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.

 

My Right Left Finger (Which Is to Say, My Middle Finger): “My Right Left Foot” by Robert Softley Gale and Richard Thomas

The Dundee Rep production of Robert Softley Gale and Richard Thomas’ bewildering My Right Left Foot is the first show which I’ve ever walked out on during intermission, and for good reason. It can be summed up in the whisper I slipped to my roommate just before my departure: “Terribly written and horribly offensive.” It’s almost as if the writers and producers of this show saw Cheviot alongside us last night, took note of every element which worked so extraordinarily, and proclaimed “Let’s do the exact opposite of all of that!” The dark, ironic humor which landed remarkably well in Cheviot fell as close to the mark as my performance of Lennie in a high school production of Of Mice and Men — which is to say, not at all. Yes, the message the show proffers — that shows should cast disabled actors for disabled parts and not be any more comfortable performing disability than they would doing blackface — is correct. But the way it is delivered is so ham-fisted and simultaneously incomprehensible that it makes one doubt the veracity of the entire endeavor.

 

Things seemed awry at entry, as, for some reason, there was a keyboardist playing along to what sounded like a pre-recorded track of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” This musical/computerized arrangement continued for several songs, fully three of which were from the soundtrack for My Fair Lady. The audience was old (though not entirely), able-bodied (though not entirely), and white (entirely). The set was full-on realism, though exorbitant amounts of haze billowed through the air from the ceiling above. The vibe could be described as “inconsistent at best” — upon the arrival of the opening number, it became immediately clear that this would apply to the show, as well. Random light cues danced around on the floor of the stage while horridly clunky lyrics by the schmuck who wrote Jerry Springer: The Opera constantly contradicted themselves in tone and characterization. The ASL interpreter onstage is both a character and not, as is the pianist (who at least is decisively not an actor). The words spoken by the actors do not align always with the absurdly distracting text projections on the upper level of center-stage, but it almost doesn’t matter, given how elementary and predictable the words are.

 

More than anything else, the music just sucked. It was pop-y, ‘80’s-y, repetitive prattle with lyrics as inspired as “It wouldn’t be a bad thing” repeated six times in a row, to the same melody. The actors mainly hit the notes, but the notes were barely distinguishable from one another, save for the titular lyrics repeated to oblivion. These songs were “complemented” by some of the cheapest-looking projections I’ve ever seen. And the songs are punctuated by intentionally offensive moments such as the able-bodied bald actor grunting “urgh urgh urgh” as he tries to get into character as Christy Brown of the original My Left Foot. The thing is this: if it were an audience of disabled actors he were playing to, perhaps it could be funny. But it was not: it was an audience of old, able-bodied people that were laughing at the stereotypes and horrific impressions. A song ends in a refrain, “Dazzling cripple,” said over and over again. Do you think the 80-year-old in front of me was laughing because he realizes the irony of calling a person with CP a cripple right in front of him? No; he’s laughing because they’re calling him a cripple right in front of him.

 

Another enormous problem with this show is the writing of the two main female characters, Amy and Gillian. Both of these characters are rooted entirely in a voracious appetite for having sex with Chris, the character with actual CP. Each lyric they sing, each action they take, is motivated solely by a desire for this man (Bechdel Test, anyone?). If that weren’t bad enough, it must be said that Chris, talented as he is, does not possess the good looks necessary to justify any sort of believability behind this crazed sexual desire. It is pandering of the worst sort, and it somewhat saddens me to think of the playwright engineering such a transparently self-serving script. It also just saddens me in general to think of this playwright envisioning a world wherein every able-bodied actor acts this irrationally — indeed, no one but Chris seems to have an ounce of good to them, as every character is outrageously ill-mannered and ill-intentioned when it comes to even the most obvious social standards. Supposedly necessary to motivate Chris’ entirely random announcement “I hate other people,” followed by “I hate all you motherfuckers,” the overdone evil of every single other character prevents anyone from actually sympathizing with Chris, as we are simply immersed in a world which is so far from real that nothing actually means squat. And even Chris, for that matter, is a misogynist pig, singing of his friendship with Amy “On condition she goes down on me.” No one is a fully good character, and aside from Chris, everyone is an aggressively bad character. If you’re going to break the fourth wall left and right like in Cheviot, I think that can work, that the audience connection can still be maintained. In the context of a full-length, non-Brechtian musical, it doesn’t, and it can’t.

 

One of the final lyrical progressions I recorded goes as follows: Amy sings “His CP looks more real than the real CP in Chris.” Then Chris sings, “It hurts to admit he isn’t totally shit.” Then the whole cast sings, “This show is our moment…,” starting off a new verse. All I could write in my notebook was: “???” There is no consistency of lyric to music anymore than there is of line to character (see: Gillian going from orchestrating terribly tasteless CP choreography to suddenly arguing Daniel Day-Lewis is a prick). As the audience hoots with laughter at lyrics as inspired as “You made a big fat promise, and now you break my heart” (seriously a line in this show), I can only wonder what grade the writers were in when they wrote this. Third? Second? I bet they were just precocious first-graders. That would be impressive. That would be worth staying for the second act.
But alas, they were adults, and it was not worth it to stay for the second act. I got the message of the show by the time I saw the poster, and there was no concern for storytelling to sustain any sort of theatricality for more than that split second. My roommate has come back to the room and said, “I think whoever wrote this show just really hates Daniel Day-Lewis.” I concur: this was a show that wanted only to make a point, giving not one hoot for art along the way. I cannot endorse any production which aims to be inclusive for people with disabilities attempting this musical again — please, for the love of God, just incorporate actors with disabilities into an actual story. Don’t just try to mold a political tenet into hackneyed tropes and stale “music” to make a quick buck and maybe get a little famous in the process.

BEST OF MAYMESTER 2019: “The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil” by John McGrath

The National Theatre of Scotland production of John McGrath’s 1973 work, The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil, was the best live show I have ever seen. Here’s why:

 

When we entered into the Eden Court theatre, the entire cast was onstage, playing various folk instruments ranging from a guitar to an upright bass to an accordion to a cello to a harmonica to the clapping of hands. Immediately, one gets the feeling that this is a community show — one put on by friends, for friends. Every actor is engaged fully in the music they’re playing, smiling, laughing, singing and dancing along. There is no pretense, no capital-T theatre about the pre-show: we are set up extraordinarily well for the direct socialist messaging to come.

 

As if this were not enough, as soon as I finished jotting down the above, an actress came from the stage right up to my seat. She asked me my name, said hers was Jo. She told me that in the second musical number, they’d be singing about mountains, and could she bring me up onstage to be a mountain. I, of course, said yes. She must’ve said my name about a hundred times over the course of the brief interaction, either to ensure it was pronounced like she thought it was pronounced or simply to hammer home on the amiability of the whole experience. Regardless, it’s the best I’ve ever been treated by an actor in any production I’ve attended, and I was sold from the get-go.

 

The set is cheap-looking on purpose, the costumes made up of clothes that you’d see everyday plus items as simple as top hats or stick-on mustaches. As Dr. Essin said: “More Brechtian than Brecht.” There’s a sign-language interpreter onstage, as well; not off to the side in darkness like past interpreters I’ve seen, but prominently featured in every beat of the show. There’s also an actor in a 7:84 t-shirt, a callback to the original production company which put on McGrath’s show. As this actor explained during intermission (yes, the actors were just walking around like normal folks during intermission), “Seven percent of the population owned eighty-four percent of the wealth. And it’s worse today.” The first number they perform, they invite all members of the audience to dance with them onstage. Dr. Essin was pulled in by none other than the director of this production himself. This is what theatre should do — this is how theatre should be done. Not in English classes with magnifying glasses, but with real, live, kind, talented people.

 

Next was the song “For These Are My Mountains” — or rather, the first iteration of this song, which would become a motif throughout the show. After three verses or so, as though it were planned, Jo and I made a split second of eye contact, and she rushed up to Row F to grab me. I walked with her onto the stage, and then onto a higher stage. She had me crouch down and put my head on the ground, and then she threw a green blanket over me. I’m told that while I was in this compromising position, the cast placed houses on my back and smoke billowed up from around me. After the song concluded, the blanket was whisked off, and Jo and the other actors asked for a round of applause for me as I bowed. It was the least awkward incorporation of audience members on-stage I’ve ever encountered. (Y’all, this was good.)

 

The first line of the show that sounds like a line in a show is this: “This story has a beginning, a middle, but as yet, no end.” And isn’t it the truth. I wonder whether I perhaps enjoyed the show so much because I agree wholeheartedly with the pro-worker, anti-capitalist philosophy proffered by the show. Certainly, I would have enjoyed it less if I fundamentally disagreed. But in spite of that, the way they tell their story is so filled with conviction, so sincere, that I believe you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that had a net poor time at the show. Every actor is so talented, playing multiple instruments and seemingly endless roles, and singing the whole time, too. And the audience is constantly engaged; one of the most awe-some (in the truest sense) such moments comes in the first act, when all women in the audience are asked to stand. In addition to the impressive portion of the audience which is female (I’d wager 80%), the moment is twisted and wrenched and made unforgettable by the simultaneous reading of all the atrocities committed upon the women of the Cheviot chapter of the history of the Highlands. It’s jaw-dropping. It’s show-stopping. It’s sheer brilliance, a perfect cocktail of McGrath’s original and the present company involved in this production.

 

There are moments when I cried. The first of these is a man wearing a shawl facing away from the audience while seated in a wooden chair. A man in a top hat lights a match as the lights darken and the “woman” in the chair’s children begin screaming. The man touches the match to the chair, smoke begins to rise, and the woman begins writhing and screaming, as well. A younger woman moves to a microphone stage-left and begins singing some soft soprano tune. And the man in the top hat moves stage-right, and, holding up a paper house, crumples it, destroys it, demolishes it, for all to see. It is one of, if not the best, moment of theatricality I’ve ever witnessed. Can’t do that on a screen!

 

There are also individual lines which, in a worse show, could each earn the title of “Best Line of the Show.” In no particular order, these include: “The worth of a culture is counted in gold.” “They didn’t do that in the ‘73 version!” “The troubles which are being visited upon YOU are a judgment from God.” The whole of the “God Save the Queen” performed as a mouth-trumpet solo. “Humpty Dumpty was pushed!” “Oh come on, it’s sadder than that.” “We’re more Scottish than the Scotch!” At Leth-Uine (interval in Gaelic), I’d already determined this was the best show I’ve ever seen. Among the mixed-age, nearly all-white crowd, people seemed mostly to agree.

 

As act two begins, the cast stands with their backs turned to the audience playing kazoos as bagpipes. It’s all so wonderfully absurd, and so horribly ironic, and so masterfully performed. The next beat sees a man playing an English recruiter invite the audience to enlist in the Army. This was probably the worst-executed segment of the show, but, when you have to rely on an audience understanding a show as they experience it for the first time, you’re bound to get that, I guess. The goal is, it would seem, for only one member of the audience to successfully enlist in the Army — the awkwardness, then, came from the additional audience members who, having such a good time at the show, thought also to enlist after the first one did so. I’m not quite sure how to fix the issues here, but then again, just like the few messed-up lines delivered on the stage, it didn’t really detract that much from anything. Act two also contains a far greater emphasis on Gaelic as a cultural foundation than act one, with the cast admitting, “To be honest, aside from Calum, none of us in the cast even speak it.” And then, to my amazement and joy, Calum, in Gaelic, asks who in the audience speaks it, too. And then, for two or three minutes, he has a conversation with two audience members entirely in Gaelic. We are forced outside in the middle of a show in the most impactful and interesting way possible. Phenomenal moments like these weave together a phenomenal show.

 

The American comes out for the Oil chapter of the Highlands history. He says “Howdy, y’all,” walks with a swagger, and brings with him the first iteration of electric guitar into the show. It’s a somewhat hackneyed yet nevertheless spot-on capture of American ego overseas, and the she-bop song where the backup girls sing “Petrole-yum-yum-yum-yum-yum” is the best I’ve ever seen the American Way lampooned. The political energy of the show threatens to burst through the second act, as this American runs through the audience throwing dollars wherever he goes and a small Englishman runs behind him trying to scrape them up. It’s unmissable: “We must organize and fight… for the benefit of everybody!” “Then it was the great sheep — now, it’s the black, black oil.” “Have we learned anything from the clearances?”

 

The cast raises their fists, the lights cut, and I’m immediately up on my feet. The audience gives them a partial standing ovation — far less than deserved, but still a partial standing ovation. On the way out, I hear a woman say “That was my favorite thing I’ve ever seen.” Another man says “That was very good, but it’s never going to be as good as the original.” Dr. Essin says “That’s the best piece of political theatre I’ve ever seen.” David Mamet said not to use theatre to try to teach anything, because if you do, you’re missing the point. I say: David Mamet is wrong. I learned about a tragedy I would’ve never had a clue about and had an amazingly entertaining time and felt community build between me and a bunch of Scottish strangers and was sober and awake for the whole thing. This show was the best theatrical experience I’ve ever had, and it made our entire journey to Inverness worth it.

 

P.S. During interval, the director of the show came up to Dr. Essin to tell us he and the cast would be at Hootananny (a local Scottish bar) after the show if we would like to join them to talk about theatre. I was so excited I almost forgot there was a whole other act to go. I rushed to the bar after the show ended, and I sat in Hootananny for 75 minutes, till 11:15 PM. They never came. What does this say about political theatre? I’m not sure. But for now, I forgive them: they’ve already given me a greater theatrical gift than I’ve ever before received. That ought to be enough.

 

Wait, What Did Jocky Wilson Say?: “Jocky Wilson Said” by Jane Livingstone and Jonathan Cairney

There’s not much to be reviewed in Jane Livingstone and Jonathan Cairney’s Jocky Wilson Said. Not only is it a brief play, clocking in at a mere 45 minutes — it is also a one-man play, a one-set play, and a play which, at least for this American viewer, is completely incomprehensible. It saddens me that I understood only about 10% of the words said on the stage; as a play in which the only stage action is the moving of a man’s lips, this severely impacted by understanding of the work.

 

What I took away, plot-wise, from Jocky Wilson Said, is that there is a darts player heading to a tournament in Las Vegas who accidentally gambled away his money and is therefore forced to hitchhike (or walk) to Las Vegas in the scalding heat of the Nevada sun. He drinks frequently, ever the underdog darts champion, and has no problem befriending inanimate cacti. Thanks are due to the actor playing Jocky Wilson, for, though he spoke without the articulation or pacing expected in Broadway theatre, he played the part with the necessary sincerity and flaws to bring the character to life. It is from his gestures and use of a few props that I took away most of what I did in regard to the narrative — beyond this, only sound effects and a crude backdrop supplied any information to the Vanderbilt viewers in the audience. I would have preferred for there to be any imaginative staging, any creative movement or action on the stage, in order to make the show work in any way as a piece of theatre and not as a stand-up special. The thing is, even a stand-up special is usually consistently funny; this was more of a checkerboard in the laugh department, even for the audience who was able to understand what was being said.

 

That audience had good reason to laugh, though: for a mere £12, they got a meat pie, a pint of beer, and a ticket to a one-act show. Yes, the pies were tiny and cold; yes, the beer was stale; and yes, the play was as barely a play as a play can feasibly be. And also yes, the seating was cramped as all hell, as unpleasant as a seating arrangement can feasibly be. But for fifteen American dollars, we got what amounted to a meal and a show. Such a deal would be unheard of in an American context outside of a middle or high school play.

 

What I took away most importantly from this viewing experience was the potential for this format to be improved upon and developed in the professional American theatre scene. The house was cramped first and foremost because it was so full — a deal is a deal, and it should be financially sound to offer a similar one in the United States. With some more care put into the staging of the show (and, hopefully, into the quality of the food), we could have “A Nip, A Sip, and A Ticket.” Or something like that, I guess. In essence, we could incentivize the American theatre for audiences not otherwise wont to go to it by offering a whole show and a whole meal at a wholly great price.

 

The Muggle Flute: “The Magic Flute” by Sir Thomas Allen (and Mozart, I Guess)

The Magic Flute, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s timeless opera as directed by Sir Thomas Allen, with the Scottish Opera, was the most horrible viewing experience I’ve had since I saw The Provok’d Wife five days ago. I experienced vivid pain as the blindly directed steampunk/H.G. Wells/Richard Burkhard ego-fest unfolded on the stage for an excruciating three hours. I don’t actually believe Sir Thomas Allen directed this show; none of these actors looked like they had acted a day in their lives, let alone interacting with one another. This is save for Richard Burkhard’s Papageno, who was so hammed up that I went until right now thinking that he had simply written the role for himself (it took a Wikipedia dive to discover that Papageno actually was a character in the original Flute, which was as surprising as it was disappointing). Obviously, the singing wasn’t the problem with this production — though there was some iffiness on the part of the Queen’s ha-HA-ha-HA-ha-ing. The acting was all just so damn insincere; the bass sorcerer even forgot several of his lines, noticeably. As for the direction, I truly have no idea what the hell was going on. The show started off strong with a vaudevillian presentation of the overture, and I was really excited to see this idea explored. But immediately, we were in some dystopian, futuristic, unclear world where there are animated robots and an audience member is a prince and I wish I could tell you more but I honestly cannot because I have no idea what most of the stuff happening on the stage was.

 

At interval, I seemed to be the only person as dissatisfied as everyone would become by the end of act two. I’m not quite sure why everyone was so fine with the “oh-he’s-asleep?-let’s-rape-him” ladies who occupied the second scene, nor with the “a-woman’s-power-is-rooted-in-her-husband” men who comprised the rest of the cast. There were no people of color on the stage, except for one of the angel boys; but the angel boys, on top of being barely audible, were as lifeless as is possible short of death. In act two, there was more rape, more mistake-making, and more indulgence in a narrative which we have seen literally thousands of times. How can I bring myself to care about a classic damsel-in-distress story when the promotional material for the show cannot even care? “A handsome prince, a damsel in distress, sorcerers, priests and a bumbling bird catcher – all are given life in Mozart’s sublime blend of lyrical love duets, folk-like ditties and the explosive coloratura of the Queen of the Night arias.” It knows it has nothing new to offer, but it also clearly explains that it’s not going to do anything to change that. The production is an exercise in exhaustion; for the elderly people in every single seat not occupied by representatives of Vanderbilt University, perhaps that was acceptable. But it enrages me that government spending is going to something as pointless and tired as this. And as confusing as this. And as unpleasant as this. And as bad as this. And etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

 

I do not recommend you see The Magic Flute — that is, however, unless someone you never thought really liked you (since that time you did that really mean thing to them) has recommended it to you, in which case, absolutely see it. I’m sure that their revenge — I mean, the price of your ticket — will pay off well.

 

Rise Up! (but Not the Hamilton Lyric!): “Emilia” by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia is teeming with flaws: it is heavier than heavy-handed, pandering to a fault, and performed with a great deal of sloppiness on behalf of all involved. But in addition to all of these, it is also a show that is brimming with life; it is one made for now and one that needs to be seen now.

 

“Good evening,” opens the show, a response expected from the audience. Our narrator (the eldest Emilia) shows us that this is a show which demands participation — one which would be meaningless without it. This Emilia reads an introduction from an old, misogynistic text, rolling her eyes and scoffing throughout, then throws the book on the ground of the stage. In this we see the central metaphor for this production: the venerated words of yesteryear being rightly discarded for the harmful ideas which they perpetuate. When she tells us “We are only as powerful as the stories we tell,” it is as if we are picking up at the final number of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” This is to be a show in which women who have been suppressed throughout history are given a full-length musical and a stage to themselves in order to at last take ownership of their own stories.

 

To the ends of inclusivity and feminism, everything about the show is as basic as it can be. Subtlety has no place in the world of Emilia, nor does distinctive characterization for the titular character. This is a show which aims to say to all women in the audience “We are you” (as further detectable in the buttons handed out post-show, which proclaim “#IAmEmilia”). Inarguably the youngest audience in which we have sat, I suppose the writers didn’t want a thought in the production to be missed based on age or lack of familiarity with musical theatre tropes. So, the whole thing is a rehash of stories we have heard in more complex and more emotionally impactful and more thoughtfully written versions before. But again, that’s not quite integral to the point Emilia is trying to make. What point is Emilia trying to make? Well, all of them: mansplaining is bad. Appropriation of others’ stories is bad. Spousal abuse is bad. And at the end of the day, men are bad.

 

I have truly tried to wipe clean my biases as a male reviewer of this show, but there is a moment when the eldest Emilia shouts the word “MEN!” at the audience to kick off an oration about how bad men are — an oration which ends the show. In this speech, she rhetorically ponders why men mistreat women so, “as if we have not nurtured them. As if we rape them.” As a male victim of rape, this, needless to say, pisses me off. It’s oversimplification to the degree of absurdity, and it saddens me that so many young women will walk away from this show (in which there is not a single crimeless male character) thinking that men rape women and that is that.

 

But, at the same time, it cannot be ignored that this is a show which is doing something absolutely crucial to society and to the arts: letting women speak unbounded by a single person of the male sex onstage. The show thus accomplishes an admirable goal while marring a lot in its wake.

 

There are some other things to commend about this show. First, there is an actor who is missing an arm onstage, as well as an actor with a profound speech impediment. Neither of these actors’ handicaps were relevant to their characters or even mentioned in the script — they were just actors like the rest of the cast. This was quite a breath of fresh air in an industry which tends to shun actors with anything less than perfect bodies and voices unless it is exploiting them to exhibitionist ends. Second, this show references abuse of power without gruesomely displaying it in the line of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Provok’d Wife, a needed favor to all in the audience. Third, this production does not shy away from telling Shakespeare to go f*** himself, which, though not necessarily a moral issue, is at least something which the theatre industry is not often wont to do. Finally, the acting in this production — specifically from the youngest Emilia, from her 60-year-old lover, and from Will Shakespeare — is just phenomenal. I wanted to get a drink with all of them, and when the cast is dancing on the stage after the final scene, everyone in the audience wants to dance with them, too.

 

But there is more to lament about the show, too. The whole second act, for example, feels unnecessary. Nothing new is discovered in this second hour; it’s just an opportunity to do more of what was done in act one, harder. When the first act ends in disaster as the male characters go wild about the presence of women on the stage, the audience is roused with ebullient joy — we got it. It was a fantastic one-act, and we could’ve gone home. But in the second act, they essentially just tell us explicitly what we could’ve gotten from the first act, though this time it’s in invective form and this time there’s more chewing of the scenery. Certainly the audience stayed with them, but I wish something else had justified the presence of act two beyond getting more laughs and hammering the message home harder. There is also the shortcomings in acting by certain cast members; I’ll pick on the second Emilia, who broke onstage at something that was funny, but not funny enough to justify breaking onstage in the middle of a professional production. And finally, there is that “tell-don’t-show” diatribe which concludes the show, written like a high schooler’s last-minute paper for women’s and gender studies class. Not only is it inaccurate and hurtful regarding the male sex (which admittedly is guilty of a lot, but which is not without redemptive capacity, as this show would have you believe), it is also just lazy writing. The audience stands up immediately afterward — though it didn’t cheer for the seconds in between the final word and the start of curtain call music, leading to some grave awkwardness — and gives the show the warmest reception we’ve seen. But it’s only because they agree with the ideas. As theatre, it is not as well-executed as its response might suggest. As a speech for class president elections, however, it certainly is.
You should still see Emilia — if you’re a woman, because it’s empowering and fun. If you’re a man, because it’s eye-opening and fun. It’s messy as all hell and deeply misguided at points; but then again, it is fueled by a passion which demands stage-time and demands the attention of the community. If you look past a lot of the elements which make a good show good, you’ll have a really, really good time.