Review: A View From the Bridge

Fabulous Retro Playbill

This may be a little briefer than usual. I’m going for a no-frills review of a no-frills show. Director Ivo Van Hove’s production of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, direct from London’s Young Vic, strips the play down to its essentials: actors walk around barefoot, in costumes that don’t look particularly period-specific, without props, without furniture, in a simple white box of a set. You’re left with a pure, searing drama. And boy, is it powerful.

It’s been on Broadway numerous times but the plot, set in 1950s Brooklyn, was new to me. It’s a family drama: Longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong) adores his niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox). So much that it’s disturbing, actually. When two illegal immigrant cousins come to stay at his place, Catherine falls for one of them. This is a problem: for Eddie, for Eddie’s relationship with Catherine, for Eddie’s relationship with his wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker), even for Eddie’s relationship with the neighborhood.

It’s an outstanding piece of writing from Miller, that’s for sure. It was written as a two-act drama, but this production is an intermissionless piece that runs just under two hours. Scenes transition nearly instantly, with one conversation turning into another in a flash. Sounds confusing but in fact it’s easy to follow. The production feels like it’s had all the fat cut out of it, and you’re left with something lean, filling, and tasty.*

Perhaps if I’d been more familiar with the piece, I’d have more to say on the smart directorial choices Van Hove has made, or the excellent cast, or the cuts to Miller’s original. As it is, I don’t have too much to say, except that it’s all terrific. In fact, my biggest problem was probably just the venue. Now, I love Broadway theaters as much as the next obsessive theater blogger, but you’ve got to imagine the production is far more powerful in an intimate setting. (As I recall, the Young Vic is a lot smaller?) They should have blackboxed the heck out of this production, as far as I’m concerned. Something about the distance of a Broadway theater kept me a little at bay. There are seats available onstage, and perhaps that’s the ideal way to experience this Bridge. But that’s annoying. Isn’t it a bad thing if only a small percentage of an audience experiences the production the way it was meant to be? If you have a decent mezzanine seat, as I did, and feel like you’re missing out, then there’s something wrong here.

Nevertheless, it’s a great show, and I’m glad I saw it. Those wonderful Brits**. Don’t you love it when they take an American classic and show us how it’s done?

My Grade: A-
Ticket Price: $34.50
Worth it: Yes
Running Time: 1 Hour, 55 minutes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes (orchestra and stage) and No (Mezzanine)

* EWWWWW. Is that a meat reference? Gross. I can’t believe I put a meat reference into my review. Obviously I’m still a vegan. Tofu forever!

** Actually Ivo Van Hove is Dutch, but let’s not let facts get in the way of my point. The production is British, anyway.

Review: Thérèse Raquin

Therese RaquinBoy was I deflated when the usher at Thérèse Raquin told me the show was a solid 2 hours and 45 minutes with a 20 minute intermission. Say what? My first thought: Ugh, I won’t be getting home until midnight. My second thought: This is a very good excuse for buying myself and my friend Jessica drinks at intermission. If I’m going to sit through a long, dark, heavy play, at least I could do it with a beverage in hand, right?

As it turns out, though, neither of us felt the need to ply ourselves with alcohol. Thérèse Raquin was compelling, haunting, and overall a very entertaining evening. Nice performances; fascinating story; impressive production. We were both glad we’d seen it. I had seen it years ago (in London) but didn’t remember much about it. Before I forget the plot again, here’s what it’s about: Keira Knightley stars as Thérèse, a passionate young woman caught between desire and duty in nineteenth-century Paris. She and her lover, Laurent, conspire against her annoying ninny of a husband, Camille. Violence, death, madness and revenge all follow. Cue the ominous music, right?

Actually there was a lot of melodramatic music during the show. It feels more like a modern psychological thriller than a 19th century tragedy. The adaptation, by Helen Edmundson, is a sparse, taut retelling of the Zola story, with lots of telling pauses and knowing glances. It’s cinematic, too, in that there are lots of jumps and short scenes. To be honest, chunks of it lacked subtlety. The plot requires Therese and Laurent to be overcome with guilt in the second act, so Madame Raquin turns from an overbearing, domineering woman in the first act into a saintly, self-sacrificing one in the second act.Thérèse desires Laurent, so Thérèse visibly leans towards Laurent. Thérèse is lonely, so she stares out the window and barely responds to the world around her. (She seems a little aspy in the first half of the play, actually.)

That’s basically how Keira Knightley plays it. In the past, I’ve generally liked her performances, but she does bring a bit of a sameness to many of the roles she portrays, and Thérèse is no different. If you have seen her in Pride and Prejudice, or Pirates of the Caribbean, or Anna Karenina, you probably have the general idea of what her performance is like. That said, she does carry the show fairly well, and perhaps I would have sensed more texture in her performance if I had been sitting a little closer. (We were in the center of the mezzanine, and Studio 54 is a large theater. I always feel like intimate dramas such as this should be in smaller performance spaces.) The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent: Gabriel Ebert is perfectly irritating as Camille, Judith Light is phenomenal as Madame Raquin, and Matt Ryan is charming-but-deadly as Laurent.

And the physical production was excellent, too. Now I’m not sure if it was necessary to turn the back half of the stage into a pool, or to have such an intricate household set flying in from the rafters, but it certainly made for beautiful and impressive visuals. (Just looked it up: Beowulf Borritt, of Act One fame, was the designer. No surprise there, then! That man’s a genius.) I do wish the lighting had been a little brighter, however. There’s a difference between “atmospheric” and “hard to see.”

And the show ended at 10:38 (seven minutes ahead of schedule)! So all in all it was a successful evening and a play worth seeing. If you like it dark.

My Grade: B+
Ticket price: Jessica bought them (thank you Jess!)
Worth it: Ask Jess, but I think so
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Standing Ovation Watch: 70%

Review: King Charles III

CAM01531Obviously I was going to buy a ticket for King Charles III. London’s 2015 Best Play winner? About the Royals? IN BLANK VERSE? Yes please!

A show with stature! Playwright Mike Bartlett has written “a future history play” about what could happen after the death of Queen Elizabeth. Prince Charles is now King Charles, and the plot hinges on his refusal to sign a law that has already been approved by parliament. It’s a ceremonial duty of the monarch, and no king or queen has refused to sign anything for centuries. As you might guess, pandemonium ensues when Charles stands his ground.

Sounds like a pretty exciting drama, right? And the production is wonderful and — as expected — full of stature. In my book, a play with stature should have:

  • choral singing in latin (with a live cellist and oboeist, if at all possible)
  • a large and impressive cast
  • beautiful scenic design
  • plenty of intellect and intrigue
  • Shakespearian characters
  • incredible textual depth

Check, check, check, check, check, check. Let me expand upon a few of those checklist items. First of all, the language. Mr. Bartlett has written something ambitious on a scale I haven’t seen in years. As I’ve already said, it’s in blank verse, so the characters sound modern and timeless all at once. You’ll occasionally hear that backward phrasing that we all recognize from exposure to Shakespeare. I found its use of blank verse absolutely brilliant, an incredibly smart way of constructing a contemporary work that feels like one of Shakespeare’s history plays. It really does make the show feel epic.

And those characters. Tim Pigott-Smith’s Charles feels like a Shakespearian figure, a man of conscience trapped between his morals, his duty, and his unbelievably popular son William. Harry, meanwhile, is equally trapped, though for him it’s more of an I-don’t-fit-in-with-the-Royals malaise. Harry’s plotline is a little more predictable than Charles’s: he falls in love with a penniless art student who opposes the monarchy altogether. Seems like fodder for a romantic comedy, right? Nevertheless, both Mr. Pigott-Smith and Richard Goulding as Harry are phenomenal, forming the emotional center of the show. (Mr. Goulding also reminded me of a guy I used to date, which probably won him extra points to be honest.)

Anyway, as you may have noticed, I keep referring to King Charles III as “a show with stature” and “a wonderful production.” That’s because I’m avoiding the truth. I found it boring. I loved seeing Kate Middleton as a kind of Lady MacBeth; I loved the mixture of modern language and old phrasing; I loved the concept of a play about Charles III. But I simply didn’t love the end result.

Now, why not? Perhaps it’s that I found the play to have a thrilling premise, but for some reason I failed to really buy into what happened after. I was constantly either thinking “this is so farfetched” or “it’s so ridiculous that the Brits even have a monarchy at all” Or I’d think: “Boy, am I glad this monarchy stuff isn’t my problem.” (Now what Anglophile in her right mind would think THAT?)

There’s also the fact that despite all its brilliance in many areas, King Charles III has quite a few plot holes. I don’t want to get too spoilery, so let me just say that the last twist felt a little unwarranted. And Harry’s reaction to that twist also seemed out of step with everything the character had been up to that point.

Or perhaps it’s even a little simpler than that: King Charles III is fascinating in premise, boring in execution. Beautiful language, problematic plot structure. I’m not someone opposed to a nice, long, meaty play, but I imagine this one would really pack a suckerpunch if it had a more intense 90 minute piece. On the other hand — and I always have an other hand, don’t I? — I was certainly exhausted when I saw the show. A two and a half hour history play was probably too ambitious for a Cardinals fan in mourning. I’ll do better next time. Or the play will. Or the Cardinals will.

My Grade: B-
Ticket price: $45
Worth it: Not really
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Standing Ovation Watch: 95% yes

Review: Spring Awakening

Hello again after an unexpected summer off blogging and theater. There were several reasons why I didn’t see much of anything since the Tonys, and why I didn’t post about the few shows I did see. But who needs excuses? (OK, for those of you who do need excuses: I broke my foot, spent two months on crutches, and had to take cabs everywhere. I felt too poor and immobile to want to go see any theater.) In any case, I’m back and feeling refreshed. (Though I’m still limping.)

Now shall we get right to it?

spring awakeningEver wonder why I abandoned my dream of becoming a professional theater critic? One reason was my reaction to Spring Awakening. I had long appreciated the Wedekind play, so I saw the musical at the Atlantic in its original off-Broadway incarnation in 2006. (This is the same production that took Broadway by storm a few months later.) Long story short: I didn’t care for it much. It’s nearly a decade ago now, so I don’t remember my thoughts precisely, but as I recall I thought it was a little ham-fisted. In any case, I later saw the Broadway production a number of times, and completely changed my mind about the musical. My revised opinion: it was powerful, beautifully staged, edgy, and very, very exciting. I recommended it to nearly all my friends, and even purchased tickets FOR them on occasion. I wondered how I could ever have disliked this. And how could I ever be a theater critic when I could change my mind so completely about a show?

Here’s where things get interesting. As it turns out, I’ve come full circle on Spring Awakening after seeing the new Broadway incarnation. It’s a fascinating musical, and it’s given a wonderful new production, but once again: I didn’t really care for it. (But I still don’t want to be a professional theater critic, as it turns out. Blogging is more fun!)

But that’s putting the cart before the horse. First, let me talk about the revival, which is a Deaf West production. You probably already know about the show, which won the Best Musical Tony in 2007. But in case you forgot: Melchior, Moritz, and Wendla are teens in 1890s Germany who have been given little to no information about sex from their parents. The consequences are tragic. Now, if you are lucky, you also already know all about Deaf West, because you saw their unforgettable Big River back in the early aughts. (Absolutely stunning!) In terms of spectacular staging, Spring Awakening is on a par with Big River. The new staging certainly brings added meaning to the musical: in the Playbill, there’s a fascinating director’s note that tells us sign language for Deaf students was banned in 1880 (with the idea that Deaf students needed to learn to read lips and adjust to life in a hearing world). In this version of Spring Awakening, awkward and confused young Moritz is Deaf, and his struggles in school clearly result from his failure to understand his teachers. It makes perfect sense, and his ultimate fate feels even more tragic.

Director Michael Arden uses a cast of both Deaf and hearing actors to portray the teenagers as well as their parents and teachers. Sandra Mae Frank is an expressive Wendla, for example, who communicates through sign language during most of the show. Her constant companion onstage is Katie Boeck, who sings all of Wendla’s songs, and frequently holds hands with Ms. Frank. Seems bizarre that a young Deaf German girl’s inner soul would look like a modern indie rocker, doesn’t it? But it works beautifully in the context of the show.

The entire production is fluid and beautifully staged, with terrific acting all around. Plus there’s that evocative choreography from Spencer Liff (though I don’t know if the movement was as beautiful as Bill T. Jones’s choreography in the original production).

But as I said, I didn’t like it. I think it’s mostly because once you’ve gotten past the shock factor of explicit sex in a Broadway musical (and I’m certainly past it, given how many times I saw and listened to the original) you may start to realize something. Spring Awakening, to my mind, just doesn’t hold up very well. The script reads like a clunky translation of Wedekind’s original German, with odd skips in dialogue. (The original play is more episodic, but each scene seems to make more sense.) Plus there are definite plot holes, though to be fair some of those were in the original script. And then there are the lyrics. I understand that Steven Sater was trying to do something different, and more modern, with the lyrics more like those in rock songs than musical theater. But these aren’t even very good rock lyrics. Plus they don’t really sit on the music very well. For example, a teen sings: “I go up to my room, turn the stereo on/Shoot up some you in the ‘you’ of some song.” I sort of understand what he’s saying, I guess, but it’s just a bizarre way to say it. The awkward phrasing and (literally) purple imagery kept taking me out of the moment, precisely the opposite of what a musical theater song should do.

I hadn’t planned on seeing Spring Awakening at all — it seems like it just left Broadway a few years ago, and i didn’t particularly feel like paying $50 to see a retread. Especially not when there are so many new shows to see! But I was convinced by the rapturous recommendations from friends as well as critics. I don’t regret going to see it, because this is truly a beautiful production with stunning direction from Michael Arden. It left me wanting to see Deaf West come back to Broadway with a show that’s even worthier of its many talents.

My Grade: B
Ticket price: $51 (TDF)
Running Time: 2 Hours, 20 Minutes
Standing Ovation Watch: 95%