Posts Tagged ‘misha berson’

Culture Vulture: PIPPIN, NATASHA, MACBETH, ANN, FRANCES HA, and Amy Winehouse

May 27, 2013


5.22.13 My dear friend Misha Berson, a dedicated theater scholar who reviews theater for the Seattle Times, visits New York twice a year and always takes me as her guest to a couple of shows. I got lucky this time – both shows we saw together were terrific. Pippin is not a musical I harbor any great love for. I saw and reviewed the post-Broadway national tour when it arrived in Boston in 1979, but it left no impression on me one way or the other. The current revival has gotten pretty sensational reviews and word-of-mouth. Still, I kept my expectations low and it turned out to be much better than I would have thought possible. I’ve not loved Diane Paulus’s productions of The Donkey Show, Hair, or Porgy and Bess (though I did admire her Laura Nyro jukebox musical, Eli’s Comin’ at the Vineyard Theater) but I thought she did an excellent job staging Pippin. Her central good idea was to hire a Canadian circus company, Les 7 doigts de la main, to create an entirely new and different form of “Magic To Do” than the passel of sexy dancers with which Bob Fosse dressed up the original Broadway production.

The circus performers are fantastic, as are Scott Pask’s circus tent set and Kenneth Posner’s lighting. And the leads are surprising, quirky, and satisfying. At first I thought Matthew James Thomas (whom I liked in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark) was too bland in the title role until I realized that the journey of the play is one of a callow young man moving toward maturity and individuation. Patina Miller (who made a splash in Sister Act) is an intriguing, spiky Narrator – Misha found her “scary,” and indeed at the end when she’s cleared the stage of everyone but Pippin, his wife, and their child, I thought she looked like she was going to eat them. Again, not an unreasonable interpretation of the role. Charlotte D’Amboise and Terrence Mann (married in real life) inhabit their vaudevillean roles like the troupers they are. But the performance that has put this production on the map is Andrea Martin as Pippin’s grandmother. In all my years of theatergoing, I have never seen a performer get a standing ovation in the middle of the first act – Martin does, and she deserves it and the Tony Award that she will undoubtedly walk away with on June 9.

5.24.13 From the glowing reviews it received for its initial limited run last fall, I suspected that I would dig Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 – but then I thought that about Murder Ballad, which left me cold. (Misha, on the other hand, liked Murder Ballad much more than I did, almost certainly because she sat in conventional seating rather than having to wheel around in her onstage cabaret seat all night long, as I did.) Natasha, Pierre is another immersive theatrical experience – the audience sits at cabaret tables and is served dinner and free vodka shots while the show takes place all around them – performed at a special pop-up temporary space you enter on West 13th Street directly under the High Line. It’s cleverly conceived, designed, and staged on the caliber of Sleep No More (and as expensive), and its ambitions are not modest – it’s an adaptation of a chunk of Tolstoy’s War and Peace with an expertly devised text, luscious score, superbly contemporary orchestrations, and leading performance (as Pierre) by Dave Malloy.

Julliard-training Philippa Soo, as Natasha (above), torn between two lovers, is sensationally good – a real star-in-the-making along the lines of Kelli O’Hara and Lea Michele. It’s a rich, intellectually demanding, quietly profound theatrical event – so much so that the eating and drinking distracted me a lot. High praises to director Rachel Chavkin – she and Malloy deservedly took home Obie Awards for their work – as well as to Paloma Young’s luxurious costumes and Matt Hubbs’s engulfing sound design. This show apparently can only run in this space through September 1, and tickets are going to be gone soon. Worth the investment – you’ll remember it long after you’ve forgotten even good Broadway musicals conventionally staged.

5.25.13 Weeks ago, perhaps high on seeing Alan Cumming dazzle Town Hall in concert with Liza Minnelli, I talked Andy and his college buddy Terry into buying tickets to see Cumming’s conceptual one-man performance of Macbeth. Some good omens: it was staged by John Tiffany, whose stagings of Once and The Black Watch were impeccable; and theater-savvy friends who saw early previews found it compelling to hear the text of The Scottish Play spoken by An Actual Scotsman. After the fact, I remembered that I didn’t care much for Cumming and Tiffany’s previous collaboration on The Bacchae, seen at the Lincoln Center Festival a few years ago.

cumming macbeth
This show takes place in a mental institution – it opens with Cumming’s character being examined and relieved of his personal belongings by a crisp, kind female doctor and a kind, burly male nurse. As the other two start to leave the room, Cumming says, “When shall we three meet again…?” and then proceeds to enact a truncated version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, playing all the roles. Nothing new is churned up from doing the play this way, nor do we understand something coherent about the character of the mental patient. All we’re left with, really, is a different way of doing one of Shakespeare’s most (over)familiar plays. And a show in which we witness Cumming’s considerable physical agility without his tremendous comic ability is a bit of a waste. The show felt of a piece with Fiona Shaw’s antic, arid performance art rendition of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary.

5.26.13 I felt very torn about seeing Ann, the living portrait of former Texas governor Ann Richards written and performed by Holland Taylor at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. I didn’t think the play would be very good; I’m allergic to one-person bio-dramas. Yet several people I trust liked it very much (although I think my friend Dave’s experience of the show got skewed somewhat by sitting behind Bill and Hillary Clinton, who were with Meryl Streep and Gabby Giffords and her astronaut husband). It was on TDF, and my friends Tom and Melissa were game for going, so what the hell, we went, and I found that I liked it much more than I expected I would.

It’s a beguiling performance eerily true to a remarkable woman whose forthrightness and willingness to speak bluntly and truthfully to power made her a hero to many people, including me. (And my mother, who transferred her voter registration from Colorado to Texas just to vote for Richards for governor. Another family connection – Richards grew up in Lakeview, the pitiful lake-free suburb of Waco where we spent five years living in a trailer park while my father was stationed at nearby James Connolly Air Force Base.) The show goes on too long and insists on covering every scrap and tittle of Richards’s life, before and after her one-term governorship. But the middle section is a bravura set piece to match the second act of Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Richards is sitting at her desk signing a pile of documents while fielding a relentless succession of phone calls – employees she yells at, reporters she coos to, children she cajoles – and calling out instructions to her offstage secretary. It’s a pretty good stylized condensation of a day in the life of a charismatic high-powered elected official.


On a break from theatergoing, Mr. David Zinn and I took in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, the new black and white film by the maker of The Squid and the Whale, co-written with Greta Gerwig (his girlfriend), who plays the title role. The film is quirky – always an admirable trait in my book – telling its story in tiny fleet snippets frequently chopped off in such a way as to subvert conventional pleasures. And the story itself undertakes an unreliable-narrator gambit familiar in fiction but hard to pull off in a movie.

frances ha
The narrative revolves around Frances’s friendship with high school chum Sophie (played by Mickey Sumner, daughter of Sting) but by the end you can’t really tell whether the friendship has grown distant and sour or whether it was a figment of Frances’ imagination all along. Gerwig plays an impetuous, bumbly underachieving twentysomething surrounded by rich kids with more social savvy. Her performance is not meant to be charming, and it’s not – it’s lumpy and awkward. The inevitable comparison, to Lena Dunham’s Girls, does not favor Frances Ha. It’s like a movie centered on the listless house cleaner Aimee Mann plays on Portlandia. Only in beautiful and admirably dark black and white. With Adam Driver in a key role.


For my birthday, someone gave me a copy of the wonderful two-disc Amy Winehouse at the BBC. Disc 1 is a CD containing previously unreleased live recordings of songs from her first two albums; disc 2 is a DVD of a film called The Day She Came to Dingle, documenting Winehouse’s appearance at Other Voices, a festival held in a tiny hall in seaside Ireland. It’s an incredible document – thrilling, shocking, heartbreaking. She performs six songs from Back to Black, which hadn’t yet been released, backed only by a guitar and electric bass – in other words, without the sensational sonic environment and classic horn-heavy R&B arrangements by Mark Ronson.

amy winehouse
In a backstage interview, Winehouse talks about the evolution of her musical taste: from Kylie and Madonna, to hip-hop (Salt ‘n’ Pepa) and jazz (Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk), and only recently to gospel (Mahalia Jackson) and early ‘60s girl groups (the Shangri-Las). The film interpolates archival footage of the people she mentions (including some British acts I’d never heard of – Carleen Anderson and Soweto Kinch). It’s naked and as riveting as any live performance video you’ve ever seen. It was shot five years before she died. She was 22.

Performance diary: back and back and Bach

May 9, 2010

May 7 – I’m not the kind of theatergoer who sees shows again and again. I have to really like a show to see it more than once. Aside from the Wooster Group, whose every production I have seen three or more times (because I love them so), it’s rare for me to repeat. Same with movies, same with books: I’d rather experience something than revisit something I’ve already encountered, even something I loved. I have seen Fela! three times, and I saw Spring Awakening 4 ½ times (once I employed the time-honored theater-geek tactic of second-acting the show, grabbing a seat in the balcony just to re-live the ecstasy of watching the number “Totally Fucked” rock the house). My friend Tom Dennison is the opposite of me – when he likes something, he likes to watch it over and over. He saw Spring Awakening seven times (and that was after the original cast left), and he’s seen David Cromer’s production of Our Town about a dozen times. I admire that kind of devotion.

My friend Misha Berson, the theater critic for the Seattle Times, was in town this week for her twice-a-year marathon catching up on new shows, and we were supposed to see Enron together. But once they posted their closing notice, it seemed no longer newsworthy to cover, so she switched gears and arranged to see Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane. Of course, I had no problem switching gears with you, since I liked the show very much. Seeing it a second time yielded no big rewards, but it was interesting to experience the squeeing of the Christopher Walken maniacs in the audience. Zoe Kazan and Anthony Mackie were very consistent and energized. I got the sense that Walken and Sam Rockwell were laying back, now that the show has been running a while. Not that they were phoning it in, but there was a certain slackness to their energy. Nevertheless, I enjoyed noticing the trade-off: what was lost in a certain kind of Pinter-esque tension, there was a gain in wacky rock-and-roll assurance between those two guys. Walken is so so deadpan, dropping his voice for impact so you have to really lean in and pay attention, while Rockwell relishes playing fast and loose, as if he’s some guy who just wandered onto the set. I did look forward to his front-of-curtain monologue, which does have an explosive impact on the audience. When he says, “I keep waiting for something exciting to happen. Maybe a prostitute will get stabbed…” the audience responds with a combined gasp of horror and surprised laughter. A guy in the balcony got caught up in a bout of barking laughter so helpless that Misha found it creepy, understandably. Classic McDonagh moment.

May 8 – Then Saturday afternoon we reconvened at the Public Theater for my second dose of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which I loved again. I really respect the incredible energy of each individual performer, including the musicians, but of course most of all the charismatic Benjamin Walker in the title role. The staging is tremendous, and the play itself continues to impress me with its daredevil juxtaposition of classic American contradictions – generosity and selfishness, smarts and stupidity, victim and bully. Populism, yeah yeah! I understand they’re putting out an original cast album. Can’t wait! Misha had seen an earlier version of the show in Los Angeles and hadn’t cared for it, thought it was sophomoric and shallow. She liked it much better this time, said they’d sharpened the script, and that the addition of Danny Mefford’s choreography made a huge difference. It is sensational. In the lobby, Misha met a ninth-grade girl who was seeing the show for the third time. I can understand that. There’s a heat and energy to the show that’s just delicious to have blasting at you again and again.

Afterwards, I grabbed a falafel and lemonade at Tahini and then made my way to my next gig, a concert called “The Roots of Bach and Beyond” by the Dessoff Choirs at Calvary St. George’s Church in Stuyvesant Square. Okay, I went because my boyfriend sings with the Dessoff, but I’m so glad I went. It was a beautiful concert, organized and conducted by Patrick Dupré Quigley. The centerpieces were two Bach motets (“Singet dem Herr nein neues Lied” and “Jesu, meine Freude”), one before intermission and one after, each preceded by pieces by composers who influenced Bach: Mendelssohn, Kuhnau, Pachelbel, Schutz, Frescobaldi, and Buxtehude. (I just love saying the name Buxtehude.) Actually, the second half began with “Immortal Bach,” a fascinating, slightly nutty 1988 piece by the Norwegian Knut Nystedt in which the sections hold notes for different intervals. The choir was in fine voice, the acoustics in the church are amazing, and Quigley’s conducting and introductory chats were exemplary. A fine time.

Performance diary: Mamet and Shepard

January 19, 2010

January 13 – It’s hard to know whether to call Race a classic David Mamet play or a generic one. It recombines familiar elements of previous Mamet plays in a way that inspires multiple and conflicting reactions – which is fitting, I suppose, because that seems to be how he wants audiences to respond. I recognize how individual his voice is at the same time that I feel slightly cheated by his recycling familiar tropes; I witness how he employs a playwriting formula in a way that’s almost cynically mechanical, and yet I can admire the ways in which that formula operates theatrically. At the center of Race are two savvy guys (extremely well-played by James Spader and David Alan Grier) talking tough about their line of work, in this case lawyering. (Their predecessors include the coin thieves in American Buffalo, the real estate hawks in Glengarry Glen Ross, the Hollywood producers in Speed-the-Plow, and the Washington insiders in November, to name a few.) They face off against a hapless customer, in this case a wealthy white businessman (played with suitable stiff unlikeableness by Richard Thomas) accused of raping a young black woman. (This character has echoes of the duped home-buyer in Glengarry, the turkey farmer in November, Bobby in American Buffalo, etc.) And there is The Girl, in this case a young, smart yet untrustworthy legal assistant – an always-thankless role (see precedents in Speed-the-Plow, November, and Oleanna). The wise guys spew volumes of blunt, rude, sometimes outrageous comments about race, sex, politics, law, justice, and truth (some of it reminiscent of November and Wag the Dog, for which Mamet wrote the screenplay). There is a key philosophical contention – that people have a need to confess – that is very familiar from other Mamet works, most notably the film House of Games. And there’s a ruthless way with narrative construction that Mamet is fond of and extremely adept at, throwing in plot reversals and character incongruities that defy logic and often feel extremely manipulative and contrived…and yet they succeed in creating a certain amount of tension in the theater. And in the case of Race, that tension is a reflection of tension in the culture about how sex, race, politics, and justice chase one another round and round the mulberry bush, in service of the American way, if not of truth. I was glad that my friend Misha Berson, visiting theater critic from Seattle, invited me to see the play with her. The last two plot points seemed lame, forced, unbelievable to me, but otherwise I appreciated the play and the performances.

January 15 – I went with Misha to see Fela! – my third time, her first, and she loved it as much as I did. The full house, fervent weekend crowd, and the momentum of a hit show had the cast working up a sweat big-time. I especially enjoyed having the leisure to spend more time watching the individual dancers, who are phenomenal. The show is such a spectacle that it’s easy to take for granted and overlook the choreography, which is not generic at all but amazingly intricate. And I never get tired to taking in every inch of Marina Draghici’s environment (above) and watching how it interacts with each number and the ever-flowing video. We sat in great seats, row G on the aisle, and John Lithgow sat right behind us. So in the processional after the curtain call, all the performers spied him and lit up and high-fived him. There are probably celebs in that seat many nights of the week, but it was fun watching how the actors deal with it. I bought the fancy souvenir program, fanboy that I am, just to drool over the pictures…but they’re from the Off-Broadway production and don’t quite give me the kick I hoped they would. But here’s a tip: if you want a free mp3 download of  the real Fela performing one of his biggest hits, “Zombie,” send an e-mail to and type “free download” in the subject line. You’ll get a reply instantly with a link to the track.

Andy met us afterwards for drinks at Pigalle and to look at the photo research Misha has been doing for her forthcoming book Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination.

January 16 – The University Glee Club of New York hosted the Cornell Glee Club for a concert at Alice Tully Hall that Andy, a fervent Cornell alum, bought tickets for, so I went along, like a good boyfriend. It’s kind of wacky watching a stage full of 100 almost-all-white alter kockers crooning sea chanties and Negro spirituals. The Cornell undergrads were a little crisper and more interesting musically. Their a capella doo-wop subset, the Hangovers, did a lovely rendition of “Fire and Rain.” Both clubs did a couple of numbers together, and then the conductor invited all the Cornell Glee Club alums in the audience to join them onstage for the school cheer and alma mater. Andy, a former Hangover, ran up to the stage as if his pants were on fire. Very sweet, however dorky. There was a black-tie reception afterwards, so we even wore tuxedoes! But the reception looked pretty stodgy so we bailed fast and wound up at Bartini, where Andy’s swimming-team mates were celebrating Win’s birthday. Whew! Talk about packt like a tin of sardines! And when the DJ sprayed the crowd with Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” the three queens next to me went apeshit, practically tossing the furniture in the air with drunken glee. As they left, one of them said to me, “I’m so sorry you had to see that. We don’t get out much….”

January 17 – My final date with Misha Berson for her most recent theatergoing spree sent us to the Atlantic Theater Company for Sam Shepard’s new play, Ages of the Moon. This is the second of two plays Shepard wrote specifically for the actor Stephen Rea to premiere at the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s most famous theater. (The previous one, Kicking a Dead Horse, played at the Public Theater last season.) The reviews from Dublin focused on the play’s debt to Beckett, which is fair enough. It’s got minimal action, two guys sitting on a porch in some desolate location philosophizing – not unlike Waiting for Godot, the first play that Shepard ever encountered and that launched his playwriting career. Misha and I both have long, intricate histories with Shepard. Misha came of age as a theater critic in the Bay Area when Shepard was out there in residence at the Magic Theatre, in his pre-Jessica Lange days. And I wrote a biography of Shepard that was first published in 1985, then again in a revised edition in 1997. I can’t really encounter any of Shepard’s work with any other perspective than that of The Biographer, and given what I know, all his writing comes across as intricately autobiographical.

As with David Mamet (see above), Shepard has a certain formula that he returns to repeatedly. His writing has virtually always been a dialogue with himself. At the center of many, many, many of his plays are two guys bantering – True West is the best-known, and a perfect example of one male ego split into two parts, one sort of polite and erudite, the other ornery and given to bursts of macho violence that would be tired clichés if they weren’t so comically lame. Ages of the Moon harks back to Shepard’s very earliest plays, Cowboys and Rock Garden (his first double-bill in New York City), both two-handers, but forwarded now to middle age. All of Shepard’s writing these days (including his prose, like the new collection Days Out of Days, which Walter Kirn reviews on the front page of today’s Sunday NY Times Book Review) chronicles the restlessness of his soul, barely acknowledging his 30-year relationship with Lange and his movie stardom (he’s made 50 movies, most recently playing Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire’s father in Brothers) but reflecting his incessant cross-country drinking, driving, and guilty womanizing. Ages of the Moon begins, like any number of Shepard’s plays, with the main character, Ames (Rea), having summoned his best buddy, Byron (Sean McGinley), to his side to commiserate over the latest, always seemingly irreconcilable blowout with his woman. This time she found scribbled on his fisherman’s map a woman’s name and phone number, a woman Ames can barely remember and would never ever think of calling up “even for a minor blowjob.”

These two guys sit drinking bourbon all day long, waiting for the total eclipse of the moon, as Ames rambles through a disjointed remembrance of his beloved, how they met and cemented their relationship, including a wacky story involving Roger Miller. In advance, it sounded like thin soup, and I suppose it is, relatively speaking, but I was surprised at how much it held my interest, thanks to no small degree to the Irishmen who staged (Jimmy Fay) and performed it. Rea is a wonderfully haggard actor, perfectly suited to span the gap between Beckett and Shepard, and McGinley, who’s new to me, is sensational in what could be a thankless second-banana role. Although the characters are absolutely American, holed up in a cabin somewhere in Virginia or Kentucky, framed by country music classics, the Irish/Beckett flavor seeps out in their synchronized bourbon-sipping and their wry humor, understated where American actors would be tempted to amp up the slapstick.

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