to impress. Terrence Mann as Pippin’s father, King Charlemagne, Charlotte D’Amboise as his conniving stepmother, Rachel Bay Jones as his love interest, and Andrea Martin as his show stopping grandmother are a quartet of perfect foils for all the navel gazing going on. It’s hard to banish thoughts of what Ben Vereen brought to bear as The Leading Player, but a devilishly sexy Patina Miller more than holds her own. I just wish Paulus had allowed her to show some of the menace in between all those jazz hands. Yet that’s what makes this production so unusual: for all the hoary shtick, it’s irony free. Instead of finding its corner of the sky, Pippin just wants to be loved.


snubbed again

b_tonyawardAll awards are subjective, let’s face it. And within the very small community which bands together to create what we commonly refer to as Broadway, they’re even more so. The nominating committee for the Tony Awards, whose nominations were announced yesterday, is made up of just forty-two theatre professionals – almost 850 people vote for the eventual winners – and if anybody told you they didn’t have an agenda or axe to grind, well, they’d be lying. Plus, there are the commercials interests of The Broadway League, the national trade organization for Broadway theater producers, general managers, theater owners, and presenters in over 250 theaters across America, to take into account. The Tony Awards are a joint venture of the League along with the American Theatre Wing, a non-profit organization which first created the awards to recognize excellence and now mostly supports education in the arts. So, while the theatre-going public might consider The Tonys to be the Oscars of live theatre, critics have long suggested they’re primarily a promotional vehicle for a few large production companies and theatre owners with an interest in getting prime-time exposure for their soon-to-touring productions. Me, I have no axe to grind; except that I – along with Bette Midler, Fiona Shaw, Seth Numrich, Alec Baldwin, Christine Jones, Yvonne Strahovski, John Logan, Joe Mantello, Sigourney Weaver, Doug Wright, and ‘Hands On A Hardbody’ - was snubbed once again. But the moral of the story: take the Tony Awards with a healthy dose of salt. We all know the biggest honor comes from simply being in the arena.


iconic nyc: apollo theater

apollo theaterThe world-famous Apollo Theater is more than a historic landmark, it’s a bastion of African-American culture and achievement. Built in 1914 as the New Theater, it started life as a burlesque house. And as at many American theaters of the time, African-Americans were neither allowed to attend as patrons, nor take the stage as performers. A campaign against the growing licentiousness of “the burly-q” in the early 1930’s led to its closing down, along with theaters across the city. After a lavish renovation, however, it re-opened as the Apollo, with the intention of exclusively showcasing black entertainment for the growing African-American community in Harlem. (The idea was more self-serving than altruistic: colored entertainers were cheaper to hire.) The Apollo grew to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance of the pre-World War II years. Billing itself as a place “where stars are born and legends are made,” the theater became famous for its Amateur Nights, launching the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Jackson 5, Patti LaBelle, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King, Mariah Carey, The Isley Brothers, Lauryn Hill, and Sarah Vaughan, who all, according to tradition, would touch the Tree of Hope to ward off “the executioner” – a man with a broom who would sweep performers off the stage if the highly vocal and opinionated audiences began to call for their removal. The Apollo also featured the performances of old-time vaudeville favorites like Tim Moore, Stepin Fetchit, Moms Mabley, and Pigmeat Markham, dancers like the Nicholas Brothers, Berry Brothers, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and jazz greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonius Monk. In its heyday it could safely be said that you hadn’t made it if you hadn’t played the Apollo. Not one to rest on its laurels, the non-profit theater today continues to advance emerging creative voices, presenting concerts and performing arts, as well as education and outreach programs which serve the greater community.

tree of hope



at the theatre: the testament of mary

IMG_1547There’s something thrilling about watching a great artist dangle on the precipice of a cliff, walking the razor’s edge between sublime and ridiculous. Fiona Shaw is such an artist. An actress of fierce conviction and commanding presence, I expect it would be mesmerizing to watch her read from the phone book, such is the power of her craft in plumbing the depths of truth out of even the most banal material. Fear not Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theater, mind you, where there is no need to worry about the quality of the writing being strained. Playwright Colm Toibin, whose elegiac novels revolving on themes of personal identity rank among some of my favorite, has fashioned a demanding, intelligent play out of the twinned myths of religion and fantasy. The Last Testament of Mary is no gnostic gospel, but it does imagine the later life of the Blessed Virgin as a woman in self-imposed exile. Mary does not believe that her son was the son of God and furthermore she refuses to co-operate with those simpletons – the writers of the gospels – who insist on visiting her. Mary is a mother, first and foremost, who had the misfortune to have a son who let things go to his head. It is the mother’s paradox for her to simultaneously grieve his death yet curse his megalomania, which turned the unforgiving spotlight of iconography on herself. This Mary wants none of it. And if she were left alone on a bare stage to tell us her story, we would sit enrapt. Yet director Deborah Warner, whose often visionary collaborations with Ms. Shaw stretch for more than a quarter century, will have none of that. For ninety minutes this Mary is a ceaselessly fidgety fuss bucket: moving a chair here, an amphora there, forever arranging then rearranging props and tables with an unlit cigarette dangling from her mouth. If the action is meant to underscore some greater emotional reality it’s not entirely convincing. In fact, Mary’s vulnerability is at its most ferocious when words become too much and the inability to communicate vents itself through the painful stomping of her feet, like a child caught in a tantrum. Designer Tom Pye is complicit with Ms. Warner, littering the stage with enough detritus – not to mention symbolism – to keep an actor busy for two plays, let alone the single act which makes up this evening. It’s too on the nose: the barbed wire, the ladder, the tree which dangles from the sky, its roots not touching the earth. We can’t help but be riveted by Ms. Shaw, who commits to her character so completely that even an act of gratuitous nudity does not take us out of the world of the play. Yet it’s the viewer’s paradox to both applaud the fearless conviction of an artist and wish someone had the good sense to leave her well enough alone.


where there’s a will there’s a play

shakespeare's plays


at the theatre: kinky boots

kinky boots

These boots aren’t made just for walking. In the talented hands (and heels) of a drag queen called Lola – a role that should finally make the estimable talents of Billy Porter familiar to a wider audience – they’re made for high kicks, chassés, and fierce, show-stopping realness. Drab brown brogues be gone; thanks to Lola and her kinky boot designs a struggling family run shoe factory in the middling English Midlands will survive. Yet Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper’s new chocolate box of a musical is about more than just middle class survival, noble as that might be. Like Billy Elliot, to which it owes a debt of gratitude, Kinky Boots extols the virtues of embracing the ineffable thing inside you that allows you to thrive. Let it raise you up, the company, led by Lola, sings in a rousing finale that gives a tantalizing taste of what this musical might have been. But as directed – and I use that term loosely – by Jerry Mitchell the drama which precedes it is messy, unfocused, and as clunky as an old pair of cha-cha heels. Lacking either the critical eye of a dramaturge or the flair of a showman, Mitchell is unable to take Lola’s advice and raise up the promising framework of his collaborators. Certainly a musical should be able to stand alone on it’s own feet, but I often I had the sinking feeling that nobody with an objective, incisive eye was pushing the talented team at the Al Hirschfeld Theater towards doing their best work. Individuals left to do his or her own thing lead to a wall full of spaghetti: only the overdone bits tend to stick. Which is a drag, literally. That’s not to say that Kinky Boots isn’t often entertaining, because it is, especially when the dynamic Mr. Porter takes center stage. I just wish he had some help in trying to raise up his surroundings. As Charlie, a young man who inherits his father’s shoe factory and finds himself stricken by a bout of George Bailey-itis, Stark Sands has a natural, winning charisma. He doesn’t possess the voice of a trained singer but he gives it the old college try and the strain shows only occasionally. He is, however, cast adrift by Mr. Mitchell more than once – most egregiously in his big eleven o’clock number, The Soul of a Man, a vocally challenging, emotional turning point in which Mr. Sands is left to pointlessly wander around the apron of the stage. Annaleigh Ashford plays it broader but fares better as one of the hapless factory workers with a hopeless crush on Charlie, not to mention a history of always choosing the wrong guys, which she sings about to great comedic effect. Performed with gusto, The History of Wrong Guys comes close to bringing down the house and it would if someone put a proper button on the end of the song. This inattention to detail builds up throughout the evening like an exercise in self sabotage – something no self-respecting drag queen worth her sequins would stand for. Kinky Boots could have (should have) been as capital-F fabulous as the glittering red heels of its title. Instead it’s been stitched and stretched into something altogether more ordinary – kind of like that pair of drab brown brogues.


at the theatre: breakfast at tiffany’s & ann

Ann & Breakfast at Tiffanys

I don’t get the sentimental attraction to Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Is it the waifish innocence of Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy-clad eccentric crooning “Moon River” in the film version that sets the hearts of grown men and women aflutter? Or is it nostalgia for a time when it seemed possible that anybody could reinvent themselves simply by wishing it so? Either way, I don’t buy it. Maybe there’s a charm and subtlety to Capote’s novella – no less a curmudgeon than Norman Mailer declared that he “would not change two words” of it – but Holly Golightly is no radical; she is no Sally Bowles. For one, the two black sheep at the center of the story lack the context that made the denizens of Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” so excitingly alive. This problem is only exacerbated in playwright Richard Greenberg’s lovingly dusty adaptation now in previews at the Cort Theater on Broadway. Holly and Fred, the unsexed homosexual narrator who sets this flight of fancy in motion, aren’t so much two lost souls as two souls lost in schmaltz. Fidelity to the source seems to have jaundiced Greenberg’s usually sharp dramatic eye. Director Sean Mathias – who helmed a different adaptation of the story to less than glowing notices in London last year – adds only fuel to the nostalgia fire with gauzy scrims and violins and projections which yearn for a city long since gone. When I wasn’t dozing off I had the distinct feeling of watching a play through the lenses of a stereopticon – until a painfully awkward nude scene involving a bathtub and strategically placed bubbles arrived too little too late. (Mr. Mathias, if you recall, is the man who orchestrated a lengthy nude scene for Jude Law’s Broadway debut in a play whose title might just as well serve on the marquee at the Cort, Indiscretions.) Cory Michael Smith, forceful and riveting in Mike Bartlett’s Cock two seasons ago at The Duke, makes a likable, if bland, Broadway debut here. Would that Mr. Mathias lavished as much attention on Smith’s sculpted abs as he did Law’s manhood. And poor Emilia Clarke, well, she just seems out of her league as jolly Holly – but then what actress could make this wholly unbelievable character believable? Winsome melancholy doesn’t really travel well across the footlights. If you prefer your characters a bit stronger or, say, larger than life, better to skip uptown where Holland Taylor isn’t so much portraying charismatic Texas Governor Ann Richards as channeling her onstage at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont. As written by Taylor, it’s not much of a play – a few anecdotes here, a bit of hagiography there – and I’m not entirely sure it’s deserving of the overproduced Broadway production it enjoys, but it’s immensely satisfying – not mention a change of pace – to sit in the presence of a dynamic politician who had not only a gift for the gab and a talent for zingers but also believed in the higher calling of public service.


at the theatre: vanya & sonia & masha & spike

vanya & sonya & masha & spike

You never know with playwright Christopher Durang. His plays often straddle a murky line between incisive satire and puerile humor. But like the best novels of Kurt Vonnegut, when he’s at the top of him game his seemingly simple, zany stories betray the existential angst and simmering fear brewing beneath the calm, clean surfaces of modern life.  So I am overjoyed to report through tears of laughter that his latest confection, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now on Broadway in a pitch-perfect production at the John Golden Theater, is a return to frolicsome – and forbidding – form. A mash-up of characters and plot threads from Anton Chekov’s four major works – Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard – the play revolves around Vanya and Sonia (David Hyde Pierce and a luminous Kristine Nielsen), a brother and sister left to tend the family estate – and their dying parents – in Bucks County, PA, while their glamorous sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver) finds fame and fortune in Hollywood. A surprise visit from Masha, with her 20-something boy toy Spike in tow (the ridiculously fit and spectacularly undressed Billy Magnussen) throws the normally placid household into chaos – not least of all due to the prophecies belched out by the cleaning woman, appropriately called Cassandra (a very funny Shalita Grant), and the arrival of a lithesome young neighbor named Nina, who curiously enough wants to be an actress. In less-skilled hands this could have easily devolved into an extended SNL skit but Durang and director Nicholas Martin make sure that throughout their frothy mix of lust, rivalry, regret and ridiculousness there is a palpable awareness of the human condition, making Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike a romp the likes of which I think even Mr. Chekov would laughingly approve.


at the theatre: cat on a hot tin roof

cat on a hot tin roof

Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, currently being revived on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre with an ineffectual Scarlett Johannsson, has received so many underwhelming notices that I found myself last week at the theater in a most peculiar state: waiting for the curtain to go up with almost no anticipation or expectation. In effect, the evening had failed before it had even begun. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as a good state of mind to begin, approaching Rob Ashford’s production as a blank slate does strip the evening of the burden and baggage of memory. If anything, it affords the director an opportunity to recalibrate and restore the text. Elizabeth Taylor might be enshrined in our collective celluloid consciousness in a revealing white slip purring “Maggie the cat is alive!” but Ashford rightly understands that Williams’ parboiled Southern melodrama is really a family affair: a quartet of cats – to beat a metaphor to death – tails up, claws out, and braying for their rightful recompense. His misstep is an inability to find any subtlety in the evening. (Christopher Oram’s gorgeous mixed metaphor bedroom setting is part of the problem: who puts cats in a birdcage?) The drama unfolds in broad, flat strokes, like a table-read put on its feet far too soon. Fine performances from Ciaran Hinds, Benjamin Walker, and Debra Monk can’t mask the fact that the mendacity at the root of this family’s internecine conflict doesn’t have the power to shake us because it’s made so glaringly obvious to everyone except the people onstage. Big moments don’t land because they haven’t been earned. And often Ashford seems content to let the actors revel in Williams’ poetry, rather than connect it to the reality of the mise en scene. It seems that despite the best of intentions this cat’s in free-fall, struggling to find its feet.


the return of the apsara

apsara dance

The relatively recent history of Cambodia is horrific. Under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge the country was subjected to a radical social engineering project in the 1970’s that aimed to create a purely agrarian Communist society. Around two million people were forced from the cities to take up agricultural work in the countryside. The party controlled what they wore, whom they could talk to, how they acted. Children were believed to be tainted by the capitalism of their parents, so they were separated, indoctrinated in communist ideology and made a dictatorial instrument of the party, given leadership roles in the torture and execution of anyone suspected of being a traitor. And almost everyone could be considered a traitor: intellectuals, artists, minorities, city-dwellers and anyone with an education. In little more than four years the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.5 million people – a fifth of the country’s population – through torture, forced labour, starvation, and executions. Unbelievably, one of the many groups targeted were the Apsara Dancers, practitioners of the classical Khmer dance which dates back to the 7th century. (The Angkor temples are festooned with thousands of images of the Apsara. During this period, dance was ritually performed at the temples as both entertainment and as a means of delivering messages to the gods.) Although 90 percent of all Cambodian classical artists perished in the genocide, the tradition of the Apsara was resurrected in the refugee camps in eastern Thailand with the few surviving Khmer dancers. Yes, I had come to Cambodia because I wanted to see the temples, but what I needed was to see this dance: elaborately dressed, performing a slow and figurative set of hand gestures and poses, invoking the gods and enacting epic poems; a testament to the power of art and a point of national pride. (Plus, anyone with even a passing familiarity with The King & I will immediately notice where Jerome Robbins stole his best ideas.) The return of the Apsara augured not only a reestablishment of civil society but,  more importantly, a resurrection of the country.

apsara dance 2


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