Posts Tagged ‘ivo van hove’

Culture Vulture: the year in review

December 30, 2015

Top Theater of 2015:


  1. A View from the Bridge – Ivo van Hove’s intense Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s, staged within Jan Verseweyveld’s evocative stark set and lighting, an excellent cast headed by Mark Strong, Michael Gould, and Nicola Walker
  2. Between Riverside and Crazy – I’m thankful that Second Stage brought back the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Stephen Adly Giurgis’s deep, dark well-deserved Pulitzer recipient, full of amazing performances (Stephen McKinley Henderson and Liza Colon-Zayas – pictured below — with Ron Cephas Jones and Victor Almanzar) directed by Austin Pendleton.


  1. An Octoroon – the kind of big, messy, important, risk-taking production that keeps me engaged with theater. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins had key collaborators in director Sarah Benson, eight brave actors, smart producers (Theatre for a New Audience extended the life of the show that began at Soho Rep), and a design team at the top of their game (especially Mimi Lien, who certainly deserves the MacArthur Foundation fellowship she won this year).
  2. John (Signature Theatre) – Annie Baker’s long astonishing play staged by Sam Gold on Mimi Lien’s hyperrealistic set with four terrific performances: Georgia Engel, Lois Smith, Christopher Abbott, and Hong Chau.

    GhostQuartet3(Ryan Jensen)

  3. Ghost Quartet – a sweet and haunting chamber piece from Dave Malloy (above, plaid shirt), composer of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, performed in the cozy setting of the bar at the McKittrick Hotel.
  4. And That’s How The Rent Gets Paid – Jeff Weiss (below) and Ricardo Martinez’s East Village epic revived at the Kitchen featuring a cast of veteran and emerging downtown stars under director Brooke O’Harra’s fine-tuned cat-herding.
    7-14 jeff weiss
  5. iOW@ (Playwrights Horizons) — playwright Jenny Schwartz gave herself an amazing amount of freedom with this piece, one of the most aggressively odd-shaped plays I’ve ever seen in how information is delivered, how characters are introduced, how the story advances, the use of music (gorgeous and scrupulously unpredictable score by Todd Almond), etc. Kudos to director Ken Rus Schmoll and a super-game cast.
  6. Composition…Master-Pieces…Identity (Target Margin Theater) – I don’t know how he does it but David Greenspan again inhabited Gertrude Stein’s prose with effortless genius.
  7. Gloria (Vineyard Theatre) – another fine example of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ gift for merging social commentary, shrewd humor, and extraordinary performance opportunities; Evan Cabnet directed the fantastic six-member cast, among whom Jennifer Kim and Ryan Spahn stood out for me.
  8. Hamilton (Public Theatre) – I had my reservations about the most acclaimed musical of the year (the hiphop score is monotonous, the staging is theatrically square, and author Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance struck me as charmless) but there’s no denying that this retelling of early American history by black and Latino performers is smart, conceptually ambitious, and fiendishly well-written.
  9. Steve (New Group) – Mark Gerrard’s smart, hilarious gay comedy about sad stuff, impeccably directed by Cynthia Nixon with a fine cast and a seriously great performance by Matt McGrath.

Honorable Mentions:

Eclipsed (Public Theatre)– Danai Gurira’s original play about the experience of women during Liberia’s civil war with an exceptional all-female ensemble directed by Liesl Tommy

Ada/Ava (3Legged Dog) – unusual, inventive, emotionally absorbing shadow puppet play created by the Chicago-based Manual Cinema

Spring Awakening – DeafWest Theatre’s revelatory revival of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s play with a cast full of impressive Broadway newcomers directed by Michael Arden, noteworthy set by Dane Laffrey.

Grounded (Public Theater) – Julie Taymor brought her theatrical magic to this small honest play starring Anne Hathaway (below) as a disillusioned and war-damaged drone pilot


Preludes (LCT3) – another exceptional eccentric musical event from the team of composer Dave Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin starring Gabriel Ebert (below, with flowers) on another dazzling Mimi Lien set.


Disgraced – Ayad Akhtar’s play superbly directed on Broadway by Kimberly Senior.

Living Here (Foundry Theatre) — Gideon Irving’s one-man musical performed in living rooms all over NYC (including mine)

Raul Esparza in Cymbeline in Central Park

1-8 keith abronsKeith Hennessy’s bear/SKIN in the Abrons Arts Center’s American Realness Festival

Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes and Robert Fairchild’s performance in An American in Paris

Daniel Oreskes, Cameron Scoggins, and Tom Phelan in Taylor Mac’s Hir at Playwrights Horizons with a set by David Zinn that screamed “toxic America”

Other Culture Vulture High Points:

South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s show Isibonelo/Evidence at the Brooklyn Museum

Anna Teresa de Keersmaker’s Partita in the White Light Festival

The new Whitney Museum

Habeas Corpus, Laurie Anderson’s collaboration with Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohammed el Gharani at the Park Avenue Armory

Love and Mercy, Bill Pohlad’s harrowing, arty, moving, thrilling biopic of Brian Wilson with an incredible performance by Paul Dano – my favorite film of the year

Culture Vulture: THE LAST SHIP, INDIAN INK, BIRDMAN, James Hillman biography, and more

November 5, 2014


10.5.14: SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE at New York Theater Workshop. My taste for Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptations of classic films and plays has not yet reached its capacity. His staging of Ingmar Bergman’s epic drama (which I hadn’t seen or really thought about since the made-for-Swedish-TV film came out in 1973) once more reinvented the insides of New York Theater Workshop, creating three separate playing spaces that the audience cycled through for the first three scenes; after a lengthy intermission, we returned to one big space for the final long collage sequence. Casting three very different couples in the roles originally played by the great Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson acknowledged the truth about long relationships – they go through so many phases and stages that who you are when you started doesn’t look much like who you are at the end. Among the mostly admirable performances, Arliss Howard and Tina Benko (below) were most consistent as the oldest of the three

scenes from a marriage

couples, though I also thought Alex Hurt (William Hurt’s handsome son) and especially Susannah Flood were awfully good as the youngest, and the great downtown actress Mia Katigbak practically blew them all off the stage with her two different cameo roles. I’m always intrigued by the music van Hove chooses to flood his productions, but the one clunky note here was having Arliss Howard flit about at the very end of the show to the tune of “The Windmills of Your Mind” sung by Noel Harrison – but I guess it wouldn’t be a van Hove production without some unacceptable bit of eccentric perversity. Playwright and director Emily Mann supplied the very playable English adaptation.

10.8.14 : THE TEMPEST at La Mama ETC. The unusual constellation of director Karin Coonrod, composer Elizabeth Swados, and leading actor Reg E. Cathey as Prospero drew me to La Mama for the first of three variations on Shakespeare’s play, the whole series loosely inspired by Hurricane Sandy and its ongoing impact on the NYC area. Sadly, this was the driest, least magical Tempest of my theatergoing experience. Coonrod’s strict structuralist intellect drained all the juice from the play, leaving the actors stuck on the chalk outlines of a set making blahblahblah of their lines. Two redeeming graces: the witty idea of having the male nobility distinguished by wearing high-heeled white pumps (some of the actors more comfortable in them than others), and the singularly galvanic performance by Slate Holmgren as Caliban (below with Tony Torn’s Stephano), played by a white man, for a change.

tempest torn and holmgren

10.11.14: THE LAST SHIP at the Neil Simon Theatre. I don’t have a lot to add to the critical consensus on the show, which is that Sting did a lovely job at creating a theatrical score that both works dramatically AND sounds like his own musical voice, rather than generic Broadway tunesmithing. The book is the weakest part of the show – there are huge gaps where information and narrative logic are missing, possibly the result of Brian Yorkey starting the job and John Logan finishing it. But there are some lovely performances (Rachel Tucker as the female lead stood out for me), continuously captivating choreography (more like stylized movement) by Steven Hoggett, and a wonderfully monumental set by Mr. David Zinn.

10-11 last ship pre-set

I walked out of the theater with two songs stuck in my head – one that  had been there before (the beautiful “When We Dance,” repurposed for the show from a Sting album), and the shipbuilders’ stomp, “We Got Nowt Else.”


10.30.14: INDIAN INK at the Roundabout Theater Company. I don’t understand why it took so long for this rich, dense feast of a Tom Stoppard play to get a major production in New York, but I’m glad it finally came about. Written around the same time as The Invention of Love and Arcadia, two of Stoppard’s best works ever, Indian Ink shares with those plays a simultaneous existence in two time periods. In 1980s England, Eleanor Swan, an aged widow (played by the resplendent Rosemary Harris), sorts through correspondence with her sister Flora Crewe, a poet whose brief and adventure-filled life ended from tuberculosis in India in 1930 (she’s played by Romola Garai, new to me – not the only actress in the world who could play such an extravagant part but damned impressive). Entertained by romance and intrigue, we also learn a lot about British colonialism, Indian sectarianism, painting and poetry, biography and secrets. It’s well-staged by Carey Perloff on Neil Patel’s simple colorful sets with excellent costumes by Candice Donnelly and notable performances by Firdous Bamji as a modest yet ardent suitor for Flora’s affection and Nick Choksi as an effervescent tour guide. This show seems to have slipped in under the radar – there’s not a lot of chatter about it, in the shadow of the fall’s major Broadway openings – but I highly recommend not missing it.

10.31.14 THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE at the Public Theater. The Public Theater’s recent track record and the score by prolific and fertile Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Love’s Labours Lost) lured me in to Itamar Moses’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel about the friendship between a white kid and a black kid growing up in Brooklyn in the late ‘70s and early ’80s. It’s an ambitious and sprawling work, musically and narratively and scenically, but not very much of it landed with me, except at the very end, when I felt the pain and anguish of the gap between the boyhood friends – the white guy (Adam Chanler-Berat) whose education and privilege took him away and up, and the black guy (Kyle Beltran) unable to escape the confinement of his family’s collapsed legacy. Staged by Daniel Aukin, the show felt like the hetero male version of Fun Home, but without nearly as much fun.

fortress of solitude


Days and NightsStage actor Christian Camargo’s debut as film director came and went in a flash, but for theater buffs it’s definitely worth tracking down when it becomes available to rent or stream. It’s an inspired contemporary adaptation of Chekhov’s often-performed, often-adapted, yet never-exhausted tragicomedy about theater people summering in the country. The movie got wretched reviews from film critics, maybe because to appreciate the movie at all you pretty much have to know Chekhov’s play chapter and verse. Since it’s my favorite play in the world, I guess I’m among the small but hardy ideal audience for the film, which features a magnificent array of New York stage actors: Alison Janney (in the Arkadina role), Camargo (in the Trigorin role), Ben Whishaw (as the Treplev character), Juliet Rylance (as Nina – she’s Camargo’s wife and not an actress I care for), her father Mark Rylance, Cherry Jones, William Hurt, Jean Reno, Katie Holmes, Michael Nyquist, and Jean Reno (star of The Artist). You can watch the trailer here.


Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of IgnoranceI remember walking by the St. James Theater on West 44th Street one night and seeing the marquee for Riggan Thompson’s stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and vaguely understanding it was a set for some movie. What fun to learn that the entire film pretty much takes place in and around that exact theater, where Michael Keaton’s character, a Hollywood actor burned out on the superhero movie sequels that made him famous, attempts to reinvent himself artistically. I haven’t been a huge fan of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films but this one was a gas, and of course it didn’t hurt for the cast to include not only the excellent Edward Norton,


Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, and Naomi Watts but wonderful New York theater actors like Bill Camp, Merritt Wever, Amy Ryan (I guess she belongs to the world now), and playwright Stephen Adly Giurgis. The one scene that seemed stupid and gratuitous was the Keaton character’s confrontation in a bar with the New York Times theater critic who snarls, “I’m going to destroy your play” – even played by the superb Lindsay Duncan, that character doesn’t fly. The scene comes off as a movie director’s tirade against Manohla Dargis that’s been stored up for years.


The Life and Ideas of James Hillman Volume I: The Making of a Psychologist by Dick Russell doesn’t automatically sound like perfect reading for a ten-day retreat in the Amazonian rainforest jungle, but it turned out to be ideal for me. Modeled perhaps on Richard Ellmann’s magnificent biography of James Joyce (a hero of Hillman’s), Russell’s doorstop of a book (678 pages including back matter and pages of footnotes after every chapter) runs on scrupulous research and encyclopedic detail parceled out in short titled subsections across 15 chapters, making for compulsive and highly entertaining reading, especially for me, having slightly known and massively revered Hillman in his later years. This first of two volumes only covers barely half of Hillman’s life, from his birth in Atlantic City in 1926 to 1969, when he was driven out of his post as Director of Studies at the Jung Institute in Zurich (the details of which I never knew – a suitable if sordid climax to the book). Lots of other stuff I didn’t know: what an aristocratic family he came from, anything about his first marriage to a wealthy Swedish woman who was the mother of his four children, even what a late bloomer he was, professionally. Russell carefully and beautifully unpacks the slow, unsteady making of a thoughtful writer and revolutionary thinker through many wanderjahren and entrepreneurial publishing dead ends. Needless to say, I’m chomping at the bit to read volume 2, even though I know it won’t see light of days for a few years still.

james hillman bio



Olive KittredgeI’ve long been a fan of lesbian filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko’s movies (High Art, Laurel Canyon, The Kids Are Alright), and who doesn’t love Frances McDormand? The four-part HBO series, adapted by Jane Anderson from a novel by Elizabeth Stout, is the kind of tour de force we haven’t seen McDormand in since she first made an unforgettable splash in Fargo. She plays a crusty, unrelievedly unpleasant schoolteacher in small-town Maine, married to a mild-mannered pharmacist (the great Richard Jenkins) with whom she has a hyper-sensitive son (the grown-up version is played by John Gallagher, Jr.), both of whom she treats fairly brutally. She does also have a soft spot in her heart for wounded birds, especially the suicidally depressed, whom she considers kindred spirits. But her flashes of kindness are unpredictable and usually short-lived. Classic line: “I’m waiting for my dog to die so I can shoot myself.” At first I wasn’t sure I could tolerate four hours of Olive’s miserable personality but the performance is beautiful and uncompromising, and the production is high-quality all round. I especially loved the final episode, in which Olive forges a testy friendship with a widower played by Bill Murray. Looking at these two amazing actors with these amazing now-aged lumpy, wrinkled, characterful faces – in HIGH DEFINITION – was surprisingly exhilarating. I would love to see them do Happy Days. I would love to see Bill Murray do anything by Beckett.



November 22, 2012

The score handed to audience members for Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s ROMAN TRAGEDIES at BAM

pre-show, with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” on a continuous loop

Soon into the first of three Shakespeare plays back-to-back, CORIOLANUS, the audience was invited to go onstage, observe the action close up, and be part of the spectacle for people who remained in the auditorium. The scene on the large screen is taking place in the seating area on the left side of this picture.

The actors spoke only Dutch, with the English translation appearing on the large video screen (and smaller flat screens onstage). The LED screen underneath would periodically offer footnotes, dramaturgical asides, and a countdown toward the deaths in the show.

When a character died, he or she would lie on a platform that slid between the two glass walls at center, and the image of the sprawled corpse would appear onscreen (like a police crime-scene shot) with the birth and death dates.

Battle scenes were represented by one minute of stark lighting and cacophonous loud sound emanating from two percussionists in the orchestra pit.

JULIUS CAESAR proceeded straight out of CORIOLANUS, the actors again dressed in contemporary business drag — here you see Caesar’s funeral oration represented as a press conference.

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA mostly seemed to be taking place in hotel rooms — here, in the opening scene, Marc Antony sprawls on a sofa in his boxer shorts watching a movie on his iPad while cartoons play on the flat-screen TV and his staff sleep off the previous night’s debauch on other sofas.

I had excellent seats in the sixth row on the aisle so I stayed put for most of the show. But during the last scene change, I decided to walk around onstage of the BAM Opera House because, hey, when else would I get a chance to do so? The clocks counted down the time til the next scene began.

Two bars onstage sold food and drinks throughout the show, and next to one of them this actor (Fred Goessens) sat and made announcements keeping the audience informed, in the crisp bland manner of airports or hospitals. (“Cleopatra, to the white courtesy telephone, please…”)

Given permission to take pictures (or Twitter) throughout the performance, the documentarian in me could not resist doing so, which only reinforced the production’s cool reflection of our media-saturated contemporary culture, where nothing happens without people recording it on their smartphones. “Pictures or it didn’t happen.”

After the long slow deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, and after the bows (which included not only the actors and musicians but all the stage hands and, finally, the maestro himself, Ivo van Hove), the show wasn’t quite over yet — onscreen, where you might seen film credits, the departing audience saw a long long series of questions inspired by the issues of the play: a suitable ending for a pitilessly Brechtian production.












Performance diary: Rude Mechs’ DIONYSUS IN ’69, the Wooster Group’s HAMLET, and Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s ROMAN TRAGEDIES

November 20, 2012

Thursday November 8 at New York Live Arts I saw the Austin-based company Rude Mechs’ recreation of Dionysus in ’69, one of the most famous experimental theater pieces of the 1960s. An adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae by the Performance Group under Richard Schechner’s direction, the production became famous for two things: its environmental set (a series of multilevel platforms rather than seating for the audience) and the frequent nudity of the young performers. It was also one of the first shows mounted at the Performing Garage on Wooster Street in Soho, now the headquarters of the Wooster Group, Elizabeth LeCompte’s company, which evolved out of the Performance Group. Rude Mechs has attempted to reconstruct the semi-improvised audience-participatory Dionysus in ’69 by closely imitating the performances filmed back in the day by then-emerging filmmaker Brian De Palma. Which is a very Wooster Group sort of thing to do – the Woosters’ 2004 production Poor Theater resurrected another legendary avant-garde production, the Polish Theater Lab’s Akropolis (directed by the lab’s founder, Jerzy Grotowski), on the basis of snippets seen in a documentary film – although I once heard LeCompte joke about reviving Dionysus in ’69 with its original cast, sagging bodies, bad knees, and all. On Saturday November 10 I found myself back at the Performing Garage to see the Wooster Group’s Hamlet, itself another sort of recreation. The conceit of this production (first performed in 2007) is that the group, directed by LeCompte, is reconstructing John Gielgud’s 1964 Broadway production starring Richard Burton, which was videotaped and shown for two days only in 2000 movie theaters across the U.S.

Never having seen Dionysus in ’69, I was fascinated to experience the Rude Mechs’ version, which was partly scholarly homage to and partly knowing send-up of the earnest and self-conscious edginess of the original production. We’ve now seen lots of nudity onstage and lots of productions where the audience gets to mingle with the performers. (Only a month ago on the same stage, in fact, was Keith Hennessy and Circo Zero’s Turbulence, the legacy of which includes NYLA asking audience members to sign waivers legally indemnifying the theater in case someone falls off a platform and breaks something.) Still, actors stripping naked in close proximity to the audience is never really old-hat. As soon as the show began, the Austin performers all shed their clothes, and the moment felt slightly racy, slightly tense, slightly brave, and slightly sacred – they proceeded to perform a kind of birth ritual, with the men lying face-down, the women straddling them, and the actor playing Dionysus sliding through the tunnel created by the other bodies (see above). The script wanders between clumps of Euripides and self-referential bantering among the actors (who use both their real names and those of the Performance Group actors they’re impersonating). Twice the show instigated rituals involving the audience in an attempt to evoke the Eleusinian revels that The Bacchae references: a drumming-and-dancing circle and an “orgy,” both of which were fairly tentative and lame. (Peering down from my perch on the highest platform like Pentheus spying from his tree, I was tickled to see my old buddy Jim O’Quinn, editor of American Theatre magazine, rolling around on the floor making out with two shirtless actors.)

The original production attempted to conjure contemporary resonances with the Euripidean drama about Apollonian restraint and Dionysian release, the politics of ecstasy, and the dangers of excess in either direction. Dionysus punishes Pentheus for disrespecting him by having him torn to pieces by his mother and her fellow cultists, but the tragedy redounds onto his followers as well, leaving Dionysus looking like a cruel, never-satisfied god. I kept hoping for the Rude Mechs to let us know what was important to them about reviving Dionysus in ’69 right now, and that never really came, which is why it remained an academic stunt for me. The pile of blood-smeared bodies made me think of the Hollywood murders committed by Charles Manson’s drug-addled followers as a deluded commentary on American society and the Vietnam war (those murders took place in 1969, the same year that the Rolling Stones’ concert at Altamont turned into a melee where Hell’s Angels killed an audience member – all of which happened after Dionysus in ’69 was already being performed). It also made me think about Abu Ghraib and how American soldiers turned torturing Afghan prisoners into a giddy festival. But the show stuck pretty much to its ‘60s bubble. The performers dutifully maintained their sense of ensemble, and their unbuff natural bodies seemed true to the period. But the original cast included some powerhouse actors, including Joan MacIntosh and Priscilla Smith (and later replacements included Spalding Gray and Liz LeCompte), whom none of these kids matched in intensity. There was a moment that I appreciated for the way it captured theater’s economical transformation of time and space – Cadmus is leading the blind Tiresias to a mountaintop. They simply make one orbit around the small stage area. Tiresias says, “Are we there?” Cadmus says, “We are there.” And we are there.

I blogged about the Wooster Group’s Hamlet when I saw it twice in 2007 (see here).  As usual with the Wooster Group, there’s much to be gained from seeing productions repeatedly. They’re always shifting and morphing, and I see the same things differently. The first showings in New York were at St. Ann’s Warehouse, when the piece was still developing. Later in the year it played at the Public Theater, where it seemed fully complete, plus there was the delicious resonance of its appearing under the auspices of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Now, after five years of periodic national and international tours, LeCompte wants to create a film version of the production (just to add one more layer of tech texture), so the company scheduled a few weeks of performances back at the Performing Garage for the first time since 2005’s Poor Theater.

I walked away from this viewing with a stronger sense of the show’s origin in Scott Shepherd’s wanting to play the role that is every young actor’s Mt. Everest and therefore the production as a fertile and intimate dance between him and LeCompte. Many Wooster Group pieces have been explicitly about recreations, and LeCompte has mastered the fine art of the theatrical mash-up and the remix as well as any of the coolest hiphop DJs. This show began with a more extended verbal introduction by Shepherd and a different program note capitalizing on how the Richard Burton Hamlet production was marketed in 1964 as a new form (“Theatrofilm”) made possible through “the miracle of Electronovision” – Shepherd suggested that the Wooster Group was experimenting with “Reverse Theatrofilm”: turning the filmed document of a live performance back into a live performance (and then, you know, FILMING IT). Throughout the show he calls out cues and instructs the video operator to fast-forward through scenes. You could say he turns Hamlet into Our Town, and he’s the Stage Manager, the narrator, the Master of Ceremonies, roles that Spalding Gray and Ron Vawter played in earlier Wooster Group shows. As Shepherd says, “We’re channeling ghosts.”

What propels the show is a tension among several different intentions: 1) the conceptual intention of recreating the Burton production live, which is the simplest and shallowest task; 2) Shepherd’s effort to both mimic Burton and to create his own visceral performance while sorting out strands from other filmed versions of the play (Kenneth Branagh’s, Michael Almereyda’s starring Ethan Hawke); 3) LeCompte’s contribution, which is to the keep the visual field lively and interesting and beautiful, with little regard for telling Shakespeare’s story or formulating coherent characterizations; and 4) the other actors’ battle to formulate some version of coherent characterizations while simultaneously performing the non-narrative tasks thrust upon them by LeCompte and Shepherd. And these performers (Wooster veterans Kate Valk and Ari Fliakos with a handful of guests) love nothing more than that kind of challenge. Valk gets to play both Gertrude and Ophelia, Fliakos plays Claudius and the Ghost of Hamlet’s father and the gravedigger. (My boyfriend Andy, who’s relatively new to the Wooster Group, said, “I don’t remember there being a nurse in Hamlet…” Which reminded me that I’m so used to seeing a nurse character running around making adjustments, as Koosil-ja does in this version, that I forget it’s LeCompte’s representation of herself, not a character in the actual play.)

As with my first viewing, this time I found the constant shifting set pieces slightly to match camera shots tedious after a while. But I continued to admire the visual field, especially the use of the closeup screen (picking out details such as the crucifix around Claudius’s neck) against the larger background screen (which LeCompte played with even more aggressively and brilliantly in her staging of Tennessee William’s Vieux Carre). And the performances by all the actors have gotten even stronger, freer, and more individual.

Since the performances functioned as a sort of fundraiser to subsidize the film, I bought high-priced “patron tickets,” which gave me “good seats” (in the tiny Garage) and the option to go upstairs and have a glass of champagne with LeCompte at intermission – a hilarious and somewhat awkward invasion of corporate style in the funky setting of the Garage. I did chat with LeCompte briefly about how Hurricane Sandy affected them (they kept rehearsing during daylight, and since their security gate is electronic, someone had to stay on the premises all night to keep intruders out) and met Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival and a fellow big-time Wooster groupie.

The essence of the Wooster Group’s Hamlet is its ingenious, original way of upholding what Shakespeare calls “the purpose of playing, whose end was and is to hold as twere the mirror up to nature…to show…the very age and body of the time.” The time we live in, where more and more of our intellectual and interpersonal experience is mediated by electronic devices, is reflected even more pointedly, using many of the same technological strategies, in Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s ambitious and awe-inspiring Roman Tragedies, which his company Toneelgroep Amsterdam performed three times at BAM’s Next Wave Festival. (I saw the final show on Sunday November 18.)

First mounted in 2007, Roman Tragedies consists of three Shakespeare plays about politics – Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra – performed back-to-back, without intermission, running about six hours. The costumes are contemporary business suits, and the set looks like the lobby of some sort of conference hotel – industrial gray carpeting, many sofas, flat screens everywhere. The audience is invited, even encouraged to sit onstage, where there are two bars serving continuously throughout the show, to take pictures with smartphones, and to post on Twitter (#romantragedies); they form a throng through which the actors move, followed by cameramen. A wide screen over the stage becomes a major staging area, with a steady mixture of video being mixed live from various parts of the stage, English subtitles (some but not all of it from Shakespeare), and dramaturgical footnotes delivered on a LED ribbon. The whole thing is timed and counted down as precisely as a live network TV show, and the actors (equipped with body mikes) fight, scream, love, and die their way through text that switches the gender of many characters (Cassius and Octavius Caesar, most notably, are played by women). In Olympic judging terms, the degree of difficulty for this undertaking is 9.9, and van Hove and company walk off with gold medals.

As with the Wooster Group’s Hamlet, the Toneelgroep actors do yeoman’s jobs of meeting the challenges of Shakespeare’s characters while rising to the demands of van Hove’s tech-savvy staging. The fighting that erupts between Coriolanus (a strong performance by Gijs Scholten van Aschat) and the nerdy bureaucrats serving as tribunes looked remarkably like the melee that broke out in the Ukraine parliament earlier this year. The indisputable star of the show is Hans Kesling as Marc Antony; in Julius Caesar, he gives an intensely original, deeply distraught reading of the famous funeral oration that shames Caesar’s killers into exile, but then in Antony and Cleopatra we see him as a road-weary politician-as-movie-star right out of Entourage, living in his own debauched bubble with Cleopatra (Chris Nietvelt, unlikely but inspired casting) and limping back to Rome to undertake a political marriage with Octavius Caesar’s sister that has all the sincerity of a reality-TV show.

The show has numerous points to make about how politics play out in public and in private, some of them bludgeoningly obvious in their irony (the pre- and post-show loop of Bob Dylan crooning “The Times They Are A-Changin’” becomes irritating), some of them subtle and clever, many of them deep and, indeed, timeless. It’s a huge, relentless feast, difficult to digest while you’re watching, and van Hove doesn’t let up even with the curtain call. As the audience is leaving, a long list of questions scrolls across the screen (does freedom exist? is political charisma a virtue? when do principles become unreasonable?) – part study guide to Shakespeare, part talking points for a civic dialogue, extremely pertinent in an election year though just as likely to provoke viewers at the end of this exhausting election year to cry “Enough already!”

One last performance to make notes about, before the moment passes into history: a year ago Elizabeth Swados created La Mama Cantata, her tribute to Ellen Stewart, the legendary off-Off-Broadway pioneer who died in January of 2011 at age 91. The show had a run at La Mama ETC and then toured to Italy, Croatia, and Serbia before returning for a homecoming October 1. The text consisted of stories by and about Stewart – sentimental, inspiring, hilarious, intimate – and the music was some of Swados’s best in years, succinct and dense, well-performed by nine young La Mama babies. Two stories stood out for me, both touching and emblematic of Stewart’s spirit. During a tense press conference at the height of the deadly ethnic war that splintered Yugoslavia, Ellen said, “Look, I remember when you were all one thing – and you all can start loving each other any time you want.” And against a video of burning candles representing the AIDS crisis that devastated the East Village, she is quoted as saying, “How we got through that time, I don’t know.”

Theater review: THE LITTLE FOXES

October 5, 2010

My review of Ivo van Hove’s production of The Little Foxes at New York Theater Workshop has just been posted on

“Van Hove dispenses with Hellman’s stage directions and intermissions. Instead, he highlights certain images and emotions to call attention to key elements in the play rather than keeping them smoothly embedded in the text. For instance, there’s a tiny table front and center that serves as a kind of altar, and objects of reverence are ceremonially placed there: for Act I, a bottle of whiskey; Act II, Horace’s pillbox; Act III, a bank safety deposit box. And the physical interactions escalate to extreme violence – men punch women in the stomach and slam them against the walls, the women pummel them and pull their hair, people roll around on the floor alternately cat-fighting and caressing, as if they were in a dance by Pina Bausch. And when the stakes get high, the characters scream at each other like little kids throwing tantrums. It’s not pretty, but it’s primal.”

You can read the entire review online here.

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