Posts Tagged ‘nicholas hytner’


December 8, 2013

12.5.13The (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.

curious case
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.

habit of art

From the deep archives: TWELFTH NIGHT at Lincoln Center Theater in 1998

December 2, 2013

twelfth night lct playbill
Seeing Mark Rylance and Company’s take on Twelfth Night, currently on Broadway, conjured fond remembrance of Nicholas Hytner’s 1998 production at Lincoln Center Theater. Many snoots were cocked at Hytner’s casting the play with young movie stars not schooled in Shakespearean performance. But Hytner’s reading of the play struck me as deep and thoughtful, and Bob Crowley produced one of his most spectacular sets for the occasion. (The production was broadcast  on “Live from Lincoln Center” and you can see clips from it on YouTube starting here.)

My review begins:

Director Nicholas Hytner has said in interviews that his production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center Theater in New York continues the theme of unrequited love he explored in his film The Object of My Affection. What he was shyer about saying was that the production also investigates the same slipperiness of sexual identity that figured heavily in the film about a gay man’s affair with his female roommate. In any case, Hytner has mounted a physically ravishing production (with a show-stealing set by scenic genius Bob Crowley) that makes the case for Twelfth Night as Shakespeare’s most direct examination of homo love.

            The production, which runs through August 30, features Hytner’s Affection-ate leading man, Paul Rudd, who is practically unrecognizable here. Bearded, hairy-chested and with a scraggly rock-star mane, Rudd’s Duke Orsino is costumed by Catherine Zuber to resemble Prince in his New Power Generation period — all purple pajamas and brocade uniforms. As the audience enters, he and several serving boys are sprawled around an onstage pond passing a pipe and being serenaded by court musicians. He rouses himself to rhapsodize about Olivia (Kyra Sedgwick), the countess who spurns his advances while mourning her perhaps over-beloved brother. It becomes pretty clear, however, that this Orsino’s vision of women is a romantic spasm of compulsory heterosexuality. He seems quite content hanging with the homeboys. And when Viola (Helen Hunt) washes ashore from a shipwreck and disguises herself in trousers with just the right amount of gold piping to infiltrate his household as “Cesario,” she/he immediately becomes the Duke’s favorite, hand-picked to strip him down to his Princely purple trunks for a morning dip.

You can read the full review online here. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Performance diary: FESTEN and ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS

May 2, 2012

April 26 – After seeing the Polish theater company T. R. Warsawa’s visually spectacular and theatrically inventive demolition of Macbeth at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2008, I resolved to see anything they decided to bring to New York. Wouldn’t you know, they put me to the test: the next production they brought to St. Ann’s was Festen. Known in English as The Celebration, Festen began life in 1998 as a Danish film written and directed by Thomas Vinterberg, who with Lars von Trier crafted the manifesto of cinematic austerity that launched the Dogme 95 movement. It portrays an elegant 60th birthday party for Helge, a wealthy hotelier, attended by his extended family. Shadowed by the recent suicide of his older daughter Linda, the event gains further tension when Christian, Helge’s older son and Linda’s twin, reads a prepared speech that simply and bluntly reveals a family secret: that when they were children, the twins were repeatedly and ritualistically raped by their father.

It’s an admirably truthful if emotionally excruciating dramatization of the denial and complicity that go along with sexual abuse within families. But it’s not exactly the kind of story that gains from repeated viewings. Nevertheless, I saw British playwright David Eldridge’s stage adaptation, which appeared on Broadway in 2006 in a production directed by Rufus Norris with a cast including Larry Bryggman, Michael Hayden, Jeremy Sisto, Julianna Margulies, and (making her Broadway debut) Ali McGraw. So I wasn’t keen to encounter the material yet again, but I dutifully bought a ticket and went. The production has justifiably garnered glowing reviews and strong word-of-mouth. It’s not nearly as rock-em-sock-em as Macbeth. Grzegorz Jarzyna has staged the play with ingenious simplicity. A stage bare except for a table formally set for 18 and a curtained bathtub becomes every room in a large rambling house, thanks to the many-doored set design by Matgorzata Szczesniak and the lighting by Jacqueline Sobiszewski. (Could Polish names possibly include any more zzzzzzs?) The acting is fine, although it’s the kind of production where you know what you’re supposed to think about each character from the minute he or she appears onstage, which I consider cheating. Andrzej Chyra as Christian holds the center with quiet strength.

April 29 – One Man, Two Guvnors lives up to all its rave reviews. I really appreciate how skillfully Nicholas Hytner, as artistic director of the National Theatre of Great Britain, makes pockets of theater history spring to life with his big, bustling productions cast with unlikely choices of actors. Richard Bean’s adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte classic The Servant of Two Masters balances vintage shtick with axiomatic absurdity: “Love passes through marriage faster than shit through a small dog.” But the best reason to see the show is the amazing high-wire performance in the leading role by James Corden (above), who sweetly and astonishingly underplays the broadest of comic scenes – very much to my taste. As my friend Liam pointed out, there’s a little too much music by the onstage band, the Craze – they help set the period (early Beatles) but after a while the songs (originals by Grant Olding) start sounding alike.

%d bloggers like this: