Waitress: It Only Takes a Taste

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Waitress was by far the best viewing experience I had in London. From the moment I entered the theater, every detail brought me into the sweet, warm world of the show. The smell of fresh baked apple pie greeted me at the door. The curtain was painted to look like a pie tray and there were revolving pie racks on either side of the stage. The seats were comfortable and spacious, in stark contrast to the knee-bruising pews, from Fiddler on the Roof the night before. The whole theater was beautiful, adorned with red velvet and art deco paintings. Before a single note was sung, I knew I would enjoy this show.
The only names I recognized on the Marquee were Katherine McPhee and Jack McBrayer. They were truly the standout performances of the musical, but for opposite reasons.
Katherine McPhee has a beautiful voice. I has such power and range. It was a joy to hear her sing. Her rendition of “Used to be Mine” was breathtaking. The applause after the song was so loud and lasted so long, it rivaled the applause at the end of the show. People love her version of the show’s emotional climax so much that she is releasing it as a single. However, McPhee is not a phenomenal actress. She tends to play her characters very monotone and reserved. Before seeing Waitress, I had seen her on the tv show Smash and hated her interpretation of Karen Cartwright, a budding broadway star. Her performance in Smash was worse than Kristen Stewart in Twilight. It was lifeless and boring. It made me dislike her character and her as an actress. Despite my initial aversion to McPhee, I was pleasantly surprised. Surprisingly, her style of acting worked for the character. As Jenna, the pregnant waitress with a passion for baking and a deep desire to break free of the cycle of domestic abuse, McPhee succeeded in garnering sympathy for the characters plight and managed to show a small semblance of character development. She wasn’t sullen, she was just shy. She wasn’t boring, she was just reserved. By the end of the show I was deeply sympathetic for her character. In short, she was able to successfully carry the show. The other actors charisma more than compensated for McPhee’s subpar acting.

I also recognized Jack McBrayer from television. However, in contrast to McPhee I loved McBrayer on the small screen. He plays the always cheerful, always polite Kenneth Parcell in 30 Rock. He also voices the shy and annoyingly helpful Fix It Felix in Disney’s Wreck It Ralph. His character in Waitress, Ogie Anhorn, does not stray from his type cast of silly, cute characters. After the show Alex and I were discussing how famous McBrayer is and how he could be doing something with more name recognition that playing a bit part in a West End musical. McBrayer’s performance just exuded so much joy that I was genuinely convinced that McBrayer genuinely wants to be there. There is no other explanation for me. Everything McBrayer does, radiates happiness. His portrayal of the quirky, hopeless romantic is so lovable and endearing. McBrayer is not a wonderful singer. He hits most of his notes but his voice is just average. Alex had some complaints with a West End musical casting someone, who was clearly not a trained singer, to play a role that has two solos. I think McBrayer more than makes up for his lack of vocal talent with his bounds of charisma.

McBrayer’s performance was emblematic of tone of the overall show.
Waitress was happy and fun. All of the music is written by peppy pop star, Sara Bareilles. It was refreshingly lighthearted, despite tackling some dark topics. It follows the story of waitress, Jenna, as she navigates an unwanted pregnancy while married to an emotionally and physically abusive man, Earl. She begins an affair with her gynecologist, who is also married. Eventually Jenna delivers her baby and is able to muster up the courage to leave her husband and open her own pie shop. This class saw so many depressing shows about important but disheartening subjects. Every night it was a barrage of sexism, racism, classism, sexual assault, immigration and capitalism. All of these shows were attempting and mostly succeeding in sending a poignant message about the bleak state of the world. Nevertheless, a lot of the shows bummed me out. I’m so thankful for being exposed to these pieces of art but, it became emotionally exhausting. However, Waitress was able to tell an absolutely heartbreaking story about motherhood and domestic abuse and infidelity, that was still fun to watch. I think a lot of theater artists believe that sad=deep and happy=superficial. But I disagree and Waitress disagreed.

Thoughts from The Lion King Intermission: Scenic Design, Child Actors, and Audience Interference

Thoughts from The Lion King Intermission: Scenic Design, Child Actors, and Audience Interference

Elizabeth Hall and Catherine Armbrust

On our second to last day, Cat and I decided to purchase tickets for The Lion King, since we both had been wanting to see a live production of it. At intermission, just as we were starting to discuss our thoughts, Cat thought to record our conversation for a critical dialogue, since we had very passionate opinions on the performance. Below is what followed.

Cat: Okay so you were just saying that you feel that this is very similar to how you saw Aladdin, because there’s cheesy jokes like the one about the IKEA curtain.

Liz: Yeah, they’re clearly aimed at parents. And kids, like the Angry Birds one.

Cat: And what else is similar? Oh, like when the curtain comes down.

Liz: Yeah, so because there’s so many huge scene changes throughout the show, since they’re trying to mimic the scenes that are in the movie, they constantly have to bring one of the curtains down so they can have a huge scene change in the background. And it’s just two characters talking to each other, with nothing else, in front of the curtain. In Aladdin, it was Jafar and his parrot, and in this it’s constantly Mufasa and Zazu, another parrot.

Cat: Right.

Liz: It’s very eerily similar (Cat laughs) because it’s this dude talking with a parrot. It’s just like a very similar format, and it makes the whole show feel very jolted because you’re not getting these fluid scene transitions. I guess to a kid it’s not obvious, but to me it’s like “Oh, they’re changing scenes”.

Cat: That’s all I think about when that mid curtain comes down, is that they’re about to change the scene.

Example of a in front of curtain scene, from a Sydney production. Photo by Simon Parris.

Example of a in front of curtain scene, from a Sydney production. Photo by Simon Parris.

 

Liz: Because nothing is happening for the most part in those talking scenes. Like maybe one point of plot is kinda brought up, but mainly it’s just more jokes for parents and kids. I guess it’s just a different kind of theatre. Like it’s made to be entertaining for the whole family.

Cat: Yeah, it’s just family friendly fun.

Liz: Yeah, and it’s not meant to be like, I don’t know, like you’re transformed into this world that you’re totally hooked into the whole time. But part of that is that I feel like we’re at what Dr. Essin was calling a “relaxed performance” even though we’re not. But it’s what’s expected at a show that is aimed at children like this.

Note: A relaxed performance is designed for people who may benefit from a more relaxed sensory environment. Audience members are allowed to make noise, leave the auditorium and re-enter as they please, and light and sound effects are often modified in shows to be more accessible to those with sensory sensitivities.

Cat: Yeah.

Liz: Because there’s just constantly people talking.

Cat: Oh my god and the clapping! The clapping that just happened?

Note: Act One has just finished with “Hakuna Matata”, in which audience members clapped along, horribly off-beat.

Liz: That was like…the worst thing that has ever happened (Cat laughs). Because it happened like immediately!

Cat: They kept trying to make it happen, and it just wasn’t happening the entire song. Like there was no point in the song long enough for there to be clapping on the beats.

Liz: Well, “Hakuna Matata” is not a big number song, it’s 3 voices singing with like some drums and I assume like a guitar or something in the background? It’s very chill. So to have an entire auditorium start clapping becomes deafening in comparison, and they’re not clapping on the beat!

Cat: And they tried to do it immediately! Also with that scene, I thought that was a weird place to put an intermission. Am I wrong?

Liz: It was. It’s also just not typical of an Act One finale. Because normally Act One finales are the biggest numbers and they usually call back to previous songs and allude to something else. I kind of thought they were just gonna end it with Scar taking over, and have it be like a dramatic ending.

Cat: I thought that too! Because I think that it’s better to have Act Two start with baby Simba, and then have the big reveal of adult Simba.

Liz: I think they wanted to reveal adult Simba, to show like you’re done with baby Simba. Maybe it was because of the child actors, maybe the children need to like…

Cat: Go home or something?

Liz: But they probably need to be there for curtain call so I don’t know.

Note: Neither of the child actors appeared during bows, supporting our explanation that they end with this scene so the child actors can go home.  

Cat: Okay, so I want to talk about the child actors. Because I think the girl is good, but she only has so many lines.

Liz: She’s good though, from what we’ve seen, she is good.

Cat: But baby Simba…

Liz: (after the girl sitting next to Liz leaves) I do want to talk about that, but oh my god that girl keeps looking at her phone!

Cat: Really?

Liz: She’s just like scrolling.

Cat: Really?

Liz: And she’s snacking. I’m like, you paid the same price we paid for these tickets, which means you paid like 75 dollars…

Cat: Is that the light that I keep seeing out of the corner of my eye?

Liz: Yeah it’s her. And I looked over and she’s texting someone throughout the show.

Cat: Seriously?

Liz: Like, you paid 75 dollars for this show and you’re gonna sit here on your phone? And then she’s talking to her friend too about I don’t know what. Like they just talk in the middle of scenes.

Cat: I have been hearing talking but I thought it was like up there somewhere.

Liz: There’s more coming from over there with the kids, like I hear the kids talking, but they talk to each other too. And it’s just so frustrating because it just like completely…

Cat: It takes you out.

Liz: And it’s like by chance too. Like if we were like two more rows down, I wouldn’t see that light from her phone. And we would be a little bit further away from the talking, and it would be a little bit better, you know?

Cat: Yeah. Well, another thing about these big family friendly shows I noticed is the clapping after every single number. Like, when we saw Fiddler on the Roof, that was not the case.

Note: After further reflection, I do remember there being clapping after most numbers during Fiddler as well, so perhaps it’s just a musical thing.

Liz: Well also the fact that they clapped when the puppets came out (in “Circle of Life”). They’re really cool, I like them a lot, but all we heard was clapping because we couldn’t see them coming down the aisle yet.

Cat: Yeah and everyone’s like leaning forward trying to see the puppets that we can’t see yet.

Liz: I was just very surprised they clapped at that. But “Circle of Life” was great.

Cat: Yaaaaaasss.

Liz: I got so many chills during “Circle of Life”. When the three of them were singing together?

Cat: See it started strong!

Liz: And then we got into baby Simba.

Cat: Oh my god, okay so let’s talk about baby Simba.

Liz: Baby Simba is just not a good actor. I’m sorry.

Cat: I felt nothing when Mufasa died. Nothing.

Liz: I felt something when he fell.

Cat: Oh yeah.

Liz: I loved that moment.

Cat: When he physically died.

Liz: But I loved how they did it, I thought it was really cool. And the lights. It looked realistic, like it didn’t look like he was being pulled up by whatever rig he was on, which obviously he was, it looked like he was freaking climbing. He was doing a good job showing that. I think Mufasa was great.

Cat: Oh yeah! Oh yeah. Yes.

Liz: And I feel so bad that he was trying to pull any sort of emotion out of the child.

Cat: Out of this child and this child is not giving him anything.

Liz: I just can’t believe that that is the best person they could find for this role. Like I need to believe that there are better child actors out there.

Cat: Well this has been running for a while. I mean it’s kinda like how Phantom of the Opera on Broadway doesn’t have good actors anymore because it’s just been running for so long.

Liz: And I also don’t understand why they had to cast them so young. You could easily cast–

Cat: Like a young teenager.

Liz: Yeah, you could cast a 14 year old boy, that looks young, that hasn’t gone through puberty yet, and he looks like he’s still 10, and he could act younger than he is.

Cat: Also they don’t say how young Simba is, like he could be a tween.

Liz: And it’s obvious that he’s just going through the motions. He has no sense of any emotion he needs to convey or any sense of his character.

Cat: Oh my god when he was leaning over Mufusa’s body, he was like “Oh no. Father.” And he was like “Help. Somebody help us”. And then Scar comes over and tells him “Okay leave forever” (Liz laughs) and he’s like “Okay, goodbye Father, pat you on the chest and then run away”. Like do you feel no remorse?

Liz: But man did I get excited when adult Simba came out. I needed him to come out.

Cat: Oh my god when adult Simba–his voice! His voice.

Liz: I was like: Here we go. It’s gonna get better! (laughs) I like Pumba a lot too.

Cat: Oo yeah.

Liz: Pumba is doing a great job of exuding Pumba. And I appreciate that.

Cat: I like the puppet.

Liz: I love Pumba’s puppet! I have no idea why they decided to make Timon child-sized. Because Timon is not that large (laughs).

Cat: Yeah!

Liz: Timon easily could have been a puppet–

Cat: Like a hand puppet, like the parrot.

Timon and Pumba puppets and puppeteers. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Timon and Pumba puppets and puppeteers. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Liz: Like the parrot! I don’t understand why. I think maybe they felt like kids couldn’t relate if he was small? Like he didn’t need to be the size of an actual meerkat that you could hold in your hand, but he could be the size of the Zazu puppet.

Cat: Well in the movie the sizing is kind of off, because he’s like half the size of Pumba. Pumba should’ve been bigger in the movie, but he’s a good size in the show so they should definitely downsize Timon, not make them the same size ratio as in the movie.

Liz: Yeah and he shouldn’t be taller than Pumba.

Cat: No.

Liz: Like in the movie, Timon is like on Pumba.

Cat: Yeah! He’s like half the size of Pumba.

Liz: He looks too humanoid too. I don’t understand the idea behind making his puppeteer all green?

Cat: I don’t either. Because he sticks out like a sore thumb against that orange backdrop.

Liz: Maybe it used to be green? I know that later they go into the jungle so maybe he fits in better later in the show?

Note: They did have jungle scenes in the second act, with Timon’s puppeteer laying in green jungle foliage that matched his costume. So it did make sense for those few moments.

Cat: Ohhh. But okay they have an entire intermission to do a costume change.

Liz: (laughs) I know! Or just put him in black!

Cat: Yup. So I have feelings.

Liz: It’s weird because there are moments where I’m like “Yes!” and then there are moments where I’m like “Oof”. But this is having more problems than Aladdin did, because Aladdin had the same cheesy jokes, the same long transitions between scenes, but all of the actors were adults. So they still were all good actors, and fabulous singers. And fabulous dancers, so like you still got great performances, even though it was a little choppy.

Cat: Yeah. They are doing a really nice job with the puppets. The giraffes I think are my favorite.

Liz: Yeah the puppets are great. But another thing, the dancing…is a little sub-par. I think that could be better. But I think you’re right, this has just been going on forever and they don’t have the best of the best anymore.

Cat: I will admit it that I was watching where the puffs of smoke were coming out more than I was watching the dancers.

Liz: Yeah that was fun, I mean the set is amazing. The amount of layers in this set is insane.

Cat: Oh my god the sun coming out of the ground was the most beautiful thing.

Liz: I loved the turning thing–

Cat: Yaaass! Pride Rock turning.

Circle of Life, showcasing the set for Pride Rock and the animal puppets. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Circle of Life, showcasing the set for Pride Rock and the animal puppets. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Liz: It’s like a turntable but it’s also Pride Rock. It’s so fun. And I loved the boneyard.

Cat: The elephant bones.

Liz: Yeah. That was cool, it looked exactly like the movie. So that was very impressive. It is weird because now that I think about it, the only song that we know, left, is “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”. I really thought they would save “Hakuna Matata” for the second act.

Cat: I thought they would save it, yeah. And I thought that was a weird place to put the intermission.

Liz: And I just couldn’t enjoy the song because everyone was clapping!

Cat: Yes because of the clapping! (Both laugh) Of all the songs that are new, I loved the song between Mufusa and Simba with the stars. I thought that was beautiful. Did you see the stars on the ceiling? They were a really nice touch.

Liz: Yeah I realized what you were pointing too after a bit. And I’m so ready for those stars to become Mufusa later.

Cat: I know!

Liz: Overall, it’s like the design of this show is amazing, and that design has stayed throughout from when it was first created, but the performances are a little…

Cat: Sub-par.

Liz: But I’m still enjoying it, because it’s just a cool sight to witness. And I hoping Act Two will be better now that the child actors will be gone.

Cat: It kinda reinforces Foster’s idea that all child actors are not good actors.

Note: This was after we had seen Small Island, which used child actors in the beginning scenes, and we had an after-show discussion about the use of child actors and their talents.

Liz: I really don’t think child actors should be used. If it’s a child, they should be teenagers that just act like kids. Because I don’t like adults acting like kids, like in Class, that’s annoying.

Note: Class had three adult actors, but two of them played double roles, being both parents and kids in different scenes.  

Cat: I mean think about Tom Holland, he’s 22 and he plays a 14 year old or something (as Spider-Man).

Liz: The kid that played Jack in the Into the Woods movie, he was 15 and he was playing the role of like a 9 year old or something like that. But he just looked young. Especially boys, I mean a lot of them don’t go through puberty until later so they can still look that young.

Cat: Yup!

Liz: And like, they’re on a stage. So it’s not like we’re super up close to them. As long as they’re short, it’s convincing. Like, in the Frozen musical at Disneyland California Adventure, they don’t use any child actors, they use 5 foot women as baby Anna and Elsa. And it’s fine! Like they sing well, they can act. They do the baby voice kind of and it’s a little annoying, but like, you know, from a distance they look like a little kid.

Cat: Yeah and baby Simba did not have any emotion exuding from his body whatsoever. And I get that this is probably his millionth performance and he’s tired and he’s doing it over and over again, but like, c’mon.

Liz: Yeah and Simba is the main character, and you can’t rely on your musical to succeed if you’re relying on a 10 year old. That’s just stupid, that’s just stupid planning. Like maybe when they first put out this musical they found like super, super talented kids, so maybe they could rely on those kids?

Cat: But there was no talent from this kid whatsoever.

Liz: Yeah.

Cat: So you’re of the opinion that child actors shouldn’t be used?

Liz: Unless it’s like a small part.

Cat: Yeah. Like Nala was great. And it was a small part.

Liz: And the way she sounded I believe she’s older than he is.

Cat: Really?

Liz: But looks younger. I wish we got to see her more. But yeah I mean if there’s a part in a play or musical where there’s just like a kid that has to act with an adult for like one or two scenes, then yeah have a kid play it. But for a show like this, it’s just a stupid idea to have child actors as leads for the entire first act.

Cat: Yeah.

Liz: Like to sit through an hour of a 10 year old struggling to remember all of his lines and blocking and choreography…

Cat: And not giving us any sort of emotion.

Liz: Because that’s all he’s focused on, like he doesn’t want anyone to be mad at him. Like he’s trying his best, I’m not like trying to rag on the kid too much, but unless you have a prodigy level kid, that’s just too big of a role for a kid to play over and over and over again. On West End or Broadway or whatever. And it detracts from all of the great, talented adults that are also on stage.

Cat: Yeah. I’m so excited for adult Simba. Well, stay tuned for adult Simba!

Intermission came to close, and thus our dialogue was cut off. We both found the second act to be better than the first, mainly because of the result of no longer having child actors leading the story. After some discussion with our classmates the next day, a few noted that performances they had seen of The Lion King had great child actors that really stole the show. So perhaps Cat and I were just dealt an unlucky hand.

As I spent the next day contemplating my opinions about the show, I realized I hadn’t seen the movie since I was probably a child. So, as I browsed through movies on my 10 hour long flight home, and saw The Lion King on there, I decided to watch it and see how it compared to the live version. I was pretty shocked that almost all of the dialogue, almost all of the scenes, settings, etc, were exactly the same. Cat and I had chalked up the unfunny jokes and bad dialogue to just a bad theatrical interpretation of the movie, but I guess we had a rose-colored view of a favorite childhood film. I do think the jokes landed a little better in the film, with talented voice actors like Nathan Lane as Timon and Rowan Atkinson as Zazu. But all of those boring scene transitions we talked about? Exact scenes out of the movie, except for one or two. I assumed they had made them up so they could accommodate the scenic transitions, but for the most part those actually existed in the original film. And there’s probably a reason I didn’t remember them as a kid. So I got to give The Lion King a little more credit for being true to its original story. However, after running for 20 years at the Lyceum Theatre, you would think they would freshen it up a bit. With better references than IKEA and Angry Birds.

 

Turntables and Trap Doors – A Critical Dialogue

Turntables and Trap Doors

Critical Dialogue about performances in London

Catherine Armbrust and Elizabeth Hall

Introduction:

Elizabeth and I (referred to as Liz and Cat in the proceeding dialogue) are rising seniors at Vanderbilt University where we both study theatre.  Both of us went on a trip to London and various cities in Scotland to study Theatre and Performance in the UK with several other students and our professor, Dr. Christin Essin.  Liz and I were very interested in the technical elements of the shows that we saw while in London and Scotland. One night at the end of our trip, we decided to engage in a recorded dialogue about Turntables, Trap Doors, and the various ways that they were used in the shows discussed below.

______________________________________________________________________

Cat: Ok let’s talk about trap doors and turntables!  So which were the shows that had turntables?

Cat and Liz:

  1.       Come From Away (Turntable)
  2.       Follies (Turntable)
  3.       Half God of Rainfall

Cat: Half God of Rainfall could be a trap door.

Liz: Is it?

Cat: Yeah because the stage opens up to reveal a pool of water.

Liz: Yeah but it was at ground level… like we can see the water on the stage.  It’s not something coming up or going down from the surface.

Cat: Yeah I suppose that’s true.

Liz: Let’s put that in the “unclear” category.

Cat: Okay!

Cat and Liz:

  1.       The Provoked Wife (Trap Door)
  2.       Small Island (Turntable AND Trap Doors)
  3.       The Lehman Trilogy (Turntable)
  4.       Henry IV Part One (Trap Door)
  5.       The Lion King (Turntable AND Trap Doors)

Cat: So 8 shows that used either trap doors or turntables or both.

Liz: Yes.

__________________________ Turntables _________________________________

Cat: Wow. Okay so let’s talk about the turntables first.

(both laugh)

Liz: Should we talk about the isolated turntable use? Or the shows that also had trap doors?  How about we talk about the introduction to the turntable on this trip which was Come From Away.

Cat: Hmmm yes.

Liz: In which I was greatly disappointed with their use of the turntable.

Cat: They kind of just used it as a conveyor belt.

Liz: Yes. And that is my least favorite use of a turntable… in which they just walk and don’t go anywhere because they are walking on a treadmill.

Cat: It’s like lazy blocking almost.

Liz: Yes, and it’s like you can easily mimic that same motion with people just walking in place and pretending to travel somewhere. It just looks kind of stupid to me when they’re actually doing it on a rotating thing…

Cat: It’s really just used as a way to pretend you’re traveling somewhere and it’s like…

Liz: Cheesy.

Cat: …a poor use of a turntable.

Liz: It’s so easily conveyed without a turntable, so if you’re going to build a turntable or rent a space that has a turntable you should use it more effectively.

Cat: Right. They didn’t have any scenery that went around. There was no rotation of scene to show you a different side. They didn’t have any juxtaposition of one side of the stage to the other… they simply used it as a conveyor belt.

Liz: My favorite use of a turntable is when the movement of something rotating is used to accentuate something still, so like when all the characters form a tableau or a really interesting formation, and it rotates while they are all stopped in one position, holding the same position. In Hamilton they do this where people will be fighting or holding up a chair and then all of a sudden, they stop and hold that position. Using the turntable allows you to see this position from all sides to just make that moment feel out of time. Like slow motion almost.

Cat: What do you think that that motion does thematically?

Liz: I really think it is equivalent to slow motion in film or when you are reading a book and a character is described to have stopped in time for a second, and then there is a pause where all of these things are described and you get to read all of these things even though they are happening simultaneously. In theatre, it can be hard to see all at once because obviously you can’t look everywhere at once. But when a turntable is rotating, you get to see every angle and every aspect of the moment. It allows that moment to stand still and lets you fully take in whatever emotion is being portrayed in that moment (or what they’re trying to make you feel). It’s clear that they want you to stop and that they’re saying “this is important. Think about this moment.”

Cat: Which of these 8 shows do you think used the turntable like that?

Liz: The image I’m using as my example is Hamilton. None of them really used it in that way except Follies a couple of times, but it was less in a dramatic moment and more in the dance numbers, like in that kick line where they rotated in like a “grand finale” moment. They did that, but they never really used it to accentuate a super dramatic moment. They used it more like you were talking about earlier, where they show different sides of a stage and different spaces.

Cat: Would you say that Follies was your favorite use of a turntable?

(long pause)

Liz: Probably… but I did really like The Lion King’s use of it’s combination turntable and trap door where the pride rock came out of the ground but also turned and rotated.  

Cat: It was a very important thematic and technical use of a turntable and trap door.  

Liz: Yes. The only time that a show came close to what I was talking about is in The Lion King. He wasn’t completely still as he slowly ascended the steps to Pride Rock, but it was a moment that they were capturing while it slowly rotated.

Cat: It’s kind of a conveyor belt moment because he’s staying in the same physical space while the set is moving under him but it was also an extremely important thematic moment that they were trying to emphasize. He’s climbing, he’s rising up to Pride Rock, which is why I would say it is better than simply a conveyor belt because it also had that thematic element.

Liz: Which is weird because I can’t remember which direction the rock was going in.

(A side conversation ensued about which direction the rock was rotating).

Cat: I think that says a lot because even though both of us were analyzing it as a moment of thematic and technological relevance, neither of us can remember exactly what happened.

Liz: Well also it’s my favorite moment of The Lion King — when that music plays. It’s him ascending to his kingdom, literally, as he’s ascending this giant staircase. All of that is just conveyed through his movement, not through words.

Cat: And even though both of us were analyzing it as an awesome piece of turntable and trap door use, it was still mesmerizing and did not distract us from the actual moment.

Liz: I almost cried.

(Both laugh)

Liz: I think that that got the closest to slowing down a moment to make you feel it. The only time that Come From Away did it, when they could have done it so many other times, was the one time during the part when they would line up in rows of 2 or 4 to symbolize sitting on a plane. They would just sit there and I wish that they had rotated that moment to make it feel dizzying because they are going stir crazy on a plane. It never rotated until Act Two! They only rotated it when they went back on the plane to go home and I thought: “That’s not dramatic anymore! They’re not stuck on the plane anymore!” I thought it was just such a weird time to use that finally.

Cat: I really enjoyed the turntable use from Come From Away at the time. However, since we’ve seen so many other pieces of theatre that had really good uses of turntables, I would say that my favorite use of a turntable…

Liz: Well describe what you want from a turntable because I described mine.

Cat: My favorite use of a turntable is when it shows a dichotomy between two elements. Come From Away never did that. I developed this favorite use of a turntable from all of the other shows that we have seen. Like, for example, in Follies when they had that giant wall in the middle. One side was all of the older characters at their reunion party, and the other side was all of their younger counterparts doing what they used to do in the past. This was only in the first act because then the wall went away…

Liz: Yeah.

Cat: …but it was constantly rotating to show you what the older generation was doing, and then mirror the scene in the younger generation. I loved that flipping back and forth. Then, after the wall went away, there was a moment in the second act when Phyllis and Ben were on one side of the turntable, on the edge, and Sally and Buddy were on the other. Each pair was arguing amongst themselves and the arguments were mirroring each other.  As the turntable rotated, you saw one argument playing out, and then it rotated again and you saw the other argument. Then, there was a really interesting bit of blocking where one half of each couple crossed the middle of the turntable and they faced each other across this huge rotating gap. I thought that it showed the two sides really well and made a thematic statement about the arguments and the two couples.

Liz: Really!

Cat: Small Island also did that really well. There was an apartment building staircase in the center of the turntable.  One side of the staircase was the nice living room of a single white woman. The other side of the staircase was the tiny one-room apartment of a black couple.  There was a huge dichotomy between this white woman living alone and this black couple struggling to survive in this one room that they can barely afford.

Liz: Yeah and the difference in furniture and everything. Those furniture pieces never change at all throughout the second act. The pieces were always there, whereas in the first act, the furniture moved around all the time.

Cat: Right. The second act was a unit set where one side was one way and the other side was another way. As the plot lines in the story came together, the turntable would rotate from one side of the unit set to the other, displaying either the white woman’s apartment or the black couple’s apartment. Additionally, the turntable always moved clockwise. In theatre, moving clockwise usually symbolizes moving forward in time. It always moved clockwise from one apartment to another, and even though there were sometimes people or crowds moving around the set as the turntable rotated, it always moved clockwise.

Liz: Yeah almost every time the entire ensemble would come out as it rotated and they would move props and move costumes.

Cat: And it would always signify the passage of time.

Liz: Yeah but they wouldn’t always rotate with the stage…

Cat: They would swarm it from all directions.

Liz: …there would be this sort of hustle and bustle and then they would all disappear and then the set would be empty again as it came to a stop at the next apartment. It definitely signified a transitional period.

Cat: Right.

Liz: I was going to say, in our conversation about Follies, that the rotation back and forth from each different time period, this rotating back in time, reminds me of my other absolute favorite use of a turntable. We did not see it here, but in Groundhog Day, the musical, the turntable literally rotates counterclockwise to signify that they’re going back in time to start another day all over again. It seems very simple but it’s so fun.

Cat: To your mind it’s important.

Liz: Exactly! It’s like: “we’re going back again. Time to rewind the clock!”

Cat: And another thing is that, when the turntable goes clockwise and someone walks against it (conveyor belt style), they are walking from left to right which also symbolizes going forward in time. When the crowd would swarm the stage during Small Island, while the turntable was rotating, they had to walk from house left to house right on the turntable during the scene shift. It just added to that “forward progression of time” ordeal.

Liz: Oh yeah!

(long pause)

Cat: So what about The Lehman Trilogy?

Liz: They used the turntable in a very different…

Cat: Vastly different way than how either of us have talked about turntables so far.

Liz: I don’t analyze the blocking in the same way that you do, like when you were talking about the people arguing on opposite sides of the turntable. I didn’t even think about that during that moment. I guess I think of it more as the movement of the turntable itself and what image it shows as it’s moving. To me, all I got from the turntable in The Lehman Trilogy was that it would rotate so the characters could move into one of the three different rooms on the set… so that you could see that room at the forefront of the stage. That’s the only purpose I could perceive from the use of that turntable: turning the set so that you could see different rooms and didn’t get bored only sitting in one room the entire time.

Cat: I also felt that the three different rooms were conducive to different types of scenes.  They had different setups that allowed for different patterns of blocking so you knew where you were in space and time even though they were just in a corporate office building.

Liz: Yeah, like the room with the big table was used for all the bargaining-type scenes and the other, smaller rooms were used to show characters when they were at home.  So they kind of just rotated it to show different locations.

Cat: It was basically just designating different slices of the turntable to be different scenic locations… but there was no dichotomy or thematic relevance when they would go from one room to the other. It went both clockwise and counterclockwise yet the story never moved backwards in time.

Liz: To me, it really just moved so you could see different set pieces. I never really noticed it being used any other way.

Cat: I will say, something that I did like was that there were different corners. The fact that the set was a perfect cube stacked on top of a turntable made it special because of the corners dividing the different rooms almost like walls.

Liz: And sometimes they would rotate it so that we were looking directly at a corner.

Cat: Right! And that called for a different type of blocking which was usually kind of disorienting. I noticed that the corners were used most often when the characters onstage were in some type of crisis.

Liz: It was almost as if they were shooting a film from different angles.

Cat: Yes! It was very cinematic.

Liz: Still very effective and a good use of a turntable… it kept me engaged. It just didn’t…

Cat: It didn’t do either of the things that we most love in using turntables.

___________________________Trap Doors ______________________________

Cat: Let’s talk about trap doors! We saw trap doors in Half-God of Rainfall, The Provoked Wife, Small Island, Henry IV Part One, and The Lion King. Let’s talk about Half-God of Rainfall.

Liz: The stage split… like cracked.

Cat: Yes, and it revealed something that was not there before which is what trap doors do.

Liz: Yes but we basically realized that the stage had been elevated the entire time.

Cat: Yes it was basically a show-deck that split in half.

Liz: But the water that it revealed was on the stage, just under the deck. I don’t really know if that’s a trap door or if…

Cat: If it’s just a show-deck revealing the stage that was underneath.

Liz: Yes, it never went below the ground level.

Cat: Well if you had a show-deck and then put a trapdoor in a show-deck… that would still be a real trap door.

Liz: But it wasn’t a trap door in the show deck… the entire show deck moved. With a trap door, it reveals something by means of its elevation… something either comes up or goes down. This opened up but then stayed like that the entire time and the water became the new stage upon which the character performed. That’s why I really don’t think it was a trap door.

Cat: This was a good debate to have because I think we established the definition of a trap door. How about The Provoked Wife? That had a very by-the-book trap door that they used as a cellar.

Liz: They also used it as an exit.

Cat: Yes, it was like a staircase that people could go up and down.

Liz: Two men hid in it at a certain point when they weren’t supposed to be somewhere, and then they were revealed when another character found them there.

Cat: And they used the door itself to jar people because they kept slamming it closed. Multiple times.

Liz: It was heavy. It made a loud sound. I didn’t like it.

Cat: The performers would push it, like physically slam it down and then look at the audience and laugh, acknowledging that they had slammed the door in their faces.

Liz: Something I noticed is that the theatre in the Royal Shakespeare Company was designed with many side views that could see down over the stage. I personally could see everything that was going down in the trap door. One time, someone was supposedly pushed into the trap door but I saw him fall onto a mattress and then get pulled away. It ruined the magic for me. However, people on the ground floor could not see that and they were the people that the actors were performing at for the most part.

Cat: But also think about the view of someone in the front row when the trap door was open. They would not have been able to see anything past the trap door while it was sitting there appointing upward.

Liz: It just seemed like a weird use of a trap door to me because usually trap doors reveal something subtly whereas this trap door was very in your face.

Cat: You’re right. They would pull it up very dramatically as if opening a door.

Liz: Right. It was weird that that was an entrance and exit and that they would slam it like a door.

Cat: Right. Which also brings us Henry IV Part One. That trap door was also used as a doorway to a cellar. As an entrance and exit.

Liz: I just thought that that was so weird. They barely used it at all.

Cat: It didn’t really serve much of a purpose. I think they only opened it twice.

Liz: To me it just seemed like that trap door was built into the Globe so they might as well use it. It would not have been a necessary thing to build if it had not already been there.

Cat: It was a weird two-time use.

Liz: They either should have used it more and had it signify a certain space like in The Provoked Wife, or they should have not used it at all. There was no pattern established that involved the trap door. It made me think “huh… why did they just use that trap door.” It gave me more questions and drew me out of the performance.

Cat: I think what we’re used to as theatre-goers is trap doors like the ones they used in Small Island. They just very subtly went down, something went onto it, and then it came back up, either revealing a new person or a new piece of furniture or whatever it was… just very subtly.

Liz: Yes. The Shakespearean theatres liked to use trap doors as storage spaces. Which is fine. I mean I think that’s because they did not have the technology that we do now to raise and lower a platform the way we now expect a trap door to function.

Cat: It was mostly used as an additional entry and exit point for performers. You couldn’t pull an entire set piece from the ground like in Small Island and The Lion King.

(long pause)

Cat: We have now put trap doors into two categories. On one hand, there’s trap doors as we know them with mechanisms to raise and lower platforms to subtly reveal people or objects, and then there’s the Shakespearean trap door which was used as an additional entry or like a cupboard. Interesting!

Liz: Right!

Cat: Awesome! Well I think that just about covers trap doors and turntables (and my phone is about to die) so let’s cap it at that!

 

Protesting as Performance: “This is what democracy looks like!”

As I was walking around the Westminster Abbey area, looking for the Underground Station, I happened upon a large protest taking place in a grassy square nestled between several large historic buildings.  Upon first glance, I could not tell what the protest was about or who was involved. I walked closer to the protest, crossing several busy streets to do so, and discovered that it was a primarily student-organized rally calling for awareness about climate change and the effects of global warming.  In addition to the large printed signs, many young people had signs of their own made from cardboard and marker.

Calling a protest a performance is not a stretch.  We already use the term “demonstration” as a synonym for this type of gathering.  The protesters were trying to get the attention of passersby to either join their rally or sign various petitions.  In order to get attention, they shouted repetitive slogans, or lines, (“This is what democracy looks like!”) and utilized several marches in place, or blocking.  The leader of the protest led the group through a series of call-and-response chants. Their posters, or props, were brightly colored and attractive to the eye, and they even played music to garner interest in their gathering.  Each detail of the protest could be considered performative.

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The largest group of spectators were the police officers that created a perimeter around the square where the protesters gathered.  They did not look threatening, but they were not exactly in league with the protesters either. Notice how the officers were facing inward, toward the space where the protesters were gathered.  If they had been there to protect the protesters, they would have been facing away from the gathering and toward directions from which outside threats might invade. Instead, they stood on the curb around the grassy square and stood facing the protesters; forming a human corral around the gathering.

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It is unclear if the presence of the police aided or devalued the performance of the protest.  It is possible that they may have discouraged other bystanders from joining the protest.  However, for me, a tourist and a bystander, the presence of the police was simply another interesting part of the performance as I walked to the tube station.

 

Follies: From the Film to the Stage

In the spring semester before traveling to London for this Maymester, I took Dr. Lovensheimer’s “The History and Culture of Musical Theatre in America” course in which we walked through the evolution of musical theatre. We watched three musicals in full during the semester, and one of them was a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. I enjoyed the production in the class, but I didn’t walk away with any strong feelings towards the piece, positive or negative. As someone in her twenties, I found that I didn’t really connect with the content because I could not relate to the characters experiencing midlife crises. However, when I saw that Follies was on our London itinerary, I was excited to see the live remount at the National’s Olivier Theatre and see how it compared to the one I had previously seen. What I did not realize was that this live production was, in fact, the exact same production we had watched in class, filmed as part of the National Theatre Live programming! I first realized this when the class took the behind-the-scenes tour of the National, and we walked into the empty theatre during mic check. I immediately recognized the large “Follies” light up sign on the stage, and at first I was a little disappointed. I had hoped to see a different interpretation of the show, and maybe see if I connected with that version more. We moved on in the tour, but I was still excited to see Follies because I love musicals, I love Sondheim, and overall it had been a good production. I also reminded myself that these would probably not be the same actors either, so perhaps that would affect my opinion of the piece.

Backstage at the National, before Follies.

Backstage at the National, before Follies.

After seeing the amazing tour of the National Theatre, and spending time in the space, my anticipation for the show began to grow, especially because of the pre-show energy of the audience. Theatre-goers were lined up by the theatre doors, waiting to be let into their seats, clutching their programs and tickets. I felt the same butterfly feeling in my stomach that I get when in line for a ride at Disneyland, and I realized I had forgotten what a difference the atmosphere of being at a theatre makes.

The lights dimmed, the music swelled, and the first ghost of a dancer appeared on stage and I was immediately thrilled and awestruck. The vastness of this stage had not been captured in the film version, and the gorgeous lighting design was so much more powerful in person. I sat in awe as the ghosts danced throughout the stage, below the twinkling lights, and I felt transported into a place of magic. I was transfixed by the glow and did not even realize that the first principal actors had come out on stage, and as I looked closer, I realized that these were in fact, the same actors as well! Two of the four lead characters, Ben and Sally, were played by different actors than the version I watched, but everyone else was the same, down to all of the supporting characters. In short, my mind was blown.

The vastness of the stage, with the light up sign in the background. Photo by Johan Persson.

The vastness of the stage, with the light up sign in the background. Photo by Johan Persson.

It is hard to describe the confusion this caused for my brain. I both recognized it, and knew what was coming next, what the costume would be like, what choreography they would perform, but it was also such an incredibly different experience. To have seen an actor performing a number in the recorded version, and then get to see that same actor perform that same song, but live on an enormous stage, with an enraptured audience, is like seeing a black and white piece restored to color for the first time. It’s recognizable, familiar, and predictable, but at the same time, so fresh, so new, and so unpredictable! Because that is the beauty of live theatre: while these actors have their blocking, their choreography, and they have rehearsed their songs in a certain way, they also have an immense amount of freedom to play with. So while some lines or moves were executed in the exact same way I had seen previously, other moments took these lines or movements in a completely different direction.

On top of that, effects that seemed simply pretty in the filmed version were stunning on the stage. The costumes sparkled and twinkled much more against the lights than they had on film, and the stage looked infinitely larger. Many times throughout the film, the camera would be shot close up, on an actor’s face, in order to capture their emotion. However, this greatly limited the complexity of this production, because it didn’t show the ensemble members moving around on the opposite side of the stage, the ghosts of the main characters looming behind them, or the shapes and shadows that the lighting design created on the enormous set. I understand why the film made this choice, but it greatly limited the experience for me, because it took away the choice theatre-goers are given. In a live theatre, you can choose to focus your eye on the character speaking, or the character in the background. You can even choose to simply admire the set in that moment, to watch the orchestra, or even look around at the audience. So especially for a huge production like Follies, in which so much is happening at every point on the stage at one time, you miss so much if you choose to just focus on one point in time.

The ghosts of Follies. Photo by Johan Persson.

The ghosts of Follies. Photo by Johan Persson.

Needless to say, I was enthralled with this live performance of Follies, and completely in love with the show before we were even halfway through the piece. The experience I had of seeing it live after seeing it on film showcased the importance of live theatre and how drastically it can change your opinion of a piece. Therefore, while filmed versions of musicals are great because they provide content to a greater audience, especially to those that cannot afford to see theatre live, I truly believe that nothing beats the atmosphere of a live musical.

Fiddler in the Ground: “Fiddler on the Roof” by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein

I’m going to be hard on the Playhouse Theater production of Harnick, Stein, and Bock’s miraculous 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof — and I’ve got to be. My classmate, who loved the show seemingly unequivocally, spoke to me on the train home from the theater of her assessments of other bowlers as a competitive bowler herself: “Sure, I could say ‘Your technique was wrong here,’ or ‘You did that wrong there,’ but I’ve got to remind myself that to someone else, if they get a strike, they’ve done a really good job. I’ve just got to sort of wipe my mind of what I know so that I can see the way they’re seen by everyone else and appreciate them for what they’re doing.” I said nothing in the moment, not wanting to once again emerge as the comic book supervillain amidst post-show joy. But the line popped into my head and rankled there the rest of the night: “Ignorance does not a good bowler make.”

 

I’m going to be hard on this production of Fiddler on the Roof because its source material is already nearly perfect. The book by Joseph Stein is hilarious, packed to the brim with laugh after laugh, and Harnick and Bock’s music is fun, sweet, moving, and everything in between, landing it on the playlists of millions of people even in 2019. If you’re going to do something as classic as this — choosing this for the season over a new show — you damn well better do it well. Each and everything that is changed must be changed with purpose; each and everything that is unchanged must be executed with the passion it originally retained. If these criteria are not satisfied, the evening becomes an exercise in either nostalgia or laziness, and often both. If these criteria are not satisfied, it is an insult to every living, breathing playwright and composer of today, who, while maybe not offering at first a show as technically refined as Fiddler, would certainly give you a show with heart and with excitement.

 

Fiddler on the Roof at the Playhouse Theater failed to meet either of these criteria — painfully so. There are multiple reasons for this being the case, but above all, as the show does, they revolve around Tevye. Andy Nyman is bad: he has neither the singing chops of a man cast for his vocal abilities, the acting chops of a man cast for his ability to evoke emotion, nor the charisma of a man cast for the indelible effect he might have on an audience. He has nothing, really — nothing except youth. He is 53 in real life, but onstage, behind old-age makeup and a terribly fake-looking greying beard, he seems like a 30-year-old playing in Daddy’s closet. He lands hardly any of his comedic lines in act one, and though more successful in act two, he still has a laughably low batting average. The central conceit of the show — the weathering away of the age-old patriarchy — is lost on him intrinsically, and lines such as “Sunrise, Sunset’”s “When did they grow to be so tall?” are baffling to an audience who sees a 30-year-old lamenting the ageing of his 20-year-old offspring. His accent is also all over the place, flailing wildly from flat American to Yiddish to British to a muddy cocktail of the three. He cares not, it would seem, about any other actor on the stage, confined to a bubble for the duration of the show; in this bubble, he also nudge-nudges the comedy more than any other cast member, striking a far different tone in whichever corner of the stage he might find himself. Now, normally in a great production, one actor cannot spoil the other apples, no matter how rotten they are. However, the direction of this production constantly has us and the whole of Anatevka focusing on Tevye, rubbing in our faces again and again just how pathetic he is in a role given such gravitas by Tevyes like Zero Mostel and Topol. Certainly, it might be a choice to cast a young man in this role — but it’s a bad one, as the text simply does not support it. David Mamet once said “A director who feels the need to reinterpret a classic work doesn’t understand the work.” He’s right: director Trevor Nunn, as Dr. Essin posited after the show, must’ve been asleep at the wheel.

 

There are other causes of this production’s mediocrity, however. To start with the obvious, the Fiddler scratches and squeaks a few of his notes in the most iconic fiddle tune of American musical theatre, the introduction to “Tradition.” On top of this stunning breach in skill, he is dressed like a literal clown — a bright green jacket, a yellow shirt, and disgustingly purple trousers — for no discernible reason. There is the environmental staging of the show, which, for someone like me seated in the upper circle of the Playhouse Theater, prohibits 40% of the stage from being seen at all times. (Let’s keep the environmental theatre to environments where everyone can be included, huh?) There’s confusion in the set about what constitutes “inside” and what “outside,” with character variously referring to the immobile doors as pathways to both. There’s general sloppiness when it comes to props, with one loaf of bread falling from the cupboard shelves and Tevye dropping a pillow before his supposed-to-be-heart-wrenching final conversation with Hodel. There’s no attempt at accent consistency among any of the daughters, who sound better situated in The Sound of Music than a shtetl in Anatevka. There’s the utterly bizarre reinterpretation of one of musical theatre’s greatest songs, “If I Were a Rich Man,” through attempting to explain the “yidididididibums” by having Tevye say them as verbalizations amid stretching his limbs (probably the worst choice of the whole production). There’s the fact that the young Russian soldier cracks on his high note in “L’Chaim”, and that the Constable is acted with all of the cartoonishness of a man who missed the memo that what makes the Holocaust and Jewish persecution so scary is that it was (and is) “good” guys who carry out its orders. There’s the laughable — in a terrible way — staging of Fruma Sara in “Tevye’s Dream”, which features Fruma-Sarah levitating in a two-to-four foot height off the ground and screaming as obnoxiously as a wild banshee while limited to this one spot on the stage. And finally, there’s the delivery of one of the most bone-chilling lines in musical theatre — Tevye’s final reflection, “Maybe that’s why we always wear our hats” — as if it were the Yuk-Yuk Hour at the Grand Ole Opry.

 

There are a few things, to be sure.

 

But, I’d be remiss if I did not commend a few people for their hard work in this show. Golde is great, understated in her acting and doing a phenomenal job of showcasing the quiet struggle undertaken by all women of this time against the tyranny of the patriarchy and the horrors of their husbands’ horrendous acting abilities. Perchik and Hodel sing terrifically, with Perchik emerging as a solid actor in his highlight number, as well. Yente (God bless Yente!) lands more of her lines than any other actor. And the pit orchestra kills it.

 

That’s about it for positives.

 

I wondered on the train ride home whether the problem might expose itself even in the marketing campaign for this production, which boldly proclaims, “#WelcometoAnatevka.” This, to me, announces a fundamental misunderstanding of this show, and I wonder further whether non-Jew Trevor Nunn really grasped the breadth and depth of this show’s exploration into the Jewish experience as director. Each change just baffled me as an audience member, and each keep — mainly the preservation of tired choreography and basic circle-around-Tevye blocking — acted upon me similarly. It saddens me to stay seated during the curtain call for a 150-minute evening of theatre. But, having seen beauty marred, a diamond smashed, with neither rhyme nor reason as justification, I simply had no other recourse.

 
For the love of Hashem, stay away from this production of Fiddler on the Roof.

The Capitalism Chronicles: “The Lehman Trilogy” by Stefano Massini

The National Theatre production of Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy is perhaps as best an execution of a writer’s script as I have yet seen. The acting from its cast of three — Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley each giving their all — is phenomenal, incredibly dynamic throughout (if not always “virtuosic” as so deemed by the critics). The direction from Sam Mendes is ceaselessly thoughtful, interesting, and entertaining — the three years “without a destination” that he spent crafting the show alongside the writers and actors show their value in every scene. And the set design, too, deserves to be singled out for providing a playground for three actors to undertake an odyssey over three and a half hours without ever feeling trapped by the space around them. Miraculously, this lengthy run time never feels nearly as boring as some of the far shorter productions we’ve seen, and the pacing clicks along rapidly to the benefit of all involved. The reviews are correct to call this “Theatre at its best” — I just have one glaring issue.

 

In 2008, the collapse of Lehman Brothers was largely responsible for the worst American financial crisis since the Great Depression, leaving millions of people all but penniless. Lehman Brothers, as all good capitalists do, had gotten greedy — in spite of the obvious cracks in the United States housing market, Lehman Brothers in 2007 “underwrote more mortgage-backed securities than any other firm, accumulating an $85 billion portfolio, or four times its shareholders’ equity” (https://www.investopedia.com/articles/economics/09/lehman-brothers-collapse.asp). It promised far, far more money to its shareholders than existed, and when the shareholders began to suspect this was the case, Lehman Brothers stock plunged dramatically over the course of several weeks. This set off a series of chain reactions which temporarily ruined the global stock market at the start of Barack Obama’s presidency, and it would take a long time and grueling work for the affected millions to build back what they had lost.

 

But you wouldn’t learn that from watching The Lehman Trilogy.

 

And that is precisely my contention with this show: with the exception of Bobby Lehman, who transforms suddenly into a cartoonish supervillain in the middle of Act Three, every Lehman brother is presented almost entirely sympathetically. Though my classmate Alex argues that works from the perspective of the “bad guys” often present them in a more understanding light than they might otherwise be given, The Lehman Trilogy never indicts the bad guys in the end like, say, Breaking Bad or Double Indemnity do. Here, we are supposed to mourn Henry Lehman (who is “always right,” we are sincerely assured time and again), and when a character such as Phillip Lehman is not properly mourned by the other characters, we are supposed to mourn that, the failure to mourn such a man. To watch The Lehman Trilogy is to be presented with the position that the Lehman Brothers are fundamentally good — that capitalism is fundamentally good — that it is only when an exception like Bobby Lehman comes along that the system begins to crack. Bobby Lehman, of course, is presented with sunglasses resembling those of Major Arnold Ernst Toht (the melting Nazi guy) in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and out of nowhere, he proclaims that he wants “Lehman to live… FOREVER!”, as dramatic lighting singles him out from the rest of the world around him. His death scene (which, though theatrically mesmerizing, is intentionally far from reality) makes a twitching insect out of Bobby Lehman, as well. In such a presentation, the audience is assured that capitalists like us in the audience (or better yet, like the New York elite in the Broadway audience) are not in the problem — only Bobby Lehman is the problem. Well, Bobby Lehman and the Hungarian, who is so called for the duration of the third act, and who is also reminiscent of the cartoonish oil tycoon baddie from 2011’s The Muppets.

 

Again, the execution of the script is masterful — everyone involved, including Stefano Massini for his work in the larger part of the show, ought to be praised highly. But, when you present as the final scene the Lehman Brothers singing the Mourner’s fucking Kaddish over the Lehman Brothers, when you ask the audience to pity the Lehman Brothers for the 2008 financial crisis, you are missing too great a point to be forgiven. If perhaps the intro and outro of the 2008 financial crisis had been eliminated, if we were simply given another side of the family between their coming to America and the Great Depression, that might work as a presentation of another side of things. But when you put the 2008 financial crisis right in front of us and, instead of condemning the actions of our characters for their part in it, ask us to empathize with them for being hurt by it, you’re lying to us. And you’re perpetuating a system which has hurt so, so many innocent people and will only continue to do so with every sympathetic portrayal of the monsters which pull its strings.

 

Am I saying “You’re a bad person if you like The Lehman Trilogy?” No; there are many things to like in this production, many things to love. But I am cautioning all viewers of this show to do research into the 2008 financial crisis and to interrogate the history of the Lehman Brothers corporation more than this play makes time to do, so as to not take away a false truth from this ultimately false play.

S**t: “salt.” by Selina Thompson

Time Out says of Selina Thompson’s salt.: “In any case, salt. is a remarkable piece of theatre.” I disagree with this sentiment on two counts. First, salt. is as far from remarkable as I am from Ghana. Second, salt. is as far from being a piece of theatre as I am from being a piece of salt.

 

Here are some ways I might finish Time Out’s sentence: “In any case, salt. is insufferably self-indulgent.” Ooh, or: “In any case, salt. is an exercise in oversimplification of complex issues.” Or perhaps most accurate of all: “In any case, nothing said by salt. has not been said better and more interestingly somewhere else.”

 

It’s an 85-minute-long, one-woman show, with no set changes or plot to speak of. Yes, I suppose the Selina Thompson surrogate’s recounting of her adventures overseas could amount to a plot of sorts — one with no climax or tangible conflict — but mainly it’s just a woman droning on about how horrible society treats her for being a black woman. (Indeed, the central conflict of the show might be most easily found in the first line spoken onstage, “I am 29 years old, I am black, and I am a woman.”) There is a dreadfully repetitive soundtrack and no visually interesting blocking that I can even recall only the morning after. There is, of course, the laughably awkward smashing of a salt rock with a sledgehammer which randomly happens a few times in the show, but there is no narrative action aside from this. I would call this a slam poem; I would maybe call it a “show.” But I would be remiss to call something so flat, so lazily assembled, so obvious, so self-aggrandizing, as this, theatre.

 

And when I say self-aggrandizing, I’m not just being salty. (Ha.) The woman is literally dressed in a suit of white, lights shining on her, the sole beacon of goodness in her memoir of how white people are horrible to her and Europeans as a whole are horrible to her and the world at large is horrible to her. She smashes the rock representing her more than any other rock, showing us just how put upon she is and much suffering she has had to endure on her behalf. Yes, she sometimes doubts whether her trip will accomplish its desired goal — but her misgivings are always assuaged, and she always emerges as Victim-in-Chief after the dust of the smashed rocks has cleared. It is utterly painful to watch; and not in the desired way of “I’ll Make Them Feel My Pain”, but more in the way of “I’ll Make Them Validate My Pain.” After a second or two goes by, the audience is compelled to say “Yes, you have been mistreated. We are sorry.” But when those two seconds become 85 minutes, we are moreover compelled to say “Oh, shut up already. We get it. We’re sorry. Now please let us go home.”

 

How politically incorrect I feel in saying so, but I have no tolerance for shows which perpetuate the idea that the world is ceaselessly and exclusively cruel to people of color. I agree that there is a lot of mistreatment in the world, and certainly a lot which people of color must endure which I do not. But it’s simply not fair to say, as the narrator really did, “I went to the theatre, and all I saw was show after show after show of white men screaming about their pain.” (To the laughter of the audience.) I might offer this: show after show after show of anyone tends to somewhere include that person screaming about their pain. We’re all in a lot of pain! A great deal of pain! It is hard to be alive. Not just for you, Ms. Thompson, but for me and my fellow Jews, for my surrogate mother and her fellow lesbians, for my friend and his fellow Hispanics, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I find it gross to stand on a stage and imply that white men are the sole perpetrators of evil in the world and that black women are the primary sufferers.

 

I am initially skeptical of theatre which tries to make me adopt any political viewpoint, but I outright reject theatre which lies to me in the course of trying to prod me into accepting that viewpoint. I accept the central conceit of this show — that Europe, each stone wall and each pebble, is awash in blood — but I refute that it is just Europe. The world as a whole is filled with evil and deceit and violence and pain. Yes, black lives DO matter, and the persecution of them by police forces in the United States is a problem which needs special attention. But it is neither fair nor just to suggest, as this show does, that they are the only ones which presently deserve to be approached with art, and that they undergo the most suffering of any of us. To them that would disagree, I apologize for both of our naivety. I don’t know you, I don’t know your friends, I don’t know what you’ve gone through. You don’t know me, you don’t know my friends, you have no idea what I have gone through or what I continue to go through. For the love of  God, let’s not compare suffering.

 

At the end of the show, the actress gives out rocks of salt to all audience members. But it’s not this worthless, meaningless self-pity rock which I want. I want Dr. Essin’s money back, and I want those 85 minutes of my life back. Don’t see salt.

The Will to Hooky: “Class” by Iseult Golden and David Horan

I liked Class. It was realism, so that’s about the most I can say for it. You can’t tap your toes to it and you certainly can’t sing along, and such the evening becomes an exercise in a sort of academic analysis. The central question, at least for this viewer, is this: how well are these people pretending that they are people? Sure, the plot is somewhat interesting — it’s one we’ve all seen before, and one which just as many have likely experienced first-hand — and the dialogue is sometimes inspired — it is highly successful in making quotidian chit-chat into powerful, powerful invective. But a three-person play set in a classroom that doesn’t change more than some internal chair rearrangement, sans music and sans scintillating wordplay, must necessarily be driven by the actors on the stage. In accordance with this, I repeat myself: I liked Class.

 

The basic plot summary, which endures a slightly-too-long 95 minutes when stretched to full length, can be summed up as “A separated couple meets with their son’s kindergarten teacher and discovers to their horror that he might have a learning deficiency.” Over the course of the meeting, power dynamics are illuminated and wrought hither and thither — between teacher and parent, teacher and student, child and adult, wealthy and poor, blue-collar and white-collar, husband and wife, man and woman, etc. There are moments of genuine surprise in the play, but mainly there are moments of genuine predictability. Sadly, the Bush Theatre in which the class and I saw Class was kept at so high a temperature that many of us were sweating in our seats not from anticipation, but from the fucking heat. Both my classmate and Dr. Essin reflected after we exited that, when a woman got up to leave roughly 60 minutes into the show, they were quite keen to join her. The unpleasantness of the viewing space only twisted the knife of boredom which this show constantly risked through expectations being met. Certainly, those who didn’t like Class can be understood and appreciated in their points of view.

 

But for me, I luckily had my expectations set so staggeringly low for a night of realism that I believe I actually ended up enjoying it. I wasn’t expecting to be amazed in any way, shape, or form; this was the best possible circumstance in which to view this show. Then, when the adult actors portray children, it’s not so much “How could I have paid good money for this nonsense?” as “Oh, that’s neat!” When the teacher wildly fluctuates in intensity before anything is intense in the first scene of the play, it’s not so much “This is a professional actor?” as “Well, the other two actors are really doing a phenomenal job.” Perhaps I’m going easy on the play — after all, I’m sure anyone with separated parents can’t help but feel something for the actors on the stage. And anyone who’s been in a less-than-successful relationship must empathize with either the man or the woman, right?
Class did a fine job of feeling real. It did its main job well. No, I was not blown away, and no, there was no earned standing ovation. But the story was a story, and I believed the people in it. It was as far from political as any show we’ve recently seen, other than to suggest that we oughtn’t assume people belong to any particular class and act any particularly way as a result. It is not a show that will be remembered for a long time — perhaps it might be as a film, with well-nurtured child actors playing the children instead of the adults — but it was fine for a 95-minute theatrical production. Do I recommend it? If you’re free, yeah. If you’re busy, I say: play hooky for the night.

Small Island, Enormous Success: “Small Island” by Helen Edmundson

Helen Edmundson’s Small Island is a great play, and the National Theatre production of it makes for a great evening of theatre. I would not go so far as to say it’s ten-out-of-ten, see-it-before-you-die stuff — but it’s captivating, it’s a story, it’s beautiful, it’s tragic, and above all, it’ll make you feel. In this numb world of ours, shouldn’t that be enough?

 

The stage upon entry is bizarrely similar to the projected set I designed for my own show, Global Warming: The Musical — waves crashing on the floor of the stage (accompanied by sound effects) and a projection of a horizon at sunrise above. It’s a mood-setting, aesthetically-pleasing design, and it keeps the space open for all of the many sets which will occupy it over the course of the next three hours and ten minutes (which, much to this play’s credit, never feel as long as those numbers might imply). The audience, though less full than the one for Follies just a few weeks ago, is peopled by a younger and more diverse crowd. This makes sense when you examine the simple fact that this is a new play (whereas Follies is from the 1970s) and that this is a play with any non-white people in it (whereas Follies included but one black woman). The audience, as any who takes advantage of the Disney-World-for-Theatre-People space offered by the National Theatre beforehand, is primed for a fantastic show.

 

The first twenty minutes of the play do not deliver on this front. I’ve been thinking hard about this: do I just not like the beginnings of plays? (my classmate, says “You’re just not accustomed to the world of it yet.”) Or are playwrights just not very adept at writing beginnings? I’m not sure… what I do know is that Mrs. Rider, the archetypal white lady of the opening scene, is acting with such camp that she might as well have been found in the final segment of Follies, butchering (lacking a more apt word) stupid lines like “This calls for lipstick!” The audience is supposed to empathize with Hortense, one of our three protagonists, as a result of the bizarre nature of Mrs. Rider, but I, at least, could not, as she was so far from reality that it became nonsensical. When the two child actors come out (in part, it seems, to reenact the old-self-young-self directorial conceit of Follies, which again happened only three weeks ago), it becomes frighteningly possible that no one in this show will be able to act. And I don’t necessarily fault the kids for this; it’s not their fault that they haven’t the skills to project or to emote in a believable way. I fault the director for not saying “Now wait just one second: these kids are rubbish!” The weird projections behind them (looking surprisingly cheap for the National Theatre) only emphasize a feeling of initial laziness and inconsistency which had me facepalming before scene two even began.

 

Things start to pick up once they slap Hortense, a clobbering which looks and feels real as can be. Hurricane noises which follow are well-executed (God bless professional sound designers, and, in spite of an absurd plot twist that Michael (Hortense’s childhood sweetheart) is engaged in relations with Mrs. Rider, we move onto the second scene with some more momentum than the show had gathered by the twenty-minute mark. There’s also some random gospel music, which, though completely atonal, is pleasant to listen to. Scene two opens with some actors rising comedically from the trap door beneath the stage, and once our next protagonist, Queenie, and her husband begin speaking, it becomes clear that we’re in for a better show that initially presented. Queenie’s aunt is acting with the same blindness as the children and as Mrs. Rider, but Queenie and Bernard seem like real people in a real world with what just so happens to be incredible comedic timing. The projections begin to be properly utilized once Queenie speaks of “the pictures” and, in real time, the pictures play out the love she’s describing right behind her. It makes one think, “Oh, that’s why they needed the projections.” That’s one thing I could never say about the company, a cast which clocks in at about 40 people. Yes, 40 people. Though I support casting and paying as many actors as possible, I fear these people were cast just to fill space — certainly they were not all cast because they’re talented.

 

The funniest theatrical joke I think I’ve ever seen: Queenie says to the audience of her impending engagement, “In the end, it was tragedy that brought things to a head.” And her aunt, who has been chewing away on some coconut candies upstage, suddenly gets the light, chokes, and slowly sinks into the trap door. It was a joke so well-executed that it got its own round of applause. This grabbed the audience for the whole of act one — and it provided a stunning contrast to the most visceral theatrical experience I’ve ever had, which followed only a few minutes later. We are introduced to Bernard’s father, Arthur, a man for whom it is impossible to have anything other than empathy and love. He walks with such meager sweetness around the stage, such an infant-like lack of direction, that the audience nearly “awwws” each time they see him. It is mentioned briefly that he suffers from shell shock, but we forget this darker component of his personality because we are so in love with how darn cute he is. Yes, it’s all a big love-fest — until the sirens of World War II begin to sound, and Arthur begins to convulse. To convulse and convulse. It’s horrible: and in the United Kingdom, they don’t shy away from that. The sirens louder and louder,the dialogue between Bernard and Queenie angrier and angrier, Arthur in seemingly more and more pain — and then the BOOM of bombs falling on the roof. Suddenly, thirty or so shirts fall from the ceiling as the lights flash blindingly. Immediately — and I mean, immediately — I began to weep. And weep. And weep. As did many people in the Circle surrounding me; though none of us had been around for the Second World War (and it is unlikely that any of us had been truly around for any war, really), we all felt this moment with the sincerity and power of something that had personally affected each of us. That’s good theatre. That’s fantastic f***ing theatre.

 

This play consistently blends the emotions and tones it gives the audience incredibly well, going from high comedy to Arthur’s death to a musical number to romance as if it were all part of the same ocean projected on the screen behind the cast. The flow of the action is similarly masterful, and I, King of Falling Asleep during Good Shows, was never even on the verge of lethargy. The play finds itself by the end of act one as something visually stunning, emotionally moving, and theatrically captivating. Everyone there wanted to stay for act two, and rightly so.

 

The second act, though perhaps less aesthetically intricate than the first, makes clear just how complex these characters and their stories (pulled from the original 1948 novel by Andrea Levy) truly are. Every argument is interesting and significant because every person is coming from a real place, and no character is a spotless hero-martyr-savior type. In this way, heavy issues of race and gender can be explored in a way that never feels as preachy or low-bar as My Right Left Foot, and the action never grows stale. Gilbert, Queenie, Hortense, and even Bernard are likeable in their own ways, each of them necessary to the trajectory of the story. I do think this could be a seven person cast with just those four, Michael, and a male and female ensemble, as they carry the story more than anything else. I didn’t take many notes during act two, I’d imagine, because, as interesting as the dialogue was and the plot proved to be, the pull was in the characters. They drew us in expertly in the first act and in so doing demanded that we stay for the second. It’s excellent storytelling, and it’s further excellent from the perspective of keeping butts in seats for your show.

 

I could see this show doing well on Broadway, and I can certainly see it raking in some awards. It could use some cleaning up — and perhaps some aesthetic clarification — but, as Dr. Essin said at interval, “It’s a perfect evening of theatre.” That it is. That it is.