Posts Tagged ‘raul esparza’

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: Dancenoise, Gymna Dalang Cilik, THE LAST FIVE YEARS, and CYMBELINE

August 4, 2015

7.24.15 I’m no expert on Dancenoise, the performance art duo Annie Iobst and Lucy Sexton (below), but they’re legendary to me nevertheless. In their heyday (late ‘80s/early ‘90s), they never did shows that had long runs. They were more likely to manifest in late-night club dates (at 8 B.C. or King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut) and one-off festival appearances while I was busy going to sit-down shows in theaters. I did glimpse them occasionally doing walk-ons at the Bessie Awards shows or group-show galas but never felt I’d really gotten the full whammy. So thank you, Whitney Museum, for “DANCENOISE/Don’t Look Back,” a mini-retrospective inaugurating the performance facilities at the new venue in the West Village. There was an installation, some film screenings, a variety show, and then a three-night full-length performance of new and old material.

7-24 dancenoise 2
It’s hard to describe what they do in their string of funny, savage, politically pointed vaudevillean sketches, except that they generally gravitate toward everything women are NOT supposed to do. The program notes at the Whitney quoted Tom Murrin the Alien Comic calling them “the premier practitioners of synchronized aggression,” which is a great succinct summation. After a brief funny freshly finished Charles Atlas film of them running through the museum on their way to the show, they made their usual famous entrance: completely naked except for high heels, flaunting their completely real now-aging unshaved untucked bodies with the fierceness of warriors. They ran through a multitude of costumes, pulled guns and shot each other repeatedly like tireless kids playing, they yielded the stage for scantily clad bump-and-grind boys (including the likes of hunky actor Jonathan Walker, drag clown Hapi Phace, monologuist Tony Stinkmetal, and Elevator Repair Service’s Mike Iveson), they flung fake blood everywhere. In my favorite section, the high-quality sound system blasted Fleetwood Mac’s “You Make Loving Fun” while Lucy and Annie did some partnered ballroom dancing with genderqueer partners (Richard Move and Connie Flemming), all them in black bras and panties, eventually joined by a whole stage-ful of folks in the same outfit bouncing up and down to the music. No big verbal commentary, just a lot of anarchic energy and sexual vitality, which was exhilarating. Coming right after the revival of And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid at the Kitchen, it felt like a fun and funny time-warp. A lot of the same faces showed up in the audience – Andy and I sat next to Nicky Paraiso and chatted afterwards with John Hagan, Yolanda Hawkins, and William Niederkorn. At home I dragged out Cindy Carr’s anthology On Edge: Performance at the End of the Twentieth Century and read out loud her observant piece on Dancenoise, which was published in April 1989 but pretty much described the show we’d just seen:

“These are terrorists wielding a shtick, and with it they attack power in its many disguises. Their shows are always teeming with pop culture junk, since that’s where power hides and where it emanates from – the evening sound bites, the advertising arias, the fashion forecasts, the top forty wool-gatherers. The Dancenoise way of knowledge is to see life as one ungentrified unregenerate 14th Street, just a ramshackle boulevard where everything from Shakespeare to the unwritten law on how to wear a leotard can finally be destroyed and displayed in a bin. The performances level everything in their path, turning slogans into mantras, banality into ritual, pearls into swine. As a rule, they’re a riot and a gas.”

7.29.15 For gamelan musicians, playing for a wayang kulit (shadow-puppet play) constitutes an unusual challenge – although there’s a basic score with familiar notation, the music has to go wherever the dalang (storyteller) goes, so the players have to be alert to split-second stop-and-start cues. I finally got my first crack at playing under those circumstances when Gamelan Kusuma Laras accompanied the performance of “The Story of Gatotkacha” at the Indonesian Consulate featuring a dalang named Gymna Cahyo Nugroho, an eleven-year-old prodigy from Yogyakarta, Java, who was in the U.S. for the first time for two shows (the night before he was in Washington, DC).

7-29 wayang title
He travels with his father, his teacher, and some key musicians (including the kendhang player, who essentially conducts the ensemble with his drum), none of whom spoke much English. The afternoon rehearsal was a little rough, and afterwards Gymna looked very tired and wrung out, probably jet-lagged. But he put on a pretty amazing show, manipulating the leather puppets, singing and voicing the various characters, and improvising jokes and reactions to the audience.

7-29 wayang setup7-29 wayang from shadow side
Most wayang kulit tell stories from the Mahabharata, and one thing you quickly learn is that there are tons and tons of battle scenes, which meant that a lot of our score required playing long sections of sampak — bang-bang-bang-bang loud and fast, kind of exciting and kind of monotonous.
7-29 notation last page
Sitting and playing for hours is pretty punishing on the body. But we had a full responsive house and a lot of fun. Gymna seemed shyly proud of himself and smiled a bit except when cameras pointed at him, in which case he snapped into a very solemn professional pose.

7-29 gymna kendhang carla leslie
7.30.15 I didn’t see the original stage production of The Last Five Years but I got a lot out of the original cast recording of Jason Robert Brown’s intimate musical, mainly because of the cast. Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz are arguably the finest musical theater performers of their generation, and the album displays them at their very best. The show runs on two conceptual elements. It portrays the arc of a relationship from  his-and-hers perspectives, proceedings backwards in time (from breakup to first meeting) by not-quite-making-it actress Cathy and forwards (from first date to walking out) by hot young best-selling novelist Jamie, and it tells the story entirely in songs, with very little dialogue. And Brown writes some strong solid songs: “Still Hurting” and “A Summer in Ohio” are highlights for her, “Shiksa Goddess” and “If I Didn’t Believe in You” for him.

I was happy to learn that it was made into a movie by Richard Lagravanese and curious to see how it played out. The movie was released in an unusual manner – pay-per-view before theatrical release, which is several cuts above direct-to-video and mainly aimed at the theater-geek audience that made the live broadcasts of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan such big hits. Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan (above) are appealing actors with musical-theater cred, and their drama is touching at times. I confess I got a little tired of their voices, which were a little too nonstop theatrical for me, spoiled as I am by the warm, flexible, more singer-songwriter pop-oriented voices of Scott and Butz.

8.3.15 Daniel Sullivan’s production of Cymbeline is a triumph for Shakespeare in the Park. Especially given the play’s insanely complicated, even ludicrous plot, the show is unexpectedly entertaining. Sullivan smartly addresses head-on the absurdly dense exposition that happens at the top of the show and the equally dense final scene that has to wrap up every conceivable variety of plotline the playwright ever used (a program note mentions that “scholars have counted 27 revelations in the final scene alone”) with a sly attitude that makes merry of the play without trashing it altogether. And he’s assembled a terrific ensemble of solid veterans, all of whom get doubly or triply cast (usually with at least one surprise appearance.)

Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater are very fine as the young lovers, though Rabe is never very convincing disguised as a boy and Linklater is more fun playing the buffoon Cloten than the quasi-hero Posthumus. Patrick Page is excellent in the title role, as is Steven Skybell as hard-working servant to the Queen, played by Kate Burton a little too timidly for my taste. Raul Esparza absolutely steals the show, though, as flashy, fast-talking bad guy Iachimo. The production makes great use of Esparza’s razzle-dazzle Broadway song-and-dance chops but he also nails both the sound and the sense of Shakespeare’s language. These folks are amply aided by top-notch sets by Riccardo Hernandez, costumes by David Zinn (loved the Queen’s costume, which looks like something out of a Tim Burton production at the Metropolitan Opera), lighting by David Lander, lovely original score by Tom Kitt, and the other actors I haven’t mentioned: Teagle Bougere, Jacob Ming-Trent, and David Furr.

Performance diary: Marina Abramovic and ANYONE CAN WHISTLE

April 12, 2010

April 8 – Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at MOMA, “The Artist Is Present,” includes many of her intense body-based performances recreated by a squadron of young recruits. There’s the one where two naked performers stand in a doorway so that those wishing to pass from one room to another have to brush against them. (Originally this was the only entrance to a gallery show, and the performers were a naked man and a naked woman. Watching the documentary film adjacent to the current installation, you can witness how most people enter without looking at either performer and most of them choose to face the woman rather than the man. The gender aspect was nullified the day I visited MOMA, when both performers were women. Plus, it’s not the only way into the room so anyone can avoid touching naked people.) There’s “Hair Piece,” in which a man and a woman sit back to back, their long hair tied together. My favorite body piece had a naked man lying on his back with a skeleton lying on top of him; in the same room is a series of films projected onto the wall, one of a dozen naked men humping a grassy field, another of women pulling up their skirts and exposing their crotches to the falling rain. I admire Abramovic’s commitment to the body as art, though the work is very very cerebral, not very erotic or even emotionally compelling. She likes durational pieces, and nothing she’s done before has been quite as demanding as her current residency at MOMA, where she sits in the big rotunda on the second floor at a table (below, in red dress) while visitors come and sit opposite her silently for as long as they want. I perceive it as a form of darshan (that’s when spiritual teachers give audience to their devotees one at a time, usually very briefly), an encounter with the artist or guru as a mirror of oneself. Spectators do seem to be taking it that seriously. When I walked by, two different young somber-looking women sat opposite Abramovic, the two of them staring at one another. The guard told me that some people have been sitting with her for hours at a time and if you don’t get in line by 10:30 am you’re not likely to get your chance that day. In addition to the spiritual presence aspect, there’s something very Warholian about this performance as well – it takes place surrounded by fancy lighting, in the atmosphere of media circus.

I was more taken with the performative aspects of the William Kentridge show, “Five Themes.” His animated films are very beautiful and worth taking the time to sit through. I especially admired “Ubu Tells the Truth,” a fascinating take on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings, in which perpetrators of horrendous crimes during the apartheid era were granted amnesty for telling their stories – a theoretically healing process for the country, but paradoxically also a public airing of outrageous brutalities (Ubu-esque is a terrific way of framing them – a reference to Alfred Jarry’s fictional tyrant-clown). There’s also an elaborate hour-long show featuring an adaptation of The Magic Flute on a scale model of an opera stage – something I want to go back and spend more time with another day.

April 11 – Anyone Can Whistle is the kind of show that the Encores! series at City Center was created to present: a flawed musical that flopped in its day, hasn’t been seen much, isn’t really worth a full-scale revival, but has a score that’s worth hearing under circumstances that aren’t too demanding. Most of the time when I go to Encores!, I assume I’m going to see a pretty dumb show with a lame book, but if there are a couple of fine musical numbers and a handful of delightful performances I count myself lucky. Anyone Can Whistle definitely had one of the better casts in my experience: Donna Murphy as Cora Hoover Hooper, the brassy, maniacal mayor of a small-town that needs some kind of miracle — no matter how phony — to survive economically (Angela Lansbury played her originally); Edward Hibbert as Comptroller Schub, her partner in crime; Sutton Foster as Fay Apple, the head nurse at the local psychiatric hospital, sensitively referred to as The Cookie Jar; and Raul Esparza as J. Bowden Hapgood, who arrives in town as a patient and gets mistaken for the doctor-savior whose job is to decide definitively who’s crazy and who’s not.

The premise for Arthur Laurents’ 1964 play (with songs, of course, by Stephen Sondheim) comes straight from the heart of the countercultural ‘60s, when the very notions of sanity and craziness, right and wrong were up for questioning. The play is a kind of fractured fairy tale out of a Nichols-and-May nightclub routine, with the kind of sweetly neurotic mental patients and caricatured crooked authority figures that populated Jean Anouilh’s The Madwoman of Chaillot and the long-running cult film King of Hearts. Simplistic and vaudevillean, and yet Laurents was getting at the arbitrariness of classifying mental illness (after all, he and Sondheim were both gay guys in psychoanalysis at a time when homosexuality was officially designated a mental illness). And the hilarious, crazy way that the townspeople unquestioningly go along with Hapgood’s dividing them up into two factions – the A team and the 1 team, both of whom consider themselves superior – speaks to the fierce us-against-them state of American politics today.

[Further thoughts: Anyone Can Whistle was written right in the midst of the tumultuous civil rights movement, when crazed white racists were bombing black churches and Southern white cops were setting attack dogs on non-violent freedom marchers. And the McCarthy era was fresh in the memory of politically alert New York Jewish artists like Arthur Laurents. Those events are part of the backdrop for songs like “Simple,” which cheerfully trots out a series of syllogism: the opposite of dark is bright, the opposite of bright is dumb, therefore dark = dumb; the opposite of left is right, the opposite of right is wrong, therefore left = wrong. That’s a lot of political content for a musical comedy circa 1964, plus it’s delivered in an edgy, Brechtian way — not by modelling Right Thinking for the audience but by espousing offensive sentiments as if they were acceptable, forcing the audience to actively object rather than sink into the warm bath of agreement. David Gursky, Rob Berman’s assistant musical director for the show, told Andy and me afterwards that Angela Lansbury told the company that at the curtain call for the original production, the actors could totally feel the hatred coming from the audience.]

There’s a lot going on, emotionally and psychologically, amidst the play’s crazy cartoon atmosphere. Certainly, the mayor is a dazzling and entertaining monster, and Donna Murphy had a ball playing some wacky mixture of Jackie Kennedy, Tammy Faye Bakker, Kay Thompson, Ethel Merman, and Barbara Streisand. The always-appealing Sutton Foster got to play both the buttoned-down Nurse Apple and her liberated faux-French alter-ego in red dress and wig. “I love a woman who comes with an accent” was my favorite smutty line, spoken by Raul Esparza, suitably genial and manic as Hapgood. Once considered an obscure Sondheim score, Anyone Can Whistle brims with songs we now call classics: in addition to the title song and “There Won’t Be Trumpets” (which Foster sang with her usual dazzling lucidity), there’s “Everybody Says Don’t” (Esparza) and the ballad I can’t get out of my head, “With So Little to Be Sure Of.”

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