Theater

Revivals Past 2015, Part I: The Roots of English Theater — Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine at TFANA

Tamburlaine on his chariot, drawn by conquered rulers. Photo Gerry Goldstein.

can think of one, perhaps two or three people, who might possibly know all the theaters in New York City. I certainly don’t, although I make it my business to know as many as I can. It really is quite an active scene, with more new plays than one can keep track of, much less attend…even works improvised in front of our eyes, but this all rests on a bedrock of revivals, which may be in the minority, although they seem to flourish everywhere. There is always the question of how good the new shows actually are and whether the the revivals are filling a yawning gap. If you talk to actors and directors, you’ll consider the issue seriously. You’ll find the entire mixture in New York Arts—good, bad, and indifferent—with a healthy component of revivals, ranging from high-profile visiting companies, for example Sophocles’ Antigone with an internationally-celebrated star to the Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama Group’s unforgettable production of a lesser-known play by Euripides in ancient Greek. In this retrospective article, I’d like to discuss a few productions and a few companies which have brought me particular pleasure over the past year. Their productions were important enough, in their different ways, and excellent enough, to make a difference in how I view our theatrical landscape. What they all share is a deep devotion to serving the text and historical character of the works they produce, whether they are classics or long-forgotten obscurities.

Utility: Mundane Made Meaningful — Closes at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater February 20, 2016

Vanessa Vache as Amber and Alex Grubbs as Jim. Photo Russ Rowland.

Hats off to playwright Emily Schwend who, aided by an excellent cast, manages to make an eighty-five minute script about nothing in particular hold our interest—almost all the time. In a small Texas town, Amber, (Vanessa Vache) struggles to keep her family fed and provide a few nice moments like a birthday party for her eight-year old daughter. Amber works two jobs that don’t make ends meet and has an on-going sparring war with her mother, Laura, hilariously played by Melissa Hurst.

Hangmen by Martin McDonagh, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London

Andy Nyman and David Morrissey in Hangmen at Wyndhams Theatre. Photo Tristram Kenton.

After a stunning stretch of plays set in the West Country of Ireland, the playwright Martin McDonagh found himself saddled with literary freight. Could he—or did he even want to—extend the legacy of Irish drama into unforeseeable territory? From Yeats onward, the audience for Irish drama had quaffed a brew of poverty and poetry, blarney and eloquence, myth and the kitchen sink. Suddenly, like the young Sam Shepard and his equally meteoric rise, McDonagh found a style no one anticipated, as viscerally violent as Shepard’s, as psychologically edgy, and as recklessly antagonistic toward the audience’s comfort zone.

Husbands and Sons by D. H. Lawrence, National Theatre, London—until Feb. 10

Julia Ford & Lloyd Hutchinson. Photo Manuel Harlan.

Down in the pit. The misery of being a woman in Nottinghamshire back when coal was king forms the preoccupation of Husbands and Sons, a composite of three one-act plays by D. H. Lawrence. Before they were rediscovered and staged, Lawrence’s dramas were an obscure part of his output, and now they risk being too dated to be vital. Like early Eugene O’Neill, the stage-minded Lawrence of 1911 to 1913, when these plays were written, aimed at naked social realism. The women trapped by brutal husbands working in the colliery stand on the brink of ruination from mining accidents, impending strikes, the cruel work hours that destroyed men’s bodies, and always the shadow of poverty.

King Charles III – A future history play by Mike Bartlett, Music Box Theatre, New York (11/01/2015 – 1/31/2016)

Tim Pigott-Smith as King Charles III. Photo © Joan Marcus.

When Mike Bartlett conceived the idea for this play, according to an article he wrote about it in The Guardian, his thoughts centered on the figure of Prince Charles at “the moment Charles takes the throne, and how his conscience would lead him to refuse to sign a bill into law. An epic royal family drama, dealing with power and national constitution, was the content, and therefore the form had surely to be Shakespearean.” He was not approaching it with any particular ideas about monarchy, or the royal family, or the state of Britain. He was thinking, not as a political creature or a satirist, but as a playwright. From this mindset, it immediately occurred to him that the form had to be Shakespearean, down to the blank verse—and this terrified him, because he had virtually no experience with the meter, or with any verse.

Fiddler on the Roof: In Revival—Again!—at the Broadway Theatre

Why would anyone want to attend yet another revival of Fiddler on the Roof? Since its premiere in 1964 it has had five major Broadway revivals and who knows how many regional theatre, school and amateur productions. Millions of us have seen this show or its film version at least once.

So—you want to know why go again? I’ll tell you why.

Half Moon Bay by John Jiler

Brennan Taylor, Ben Gougeon, and Jean Goto in John Jiler's Half Moon Bay. Photo Theik Smith.

A man and a woman, Richie and Pam, presumably somewhere in their early thirties, that is, just at the point in life where their next successful projects will bring them to a prominent and prosperous stage in life, decide to get married. They seemed full of love and enthusiasm for one another, as well as the impending event. Their friends are full of love and enthusiasm for them, above all, Richie’s best friend and best man, Tom, a lawyer, a rather hard-nosed, cynical lawyer, and a loner. He seems perfectly likable and basically all right, but he has difficulty forming close relationships with women. He hasn’t met one yet who finds him attractive, it seems. But the story is not about him, he is there to tell the story, as a sort of chorus-participant, sometimes in dialogue with the other characters, sometimes engaging the audience directly, sometimes narrating and responding rather like a sports announcer. The story is about love. As Tom begins the play, “I want to tell you about love.” …and mainly about his friend Richie, who is a love fiend, or so it should say in his obituary, as Tom informs us: “Because that’s what drove him. Like the wind drove the old ships. He thought everything else was irrelevant.”

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