Monday, May 30, 2011

Keeping Up with Brian and Court; Revisiting "Arcadia"

Posted by Bruce Miller
Despite its size, whenever I go to New York I bump into old friends as if the streets of the Broadway theatre district were little more than the aisles of my neighborhood Ukrop's. (Saying "my neighborhood Martin's" just isn't the same.) I can't think of a single Big Apple excursion in decades when this hasn't been the case.

This trip, the first reconnection was with Brian Kalin (pictured to the left) who hollered out my name as we passed each other on 47th between Broadway and 8th. Brian was my manly scenic designer for The Little Dog Laughed, who not only delivered a terrific, stylish set, but also brought his fair share of testosterone into every production meeting. It was great to see him again.

Brian's career has been progressing nicely since his move to NYC in 2008. For the last few years, Brian has been assisting Court Watson (pictured below and to the right), a fellow VCU alum who also designed at Barksdale (The 1940's Radio Hour, 2002). A lot of their work is in Germany and Austria, such as:

Jekyll and Hyde & West Side Story
Theater Magdeburg - Magdeburg was one of the most important medieval cities in Europe; today it is the capital of the German "state" of Saxony-Anhalt

Frau Luna & Der Himmel ├╝ber Berlin
Salzburger Landestheater - the best known and oldest theatre in the Mozart town of Saltzburg, where much of The Sound of Music film was shot

Elton John's Aida & Rockville: A New Musical
Musical Sommer - a summer theatre located in Amstetten, a town on the western edge of Lower Austria. For reasons unknown by me, Lower Austria is a "state" actually located in Upper Austria, the Northeast corner, surrounding the city of Vienna

In between all these European gigs, Court and Brian have managed to fit in a healthy dose of stateside work as well:

2011 - the recently closed Liberty Smith at Ford's Theatre in D. C.
2011 - Annie Get Your Gun at the Glimmerglass Festival, with hot young director Francesca Zambello
2010 - Off Broadway, It Must Be Him
2010 - Off Broadway, Dear Edwina
2010 - The Shakespeare Theatre in D. C., All's Well That Ends Well, directed by Michael Kahn
2010 - Engeman Theatre, Run for Your Wife and Fiddler on the Roof, both directed by B. T. McNicholl

Court also posts earlier credits as Assistant Scenic Designer for the recent Broadway runs of High Fidelity, Lestat and Little Women, and Assistant Costume Designer for Broadway's Cry-Baby, South Pacific and Mauritius.

It was great to learn that Brian and Court are doing so well. One of a regional theatre's institutional responsibilities is to give work experience to its most talented hometown theatre artists, so that if and when they make their move to NYC or other larger markets, they have the professional resume credit(s) needed to get their foot in the door. Barksdale is proud to be an early credit on the resumes of both Brian and Court.

In between bumping into old friends, Hannah and I also saw a few shows while visiting the Great White Way. On the second evening of our trip (Friday), we purchased half price TKTS tickets to the show that wound up being the favorite of both of us--the brilliant revival of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.

Arcadia has been among my favorite plays since I saw the American premiere at Lincoln Center in 1995. We've never produced it at Theatre IV or Barksdale because I believe a successful production of the play requires resources that we simply don't have. More than most plays, Arcadia must be performed with the utmost artistry in acting, design and construction if it is to effective. In my opinion, this play that deals brilliantly with the sheer wonder of chaos theory must have a pristine acuity in its presentation if the audience is to fully engage with the mystery and the magic. I've never had any desire to produce a partially-realized Arcadia. To do so would do a disservice to one of favorite plays by a living playwright.

Thankfully, the current Broadway revival offers all that one could want from what many regard as Stoppard's masterpiece. I loved it even more than the original. David Leveaux's direction is invisible and seems to make the play more accessible than I remember it being in '95. Lia Williams (pictured above and to the left), Billy Crudup, Tom Riley, and especially Raul Esparza (also pictured) tear into their roles with zest, humor, charm, and equal measures of erudition and emotion. Margaret Colin, Noah Robbins and David Turner are perfectly suited to their supporting roles. Only Bel Powley as young Thomasina Coverly seemed heavy-handed--too brassy and brash for her upper-crust British surroundings.

The design work of Hildegard Bechtler (sets) and Gregory Gale (costumes) was sumptuous and, where appropriate, understated--right on target.

Watching the play, we sat about four rows behind Victor Garber, who originally played the role of the literary scholar wannabe, Bernard Nightingale. In this production, Nightingale was played by Billy Crudup, who took Broadway by storm as Septimus Hodge in the 1995 production. After the show, Hannah and I waited with a small handful of theatre lovers at the stage door (with no Hollywood stars, the hangers on were few). After a few minutes, Garber and Crudup emerged together, and we had the chance to talk with both of them for two or three minutes. They were gracious, and it was very fun.

If you've never seen Arcadia in a first-class production, and if you love great theatre, I recommend the play and this production heartily.

--Bruce Miller

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Play That Dares Not Speak Its Name

Posted by Bruce Miller
My daughter, Hannah, and I went to New York last week. She just completed her sophomore year at W & M, and this was our annual father/daughter bonding trip. Other dads and daughts do Indian Princesses and the like, with camping trips and wilderness excursions. We've always tended to seek our adventures in Shubert Alley, up and down the aisles of The Drama Book Shop, and all around Central Park.

We Amtraked up on Thursday morning--all aboard at 6:50 a.m.--arriving at Penn Station sometime around two. In the glory days of Jet Blue's non-stop flights from Richmond into Kennedy, we usually flew. Now flying costs about $300 more for the two of us than training, so ... Amtrak it is.

Since we planned in advance, we were able to book a room at the Edison, which is our favorite hotel in the theatre district. Nothing fancy, but affordable, quiet, clean, and--if you're drunk on the schmell of the theatre--ideally situated. The only downside is that you have to connect a month or more in advance to find a vacancy.

We saw six shows in four days: one on Thursday evening, one on Friday evening, two on Saturday and two on Sunday. We traveled home on Monday. The only show we bought in advance (paying full price, no less) was The Book of Mormon. We bought those "hot" tickets for Sunday evening, because time is tight between Sunday's 3 p.m. matinee and 7 p.m. evening performance--often too tight to return to the ticket line.

Other than Mormon, we bought all our tickets 50% off at the TKTS booth in Times Square. At this time of year, when tickets are selling pretty well, the TKTS booth is cheaper than the web discounts we could have obtained in advance at With Broadway prices hovering around $120 for a non-musical, who can afford to pay full price?

The show we saw on Thursday night was The Motherf**ker with the Hat, by Stephen Adly Guirgis. I list the title here the way it is listed on the marquee of the Schoenfeld Theatre and the cover of Playbill. Guirgis is the playwright who penned The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (co-produced in Richmond earlier this season by Henley Street and Triangle) and Jesus Hopped the "A" Train (produced a few years back in the Theatre Gym at Theatre IV). I wanted to see Hat because I'd read good reviews, and because Guirgis is among my favorite contemporary American playwrights.

Even after summoning all my NYC sophistication, I felt a little funny saying the title out loud at the TKTS booth. I also felt nervous encouraging my 20-year-old daughter to come see this play with me. But once we were seated in the theatre and the lights came up, any and all discomfort went away.

Don't get me wrong--the language spoken and shouted from onstage is just as pungent as the title would lead one to expect. Guirgis writes, beautifully, in the vernacular of the bottom-of-the-food-chain working class poor whom we too often dismiss as having little of importance to say. What becomes immediately obvious in the theatre is that we dismiss their (his) wisdom at our own peril.

Hat tells the story of five striving, 20- and 30-something individuals, each of whom tackles his or her own loves and demons with varying success. No character has the one right answer; there are no heroes or villains. Front and center, Guirgis places the higher powers, the memories, the intoxicants, the instincts, the will power, the sense of family, the health foods and, most importantly, the commitments (or lack thereof) we rely on when everything else lets us down.

Hat is about the healing and destructive powers of language. It is about the presence and absence of soul.

Of the six plays we saw, Hat is one of the two I LOVED. Bobby Cannavale, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Yul Vazquez (three actors from Off Broadway's Labyrinth Theater Company) are brilliant, and well deserve their Tony nominations. Chris Rock and Annabella Sciorra add the TV star appeal that Broadway requires, and they're good--just not great when viewed side-by-side with their theatre-savvy co-stars.

The set by Todd Rosenthal is a Rubik's cube wonder that rotates, twists, turns and pops to create three different interiors that are all interconnected even when we can't figure out how.

The play is howlingly funny and, even more to my taste, genuinely filled with scorching emotion and hard-earned truth. Hat enables us to see the dignity in "broken," marginalized individuals who otherwise may never "earn" our attention. It gives the lie to that American platitude that "all men are created equal," shining a revealing light on the inequalities that define our nation's "non-existent" class structure.

Hannah liked Hat a lot, but with somewhat less enthusiasm than I did. The following night we saw the play that both of us deemed "best in show." More soon.

--Bruce Miller