12.5.13 – The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence by Madeleine George at Playwrights Horizons is one of those plays with an interesting theme – the search for mechanized perfection – and a clever conceit through which to pursue it. A super-smart computer programmer named Eliza is creating a robot-helper (picture a life-sized full-bodied Siri) whom she has named Watson, and her quest is bounced off historical scenes featuring other Watsons: Sherlock Holmes’s sidekick and Alexander Graham Bell’s right-hand man, with glancing reference to the IBM computer of the same name who famously beat human contestants on Jeopardy. Ultimately, though, the play devolves into a kind of heterosexual soap opera about Eliza, her ex-husband Merrick, and the computer repair guy – also named Watson – he hires to spy on her. The clever contrivances don’t actually deliver believable human truth, though. The actors have fun playing several roles in several periods.
I found Amanda Quaid (above) appealing and persuasive, and John Ellison Conlee (above) inhabits all the Watsons beautifully, but David Costabile might have been miscast as Merrick – he’s so high-strung that there’s no way to take him as anything other than The Bad Guy, which quickly gets tedious.
12.7.13 — Julie Taymor’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, at Theater for a New Audience’s splendid new theater down the street from the BAM Opera House, is fantastic – spectacular design, hugely inventive staging, stuffed with terrific performances. I’ve seen any number of productions over the years, and by halftime I was already convinced this is the best ever. Each scene came with some original, funny, sexy, visually stunning, or otherwise delightful element. Some that stayed with me: at the very top of the show, out comes Puck – a very small androgynous creature (renowned British performer Kathryn Hunter) in clown makeup, bowler hat, and a suit that might fit an organ-grinder’s monkey made of soft rumpled gray fabric (the first of what seems like hundreds of amazing costumes designed by Constance Hoffman). The only thing onstage is a bed, Puck lies down to sleep, and the bed rises up with tree branches underneath. The guys who will later turn out to be the “rude mechanicals” come onstage, saw the tree branches loose from the bed, which flies to the ceiling and disappears behind a white sheet, on which the title of the play appears. I’ve never seen a production frame the entire play as Puck’s dream and was curious if we would come back to that at the end. Not exactly. Taymor comes up with another beautiful, quiet, unexpected image involving a sleepy girl and a dog mask, coming back to the sleepy/dreamy image but transformed. And so it is throughout the production, one transformation after another.
The fairies are played by a rambunctious batch of 20 children (Taymor originally wanted 100), who sing, dance, do acrobatics, manipulate scenery and props, wear masks, scream like banshees, and sometimes get hauled around like real-life bunraku puppets by black-clad manipulators. David Harewood and Tina Benko, both great actors, make the most striking Oberon and Titania I’ve ever seen – he’s black black black, with spiky gold armor and gold tattoos across his chest and down his back; she’s white white white with boob-lights on antennas and transparent clamshell wings. Taymor dresses the rude mechanicals like working men and cast them with some great veteran actors who can play broad comedy without making it stoopid, most notably Max Casella (unforgettable as Timon in the original cast of Taymor’s The Lion King) as Bottom.
The whole sequence at the end of the first half is thrilling: Bottom is transformed with a donkey’s head with creepily human nose and lips which Casella manipulates with hand-held remotes; smitten Titania invites him into her hammock bed, which drapes across the entire stage; and their union is consummated with an explosion of color and light that is funny, sexy, ecstatic, and mythological all at once. The young lovers give the weakest performances in the large cast, but once they’re all in the forest in the middle of the night they wind up stripping down to their underwear and having a pillow fight, which is not a chore to watch at all (especially hunky hunky Zach Appelman as Demetrius). The puppets, masks, and constantly morphing sets are clearly a collaboration between Taymor and her designers (scenic designer Es Devlin is clearly some kind of theatrical genius himself), and Eliot Goldenthal’s music contributes numerous perfect multiflavored touches. For all of its fun, sexiness, and visual splendor, this is no dumbed-down Shakespeare for the masses but a smart and deep interaction into the dangerous fields of love, where casual cruelty often masquerades as play. I’d like to see this production two or three more times. It only runs til January 12 and I suspect there are very few tickets left. What are you waiting for?
By the way, Theater for a New Audience has made available online a free PDF of an extensive study guide to A Midsummer Night’s Dream that includes some terrific essays an an in-depth interview of Taymor by Alisa Solomon.
12.8.13 – The live broadcast of The Habit of Art, Alan Bennett’s play about actors rehearsing a play about W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten at Oxford, showed up for one screening in New York as part of the National Theater’s 50th anniversary celebration. It’s one more brilliant play from the author of The History Boys, The Madness of King George, Bed Among the Lentils, and so many others. And another extraordinary production directed by Nicholas Hytner with a superb cast headed by the late great Richard Griffiths (below) as a fat, shambling, supernaturally eloquent Auden, Alex Jennings as Britten, and the amazing Frances de la Tour as the stage manager who keeps the rehearsal going. On the National Theater Live’s website, you can also download a free PDF of a lavish 33-page programme with essays about Auden and Britten as well as an introduction by Bennett.