Three years ago, we saw the Builders Association’s multimedia Elements of Oz at the 3LD Art and Technology Center. The multimedia presentation is now back for three shows at NYU Skirball, December 7 at 3:00 and 7:30 and December 8 at 3:00, closing out Skirball’s yearlong celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall. Below is our slightly amended review of the December 2016 production.
The Builders Association (Sontag:Reborn, Invisible Cities) takes audiences on a wild trip down the yellow brick road as it deconstructs and reconstructs The Wizard of Oz in its fun and innovative multimedia experimental production Elements of Oz. Conceived by Marianne Weems, Moe Angelos, and James Gibbs, directed by Weems, and cowritten by Gibbs and Angelos, Elements of Oz delves into the legend and legacy of the classic 1939 film, sharing little-known stories, reenacting key scenes, and examining its online presence, including theories about how the book and movie are metaphors for the U.S. monetary system and gold standard. The show presents a small corp of actors who reenact and reshoot key scenes, creating a new version via multiple monitors that project what is happening onstage and freeze-frames taken from previous scenes. The piece is performed by Angelos, Sean Donovan, and Hannah Heller, who each portray several characters — all three play Dorothy Gale at various points. They not only switch roles, they also shift from commenting on the film to acting in its re-creation, and from past to present, telling tales of 1939 moviemaking and its ongoing reverberations in popular culture.
Following a YouTube overture, Angelos delivers the first of many “talking points,” giving inside information to the audience. “It’s a masterpiece,” she says about the film, “but all we see is the magic. We don’t see all the brutal work and failure.” Elements of Oz reveals how much of that magic was made as stage manager April Sigler, associate lighting designer Elliott Jenetopulos, video designer Austin Switser, production manager Brendan Regimbal, and technical director Carl Whipple set up and break down Neal Wilkinson’s sets, filming short scenes that are then edited live to mimic the original, shot by shot, and played back on a large onstage screen as well as the monitors that fill the theater. Meanwhile, Moe relates stories about Margaret Hamilton and her double, Betty Denko, suffering major injuries; how “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was almost left on the cutting-room floor; that some of the munchkins were repurposed as flying monkeys; and what really happened when the film went from black-and-white to color.
Just as The Wizard of Oz made use of cutting-edge technology, so does Elements of Oz, which has a unique innovation of its own. During the show, which is based on both the film and the book by L. Frank Baum, there are moments that are best viewed through your smart phone or tablet via a free augmented reality app, designed by John Cleater, that enhances what you’re watching by adding visual and aural effects, from snow to giggling munchkins to other cool surprises. Angelos (the Five Lesbian Brothers), Donovan (Thank You for Coming: Play), and Heller (The World Is Round) are hysterical as they change from role to role, with Angelos as Dorothy and Glinda, the mustachioed Donovan as Dorothy, Uncle Henry, Mike Wallace, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, Salman Rushdie, and the Wizard, and Heller as Dorothy, Aunt Em, the Wicked Witch, the Scarecrow, Judy Garland, and Ayn Rand. (The costumes are by Andreea Mincic, with lighting by Jennifer Tipton, sound design and original music by Dan Dobson, and interactive design and programming by Jesse Garrison.) Originally presented by Peak Performances @ Montclair State University, the goofy and charming Elements of Oz is probably about twenty minutes too long, as things get a little repetitive, and as fun as the app is, you’ll find yourself at times looking at your phone, waiting for the next bit of AR to take place, instead of watching what is happening onstage. But like the original book and film, Elements of Oz is an enjoyable mind-expanding journey — and be sure to keep that app on as you exit Skirball and head toward Washington Square Park.
Anspacher Theater, the Public Theater
425 Lafayette St. at Astor Pl.
Tuesday through Sunday through December 22, $85
In October 1987, Tony Kushner’s first play, A Bright Room Called Day, premiered in San Francisco, directed by Oskar Eustis. Inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s 1938 anti-Nazi work The Private Life of the Master Race, Kushner’s play compared the rise of fascism in Germany in 1932–33 with the right-wing Reagan Revolution of the mid-1980s. With fascism and authoritarianism again on the march throughout the world — and, according to many, here in America as well under President Donald J. Trump — Kushner and Eustis are revisiting the drama in an enticing new version continuing at the Public’s Anspacher Theater through December 22. In the original production, the character of Zillah, a young Long Island black woman from the mid-1980s, interrupts the story of a group of bohemians in 1932–33 who are worried where Germany is heading. For this updated iteration, Kushner has drastically rewritten the part of Zillah and has added his alter ego, Xillah, an older white man representing Kushner himself in 2019.
The three-hour play begins with a prologue on January 1, 1932, at a small New Year’s Eve party with actress Agnes Eggling (Nikki M. James), her Hungarian Trotskyite partner, Vealtninc Husz (Michael Esper), opium-smoking actress Paulinka Erdnuss (Grace Gummer), avowed communist Annabella Gotchling (Linda Emond), and the gay Gregor Bazwald (Michael Urie), who may or may not be sleeping with Nazis. Xillah (Jonathan Hadary) first appears in scene two, as Agnes and Paulinka discuss Nazi filmmaking and politics. Xillah walks onto David Rockwell’s cramped, appropriately dingy living room set and says directly to the audience, “Ignore me. I’m not here.” He points at Agnes, who cannot see him, and adds, “She’s about to tell her friend about a meeting she went to, she’s very excited, she — Just watch the scene.” A moment later he explains, “This play, it’s my first play. I wrote it thirty-four years ago. I made this up: the inhabitant of this room, her friends, the room itself, this German room, where it’s 1932 and 1933, and” — he pauses as Zillah (Crystal Lucas-Perry) enters. “Long time no see,” she says to him. He goes on, “I made her up too. She’s this . . . woman in New York, in Reagan America, 1984, 1985. She interrupts the play, at certain intervals she —.” Zillah then cuts Xillah off and tells the audience, “I’m this author-surrogate interruptive-oppositional someone-or-other to whom the playwright neglected to give even a trace of a backstory or anything oppositional to do, to actually do except creep in between the Berlin scenes.” They keep on bickering about whether the original play worked. “Are you here to fix it? Finally?” asks this more potent Zillah, who does a lot more than just creep around.
The answer, of course, is yes. Although I haven’t seen the play before, this new version feels like it has been fixed — in fact, Kushner might have overplayed his hand, as Xillah and Zillah steal the show. While the Weimar Germany characters discuss how to proceed, joined by communist party representatives Rosa Malek (Nadine Malouf) and Emil Traum (Max Woertendyke), an old ghost from Agnes’s dreams (Estelle Parsons), and the devilish Gottfried Swetts (Mark Margolis) — you’ll be eagerly awaiting Xillah and Zillah’s next interruption. The 1930s material is okay but needs the thrilling energy that the anachronistic characters bring to break up the narrative, especially as performed by the wonderful, grandfatherly Hadary (Gypsy, As Is), who is wise and gentle as Xillah, and the powerful, unstoppable force that is Lucas-Perry Ain’t No Mo’, Bull in a China Shop), a charismatic dynamo as Zillah, taking over the stage every time she appears, injecting humor and potent insight.
“It’s 1932, and they’re placing power above the rule of law. It’s 1985, and they’re cynically exploiting racism and economic anxiety and fear of change,” she declares. “It’s 1932, it’s 1985, and they’re propagating a
politics of anti-politics, a hatred of the idea of government itself. They’re replacing history with myths of new mornings, dreams of blood purity, of race and gender and sexual purity. It’s 1932, and it’s 1985, and we are in danger.” Left unsaid is that all of that is true again in 2019, and we are in danger once more.
Kushner (The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures; Caroline, or Change), who won the Pulitzer and two Tonys for Angels in America, and Eustis, the artistic director of the Public who helmed the world premieres of Angels and Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul in addition to the controversial anti-Trump adaptation of Julius Caesar at the Delacorte in the summer of 2017, keep politics at the forefront of their work, but here they successfully avoid didacticism, allowing the audience to figure out most of the parallels between the 1930s, the 1980s, and today, but they do get their digs in. Early on, Xillah says, “Most likely Donald Trump — and this is the last time his name will be mentioned tonight because it is a name that is hateful to God — most likely when you leave the theater in a reasonably little while, he will still be president and you will go to bed unhappy.” When you wake up the next morning, Trump will indeed still be president, but A Bright Room Called Day is likely to have given you a fresh new perspective.
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
302 West 45th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 8, $179 - $799
Just about all you need to know about Moulin Rouge! The Musical! is that, yes, there are two exclamation points in the title. If you thought Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie was over the top and filled to excess, wait till you see the Broadway show. Actually, let me take that back; just trust me and skip it unless you’re looking to toss away between $179 and $799 on a bright red saccharine bonbon. As you enter the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, you’re immersed in the sexy, velvety world of the Moulin Rouge, to great effect. (The set design is by the masterful Derek McLane.) Sultry men and women are there to greet and entice you at the sides of the stage, a large windmill beckons from above (“Moulin Rouge” means “red mill”), but beware the big blue elephant in the room. (Literally.) The opening number shows promise, with Danny Burstein leading the adult circus as nightclub owner and ringleader Harold Zidler, who declares, “Hello, chickens! Yes, it’s me. Your own beloved Harold Zidler. In the flesh. Welcome, you gorgeous collection of reprobates and rascals, artistes and arrivistes, soubrettes and sodomites, welcome to the Moulin Rouge!” He continues, “No matter your sin, you’re welcome here. No matter your desire, you’re welcome here. For this is more than a nightclub. The Moulin Rouge is a state of mind. It is that part of your soul which throbs and pulses, it is that corner of your mind where your fantasies live.” Well, not my fantasies, at least.
The sails come off the mill quickly after that, as the innocent and penniless Christian (Aaron Tveit) tumbles head over heels in love with Moulin Rouge star Satine (Karen Olivo), whom Zidler has already given to the Duke (Tam Mutu) in exchange for money that will help keep the club open. Meanwhile, French artist Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) follows along, commenting from a Montmartre café. “Face it, Toulouse. We’re not songwriters,” his friend Santiago (Ricky Rojas) says. Lautrec replies, “How hard can it be, for God sake?! June, spoon, moon — done!” Apparently, it’s pretty darn hard, as Moulin Rouge! The Musical! is stuffed to the gills with snippets of more than seventy hits that are either annoying in their brevity or severely overdramatized; just as in the film, the gimmick grows tired fast, even with familiar tunes by Talking Heads, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Lourde, U2, Sia, the Rolling Stones, and Edith Piaf.
Directed by two-time Tony nominee Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Here Lies Love) and with a predictable book by Tony winner and three-time Oscar nominee John Logan (Red, The Last Ship), the show is all glitz and glamour (the costumes are by Catherine Zuber, the choreography by Sonya Tayeh) with no chemistry whatsoever between the characters; not only will you not care about what happens to Christian, Satine, and the Duke, you’ll actively root for them to just make up their minds already and put us out of our misery. (The bloviated production runs just over two and a half hours.) And don’t fall for all the tongue-in-cheek self-referential and anachronistic pop-culture blather. Early on, Christian tells Lautrec and Santiago, “So it turns out they were in the midst of writing a theatrical play with some songs in it. They wanted me to go to the Moulin Rouge and sing one of my songs for the star there, sort of an audition. If she liked my music then she’d get the club to put on their show, which they called Bohemian Rhapsody. I swear, they were like two knockabout vaudevillians escaped from the nearest asylum and the whole thing was the single most insane idea I’d ever heard.” Hey, he said it, not me.
Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater, the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space
511 West 52nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 22, $66-$96
Theresa Rebeck heats up MCC’s Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater with the East Coast premiere of the sizzling hot Seared. The very tasty show is set in the cramped kitchen of a small Park Slope restaurant that is seeing a lightning-fast rise in clientele following a New York magazine rave about its scallop dish. But chef Harry (Raúl Esparza), who co-owns the eatery with his best friend, Mike (David Mason), who handles the front of the house and the business side, refuses to ever make those scallops again, resisting the pressure to become a star linked to just one specific entrée. “All my food is good,” he tells server and sometimes sous chef Rodney (W. Tré Davis). Arguing about the critic’s review, Rodney says, “He called you a hidden jewel, Harry,” to which Harry responds, “What’s a hidden jewel?” Rodney: “You know what a hidden jewel is.” Harry: “I know what an idiot is, too.”
On the heels of their burgeoning success, Harry and Mike are visited by Emily Lowes (Krysta Rodriguez), an impeccably dressed young consultant who wants to work with the restaurant to take it to the next level. While Mike is fully in favor of bringing her in, explaining that a potential rent increase could shut them down, Harry is dead-set against even listening to her initial proposal. “She’d like to help us,” Mike says. “Do we need help?” Harry replies sharply. A moment later, an ever-angrier Harry says, “Wow. You help people get what they want?” Emily answers, “I do.” Harry responds dismissively, “Yeah, but the problem is, I have what I want. So I don’t need anybody to help me get what I want. Sorry.” Then Mike chimes in, “I don’t have what I want. Let me get you a seat, Emily.” Their disagreement grows more heated as Mike begins to implement some of Emily’s ideas and Harry boils over in frustration while still insisting to not make the scallops, as scallop orders roll in from customer after customer.
Despite there being nothing particularly new about the plot itself, which is like standard diner fare, Rebeck (Downstairs, Seminar) and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Hand to God, Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet) transform the top-notch ingredients into a hidden jewel, a thoroughly satisfying and full-bodied two-act meal that incorporates the sights, sounds, and smells of a New York City restaurant — Harry almost always has something cooking on the stove, taunting the audience’s taste buds from Tim Mackabee’s deliciously cramped set. Four-time Tony nominee Esparza (Company, Speed-the-Plow) is robust and spicy as the mercurial and demanding Harry, a masterful chef who has issues with fame and prosperity, while Mason (Rebeck’s The Nest and Dig) has just the right chops as Mike to stand up to the hotheaded Harry. Davis (Carnaval, Zooman and the Sign) is sweet and savory as the Zen-like Rodney, and Rodriguez (Hercules, What We’re Up Against) is tangy and zestful as the piquant Emily. Yes, I might be running out of culinary references, but Seared continues to tempt my palate, for high-quality food as well as high-quality theater.
205 West 46th St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 20, $79-$229
Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll Tina Turner turns eighty today, a major milestone in a complicated, difficult life that is currently under the microscope on Broadway in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, continuing through next September at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Adrienne Warren is explosive in the title role, giving a dazzling performance as Tina transforms herself from little Anna Mae Bullock (Skye Dakota Turner) singing in church to joining Ike Turner’s (Daniel J. Watts) band to ultimately carving out a memorable second-half-of-life career after being physically and psychologically abused and supposedly being washed up at the age of forty. Presented in “association with Tina Turner,” it’s an inspiring rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story that is a step above the recent spate of mediocre (or worse) biographical jukebox musicals that includes Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, The Cher Show, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Aint Too Proud to Beg: The Life and Times of the Temptations.
The book is by rising African American playwright Katori Hall (Our Lady of Kibeho, Hurt Village) with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins (Hij Gelooft in Mij), and the show is directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who has helmed Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady as well as a well-received all-female Shakespeare trilogy. Tina is paced like a concert, with a strong, fast beginning, some slower moments in the middle, and a grand finale. Not all of it works, particularly as the second act drips into Hallmark territory as Tina’s mother, Zelma (Dawnn Lewis), gets sick. Another problem is that instead of the songs appearing more or less in chronological order as the story unfolds, they are squeezed into scenes because of their content, not when they were recorded, so, for example, her 1983 version of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” is followed, in succession, by 1984’s “Better Be Good to Me,” 1970’s “I Want to Take You Higher,” 1966’s “River Deep — Mountain High,” 1989’s “Be Tender with Me, Baby,” 1971’s “Proud Mary,” and 1993’s “I Don’t Wanna Fight No More.” Tina didn’t write any of these songs, so they don’t relate to her state of mind at the time, and, even more important, the narrative is by then only up to the early 1980s, several years before she meets manager Roger Davies (Charlie Franklin) and starts her comeback with some of the very tunes we’ve now already heard. It might be a great concert setlist but it muddies the waters of a chronological tale. And don’t even get me started on the prominence of “We Don’t Need Another Hero”; did anyone listen to the end of the chorus and wonder where the line “All we want is life beyond Thunderdome” fits into Tina’s life (particularly without mentioning the Mad Max film it’s from)?
That said, Mark Thompson’s sets and costumes shine, Anthony van Laast’s choreography glints and glimmers, and Nicholas Skilbeck’s arrangements and Ethan Popp’s orchestrations, performed by an eleven-piece rock band, do justice to the originals. In addition to Warren’s star turn as Tina — prepare to be awed at how she makes her way up and down the staircase in heels during the encores — Myra Lucretia Taylor is heartwarming as Tina’s grandmother, Gran Georgeanna; Holli’ Conway, Kayla Davion, Destinee Rea, and Mars Rucker have fun as the Ikettes; Dakota Turner reveals quite a strong voice as the young Anna Mae; and Watts does not make Ike pure evil, though you still might consider hissing at him at the curtain call. But the show is really all about Warren (Shuffle Along, Bring It On: The Musical), who commands the stage with a magnetic presence and instantly wins over the audience with her unceasing energy, flashy movement, and magical voice, just like the woman she is portraying has done for decades. Happy birthday, Tina!
Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Ave. & Fulton St.
Through December 8, $70-$90
María Irene Fornés’s Fefu and Her Friends is a brilliant work of utter genius. Unseen in New York since its debut more than forty years ago, the revolutionary play is part art happening, part theatrical reinvention, now brought back in a dazzling revival by director Lileana Blain-Cruz that opened November 24 at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center. It unfolds in three sections: The first on a conventional stage, with the audience watching from standard seating. For the second part, the audience gets up and moves around the space, following four scenes that occur simultaneously but separately, each offering close-up looks at the characters as the crowd goes from bedroom to study to kitchen to lawn before returning to their regular seats for the finale. It’s avant-garde promenade theater at its finest, embedding us in the abstract narrative while also making us feel like we’re spying on extremely personal moments.
The story takes place in the spring of 1935 in the elegant New England country home of Fefu (Amelia Workman), who has invited over seven women for a rehearsal of an upcoming school fundraiser. The title might sound like it’s a family-friendly show, but it’s an insightful and often shocking mature dissection of women’s roles in society, both with and without men. “My husband married me to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are,” Fefu tells Cindy (Jennifer Lim) and Christina (Juliana Canfield) at the very beginning, shortly before firing a double-barrel shotgun in the offstage direction of Phillip, her husband. The gun might or might not be loaded. “She’s crazy,” Christina says. “A little. She has a strange marriage,” Cindy replies.
They are soon joined by Emma (Helen Cespedes), Sue (Ronete Levenson), Paula (Lindsay Rico), Cecilia (Carmen Zilles), and Julia (Brittany Bradford), the eight of them as a unit representing the many aspects of the feminine while avoiding trite stereotypes. Over the course of two thrilling hours, the women talk about love affairs, genitals, pain, anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre, actress, writer, and teacher Emma Sheridan Fry, happiness, and fear, but they are not the catty characters of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women or the melodramatic ladies of Steel Magnolias. They are also not heroic or iconic figures; they each have their flaws that they either flaunt or hide. No men appear in the play, nor are they the primary subject of discussion, but they hover on the periphery. “I still like men better than women,” Fefu says. “I envy them. I like being like a man. Thinking like a man. Feeling like a man. They are well together. Women are not.” Fefu is arguably the most masculine of the women, shooting guns and fixing a broken toilet. At the other end of the spectrum is the wheelchair-bound Julia, who was paralyzed when standing near a deer that was shot, even though no bullet ever struck her. Thus, in Fornés’s world, women are both hunter and hunted. Adam Rigg’s sets further that idea, as all the rooms feature elements of nature, from wallpaper decorated with plants and flowers to animal lamps, from leaves surrounding Julia’s bed to drawings of plants and animals — along with men and women — hung in the living room.
“We each have our own system of receiving information, placing it, responding to it,” Cecilia says at the start of part three. “That system can function with such a bias that it could take any situation and translate it into one formula. That is, I think, the main reason for stupidity or even madness, not being able to tell the difference between things.” That statement succinctly sums up how the audience experiences the nonformulaic play, which has constructed a unique theatrical environment, “immersive” well before that became its own genre. Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes dazzle, while Palmer Hefferan’s sound design during the second part results in a cacophony of voices as bits of conversation from the other concurrent scenes can be picked up, like in real life. Two-time Obie winner Blain-Cruz (Marys Seacole, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World) beautifully leads the engaging cast and the audience through the Cuban-born Fornés’s (Drowning, The Conduct of Life) masterpiece, which earned her the second of her nine Obies. It’s a stirring journey through time and space, a one-of-a-kind play that must be seen; it will blow your mind.