More stories

  • in

    3 Theaters, 3 Plays, One Cast, All at Once

    The Crucible Theater in Sheffield, England, is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a mind-boggling logistical challenge that also honors a declining industry in the city.SHEFFIELD, England — Visitors to Tudor Square in the center of this northern English city might spot some unusual figures there this week: a woman sprinting through in a neon boilersuit, or a tutu, or a man running with a box of scissors. And if they look like they’re in a hurry to get somewhere, that’s because they are. These are actors, and they have an entrance to make — on a different stage from the one they just left.“Rock/Paper/Scissors,” running through July 2, is a triptych of plays designed to be performed by one cast, at the same time, in three different theaters. Programmed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sheffield’s Crucible Theater, the trilogy unfolds on that playhouse’s 980-seater main stage, a smaller studio below and across the square at the Victorian-era Lyceum.The project’s logistics are mind-boggling. The 14 cast members appear as the same characters across all three shows, and most of them are on one of the stages, most of time — hence those hurried journeys between theaters. Each play has its own director and technical team, while nine stage managers ensure smooth running backstage.The three plays, which offer varying perspectives on a family saga, are designed to work as stand-alone stories, but watching all three in succession reveals densely interwoven plotlines and character arcs. “Rock,” “Paper” and “Scissors” are all set at the same time, on the same day, in almost the same place: across three different spaces in a run-down Sheffield scissor factory. The crumbling location has resonance in a city that once had a rich industrial tradition of producing steel and manufacturing world-class cutlery, including scissors.From left, Guy Rhys, Lucie Shorthouse and Samatha Power rehearsing “Rock/Paper/Scissors” at the Lyceum theater in Sheffield, England.Mary Turner for The New York TimesThe plays open after the death of the factory owner, whose will is missing. Each narrative centers on characters with competing claims on the building, and conflicting visions for its future.Chris Bush, who wrote the three plays to celebrate the Crucible Theater’s anniversary, said they were about offering a “perspective shift” across the three generations. “The same world is shared by three different stories, where heroes become villains and villains become heroes,” she said.To make sure the scripts worked for simultaneous performance, Bush planned them out with a series of spreadsheets, timing the entrances and exits by the word count of each scene, she said.Robert Hastie, Sheffield Theaters’ artistic leader and the director for “Paper,” said, “The precision tuning is more complicated than anything I’ve ever done.” Even scheduling rehearsals proved a headache, he added, requiring careful planning with his fellow directors Anthony Lau and Elin Schofield to divide the 14 actors’ time.Backstage during a recent preview performance, an atmosphere of quiet concentration prevailed. If any play were to start running fast, or slow, or to stop for any reason, it would throw all three out of sync. The team of stage managers were all focused on marked-up scripts and color-coded spreadsheets detailing the more than 80 entrances and exits.A large screen in each of the theater’s backstage areas shows all three stages as well as a giant synchronized clock, so any deviations from the plan can be quickly spotted. The stage managers communicate via radios and WhatsApp, and are ready, in the worst-case scenario, to stop all three shows if they have to. (So far, this only happened once in previews, because of a technical fault rather than a timing issue.)The stage manager Andrew Wilcox, center, conferring with colleagues backstage.Mary Turner for The New York TimesNonetheless, the swift entrances and exits — and the knowledge that the cast are having to run across a busy public square to get between the theaters — adds a frisson for both audiences and the actors.One of the cast members, Samantha Power, said she had some entrances “where I am absolutely sprinting across Tudor Square.” She added that this was more of a challenge on a Saturday night, “negotiating all the inebriated people.”Andrew Macbean, another actor in the show, said that during the same journey, “Somebody asked me if I had any spare change.” But mostly, he added, the cast was unfazed. “For us, it’s just one play,” he said. “Three different venues is no different, really, to doing it on three different sets.”Responses to “Rock/Paper/Scissors” have been positive so far, with the shows earning standing ovations and strong reviews. Watching all three plays back-to-back on press day on Wednesday, the performances became a cumulative experience: each new part deepened the audience’s understanding of the characters.The triptych also offers three different answers to a question that is freshly topical after two years of the coronavirus pandemic: What do we do with our empty city center spaces?In “Rock,” presented on the Crucible’s thrust stage, the character of Susie — an aging rocker and the sister of the scissor factory’s deceased owner — puts forward idealistic plans to turn the gritty space into a vibrant new music venue. In “Paper,” at the Lyceum, the owner’s daughter Faye and her wife argue for the most financially lucrative option: selling the building to a developer to turn it into apartments. “Scissors,” in the Studio, is set in a workshop where four young apprentices put the case for maintaining the building as a workshop for hand-making scissors, preserving a local tradition.These arguments will sound familiar to Sheffield residents. Like many British town centers, Sheffield contains many shuttered buildings, including a prominent former department store that city authorities are currently debating how to repurpose. (Options include a soccer museum, bars and restaurants, and housing). The decline of Sheffield’s steel industry since the 1970s has meant that many buildings once used in manufacturing also fell into disuse, although several have been repurposed as street food markets, nightclubs, vintage stores and housing developments.Fifty years ago there were dozens of scissor factories in Sheffield; now, there are just two. One of those that remains, Ernest Wright, lent working machinery to the production, so actors could sharpen real blades during “Scissors.”Hastie said it was “impossible to overestimate how central cutlery is to Sheffield’s sense of self and its sense of pride.” Examining this legacy, as well as considering the future of former industrial spaces, seemed an appropriate subject for a 50th anniversary show at a theater at the city’s heart, he said.“We were very much looking for an idea for our 50th anniversary that had a spirit of adventure and daring,” he said, adding that using the three theater spaces simultaneously fit that bill. “We wanted to see if we’d bitten off more than we could chew.”And have they? “We’re still chewing very hard,” Hastie said.Rock/Paper/ScissorsThrough July 2 at the Crucible, Studio and Lyceum theaters in Sheffield, England; sheffieldtheatres.co.uk.Jabez Sykes and Maia Tamrakar, actors in the production, embracing backstage after an exhausting performance.Mary Turner for The New York Times More

  • in

    The ‘Most Real Richard III There’s Ever Been’

    The Royal Shakespeare Company has cast a disabled actor to play the “deformed, unfinish’d” king for the first time. The choice has been hailed as a landmark moment.STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, England — A raucous party was underway in one of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s rehearsal rooms this month as the cast of “Richard III” ran through the play’s opening, dancing in a conga line while music blared and balloons bounced off the floor.Off to one side, the future Richard III sneered at the scene. Shakespeare depicted the king as a scheming hunchback who murdered his way to the British throne, and in this imagining of the play, he is personified by the 30-year-old actor Arthur Hughes. In role, Hughes stepped into the middle of the party, veering through the revelers to deliver the play’s famed opening speech: “Now is the winter of our discontent,” he began.As the speech continues, Richard lists the insults he has faced. He is “curtail’d of this fair proportion”; he is “cheated of feature”; he is “deformed, unfinish’d.” As Hughes declaimed each barb, he angrily squeezed a white balloon. Eventually the pressure became too much. The balloon popped.The moment of tension was made even more powerful by Hughes’s own appearance. He has radial dysplasia, meaning he was born with a shorter right arm, his wrist bending into the body and his hand missing a thumb.The first casting by the Royal Shakespeare Company of a disabled actor to play Richard III has been hailed as an advance in British theater. The play opened in Stratford-upon-Avon on Thursday and runs through Oct. 8.“You can see a despot and tyrant,” Hughes said of Richard III, “but also a little boy who hasn’t been loved and someone who’s shunned.”Ellie Kurttz, via Royal Shakespeare CompanyShakespeare used and amplified Richard III’s real-life condition — the king is thought to have had scoliosis or curvature of the spine — to highlight the character’s unsavory nature. (He is described at one point as a “pois’nous bunch-back’d toad.”) According to Gregory Doran, the director of the current adaptation, the casting of Hughes in the role “sends out a big message, just as not casting a disabled actor would have sent out a different message.”Hughes’s casting comes as the frequency of disabled actors earning major roles appears to be growing in British theater. In July, the National Theater will present “All of Us” by Francesca Martinez, an actor and playwright who has cerebral palsy (Martinez said in a telephone interview that the play would feature three disabled actors, including herself). And Liz Carr, who uses a wheelchair, this year won an Olivier Award, Britain’s equivalent of a Tony, for her performance in Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” at the National.In her Olivier acceptance speech, Carr highlighted some persistent problems. “There’s so many fears of risk of employing disabled actors,” she said, but added the award “proves we can do it, we can project, we can fill a stage.”Jack Thorne, the playwright behind “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and an activist for disabled people, said in a telephone interview that there was “definitely a willingness” to expand disabled casting in Britain. The National Theater was a leader, he said, as were six regional theaters behind an initiative called Ramps on the Moon that stages productions led by deaf and disabled actors.Yet there was still a dearth of lead roles in London’s commercial heartland, he said. “There aren’t West End shows with disabled leads,” he added. In discussions about diversity, the issue was routinely forgotten, he said. Theaters should bring in targets to increase participation, he said.The National Theater, for instance, has experimented with aspirational quotas for women and people of color, but not for disabled people. Alastair Coomer, the theater’s head of casting, said in a telephone interview that new targets were being discussed and that he “would not be surprised” if that discrepancy was addressed.Hughes in a Royal Shakespeare Company costume storeroom. “Richard III” plays in the company’s repertoire through Oct. 8.Lauren Fleishman for The New York TimesHughes, eating potato chips in a break from rehearsal, said he hoped his casting as Richard III “sets the mold for how the industry can change.”Growing up in Aylesbury, a town about 40 miles northwest of London, Hughes said that he had experienced few barriers to pursuing acting. As a child, he said, he was so enthusiastic in drama classes that he was given prime roles, such as Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”Hughes said that he had read “Richard III” for the first time while looking for speeches to use when auditioning for drama schools. He instantly identified with the role, he added, since the play’s characters view the future king as “not cut out for big parts” because of his looks. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s me,’” Hughes said.After drama school, Hughes did not immediately secure an agent — unlike many of his colleagues. “Voices in my head were going, ‘Are you a risk?’” he said, but those doubts lifted after he secured a role in a production by Graeae, a British theater company that casts deaf and disabled actors. Before then, Hughes said, he felt his appearance “was going to hold me back,” but after being surrounded by other disabled actors, he felt empowered. He even started wearing short sleeves to highlight his limb difference, he added.The Royal Shakespeare Company show is Hughes’s most high-profile casting to date. In May, Doran gave an interview to The Times of London that was headlined: “Able-Bodied Actors Cannot Be Richard III.” In a letter of complaint to that newspaper, Doran said that the headline was misleading. His point, he wrote, was that, although anybody could play the role, a disabled actor could “enhance the performance and impact of the production.”Richard III is often portrayed as an almost comedic bad guy, Hughes said, often with a fake “hump and limp.” While not trying to hide the character’s villainy, he hoped to draw attention to his motivations: “You can see a despot and tyrant,” he said, “but also a little boy who hasn’t been loved and someone who’s shunned and outcast and is underestimated.”Mat Fraser, another disabled actor, who played Richard III in a production in Hull in northern England in 2017, said that the king was often played by older performers who could make the king seem a “withered little twig.” But Hughes is young and muscular — better suited to portraying a monarch who died at age 32 on a battlefield, Fraser said. “We’re going to see the most real Richard III there’s ever been,” he added.Hughes said he was already looking beyond his turn as Richard to other Shakespeare roles, and would love to play Hamlet, and Iago from “Othello.”“I’d like to play a role that’s not specified as disabled,” he said. “Obviously, whichever role I play will be disabled by the very nature of me playing it,” he added. “But that’s not the point.”Richard IIIThrough Oct. 8 at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, England; rsc.org.uk. More

  • in

    Velcro or Snaps? The ABC’s of Stripping for a Cause

    Broadway Bares began as a response to the AIDS crisis. Thirty years later, the one-night-only burlesque spectacle remains a potent, frisky fund-raiser.Jerry Mitchell was a 32-year-old Broadway hoofer causing a sensation each night by dancing nearly naked in “The Will Rogers Follies” when he had an idea: To shake his bare bum for a good cause.It was 1992, near the height of the AIDS crisis. Mitchell recruited seven fit fellow dancers from other Broadway shows, and on a rainy Sunday night at Splash, a since-shuttered gay club in Chelsea, they took turns undressing on the bar to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Two shows and a tray of tequila shots later, the novice strippers had collected $8,000 — and the burlesque spectacle Broadway Bares was born.“There were people who were confused as to why we were using a strip show to raise money for AIDS,” Mitchell, who is now a Tony Award-winning director and choreographer, said in a phone interview. “It was coming from a place of innocence,” he said, and of paucity: He didn’t have the money to attend big-ticket AIDS charity events, “but I had the drive and desire to help my community.”Broadway Bares became a hit, outgrowing one establishment after another and becoming steadily more polished, until “we weren’t just a benefit,” Mitchell said. “We were a Broadway show.” On Sunday, that show will celebrate its 30th anniversary at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan, with performances at 9:30 p.m. and midnight.Putting together the event — which involves more than 500 volunteer theater artists, among them performers, designers and stage managers, many busy in current Broadway shows — is a complex and hectic game of logistics, topped by a final rehearsal sprint in which the entire, one-night-only production comes together in a matter of days.From left, Nick Kenkel, an executive producer of the show; the director Laya Barak; and the associate director Jonathan Lee.Matthew Leifheit for The New York TimesAt one of those rehearsals this week, at a studio near Times Square, nearly 30 dancers were spinning, kicking and pretending to rip off their pants. Laya Barak, the director of this year’s show and a creator of the opening number, reminded everyone to “keep it sharp” and “reach from the shoulder.” More pressing, though, was the choreography of clothes. “Whatever your strippable is, that has to travel with you,” she told a group, meaning they needed to cart away their discarded layers. Other items were to be handed off to other dancers or chucked offstage.“Are you wearing a jock or a G-string?” she asked one dancer of his attire for the show, which bares a lot but stops short of full-frontal nudity. He wasn’t sure; costumes were still being constructed and wouldn’t be ready until Saturday.That meant Collin Heyward, the lead dancer in another piece, and his castmates wouldn’t get to practice removing his clothes until the day before opening. At the rehearsal, Heyward, who made his Broadway debut in “The Lion King” in February, attacked the hip-hop choreography with confidence but admitted to being anxious about the stripping. “It has to be seamless,” he said. “That’s an added pressure.”With about a dozen dance routines, each with its own choreographer, Broadway Bares is a high-profile platform for emerging dance makers. The routines use a variety of styles, including hip-hop, Latin dance, ballet and aerial arts, often mashed together into new combinations. But burlesque remains the core of the artistic ethos and attitude.“Burlesque isn’t only about being naked,” Mitchell said. “It’s about being funny. The humor is the heart.”Still, the endgame is getting naked. And that has its complications.Sarah Marie Dixey working on a costume. “I’m very fond of snaps and magnets,” she said. “They don’t really get tangled in anything.”Matthew Leifheit for The New York TimesThe “lead strips,” as the featured dancers are known, might have as many as five layers to remove. The first one is easy, like a hat or coat. “Then it gets a little tricky,” said Nick Kenkel, who has been involved with the show for nearly 20 years and is now an executive producer. A T-shirt might get ripped away (prepared with a small cut to ease tearing), followed by a dancer’s pants, but “you have to do it in a way that the tight boxer shorts underneath don’t pop off,” he said.Minding such fragile costumes and perfecting their precisely timed removal is a new skill for dancers more used to focusing on counts than on discarding clothes. “If you’re not pulling hard enough, it can ruin the strip,” said Jonathan Lee, the associate director and one of the choreographers for Broadway Bares.That’s where the costume designers come in, with their tricks and tools to construct clothes that are “comfortable to dance in but aren’t going to break at the wrong moment,” the designer Sarah Marie Dixey said. Quick-rig costumes use a variety of fasteners, each with pros and cons. Dixey called herself “an anti-Velcro person,” adding, “I’m very fond of snaps and magnets. They don’t really get tangled in anything.” From the performer’s perspective, a consensus emerged: “Snaps,” Lee said. “Always snaps.”Mishaps are inevitable, but “these are people who do this all the time,” Dixey said. “Not necessarily stripping, but being onstage and able to problem-solve in the moment.”Mechanics aside, stripping “was a challenge for me artistically,” said Aubrey Lynch II, a former dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and “The Lion King” who performed in several early Broadway Bares shows and is now a dean and a director of education at American Ballet Theater. Despite any initial hesitation, Lynch said that what he experienced onstage was freedom — which “added another layer of performance to my toolbox and strangely strengthened my self-esteem.”Jason Tam and Bonnie Milligan rehearsing for this year’s show, which is called “XXX,” a nod to its age and its naughtiness.Matthew Leifheit for The New York TimesThat’s a lesson Mitchell is happy for performers to learn. He sees undressing onstage not as a vulnerable act, but an empowering one. “You’re in the driver’s seat,” he said he tells dancers, reminding them that “the audience is on your side. They’re rooting for you. If you’re comfortable, they’re comfortable.”The Broadway Bares routines, which are three to four minutes long, convey a mini narrative, and have been inspired by things like Greek myths and board games. Some choreographers have also used the dance to comment about societal issues.In this year’s production, titled “XXX” — a wink at both the show’s age and its naughtiness — Lee reimagined a superhero number from the 2002 event to include characters like Black Panther (danced by Heyward) and Shang-Chi with dancehall music, Afro beats and stepping. “I wanted to honor what we have gained in the past 20 years,” he said.While the inaugural Broadway Bares featured only well-toned, cisgender men, the next year’s event included women. Later iterations have gone on to feature transgender performers, disabled dancers and all expressions of sexuality. “We’ve even had straight performers,” Mitchell joked. (For all the representation onstage, though, the audience remains mostly gay men.)When Jessica Castro was invited to create a dance this year, she knew she wanted to embrace body positivity. She cast as her star Akira Armstrong, a plus-size dancer and the founder of Pretty Big Movement dance company. “It’s about celebrating all backgrounds, all body shapes, all types,” Castro said, adding that she found stripping to be an act of agency. “It’s a shedding of all these ideals, all these constructs that society has put on us.”Over the 30 years of Broadway Bares shows, AIDS has become a manageable condition, especially for those with access to health care and preventive drugs. But the devastation it caused New York’s tight-knit theater scene is a part of Broadway history that is woven into the show’s mission.The event is “both a fund-raising and an educational opportunity,” said Tom Viola, the executive director of Broadway Cares who attended the first Bares at Splash. (It has raised more than $22 million to date for Broadway Cares to support health and social services for entertainment professionals both locally and nationwide, crucially during the coronavirus pandemic.)As part of the rehearsal period, the organization helps dancers, most of whom did not experience the worst of the AIDS epidemic, “understand the anger, sorrow, loss and stigma that first propelled us into action,” Viola said. At this week’s rehearsal, dancers were given profiles of beneficiary organizations and encouraged to step up their own online fund-raising efforts.And while Barak is concerned with all the usual elements of directing a show of this scale, she is also asking: “How do we keep that flame going into the future to continue raising money for Broadway Cares and continue this tradition of community?”But in the meantime, back at rehearsal, she was ready for another run-through.“Going from the pants strip!” she yelled. More

  • in

    ‘Corsicana’ Review: Four Lost Hearts in the Heart of Texas

    In a strange and beautiful new play by Will Arbery, finding happiness is a process of failing upward.The difference between comedy and tragedy is often just a matter of timing. Bring the curtain down early enough and even “Macbeth” can have a happy ending; in the back story of a play full of laughs, you’ll often find a bucket of tears.Will Arbery’s “Corsicana,” which opened on Wednesday at Playwrights Horizons, is that second kind of play; if its story began any earlier than it does, it would be an emotional blood bath. Instead, without ignoring the bone-deep sadness of characters confused and stymied by loss, it lets us watch them climb their way out of it — heading toward joy and sharing some in the process.The immediate cause of the sadness for Christopher (Will Dagger) and Ginny (Jamie Brewer) is the death of their mother several months before the action. Though they have different fathers, both of whom have long since skedaddled, the half-siblings have similar reactions, within the framework of their evident differences.Christopher, 33, is a wannabe filmmaker who used to teach at a college near Dallas. He has now retreated to the melancholy comfort of his mother’s home, in Corsicana, an hour south. He’s done so, supposedly, to care for Ginny, 34, who has Down syndrome but doesn’t want to be babied. She’s a “grown woman,” as she is constantly forced to remind everyone. Yet she, too, has retreated: No longer volunteering at a nursing home, she instead spends most of her time watching Disney videos and listening to girl-power pop.“I can’t find my heart,” she tells Christopher, who likewise seems to have misplaced his. But if he is clueless about his own suffering, despite the torrents of words pouring out of him, he loves his sister too much not to act. He tries to help her re-engage with the world.How he does so, and how she responds, form the core of a play that is, paradoxically, almost too specific to describe. Weird, perhaps: Some of the characters are ghosts; there are longish passages of improvised song. Dense, certainly: It has the fuzzy texture of lived experience rather than the silkiness of honed argument. Quiet, mostly: The characters — also including a family friend named Justice (Deirdre O’Connell) and a hermitlike artist named Lot (Harold Surratt) — are the opposite of aggressive. In the face of their own deepest hopes, they are passive to a fault.Justice (Deirdre O’Connell) with Ginny, who has uncanny emotional intelligence — something her brother completely lacks. Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesFor those who loved the slashing debate and emotional frenzy of Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” which ran at Playwrights in 2019 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, “Corsicana” will thus seem like an about-face. Directed with delicacy and patience by Sam Gold, it steers away from political discourse. Though Justice is writing a treatise on capital, we never hear a word of it; when ideology is discussed it sounds like sharing recipes.The play is nevertheless political, inseparably from its plot. Justice believes that Ginny, who likes to sing, might find something in common with Lot, who aside from making sculpture from trash writes songs from his spontaneous thoughts. But when Christopher approaches him to broker a deal that falls somewhere between babysitting and musical mentorship, it does not go well. He finds a man whose exclusion from society, partly self-imposed and partly not, have made him as forbidding as his (unseen) artworks, which Ginny, when she visits, calls monsters.“Corsicana” sometimes veers too close to the idea that the woman with Down syndrome and the emotionally troubled artist are magic touchstones, with deeper wisdom than others and purer ideals. Ginny has uncanny emotional intelligence, something her brother completely lacks. And unlike Justice, who has ulterior motives, Lot neither shows his work nor seeks to sell it: “Anything I make,” he says, “is a one-way street to God.”But before such moments can cloy, Arbery usefully complicates his case. When crossed, Ginny flounces and says inappropriate things; when upset, Lot goes rigid and sputters and spits. That Ginny very much wants a boyfriend with whom to experience adult pleasure is seen as natural and even wholesome but not without complications. Her erratic path toward happiness, sometimes causing collateral damage, looks a lot like Justice’s. And Christopher’s difficulty integrating a traumatic past into a productive present looks a lot like Lot’s.With so much going on, you can’t say that “Corsicana” — named not for a person or an idea, but a town — has a point. Instead, insofar as it’s a fully imagined world, it has hundreds. (Arbery calls it “an accumulation.”) Watching it, I felt it was about who gets to make art, and for whom. Reading it, I felt it was about how becoming “grown” is, for anyone, a lifelong process of failing upward. Thinking back on it, I feel it was about the way the world tucks beauty inside envelopes of sorrow, and vice versa.And yet I discerned, at an almost cellular level, a particular intention: to show that we all have an equal claim on happiness, if only we know how to stake it. To the extent that the play is autobiographical — Arbery’s sister Julia has Down syndrome — this is no doubt an expression of love. But it is also an effect of Gold’s direction, which feels communal, often placing actors in corners of scenes they aren’t otherwise part of. Even the set, by Laura Jellinek and Cate McCrea, cooperates: two identical living rooms coexisting under one roof.Though I was very moved by all of this, I understand why some theatergoers left at intermission the evening I saw it. At 2 hours and 30 minutes, the play can sometimes seem indulgent; parts of the story feel undigested and perhaps indigestible.Still, Gold and the actors have evidently made sense of it all, which was good enough for me. Brewer, who, like her character, has Down syndrome, is touching and hilarious in a fully realized performance. Surratt, neither caricaturing nor condescending to Lot, is astonishing. And even when Arbery gives Christopher an immensely long aria of self-discovery, and Justice what amounts to a mad scene (if love is madness), Dagger and O’Connell, who is fresh off a Tony Award for “Dana H.,” make it seem like falling off a building headfirst.Or really, heartfirst. Arbery seems to have written “Corsicana” with his internal censors set to their lowest setting, as if he were hoping to make music the way his characters do: for themselves and, as Ginny puts it, “with the door closed.” The tune may be strange and leggy and long, and you have no idea whether it’s funny or sad, but it feels like happiness to overhear it.CorsicanaThrough July 10 at Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan; playwrightshorizons.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. More

  • in

    Molière, Turning 400, Can Still Surprise

    In an anniversary year for the playwright, new productions in the Paris region show why his work still appeals to myriad audiences.PARIS — “I’m in shock,” a teenage boy sitting near me declared when the lights went up on a recent performance of Molière’s “The Forced Marriage” at the Comédie-Française, France’s oldest theater company. “It was really sexual,” one of his schoolmates told her friends on the way out. “It’s not the kind of stuff you should show.”Does Molière, the 17th-century comedy master and doyen of French playwrights, really still have the power to surprise? As France celebrates the 400th anniversary of his birth, a flurry of new productions suggests that he can — and, equally, that his work can easily feel old-fashioned.In both cases, the guilty party isn’t Molière. Wildly different takes on his work have been on show in the Paris region: While the Comédie-Française, whose 2022 program is entirely devoted to Molière, has invested in dark, offbeat productions, “Molière Month,” a yearly theater event run by the city of Versailles, has delivered traditional gowns and breeches, to slightly dull effect.No one could accuse Louis Arene’s version of “The Forced Marriage,” presented on the Comédie-Française’s small Studio stage, of being boring. Sganarelle, the stock central character — a deluded man seeking marriage with a much younger woman — is practically a Beckettian presence early on, looking puzzled on the plain gray stage and muttering lines from other Molière plays. (You could tell the Molière buffs in the audience from the scattered laughs these elicited.)Arene works hard to inject a contemporary sense of absurdity into what is an average play, first presented in 1664 as a three-act comédie-ballet, a hybrid genre combining spoken dialogue with danced and sung scenes, and streamlined into a one-act work four years later. In this production, all the characters are heavily powdered and wear bald caps as well as prosthetics; the size and form of their fake skulls and visible body padding were among the elements drawing cries of disgust from the adolescents in the audience.The five-person cast milks it all, turning standard marriage jokes into ominous physical comedy, verging at times on horror fare. (Vomit and severed body parts are involved.) Gender switches among the main roles, an increasingly frequent device on France’s stages, convincingly heighten the weirdness: In addition to Julie Sicard, who is barely recognizable as Sganarelle, Arene has cast Christian Hecq, a bald, 58-year-old character actor, as Dorimène, the young woman Sganarelle seeks to marry.Hecq doesn’t go for cheap laughs; on the contrary, he is serious and quite sensual as Dorimène. While Molière’s female characters typically resist fiercely when asked to wed suitors they don’t like, Dorimène actually isn’t against the marriage, seeing an opportunity to get rich and reunite with her lover once Sganarelle is dead. (Ultimately, Sganarelle backs out because he fears being a cuckold.)From left, Françoise Gillard, Christian Hecq and Clément Hervieu-Léger in “The Bourgeois Gentleman.”Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho via Getty ImagesSimultaneously, Hecq has been present on the Comédie-Française’s main stage in a very different capacity, as the co-director of a stunning staging of Molière’s “The Bourgeois Gentleman” with his partner, Valérie Lesort, in which he stars as Monsieur Jourdain, the would-be gentleman. (It means that on some days, Hecq leaves Dorimène behind at 7:30 p.m., slips into Monsieur Jourdain’s costume and steps onto a different stage an hour later.)“The Bourgeois Gentleman” arguably cements Hecq’s place as one of the Comédie-Française’s most category-defying and valuable artists. With his gruff voice, small frame and clownlike gift for physical exaggeration, he could easily have been typecast as a commedia dell’arte servant. Yet his emotional range — willing to be thoroughly ridiculed one second, the picture of relatable heartbreak the next — is evident in his Monsieur Jourdain, the clueless bourgeois who wants nothing more than to be accepted as an aristocrat.And together with Lesort, he has emerged as part of a duo of stage magicians, deploying old-fashioned tricks and visual imagination. In “The Bourgeois Gentleman,” that means flying swords, a life-size embroidered elephant and animated goat heads that sway to one of the songs. Since this play also started life as a comédie-ballet, the original score, by Lully, has been revisited here by Mich Ochowiak and Ivica Bogdanic, in a vigorous style inspired by Balkan music. The costumes, by Vanessa Sannino, are luxuriously eccentric: Françoise Gillard, in the role of a marchioness, looks like a fabulous golden beehive.“The Bourgeois Gentleman” and “The Forced Marriage” each steer Molière toward crepuscular absurdity. Like Ivo van Hove’s “Tartuffe,” which opened the Comédie-Française’s Molière extravaganza in January, both productions are mostly designed in shades of gray or black, a departure from the colorful palette that is customary for the playwright’s comedies.This monochromatic approach helps the Comédie-Française orient itself toward the contemporary even as it celebrates its founding father — something that does not seem to concern Versailles’s “Molière Month,” a likable event founded in 1996. Many of its performances, staged around the town outside Paris where Molière presented a number of his plays to Louis XIV, are free, and feature a mix of professional actors and amateurs.As a result, the quality varies significantly. A staging of “The Impostures of Scapin,” directed by Carlo Boso and starring first-year theater students, drew many families with children to a local park on a sunny Sunday afternoon, though the laughs were few and far between. The fact that a number of roles were played in Italian didn’t help, although the result was easy enough to follow. The audience reacted more readily to anachronistic jokes — like a reference to the film “Titanic” — than to Molière’s lines.Laurent Paolini as Molière in Anthony Magnier’s “The Versailles Impromptu.”Marc-Olivier Carion/City of VersaillesThat wasn’t surprising, since Molière’s gallery of stock characters, heavily influenced by commedia dell’arte, was of its time, despite some innovations and the social commentary he wove into many plays. The opening production of the “Molière Month,” performed outdoors in a courtyard opposite the palace of Versailles, fared better. The director, Anthony Magnier, opted to stage “The Versailles Impromptu,” a rarely seen 1663 play that is cheekily autobiographical.The main character is Molière himself, struggling to put together a show with his reluctant actors. They play was written as a response to his critics, and is difficult to render today, with its parody of a rival company’s actors, which presumably had greater resonance in the 17th century.In a post-show speech, Magnier said the cast had rehearsed the show in just nine days, and it acquitted itself well, with Elisa Benizio a vivid highlight. “The Versailles Impromptu” allowed the text to take center stage, with assorted period costumes and next to no props and sets, yet the play itself didn’t feel especially enlightening or satisfying.On the other hand, when Molière is treated merely as the canvas for a director’s vision, as in some of the Comédie-Française’s productions this year, the inner logic and wit of his dialogue don’t always survive. Does it matter? Perhaps Molière’s true triumph is that four centuries on, his work remains malleable enough to appeal to radically different crowds.Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Directed by Christian Hecq and Valérie Lesort. Comédie-Française, through July 21.Le Mariage Forcé. Directed by Louis Arene. Comédie-Française, through July 3.Mois Molière. Versailles, various venues through June 30. More

  • in

    At 52, Mabou Mines Is Still Testing Boundaries

    A three-day retrospective will shine a spotlight on the group’s most daring projects.The word “crazy” comes up fairly regularly when talking to people about the Mabou Mines theater company.Take one of Sharon Ann Fogarty’s early experiences with that fabled group — nine years before she became one of its co-artistic directors. It was on “Mabou Mines Lear,” a gender-reversed production of “King Lear” — not obvious back in 1990 — that was directed by Lee Breuer and starred Ruth Maleczech as the monarch.“The opening scene had dogs and all these kiddos so my job was to pick the kids up around five o’clock, drive them over, do the scene and drive them back,” Fogarty, now 65, said. “Then I would come back, and I was doing various other parts. One of them was holding down Isabell Monk while Honora Fergusson gouged her eyes out. It was kind of a crazy, crazy time,” she continued, “but it was really fun.”Starting Thursday, Mabou Mines is celebrating 50 years of theatrical experimentation with a three-day megamix, a retrospective of some of its most notorious, daring, beloved, memorable or, yes, craziest projects. (The company is actually 52 years old but the celebration was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.) The works will include live readings, concerts and films, in conjunction with a companion exhibition of archival material, at the Mabou Mines home in the 122 Community Center, in the East Village, where the group settled in 2017 after decades of a peripatetic existence.The 1990 staging of “Mabou Mines Lear,” a gender-reversed production of “King Lear,” featured, from left: Kandel, Ruth Maleczech and Greg Mehrten.Michael CooperThe performing arts, by definition, exist in the moment, so mounting a greatest-hits package — especially of an Off Off Broadway company — is a daunting task. Mabou Mines got the idea for its extended birthday party after a founding member, JoAnne Akalaitis, spearheaded a 12-hour tribute to the playwright María Irene Fornés at the Public Theater in 2018. “So when we came to talk about Mabou Mines’s 50th, JoAnne said, ‘Why don’t we just do a marathon of all the pieces?’” Fogarty recalled.This would have been more than 60 works, so they settled on 31. “Some are going to be excerpts, some are going to be full, some are just going to be the music,” Fogarty said. “Some of them are an hour, or you get 15 minutes, like a juicy scene or something.”The programs will bring former company members back to the fold, along with simpatico guests such as Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel, who will perform Franz Xaver Kroetz’s “Through the Leaves,” produced by Mabou Mines in 1984, on Thursday. The following day Akalaitis will direct David Greenspan, Ellen McLaughlin and Ellen McElduff, a former company member, in Samuel Beckett’s “Play,” which Mabou Mines staged in 1971.The time machine will travel all the way back to Mabou Mines’s first project, “The Red Horse Animation” (1970), which was conceived during a retreat in the isolated Nova Scotia town that gave the company its name. On Saturday, Akalaitis — who was in the original production — will reprise it alongside a pair of first-generation Mabou heirs: the writer, director and actress Clove Galilee, who is Breuer and Maleczech’s daughter, and the choreographer David Neumann, the son of the Mabou members Fergusson and Frederick Neumann, who died in 2012. (Akalaitis’s then-husband, Philip Glass, another founding member, wrote the music.)Tight family bonds have always been part of the Mabou Mines matrix — the group, born out of the experimentations of the 1960s, blurred the personal, the artistic and the political. Akalaitis, 84, recalls that the children of company members tagged along on tour in the 1970s and babysitters were in the line budgets for rehearsals — an afterthought for many current theaters.A still from “Moi-Même,” a movie that some of the Mabou Mines artists shot in Paris in 1968 and 1969 but never finished. It will be shown this weekend as a work-in-progress backed by a live band.John Rounds“Looking back, it was based on a very sound socialist principle that we are all equal and we all get paid the same amount of money, whether we’re working or not,” she said of the company’s precepts. “And when there was no money, there was no money — there wasn’t money for some.”Breuer, who died last year, had quickly emerged as a dominant personality, and he directed some of the troupe’s most famous shows, such as “Peter and Wendy” (the story of Peter Pan told by a solo actress and puppets, in 1997) and “Mabou Mines Dollhouse” (Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” with the men played by actors under 5 feet tall and the women by actresses who were nearly 6 feet, in 2003).At the same time the company embraced decision-making by consensus, which did not necessarily help speed things along. “Consensus building is very, very hard but I also think it’s the only way to do it,” Akalaitis said. “If you have a group of people who basically have big egos and don’t want someone else to be the boss, the only way to do it is that everyone’s the boss.”Even now, the company split leadership responsibilities among four co-artistic directors: Fogarty, Karen Kandel, Mallory Catlett and Carl Hancock Rux.The major reason Mabou Mines has endured for a half-century is that it has always drawn like-minded people who thrived on experimentation. Kandel remembered her first experience with the company, working on “Mabou Mines Lear” with Breuer and Maleczech. “There was a kind of trust that whoever was doing whatever role, you would find your way there,” Kandel, 69, said in a video conversation.Clockwise from top left, Fogarty, Rux, Kandel and Catlett. The shared leadership model, the co-founding member JoAnne Akalaitis, said, “was based on a very sound socialist principle that we are all equal.” Krista Schlueter for The New York Times“There was the shy me and then there was the thing inside of me, and that’s what Lee wanted to see come out,” she continued. “One time I said, ‘Why am I going to climb up this telephone pole?’ Lee’s response was something like, ‘Don’t ask me those questions, that Stanislavski [expletive]. Just climb up the pole!’” (Kandel would go on to star in the Mabou hit “Peter and Wendy.”)Past and present are inextricably entwined in “Moi-Même,” a movie directed by Breuer that the artists who would go on to form Mabou Mines (except for Akalaitis and Glass) shot in Paris in 1968 and 1969 but never finished.Breuer’s son Mojo Lorwin retrieved the footage and during the pandemic went over all 16 hours of it with his father on Zoom — there was no script and the dialogue was never dubbed in, so Lorwin, 38, was trying to figure out some sort of through line. “I did the vast majority of the work on it after he died but it really feels like a collaboration because he gave me this stuff to work with, but he left me all this space, too,” he said. “So I’ve written a script, I decided what these things mean.”On Saturday, “Moi-Même” will be presented as a work-in-progress backed by a live band and the Foley artist Jay Peck, with Kandel voicing all the adults and Declan Kenneally all the kids.In a way, it will be a bridge between Mabou Mines’s prehistory and what may lie ahead. “The future will be, hopefully, something that still feels like us,” Kandel said, “but won’t look like us.” More

  • in

    Broadway Will Drop Mask Mandate Beginning July 1

    Broadway theaters will be allowed to drop their mask mandates starting July 1, the Broadway League announced Tuesday.The League described the new policy as “mask optional,” and said it would be re-evaluated monthly.“Our theater owners have been watching the protocols, watching admissions to hospitals, watching as we have no issues across the country where tours are mostly not masked, and they decided it was time to try,” said Charlotte St. Martin, the president of the Broadway League. “This is not an easy decision — there are more people that want masks off than on, but plenty still want them on — and we’re encouraging people that have any concerns to wear their masks.”St. Martin said the theater owners would continue to meet weekly to assess the health situation, and are open to reimposing the mandate if necessary. “We’re going to see how it goes,” she said.Broadway had maintained fairly restrictive audience policies since theaters reopened last summer. The theaters required patrons to show proof of vaccination until April 30, and have continued to require patrons to wear masks except while eating and drinking.Broadway’s public health protocols have taken on an outsize role in the performing arts, as many other institutions have taken their cues from the big theaters. Broadway theaters imposed a vaccine mandate before New York City did the same for restaurants, gyms and other indoor performances, and then maintained their rules long after the city stopped requiring them.Regular reminders to wear masks had been part of the theatergoing experience this season.Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet for The New York TimesMask wearing became part of the theatergoing experience this season: sign-wielding employees walked the aisles reminding patrons of the requirement, and reminders to wear masks were added to the usual preshow announcements about turning off mobile phones and banning photography. When theaters first reopened, some did not sell food and drink to avoid interfering with mask-wearing; the consumption of refreshments now provides a noticeable loophole for those who don’t like wearing masks.Some other performing arts venues, including many Off Broadway theaters, continue to ask for proof of vaccination and to mandate masks, and public transit in New York continues to require masks indoors, although compliance is dropping. But many other corners of society, including domestic air travel, have dropped mask mandates and conditions in the city seem to be improving: Mayor Eric Adams said Tuesday that the city’s Covid-19 alert level had moved from high to medium.There are currently 27 shows running in Broadway’s 41 theaters.The four nonprofit organizations that operate six of the Broadway houses hung onto vaccine mandates longer than the commercial landlords who operate the majority of the theaters. But none of the nonprofits currently has a show running on Broadway, and none plans to resume producing on Broadway until after Labor Day.Roundabout Theater Company, which is scheduled to begin performances of a Broadway revival of “1776” in September, plans to evaluate its protocols monthly, according to a spokeswoman, Jessica Johnson, who said it is too soon to determine the rules for this fall. The nonprofit is continuing to maintain a mask mandate for its current Off Broadway shows.The other nonprofits operating on Broadway, which plan to start shows in the fall, said it was too soon to know what their safety protocols would be then.Public reaction to the mask-optional policy was, predictably, polarized, with some cheering what they saw as an overdue step, and others ruing a retreat they viewed as reckless.Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, a frequent Broadway theatergoer as a Tony voter and professor of theater studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said he would continue to wear a mask while seeing shows. “It’s important, when you have people packed that tightly together, to control the flow of airborne germs at a time when we don’t know what the long-term effect of Covid is going to be,” he said. More

  • in

    Tony-Winning ‘Company’ Revival Will End Broadway Run July 31

    Despite picking up 5 prizes at this month’s Tony Awards, the Sondheim-blessed revival was facing a tough summer at the box office.A Tony-winning, gender-swapped, Sondheim-blessed revival of “Company” will end its Broadway run on July 31.The production, directed by Marianne Elliott, has been noteworthy for the ways in which it inverts the 1970 original. The pathbreaking musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by George Furth, has always been about a single person turning 35 while surrounded by paired-off friends, but in the current production that character is a woman named Bobbie, whereas in previous productions it was a man named Bobby.The show was the winningest musical at this month’s Tony Awards, picking up the prizes for best musical revival, best director (Elliott), best featured actress (Patti LuPone), best featured actor (Matt Doyle) and best scenic design (Bunny Christie). But its sales have been decent, rather than outstanding, and the lead producer, Chris Harper, said he had decided now was the time to wrap up.“Listen: It’s no secret to you or anyone else — it’s tough out there, and summer was going to be hard and September even harder,” Harper said in an interview. “I wanted to celebrate the final six weeks and go out on a high.”Harper said it was too early to say whether the revival, which was capitalized for up to $13 million, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, would recoup its costs. The show, like many others, received $10 million in federal assistance from the Small Business Administration during the pandemic. It grossed $640,297 during the week ending June 12, playing to houses that were 74 percent full.Harper said the show is planning a North American tour to start in the fall of 2023.“It’s been glorious, and I feel so completely proud of the production,” he said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do a Sondheim in a radically new way, and to have him be so proud of it was amazing. So this is sad, but it’s also a moment to celebrate what it has achieved.”The revival, starring Katrina Lenk, began previews on March 2, 2020, and then 10 days later was forced to shut down, along with the rest of Broadway, because of the coronavirus pandemic. It resumed previews on Nov. 15, 2021, and Sondheim attended that performance; he died 11 days later, at the age of 91; in a final interview, he expressed unfettered enthusiasm for the production.The revival finally opened on Dec. 9, 2021; at the time of its closing it will have played 300 performances.The production, conceived by Elliott, began its life in London, where it won the Olivier Award for best musical revival. LuPone, a beloved Broadway figure who plays an alcohol-addled older friend to Bobbie, also appeared in the London production, and her rendition of the classic “The Ladies Who Lunch” song on both sides of the Atlantic was a highlight. Doyle, who joined the cast in New York, plays a groom with wedding day jitters and sings another well-known Sondheim song, “Getting Married Today”; in the original, that song was sung by the bride-to-be in a heterosexual couple, but in this revival the couple is same-sex.“Company” is the fourth Broadway show this month to announce an unanticipated closing, following “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Tina” and “Come From Away.” More