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NYC Theater Review—Antony Sher in “King Lear” at BAM

King Lear

Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Gregory Doran

Performances through April 29, 2018

Antony Sher and Graham Turner in King Lear (photo: Ellie Kurttz)

King Lear should drain spectators as much as it drains the life out of its eponymous protagonist, who dies with his beloved Cordelia in his arms, his prideful transgressions also resulting in the deaths of his other two daughters, a son-in-law, and the complete destruction of his kingdom. However, of the many times I’ve seen Lear, the end rarely arrives with more than a shrug; that continues with Gregory Doran’s workmanlike Royal Shakespeare Company production starring Antony Sher at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.


Two years ago at BAM, Doran and Sher’s collaborative Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 had the same strengths and weaknesses, but Sher’s tendency toward overripeness—superb diction but odd scansion and excessive zeal—worked better with Falstaff than Lear, which needs a more judicious balancing act between the role’s subtle humor and the tragic downward spiral from arrogance to madness to brief joy to final, fatal grief.


Doran’s lone innovation—if it can be called that—is an oversized glass box that Lear first appears in, carried in by his servants, as he declaims from on high and apart from his subjects about his “darker purpose.” The box returns for the torturing of Gloucester, which enables the “vile jelly” of his eyes being torn out of his skull to shoot all over the glass, where it looks like the gory contents of many more eyes than his mere two.


Doran’s otherwise measured pace has the desultory effect of watching a monochromatic melodrama, not Shakespeare’s taut tragedy. Niki Turner’s drab sets and costumes—the latter mainly all white or all black—might be an unintended comment on the director’s peculiar lack of shading. Botched is the climactic scene, as a wheeled-out Lear sits holding the dead Cordelia: this kills the effect of an incensed father howling over his daughter’s demise, his own frailty momentarily usurped by his overwhelming sadness. And Sher speaks Lear’s five heartbreaking “nevers” without ever cutting straight to the heart, sounding like an actor’s recitation exercise rather than the furious cries of a mortally grief-stricken man.


The large supporting cast is highlighted by Antony Byrne’s keenly observed Kent, Oliver Johnstone’s cogent and sympathetic Edgar/Poor Tom and Graham Turner’s amusingly stoic Fool. Conversely, none of the actresses playing Lear’s daughters makes much of an impression, while Paapa Essiedu—who plays Edgar’s villainous illegitimate brother Edmund—has been called a 28-year-old acting wunderkind, but his performance lacks sufficient variety, with an unfortunate singsong voice to boot. 


Ultimately, this is another production of King Lear that fails to scale the summit of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.


King Lear

BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY

April '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Color of Pomegranates 


Armenian director Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 masterpiece—a riotous blend of color, music, sound, poetry and religious imagery—is an impressionistic biography of the 18th century Armenian troubadour Sayat-Nova; but even if the mainly abstract tableaux make his film difficult to “get,” the director’s stunning visual and aural artistry is always in evidence.




Criterion’s restored hi-def transfer has given this hard-to-see classic its best “look” on video, while several extras give context to Parajanov’s singular cinema: critic Tony Rayns’ commentary; video essay on the film's symbols and references; scholar James Steffen interview; Sergei Parajanov: The Rebel, a 2003 documentary; The Life of Sayat-Nova, a 1977 documentary; and a 1969 documentary, The Color of Armenian Land.


The Royal Funeral of Louis XIV/Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV 

(Harmonia Mundi)

This dazzling recreation of the musical pageant that followed the 1715 death of the French monarch is set in the gorgeous chapel at the palace of Versailles, where the Sun King lived and reigned, and features a procession of funereal music by many French court composers.




The setting is truly spectacular, the music is equally magnificent, and the performances by the ensemble Pygmalion, choir and soloists are also first-rate; the only quibble is that, at 100 minutes, it all starts to overstay its musical welcome.








Seijun Suzuki—The Early Years, Vol. 2 


The renowned Japanese cult director made a voluminous number of films in his lengthy career, so it’s problematic to place him in any kind of box other than this second boxed set of five of his earliest efforts. Although all over the stylistic and narrative map, they’re linked as studies of low-lifes and other shady characters, all shot in an exuberant manner.




Of the five, the most interesting are The Sleeping Beast Within and Smashing the O-Line (both 1960), each featuring actor Hiroyuki Nagato in vastly different roles: but all are definitely worth a look. Hi-def transfers are first-rate; extras comprise an O-Line commentary by critic Jasper Sharp and critic Tony Rayns interview.


Shakespeare Wallah 

(Cohen Film Collection)

One of the earliest Merchant-Ivory productions, this 1965 comic drama follows a British classical theater troupe on tour through India and the romantic and other entanglements that ensue throughout. The movie suffers from obvious writing (by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), stilted directing (by James Ivory) and wooden acting in several key roles: its saving grace is its depiction of mutual condescension between colonizer and colonized.




On Blu-ray, the restored B&W film looks superb; extras include interviews with Ivory, Merchant, and actors Shashi Kapoor and Felicity Kendal.








Sleeping Dogs 


Roger Donaldson’s 1977 drama helped put the New Zealand film industry on the map, and its resonant depiction of a democratic nation overtaken by martial law feels all too relevant. A then-unknown Sam Neill is fierce and vivid as an everyman caught up in an anarchic political climate, and Warren Oates provides down-and-dirty support as an American army man trying to restore order.




The hi-def transfer is good and grainy; extras a commentary by Donaldson, Neill and actor-writer Ian Mune; The Making of Sleeping Dogs (2004), a 65-minute retrospective documentary on the film's production; and The Making of Sleeping Dogs (1977), an archival on-set featurette.


DVD of the Week

Killing for Love 

(Sundance Selects)

The sensational murder trial of young American woman Elizabeth and German boyfriend Jens—both given life sentences for killing her parents—is recounted in Marcus Vetter and Karin Steinberger’s engrossing and unsettling documentary.




Centered around an interview with Jens, currently in prison and recanting his confession, the film is a disturbing dive into the intricacies and unfairness of our justice system. Imogen Poots and Daniel Bruhl provide the voiceovers for both protagonists. 


Broadway Musical Review—Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls”

Mean Girls

Book by Tina Fey; music by Jeff Richmond; lyrics by Nell Benjamin

Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw

Opened April 8, 2018

Erika Henningsen, Ashley Park, Taylor Louderman and Kate Rockwell in Mean Girls (photo: Joan Marcus)

The enduring popularity of 2004’s Mean Girls—screenwriter Tina Fey’s dead-on satire about high school cliques, with a perfect cast led by Fey, Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams—has inevitably led to a Broadway version. But is updating the story for our social-media age and shoehorning in songs enough to give Mean Girls a new life onstage?


The answer is a qualified yes. Although Jeff Richmond’s songs and Nell Benjamin’s lyrics are the usual pedestrian combo that infects current musicals, Fey has smartly turned her original script into a book that may be even funnier and more pointed than the movie. And Casey Nicholaw has choreographed and directed with smashing effectiveness, his endlessly clever dance sequences (including great tap dancing and use of school cafeteria trays) and inventive movement throughout propels the show forward. 


Nicholaw’s ace design team—Scott Pask (sets), Gregg Barnes (costumes), Kenneth Posner (lighting), Brian Ronan (sound), and Finn  Ross and Adam Young (video projections)—creates a high school world with an impressive visual sheen that underscores, not undercuts, Fey’s slyly conceived paean to female self-empowerment (song titles include “A Cautionary Tale,” “It Roars,” “Fearless” and the big finale, “I See Stars”).


But making Mean Girls unmissable is its exuberant cast. Erika Henningsen is a charmingly ordinary Cady (the Lohan part), while Grey Henson and Barrett Wilbert Weed make Cady’s uncool friends Damian and Janis amusingly sarcastic guides to the proceedings. The Plastics—McAdams, Amanda Seyfried and Lacey Chabert in the movie—are enacted by Ashley Park, whose Gretchen literally bleeds funny neediness; Taylor Louderman, who embodies the towering blonde goddess Regina spectacularly and star-makingly; and Kate Rockwell, who as Karen does an incredibly difficult balancing act: playing an incredibly stupid character with so many smarts that she’s sidesplittingly hilarious as she steals scenes left and right.


Too bad that Kerry Butler, a wonderful comedienne and golden-voiced singer, has little to do in her three roles (teacher Ms. Norbury, Cady and Regina’s moms): but her natural charisma considerably brightens her infrequent onstage moments anyway. Broadway’s Mean Girls should please both die-hard fans and those looking for a rollicking good time.

Mean Girls

August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street, New York, NY

Off-Broadway Musical Review—“Miss You Like Hell”

Miss You Like Hell

Book & lyrics by Quiara Alegría Hudes; music & lyrics by Erin McKeown

Directed by Lear deBessonet

Performances through May 13, 2018

Gizel Jimenez and Daphne Rubin-Vega in Miss You Like Hell (photo: Joan Marcus)

Miss You Like Hell is easy to root for, dramatizing as it does one illegal immigrant’s experience in today’s America. But this musical about the cross-country road trip undertaken by a teenage girl and her estranged mother never hits the emotional highs it aims for by taking too many detours, both figurative and literal.


Beatriz shows up one day where daughter Olivia lives in Philadelphia with her dad to take her on a trip back to California, where (Beatriz eventually admits) she wants Olivia to speak on her behalf at her upcoming hearing to see if she will get her green card and stay in the United States legally. 


But their journey is immediately fraught with roadblocks both benevolent and malevolent, from Olivia’s blog follower who’s a Yellowstone park ranger and a traveling middle-aged gay couple in the midst of getting married in all 50 states to a traffic cop and, finally and most menacingly, an ICE agent.


Although set in 2014, Miss You Like Hell is haunted by Trump’s immigrant intolerance, which casts an inevitable pall over a show that is, at its heart, a darkly humorous relationship drama about a mother desperate to reconnect and a daughter initially wanting (like most teens) to remain at arm’s length. 


Quiara Alegria Hudes, who reworked her play 26 Miles for this show’s book, finds amusement and bemusement in Beatriz and Olivia’s attempts to find common ground beyond their shared blood, but by dropping several other characters in their way—only Manuel, who sells them tamales in Wyoming and who joins them on their trip, has any substantiveness—Hudes reduces their story to a frustratingly episodic character study.


Hudes isn’t helped by Erin McKeown’s songs: the lyrics are rather literal-minded, and McKeown’s tunes are for the most part unilluminating and suffer from a musical sameness. Early on, “Sundays” has a Sondheim vibe that bodes well, but by the time we get to the reprise of “Yellowstone,” a repetitive song that didn’t deserve its first airing, it’s clear that McKeown is running on fumes. 


Sure enough, the show sputters to a stop despite a powerful final image courtesy of scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez, lighting designer Tyler Micoleau and director Lear deBessonet, who otherwise is unable to effectively navigate this extremely bumpy ride.


Daphne Rubin-Vega is an unsurprisingly fiery Beatriz, astonishing newcomer Gizel Jimenez makes a formidably spunky Olivia, and the supporting players fill out their cardboard roles proficiently. But Miss You Like Hell, for all its timely relevance, feels like a soap-opera period place despite the talent involved.


Miss You Like Hell

The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY


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