PTP/NYC: Potomac Theatre Project
Atlantic Stage 2
330 West 16th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Through August 4, $22.50-$37.50
To Shakespeare newbies — or even longtime Bard fans — Willie B.’s works can feel like they’re written in a different language, with unique rhythms and phrasings and complex plots that can be difficult to unravel. Czech-born British playwright Tom Stoppard (née Tomas Straussler) first tackled Shakespeare in 1966’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which gave new life to a pair of minor characters from Hamlet. In act two, the Player tells Guildenstern, “You understand, we are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style.” Stoppard takes that idea to a whole new level in Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth, two Shakespearean romps, meant to be performed together, currently being revived by PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) at Atlantic Stage 2 through August 4.
In Dogg’s Hamlet, inspired by a section of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and Ed Berman’s Dogg’s Troupe, a children’s school is preparing for a fifteen-minute version of Hamlet, but they speak in Dogg, an alternate language in which English words mean something else. “Undertake sun hollyhocks frankly sun pelican crash?” Baker (Connor Wright) asks as he and two other students sit down to have lunch. “Hollyhocks? Nit!” Abel (Zach Varicchione) replies. Baker: “Squire!” Abel: “Afternoons!” Baker: “Afternoons! Phew — cycle racks hardly butter fag ends.” Charlie (Madeleine Russell): “Fag ends likely butter consequential.” Abel: “Very true.” Thus, the audience has to use its linguistic skills to untangle meaning, much like a newcomer to Shakespeare. (In the published version of the play, Stoppard does translate Dogg, so, for example, “Very true” means “Needs salt.”)
When truck driver Easy (Matthew Ball) arrives to deliver the props for the play, he and the students have trouble communicating, because Easy doesn’t speak Dogg, and the students don’t know English. The props are tossed around to form walls of blocks that spell out such phrases as “Maths Old Egg,” which confuse Easy but infuriate the headmaster, Dogg (Peter Schmitz), because they form gibberish (doggerel?). Shakespeare to the students is like Dogg to the audience; the students perform the brief Hamlet in its original language, even though they don’t understand the words. But context is everything, and we all learn to figure it out. Or we don’t. PTP/NYC, which combines experienced actors with young apprentices, doesn’t quite get hold of Dogg’s Hamlet until nearer the end of its forty-five minutes; it mostly comes off as too silly, with haphazard slapstick comedy and uneven performances, although Ball is terrific as Easy, essentially a stand-in for the audience, trying to figure out just what the heck is going on.
Director Cheryl Faraone, the cast, and Stoppard fare much better in the fifty-five-minute Cahoot’s Macbeth, which the three-time Tony-winning playwright dedicates to Czech playwright Pavel Kohout, who staged shows in living rooms in the 1970s when the government banned them from theaters during “normalization.” A society woman (Lucy Van Atta) is hosting a truncated version of the Scottish play in her home, starring actors Pavel Landovsky (Christopher Marshall) as Macbeth and Cahoot (Christo Grabowski) as Banquo. Audience members are her invited guests to watch this illegal gathering. Everything is going along fine until a siren is heard offstage and an inspector (Tara Giordano) enters, stopping the proceedings. She has come both to bury the show and to praise it.
She is enamored of Landovsky and the actress playing Lady Macbeth (Denise Cormier) but raves about their past performances away from the theater, in their day jobs, singling out Landovsky hawking papers at a newsstand and the woman working as a waitress. When Macduff (Will Koch) comes in and recites his lines, the investigator declares, “What’s your problem, sunshine? Don’t tell me you found a corpse — I come here to be taken out of myself, not to be shown a reflection of the banality of my own life,” echoing the audience’s feelings about the intrusion of the investigator herself. She’s also well aware of Cahoot, who she refers to as a “social parasite and slanderer of the state.” After Cahoot acts like a dog (barking is yet another language, in this case one that also evokes the previous act), the inspector leaves, only to come back later, joining Easy, who has a delivery to make and now speaks only Dogg. The wordplay explodes in cunning yet hysterical ways as the madcap story reaches its conclusion.
Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth lasted less than a month when it debuted on Broadway in 1979, and it’s easy to see why: It’s a strange exercise in the language of theater and authority and how the two tend not to mix well under authoritarian leadership. There’s a Monty Python–like quality to some of the humor — the British comedy troupe often had people in power (police, censors, government officials) interrupting skits, and PTP/NYC’s (Scenes from an Execution, The Possibilities / The After-Dinner Joke) version of Dogg’s Hamlet even includes a snippet of MP’s television theme music, which is actually John Philip Sousa’s “The Liberty Bell” — but where the first play is inconsistent and scattershot, the second play flows much more smoothly in Faraone’s hands. Perhaps it’s the political aspects of Stoppard’s attack on Czechoslovakia’s suppression of freedom that has the cast — which also features Olivia Christie, Emily Ma, and Katie Marshall as three young, attractive witches (and, later, three murderers), Schmitz as King Duncan, and Varicchione as Malcolm — and the crew at the top of their game. It’s delightfully fun, like doing a crossword puzzle but not in your native tongue; you’re not going to get it all, but it’s cool trying. Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth is playing in repertory with Havel: The Passion of Thought, consisting of works by Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, and former Czech dissident and president Vaclav Havel, who Stoppard was greatly impressed by and met with in 1977.
LIVING HISTORY WEEKENDS
New-York Historical Society, courtyard
170 Central Park West
August 3-4, free with museum admission ($6-$22), 11:00 am – 3:00 pm
Series continues through September 15
Last week, the New-York Historical Society hosted “Trans Identity and the Incredible Story of Deborah Sampson, Revolutionary War Hero,” an illustrated lecture by Alex Myers about the life and times of his ancestor Deborah Sampson, whose life he documents in his award-winning book Revolutionary, a fictionalized version of the brave young Colonial woman who disguised herself as a man to become a soldier in the Continental Army, eventually earning a military pension. Sampson herself — actually, History at Play actress Judith Kalaora — will be at the museum August 3-4 for “Revolutionary Summer: Deborah Sampson, Fighting Woman,” a Living History Weekend presentation being held in conjunction with the exhibition “Revolutionary Summer.” From 11:00 am to 3:00 pm each day, Sampson will be in the N-YHS courtyard, leading members of her regiment, the 4th Massachusetts, in military drills and other activities. Living History Weekends continue through September 15 with such other programs as “Fighting on Horseback” August 10-11 and “George Washington’s Encampment” August 17-18 and 24-25.
London-based troupe Boy Blue’s Blak Whyte Gray made its US debut last November at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. The sold-out dance-theater production proved so popular that Lincoln Center is bringing it back, running August 1-3 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College as part of — surprise! — the annual summer Mostly Mozart Festival. The three-part, ninety-minute piece offers an abstract look at culture and identity, incorporating hip-hop, African chanting, electronics, and more. The music and creative direction are by Boy Blue cofounder Michael “Mikey J” Asante, with choreography and direction by Kenrick “H2O” Sandy, lighting by Lee Curran, and costumes by Ryan Dawson Laight. The August 2 show will be followed by a talk with Sandy and Pulitzer Prize–winning writer, professor, and critic Margo Jefferson. “The time is right to ask questions, to break free from the inner tension of a system that isn’t working, and to emerge on the other side to an awakening — a return to roots, a celebration of culture,” Boy Blue’s website explains about Blak Whyte Gray. Mostly Mozart continues through August 9 with plenty of Wolfgang programs as well as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Yang Liping Contemporary Dance’s Under Siege, and International Contemporary Ensemble performing works by Nathan Davis, Ann Cleare, György Kurtág, Kate Soper, Anahita Abbasi, and Dai Fujikura.
Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater, the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space
511 West 52nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Monday - Saturday through August 17
Earlier this year, I declared Wheelhouse Theater’s Life Sucks., Aaron Posner’s hysterical adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, to be one of the best plays of the year. You can add to that list Halley Feiffer’s uproarious Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, an ingenious version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. The past few years have seen an explosion of clever, entertaining takes on classic nineteenth-century works by Jane Austen, Henrik Ibsen, William Makepeace Thackeray, Louisa May Alcott, Chekhov, and others, including Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird (The Seagull) at the now-defunct Pearl, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Kate Hamill’s Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair, and Little Women, and Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 (not to mention Taylor Mac’s vaudevillian Shakespeare update, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus). Feiffer and director Trip Cullman have transformed Three Sisters into a viciously satiric and riotous black comedy that gets right to the heart of Chekhov’s 1900 tragedy: Life. Really. Does. Suck. . . . Big-time. Chekhov funny? Well, there’s a reason Pulitzer Prize winner Lanford Wilson subtitled his 1994 translation of Three Sisters “A Comedy in Four Acts.”
Continuing at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space through August 17, Moscow . . . takes place on Mark Wendland’s spare set, with a few pieces of furniture on an elevated central platform, the audience seated on two sides, facing each other. At one end is a clock that keeps ticking through most of the show, which is annoying until you get used to it. At the other end is a large, colorful mural of Moscow, or “Mockba,” taunting the Prozorova clan, who desperately want to return to their home city, which they departed from when their father’s brigade was reassigned to the country. As the play opens, it is eleven years to the day since they left, in addition to the one-year anniversary of their father’s death and Irina’s (Tavi Gevinson) twentieth birthday, and her celebration isn’t going well. “No offense, but this is the worst party I have ever attended,” middle sister Masha (Chris Perfetti) says. Meanwhile, oldest sister and teacher Olga (Rebecca Henderson) is going off on herself, declaring, “I look like shit, but what else is new. I’ve always looked like shit. Even when I was born, I looked like a little baby-shaped turd. . . . I’m not complaining, mind you. Just stating facts.”
The ersatz leader of this supremely dysfunctional and perpetually depressed family is violinist and intellectual Andrey (Greg Hildreth, who played Olaf in Frozen), an underachiever with the hots for Natasha Ivanovna (Sas Goldberg), who Masha calls “the duuuuuumbest whore.” Soon joining the party are alcoholic army doctor Ivan Romanich Chebutykin (Ray Anthony Thomas), who is holding a torch for the siblings’ long-dead mother; Baron Nikolai Lvovich Tuzenbach (Steven Boyer, whose portrayal of the baron recalls Jeff Biehl’s performance as Vanya in Life Sucks.), who is in love with Irina but is probably gay; Captain Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony (Matthew Jeffers), an angry man obsessed with violence and who regularly sprays perfume in front of himself and then walks into the mist, attempting to make his whole being fragrant; and Alexander Ignatych Vershinin (Alfredo Narciso), a ruggedly handsome lieutenant colonel with a suicidal wife and two daughters and who is in love with Masha, who is married to mousey Latin teacher Fyodor Ilyich Kulygin (Ryan Spahn, who cocreated the Web series What’s Your Emergency with Feiffer).
As Andrey and the sisters go nowhere and do nothing, Natasha turns power hungry; meanwhile, Kulygin adores his wife and so puts up with her endless put-downs. “Amo amas amat!” Kukygin says. “UGGHHH!!!” Masha responds despondently. Also shuffling around are the siblings’ elderly, bent-over servant, Anfisa (Ako), who can’t really do much anymore, and the extremely hard-of-hearing octogenarian Ferapont (Gene Jones). “Fuck all of us,” Chebutykin proclaims with a laugh. Indeed, they are all fucked, in one way or another, as they lambaste each other and take refuge in their shared anhedonia, refusing to be happy, mired in their communal misery. It’s a comic frenzy, from start to finish.
Longtime collaborators Feiffer (The Pain of My Belligerence, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard) and Cullman (Lobby Hero, Six Degrees of Separation) have captured the essence of Chekhov and Three Sisters, taking the themes of loneliness, home, family, cuckoldry, and unrequited love to rousing extremes. Paloma Young’s costumes contribute mightily to the merriment, particularly Masha’s elegant black mourning dress, worn beautifully by Perfetti (The Low Road, Picnic), who looked resplendent in a white gown a few years back in the Atlantic’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, and Henderson (The Wayside Motor Inn, Bright Half Life) in a stylish “J’aime Rodarte, Je Deteste Rodarte” gray T-shirt. The whole cast has a blast, as does the audience in this relentlessly absurd and knee-slapping show that honors Chekhov in its comic madness. For those who believe that life actually does suck, it’s plays like this that give us hope that maybe, just maybe, things aren’t so bad after all in our own lives.
Komische Oper Berlin teams up with British company 1927 for a candy-colored fantastical version of The Magic Flute, which kicks off Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. Directed by Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky, the nearly three-hour delight features the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, conducted by Louis Langrée, playing in front of a terrific cast and a large white wall on which Paul Barritt projects fanciful hand-drawn animation throughout. The performers, who mostly appear and disappear through several doors at multiple levels of the wall — the set is by Esther Bialas, who also designed the fun costumes — interact directly with the cartoonish images, petting a black cat, sending hearts, blowing smoke rings, and being chased by a fire-breathing serpent. None of librettist Emanuel Schikaneder’s dialogue is spoken; instead, it is projected in dramatic fonts projected on the wall.
After being saved in a dark forest by the Queen of the Night (alternately played by Audrey Luna or Aleksandra Olczyk), Tamino (Julien Behr / Aaron Blake) meets Papageno (Rodion Pogossov / Evan Hughes), who initially takes credit for the rescue and so is punished by the Three Ladies (Ashley Milanese, Karolina Gumos, and Ezgi Kutlu), who make him mute by taking away his mouth, which flies across the screen like a chattering teeth toy. The ladies, who serve the queen, show Tamino a picture of the ruler’s daughter, Pamina (Maureen McKay / Vera-Lotte Böcker), to Tamino, who instantly falls in love with her. But Pamina has been captured by the evil Monostatos (Johannes Dunz) for his boss, the intellectual Sarastro (Dimitry Ivashchenko / Wenwei Zhang). For protection, the ladies give Tamino a magic flute (an animated fairy) and Papageno magic bells that emerge from a box as tiny dancers. As Tamino tries to free Pamina through a series of trials (silence, temptation, fire and water), Papageno searches for his own love.
Combining vaudeville, silent movie tropes, a bawdy sense of humor, anime, and a heartfelt reverence for Mozart’s extraordinary music, this version of The Magic Flute — Wolfgang’s 1791 work, which premiered only a few months before his death at the age of thirty-five, was not made for opera aficionados but for the general public — creates a devilishly delicious, weird and wonderful world that will bring out the kid in you, although it is not necessarily for die Kinder. The staging is endlessly inventive, and the cast has everything timed to the second as they immerse themselves into the animation, which is spectacular, particularly the Queen of the Night, who is a giant eight-legged spider. Tantalizing references abound: The magic flute itself is a Tinker Bell-like naked winged creature, Monostatos evokes F. W. Murnau’s vampire Nosferatu, Sarastro looks like silent-film pioneer Georges Méliès, Papageno is a cross between Buster Keaton and Ed Wynn, and the magic bells and the three spirit boys recall Henry Darger’s drawings. Diego Leetz deserves special mention for his magnificent lighting design, with its many nods to silent cinema, as well as principal Jasmine Choi and Tanya Dusevic Witek on flute. It’s a shame this production, so bursting with life’s energy and romance, treachery and trepidation, is running only four days, as it’s a Magic Flute for the ages.
UPTOWN SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK
Marcus Garvey Park, Richard Rodgers Amphitheater
Tuesday - Sunday through July 28, free, 8:30
Jesus Christ Superstar meets The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s funky “Uptown Shakespeare in the Park!” world premiere of Bryan Doerries’s new adaptation of Euripides’s The Bacchae. The free show, continuing at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park through July 28, has the ebullient energy of NBC’s live television versions of musicals (The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, the aforementioned Jesus Christ Superstar) rather than that of a fully formed stage production as it reinterprets the classical Greek tragedy for the twenty-first century while kicking off the company’s twentieth anniversary. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, get ready to make some noise for the man you been waiting for. The man that can make all your dreams come true. The preachya that can reach ya, in all the right places. Give it up for Preachya D!!!” a voiceover announces, and Preachya D, better known as Dionysus (Jason C. Brown), enters to much fanfare and proclaims, “I came here as a preacha, as a teacha / I can only hope I can reach you before you run out of time / So betta listen to this rhyme / And then get in line / I hope you ready to learn.”
Dionysus is surrounded by his worshipful followers, a three-woman chorus (Gabrielle Djenné, Rebecca Ana Peña, and Lori Vega), eight dancers (Daniela Funicello, Ashley LaRosa, Brynlie Helmich, Sai Rodboon, Hannah Gross, Madelyn LaLonde, Harmony Jackson, and Kat Files), and a guitar-shredding musician (Alicyn Yaffee). King Pentheus (RJ Foster) doesn’t believe Dionysus is the son of Zeus and is jealous of his minions, known as Bacchettes, while his grandfather, former king Cadmus (Charles Bernard Murray), is ready to go dancing with the Bacchettes, hidden in the mountains, alongside wise old Tiresias (Brian D. Coats). Caught somewhere in the middle is Agaue (Andrea Patterson), Pentheus’s mother and Cadmus’s daughter. After a messenger (Brian Demar Jones) advises Pentheus of the wild rituals going on atop the hill, the king asks Dionysus to bring him there, but Pentheus, of course, is about to get more than he bargained for.
Choppily directed by Classical Theatre of Harlem associate artistic director Carl Cofield (One Night in Miami, The Dutchman) The Bacchae takes place on rafters and scaffolding designed by Christopher and Justin Swader, with shadowy, abstract projections by Katherine Freer on more than a dozen vertical screens. Outfitted in Lex Liang’s sexy costumes, the cast communicates the basic narrative through Doerries’s (Antigone in Ferguson, Theater of War) retelling, which includes a lot of description of offstage activities and festivities to move the plot along. The eight woman dancers, members of Elisa Monte Dance, climb all over the stage and into the space on the ground in front of the audience, their ecstatic movements choreographed by Tiffany Rea-Fisher to original music by Fred Kennedy, while Yaffee nearly steals the show as she tears it up with her loud and aggressive guitar playing. The play deals with issues of sexuality, gender, power, and vengeance, but it gets too caught up in itself; the audience is encouraged to take nonflash photos, which is always distracting, and when Preachya D beckons people to stand and dance in their seats, nary a soul got up the night I went, although a handful of people did walk out later. The Bacchae has some cool individual elements, but the shepherds have lost control of their flock as a whole.