Five years ago, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson starred in Nick Payne’s Constellations on Broadway, a time-bending play set in the quantum multiverse, taking place in the past, present, and future as a beekeeper and a cosmologist repeat scenes over and over again to reveal the intricacies of a relationship. Now artistic director Wang Chong and his Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental are bringing a Chinese twist to the work, which is running January 9-12 at La MaMa as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. The ninety-minute multimedia piece, which features live streaming video and a hamster, stars Wang Xiaohuan and Li Jialong, with music by Li Yangfan, set design by Ji Linlin and Di Tianyi, and lighting by Meng Lingyang. The play takes place on a circular white stage on the floor, surrounded by video cameras. At the center of the floor is a hamster on a wheel in a see-through Lucite case. Wang and Ji enact each scene in front of a different camera — multiple versions of how they met, their first night together, fidelity issues, etc. — resulting in distinct visual perspectives and emotions that are watched on a large screen suspended behind them. In between scenes, director Wang cuts to video of the hamster, who is often running on the wheel in either direction, as if he is making the time go backward or forward by his motion, which is accompanied by celestial projections on the floor.
In writing Constellations, Payne — who previously tackled climate change in If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, in which Gyllenhaal made his New York theater debut — was inspired by the work of Columbia physics and mathematics professor Brian Greene, the superstring theorist and author of the highly influential book The Elegant Universe, lending a well-researched scientific edge to the play. Founded in 2008, Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental’s previous productions include Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts 2.0, Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Woody Allen’s Central Park West, and such Wang originals as Thunderstorm 2.0 and The Warfare of Landmine 2.0.
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Wednesday - Sunday through June 7, $39 - $199
Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance is a terrific two-and-a-half-hour play — however, it runs six and a half hours in two lengthy installments at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, each of which requires separate admission. Angels in America meets The Boys in the Band by way of E. M. Forster’s Howards End in the epic drama, which broke the record for winning the most Best Play awards in the West End, including four Oliviers (Best Play, Best Actor for Kyle Soller, Best Director for Stephen Daldry, and Best Lighting Design by Jon Clark). The play is set in contemporary New York City, where Eric Glass (Soller) and Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap) are in love and are considering marriage after seven years together. Toby is a beautiful, magnetic, hard-partying writer who is turning his coming-of-age novel, Loved Boy, into a play; the more grounded Eric works for Jasper (Kyle Harris), a social justice entrepreneur. Eric and Toby are friends with an urbane, wealthy older couple, Walter Poole (Paul Hilton) and Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey), who host fabulous gatherings at their summer place in the Hamptons. Fate brings actor Adam McDowell (Samuel H. Levine) into Toby’s life; Toby quickly thinks Adam should star in his play. But when Toby meets bedraggled street prostitute Leo (Levine), a double for Adam, various relationships start swirling out of control.
Throughout the play, Forster (Hilton) comments on the plot and interacts with some of the characters, as if he’s the omniscient narrator of a novel. Early on, a Greek chorus of young men speak with Forster about Howards End. “It’s a great book, don’t get me wrong. And the movie’s good. But, I mean, the world is so different now. I can’t identify with it at all,” one man says. “It’s been a hundred years,” adds another. “The world has changed so much,” a third points out. “Our lives are nothing like the people in your book,” a fourth chimes in. Forster asks, “How can that be true? Hearts still love, don’t they? And break. Hope, fear, jealousy, desire. Your lives may be different. But surely the feelings are the same. The difference is merely setting, context, costumes. But those are just details.” Lopez is referring to his play itself, a modern-day reimagining of Howards End that has been transformed into a gay fantasia. The difference in context matters very much, however, and is brought into sharp focus by the presence of Forster, a closeted homosexual who did not have sex until he was thirty-eight and died in 1970 at the age of ninety-one. He would not allow his own gay fantasia, the queer novel Maurice, written in 1912, to be published until after his death, a fact that is discussed in the play, which also deals directly with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s.
Hilton (Peter Pan, Anatomy of a Suicide) is sensational as both Forster and Walter; when he reappears onstage after a lengthy absence, the audience erupts into applause, and with good reason: He is essential to the narrative, which too often drifts into melodrama that would even make Douglas Sirk cringe. Levine (Kill Floor) makes a poignant Broadway debut as Adam and Leo, switching between two characters that are polar opposites of each other. Soller is superb as the thoughtful and caring Eric, displaying a tender chemistry with Tony winner Hickey (The Normal Heart, Love! Valour! Compassion!), whose Henry is the seasoned sage of the group and whose painful memories of those lost to AIDS leads to one of the play’s most searing moments. (Hickey will be on hiatus through April 22 to make his directing debut with Plaza Suite and will be replaced by Tony Goldwyn.) Daldry (Billy Elliot, Skylight) tries to keep things moving on Bob Crowley’s minimal set, a large platform around which Eric and Toby’s friends and wannabe writers (including Jonathan Burke, Carson McCalley, Jordan Barbour, Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr., Dylan Frederick, and Arturo Luís Soria) hang out, watch the action, and interject, getting more in the way than adding worthwhile dialogue.
“With personal relationships. Here is something comparatively solid in a world full of violence and cruelty,” Forster wrote in his seminal 1938 essay “What I Believe,” continuing, “Not absolutely solid, for Psychology has split and shattered the idea of a ‘Person,’ and has shown that there is something incalculable in each of us, which may at any moment rise to the surface and destroy our normal balance. We don’t know what we are like. We can’t know what other people are like. How, then, can we put any trust in personal relationships, or cling to them in the gathering political storm? In theory we cannot. But in practice we can and do.” Lopez (The Whipping Man, The Legend of Georgia McBride) captures that part of Forster’s ethos but also strays from it too often.
There is also a very noticeable lack of women in the story, and only one onstage, the key figure of Margaret, played by the impeccable Lois Smith (The Trip to Bountiful, Marjorie Prime), who sums it all up at the end, but by that time Lopez has long bit off more than he can chew, taking on too much and losing focus of the main plot in favor of emotionally manipulative scenes that lack the necessary subtlety even as he tackles such intense subjects as gay eroticism, class, sex, AIDS, and, most critically, legacy. The Inheritance is filled with delicate, beautiful scenes that will move you deeply, unforgettable moments that exemplify what makes live theater so potent. But it just can’t sustain itself for six and a half hours.
Once upon a time, January was considered a relative artistic wasteland, as people suffered from a post-holidays letdown with a dearth of high-quality movies and Broadway shows opening up. But this century continues to fill that void with more and more cutting-edge, experimental, and offbeat music, dance, film, and theater at unique performance festivals around the city. You can catch cabaret at Pangea, opera at Prototype, dance at the 92nd St. Y and New York Live Arts, jazz at JazzFest, Irish theater at Origin’s 1st, avant-garde music and film at New Ear, and a little of everything at Under the Radar. Sadly, the last few years have seen the demise of COIL and American Realness. Below are only some of the highlights of this exciting time to try something that might be outside your comfort zone and take a chance on something new and different to kick off your 2020, especially with the majority of tickets going for about twenty-five bucks.
NEW EAR FESTIVAL
287 Spring St. by Hudson St.
January 6–12, $20, 8:00
Monday, January 6
CT::SWaM ExChange, with Ginny Benson, Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, Dani Dobkin, Bernd Klug, and a very special guest
Tuesday, January 7
Victoria Keddie exchanges transmissions from Copenhagen, improvised animations and sound by Theodore Darst and Kevin Carey, and a performance by Adelaide Damoah
Wednesday, January 8
Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of the Roots, with Zachary Tye Richardson, Vuyo Sotashe, Onyx Violins, and Brother Paul Daniels II
Thursday, January 9
Model Home, new commission by Brandon Lopez with TAK Ensemble, and Sa’dia Rehman
Friday, January 10
Susie Ibarra and Dreamtime Ensemble, Allard van Hoorn, and the Dream Mapping Project
Saturday, January 11
Violist Joanna Mattrey, percussionist William Hooker’s quartet, and Sophia Petrides
Sunday, January 12
DeForrest Brown Jr., Muyassar Kurdi and MV Carbon, and SHYBOI
UNDER THE RADAR
Public Theater and other venues
425 Lafayette St. by Astor Pl.
January 6, 10, 12, 20
Daniel J. Watts’ The Jam: Only Child, with Daniel J. Watts and DJ Duggz, Joe’s Pub, $35
The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, with Michael Chan, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, and Scott Price, LuEsther Hall, Public Theater, $30
Selina Thompson: salt., with Rochelle Rose, Martinson Hall, Public Theater, $30
The Truth Has Changed, by Josh Fox & International WOW Company, Newman Theater, Public Theater, $30
January 11 & 17
Waterboy and the Mighty World by the HawtPlates, Shiva Theater, Public Theater, $25
ORIGIN’S 1st IRISH FESTIVAL
January 7 – February 3
Through January 26
London Assurance, by Dion Boucicault, directed by Charlotte Moore, Irish Repertory Theatre, $50-$70
The 8th, written and directed by Seanie Sugrue, the Secret Theatre, $20
January 22 – February 2
The Scourge, by Michelle Dooley Mahon, directed by Ben Barnes, starring Michelle Dooley Mahon, Irish Repertory Theatre, $50
January 26 – February 1
Appropriate, by Sarah-Jane Scott, directed by Paul Meade, starring Sarah-Jane Scott, New York Irish Center, $26
Round Room: An Open Studio, by Honor Molloy, directed by Britt Berke, music by Susan McKeown, with Labhaoise Magee, Brenda Meaney, Rachel Pickup, Maeve Price, Zoe Watkins, and Aoife Williamson, the Alchemical Studios, $16
New York Live Arts
219 West 19th St.
Saturday, January 11
Kathy Westwater: Rambler, Worlds Worlds a Part, $10, 2:00
Kimberly Bartosik/Daela: Through the Mirror of Their Eyes, 5:00
Saturday, January 11, 9:00
Sunday, January 12, 12 noon
Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith: Body Comes Apart, $15
Sean Dorsey: Boys in Trouble, $15
Monday, January 13
Yanira Castro/a canary torsi: Last Audience, free with RSVP, 4:0
WINTER JAZZFEST NYC
Wednesday, January 8
GilleS Peterson (DJ Set), Lefto, Kassa Overall, Niblu, $20-$25, doors 8:00
Thursday, January 9
Lee Fields & the Expressions with Adeline, Brooklyn Bowl, $25, doors 7:00
Friday, January 10 & Saturday, January 11
Manhattan Marathon, multiple venues, $50-$75 one night, $95-$125 both nights
Saturday, January 11
James ‘Blood’ Ulmer Odyssey, Harriet Tubman, Sultan Room, $25-$30, doors 7:00
Thursday, January 16
Seu Jorge with Rogê, Anat Cohen & Choro Aventuroso, the Town Hall, $55-$85, 8:00
Friday, January 17
Brooklyn Marathon, multiple venues, $30-$55
January 9, 12, 15–17
Blood Moon, by Ellen McLaughlin and composer Garrett Fisher, Baruch Performing Arts Center, $35-$75
Magdalene, chamber opera cocreated by performer Danielle Birrittella and director Zoe Aja Moore, with poetry by Marie Howe, HERE, $35-$75
Iron & Coal, rock opera by Jeremy Schonfeld, featuring Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Contemporaneous, MasterVoices, Rinde Eckert, and Daniel Rowan, Gerald W. Lynch Theater, $35-$75
January 14–15, 17–19
Ellen West, by poet Frank Bidart and composer Ricky Ian Gordon, Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center, $35-$75
Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro, by Gregory Maqoma, featuring Vuyani Dance Theatre, Joyce Theater, $10-$75
REV. 23, libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs, composed by Julian Wachner, featuring Novus NY, Gerald W. Lynch Theater, $35-$75
92Y HARKNESS DANCE CENTER ARTISTS IN RESIDENCE: ShAIRed SHOW AND MORE!
92nd St. Y
1395 Lexington Ave.
January 10-12, $15 in advance, $25 at the door
Friday, January 10
King by Kyle Marshall Choreography, through the mirror of their eyes by Kimberly Bartosik (work-in progress excerpt), Quarry by Ivy Baldwin Dance, Good Rhythm Wonderful Life by Kazunori Kumagai, noon
Sunday, January 12
Good Rhythm Wonderful Life by Kazunori Kumagai, 3:00
through the mirror of their eyes by Kimberly Bartosik (work-in progress excerpt), 4:0
Of you from here by Catherine Tharin, 4:45
Quarry by Ivy Baldwin Dance, 5:30
A.D. by Kyle Marshall Choreography, 6:15
DECADOSE (excerpts) by cullen+them, 7:15
178 Second Ave.
Tuesday, January 7, 14, 21
Barbara Bleier & Austin Pendleton, Bits and Pieces, $20-$25 plus $20 food/beverage minimum, 7:00
Friday, January 10
Vicki Kristina Barcelona, the songs of Tom Waits, $15-$20 plus $20 food/beverage minimum, 7:00
Hannah Reimann: Both Sides Now: The Music of Joni Mitchell 1966 – 1974, $20-$25 plus $20 food/beverage minimum, 9:30
Thursday, January 16, 7:00, and Friday, January 17, 9:30
Raquel Cion: Me and Mr. Jones: My Intimate Relationship with David Bowie, $20-$25 plus $20 food/beverage minimum
Friday, January 17
Susanne Mack: Where I Belong, $20-$25 plus $20 food/beverage minimum, 7:00
Hunter Theater Project
Frederick Loewe Theater at Hunter College
East 68th St. between Lexington & Park Aves.
Monday - Saturday, January 6 - February 22, $49 ($15 for students)
If you missed Erica Schmidt’s Red Bull Theater production of Mac Beth at the Lucille Lortel Theater in mid-2019, it will be back for a return engagement at the Frederick Loewe Theater at Hunter College as part of the Hunter Theater Project, running January 6 to February 22. Below is my original review of this inventive and engaging work, which features much of the original cast, with Brittany Bradford now as the title character and Dylan Gelula taking over for AnnaSophia Robb.
Erica Schmidt’s beautifully frenetic Shakespeare adaptation Mac Beth — yes, she has made the title two words, perhaps to emphasize the more feminine second half of the title — is an exhilarating demonstration of grrl power, ratcheted up to the nth degree. The Red Bull production is set at a girls school where seven students enact an all-female version of Macbeth. They are dressed in schoolgirl uniforms of buttoned white shirts under tartan tops and skirts, with bloodred socks reaching up to their knees; aggressively ominous and gender-neutral hooded capes are added for the Weird Sisters. (The costumes are by Jessica Pabst.) Catherine Cornell’s set juts into the audience, covered in fake grass with a partially overturned couch, an iron bathtub, a campfire, and water-filled craters, as if the aftermath of a wild sorority bash. (When the characters imbibe, they do so from red plastic cups, a party staple.) And although they speak in the traditional iambic pentameter, they don’t disguise their voices to be more adult, instead sounding like a bunch of kids invigorated by putting on a show exactly the way they want to.
Macbeth (Isabelle Fuhrman) is returning from a successful military campaign with the loyal Banquo (Ayana Workman) when they come upon three witches (AnnaSophia Robb, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick, and Sharlene Cruz, who play multiple roles) who predict that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor, then king, while Banquo’s sons will one day rule. Fear, jealousy, and revenge take over as the power grab is on, but with delicious twists; in the Bard’s day, his plays were performed by an all-male cast, but this twenty-first-century all-woman cast — armed with smartphones — revels in the gender shifts without altering the original text. “Are you a man?” Lady Macbeth (Ismenia Mendes) asks her husband. Facing a ghost (hysterically played by Workman), Macbeth declares, “What man dare, I dare: be alive again, / And dare me to the desert with thy sword; / If trembling I inhabit then, protest me / The baby of a girl. Hence, horrible shadow! / Unreal mock’ry, hence!” It’s as if they are caught up in a teenage horror flick, with all the adolescent tropes in place but seen only from the girls’ point of view. Even one of the witches’ prophecies takes on new meaning when she predicts, “Be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh to scorn / The power of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth.” At one point Lady Macbeth tells a witch, “Unsex me here.”
Schmidt’s (A Month in the Country, Invasion!) breathlessly paced version flies by in a furious ninety minutes, both sexy and sinister, gleefully performed by the terrific cast led by Fuhrman’s (All the Fine Boys, Orphan) tortured Macbeth and Mendes’s (Marys Seacole, Orange Is the New Black) malevolent Lady Macbeth. Robb (The Carrie Diaries, Bridge to Terabithia), NYU Tisch freshman Kelly-Hedrick, and recent CCNY grad Cruz make strong off-Broadway debuts, playing the witches as well as Duncan, Malcolm, Fleance, Rosse, Angus, Lenox, and other minor characters; in particular, Kelly-Hedrick captures the essence of girlhood — tinged with menace — in her squeaky delivery. Schmidt’s inventive staging also boasts a thrilling storm, a creepy doll, and a touch of gymnastics, although if there was one more loud bang against the tub I was going to scream. Schmidt was inspired to revisit Macbeth by reading stories about girls being murdered in the woods. In Mac Beth, she takes back the power, putting the girls in charge in a gender swap that is as exciting as it is, in this day and age, necessary. Schmidt makes us look at the bloody power plays of Scottish kings as if they are the social dominance battles of high school — and vice versa — and every audience member comes out a winner.
94 West Houston St. between LaGuardia Pl. & Thompson St.
Wednesday, Friday, Saturday through March 6, $40 - $55 (includes one beverage)
After witnessing the extravagant calamity that is Moulin Rouge! The Musical! on Broadway, I was hoping for a more poignant and intimate experience out of Bated Breath’s Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec, which trumpets itself as an “immersive, environmental” show, extended five times at the tiny Madame X lounge on West Houston St. Despite some dandy touches, however, it also left me cold and detached, scratching my head over what could have been.
Conceived and directed by Bated Breath artistic director Mara Lieberman, Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec takes place in a small, cozy space, dark and plush red, where the audience sits on couches and chairs that surround the action. The actors enter and exit from the back room behind the bar and the front main entrance, which is next to a small balcony. (If you have to go to the bathroom during the show, you are sure to step in the way.) Born in the mid-Pyrenees in 1864, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec became a painter and a regular at the seductive Parisian cabaret known as the Moulin Rouge. The play begins with the death of Lautrec (Daniel George), announced by his father, Alphonse (CJ DiOrio), who calls him “the kindest soul you could ever have met.” Cabaret performer Yves Guilbert (Glori Dei Filippone) adds, “Tiny painter,” can-can star Jane Avril (Kat Christensen) “Stiff and hobbled,” fellow painter Suzanne Valadon (Mia Aguirre) “French aristocrat,” and Yves again “Star of Paris.” The story then weaves back and forth between Toulouse-Lautrec’s relationship with his mother, Adele (production designer Derya Celikkol), and his friendship with club owner Aristide Bruant (DiOrio) and the Moulin Rouge performers. Although they describe him as a “puppet” and a “little monster,” they appreciate his talent and pose for him (among other things, leading to a doctor closely examining him and the women).
Even at only sixty minutes, Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec is repetitive and features several superfluous scenes, including a performance of “Ah la Salope!,” the chorus of which includes the line “Go and wash your ass,” and an inexplicable digression into an auction where the value of some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings are listed from recent, twenty-first-century sales, completely taking us out of the period narrative. (Bated Breath seems to have a thing for auctions; its 2017 Beneath the Gavel was set in the contemporary art world and invited the audience to bid on works.) Just because a setting is intimate and the actors make a lot of direct eye contact does not make a show immersive; Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec feels oddly distant though you can reach out and touch the actors.
However, you really shouldn’t; at the bar before the show, a patron ran her hand along one of the female performers’ stockinged leg, which was stretched out alluringly against the bar, and the bouncer looked none-too-pleased. That same woman and her partner also took full advantage of the policy that nonflash photography and video is encouraged during the show; they sometimes filmed entire scenes, which was extremely distracting, especially because no one else was doing it. The cast is solid, the dancing exciting in such close quarters, and Gail Fresia’s costumes are fun, but you don’t learn anything about Toulouse-Lautrec that you didn’t already know, and you don’t feel like you’re in the Moulin Rouge; you are quite well aware that you are an audience member watching a show about it. A scene in which Suzanne poses for the artist is cleverly staged, and the VD exams are very funny, but too much of Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec seems unmade itself.
The Sound Inside is one of the most beautifully composed shows I have ever seen, an exquisitely rendered work that could have come only from the mind of an expert storyteller. Originally presented in 2018 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and commissioned by Lincoln Center, it is written by novelist and playwright Adam Rapp, a Pulitzer Prize finalist who has authored such books as The Year of Endless Sorrows, Punkzilla, and Know Your Beholder and such plays as Red Light Winter, The Metal Children, and Blackbird, which he adapted into a 2007 film he also directed. In The Sound Inside, a luminous Mary Louise Parker stars as fifty-three-year-old Yale professor Bella Lee Baird. (Rapp has taught at the Yale School of Drama, and his mother’s maiden name is Baird.) Bella, who has written a mildly well received book, Billy Baird Runs through a Wall, alternates between telling her story in the first and third persons directly to the audience, as if narrating a novel, and participating in scenes with one of her students, the enigmatic and cynical Christopher Dunn (Will Hochman).
“A middle-aged professor of undergraduate creative writing at a prestigious Ivy League University stands before an audience of strangers,” Bella says to open the play. “She can’t quite see them but they’re out there. She can feel them — they’re as certain as old trees. Gently creaking in the heavy autumn air. Is this audience friendly, she wonders? Merciful? Are they easily distracted? Or will they hear this woman out? And what about her? Ironically, she often dissuades her students from describing a protagonist in too fine of detail. Readers only need a few telling clues.” Rapp and director David Cromer, who subtly transforms Studio 54 into an intimate classroom, follow that advice, offering only a few telling clues at a time as we excitedly hear this captivating woman out.
Christopher shows up at Bella’s office one day without an appointment. He has a supreme distaste for rules and regulations and eschews common decency. “Do me a favor. Next time you want to stop by without an appointment at least shoot me an email first,” she tells him. “Yeah, I don’t really do that,” he responds. They discuss Dostoyevsky, hipster baristas, and the book Christopher is writing. They strike up a friendship, but Christopher knows he is taking up a lot of her time. “I mean, if you get tired of me just say so and I can go like wander campus and get mentally prepared for the big football game coming up with Harvard this weekend,” he says. “Stockpile the coldcuts. Get my face painted. Do some steroids. Headbutt random campus bulletin boards, etcetera, etcetera.”
Bella, who’s dealing with stomach cancer and has no one else in her life, welcomes the offbeat Christopher into her daily existence. “I have no children and I’ve never been married,” she tells the audience. “Like many single, self-possessed women who’ve managed to find solid footing in the slippery foothills of higher education, I’ve been accused of being a lesbian. And a witch. And a maker of Bulgarian cheese. And a collector of cat calendars. Both my parents are dead. My father suffered a fatal heart attack at sixty-two and I’ll get to my mother in a minute. I have no brothers or sisters. I live in faculty housing. I don’t own property. I’m essentially a walking social security number with a coveted Ivy League professorship and a handful of moth-bitten sweaters.” As they grow closer, they both consider breaking down the barriers that make them each such lonely beings, committing to no one but themselves.
It’s impossible not to become instantly infatuated with Bella, so bewitchingly played by Tony, Obie, and Emmy winner Parker (Proof, Weeds). You want to just rush onstage and give her a giant hug to assure her everything will be all right, even if it won’t. Parker holds the audience in her hands, giving a tour-de-force lesson in acting. Hochman (Sweat, Dead Poets Society) is impressive in his Broadway debut, not intimidated in the least. Rapp celebrates literature without getting pedantic as he explores Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, and James Salter’s Light Years. Alexander Woodward’s set features several rooms that move into the foreground and disappear into the background, superbly lit by Heather Gilbert, each one representing a different aspect of Bella’s life. Tony winner Cromer (The Band’s Visit, Our Town) keeps up a lively pace as the characters scrutinize what they are to each other.
The play refers several times to a framed photograph in Bella’s office of a “woman standing in the middle of a harvested cornfield. She’s in all black and tiny in the vast dead field,” she tells Christopher, who asks, “Is that you in the photograph? Of course it is.” But Bella says she has no idea who it is. The next time he visits her in her office, Christopher is mesmerized by the photo and asks, “Has she gotten smaller? . . . I have this weird feeling that if I come back tomorrow the field will be covered. With snow. Like twenty inches. But no footprints. The woman’s just there. As if the field imagined her.” Bella asks, “Do you think it would be a better image?” He replies, “Maybe not better. But somehow more inevitable.” It’s a fabulous moment in a fabulous play, and one that zeroes in on just who these two people are and what they want out of life.
Two years ago, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene presented a work-in-progress version at the Museum of Jewish Heritage of The Sorceress (“Di Kishefmakherin”), the first Yiddish theater production to be performed in America. The company, which has had tremendous success with its spectacular adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, is now back at its MJH home with a full staging of The Sorceress, a delightful if slight operetta that continues through December 29, including two special performances with a buffet on Christmas Day.
Written by Avrom Goldfaden, the Father of Yiddish Theater, it’s a Cinderella-like tale set in the town of Botoshani, Romania, where the young, lovely Mirele (Jazmin Gorsline) is preparing to wed the handsome and stalwart Markus (Josh Kohane). At her birthday party, she is sad, unable to celebrate because she misses her mother, who died too young. “Is it fair, my dear daughter, that you disturb the celebration with such sad thoughts?” her father, the wealthy Avromtshe (Bruce Rebold), sings. “Isn’t your stepmother faithful just like your very own mother?” he adds, but therein lies the problem. Avromtshe’s new wife, Basye (Rachel Botchan), is, yes, an evil stepmother who plots with the local sorceress, Bobe Yakhne (Mikhl Yashinsky), to make sure she gets exactly what she wants. She has her husband arrested and forces a separation between Markus and Mirele in a greedy plan that confounds the close-knit community, which is struggling to survive in hard times.
Unlike NYTF’s wonderful 2015 production of The Golden Bride, The Sorceress shows its age; written in 1877, it was brought to America in 1883 by fourteen-year-old actor and soon-to-be Yiddish legend Boris Thomashefsky. Some of the jokes are once-fresh (maybe) but now stale vaudeville routines, including one involving needles, salesman Hotsmakh (Steve Sterner), and Koyne (Lexi Rabadi), but other moments are heartbreaking, such as the handler’s (Rebecca Brudner) desperate call as she sells her wares. “Nobody in the world, / Can live out their years. / Without earning a little money. / A job is a burden,” she sings. Gorsline and Kohane are in fine voice, as is the always dependable Botchan. Yashinsky overplays the title character, chewing up far too much of Dara Wishingrad’s set, which resembles those used in a traveling show. Dani Apple, Lorin Zackular, and Rabadi are playful as a trio of witches; the large cast also includes Dylan Seders Hoffman as Basye’s daughter, Lize, Jonathan Brody as the conniving Uncle Elyokem, Mark Alpert as Katsef the butcher, and Samuel Druhora as the Turkish organ grinder. Izzy Fields’s appealing, elaborate costumes capture the era and its strife, while Merete Muenter’s choreography makes excellent use of the small space, especially in the market scene.
But the real star of the show, which is helmed by NYTF associate artistic director Motl Didner, is the music, marvelously performed by Lauren Brody on accordion, Elise Frawley on viola, Evan Honse and Rebecca Steinberg on trumpet, Sam Katz and Inna Langerman on violin, Tony Park on clarinet, Reenat Pinchas on cello, George Rush on bass, Matt Temkin on drums and percussion, and associate musical conductor D. Zisl Slepovitch and conductor Zalmen Mlotek on piano. It’s light and frothy one moment, then dastardly and devious the next, as the story takes on such relevant topics as wealth inequality, human trafficking, and the spreading of wicked lies through the social construct. The Sorceress is the first fully restored work in NYTF’s Global Restoration Initiative, which resurrects lost Yiddish plays through extensive research. May there be many more.