Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton St.
April 7-29, $35-$125, 7:30 (plus weekend matinees)
Sir Antony Sher bids adieu to Shakespeare in a dark version of the already dark King Lear, continuing at BAM’s Harvey Theater through April 27. The Royal Shakespeare Company production takes place in a dank, dreary, dismal world reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths, where poverty and disillusionment reign. As the audience enters the theater, robed and hooded figures slowly walk onstage from the wings and sit on a vinyl tarp covering the ground, which is strewn with black gravel, while hellish mist floats in. After several minutes, they leave and a door in the back wall opens; Lear, wearing an enormous, brutal, bearlike fur coat, makes his entrance, sitting on his throne atop a large box with transparent sides. The members of the court are all dressed in black, some with gold adornments, except for one woman, who we soon learn is Cordelia (Mimi Ndiweni). Prepared to divide his kingdom into thirds, Lear listens as first Goneril (Nia Gwynne), who is married to the Duke of Albany (Clarence Smith), then Regan (Kelly Williams), wed to the Duke of Cornwall (James Clyde), profess their undying love for their father, and each is rewarded with their share of the kingdom. But when Cordelia, the youngest daughter, tells Lear she loves him as a child should love a parent, refusing to damn him with faint praise, he disinherits her. Lear’s trusted friend and adviser, the Earl of Kent (Antony Byrne), questions the king’s decision, so he is exiled. Afterward, another of Lear’s advisers, the Earl of Gloucester (David Troughton), is tricked by his illegitimate son, Edmund (Paapa Essiedu), into believing that his older son, Edgar (Oliver Johnstone), has plotted against him, leading Edgar to run away and disguise himself as Poor Tom, a crazy wanderer. Things don’t go well from there for anyone in the play, which was inspired by Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland and Sir Philip Sidney's Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music has been presenting Lear for more than 150 years, with a wide range of actors portraying the king, from Ernesto Rossi and Edwin Booth to Frank Langella and Sir Derek Jacobi. “It’s all Ian McKellen’s fault,” Sher writes at the beginning of his latest book, Year of the King: The Lear Diaries; McKellen played Lear at BAM in 2007. Directed by RSC artistic director Gregory Doran, Sher’s longtime partner, this Lear is more subtle than most, if that word can be used at all to describe the Bard’s monumental tragedy. The sixty-eight-year-old Sher plays Lear as a sad, gentle, at times spoiled child who is already in decline before completely unraveling. With great understatement he towers over everyone in the storm scene, high atop the box, video of a rushing waterfall raging behind him, but he has already lost it all. Byrne is a fine, forceful Kent, boasting a shaved head with a warriorlike tattoo; he’s determined to bring the king back to reality, but he knows it’s too late. Troughton is magnificent as Gloucester, a pathetic figure on his way to certain doom, his hair so disheveled you want to go onstage and hug him (and comb his dreary locks). Johnstone’s Edgar is heartbreaking as well, a kind of sprite who has been beaten down by a cruel world he can’t understand. And Graham Turner is a memorable Fool, a tall, strong clown whose mind and body break down over time.
Niki Turner’s set is mostly spare, with various objects, from small trees to chairs and tables to large circles on poles representing the sun and the moon, carried by the cast. The large box is a curious addition that might not completely work — perhaps it’s a metaphor for peering inside the minds of the characters, particularly Lear’s, or else is a sign of being trapped — but it is eerily effective in the blinding scene, blood spurting and splashing onto the transparent sides. Doran focuses on the act of seeing throughout the play, giving prominence to lines about sight and eyes. “What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes,” Lear tells Gloucester. “’Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind,” the Fool says to the old man (Edward James Walters). Tim Mitchell’s lighting, Jonathan Ruddick’s sound design, and Ilona Sekacz’s music, performed by musicians on balconies on the right and left of the stage, combine for a threatening atmosphere; the goings-on grow so somber that a surprising amount of the audience did not return after intermission for the second act, although I’d like to think that was more because those patrons were not prepared for nearly three and a half hours of gloom and doom. But this is Lear, after all, in this case featuring one of the world’s greatest Shakespearean actors taking his final Bard bow. It might be more of a whisper than a scream, but it is majestic and monumental nonetheless.
IN THE SOUP (Alexandre Rockwell, 1992)
SVA Theater 1 Silas
333 West Twenty-Third St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday, April 24, $25.94, 7:30
Tribeca Film Festival runs April 18-29
The 2018 Tribeca Film Festival might be hosting gala anniversary screenings of Scarface and Schindler’s List at the Beacon with impressive rosters of superstar guests and high price tags, but the one to see is Alexandre Rockwell’s 1992 black-and-white indie cult classic, In the Soup, which is being shown April 24 at the SVA Theater. The twenty-fifth anniversary screening is a case of life imitating art (imitating life): The black comedy is about the fabulously named Adolpho Rollo (Steve Buscemi), a ne’er-do-well New Yorker living in a run-down apartment building, working on his master opus, a five-hundred-page screenplay called Unconditional Surrender that he believes will change the face of cinema itself. A familiar New York story? Perhaps, but the film was largely unfamiliar to almost everyone but the most dedicated enthusiasts, since it has been out of circulation for most of its existence. A few years ago, In the Soup was down to one last, damaged archival print, but distribution company Factory 25 began a Kickstarter campaign to restore the film in time for its quarter-century anniversary, somewhat mimicking Adolpho’s efforts to get his movie made — which, in turn, is based on Rockwell’s attempts to make In the Soup in the first place, as many of the characters and situations in the film are based on real people and actual events. With wanna-be gangster brothers Louis Barfardi (Steven Randazzo) and Frank Barfardi (Francesco Messina) breathing down his neck for the rent, Adolpho decides to sell the last thing of value (at least in his mind) that he owns, his screenplay. (In real life, Rockwell sold his saxophone to help get In the Soup financed.) His first offer is not quite what he imagined, involving a pair of cable TV producers played by Jim Jarmusch and Carol Kane. But next he meets Joe (Seymour Cassel), an older, white-haired teddy bear of a man who may or may not be connected. Joe is so excited about making a movie that he can’t stop hugging and kissing — and even getting in bed with — a confused Adolpho, who really has nowhere else to turn. Adolpho wants his next-door neighbor, Angelica (Jennifer Beals, who was married to Rockwell at the time), to star in his film, but she wants nothing to do with him, although he does succeed in making Angelica’s estranged, and plenty strange, husband, Gregoire (Stanley Tucci), mighty jealous. Adolpho is also terrified of Joe’s mysterious, apparently rather dangerous, brother, Skippy (Will Patton). Little by little, the money starts coming in, but Adolpho and Joe start having creative differences about fundraising and moviemaking, leading to a series of even odder situations with more bizarre characters.
A kind of cousin to Jarmusch’s 1984 gem, Stranger than Paradise, Rockwell’s third feature (following Hero and Sons) was made on a shoestring budget, shot in color by cinematographer Phil Parmet but then transferred to black-and-white to obtain a stark, drenched look. Veteran character actor and Cassavetes regular Cassel and up-and-coming actor/fireman Buscemi form a great comic duo, Cassel filling Joe with an unquenchable thirst for all life has to offer, Buscemi imbuing Adolpho with a rigid, sheltered view of existence, a young man lost in his own warped reality. “My father died the day I was born. I was raised by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche,” Adolpho says, as if that’s a good thing. Patton is a riot as the menacing Skippy, while Beals and Tucci have fun with their accents. The fab cast also includes Debi Mazar as Suzie, Elizabeth Bracco as Jackie, Sully Boyar as the old man, Pat Moya as Joe’s companion, Dang, Ruth Maleczech as Adolpho’s mother, Michael J. Anderson as a drug dealer, and Sam Rockwell (no relation to Alexandre) as Angelica’s brother, Pauli. In the Soup is also a great New York City film, with several awesome locations. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, beating out Allison Anders’s Gas Food Lodging and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (Cassel also won for acting), but the distribution company handling the picture went bankrupt shortly after releasing it, resulting in its scarce availability, which was a shame, because it’s an absolute treasure. But now it’s back and looking better than ever. (Coincidentally, Rockwell, Anders, and Tarantino were three of the quartet of directors who made the 1995 omnibus Four Rooms, along with Robert Rodriguez.) Alexandre Rockwell, who went on to make such other films as Somebody to Love, 13 Moons, and Pete Smalls Is Dead (with many of the actors from In the Soup), will take part in a conversation following the Tribeca Film Festival screening, joined by Buscemi, Beals, Sam Rockwell, and Parmet.
Amid all the high-profile theatrical extravaganzas that are trying to capture Tony buzz this spring, a small gem opened last month, a must-see, particularly for the literary-minded. From 1969, when she was ten, until 1973, Sharon Washington lived on the fifth floor of the St. Agnes Branch of the New York Public Library on the Upper West Side with her mother, Connie, a native New Yorker; her father, George, the Charleston-born library custodian; Connie’s mother, Gramma Ma; and their dog, Brownie. Washington, an actress who has appeared in such films as Die Hard with a Vengeance and Michael Clayton, such series as The Looming Tower and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and such plays as While I Yet Live and The Scottsboro Boys, is now sharing her poignant story in Feeding the Dragon, a Primary Stages production continuing at the Cherry Lane through April 27. Washington is a warm, eminently likable storyteller, moving across Tony Ferrieri’s welcoming set with grace, ease, and humor. The two-level stage features five glass windows in the back, with multiple rectangular panels of different colors, a wooden table and chair and desk lamp at the center, and several rows of library books and card catalog drawers, in addition to one pile of books piled high on the lower level, next to a stool. For eighty minutes, Washington keeps the audience riveted as she relates her engrossing tale, which for viewers of a certain age provides a similar thrill to E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the classic children’s novel about a brother and sister who essentially live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
During the day, Sharon would go to school, but when she got home and the library was closed, she voraciously read through the endless stacks of books, absorbing as much as she possibly could. She had free rein, except for the basement, where the furnace was. Her mother told her not to go down there because it was dangerous, but Sharon didn’t listen. “To me the furnace room was an enchanted cave where I could watch Daddy feed the Dragon,” she says, describing how the furnace looked like a monster to her. “I loved watching Daddy work. He was like a knight from my Blue Fairy book — St. George and the Dragon.” Sharon talks about the owners of the store next door, Mr. Sam and Miss Sophie; wonders how her parents got a baby grand piano into the apartment; discusses getting into Dalton; reenacts scenes from books with her best friend, Esther; and searches for Brownie when the dog escapes the apartment and runs into the library. When she discovers something about her father that her parents kept from her, she is sent to Queens for a few weeks to stay with Connie’s siblings, Aunt Sis and Uncle Gene, then goes on a road trip with her father to visit, for the first time, his family in Charleston, experiencing aspects of the real world that she couldn’t find in books, including Jim Crow. Sharon seamlessly flows from character to character, each with a distinct voice, while also reading passages from books by W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Baldwin. But life there was far from idyllic for the Washingtons. “Let me tell you something, baby. Folks say all the time it must be so nice to live rent-free. Shoot . . . this ain’t free,” says her father, who had to shovel coal into the furnace to keep it constantly burning. “I work hard. Seven days a week. Don’t bother me . . . worth it to keep a roof over my family’s head. I ain’t scared of no hard work. That ain’t nothing new to me.” Director Maria Mileaf never allows the show to become stagnant; in addition to Sharon’s movement — and mad dancing skillz — lighting designer Ann Wrightson keeps the colors on the back windows changing, and sound designer Lindsay Jones adds offstage music and subtle audio effects. Sharon was inspired to tell her fairy-tale story — yes, she begins by saying, “Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived in a library” — when journalist Jim Dwyer wrote a 2009 article about the family in the New York Times.. Of course, no one else could tell it as the girl who lived it. So forget those big-budget blockbusters and instead hurry down to the Cherry Lane before this library closes.
Who: Lois Dodd, Thomas Nozkowski, Philip Taaffe, Barry Schwabsky, Faye Hirsch, John Yau
What: Panel discussion
Where: The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the Great Hall in the Foundation Building, 7 East Seventh St. between Third & Fourth Aves.
When: Thursday, April 19, free with advance RSVP, 6:30
Why: In conjunction with the publication of the first monograph on Philip Taaffe as part of the Lund Humphries Contemporary Painters series, the Cooper Union is hosting the panel discussion “Rewriting Painting” on April 19 at 6:30, featuring Cooper graduates, artists, and Lund Humphries subjects Lois Dodd, Thomas Nozkowski, and Philip Taaffe along with critics Barry Schwabsky (the editor of the Lund Humphries series), Faye Hirsch (who wrote the book on Dodd), and John Yau (who wrote the book on Taaffe). The free event explores the state and shape of contemporary painting, asking the questions “How far have artists extended the boundaries of the medium in the twenty-first century, and what does it mean to be identified as a painter today?,” “Is the word ‘painting’ still adequate to describe a practice which no longer necessarily involves paint or flat surfaces?,” and “And to what extent do the ways in which we write about painting influence both the public’s reception of the work and contemporary practice itself?” The discussion will be followed by a book signing with all of the participants.
August Wilson Theatre
245 West 52nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 31, $99 - $199
Last year the August Wilson Theatre was home to Groundhog Day, an outstanding, underappreciated musical based on Harold Ramis’s 1993 hit comedy. It’s nearly déjà vu all over again as the theater is now the residence of another outstanding musical version of a beloved film, Mean Girls; however, with tickets currently available through March 2019, it may be there a whole lot longer than Groundhog Day was. And like its predecessor, Mean Girls gets just about everything right; the only thing clearly missing are cheese fries at the concession stand. Mark Waters’s 2004 film about a new girl experiencing all the awful trials and tribulations of high school was written by Tina Fey, who also wrote the book of the musical, doing a superb job of reimagining and updating the story for the Broadway stage, at least until the disappointingly sappy ending. The show opens with outcasts Damian Hubbard (Grey Henson) and Janis Sarkisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed) warning the audience about what they are going to see. “It’s a cautionary tale / of fear and lust and pride, / based on actual events / where people died,” the proudly gay Damian sings. Offbeat artist Janis adds, “No one died. / But how far would you go / to be popular and hot? / Would you resist temptation?” After growing up in Kenya with her crunchy archaeologist parents and a vast array of animal friends, Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen) is thrilled to go back to the States for high school with other teenagers — but she quickly learns that it’s survival of the fittest, not all that less brutal than the animal kingdom, as packs are formed, turf is defended, and prey is attacked. When Cady is asked to sit with the Plastics — the cool-chick clique run by the vain and nasty Regina George (Taylor Louderman), with her loyal sidekick Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park) and the not-too-bright sexpot Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell) — Damian and Janis try to convince her not to. “Regina George is not cool! She’s a scum-sucking fart-mouth life ruiner!” Janis declares, then asks Cady to spy on the Plastics for them. Cady doesn’t want to be a mole, but she’s so desperate to be accepted at school that she decides to go along with it. And the more she learns about the Plastics, the more she learns about herself, and life, and not always liking what she discovers.
Mean Girls is a bittersweet, raucous tale of fitting in, whether child or adult. “Where do you belong?” Damian sings early on. “We all get a box / That’s where we go / It’s stifling / But at least you know / So, where do you belong?” The lyrics, by Tony nominee Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde, The Explorers Club), don’t fit in a box either, nor does the music, by Emmy winner Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband), ranging from rock to rap. (The orchestrations are by John Clancy.) Fey brings the classic tale of the new girl into the present, incorporating environmentalism and cyber bullying as well as a modern-day feminist angle, with her trademark fresh but sharp sense of humor. Henningsen (Les Misérables, Dear World) is delightful as Cady, the role famously played by Lindsay Lohan in the film, making it her own. Louderman (Kinky Boots, Bring It On), plays the devilish Regina to the hilt, with outrageously funny support from Park as Gretchen, who brings down the house with “What’s Wrong with Me?,” trying to find her own identity, and Rockwell (Bring It On, Rock of Ages) as Karen, who gives a nice twist to the dumb blonde stereotype. Tony nominee Kerry Butler (Xanadu, Disaster!) does triple duty as Cady’s mom, calculus teacher Ms. Norbury (played by Fey in the film), and Regina’s ultrachic mother, who gets to utter, “We haven’t had new meat in our little lady taco in so long!” Weed (Lysistrata Jones, Cabaret) and Henson (The Book of Mormon) make a great team as Janis and Damian, guiding Cady, and the audience, through the horrors of high school; the two characters would fit right in if there were a remake of The Breakfast Club. The all-around strong cast also includes Kyle Selig as Aaron Samuels, Regina’s ex-boyfriend who takes a liking to Cady; Cheech Manohar as Kevin Gnapoor, Mathlete extroardinaire; and Rick Younger as Mr. Duvall, the beleaguered principal.
Fey leaves in most of the key quotes from the film without merely rehashing the movie. Tony-winning director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, Aladdin) maintains a frenetic pace with near-constant movement as background characters don’t just stand still and two-time Tony winner Scott Pask’s (The Book of Mormon, The Pillowman) fab set keeps changing, from schoolrooms to bedrooms, bathrooms to locker rooms. The video design, by Tony winner Finn Ross and Adam Young, wonderfully captures the tumult and gestalt of the modern-day teenager, as updated references ring true and secrets and shaming are shared on social media. “It’s just . . . sometimes I feel like an iPhone without a case,” Gretchen explains. “Like, I know I’m worth a lot, and I have a lot of good functions, but at any time I could just shatter.” But there are also plenty of truths that have not changed over the years, regardless of technological advances or changing sociopolitical standards and mores. “I just wish we could all get along like we used to in elementary school,” a teary girl says. “I wish that I could bake a cake made out of rainbows and smiles, and we could all eat it and be happy.” (Good luck with that.) Oh, and, of course, watch out for that bus, and if you’re going on a Wednesday, be sure to wear pink.
The New York Botanical Garden
Enid A. Haupt Conservatory
2900 Southern Blvd., Bronx
April 20-22, $12 children two to twelve, $28 adults ($38 for Orchid Evenings, adults only, 6:30 - 9:30)
The New York Botanical Garden’s 2018 orchid show, featuring installations by Belgian floral artist Daniel Ost, closes this weekend, but not before a flurry of special events in conjunction with Earth Day. On Friday at 11:00 am, Charles Peters will discuss his new book, Managing the Wild: Stories of People and Plants and Tropical Forests, in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, and the Discovery Center at the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden will host activities for children from 1:30 to 5:30. Orchid Evenings take place Friday and Saturday night, with specialty cocktails, music by DJ X-RAY, Alice Farley’s Orchid Dancers, and a nighttime viewing of the show. On Saturday and Sunday from 12 noon to 4:00, there will be a Herbarium Open House in the Steere Herbarium and “The Scientist Is In” booth on Conservatory Plaza. In addition, the fifteen-minute animated film Tree of Life will screen continuously in Ross Hall from 11:00 to 5:00, there will be tours of the conservatory and laboratory and demonstrations of the Hitachi TM4000 PLUS Tabletop Scanning Electron Microscope, and the Earth Ball will be on display on the Conservatory Lawn.
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 2, $99 - $199
It’s ice cold at the St. James Theatre, and I’m not talking about the air-conditioning inside or the weather outside the venerable Broadway venue. I’m referring to what is happening onstage, where Disney has turned its Oscar-winning 2013 animated film into a special-effects-laden musical. Attempting to capture the runaway success of such other animation-to-Broadway hits as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King, Disney has instead made a mess of the plot, which was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen,” and added nothing memorable in the expanded score. In case you’re not familiar with the story: In a faraway kingdom, King Angarr (James Brown III) and Queen Iduna (Ann Sanders) have two young daughters, Anna (Audrey Bennett or Mattea Conforti) and Elsa (Brooklyn Nelson or Ayla Schwartz). Elsa is gifted (the gift is a curse, of course) with icy magic she can’t control. One day Elsa freezes part of Anna, so Pabbie (Timothy Hughes) and Bulda (Olivia Phillip) of the Hidden People save Anna but cannot remove the magic from Elsa, who despairs of her power. The parents separate the children to avoid another incident, but the adults are soon lost at sea — this is Disney, after all, where parents rarely fare well. Ten years later, Elsa (Caissie Levy) is ready to be queen of Arendelle; at the coronation ceremony, the sisters are reunited. The Duke of Weselton (Robert Creighton) makes a play for the queen, while Anna (Patti Murin) falls madly in love with Prince Hans (John Riddle) of the Southern Isles. Queen Elsa once again loses control of her magic and this time dooms Arendelle to an eternal winter. Unable to reverse the spell, she returns to her northern castle, where she plans to live alone so she can never harm anyone again. Anna is determined to brave the brutal cold and get to her sister, joined by ice seller Kristoff (Jelani Alladin), his trusted sidekick, Sven the reindeer (Andrew Pirozzi), and Olaf (Greg Hildreth), the girls’ childhood snowman come to life. Danger awaits along their treacherous journey, even with a brief respite supplied by Oaken (Kevin del Aguila), who offers them hot drinks and the use of a sauna. But the closer they get to the castle, the more it looks like they’re not going to make it alive.
The Broadway musical features a book by Jennifer Lee, who wrote the screenplay and codirected the movie with Chris Buck, and music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who wrote the eight songs for the film and an additional dozen for the show. “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” is still fun, and Levy gets to belt out the Oscar-winning “Let It Go” as the first-act closer, but many of the other songs don’t fall in sync with the narrative, bringing everything to a stop as the orchestrations soar just because they can. Murin (Lysistrata Jones, Wicked) has a goofy charm as Anna and bonds well with Riddle (The Visit, The Little Mermaid), but she and Alladin (Sweetee, Choir Boy) never generate the necessary heat between them. Hildreth (The Robber Bridegroom, Peter and the Starcatcher) nearly steals the show as Olaf, who manually operates the puppet from behind, when it is not already being stolen by Pirozzi (Movin’ Out, Hairspray Live!), who portrays Sven by arching over and using stilts inside the reindeer suit. (The reindeer’s blinking is creepy in a good way.) The costumes are by Tony winner Christopher Oram (The Cripple of Inishmaan, Evita), who also designed the ever-changing set, ranging from the girls’ bedroom to an ornate room in the castle, from a mountain trading post to ice daggers rising out of the floor. Levy (Les Misérables, Ghost) is in strong voice but gets overwhelmed by the special effects (designed by Jeremy Chernick, with lighting by six-time Tony winner Natasha Katz, sound by four-time Tony nominee Peter Hylenski, and projections by Tony winner Finn Ross), as does Tony winner Rob Ashford’s (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Cry-Baby) choreography and Tony winner Michael Grandage’s (Red, Merrily We Roll Along) direction. The cracking sounds and images as the ice spreads across the stage and even onto the walls of the theater are impressive, but they also grow more and more distracting, but perhaps that was done on purpose as the story grows holes that you can drive an ice truck through.