Shadow of Heroes, a gripping and sad tale, ruminates on the question: “Where does fraud begin and truth leave off?” It brings to life the true story of László (Trevor St. John-Gilbert) and Julia Rajk (Erin Beirnard), Marxist leaders in the Hungarian resistance during World War II. László and Julia are fierce and clear-eyed leaders whose actions helped create the post-war government in Hungary. But it is János Kádár (Michael Turner), a nebbishy friend who seems barely capable of carrying out the underground tasks asked of him, who survives the rise and fall of factions and, after the war, becomes a central figure in the newly formed government, while László and Julia are imprisoned and later martyred.
Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written in 1941, has not aged well. Brecht himself never saw a production of his allegory about the rise of German National Socialism, and what improvements he might have made in rehearsal cannot be known, but John Doyle’s version at Classic Stage Company seems a heavier slog than usual for a play already rife with didacticism, pretentious faux-Shakespearean speeches, and characters baldly modeled on Adolf Hitler and his cronies.
If you think a mega-famous pop star like Beyoncé and an ancient Egyptian queen like Cleopatra have nothing in common, think again. They are both worshipped religiously by their followers, both have expensive taste in clothes and jewelry, and both have a penchant for dating famous bad boys. Or at least those are the parallels teased out by the new immersive pop musical Cleopatra, now playing at the Chelsea Music Hall venue. In this production, historical accuracy goes out the window in favor of flashy dance numbers, sultry love ballads, and audience involvement. Cleopatra is equal parts drag show, pop concert, and Broadway musical, and, though it has some rough edges, it is surely a good time.
During the Holocaust, the atrocities of the Nazi regime forced countless Jewish families and individuals into hiding. Though they were not interned in concentration camps, these stowaways were subjected to another, silent, reign of terror—in which every creak and cough could result in discovery, detainment, and almost certain death. Thus, the scene is set for The Hidden Ones, an immersive theater production that brings audiences into the secret hiding place of two families at the end of World War II. Even though the experience lasts just a little over an hour and plays out within the confines of a small room, The Hidden Ones is artistic proof that less is often more—especially in immersive theater.
Origin Theatre Company, established in 2002, is dedicated to presenting American premieres of works by European writers. Origin’s current production, Beautiful Day Without You, is a commissioned play by Marco Calvani. Primarily known in Italy, Spain, and France, Calvani is an actor, director, and playwright, and he has collaborated several times with playwright and provocateur Neil LaBute. Beautiful Day Without You is Calvani’s first full-length play in English.
Low-wage workplaces, in two towns separated by a river, provide the backdrop for Lewiston/Clarkston, two 90-minute dramas separated by a meal break. Playwright Samuel D. Hunter peppers these compelling plays with characters who are descendants of 19th-century explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. But their reasons for traveling, or staking territorial claims, have more to do with personal setbacks and family tragedy than with discovery or affirmation. If Lewis and Clark were dispatched westward by Thomas Jefferson, these beaten-down distant relatives, making their way through a drug-addled world of subdivisions and superstores, seem as if they were sent on the road by Jack Kerouac.
With two plays Off-Broadway this year, playwright Ngozi Anyanwu and director Awoye Timpo are quickly becoming a creative power couple. The Homecoming Queen at Atlantic Theater Company saw a novelist return home to Nigeria after years away, while Good Grief, which has just opened several blocks east at the Vineyard Theatre, explores the lives of Nigerian immigrants to the U.S. through their children.
With a title like The Book of Merman, one might expect a big, brassy, loud and overbearing musical, but in fact the creators, Leo Schwartz, who wrote the score and DC Cathro, his co–book writer, have turned out a parody of show music that’s surprisingly unassuming and mild-mannered. One might easily guess there’ll be sparks that fly from just what the title implies: an unabashed mashup of The Book of Mormon and the style of Ethel Merman. Happily, the show avoids the vulgarity of The Book of Mormon while smartly ribbing show-music aficionados and playing off several Merman hits from Cole Porter, Jule Styne and Irving Berlin.
Steven Levenson’s fast-paced and hilarious play, Days of Rage, opens in October 1969. America is riven. The war in Vietnam has taken more than 30,000 American lives. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy have been assassinated. Twenty thousand mostly young people turned out to protest the war in Vietnam at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and police are assigned to contain and control the crowd at all costs. Eight of the protesters, later known as the Chicago Eight, were put on trial in late August 1969. Word goes out to bus protesters to the trial. Both the protesters and the Chicago Eight see the case as a way to put the nation itself, its racism and unjust war, on trial. Levenson’s powerful play focuses a sharp gaze at politics and the hidden volatility that can tip over into violence and the spilling of blood.
Gloria: A Life, by Tony-nominated Emily Mann, captures Gloria Steinem’s ascent from a young journalist relegated to “women’s interest” stories to an icon of the feminist movement. Active in promoting women’s rights from the 1970s on, she is famous for saying, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” The play is performed in two acts: the first act is the story of Steinem’s life, and the second is a “talking circle,” in which the audience is invited to carry on a conversation about the themes of the play.
Two very different Nobel laureates haunt Conor McPherson’s The Girl from the North Country: Bob Dylan and Samuel Beckett. If Dylan’s music, which provides the emotional framework of this unorthodox jukebox musical, seems an odd fit for the Beckettian limbo in which McPherson has ensconced his characters, that’s just a testament to the worlds contained in Dylan’s songs.
Ensemble Studio Theatre has long been a company that nurtures new plays, but the author of its current offering, Travisville, has never had one staged before. Nevertheless, in his debut, William Jackson Harper, an actor who appeared on Broadway in All the Way, about Lyndon Baines Johnson’s attempt to pass the Civil Rights Act, has written a thrilling and important drama so rich in detail and nuance that it could have come from a seasoned writer. Tackling the same legislation as his own starting point, Harper sifts through the granular, day-to-day effects of it, the promise vs. the reality. The story he tells is all the more forceful thanks to the impeccable cast that embodies his humane characters.
As our country’s partisan roistering continues its crescendo, the adventurous Ars Nova is presenting a space-travel yarn, set 300 years from now, that speaks to the autocratic tendencies of the current regime in Washington, D.C. Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future, subtitled A Science-Fiction Folk-Concert Musical, features 15 numbers in a variety of styles composed by Andrew R. Butler. The score includes clever references, melodic and chromatic, to such past masters as Guthrie, Dylan, Cocker, Crosby, Stills, Nash and, especially, Young, without undercutting the originality of Butler’s musical sound. The play’s subtitle, however—and, most notably, that word concert—is decidedly misleading.
The trials and tribulations of living in New York City are explored in Ordinary Days, a sweet and thoughtful musical exploring the alternating wonder and frustration of life in the Big Apple. Currently being presented by Keen Company at Theatre Row, Ordinary Days chronicles four New Yorkers in 2007 as they navigate their everyday lives while pondering their larger futures.
Aficionados of the bleak works of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett may want to pay a visit to the Irish Rep’s production of On Beckett. But be advised that a passion for the author is likely to be a prerequisite for full enjoyment. Actor-comedian Bill Irwin takes a deep dive into the works of the Nobel Prize-winning playwright—he calls it a “personal memoir.” Irwin proves a trustworthy guide through several of Beckett’s works, from the world-famous Waiting for Godot to the obscure work Stories and Texts for Nothing.
Todd Solondz is one of the few white, male enfants terribles of ‘90s American independent cinema to maintain the incisive edge that made his reputation. While contemporaries such as Richard Linklater, Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh have built careers out of the ideological compromises that come with a Hollywood budget, Solondz has paid the price for his obstinacy, making only eight films over nearly 30 years and moving to the margins of culture. For most people, Solondz is the man who made a pedophile sympathetic in 1998’s Happiness, but his true signature is the ability to cut through identity politics to expose the fear, anxiety, and depression at the center of the American dream. Solondz’s playwriting debut, Emma and Max, lacks the gut punch of his finest film work, but showcases an artist still as obsessed as ever with trying to figure out why the hell people seem determined to get everything wrong.
Despite the seemingly predictable setup of its initial premise, Joseph C. Ernst’s Goodbody cleverly subverts expectations. It opens on the striking image of a young woman waking up over a dead body, with a smoking gun in her hand and no memory of what happened just moments before. In the corner of the barn sits a man, bound in a chair—the only person who can help her remember. While this all seems like the makings of your average Quentin Tarantino-esque revenge fantasy, such appearances can be deceiving.
Director Kimberly Senior engages the audience from the first beat of Sakina’s Restaurant, performed by its author, Aasif Mandvi, for the 20th-anniversary production of his Obie Award–winning play. Dispensing with the fourth wall, she introduces the central character, Azgi, carrying a suitcase in the aisle of the auditorium, and he lights up the space with his greeting, “Hello, my name is Azgi,” a bright, toothy smile and a twinkle in his eye. Azgi has received a letter from America and is about to set off on the journey of a lifetime—leaving his native India to live and work in a restaurant in the U.S.
Harry Houdini is arguably the most famous magician of all time, but the circumstances around his death remain suspiciously murky. Did he truly die suddenly of appendicitis, or were there more malevolent forces afoot? Cynthia von Buhler’s The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini combines murder mystery, film noir, and comic book genres to create a genuinely fun immersive theater experience wherein audiences can explore the mysteries surrounding Houdini’s death.
The works of Kurt Vonnegut are having a mini-renaissance in New York this year. His 1970 play Happy Birthday, Wanda June has reopened at the Duke after an Off-Off-Broadway run in the spring. Now comes Brian Katz’s stage adaptation of his early novel Mother Night (1962). Vonnegut aficionados may note a few tenuous links to his masterwork, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and it’s a pleasant introduction to the writer, so vital to the 1960s but so out of fashion nowadays.