Review: An Octoroon

2015-03-03 19.29.55One of my huge theater regrets of 2014 was not seeing An Octoroon. It was a highly acclaimed, sold out, award winning production! And I dillydallied on buying tickets and missed my chance to see it. Turns out, though, I needn’t have fretted. It’s returned and is now playing at Theatre For A New Audience, and I was able to snag a ticket.

The other reason I needn’t have fretted: I didn’t like it.

Call me crazy. In all fairness, I may actually be crazy, because An Octoroon has a ton of merits, and it’s easy to see why people have been so impressed with it. It’s a modern take on an 1850s melodrama by Dion Boucicault (called The Octoroon). An Octoroon‘s playwright, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, has framed the original story with an autobiographical introduction in which a character called Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Austin Smith) is told by his therapist to attempt an adaptation of the melodrama to grapple with his depression.

What follows is extremely clever. To begin with, the production toys with blackface traditions by putting Mr. Smith in whiteface (he’s an an African-American actor) to play the hero; meanwhile certain white cast members wear blackface and redface makeup. It also combines the traditional, formal style of 19th-century melodrama with modern dialogue, giving us historical as well as contemporary perspectives on race and theater. Plus quite a bit of it is extremely funny. (More on that in a moment.) And finally, the production has astonishing, exciting moments. (Particularly the bits with cotton balls. Well done, director Sarah Benson!)

Still though. I could not stop yawning throughout. Sure, it’s punctuated by terrific moments. But as far as I was concerned? It was boring. I seem to be allergic to melodrama, no matter how cleverly it’s packaged. I didn’t care about any of the characters. The dialogue was frequently extremely stodgy (I know, I know, he did it on purpose. That doesn’t make it any less tiresome, though.) I also found Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s writerly touches (he’ll occasionally interject and comment about the weakness of Boucicault’s writing, for example) irritating. The whole thing felt like a bloated gimmick. Even as I saw just how clever it was, I continued to feel utterly disengaged.

Except when Minnie and Dido are onstage. When these two opinionated female slaves appeared, the whole show came together. They are extremely funny supporting characters (played to hilarious effect by Pascale Armand and Maechi Aharanwa) who speak like they’re on a reality show. (“Who ghetto now, bitch?” is just one memorable example. Or, referring to another slave: “She is so fake!”). They are so darn funny and appealing that I started to forget my qualms with the show.

If the whole play had been like that, I think this would be a very different blog post. And judging by the audience’s rapturous reception, I’m in a tiny minority here. (Many were laughing throughout; I wasn’t.) So call me crazy. But I just didn’t care for An Octoroon.

My Grade: C
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Ticket price: $62
Worth it: No
Standing Ovation Watch: 90% yes

Review: Tamburlaine

2014-12-02 18.58.29“How was that 3½ hour show?” was the first question my roommate asked me the other morning. The night before, I’d gone to see Tamburlaine, Parts 1 and 2, the Christopher Marlowe drama currently onstage at Theater for a New Audience. She called it “that 3½ hour show” because a few days earlier I’d bemoaned the running time to both of my roommates as I bought my tickets. (I don’t think I complained for 3½ hours, but it was definitely at least 3½ minutes.) Well, from now on I won’t refer to Tamburlaine as “the 3½ hour show,” because it deserves a lot better than that. In fact, this is one of the more dynamic, thrillingly staged, beautifully acted performances I’ve seen this fall.

It’s an exciting political and war story about Tamburlaine (John Douglas Thompson), a shepherd’s son turned brilliant warrior with an undying thirst for power and violence. No sooner has he seized a territory and humiliated its king than he is on to the next, more violent conquest. Tamburlaine is happy to cage kings, slaughter innocents, humiliate foes, cut out tongues, starve enemies, stab family members.

And yet I kinda liked the guy. That’s mostly to the fantastic performance from Mr. Thompson, who has energy, charisma, passion — and can speak quite a mouthful, to boot. He’s just one of an ensemble of terrific actors, including Paul Lazar as a series of hapless kings; Patrice Johnson Chevannes as a stately queen turned bitter slave; and Merritt Janson as Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s wife.

As for that length. Well, yes, it is a long show, and I am a fidgety person. So there were moments when my mind wandered a bit. But for the most part, I was captivated. There are several reasons you shouldn’t let the length bother you either:

  • To begin with, you get a 30-minute intermission. So it’s not really as long as it seems.
  • Second, there’s the compelling nature of the piece, which keeps it moving at a good clip. Betrayal! Murder! Adventure! A lot like a Shakespeare play, actually. Similarly oversized characters; similarly dense language; squicky violence (a character gets a tongue cut out, which is equally as gross as losing an eyeball or two).
  • Then there’s the fantastic adaptation by Michael Boyd, who also directed the piece. Yes, it’s long, but if you can believe it, Tamburlaine uncut would require a seven-hour running time (according to this Wall Street Journal article). This adaptation has a razor-sharp edge to it; it really feels like two intense 90-minute plays, rather than one long, bloated drama.
  • And finally, there’s the production itself: Mr. Boyd’s staging is incredibly effective. It’s taut and quick-moving, and visceral as all get-out: Buckets of blood are splashed around liberally. More surprisingly, there’s a winning playfulness to the production: an actor strolls in chomping on a drumstick and gives the bone to an audience member; a Playbill is used as a prop to very funny effect, and so on. All these moments helped bring the play back to earth from its melodramatic heights. And made it all the more affecting for that.

So an excellent production of a show that rarely gets produced (the last major New York production was apparently in 1956!). It runs until December 21: I realize that few of us have enough free time during the holiday season to consider going to a 3½ hour show Tamburlaine, but you’re unlikely to regret it if you do.

My Grade: A-
Running Time: 3½ hours including 30 minute intermission
Ticket price: $31 (TDF)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: 50/50

Review: King Lear

2014-04-17 19.22.45I write this wanting to say that Shakespeare failed me, but I’m actually pretty sure that I failed Shakespeare.

Last night I went to see King Lear at Theater for a New Audience. An extra treat, as it was my first time attending their lovely new Brooklyn performance space (verdict: looks great; I love the double balcony). I went to see it because I’ve decided to completely buy in to the #yearoflear marketing ploy and go see that great tragedy as many times as possible this year. I’ve already seen Frank Langella at BAM, and bought a ticket to the screening of the Simon Russell Beale London production in a few weeks. Plus I’m hoping to see John Lithgow Shakespeare in the Park, and, erm, I think there’s another one this fall.

All this to say last night was my second out of five Lears this year. It was a thoughtful, clear production (Arin Arbus directs), and Michael Pennington was a composed Lear. (My pull quote: An intelligent Lear in an intelligent production from an intelligent theater company.) But if I’m going to be truthful I have to say that I had trouble keeping my eyes open. To begin with, it was loooong. 3 hours, 15 minutes; the first act alone was 1 hour 45 minutes. (I think this production could have done with two intermissions.) And the production never ignited the way the BAM one did a few weeks ago. I usually laugh at Edmund’s two-timing Goneril and Regan, and the Fool’s witticisms, but neither I nor many others in the audience seemed to respond much to what was onstage. Perhaps we were just a quiet bunch. But not until Gloucester’s eyes get plucked out (oh that scene is so gross) was I really sitting up and taking notice. The rest of the time, I let the verse wash over me like a lullaby.

But I still think it was mostly my own fault. I’d been out late the night before celebrating my birthday and to be honest, I was operating on just a few hours sleep. I’m no Shakespeare expert, but I have seen enough of his plays to know that if you aren’t feeling sharp that day, you’re unlikely to appreciate it much. In fact, I generally try to book tickets for matinees if I’m going to see Shakespeare. Daytime Julia is always a little more appreciative of that stuff than nighttime Julia.

Moral of the story: please learn from my mistakes (though I never seem to). Those with hangovers shouldst not attend Shakespeare plays. Julia, thou shouldst not have been old before thou hadst been wise.