Wanderlust: a theater director trots the globe

Portland's Jon Kretzu reports back on shows in NYC, London, and Stratford: first of a series

By JON KRETZU

Travel has been an important part of my life since I was a child. I have always loved the excitement of traveling to other cities and making them homes away from home. It’s impossible to  imagine a year going by without multiple visits to the places I love and seeing friends, old and new, around the globe. My work in the theater has also been inspired immeasurably by these sojourns. How bereft I would be to not get to New York City or London (or my more recent new city-friends, Toronto, Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Stratford – all of them a stone’s throw from each other in the beautiful province of Ontario) to see the glorious, and sometimes instructively abysmal, work in their theaters and opera houses.

This is the first in a series of reports about my personal wanderlust, with suggestions of what to see – or miss – on your own travels to the major fine arts centers of the United States, the United Kingdom, and our lovely neighbors to the North. As artists, we owe ourselves the multiple joys of getting out to see the work of our family of colleagues. It is both inspiring and essential to the art of creating new work and exploring new artistic vistas.

It’s also a helluva lot of fun.

 BIG APPLE: THE FABULOUS INVALID

New York City has been my beloved mistress since I was 21. That was the year I first saw its wonders, and it was love at first sight. The thrill of Broadway: my first show was the original cast of Sweeney Todd with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou on that gargantuan Victorian factory setting at the Uris. Wow, what a way to start. It was on one of those school trips with my Drama Club, and I vowed to get back asap without the club. I started going there on my own the next year, beginning to know the exquisite pleasure of apartment-sitting and couch-surfing as I began accumulating my ever-growing stock of favorite walks, favorite sights, favorite restaurants.

Broadway's TKTS booth, where prices get a breath of fresh air. Jim Henderson/Wikimedia Commons/2008

Broadway’s TKTS booth, where prices get a breath of fresh air. Jim Henderson/Wikimedia Commons/2008

There is simply no way to tire of NYC. I always feel welcomed by its grand, ourageous beauty and power and loving embrace, as if by a very old and dear friend who is ready to stimulate me, challenge me and give me yet another series of wildly divergent and entertaining memories. I have thought about living there many times – but it would be like marrying your mistress. I would rather return, as I do now, four or five times a year to bask in its sooty glow and catch up on whatever is unmissable this week.

One of the main reasons to be in New York is still the theater, even though it remains, as it has for years, on artistic life support. The fabulous invalid somehow keeps going despite a wealth of tourist-driven mediocrity on far too many stages, and the truly shocking constant rise of ticket prices. Top tickets for musicals (whether with the original cast or whether they have been running forever) hover around $200, while the new top price for single tickets for a small-cast, straight play (or, as is newly popular this past season, a one-person play) is a ridiculous $150. These prices have been going up and up every year, with no end in sight. No wonder the TKTS discount ticket booth is doing better business than ever. Yes, there is still nothing quite like a hot Broadway show at its prime, usually within the first 6 to 12 months of its run with the original cast. But equally wonderful theatrical experiences can sometimes be found in regional theatre and the many fine theatre festivals in the U.S. and Canada. And of course, often superior work is still to be found at more realistic prices in London – but more about that later.

Broadway actually had a pretty good season last year. It wasn’t stellar, and there weren’t that many unforgettable shows and performances, but it has been worse. There was a lot of interesting straight theatre this season – something that’s getting increasingly rare on the Great White Way. One-person shows were definitely a fad. There was Alan Cumming’s one man Macbeth in an asylum, and Michael Urie’s charming turn as the fictional (?) keeper of Barbra Streisand’s own personal shopping mall in Jonathan Tollins’  delightful off-Broadway hit Buyer and Cellar. (It’s soon to be coming to Los Angeles, where it is bound to be a hit.)

Bette Midler, dishing in "I'll Eat You Last." Photo: Richard Termine

Bette Midler, dishing in “I’ll Eat You Last.” Photo: Richard Termine

The best solo of the season was definitely Bette Midler‘s  delicious and surprisingly affecting star turn as the legendary Hollywood manager Sue Mengers in John Logan’s beautifully constructed tour de force I’ll Eat You Last. Distilling Menger’s devastating wit and bales of dishy dirt with a core of honest emotion, Logan created  a very satisfying 90 minutes of diva-theatre. Lolling about on a luxurious divan (from which she made only one devastating rise and move) Midler was mesmerizing. As catty as a Beverly Hills Cheshire cat and as looney as a louche caterpillar who’d had one too many hookahs, she was a marvel to behold, discovering levels of loss as the SoCal sunset and shadows encroached on her glass and chrome fortress. Sadly overlooked at Tony time,  this was a performance, and play, to remember. There is word that the show was taped for HBO, so many more people may get to enjoy it.

Nathan Lane: Ketchup and laughter in "The Nance." Photo: Joan Marcus

Nathan Lane: Ketchup and laughter in “The Nance.” Photo: Joan Marcus

Another great turn was given by Broadway favorite Nathan Lane in Douglas Carter Beane’s confused but affecting play, The Nance. Beane tried to cram way too much into his character study of a vaudeville sissy star and his turbulent love affair with a passionate, kind-hearted, almost-too-good-to-be-true Prince Charming. The show had a lot going on: some very clever and funny low-comedy period skits, an indulgent but moving soap-opera main plot, loads of gay humor, a smattering of social history, and a few raunchy songs. It was a bit of an unwieldy mess, but its heart was in the right place, and it was given a dazzlingly detailed production by director Jack O’Brien. And it gave Lane, one of the New York stage’s true treasures, a feast of a role to devour. Lane was simply brilliant, rising to stratospheric heights of camp and plummeting to depths of emotional despair and self-loathing. In a career filled with highlights, this was his finest and most truthful work yet – and, happily, it was captured on film for PBS for broadcast this year.

The best new play of the season according to Tony voters (and my personal favorite) was Christopher Durang‘s gently satiric and charming piece Vanya, Sonya, Masha and Spike. This was Durang in an autumnal mood, lacking both the savagery and surrealism of his other work in favor of a gentler, yet still passionate, character study of sibling love and challenge. Set within the bucolic confines of a Chekhovian weekend in the country, this is Durang’s most humane and emotional work to date. It was given a splendid production starting at Lincoln Center and later on Broadway, where it lost some of its poetic intimacy. It is bound to turn up in productions all over the U.S. – in Portland, Portland Center Stage has already announced a production for May and June of 2015 – and the original cast is rumored to be doing a London run in the autumn. But whoever plays it in the future could never diminish the exquisite magic of watching David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen subtly give a master class in acting as brother and sister. Whether finding every note of mirth and melancholy in their comic duets or in the bravura of their two lengthy monologues (also a study in contrasts between Nielsen’s delicate blossoming of love and hope during a single phone call and Pierce’s tour de force nervous breakdown aria of contemporary comic despair) this was hands down the theatrical pairing of the year.

Billy Magnussen and Sigourney Weaver in Durang's "Vanya."Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Billy Magnussen and Sigourney Weaver in Durang’s “Vanya.”Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Musical theatre was sadly undernourished this season – I still haven’t caught Dianne Paulus’s crowd- and critic-pleasing cirque revival of Pippin, a show that generally gives me hives. But I did see the two big musical hits of the year – Kinky Boots and the British import Matilda. Matilda is a highly stylized and grotesque funhouse of a musical based on the Roald Dahl children’s novel and, in its poisonous, sardonic way, it is an entertaining if loud and bombastic good time.

Kinky Boots is based on the amusing and life-affirming British art house comedy of a few years ago. It is well crafted and engagingly performed by a hard-working cast (especially drag diva Billy Porter, who pretty much does everything one can possibly do to win a Tony in his performance). Harvey Firestein‘s book may be a bit clumsy, but Cyndi Lauper‘s debut as a Broadway lyricist and composer results in a score with lots of heart and drive. It’s a fun night. I just wish it wasn’t quite so derivative, as it counts off every trick of every Broadway musical comedy hit of the last decade while ham-fistedly clambering to its inevitable feel-good finale and equally inevitable thunderous standing ovation.

By the way, why is it that audiences all over NYC jump to their feet like a pack of theatrical lemmings the second a Broadway show ends? This somewhat recent new affliction (which has started to infect regional theatre as well) is getting a bit depressing and robotic. Time was, one only gave a standing ovation at a particularly good night at the opera or ballet and at a show that really merited this form of grandiose affirmation. There is something a bit self-serving and self-indulgent about it all. Maybe it has to do with audience members having to prove they spent their considerable money on something truly worthwhile.

*

LONDON, THE MOTHER LODE

There is nothing remotely like New York City but, even though I love it, my favorite big city will always be London. I have been going to London and comparing the work there and in the U.S. for most of my adult life, and there really isn’t much of a contest. Broadway will always do a few things better: nothing’s more thrilling than a Broadway musical in full throttle, and certain kinds of drama will always find their gritty heart and soul in NYC. But for sheer power, passion and artistry, the work done in London is truly special. The majority of theatre in London shows  a deep respect for language and technique, coupled with a passionate lust for reinvention and interpretation, that is  transporting.  And while plenty of misguided movie and TV stars are on view here, work is also being done by multitudes of beautifully trained and devoted theatre artists who give their lives to creating work of the highest caliber. Happily, most of the finest work manages to cross the ocean these days – but more on that later.

Daniel Radcliffe in "Inishmaan": New York-bound. Photo: Johan Persson

Daniel Radcliffe in “Inishmaan”: New York-bound. Photo: Johan Persson

I never return from my UK jaunts without being inspired and energized, ready to jump into rehearsal and create. My last trip, this past August, was full of this type of excitement. There was much work to inspire on view, both on the West End and in the twin bastions of grand subsidized theatre – the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. In the West End,  the newly formed Michael Grandage company was presenting a fine, detailed revival of Martin McDonagh’s lovely piece The Cripple of Inishmaan, starring the very talented Daniel Radcliffe, who continues to surprise and gain respect as a fine stage actor who is so much more than a star child magician. It was wonderful to see him be a part of this fine ensemble and not do a turn – though his charming work ultimately did not reach the heights of his work in Equus and How To Succeed… Somewhat surprisingly, this production is coming over to the US, and opens on Broadway in a few weeks.

The most devastating show I saw was a transfer from the exciting Young Vic to the West End of Carrie Cracknell’s stunning production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Played out in the claustrophobic confines of Ian MacNeil’s brilliant turntable/apartment set, which has our heroine dashing round and round and never getting anywhere like a suburban hamster, this was a brutal, fascinating and finally wrenching account of this incredible play. The entire production was highly effective, but its center was undeniably the remarkable Nora of Hattie Morahan. An actress new to me, Morahan dug into the very marrow of this complex role and created a mesmerizing portrait of a woman slowly coming to terms with a truth she didn’t know existed. The variety and detail of her work was astonishing: by the time she got to the unforgettable final scene of the play the audience collectively held its breath, stunned by the emotional truth exposed onstage. An unforgettable evening. Happily, the production has crossed the ocean to BAM in Brooklyn for a short run through March 16. It is well worth the trip to catch.

The Young Vic's "A Doll's House": Pip Pearce (left) and Arthur Gledhill Franks with Hattie Monahan as Nora. Photo: Johan Persson

The Young Vic’s “A Doll’s House”: Pip Pearce (left) and Arthur Gledhill Franks with Hattie Monahan as Nora. Photo: Johan Persson

Sadly, not all the work I saw was  brilliant. The very expensive and highly promoted new musical version of the perennial classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory sounded like such a good idea. The score is by the fine musical team that wrote Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can, the talented Mark Thompson designed the production, the director is the superb Sam Mendes, and the star is the often remarkable Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka himself. How all these very talented and accomplished artists managed to create work of such surpassing mediocrity is a true mystery. Nothing onstage captures the magic, wit or soul of Dahl’s complex classic. There is a lot of noise and superfluous bombast, much clumsy, grotesque satire, little heart (save for the sweet glow of little Louis Suc, who was the Charlie I saw) and way, way, WAY too much video scenery. The score sounds like a bunch of songs the composers threw out of their other shows for good reason, the show moves like a lumbering mechanical toy ox, and Hodge manages to give one of the more bizarre musical comedy performances I’ve ever seen. Decked out in purple velvet and emoting with a weird mix of manic hysteria, fruity histrionics and checked-out boredom, his performance looks like what would have happened had Judy Garland turned to children’s theatre in the last years of her career.

What a mess – and you can catch it on Broadway sometime this season!

*

The Royal National Theatre, under the current inspired leadership of Nicholas Hytner, is a vital and stimulating place. Set in the picaresque bustle of London’s South Bank, the complex includes three theaters, a variety of cafes and galleries, a maze of rehearsal halls, storage and dressing rooms, and one of the truly great theatrical bookshops, all within a massive concrete bunker of a building that is a monument to the uninspired ugliness of 1960s architecture. It is a building alive with energy and excitement, and the work I see there is almost always intriguing and sometimes thrilling. The summer/fall season contained three very different pieces of work. Hytner’s powerful production of Othello in the Olivier Theatre is set in a bleak and brutalizing contemporary army barracks in Afganistan. The air is thick with the pent-up energy of enforced boredom, and the concrete rooms and public spaces – lit with gloomy sunshine and gloomier fluorescent glare – are utterly without human warmth or individuality. This is possibly the most disturbing production of this dark play I’ve ever seen. The cast is (with one crucial exception) wonderful. Olivia Vinall and Lyndsey Marshall make Desdemona and Emilia into a pair of very real women in crisis, and Adrian Lester is a revelatory Moor, charting a fascinating and horrific course into the very depths of insanity and mental derangement. Only Rory Kinnear’s oddly one-note Iago strikes a prosaic note in this intense production, but that ultimately doesn’t matter. As we move to what is a truly terrifying staging of the tragedy’s shocking final death-haunted scenes, a hush comes over the theater born of disgusted fascination.

Luckily, the marvelous NT LIve program of live broadcasts of many of the National’s productions to cinemas around the world is bringing this work to many people who cannot get to London. This engrossing Othello  was part of last year’s series, and upcoming productions include Sam Mendes’ sold-out King Lear with Simon Russell Bennet, one of the world’s most astonishing actors. It is also worth noting that NT Live often brings back past productions in repeat showings, so  it is worth keeping an eye on their website. (In Portland, Third Rail Rep sponsors regular screenings of NT Live shows; check here.)

Anne-Marie Duff as Nina in O'Neill's "Strange Interlude." Photo: Oliver Prout

Anne-Marie Duff as Nina in O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude.” Photo: Oliver Prout

Also fascinating to see was Eugene O’Neill’s rarely produced 1928 play Strange Interlude, written in 1923 but not premiered until five years later, at the NT’s Lyttleton Theatre. This massive monument to turgid, Freudian melodrama is the apotheosis of Soap Opera, containing a sub-Dynasty plot within its literary pretensions. Over nine acts and four hours, it tells the story of Nina Leeds (one of those life-force creatures so popular in modern literature) and the men in her life. While the play is kinda fun in a trashy sort of way, it can get awfully full of itself. Thankfully, Simon Godwin’s production moved briskly and mined the work’s often silly internal monologues for ironic humor, presented here as direct address to the audience instead of overly emoted “inner thoughts.” The cast did fine work keeping the play afloat (though Anne-Marie Duff’s brittle Nina was hard to buy as the supposedly sexually hypnotic Nina). The best reason to see the production was Charles Edwards’ delicious portrayal of the prissy, pent-up mama’s boy Charles Marsden: Edwards managed to savor every drop of this tricky character, and was both hilarious and heartbreaking.

Every now and then the National produces a real disaster, and this season’s white elephant was a deeply ridiculous account of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production (it’s his NT debut) resembles the work of an impassioned graduate-student director let loose with a large budget: lots of nonsensical ideas and little discernible talent. A confused riot of styles and devices – everything from Brechtian title cards to piled-up scenery and costume racks crammed with periodless-period costumes – is tossed in the mix, with little blobs of nudity and an ungodly amount of onstage video cameras operated by hunky guys in leather and dog masks (I’m not kidding) running around recording the action on stage, off stage, in the lobby and outside the theater as it is projected in often low-tech format on giant screens over the stage. A fun time was had by none.

*

Often the National moves its productions to the West End and around the world (the recent War Horse is perhaps the most obvious example ). This is the case with last year’s hugely popular production of Simon Stephens’ beautifully written adaptation of Mark Haddon’s runaway best seller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This moving and funny tale about Christopher, a teenage boy with Asperger Syndrome, and his adventurous journey to self-reliance and truth is an amazing piece of work. It tells a breathlessly exciting yarn as it treats its hero’s challenges with honesty and humor. The stage adaptation is blessed with a perfect cast (including a brilliant turn by young Johnny Gibbon as Christopher), clever and incisive direction by Marianne Elliott, and an astonishing design that uses modern scenic technology to its highly effective best. Sure, the piece is manipulative. But it’s nearly subtle in its manipulations (aside from the appearance of the world’s most adorable puppy EVER), and it builds to a conclusion both melancholy and exhilarating. Happily, this wonderful  production is coming to Broadway in a few months, where it is sure to  enjoy a long and successful run.

*

The other great bastion of English theater is the Royal Shakespeare Company, with its home base in Shakespeare’s birthplace, the charming hamlet of Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as homes in London and on tour. After a multi-million dollar renovation, the RSC’s theater complex has reopened, and the results are glorious. The bones of the classic old theater have been splendidly grafted onto the new buildings with tasteful sentiment, and the entire space now moves gracefully, from the expanse of park and gardens on the pastoral banks of the Avon River,  into the shell of the familiar old lobby, into the gorgeous new theater, and on into a vast space connecting audiences to the beloved, more intimate Swan Theatre. It is a joyful, light-filled space, with one especially lovely touch – the new lobby’s floor is that of the old stage floor upon whose weathered boards most of  the country’s finest actors have performed. True theater magic, indeed.

The company is in the middle of a very impressive season. I saw four productions, only one of which was a bit under-par. This was David Farr’s muddled and unsatisfying Hamlet. But even here there was much to admire, from Jonathan Slinger’s feverish, nerdy and emotionally wrought Prince to some truly inventive images and staging. It didn’t all add up, but it was rarely boring and often exciting.

The two Swan shows I caught were total opposites, but both wildly enjoyable. Titus Andronicus is one of my favorite Shakespeare works – a  masterpiece of shocking violence and even more shocking humor, both of them combining to create a  surreal world where rape, murder, dismemberment and cannibalism dance with outrageous jokes and bursts of poetry filled with bottomless pain and sorrow. Michael Fentiman’s new production may lack the piercing power and impact of Deborah Warner’s legendary production of the 1980s, but it is a wild ride and shamelessly enjoyable. Stephen Boxer has a marvelous time negotiating the emotional twists and turns of the title role with panache and the whole ensemble has a ball ripping up the text and devouring the play from the sardonic opening to the grotesque banquet/bloodbath of its inevitable conclusion.

"A Mad World My Masters" at Stratford-on-Avon. Photo: Manuel Harlan

“A Mad World My Masters” at Stratford-on-Avon. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The surprise hit of the season is also at the Swan. Popular comic director Sean Foley has taken Thomas Middleton‘s obscure Jacobean sex farce A Mad World My Masters and re-set it in the saucy world of London’s Soho red light district in the 1950s. The update is a wonder, making the outrageous script (bursting at the seams with double, triple and quadruple entendres, it has been rightly called one of the filthiest plays ever written) seem to be a lost manuscript from the  salacious pen of Joe Orton. It has  just about everything, including call girls posing as nuns, cheating wives, lecherous old men in leather dog collars who know their way around with a whip, lots of drag, sex, alcohol, funny names (my favorites being Sir Bounteous Peersucker and Mr. and Mrs. Littledick), more sex, a truly funny play within a play, a killer hot jazz band, cool dance moves, and a theater full of descending white balloons. The audience was in undisguised ecstasy from first fistfight to final dance climax: funfunfun.

The entire season was summed up for me with Maria Aberg’s gorgeous As You Like It back in the main theater – possibly the finest production I’ve ever seen of this beautiful play. Aberg sets the piece within the frame of a fascist autumnal court and a magical arden of towering trees and bohemian communes, and the production takes  us on the play’s journey with loving care and spontaneity. This visit to Arden is  a wonder, and much of that wonderment is due to the exquisite Rosalind and Orlando of Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann. Both of them also do wonderful work in Hamlet (Nixon as a heartbreaking Ophelia and Waldmann as a sensitive and gentle Horatio), but here they create total magic. Never before have I seen a Rosalind so convincing, charming and captivating, or an Orlando so passionate, tender and honest. This As You Like It finishes with a  rapturous final wedding celebration, its joyous wedding dance capped by a drenching downpour that leaves everyone soaked and muddy and full of love. We also leave the theater full of love, and the joy that comes only from experiencing the communal celebration that is live theater at its finest.

*

Portland director Jon Kretzu was associate artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre for almost 20 years, directing 50 productions there. He directs theater and opera nationally and in Canada, and has taught at several universities. In addition to his theater work, he has written about the fine arts in a host of Northwest and West Coast publications.

 

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