The Javaad Alipoor Company’s Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran is a virtual production of, by, and for its time like no other. Previously presented at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival in January, the immersive online experience, now livestreaming from DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through April 18, takes on capitalism, consumerism, climate change, government corruption, income inequality, colonialism, the collapse of civilization, geopolitics, and just about everything else under the sun as it relates to the past and future of the Anthropocene Epoch, all stemming from a fatal car accident in Iran in 2015.
On May 1 of that year, the New York Times reported that twenty-year-old Parivash Akbarzadeh and twenty-one-year-old Mohammad Hossein Rabbani-Shirazi were killed when his brand-new yellow Porsche, which she was driving, crashed after reaching speeds of more than 120 miles per hour. The focus of the story, however, went beyond the tragedy and instead zeroed in on the public reaction in the aftermath, particularly how people took to social media to lambast Parivash and Hossein, the latter described by the Times as “the nouveau riche grandson of an ayatollah,” for their carefree, luxurious lifestyle, which they and those like them show off on Instagram, flaunting the country’s rigid Islamic laws.
The follow-up to 2017’s multimedia The Believers Are But Brothers, about the birth of Islamic radicalization over the internet and WhatsApp, Rich Kids was previously staged at the Edinburgh Festival and various venues in England but has been reimagined for online viewing. Written by Alipoor, created by Alipoor and Kirsty Housley, and performed by Alipoor and Peyvand Sadeghian, the seventy-minute show goes backward in time from the crash itself to the specific events leading up to it as well as to the decades and centuries before that impacted the development of current Iranian culture, including the role of American politics and capitalism. The narrative toggles between Instagram Live, where text and photos tell the story of Parivash and Hossein with hashtags to such other pages as #richkidsoftehran and #mallwave and the internet, where Alipoor and Sadeghian go on a deep dive into the anthropological annals of the world using animation, archival footage, European and traditional Safavid painting, and video of a burning planet bathed in dripping red. “History isn’t linear,” they point out. “No past. No future. There’s no reason why time as we feel it should be a physical thing.”
In its nine-part manifesto, the Javaad Alipoor Company declares, “Every work we make should say something directly about politics,” “Every project needs to speak to history, and find something new about how we got here,” and “Things have to be fun,” among other statements of purpose. Rich Kids accomplishes that and more, although it can at times be bumpy as you switch screens and technological elements overlap. Along the way it makes hard-hitting observations about who and where we are in the twenty-first century, not just Iranians or the wealthy children of the elite filled with contempt but every one of us. “We’re not the first people to feel like our world is ending,” they explain. “We spend a lot of time thinking about how the world will end, but we almost never think to ask those whose worlds have already ended.” They also make note of how “we now upload more pictures to Instagram every day than existed in total a hundred years ago.”
The play is perhaps best summed up by an image of a huge fireball exploding as Alipoor and Sadeghian wonder “why we find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of humanity.” To keep the investigation going, performances on Friday will be followed by community conversations with such facilitators as Héctor Flores Komatsu, Adam A. Elsayigh, and Trà Nguyễn, while Sunday shows will conclude with talkbacks featuring Alipoor and journalists and cartoonists, moderated by Cynthia Schneider.
The first in-person, extended-run indoor theatrical presentation in New York since restrictions lifted has arrived, and it’s a doozy. British playwright Simon Stephens’s adaptation of Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago’s 1995 dystopian novel, Blindness, was long in the works prior to the coronavirus crisis, but its subject matter and staging are tailor-made for this precise moment in time.
The seventy-minute socially distanced sound and light installation debuted at the Donmar Warehouse last August and opened last night at the Daryl Roth Theatre in Union Square. Originally conceived as a fully staged production with a cast of a hundred by Tony winner Stephens and director Walter Meierjohann, it has been reimagined for the pandemic. A maximum of eighty-six masked people are allowed in the theater, seated in chairs in pods of two, either facing the same or opposite directions; each couple is at least six feet away from other pairs.
The set consists of dozens of horizontal and vertical fluorescent lights hanging from above, forming a kind of abstract traffic pattern, warmly changing colors from red, blue, and green to yellow and orange; as the audience enters, the sounds of cars can be heard. The otherwise empty, ominous set is by Lizzie Clachan, with lighting by Jessica Hung Han Yun. Every audience member receives a pair of headphones through which the foreboding tale unfolds. The text is performed by Olivier-winning English actress Juliet Stevenson (Truly, Madly, Deeply; Death and the Maiden), who starts out as the Storyteller before becoming the protagonist. “If you can see, look,” the Storyteller begins. “If you can look, observe.”
The dark parable immerses you in an epidemic in which a man driving down the street suddenly and inexplicably goes blind — everything turns white — and after he goes to an ophthalmologist, the doctor and several of his patients soon lose their sight as well. The contagion spreads, and only the doctor’s wife retains her vision; she takes over the narrative, which turns into an apocalyptic nightmare in which the nation’s leaders turn their back on its citizenry. “If there was a government, it was a government of the blind trying to rule the blind,” the doctor’s never-named wife says. “I didn’t know if there was going to be a future. We needed to decide how we were going to live.”
The audio was recorded using a binaural microphone, called Trevor, that is shaped like a human head, similar to the one Simon McBurney used in his 2016 Broadway show, The Encounter. Stevenson’s physical proximity to Trevor affects how we ultimately hear her words, giving it a three-dimensional quality. At times it seems that the doctor’s wife is far away, her voice muffled in the distance, while a minute later you can practically feel her hot breath on your neck as she whispers in your ear, as if she is standing right next to you. It can be unnerving, and it’s supposed to be, melding well with the story, which grows harsher and harsher. The genius sound design is by Ben and Max Ringham, who previously used binaural recordings and silent disco headphones for Ella Hickson’s spy thriller, Anna, at the National Theatre in May 2019. You might be sitting in a space with no stage, no furniture, no props, only chairs and lights, but Stephens’s writing is so descriptive, and Stevenson’s reading so clear and poetic, that you’ll think you are in the quarantine bunker where the blind characters are struggling to survive.
Although the theater does transform into total darkness for several scenes, random flashes of white lights in the second half are distracting, with no apparent connection to the story except to perhaps evoke an instant of white blindness. Depending on where you are sitting, you might be facing another audience member, which can be unsettling; usually at the theater, the only people in front of you who you might make eye contact with are the actors onstage. That said, it’s fabulously exciting to be in a theater with other people, experiencing something together. In addition, everyone gets a flashlight to turn on in case they require technical or personal assistance, although that can be disruptive, particularly when it’s pitch black and someone suddenly flicks the light on. There is no intermission, no bathroom breaks, no gathering in the lobby to chat; if you have to leave for some reason, there is no reentry. And speaking of distractions, the night I was there, I did not see anyone on their cell phone or hear any ringers go off. Sheer bliss.
Blindness, which was adapted into a 2007 play by Godlight Theatre Company, a 2008 film by Fernando Meirelles starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and Danny Glover, and a 2011 opera by Anno Schreier and Kerstin Maria Pöhler — Saramago also wrote a sequel, Seeing, in 2004 — is not simply a technological marvel that explores the breakdown of society in a health crisis that is all too familiar today; it examines how we as a culture interpret how and what we see. It’s merely coincidental that we are watching a show about a pandemic, involving food insecurity, economic distress, governmental refusal to take action, and so much grief and loss, during a pandemic. Blindness delves into the interconnectedness of humanity amid greed, selfishness, and a metaphorical blindness that can lead to racism, hate, militarism, and othering. Stephens follows Saramago’s style of not using proper names for characters or locations; this could be happening to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
In writing the play, Stephens (Sea Wall, Heisenberg, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), who is partially sighted, consulted with Hannah Thompson, a partially sighted professor of French and Critical Disability Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, who explained ocularcentrism to him, the belief that sight is the most privileged of the five senses and how misunderstood having less vision is. (She prefers the term “vision gain” to “vision loss.”) Early on, the Storyteller says, “Who would have believed it? Seen at a glance, the man’s eyes seemed healthy. The iris looked bright, luminous. The sclera white, as compact as porcelain. The eyes wide open, the wrinkled skin of the face, the eyebrows suddenly screwed up.” As this immersive sound and light installation reminds us, taking life, and all its wonders, for granted comes at your own risk.
Through April 18, $37-$65
I’ve had several opportunities to see Mike Bartlett’s play Cock, which ran at the Duke on 42nd St. as well as a Spanish version at the Producers Club, but for one reason or another I passed. I’m sorry I did, now that I’ve seen Studio Theatre’s sizzling virtual adaptation, streaming through April 18.
Originally staged by James Mcdonald at the Royal Court Theatre in 2009,
Cock uniquely approaches questions of identity by exploring personal responsibility, love, and sexuality. John (Randy Harrison), a nice guy who lacks the inner strength to make important decisions, is living with M (Scott Parkinson), an acerbic, irritable stockbroker, but has surprisingly fallen for W (Kathryn Tkel), a sweet-natured young divorcee. While M endlessly belittles John, W appreciates him for exactly who he is, even if John’s not exactly sure what that is. When M and W meet, neither one is about to give up, ready to fight to be with John. John is soon put into a position where he must choose either M or W, so his longtime partner enlists the help of his father, F (Alan Wade), a working-class man who wants the two men to stay together.
Directed by David Muse (The Remains, The Effect), the play was filmed with three cameras in one day following Covid-19 protocols by video director Wes Culwell at Studio Theatre, on a large dirt-filled circle surrounded by a rope, evoking a wrestling ring where the four characters, barefoot, wearing everyday clothes, engage in conversation and do verbal battle. Scene changes are indicated by a dimming of the octagonal light fixture dangling above and a sharp sound, as if another round in a championship fight has concluded; the lighting is by Colin K. Bills, with sound by James Bigbee Garver. Bartlett was inspired to write the play after watching Mexican cockfights; the title refers to roosters, the male organ, and several other American and British usages, from moving a part of one’s body to getting a gun ready to fire to a slang term for a friend and nonsense.
The actors remain at least six feet apart at nearly all times. There are no props, no costume changes; activities such as eating, drinking, and removing clothes are mimicked by the actors. Culwell often uses split screens, putting characters in their own vertical boxes, which can be confusing, since they are acting together onstage at that moment, not Zooming in from wherever they are sheltering in place. It takes us out of the rhythm of the play, which is otherwise brilliant. Early on, when John is telling M that their relationship might be ending, he tries to keep them physically apart. M reaches out, but John rebuffs him. “No. Don’t. Just stand over there,” John says, motioning for M to stay away. M walks a few feet back, then says, “An illustration, showing me the distance between us. . . . But you’re not showing me the distance. You’re creating it. You put me over here, put that thing there between us.”
Bartlett’s (Love, Love, Love; King Charles III) writing is sharp and intuitive, sexy and funny. The cast is uniformly excellent; Harrison (The Habit of Art, Cabaret) displays a cautious, tender vulnerability as John. Parkinson (The 39 Steps, Our Town), who earned a Helen Hayes nomination for his performance in Studio Theatre’s original 2014 production, is a bundle of energy as M, his body, head, and hands in near-constant motion, while Tkel (An Octoroon, Jefferson’s Garden) is alluring and affecting as the positive-thinking W, and Wade (Choir Boy, Scenes from an Execution) is stalwart as a father who just wants his son to be happy. John — the only character with a full name but the one who least understands himself — isn’t really deciding on whether he’s gay or straight; his conundrum could be about any one of us, faced with choices about who we are and who we want to be. “Him and me, we must both be stupid,” W tells John, who is not necessarily such a great catch, for a man or a woman. “What is it about you?” It’s a question we’ve all asked at one time or another, and Bartlett and Muse are not about to offer any easy answers.
George Street Playhouse
Twenty-four-hour stream available on demand through April 11, $33
In my review of the 2016 Broadway premiere of Becky Mode’s Fully Committed at the Lyceum, in which Jesse Tyler Ferguson portrayed a struggling actor taking phone reservations at a hot New York City restaurant as well as forty other characters, I wrote, “It might work in small, intimate theaters, but on Broadway it feels more like an interesting comedy sketch that never ends.” The one-person show has now found just the right table setting in the George Street Playhouse’s tasty virtual adaptation, running online through April 11.
One of the most produced plays in America since its debut in 1999 at the Vineyard Theatre and subsequent long transfer at the Cherry Lane, Fully Committed requires an immensely talented, intrinsically likable actor, and director David Saint has found that in Maulik Pancholy, who embodies the protagonist, Sam, as well as dozens of other characters, including the hotheaded chef; Sam’s coworker, Bob, who is supposed to be helping him on the phones but is stuck in traffic; such demanding VIP customers as Bunny Vandevere and Carolann Rosenstein-Fishburn; Bryce, Gwyneth Paltrow’s assistant, who is arranging a special party with unusual requests; and his friend Jerry, who is often up for the same parts as Sam. He also portrays his own father, who desperately wants him to come home for the first Christmas the family will celebrate after the loss of Sam’s mother, although Sam is scheduled to work that day. For each character, Pancholy, wearing a headset and a blue zippered sweatshirt over a button-down shirt, adopts a different voice as well as body movement, shifting back and forth smoothly.
The ninety-minute show takes place in a cluttered, messy downstairs office filled with file cabinets, trashcans, a coat rack, a Boston Red Sox pennant, music posters, and Broadway memorabilia, which in 2021 reminds us what we are all missing. (The appropriately crowded art direction is by Helen Tewksbury.) It was shot by cinematographer and editor Michael Boylan in the basement of George Street Playhouse board member Sharon Karmazin’s home on a lake in New Jersey; the company also filmed its previous online play, Theresa Rebeck’s Bad Dates, in the house, as well as its next production, Nia Vardalos’s Tiny Beautiful Things, streaming May 4-23.
Boylan’s camerawork provides an intimacy and connection that was lost in the Broadway staging. Pancholy, who has appeared in such television series as 30 Rock and Weeds and on Broadway in Grand Horizons in addition to writing the award-winning middle grade novel The Best at It (for which I served as managing editor), is seen in closeup and longer shots that help define the claustrophobia and loneliness Sam is experiencing, from his mother’s death and his breakup with his boyfriend to his inability to snare a quality acting job and the abandonment of his colleague, Bob, who has left him all by himself to handle crisis after crisis. Although the play has not been rewritten to incorporate a much more significant crisis, the coronavirus, the pandemic hovers in the dank air, particularly at a time when restaurants are only just opening up for indoor dining and actors are hoping to get back to work now that some venues are beginning to experiment with limited-capacity in-person shows.
Fully Committed might not satiate your hunger for food — the chef’s complicated “molecular gastronomy” doesn’t sound very appetizing — but the play will quench your thirst for high-quality theater in these difficult times.
Who: Red Bull Theater company
What: Conversation about William Shakespeare character Falstaff
Where: Red Bull Theater website, YouTube, and Facebook Live
When: Monday, April 5, free with RSVP (donations accepted), 7:30
Why: The last hand I shook was the large paw of Drama Desk Award–winning actor Jay O. Sanders, following his performance in the Broadway show Girl from the North Country at the Belasco on March 10, 2020, two days before the pandemic lockdown shuttered the city. With most theaters and the Great White Way still closed, Sanders will take part in Red Bull’s next online RemarkaBULL Podversation, “Exploring Falstaff,” on April 5 at 7:30. In the free virtual event, streamed live on Facebook and YouTube, the Austin-born actor and activist will perform an excerpt from Act 2, Scene 4 from Henry IV, Part 1, in which the bearish Sir John Falstaff tells Prince Hal at the Boar’s Head Tavern: “Shall I? content: this chair shall be my state, / this dagger my sceptre, and this cushion my crown. / Give me a cup of sack to / make my eyes look red, that it may be thought I have / wept; for I must speak in passion.”
After the speech, Sanders will discuss the character, who appeared in both parts of Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor before being eulogized in Henry V, with Red Bull associate producer Nathan Winkelstein. The conversation will include several questions from the audience as well. Sanders (Uncle Vanya, the Apple Family plays) has portrayed such Shakespearean figures as Titus Andronicus, Marc Antony, Macbeth, Toby Belch, Caliban, Petruchio, and Bottom and has the record for most appearances at the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park presentations at the Delacorte, so he knows what of he speaks. Up next for Red Bull’s ambitious lockdown programming is a Zoom benefit reading of Paradise Lost on April 12 and 26; you can watch previous RemarkaBULL Podversations with André De Shields, Kate Burton, Patrick Page, Elizabeth Marvel, Michael Urie, Chukwudi Iwuji, Stephen Spinella, and others here.
Trauma and PTSD hover over all four characters in the world premiere of Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s searing drama [hieroglyph], streaming in a filmed, fully staged production from San Francisco Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre through April 3. Inspired by the true story of the kidnapping and rape of nine-year-old Shatoya Currie, known as Girl X, [hieroglyph] stars Jamella Cross as Davis Despenza Hayes, a thirteen-year-old girl who has moved to Chicago with her hardworking father, Ernest (Khary L. Moye), two months after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where her mother stayed behind. Davis is hiding a dark secret that slowly emerges as she excels in art class, taught by Ms. T. (Safiya Fredericks), who harbors a secret of her own. Meanwhile, Davis’s best friend, Leah (Anna Marie Sharpe), is more open and positive about life, until something goes wrong.
[Hieroglyph], the real title of which is an inarticulate symbol, is beautifully written by Susan Smith Blackburn Prize–finalist Dickerson-Despenza (ocean’s lip/heaven’s shore, shadow/land) and intimately directed by Lorraine Hansberry Theatre artistic director Margo Hall (Barbecue, Red Velvet) on SFP artistic director Bill English’s circular stage, which revolves from the classroom to Davis’s bedroom to the Hayes living room. A screen in the back shows Davis’s compelling drawings, works by Harlem Renaissance painter Ernest Crichlow, abstract videos of Davis’s nightmares, and a window to the outside world. Regina Y. Evans’s sharp costumes further define the four characters, portrayed by an outstanding cast led by a moving performance by Cross and a powerful turn by Moye, who represents those who want to do the right thing but don’t have the facility to wholly understand. Although some of the camerawork and editing can get a bit shaky at times, Hall’s staging makes it feel like you’re watching a play, not a film, with superb lighting by Kevin Myrick, sound and interstitial music by Everett Elton Bradman, and projections by Teddy Hulsker. I can’t wait to see [hieroglyph] in person.
Part of the playwright’s planned ten-play Katrina Cycle, [hieroglyph] is a harrowing exploration of the systemic abuse of the Black woman’s body; it’s about shame, racism, and sexual violence, about boys and men taking advantage of the vulnerability of young girls, and about trying to take back the power. “Can’t nobody take something from me that I give up. If I’m in control, if I give it away, can’t nobody take it,” Leah tells Davis.
In a program note, Dickerson-Despenza writes, “This play is for girls who suffer & survive in silence. It’s for the women & girls of New Orleans who courageously tell their stories of sexual assault in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina & the Flood. This play is for Black fathers navigating their own toxic masculinity & role in perpetuating rape culture. . . . This play is for Black women who hold the vestiges of Black girlhood joy in our muscle memory through bounce, juke parties, & other sacred Black cultural formations. It’s for the Black girl friendships & art that holds & heals us. This play is for all of the survivors. & me too.” And now it’s available for everyone to see. Don’t miss it.
Who: Chasten Buttigieg, Ariana DeBose, Debra Messing, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tony Shalhoub, Ben Vereen, Stephanie J. Block, Deborah Cox, Lea Salonga, Amy Adams, Debbie Allen, Matt Bomer, Brenda Braxton, Len Cariou, Glenn Close, Loretta Devine, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, James Monroe Iglehart, Cheyenne Jackson, Cherry Jones, L Morgan Lee, Raymond J. Lee, Aasif Mandvi, Eric McCormack, Michael McElroy, Debra Messing, Ruthie Ann Miles, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Jessie Mueller, Javier Muñoz, Kelli O’Hara, Karen Olivo, Jim Parsons, Bernadette Peters, Eve Plumb, Roslyn Ruff, Sis, Elizabeth Stanley, Tony Yazbeck, Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon, Robin Roberts, Robert Creighton, Danyel Fulton, Eileen Galindo, Sam Gravitte, Sheldon Henry, Diana Huey, Aaron Libby, Nathan Lucrezio, Melinda Porto, Shelby Ringdahl, Vishal Vaidya, Blake Zolfo
What: Benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center
Where: Broadway Cares and YouTube
When: Tuesday, March 30, free, 8:00 (available on demand through April 3)
Why: Mayor DeBlasio has announced that he expects Broadway to reopen in September, but that doesn’t mean the forty-one official theaters will be hosting shows come the fall. In the meantime, we have to keep quenching our thirst with Zoom readings, filmed stagings, and virtual gala celebrations. Next up is “Broadway Backwards,” premiering March 30 at 8:00 and available on demand through April 3. The benefit for Broadway Cares and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City, which honors gender diversity and love, began in 2006, raising $7,325, rising each year until it reached $704,491 in 2019; the 2020 edition, scheduled for March 16, was canceled because of the coronavirus.
It has now returned with a vengeance, featuring clips from previous shows (Tituss Burgess, Len Cariou, Carolee Carmello, Darren Criss, Cynthia Erivo, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Debra Monk, Andrew Rannells, Chita Rivera, Lillias White, more), appeals from Chasten Buttigieg, Ariana DeBose, Debra Messing, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tony Shalhoub, and Ben Vereen, and new performances from such major names as Stephanie J. Block, Amy Adams, Debbie Allen, Glenn Close, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Cheyenne Jackson, Cherry Jones, Eric McCormack, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Jessie Mueller, Kelli O’Hara, Karen Olivo, Jim Parsons, and Bernadette Peters. This year’s edition is centered around Jay Armstrong Johnson portraying a lonely New Yorker navigating the Covid-19-riddled city with the help of a late-night TV host played by Jenn Colella. The show is written and directed by event creator Robert Bartley, with Mary-Mitchell Campbell as music supervisor, Ted Arthur as music director, and Eamon Foley as director of photography and video editor. It’s free to watch, but donations will be accepted to help members of the LGBTQ community and others who have been significantly impacted by the health crisis and pandemic lockdown.