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Ibsen’s The Doll House isn’t the only classic to be continued. Lucas Hnath’s Doll House Part 2 begins 15 Years after Nora exited the Torvad household. The world premiere from Adjusted Realists of Stephen Kaliski’s The Briefly Dead is a quirky mix of classic and contemporary meant as a sequel to Euripides’ Alcestis. She was the fairest daughter of Pellas, king of Iolcus, and wife of King Admetos. In a bedazzled moment, to show her great love of him, when Death calls, she sacrifices herself in order for him to live. But Kaliski poses what happens when a Superman returns her from the Underworld?
The Briefly Dead is presented by Adjusted Realists (revival of Nicky Silver’s Pterodactyls; Kaliski’s Glutten! at 59E59) specializes in stories set in slightly unhinged worlds. The play fits their mission perfectly.
Kaliski, resident director of Broadway’s overly-reworked musical adaptation of Brit author Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who also helmed Gluten!, and wrote West Lethargy, published in Plays and Playwrights 2011. In addition, he’s a public speaking coach and has worked with Michael Grandage and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He’s come up with a clever premise we could all relish. However, it’s all in the execution. That is a bit of a roller coaster ride – between Greek tragedy drama and elements of camp and farce with none exquisitely demarcated. It’s also one that demands your very rapt attention. If you like your Greek mythology spiked with spunk and modern twists such as talk of sushi and TV shows, boxed cereals, a pop rendition on guitar [instead of lyre] – not to mention dark, feminist poems of Sylvia Plath, this one’s for you. And there are some nice theatrical touches, such as the use of shadow puppets and wavy moves [choreography?] from a sort of Greek Chorus.Director and puppet designer Elizabeth Ostler (creator, Communal Theater, whose mission is “cultivating a connection between audiences and performers”) knows how to place her cast around the tiny performance space. The most enjoyable Greek drama touch is a quartet akin to Greek Choruses of yore. They comment on the goings-on with song, dance, even biting comments.
In the prologue, Mia Isabella Aguirre, a hip Amazon, even taller in platform shoes, is our Leader, Death – and she be not proud nor humble. She enters her “ransacked office,” with all manner of “stuff,” including bodies, strewn about. Admetos -- portrayed by the hunk a.k.a. Ben Kaufman (a Flea and Horse Trade Theatres regular), is told it's his time to enter the great beyond. He doesn't want to go. He suggests someone go in his place. Heracles/Hercules, with Paul Hinkes, at 6’8” and quite well-fitted in Gap (maybe), aptly filling the role, sees how devastated Admetos is. He uses one of his labors to bring Alcestis back – thus, voilà!, fulfilling the title. Thus, also, beginning the tale. But is getting your wife back really such a good thing – especially if she’s a powerful and cunning heroine out to settle a score?Aguirre is a really nice touch, and it would be fun to see more of her. Greek/American Jenna Zafiropoulos (lead, Paula Vogel’s Desdemona; Marie Curie, Kate Benson’s Radium Now), received her theater arts degree from Deree, the American College of Greece, and is steeped in the lore of Greek tragedy. As Alcestia, she’s outfitted in classic garb, her long hair in a regal braid.
The fun element comes from the game quartet of petite dynamo Sofiya Cheyenne as Phyllis (“a neighbor”), Kristin Fulton as Avra (Admetos’ assistant), Katie Proulx as Zena (Alcestis’s sister), and Sarah Wadsley as Kyra (best friend to Alcestis). Since the play is in 59E59’s intimate C venue, you might think this is a trial run to see how it, well, plays before taking it further. The intimacy of having the actors virtually in your lap in a good number of seats is an asset. More than anything, The Briefly Dead benefits from an excellent cast. However, in spite of a lengthy rehearsal schedule and fast-paced direction by Ostler, it’s not always easy to make sense of what they’re up to.
Original music is by Steve Smith, with choreography by Proulx.
Director: Simon Curtis
Writers: Frank Cottrell Boyce, Simon Vaughan
Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald
Everybody in the western world, and maybe beyond it, knows the lovable children’s character Winnie the Pooh — the gentlest of gentle creatures, the one who lets kids know that through it all, there’s one figure who always represents innocence and the light.
The Winnie the Pooh stories were inspired by father’s appreciation of his son as he grew up. The Dad in this case was noted playwright A. A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) who learns to connect with his son Christopher Robin at a time when men did little to connect with their offspring besides being the dominant provider. In Director Simon Curtis’ film “Goodbye Christopher Robin” he offers a glimpse into this relationship as the elder Milne transitions from shell-shocked writer-turn-war-veteran to country squire to loving father to celebrated children’s book author.
Along with mother Daphne (Margot Robbie) and nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), son Christopher Robin lives at first, an isolated life in their home near the countryside far from the hustle and bustle of London. Then, thanks to the success of dad’s stories of these imagined characters from based on his childhood toys, Christopher Robin becomes a high-profile celebrity as the magical world of Pooh becomes an international phenomenon
He and his family are swept up in the international success of the books; the enchanting tales provide hope and comfort to England after the crushing devastation of World War One but with all the attention focused on Christopher Robin, the cost on the family was profound as he became one of the world’s first media darlings.
This film offers a set of balanced performances by this quartet of characters (with several actors playing Christopher Robin at various ages). Mother and child and father and nanny pirouette throughout the course of the story outlined here. The weight of this film rest on actor Domhnall Gleeson whose performance as Milne provided insight into a man who learned how to be a father while making his share of mistakes along the way.
Director Curtis has an uncanny way of finding the story beyond the narrative as he did in “My Week With Marilyn” where he drew out a subtle performance from Eddie Redmayne as well. In fact, both films address the toxic effect fame can have on people not exactly equipped to handle it. Though this film seemed overshadowed by other films set in 20th Century England, this one shouldn’t be overlooked.
Written by David Cale; directed by Leigh Silverman
Performances through December 10, 2017
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, New York, NY
Billy Crudup in Harry Clarke (photo: Carol Rosegg)
One of our most accomplished stage actors, Billy Crudup delivers a tour de force performance in Harry Clarke, a solo play by David Cale. Crudup effortlessly portrays Philip Brugglestein, an American who takes on the identity of a Britisher he names Harry Clarke to escape his small-town Midwest upbringing and moves to Manhattan, where he meets Mark Schmidt, a strapping young WASP from Connecticut, and his heavy-drinking family—all of whom he dupes into believing that “Harry” was once pop singer Sade’s personal assistant. He soon beds Mark, Mark’s sister Stephanie, and even their mother Ruth, making his own life (as Philip and Harry) complicated indeed.
The conceit of Cale’s clever if misogynistic and ultimately misanthropic one-acter is that the actor is onstage alone for entire 80 minutes, not only speaking as Philip but also as Harry, whose voice fluctuates between a standard (to American ears) British accent and more outlandish Cockney one. He also speaks the parts of Mark, Stephanie and Ruth, among others.
The glory of Crudup’s bravura acting is his shifting gears among all of these differing and at times competing accents while narrating this initially amusing then deeply troubling story about how this nondescript kid from Indiana fooled several people—including himself—into thinking him a big shot from London, a place that Philip has never been to. (Crudup even credibly sings a couple of Cale’s sly songs.)
Crudup, who from his first Broadway forays (in the original production of Arcadia and opposite Mary Louise Parker in Bus Stop) has been a talent to be reckoned with, has gone from strength to strength onstage, from Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia and Arcadia revival to Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
But his prestidigitation in Harry Clarke, juggling so many different accents and, even more impressively, disparate characterizations, is what makes this flawed play—disturbing in its implications of how a man can so cavalierly ignore others’ well-being, whether his lover or his lover’s vulnerable sister or even more vulnerable mother—worth attending.
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, New York, NY
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Director/Writer: Martin McDonagh
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage
In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” a mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), doesn’t merely grieve for her daughter who was raped and murdered in a particularly grisly way, she takes action. She has felt that the local police have done little to solve the crime, so she issues her own public complaint in a particularly dramatic way — by buying space on three billboards outside her home, demonstratively declaring the local sheriff’s incompetence.
Her response is not unlike the firestorm hitting the media nowadays as certain powerful men are being accused of sexual assault, harassment and cover ups. One only wonders how many of these stories would have come to the light if one of those affected had said something sooner or as demonstratively as does Mildred Hayes. One wonders what would have happened if these victims had been paid attention to rather than see their accusations swept under the rug or paid off.
The frustration Hayes feels is like that of today — and then she takes action. This sets off a series of reactions on the part of both law enforcement and the locals which was not unexpected but was also painful for her and her family.
The townspeople, are upset over the billboards’ content, particularly Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and incompetent, racist officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Many people also find the signs in bad taste considering that Willoughby suffers from terminal pancreatic cancer. Soon after the billboards are put up, Mildred and her depressed son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) are harassed and threatened, but Mildred stays firm, much to Robbie’s chagrin.
A cascading series of events tumble down until Mildred surprisingly joins forces with enervated former officer Dixon to track down the perpetrator or someone else who has assaulted women as well.
An internationally recognized playwright and occasional film director, Martin McDonagh skillfully toys with emotions and possible outcomes in order to force an audiences to allay their expectations. He did some thing of the same with his previous film, “In Bruges” where he humorously stood expectations on their head.
If any film that’s come out this season turns simple, raw emotions like rage and frustration into a deep psychological essay, then it’s this one. But none of it could have happened without the director’s partnership with such a unique set of actors. The core acting trio which exudes the film’s glue — McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell — emotionally inhabit their characters so successfully that they deeply engage audiences. If any film warrants a crop of award noms, it’s this one.
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