Friday, September 21, 2012

The Globe Theatre U.S. Tour Hamlet

The recreation of the Globe Theatre in London has led to some very dynamic productions of William Shakespeare's plays.   Using elements of original staging practices including a small company of actors that play multiple parts, brisk pacing and leaving the lights on so that a more intimate relationship exists between the audience and the actors, the Globe Theatre's touring production of Hamlet is now making several appearances in the United States.

This energetic company of eight actors presents Hamlet in a very brisk two and half hours.  The language and story are clearly spoken and very accessible.   Although some of the doubling can lead to confusion when an actor quickly grabs a costume piece or prop and instantly becomes another character, this is a rousing production that does not find all of the nuances of Shakespeare's great revenge tragedy.   The tour began in the Elizabethan theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.  This theater has hosted professional classical theater for decades, but it was a nice change to see the Elizabethan theater's stage stripped bare exposing the natural lines of the balcony and posts that designers seem so eager to mask with contemporary design flair.   That is not to say that the Globe Theatre's production does not have a set.   It does, but it is an unobtrusive one that must by the nature of touring be flexible and portable.   A simple wall with hooks for costume changes and seats for when the actors double as musicians and sound effects artists is coupled with curtains strung up with ropes across the stage.   Simple scene changes are mostly unnoticeable with one glaring exception when the removal of a graveyard completely distracts from the scene played upon the balcony above the stage.

The company of eight are clearly well trained in classical renaissance theatre as one would expect.  Yet, the fast pace hinders some of the performances.   In particular, Michael Benz in the title role, does not show true depth in Hamlet's supposed madness, doubting nature or revenge until well into the second half of the performance after he kills Polonius (the appropriately buffoonish Christopher Saul).   Miranda Foster and Dickon Tyrrell as Gertrude and Claudius are appropriately regal and the decision to have them double as the Player King and Queen turns out to be masterful.   Carlyss Peer embraces the recent trend of making Ophelia's madness the embodiment of angry grief rather than anguish.   The rest of the company in their myriad roles are delightful, yet the limitations of only using eight actors means that the subtitles of in-depth performance are not always there.

This is a rare opportunity to see members of the Globe Theatre company on this side of the pond.  If you have the means to see this production make sure that you do so.

The Globe Theatre's touring production of Hamlet played the Folger Shakespeare Library's Elizabethan Theatre from September 8-22, 2012.   For additional tour dates and other performance information please visit and click on the links to the venues on the right side of the web page.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Chaplin: The Musical at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Charlie Chaplin certainly lived a life that would seem a natural one to be dramatized as a musical.  Born in London in poverty, the son of a mentally ill music hall singer and an absent alcoholic father, his rise to stardom as the brilliant comedian and star of the silent screen is the classic rags to riches storyline.   Mr. Chaplin's complex personal life and the political beliefs which led to his exile from the United States during the height of the Red Scare is reminiscent of the classical tragic hero brought to ruin by his character flaws.  At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, Chaplin: The Musical tries to channel both scenarios and therein lies its own flaws.   For despite the marvelous performance of Rob McClure in the title role Chaplin: The Musical is suffering from an identity crisis.

In many ways the first act of the play brings memories of another fanciful biographical musical, Barnum.   The audience is greeted with a film projection of the famous Little Tramp which seques into our hero balancing upon a tightrope high above the stage.   Designed to resemble the films of the silent era with a color scheme of black, white and gray that includes the set design of Beowulf Boritt, the costumes designed by Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz and even the make-up designed by Angelina Avallone the audience is immersed into a well-thought out iconic look that is nostalgic of the time.    The first act tracks Charlie Chaplin's rise to fame framed in several scenes as if his life were a film.   One of the frustrating parts of this production is that using film clapperboards to announce the scenes is only used sporadically which unfortunately foreshadows the inconsistant style of this well-meaning show.

There are several excellent performances in this first half of the tale of Chaplin's life.  Christiane Noll is poignant as Charlie's melancholy mother, Hannah and her performance has an appropriate haunting quality.  Zachary Unger has grave presence for one so young in his dual roles as the Young Charlie and  Charlie's famous child co-star Jackie Coogan.   Wayne Alan Wilcox as Charlie's older brother Sydney Chaplin is the rock steady support for his talented and reckless brother.  Michael McCormack gives us a glimpse of the filmmaking on a shoe-string budget that was Keystone Pictures as the impressario Mack Sennett.   The audience is charmed as we witness the birth of the Little Tramp and the immense popularity of one of Hollywood's most famous early stars.

Yet, act two, which covers the downfall of Charlie Chaplin caused by both his womanizing with women, and let's face it teenage girls, as well as his sympathy for socialist and communist causes that led to the revoking of his visa in 1952 seems like a completely different play.  The play runs a brisk two hours and fifteen minutes plus intermission and yet act two feels bogged down by sluggish pacing. The tone is naturally more somber, yet Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan's book feels slight to the potentially rich material.   The age of Chaplin's first wife is fleetingly mentioned (seventeen when she met him), and his first three marriages are treated with as little care as the boxing match that represents the financial support that the three women received upon their divorces.   Mr. Chaplin is depicted as longing to be a father, yet the musical implies that he only had children with his fourth and final wife, Oona O'Neill, which is fine for an artistic choice but is not reality.

Similarly the crusade of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played with scene stealing verve by  Jenn Colella, is made to seem the petty revenge of someone angry that the great star Charlie Chaplin won't consent to appear on her radio program.   Hedda is given a tantalizing motivation when she says of the Hitler-spoofing film The Great Dictator that she wonders about the reaction to the film by the good German people.   This is a very provocative statement implying that Ms. Hopper might have fascist sympathies but it is a mere throw-a-way line.   The late in act two romance of Charlie and the charming Erin Mackay as Charlie's fourth wife, Oona O'Neill feels like a brief respite from the drive to hit all the biographical points so that we can reach the drama of Charlie's late in life redemption.

This is not to say that the musical is not worth the price of admission.   Seeing Rob McClure in the title role is reason enough to see this ambitious, flawed musical.  Mr. McClure has spark and charisma and when he transforms himself into the iconic Little Tramp it is a moment that well deserves any applause that it might gain from the audience.   The title role is a physically demanding one and Mr. McClure has gamely mastered the staging challenges of his director and choreographer Warren Carlyle.   Whether recreating scenes from Chaplin's films, balancing on a high wire or tap dancing on roller skates, Mr. McClure is definitely a star actor on the verge of Broadway success.

Chaplin: The Musical is being performed on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.  For tickets and other performance information please visit or

Monday, September 17, 2012

Red Hot Patriot : The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins at Arena Stage

What is it about liberal Texas political women that makes such entertaining theater?  Last season we were treated to Holland Taylor as Texas Governor Ann Richards at the Kennedy Center.   This season we have Kathleen Turner as the firebrand columnist Molly Ivins in Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins at Arena Stage.   The latter play does invite brief comparison to the earlier work.   Both are one-woman shows about strong very political women who left behind a wealth of insightful commentary on the challenges of becoming a powerful woman in their respective fields coming into their own by breaking barriers in their fields.   Both subjects call Texas the home of their heart and soul.   And both women are unabashed liberal Democrats.

What sets Red Hot Patriot apart is that Molly Ivins was not a politician, she was a journalist.   In fact the play is written by two journalists, Margaret and Allison Engel who in an interview with Arena Stage's Literary Manager in the program attest to their admiration for not only Ms. Ivins' skills and humor as a reporter, but their strong belieft that following her death in 2007 from cancer that they needed to create a one-woman play that would celebrate her eclectic life showcasing not only the ground-breaking journalist but the prolific writer and commentator of forty years of American political life.

Kathleen Turner proves a perfect choice to theatrically honor Molly Ivins. The small Kogod Cradle is the perfect setting for this show.   In a larger setting the intimacy that Ms. Turner creates with her audience would be swallowed up.   It is essential that Ms. Turner be able to engage with her audiences and she does so in with Texas charm edged with piss and vinegar.   Ms. Turner is delivering a vibrant performance that is a testament to no only her abilities as an actress, but the respect and love for Molly Ivins and the material the playwrights have crafted.   It is not a perfect show, but in this political town, Red Hot Patriot is the perfect way to laugh heartily at the political scene rather than rant about it, even if for a brief 80 minutes of theater.   And to ponder, as one leaves the theater, what would Molly say about it all now.

Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins will be performed in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theatre through October 28, 2012.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Peter and the Starcatcher at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre

The boy who never grew up.  Pirates, fairies, mermaids.  Second star to the right and straight on to morning.   All familiar to anyone who has cherished the play and novels about Peter Pan written more than one hundred years ago by J.M. Barrie and the various theatrical and film adaptations that have followed.   Yet, what fun it was for Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson to reimagine the tale of how that ever youthful callow lad became Peter Pan in their 2004 novel Peter and the Starcatchers.   Now an adaptation of that novel has been lovingly crafted by playwright Rick Elice, directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers and the Tony award winning designers of Peter and The Starcatcher now on stage in New York at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. 

Unlike other fantasies that have graced the Broadway stage, Peter and the Starcatcher relies on the appearance of a low budget staging. The setting uses colorful backdrops and the use of  found props to create intimate scenes or clever representations of native wildlife.   Add the seemingly well-worn Victorian-style costumes and the musical score by Wayne Barker and this scant company of twelve actors create such magic on the stage that the most cynical adult will by the end believe in the power of star stuff and the legend of the founding of Neverland.

In J.M. Barrie's 1902 novel, The Little White Bird, later republished in 1906 as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Peter Pan is described as a newborn who escaped his nursery window. In later adaptations he ran away because he heard his parents discussing his future adult life.   In Peter and the Starcatcher he is an abandoned orphan who is sold along with two other boys to Captain Slank of the ship Neverland to be delivered to the country of Rundoon.  Captain Slank is delivering one of two identical trunks belonging to Lord Aster.  Aster is traveling on the other ship, the Wasp under Captain Scott.   Slank marks one of the trunks and switches it so that he can possess its valuable cargo of star stuff.   Lord Astor sends his daughter Molly and her nurse Mrs. Bumbrake on the slower Neverland ship while he travels with the faster Wasp so that he can destroy the star stuff before it falls into evil hands.  

The trunks are switched and the Neverland is taken over by pirates led by the great and terrible Black Stache.   The clever and adventurous Molly joins forces with Peter and the orphans, a storm shipwrecks the Neverland and the star stuff begins to change the island they find themselves on in strange and mysterious ways.   Before the tale ends we will see the origins of many familiar characters and places in J.M. Barrie's fantasy world.

Peter and the Starcatcher deservedly earned its Tony wins for its amazing design elements.  The actors are a joy to watch as they spin the tale keeping the audience, which frequently includes small children, engaged throughout its brisk running time.  While Tony winner Christian Borle has left the show, Matthew Saldivar has capably taken up the mantle of the scenery chewing (in a good way) Black Stache.   A complete blowhard who does maintain an undercurrent of menace, Mr. Saldivar clearly is having as good a time performing the role as the audience is delighting in his performance.

Arnie Burton is delightful as Molly's nurse, Mrs. Bumbrake giving her just the right amount of saucy bravado mixed with Victorian sensibility.   Teddy Bergman fiercely defends his island home from contamination by the English as Fighting Prawn the chief of the island.   Rick Holmes has the right stiff upper lip as Lord Aster and Kevin Del Aguila the perfect slimy sidekick as the pirate Smee.   Adam Chanler-Berat as the Boy who becomes our hero creates pathos for the abused orphan and the gradual transformation from despairing lad to the future thorn in Captain Hook's side is delightful to watch as he is guided on his journey by his fateful encounter with Lord Aster's spunky daughter, Molly.

For Molly is the true heart of this play.  In the hands of Tony nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger, Molly Astor is full of spit and vinegar.  She yearns for adventure hoping beyond hope to earn her father's approval, yet rebelling from the strictures of Victorian girlhood.  Ms. Keenan-Bolger's Molly is on the cusp of blossoming womanhood yet has the gentle awkwardness of girls and boys of her age.   Comparisons to Barrie's Wendy are obvious, yet Molly is more than the mother that Peter and the other orphans lack.  She is their feisty equal.

If there is a flaw with the play it is minor.  There are several contemporary pop culture jokes.  While this does mean that they can be updated as needed, unlike a film adaptation where such additions would become quickly stale, they do detract from the universality of the story.

Peter and The Starcatcher is being performed at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York City.  For tickets and other performance information please visit or