Red Bull Theater’s new production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth—restyled Mac Beth and originally staged at the Seattle Repertory Theatre—is an exciting theatrical experience that injects fresh energy and immediacy into the oft-performed and oft-read play. It strikes a good balance between faithfulness and innovation, and its central conceit never feels like an interpretive fad or a new-for-the-sake-of-new device.
Socrates begins at the end, with the famed philosopher already dead, and Plato, his most famous student, trying to understand why. Giving away the ending is always risky, but in playwright Tim Blake Nelson’s hands, the story becomes a type of metaphysical puzzle. The question isn’t who did it—Plato tells us up front it was the city of Athens—but how a supposedly great civilization could so easily eradicate a great mind, especially one who went to great lengths to disavow his greatness. There’s more than a hint of the Christ in the play’s portrayal of Socrates, but the gospel being preached isn’t one of peace and forgiveness, but reason and democracy.
When Enter Laughing: The Musical opened in fall 2008, the York Theatre Company struck gold in their excavation and refinement of a 1976 flop musical, So Long 174th Street. Using the title of the play by Joseph Stein and novel by Carl Reiner on which it is based, Enter Laughing was hailed by critics as a musical gem, prompting the New York Times critic to write, “All you can do is wonder, how did this thing fail so badly the first time around?” Although the York’s revival of Enter Laughing, in a nearly identical production to the original, may have lost some of its luster, the show retains most of its charm.
Two is company, three’s a crowd, and being alone is unbearable in the New Group’s world premiere of Jesse Eisenberg’s latest comedy-drama, Happy Talk. Unfolding across a series of confrontations where, more often than not, two characters, deep in conversation, are interrupted by the needs of an intrusive third, this play tracks the lives of some strong women and a weak man, all of whom are at the end of their collective rope. And though there is a story line centered around a home aide’s scheme to acquire a green card, the real suspense is in the unrelenting tension that lies just beneath the polite banter of a household that is anything but happy.
The goose and rabbit who have been delighting audiences on Broadway in The Ferryman now have some competition in the nonhuman actor category: the sheep who graces the stage for much of Signature Theater’s revival of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class. It’s clear from the startling outset, when the walls of the dilapidated kitchen crack and break apart, that things aren’t going to end well for human and nonhuman alike. And the play implies that the divide between human and animal isn’t as stark as we would like to imagine—life in Shepard’s America is a brute struggle for survival that pits everyone against each other, including family members, and ends in mutual destruction, like the eagle-and-cat parable that concludes the play.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century puts together hybrids of theater, classical music—both vocal and instrumental—and readings of letters or diaries to create its productions. For Hans Christian Andersen, its latest offering, the group has increased the hybrid entertainment by adding puppetry for its story of the life of the great Danish fairy-tale writer: marionettes, hand puppets, and some that are much larger.
The prison drama has a familiar formula: the grizzled veteran nearing parole, the hotheaded younger inmate spoiling for a fight, the wary authorities, the well-meaning outsider taking up the inmates’ cause. The difference with Cori Thomas’ Lockdown is a) it’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater 2019, not Warner Brothers 1931, and b) it addresses contemporary, unsettling issues about incarceration, social inequity, and what awaits anybody getting out of stir. Lockdown could be described as agitprop, clearly on the side of those behind bars and not above using sentimentality to argue its points, but it’s stirring and effective, and anchored by a great performance.
A British celebrity cook’s life isn’t so camera-perfect in Torben Betts’s Caroline’s Kitchen, a U.K. transplant now playing in 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off-Broadway festival. The high-tension new play centers on BBC cooking host Caroline (Caroline Langrishe), the “darling of Middle England,” whose privileged life goes up in flames over the course of an evening—along with the roast.
The Irish Repertory Theatre’s Sean O’Casey Season concludes with The Plough and the Stars, whose title is synonymous with the flag for the Irish Citizen Army. The last of O’Casey’s trilogy, which includes The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock, has joined the other two in repertory, and it’s a rougher, more jagged experience. Like the others, it takes place in a tenement; here the numerous characters move in and out of the parlor of Nora and Jack Clitheroe. In Charlotte Moore’s splendid production, one feels the close quarters: the frictions are quicker to arise, and there is always a bone to pick.
Paul Swan, an oddball of bygone Manhattan, is the protagonist of Claire Kiechel’s new play, Paul Swan Is Dead and Gone. The playwright is Swan’s great-grandniece, though too young to have known him. She has assembled an ambitious theater piece, more fantasia than drama, that depicts his story of self-invention.
Two years ago, S. Asher Gelman made a splash with his first play, Afterglow, which examined a threesome of gay men. Scheduled to take advantage of Gay Pride month, it ran well over a year. Gelman’s second play, Safeword, has more challenging subject matter. The title comes from BDSM, which is, for those who haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, bondage and discipline (BD) and sadomasochism (SM). This time, however, Gelman’s plot feels more contrived, and its effect isn’t as strong.
The promise of better living through chemistry is put to the acid test in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, a sincere, occasionally scary, and often jovial adaptation of the classic 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson tale. The play won the 2018 Fringe Encore Series Outstanding Production Award and now returns to the Soho Playhouse for a six-week victory lap.
The first scene of Halley Feiffer’s new drama is a bear trap. It seizes one’s attention and won’t let go. Feiffer, who stars as Cat, is having drinks and hors d’oeuvres with Guy, a restaurateur whose wife she has profiled for The New Yorker. He’s explaining to her his design of the Japanese restaurant they are in; as performed by Hamish Linklater, he is arrogant, charming, playful, insulting, and possibly dangerous. When he says to her, “I’m a serial killer,” and quickly follows it up with “I’m joking,” it’s not completely reassuring.
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, the opening entry in the annual Brits Off-Broadway series, is less a play than a boisterous entertainment, inspired by an actual 1942 booklet issued to American soldiers and airmen arriving in Britain to help battle the Nazis. What the creators spin from it is a curious pastiche: part culture clash, part British music hall, seasoned with sometimes hoary comic clichés and a genial spirit. At different times it calls to mind Teahouse of the August Moon, Sgt. Bilko, The Andy Griffith Show, and the caricatured aristocrats in the film Kind Hearts and Coronets.
All Our Children, the first play by the experienced theater and opera director Stephen Unwin, is structured as a moral debate that sheds light on the mass murder of disabled children in Nazi Germany. The play is well-staged and intermittently powerful, but overly schematic, as the characters too often feel like mouthpieces rather than fully realized individuals. It premiered on the West End in London in 2017, and now comes to the Black Box Theater at the Sheen Center, with a new cast, under the sure-handed direction of Ethan McSweeny.
By the time of Oscar Hammerstein II’s death, in August of 1960, The Twilight Zone had completed its first season on CBS, and The Lawrence Welk Show was six seasons into its 16-year run on ABC. It’s worth noting this not because one of the theater’s greatest librettists was a known fan of either TV show, but because both programs may come jarringly to mind at Doreen Taylor’s Sincerely, Oscar, a combination memoir and homage that celebrates the talent, and apparent immortality, of the man whose timeless work ranges from “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” to “Some Enchanted Evening.”
No one attends the symphony for a surprise ending, or to watch the string section go rogue. The enjoyment lies in the way that each instrument performs as expected, to the height of the players’ abilities, creating controlled harmonies and disciplined rhythms that pull at the heart while being pleasing to the ear. So it is with Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie, the absorbing new comedy from The Mad Ones that finds six parents, each with an instantly recognizable personality, playing off one another during a market-research session at a pace that can only be described as musical.
Charlie’s Waiting, a new dark comedy by Mêlisa Annis, demonstrates its young author’s flair for weaving comedy and drama together, as well as a wicked imagination. The “what if” behind the plot creates tension that is palpable.
You’ve probably heard the story, or maybe you saw the Tim Robbins movie. In 1937, the WPA shut down the Federal Theatre Project’s new “play in music” four days before opening, fearing that its radicalism and pro-union message were just too incendiary. John Houseman (producer), Orson Welles (director), and Marc Blitzstein (author ) were determined to put it on somehow. On opening night, forbidden from using the designated theater and lacking an orchestra, they sent an actor out to find a piano. The audience was marched 21 blocks to another, vacant theater somebody else had found. Not allowed to appear onstage, the actors performed from the house, with Blitzstein, the only nonunion performer, playing the score from the stage. The effect was electrifying, and The Cradle Will Rock went on to find other backing and enjoy a successful, conventionally staged run.
The Red Bull Theater, founded in 2003 to focus on Jacobean drama (those playwrights who were overshadowed by Shakespeare) has in recent seasons been incorporating non-Jacobean plays into its offerings, so it’s a pleasure to see the company back on home ground with John Webster’s potboiler The White Devil. Webster is best known for The Duchess of Malfi, perhaps the greatest non-Shakespearean play of the period; The White Devil’s complex plot is inspired by the same Italian family.