Category Archives: theatre

Theatre Highlights of 2011

I unfortunately don’t get around to blogging about all the great theatre I see in New York. As we have found ourselves in December, here are some highlights from 2011 that have been replaying in my mind:

JERUSALEM

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor bring as much to a role as Mark Rylance did for Rooster Byron in Jerusalem. The stubbornly doomed vagrant who runs a sort of druggy Neverland out of his trailer in the English countryside was vivid from the first vigorous head-dunk into a trough of water to the brutal end. Rylance was incredibly deserving of the Best Actor Tony, and, while we’re at it, why not revisit his acceptance speech on walking through walls.

THE NORMAL HEART

It would be wrong to say that Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart has aged well. It would be more accurate to say it has aged viciously. The autobiographical tirade of a play set at the beginning of the HIV-AIDS crisis, before the devastating disease even had a name, is still razor sharp 26 years after it was first staged. It wasn’t an easy thing to watch (people were audibly sobbing in the audience and I was left with an emotional heaviness that took a while to lift), but it was breathtaking in the most literal way.

WAR HORSE

Here’s one I actually did get around to blogging about. The play about a boy searching for his horse in WWI was rather clunky and awkward, but my god, the puppets! From the minute the horse Joey stumbled on stage as a colt I was totally invested in the horse. Even if the puppets looked strange and sinewy, with their human controllers not at all hidden, they moved so believably that I completely bought into their breathing as real.

KING LEAR

The staging of King Lear at BAM was sparse, but Derek Jacobi’s performance as the title character/gradually mad king was sprawling. Shakespeare can too often feel like a solemn recitation, yet this production was like cutting into an old stone and finding a geode: crystal and jagged. Jacobi fully embraced Lear’s fall from sanity and the supporting cast was right there along with him for the plunge.

LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST

And while I’m talking about Shakespeare, why not mention another wonderful production that brought some new fun to an old play? Love’s Labor’s Lost at the Public was great, taking the early, largely forgotten work by the Bard and performing it with lively joy. The actors never stopped moving, rushing into the audience and all around the stadium-style theatre, and you could look across to the other side of the audience and see the enjoyment on their faces.

RENT

Rent is back! Maybe you didn’t know it was gone? The musical by the late Jonathan Larson that left Broadway in 2008 has returned, bringing a new cast of angry youth with it. As I spent a bit of time obsessing over it in high school, I of course had to go. While the New York of “bohemia” seems far removed from the city of today (if it was ever anything more than a theatrical dream), Larson’s music is still invigorating.

69°S.

Human woe was so strangely, yet convincingly, depicted in 69°S. at BAM. Strange because all of the main characters were marionettes who shivered through an eerie production based on Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition to Antarctica. While the story is really one of survival, with all the explorers being rescued after their ship is crushed by the ice and they are stranded by the heroism of Shackleton, the play (if that’s the right term for the dance/puppet/music hybrid) brought out all the creepiness of that desolate tip of the world. And yeah, that skeleton dance is still disturbing me. (PS, you can read my review for Hyperallergic here.)

RADIO THEATRE NYC’S LOVECRAFT FESTIVAL

Do you know what else is creepy? Being read H.P. Lovecraft horror stories in the cramped, basement-like Under St. Mark’s theatre while a smoke machine churns in the corner. Thank you, Radio Theatre NYC, for the reminder that sometimes it’s the skilled delivery and dedicated performers that can make a performance truly unsettling.

ANGELS IN AMERICA

Another revival that I enjoyed was Angels in America at Signature Theatre. The two-part play by Tony Kushner is, like The Normal Heart, set in the 1980s and concentrates its drama on the HIV-AIDS crisis. The dense network of characters is linked by unlikely circumstances and tragedy, and for the most part each actor was up to the energy that the formidable work requires, even if it was more like a  prolonged contemplation than a bombastic epic.

SLEEP NO MORE

Okay, so this is hardly overlooked on this blog, but how could I not include Sleep No More? I’ve been to the immersive, Macbeth-inspired performance six times and will be returning for a seventh in January, so I’m either as crazy as King Lear or this is one of the best works of theatre in New York. Every time I go is a new experience, and the sets are just gorgeous (so are the actors, by the way) and everything, from the brisk choreography to the lighting to the score of Hitchcock themes and jazz music is so meticulous. You really do feel like you’ve been transported into another world.

Halloween at Sleep No More

I love Halloween and I love Sleep No More (for your reference), so when I heard that there was going to be a whole week of themed nights at the theatrical experience for my favorite holiday, I immediately bought tickets to one, and then was asked to a second. Perhaps I am a bit obsessed…

I started with The Darkest Shadow, the Thursday night show where all “guests” were required to wear black. (The audience is referred to as guests as we are checking into the McKittrick Hotel for the experience.) It was cold and rainy when I got to the building, still too early to go inside. So I hid under my umbrella as I waited for my friend, curious how this night would be special from the others. For those who have not followed my extensive exploration of Sleep No More, it’s basically a huge, interactive theatre installation, taking characters from Macbeth and Hitchcock’s Rebecca and placing them in a film noir-esque setting, where they loop through the same tortured actions of murder, love, and violence. The audience wears masks and isn’t allowed to talk, making you a rather startling voyeur.

About when the doors were to open, we noticed a well-dressed group walking down 27th Street in the rain, holding matching black umbrellas, candles, and flowers. There was an immediate silence down the line as they processed by. They were followed at a short distance by the actor who would be playing Macbeth, a ghost at what was his own funeral. One of the characters reached out to give me a flower, which I later found was meant to be placed at Macbeth’s funeral altar inside the McKittrick.

The check in process was a little different. I got a much darker card than usual displaying the Jack of Hearts, but when I went into the bar where you usually wait for your card to be called, I was instead offered an absinthe shot and we toasted “to sleep.” Then I was in the elevator heading into the almost empty space, shaking from the cold and the nervousness of what was going to happen next, even though at this point I have a somewhat good idea.

I again found myself chasing fragments of narrative, mentally connecting them with the puzzle of action that’s already in my head. Like the previous times, I saw many new scenes, following the Porter and the Boy Witch who I’d previously seen only fleetingly. I’d never spent much time in the hotel lobby and was surprised at how many characters careened in and out, and was especially struck by a lip synced performance of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is” by the Boy Witch, who had forced tears streaming down his face. I saw a few small rooms for the first time and felt able to linger in empty spaces, not under the pressure of earlier visits to see everything immediately.

I knew a party was somehow going to take place after the performance, and as I watched the finale from the balcony, I noticed a gleam of brass instruments in the crowd. While the show usually ends with Macbeth’s death and the audience going out to the small Manderlay Bar, this time a funeral jazz band started playing and a coffin was brought in for Macbeth’s body, which was processed out of the room by the cast. Then a bar was revealed and the party started right there in the ballroom/Birnam Wood. There was delicious absinthe punch, dancers on stilts and pointe shoes, and two other parties, one in the hotel lobby with the jazz band and another in the Manderlay Bar. It was fantastic and I lost track of time… and the fact I had to work the next day.

Luckily, I had tickets to go back on Halloween for La Danse Macabre! This performance again started with the funeral procession on 27th Street, although without the rain it was a little less ominous. However, all the guests were either dressed to terrify or dressed in black, so it was still wonderfully creepy. (Plus there was the actress who gave me a candle and looked in my eyes like she knew me…) The most genius costume I saw that night was someone who dressed just like the masquerade goer in Eyes Wide Shut that wears the Sleep No More mask.

There were again absinthe shots before the elevator and this time all the playing cards were blood splattered, but the best surprise of all was a cameo performance by Alan Cumming in the hospital ward! I thought this new character looked familiar and finally made the connection in my head. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get in on the one-on-ones he was doing, although at one point in the night I did get some rather close interaction from the bald witch that was pretty intense. The audience seemed to be a lot of people who had been before and could anticipate the action, but even if it got crowded later in the night, I still had moments like watching Duncan’s body being discovered while I was almost alone, following his son who had tears on his face as he pulled himself together, that made me forget it was a busy Halloween night.

It was interesting to see two performances so close together, and it really brought out the fact that even if the action is exactly the same, the dancers all bring something unique to their performances. I noticed this most with the boy witches, one of whom was impish and vulnerable, the other of whom was intense and wryly serious. They both brought the character its necessary devious, otherworldly quality, but it made me think of how much my previous experiences were directly influenced by the actors and the tone they set. It’s easy to overlook the individual dancers in the huge production of Sleep No More, with its lavish sets, amazing sound and lighting design (I really appreciated the well-timed flickerings on the town street), and visual effects, but without them it would just be a rather eerie haunted house.

The after party started again at the finale and was again fantastic. It was amazing to be able to just lounge around the sets for the hotel lobby and ballroom and dance to DJed LCD Soundsystem music or jazz standards. (I probably was also staring in awe way too much at Alan Cumming, the actors who were joining the party, and Reggie Watts who I spied in a corner.) I have some photos from the party below, although since I only had my iPhone and it was very dark, they can only give you an idea.

Woodshed Collective’s The Tenant

No, I did not actually go to Paris last Friday night, but through the immersive theatre experience of The Tenant, I spent a couple of hours in one of its more paranoia-inducing apartment buildings. The interactive adapation of the Roland Topor novel that was later made into a film by Roman Polanski was staged by the Woodshed Collective in the West-Park Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side. Much like Sleep No More, which I’ve obsessed a little over, you the audience member are free to wander through the building, following characters or not. Except there are no masks, and there is lots of dialogue, and the atmosphere is a little more on the derelict side. Luckily, both do have bars that you can visit during the performance.

After watching an introductory video, we wandered off and soon encountered the eccentric inhabitants of the apartment building. The story was that the new tenant, Trelkovsky, moved into an apartment previously inhabited by a woman who jumped to her death. He slowly loses his mind and meets the same end, weirdly being transformed into her. The actor who played Trelkovsky was great, and most of the cast was pretty convincing. It was a little hard to tell who the actors were without the divide of white masks, even if the time period was Paris in the 1960s. This is NYC in 2011, so period clothing is all around. Highlights included observing a couple alternately sing songs into a microphone dragged out from their closet while rain dripped on the window outside. Other moments were a little less striking, but it was all incredibly entertaining. The unwanted surprise party Telkovsky got that was interrupted by one of the singers was great, as was the tall, creepy owner of the building and his curious side story involving a mummy. I especially loved the low-tech surprise moment of when Trelkovsky suddenly realizes all the other tenants are  in it against him, and all the characters cleverly spin into the room. Almost every room had a TV, that often played scenes happening in other rooms. Other TVs nearby echoed the scenes you were currently watching, making the paranoia mount as Trelkovsky starts to lose his mind.

The Tenant unfortunately just ended its run, or else I would definitely go again. (Did I mention tickets were free? Incredible!) I love this trend of interactive theatre and worry I’m getting a little spoiled. How can I possibly just sit in the audience when I go to Rent this month?

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