Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Off-Broadway Theater Review: If Only -- TOP PICK

Melissa Gilbert and Mark Kenneth Smaltz. Photo: Carol Rosegg

By Lauren Yarger
If only all plays could be so lyrical, eloquent and timely. . . 

Thomas Klingenstein's poignant new play If Only, getting a limited Off-Broadway run at the Cherry Lane Theatre through Sept. 17, imagines what race relations in our country might have been like had President Abraham Lincoln not been assassinated.

Set 36 years after John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal shot at Ford's Theater, two people who called him friend, are reunited. Ann Astorcrt ("Little House on the Prairie"'s Melissa Gilbert), a stifled New York society housewife who recently took in a mute orphan named Sophie (Korinne Tetlow), once volunteered in a hospital serving wounded soldiers during the war. That's where she met Samuel Johnson (Mark Kenneth Smaltz). a runaway slave who went on to serve as Lincoln's valet.

Inattentive husband, Henry (Richmond Hoxie), agrees to allow Ann to have a visitor -- just another whim he gives in to as proof of his love for the wife he doesn't quite understand. He doesn't get her obsession with Lincoln, whom he accuses her of giving deity status thanks to a bust she keeps on her desk.

"Not a god," she replies, "But as perfect as God made a man."

He shrugs off the visit as unimportant and leaves to attend a meeting. What he doesn't realize is that Lincoln represented a hope of how things might have been not only for racial relations in America, but for possibilities of marriage between blacks and whites -- that is to say, between Samuel and Ann.

During their visit, it becomes clear that this couple shared great love and both still care deeply, though Ann is in denial and pretends not to remember some of their cherished moments together. Their conversation is engaging, intellectual and stimulating about everything from how to re-arrange the apartment (beautifully appointed in Victorian style by Scenic Designer William Boles) to the complexities of Lincoln's plan to make -- or not make, as the debate ensues -- blacks and whites equal. 

The discourse is a sharp contrast to the conversation between Ann and Henry, where they talk in distracted fashion without ever communicating. Ann's primary means of expression are a story-journal she keeps (which alludes to her experiences with Lincoln and Samuel) and reads aloud to Sophie. And in subtle direction, we see that Samuel, in offering a pillow to Ann, is much more attentive to her real needs than her husband, who is more obsessed with the inanimate portrait of his perfect image of her that hangs in the parlor.

Klingenstein's dialogue is eloquent and lyrical. Combined with subtle lighting (Design by Becca Jeffords) and muted colors and tones in the set and costumes (Design by Kimberly Manning), Director Christopher McElroen transports us back in time while spotlighting issues about race that, in many ways, don't seem all that different in 2017. It's a skillful journey. Klingenstein, a New York-based playwright whose work has been presented at The Lark, where If Only was developed, has another play form the era, Douglass which premiered last year in Chicago.

Gilbert delivers layers for Ann, taking her from the wife who doesn't want to upset Henry in the slightest to the intelligent woman hiding underneath the norm demanded by society. This woman isn't afraid to speak her mind and expound ideas that would upset a great many in the country. Smaltz portrays Samuel as elegant, caring, patient and tolerant, as he understands that change can't come all at once.

"Memory cannot reshape the soul," and "anger has no logic all its own," he observes in some of the thought-provoking statements that pepper the conversation. Samuel has a way of retelling history (he's a teacher of it) that makes it real -- much like the gift of this playwright has in bringing the past to the present in just 85 minutes without intermission..

If Only runs only through Sept. 17 at the Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce St.

FAMILY-FRIENDLY FACTORS:
-- No content notes

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Off-BroadwayTheater Review: Pipelne TOP PICK

Karen Pittman (foreground) and Namir Smallwood. Photo: Jeremy Daniel
Pipeline
By Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Lincoln Center
Through Aug. 27

By Lauren Yarger
What's It All About?
Dominique Morriseau's touching study of a mother trying to give her son a better life in the midst of a system stacked against him. Nya Joseph (an intense Karen Pittman) teaches a a public, inner-city high school while sending her son, Omari (Namir Smallwood) to private boarding school. When African-American Omari is provoked during a discussion of Richard Wright's "Native Son", attacks his white teacher and is threatened with expulsion form the school, Nya's world begins to fall apart and she makes some sacrifices. She reaches out to Omari's less-than-polished girlfriend, Jasmine (Heather Velazquez) and the boy's estranged father, Xavier (Morocco Omari), for help. The one who really needs help, however, is Nya who can't take the stress of seeing her son's chances being taken away as the "pipeline" which steers underprivileged kids from inner-city schools to prison seems to be winning. Her friends, school security guard Dun (Jamie Lincoln Smith) and teacher colleague, Laurie (Tasha Lawrence) try to help, but there may not be a solution here.

What Are the Highlights?
Excellent direction by Lileana Blain-Cruz and a riveting performance by Pittman propel the taut storytelling and lyrical prose of Morriseau's work (which packs a punch in 90 minutes with no intermission).  Lawrence (If I Forget, The Whale, Good People) is a pistol -- no a machine gun -- as the fed-up educator who expresses scathing opinions about her charges that teachers everywhere probably wish they could say.

Morriseau (Skeleton Crew) distinguishes herself here as a playwright to watch. Her development of character is expert. We learn so much about Omari and Jasmine, for example, just in a metaphor where he compares her to a metamorphic rock.

The show attracted a younger, much more diverse audience for the matinee I attended and the young people, many of whom appeared to be on school trips, were engaged throughout without the usual clowning around or phone use during the show that can be typical of these kind of audiences.

Matt Saunders' set is so realistic, right down to the Linoleum, that it looks as though it were salvaged from an old school. A few props are pushed on to change locations.

What Are the Lowlights?
A lack of resolution -- but perhaps that is a statement about society's problems in general.

More Information:
Pipeline educates through Aug. 27 at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th St. lincolncenter.org

Additional credits:
Costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, Lighting by Yi Zhao, Sound by Justin Ellington, Projections by Hannah Wasileski

FAMILY-FRIENDLY FACTORS:
-- God's name taken in vain
-- Derogatory racial word used
-- Language

Off-Broadway Theater Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream

Richard Poe, Annaleigh Ashford, and Alex Hernandez. Photo: Joan Marcus.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
By William Shakespeare 
Directed by Lear deBessonet
Choreography by Chase Brock
Public Theater
Through Aug. 13

By Lauren Yarger
What's It All About? 
Seriously, if you don't know the story, I refer you to a volume of classic works by William Shakespeare or Spark notes. After seeing this particular play countless times (some theater I cover presents it at least once a season), I will beg off describing the silly plots about Gods playing tricks on each other in Athens, unsuspecting mortals getting caught in the crossfire and of amateur thespians set on performing at a royal wedding. Note: in case you doubt that I have seen this play enough times to be tired of it, the first Helena I ever saw was Diana Rigg in 1968

What Are the Highlights?
This version, directed by Lear deBessonet, founder of The Public Theater’s Public Works program, offers a couple of pleasant treats: Annaleigh Ashford (as Helena) and Kristine Neilsen as Puck. These are two of the theaters finest comedic actresses and they don't disappoint here. Ashford runs away with the show, playing Helena with a physical and vocal humor that has us laughing out loud all the way through the three hour run time. She's razor sharp on all counts. Look for award nominations here.  Nielsen is a sophisticated, yet discombobulated Puck, sharing "private" moments and expressions of confusion with the audience. It's a comedy more subtle than Ashford's and they each have a place in deBessonaet's direction.

Also turning in notable performances, in a very strong ensemble cast, are Danny Burstein as Nick Bottom, Richard Poe as Oberon and Phylicia Rashad as Titania.

David Rockwell masterfully brings Central Park onto the stage:

Kyle Beltran, Kristine Nielsen, and Shalita Grant. Photo: Joan Marcus

What Are the Lowlights?
I didn't care for the heavy, jazzy original music by Justin Levine (who also supervises and orchestrates) sung by Fairy Singer Marcelle Davies-Lashley and played by a band up in a tree house. It doesn't blend with the light feel of the show.

The costumes also standout for not fitting -- with the whimsical, airy atmosphere of the play, that is. Perhaps Costume Designer Clint Ramos was trying to make a point of some kind, but I have to admit that the atrocious colors and styles were lost on me. They propel us into modern times, stealing away some of the enchantment of being transported to ancient Greece. Nielsen is outfitted in unattractive masculine pajamas and the fairies look more like ghosts than ethereal creatures (see below).

Phylicia Rashad and Benjamin Ye (center) Photo: Joan Marcus.

More Information:
A Midsummer Night's Dream plays at Central Park's Delacorte Theater (enter at 81st Street and Central Park West) through Aug. 13. Tickets are free (check out the webpage for details). publictheater.org

Additional casting:
De’Adre Aziza (Hippolyta); Kyle Beltran (Lysander); Min Borack (Fifth Fairy); Vinie Burrows (First Fairy, Peaseblossom); Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom); Justin Cunningham (Philostrate); Marcelle Davies-Lashley (Fairy Singer); Austin Durant (Snug); Shalita Grant (Hermia); Keith Hart (Third Fairy); Alex Hernandez (Demetrius); Jeff Hiller (Francis Flute); Robert Joy (Peter Quince); Patricia Lewis (Fourth Fairy); David Manis(Egeus, Cobweb); Pamela McPherson-Cornelius (Second Fairy); Patrena Murray (Snout); Bhavesh Patel(Theseus); Joe Tapper (Robin Starveling); Judith Wagner (Mote); Warren Wyss (Mustardseed); Benjamin Ye (Changeling Boy).

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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