Thursday, July 24, 2014

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Guthrie

"We are agreed that a critic is not, and never will be, a member of the audience.  Not only is he paid to attend, he is paid to listen; and this sobering circumstance colors his whole attitude toward the material on stage.  The critic says: This is an extremely bad play--why is that?  The audience says:  This is an extremely bad play--why was I born?  There is a real difference."
- I Don't Want To See the Uncut Version of Anything by Jean Kerr
I am not a critic--not remotely. But I saw Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Guthrie last night and all I can say is, MAN, am I tired of seeing plays with white people yelling at each other.  Also, this is 2014, right?  Why is the only African-American actor in the cast playing the cleaning woman?  Also, Vanya and Sonia?  GET A JOB.

As usual, the Guthrie audience really enjoyed it (although not enough for the obligatory standing ovation), but that's not unusual.  I remember this getting fairly good reviews when it was on Broadway, starring Sigourney Weaver, David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen.  (How could you go wrong with that cast?)  Also, Christopher Durang won the Tony in 2013 for this play.  So is it just me?  Am I unreasonably crabby about theater featuring white people who should stop whining and get jobs? 

Let's go to the Internet and see!  (Isn't it nice that you can always find someone to agree with you online?)

Ben Brantley's 2012 review in the New York Times, Insecure Namesakes With a Gloomy Worldview, in which he praised the performances, had this to say:
"That means that for a couple of benignly stretched-out hours, Durang fans can watch a master of antic psycho-comedy play with Chekhov like a self-amusing cat toying with a tangled string. Notice I didn’t say mouse. Mr. Durang is not in the killing vein here." 
So if you like that kind of thing, there you go.

I'm not the only one whose racism radar was triggered by the character of cleaning woman Cassandra--played by Isabelle Monk O'Connor, who was just wonderful in Theater Latte Da's recent production of Our Town, and deserves better than this role.

I think Scribicide: A New York Theater Blog's post They Should Have Left Vanya and Sonia and Masha to Chekhov which reviews the 2012 production, gets it right, referring to Shalita Grant, who played the role of Cassandra on Broadway:
 "And Ms. Grant, who was a delight in the Pearl’s Philanderer, has possibly the play’s most difficult task, charming her way through an awkward, vaguely racist role. (Do we really need another gyrating, magical Black character whose only narrative purpose is to save white characters?)"
Answer?  No.  Scribicide also says:
"It is only fair to mention that on the night I attended the audience was positively roaring and constantly interrupting the actors with applause. The phrase, I suppose, is crowd-pleaser. The crowd was pleased. I was not."

Ours too!  And me too.

I found myself dissecting the humor--what the audience was laughing at, what they weren't, and in Threat Quality Press's post Christopher Durang and the Court of Cannibals, the author perfectly encapsulates my vague feeling while describing the scene where Sonia throws a coffee cup against the wall:
"...this is a textbook example of the kind of joke that doesn’t go anywhere: the playwright, noticing that his play is boring, has a character do something unexpected; realizing that “unexpected” isn’t the same thing as “a joke”, he has the characters react to each other in the hopes that they’ll eventually squeeze out a laugh."
Threat Quality Press, would you like to sum up?  You put it SO well:
"I just want to reiterate that this play, with its go-nowhere jokes, its leaden exposition, its racist caricatures, this play that is a self-confessed lump of vomit composed of half-eaten, better plays, this play that climaxes with five minutes of an old man yelling at a cloud, won the Tony Award for Outstanding New Play. It won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Production, the Drama League Award for Best Production of a Play, the Drama Desk Award for Best Play, the Outer Circle Critics Award for Best Play and the Off-Broadway Alliance Award for Best Play. It, along with Venus in Fur (by David Ives, America’s other favorite author of community theater audition monologues), is one of the most-produced non-musical plays in the country right now. This play is a pile of hot garbage, and the worst that reviewers in the New York Times, the LA Times, the Associated Press, et al have had to say about it is “Certain bits go on too long and the exposition could be lightened” (that’s Charles McNulty at the LA Times, in case you’re wondering)."
I only hope that the Guthrie production generates the kind of discussion that the New York production has.  Kind of makes me tempted to go to a talk-back, just to see the response.  But then I'd have to see it again, and it might make me throw a coffee cup at the wall.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Little Shop of Amazing (at 7th House Theater)

I have seen a LOT of productions of Little Shop of Horrors. The 2003 Broadway revival with Hunter Foster, Kerry Butler and an underused Douglas Sills; the subsequent tour with the lovely Jonathan Rayson as Seymour; Ten Thousand Things' dark, innovative (as always) and unsettling production with Jim Lichtscheidl; and various high school and community theater productions.  There's also a soft place in my heart for the movie, because I saw it in the theater in 1986--and, of course, Ellen Greene!  And of course, the original film (although A Bucket of Blood is a much better Corman, IMHO.)

This is all to say that I know the show backwards and forwards and I'm a tough audience. But I'm SO GLAD that I read the rave review of 7th House Theater Collective's recent production in City Pages. I tend to seldom read reviews before seeing shows, but something about Ed Huyck's review (possibly the part that said: "I want to see it again. No, I want to see it 10 times.") compelled me to buy tickets for the last performance on Sunday night. 
Even though the show is indelibly etched in my brain already, it was like seeing the show for the first time. With a super minimalist staging (a laboratory framing device that didn't 100% work for me), musically quite bare bones, and in the intimate Open Eye Figure Theatre space, this production was outstanding. (Check out 7th House's Facebook page for lots of great production photos.)

Can I just tell you about Grant Sorenson as Seymour?  We've seen him before, as a predatory young man in Spring Awakening, and recently reading the stage directions in one of Theater Latte Da's Next Musicals, and probably in countless other shows.  But MAN.  This young man is a star.  I predict it--and I'm seldom wrong.  It's lovely to see young performers with amazing talent because you know they have so many fabulous roles and performances ahead of them.  He has a somewhat dark look--I think of him as being a great fit for the Emcee role in Cabaret without much work at all--but as soon as he put the glasses on, he WAS Seymour.

And I loved that although he was shabby and poor, he wasn't stupid or pathetic, as Seymour can often be portrayed.  His slight physique worked perfectly for the character, and the intelligence in his character played off well against Maeve Moynihan's portrayal of Audrey as genuinely a bit dim, but sweet--also a tough portrayal to get right.  Sorenson sang the heck of out this role, and after "Somewhere That's Green", when he kissed Audrey?  DANG.  Seymour never gets to seem like he could actually get and keep the girl.  This Seymour did, and dare I say it?  He's a bit of a sexy Seymour.  More raving:  Sorenson has amazing physicality, terrific diction and timing (so great to hear all the hilarious Ashman & Menken lines landing so perfectly--i.e., the line with the Petunia/junior line in "Mushnik & Son," which he delivered with the perfect amount of knowing irony), and he does marvelous comedic work with his face alone--though he uses everything else as well.

Every member of the ensemble was wonderful.  The timing was perfect--the whole show was so TIGHT. Amazing that it was directed by the ensemble themselves.  And the singing!  Beautifully sung, but not oversung.  I loved that the singing didn't overwhelm the storytelling.  For example, Moynihan's "Suddenly Seymour" was a revelation.  Hardly anyone can sing it as Ellen Greene did--though many people try--but Moynihan made it her own.

The girl group/scientists of Gracie Kay Anderson, Liz Hawkinson and Cat Noble sang beautifully together, had plenty of sass (without being annoying), and held together the action beautifully, whether portraying Mushnik or Audrey II.  They were all marvelous but I especially enjoyed Gracie Kay Anderson's performance--she has a marvelously animated face and wonderful comic timing, in addition to a great voice.

Robert Frost as the accompanist and occasional ensemble member did beautifully at leaping in and out of the action.  And what can you say about David Darrow?  He's wonderful in everything I see him in, and I loved that as part of the ensemble, we saw him much more than if he just played the dentist.

For such a bare bones production, there are so many elements that will stay with me.  "Mushnik & Son", with all of the ensemble taking turns playing Mushnik, which leads to a much more engaging (and dancey!) staging.  The beakers of blood thrown against the clear curtain when Audrey II starts killing.  The cardboard box that represents Audrey II, which amazingly works, especially at the very end, and the ensemble all playing Audrey II, which was beautifully depicted.

And did I mention tight?  Stopwatch-like timing, and under two hours with intermission.  After sitting through way too many bloated, draggy shows, this was a bit of heaven.

In short, it was an exciting, inventive production of a show I've seen too many times to count. Though I'd seen some of the performers before, this was my the first production I've seen by 7th House Theater. If this is the kind of work they're doing, it definitely won't be my last.

Total random P.S.:  Did you know there was a Little Shop of Horrors game?  What?