Sunday, May 01, 2011

The Olden Dazed and Confused - Play Reviews

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark - Second Stage Theatre - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Lynn Nottage, Directed by Jo Bonney
Runs until May 22nd 2011

Forests - Tarragon Theatre - Toronto, ON - *1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Wajdi Mouawad, translated by Linda Gaboriau, Directed by Richard Rose
Runs until May 29th 2011

the cosmonaut's last message to the woman he once loved in the former soviet union - Canadian Stage Company at Bluma Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Performing Arts - Toronto, ON - *1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by David Greig, Directed by Jennifer Tarver
Runs until May 14th 2011

The School For Lies - Classic Stage Company - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by David Ives, based on Molière's The Misanthrope, Directed by Walter Bobbie
Runs until May 22nd 2011

Apparently I like to see Lynn Nottage and Wajdi Mouawad plays within the same week. Last time, I saw Mouawad's intense play Scorched days after seeing the incredibly stressful Lynn Nottage Pulitzer Prize winning play Ruined, both critically acclaimed, both dark peeks into humanity set in places far from the world I know and understand. And both plays that STRESSED ME OUT (yet were beautifully rendered pieces). Nottage and Mouawad's latest plays are currently being presented in NYC and Toronto (respectively), with differing goals, and with differing results.

I also caught the Canadian premiere of Cosmonaut... directed by latest directing wonder (and Brian Dennehy's director du-jour) Jennifer Tarver, and a new take on Molière's The Misanthrope called The School for Lies (above) by David Ives and directed by Broadway's Walter Bobbie with a cast that includes Mamie Gummer (Off the Map) and Hamish Linklater (Twelfth Night, The New Adventures of Old Christine). But like Mouawad's Forests, I found all three production's efforts and intentions outweighed the play itself.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is split into 2 very different acts in very different times, and both are complete departures from the dark intensity of Nottage's previous Ruined. The first act is a hilarious spoof on Hollywood in the golden age when Blacks were still on the sidelines as we meet maid Vera Stark, who attempts to land a plum new Black role as she attends to a demanding starlet.

With a cast that could possibly be one of the Broadway musical casts around, the non-musical play is still deliriously campy and hits all the racial zingers with a deft ensemble cast.

Sanaa Lathan (Tony nominee for A Raisin in the Sun) is superb as Vera Stark, never wavering into caricature while dealing with the absurdities surrounding her. She's both a comic foil, a leading lady, and a smart and sassy Black woman trying to make it in a very White Hollywood of the 1930's. Stephanie J. Block (9 to 5, Wicked) is absolutely hilarious as starlet Gloria Mitchell, desperately trying to hang on to her fame, while Kimberly Hebert Gregory (The Brother/Sister Plays) and Karen Olivo (Tony winner from West Side Story) are Vera's very funny friends who are looking for a break in Hollywood. The cast is rounded out by the excellent Daniel Breaker (Tony nominee for Passing Strange), David Garrison (Wicked, Married, with Children) and Kevin Isola (Boys in the Band).

The play takes a tonal shift in act 2, fast forwarding to more current times as a panel begins to analyze Vera Stark making a talk-show appearance during the 60's. It's a clever set up to get 2 more time periods represented, and giving us a post-script to Vera's life since her Act 1 days, but Nottage seems to be repeating a simple message for a very long second act, and loses whatever energy and biting satire she had built up in the very entertaining first act. Unless I missed some bigger point, I found the second half of the play, while interesting, didn't seem to have the amount of ideas to sustain its presentation, and felt repetitive, thus diluting the pointed debate on Vera's ultimate fate. It did however allow most of the cast to play completely different characters, with Karen Olivo probably doing the greatest 180 character change.

While Vera Stark was Nottage's foray into comedy, Forests is a very different play for Wajdi Mouawad from his Incendies, yet somehow it remains on a similar dark and intense tone that seems to regurgitate many similar themes and storylines. Without giving too much away from either play, I felt Forests started well enough, with an intriguing opening, but Mouawad's newest story starts delving into a weird and convoluted story about one teenager's complicated family tree, and things get complicated as more and more past relatives' stories are revealed as we go back in time, with nothing really coming together until the end. Keeping track of all the names and relations is complicated enough, then throw in a medical mystery, references to historical events including the December 7th killings of the female engineering students in Montreal, and the ultimate story about what makes a family, gets diluted in this quasi family-tree mystery that is made more complicated then it needs to be.

With so many characters and branches of the family presented, we are given something that is supposed to be epic, but we are never given enough time to truly care or connect with most of the past relatives that when another shocking thing happens to any of the characters (and Mouawad again throws in as many taboos and shocking events as he can, without a core strong enough to sustain the believability as he did in Incendies), it's hard to truly care.

There are some terrific performances from the cast who are able to pull us in fast, especially Liisa Repo-Martell, Sophie Goulet and Matthew Edison, and I loved a lot of the direction from Richard Rose. There's a simple yet haunting set by Karyn McCallum and Rose utilizes it with some beautifully theatrical moments, but Mouawad doesn't connect the play with a strong enough centre to make this work. When teenage daughter Loup (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) searches for her past with the help of RH Thompson (Avonlea), we're supposed to see the 6 generations of her past through her grieving eyes (just after her mother (Jan Alexander Smith) dies), but Loup's angry teenager and her older professorial guide remain caricatures. Linda Caboriau's translations may not have helped, as often the dialogue felted stilted and trying, sounding more like bad poetry than anything eloquent or more importantly, real.

the cosmonaut's last message to the woman he once loved in the former soviet union doesn't fare much better with a simple storyline, instead, mixing several stories of disconnected people (including a Russian cosmonaut) as they weave their way through life, wanting to be heard.

It's a beautiful message, but one where I needed to read the liner notes before I fully understood the play, and I'm never sure how successful a play is if you have to read explanations for it. The second act is a bit more clear with its tales of two Russian cosmonaut's stuck in space, a Russian stripper and her elder stripper friend, an Irish woman left by her husband, a pregnant Policewoman, a rich suitor, and more. With only a cast of 6, the doubling of characters gives resonance to their opposing storylines, with Tarver nicely underlying the message in some of the staging, but while the emptiness of the stage and simplicity of the directions seems to enhance the themes of loneliness and disconnect, the multiple storylines don't quite gel until the second half, where by then, the long play exhausted the ideas the playwright was probably trying to convey.

On a brighter set (in fact, a very very white looking set), David Ives and Walter Bobbie present a revamped, modernized version of The Misanthrope with mixed results. In The School For Lies modern words are used in rhyming verse, all while presented in frilly old costumes and a stylishly minimalist, but classic looking set.

Between the old fashioned rhyme and the modern words being used, it took me a long time to truly ease into the rhythms of the play. It was clever, but almost too much so, and written to seem oh so clever, and some of the comedy and plot points get lost in the "cleverness" of the rhymes. The physical comedy probably got the biggest laughs, but the game cast tried their very best, but essentially, the words mostly got in the way.

Most successful was leading man Hamish Linklater, so hilarious on television and in Twelfth Night in the park, he's splendid as Frank, the mysterious newcomer. Mamie Gummer gives an aristocratic glow, but seems at more ease being the straight woman around the hilarity than being spitting out comic barbs.

Luckily Allison Fraser (Gypsy) milks every rhyming line with a sadistic barb that gives her antagonistic character a charming evilness and comic hilarity.

The rest of the ensemble is quite good, but Steven Boyer manages to steal the show with very few lines as the manservant.

Still, as comical as the cast could be, the updated version of a classic was probably unnecessary, and while the play even starts out pointing to its attempt at clarifying Molière's classic for a modern age, I felt it got even more confusing in its updated format, saved only by some terrific performances and comical physical direction.

Photo credits:
Cosmonaut's Last Message by Bruce Zinger
Forests by Cylla von Tiedemann
Vance at


jerry said...

Not Nottage's first foray into comedy. Check out Fabulation.

IMO second act of Vera Stark was brilliant and loaded with important ideas that more than sustained it.

Vance said...

Oh yah, I just meant Nottage switched it up from her last play (and I never mention first but maybe it came across that way. oops!).

I'd love to see it again because I couldn't tell if I missed details in the 2nd act but upon first viewing, I felt it had some great ideas, just not enough and it started to feel repetitive. Still, I enjoyed the first act a lot.

jerry said...’s-miscegenated-family-tree-lynn-nottage’s-by-the-way-meet-vera-stark/

Check out this interesting analysis. It may give you an idea what you missed. The night I was there Nottage had a talkbake and Gloria Steinem had some fascinating reaction to the second act.