MCC’s Space Dogs on BroadwayHD

Over the last few years in particular, streaming theater has developed into a genuine and distinct art form.  Done right, it marries the excitement of attending a singular event in person with a profound level of intimacy.  Many shows have traveled well from one medium to the other.  Some — like MCC’s Space Dogs — are arguably even better viewed up close and personal.

Developed and performed by actors/musicians Van Hughes and Nick Blaemire, Space Dogs covers in impressive detail the story behind the early days of the Space Race.  In order to learn the effects of lower gravity and increased radiation on life, Russia’s Sputnik program took 40 stray dogs off the streets of Moscow and used them for testing.  The most famous of these is Laika, who was the first animal to orbit the Earth.  But Space Dogs takes great care to honor each and every one of these four-legged heroines.  (Yes, they were all female.)

Anyone familiar with Laika’s story will be aware that this tale doesn’t have a happy ending.  However, there is still a great deal of joy to be experienced throughout the show’s 90 minute running time.  Against a six paneled projection wall designed by Stefania Bulbarella and Alex Basco Koch, the good-natured and talented duo guided by stage director Ellie Heyman fly through dozens of roles with high-energy and knowing winks.  Among his line-up, Blaemire gives gentle voice to Laika, an unwitting participant to scientific history. And as part of his array, Hughes takes on the role of Sergei Korolev, known contemporaneously only as The Chief Designer, portraying him as a man torn between his compassion for his trusting “volunteer” and the hectic pace and lack of funds imposed on him by Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet State.  The dogs are wonderfully represented by malleable stuffed animals that have been given tremendous personality by creator Amanda Villalobos.  

The actors employ cameras and use miniatures and green screen in order to bring the audience into sections of their small scale fuzzy world.  It is these techniques that allow Joe Lukawski, who directed the production for the screen, to more easily expand the audience to include those of us from home.  Footage from the four main cameras in the theater are fluidly mixed with the direct feeds already integrated into the performance.  This level of rapport with our storytellers is a perfect match for a script built around secrets.  And the simple technical effects and stripped down props fit this unique lens.

Van Hughes, Little Gnat, Laika, and Nick Blaemire in MCC Theater’s 2022 production of SPACE DOGS; Photo by Daniel J Vasquez

Based on classified documents that were only released in 2002, the story of political intrigue — AND DOGS — is clear and enlivened with humor, making it appropriate for older children as well as adults.  The varied score with intricate lyrics incorporates rock, electronic dance, rap and ballads.  “A Brief History of Dogs” loudly celebrates those special supporting characters.  “Fill the Void” creates an enveloping soundscape worthy of outer space travel.  And “Fuzziest Loneliest” sung from Laika’s point of view presents a particularly poignant moment.  A taste of the full cast album is still available at https://mcctheater.org/tix/space-dogs/.

A thoroughly gratifying and impactful entry to the BroadwayHD library, Space Dogs manages to be not only informative but playful, and not just because of the dogs.  It can also serve to introduce a world wide audience to the marvelous MCC, one of New York’s leading nonprofit Off-Broadway companies.  Captured live in MCC’s Susan and Ronald Frankel Theater and available exclusively to BHD subscribers, this production was made possible through a collaboration with HMS Media.  The holiday rate of $99.99 for a full year of membership is available through December 8 ($129 after that date.) Visit https://www.broadwayhd.com for more information.

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Mr. Saturday Night on BroadwayHD

Launched in 2015 by veteran producers Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley, the intention of online platform BroadwayHD is to replicate the Broadway experience for those who do not have access to the Great White Way.  Added to initial listings like She Loves Me are now hundreds of shows including family favorites like Kinky Boots and classics from the Royal Shakespeare Company.  The service provides a comfortable entry for those who don’t want to gamble $125 per person to introduce family members to the theater as an entertainment option.

Their latest addition is Mr. Saturday Night, a musical comedy starring the always amiable Billy Crystal who also serves as Executive Producer.  Filmed live at the Nederlander Theater on August 31, 2022, the production is based on Crystal’s self-directed 1992 movie of the same name.  It follows the career of Buddy Young Jr., a fictional Borscht Belt comedian who rose to stardom hosting a Saturday evening television variety show.  His reputation in tatters after an on-air incident, he is now performing before disengaged nursing home residents.  But his mistaken inclusion in the “In Memoriam” portion of the Emmy’s brings him much needed attention from a surprising source.

Whether this offering leaves you kvelling or plotzing will depend in large part on the level of admiration you hold for classic comics such as Phil Silvers, Totie Fields and Buddy Hackett.  (Thanks to YouTube, this admiration needn’t be restricted to those of a certain age.)  The revised script by Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel doesn’t solve the problem of the original film and Buddy remains a character that is hard to like much less root for.  However, Mr. Crystal’s live performance allows the audience to bathe in his suburb timing and delivery.  In his hands, even the broadest of jokes makes it easy to admire the craft even if it’s not your preferred style of humor.  It should be noted that some of the material is quite blue and may not be suitable for younger family members. 

Crystal has surrounded himself with a terrific, energetic cast.  Shoshana Bean lends her soaring expressive voice to the role of Buddy’s struggling daughter, Susan, while Randy Graff brings deep dimension to Buddy’s loyal-to-a-fault wife Elaine.  The reliable David Paymer reprises his Oscar nominated performance in the more stereotypical role of jealous brother, Stan.  Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales, and Mylinda Hull do a lot of heavy lifting playing several roles apiece and giving variation to each.  While the charming Chasten Harmon overflows with warmth as Annie Wells, a young and exuberant agent trying to help Buddy rise again.  In a wonderful twist on the original casting, the adults play their teenage selves.

The company of Mr. Saturday Night; photo by Matthew Murphy

As is true with most streaming productions, the show has two directors.  Tony winner John Rando handled the stage production and Matthew Diamond translated it for the home screen.  Sometimes presenting camera angles that would not be seen by a live audience, Diamond— who previously directed The Wiz Live for NBC — employs a style more similar to a television show than a recreation of a theatrical experience.  But this is a musical that relies more on exchanges among two or three characters and less on big production numbers.  Clever projections by Jeff Sugg that enhance a set designed by Scott Pask are well incorporated by the camera work.  And Diamond’s more intimate framing allows home viewers to observes details such as the framed photo of Crystal and his Comic Relief cohorts on the walls of the Friar’s Club set as well as enjoy the moving facial expressions of the entire ensemble.  There are also moments when the live audience is included in a shot and their enthusiastic responses are contagious.  Putting the end credits over individual actor’s faces is a nice touch.  Uptempo music by Jason Robert Brown with lyrics by Amanda Green supply enjoyable interludes in the storytelling.  The players’ annunciation is excellent, but there are easy-to-read captions available.

Though modestly produced by Broadway standards, Mr. Saturday Night is lifted by Billy Crystal’s generally appealing performance.  And the central theme of second chances is given unusual spin.  Runtime is two and a half hours, though Act II is clearly marked if you need a stretch break.  Exclusive to BroadwayHD subscribers, this production was made possible by a special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures.  Visit https://www.broadwayhd.com to sign up for a special holiday offer of $99.99 for one year (available through December 8) or dip your toe in their stream for $11.99 a month.  The fees make it possible to offer the entire catalogue ad and interruption free.

Detroit 67 – Fayetteville, AR and Streaming

Playwright and MacArthur “Genius” Dominique Morisseau can weave a richer story with a handful of characters than most people can tell with a cast of dozens.  This makes her a great match for TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, Arkansas: a small space with a worldly audience.  Set against the backdrop of the historic bloody clash between the Detroit police and Black residents, their current production of Morisseau ’s Detroit 67 is all too current in its themes.  To bring in some extra cash, Lank and his sister Chelle are running an off-licensed after-hours bar in their basement.  It is similar to the one that was violently raided by police, sparking five days of rioting that ended in over 40 deaths and thousands of arrests.  As in the play, then-governor Romney had to call in the National Guard and President Johnson provided two army divisions to restore peace.  

Though Morisseau keeps the action confined to the siblings’ basement, she uses exposition sparingly and instead explores the social and emotional impact of the turmoil outside through well-drawn relationships.  We learn that though they are close, Chelle (a simmering Devereau Chumrau) and Lank (Tenisi Davis moving fluidly between tenderness and fury) have conflicting opinions about how to use their small inheritance.  Lank is encouraged in his riskier plan by his close friend Sly (smooth Christopher Alexander Chukwueke).  But his downgrading of the safety net provided by family and friends is challenged by Caroline (pixyish Jenna Krasowski), a young white woman who literally stumbles into his life.  The quintet is rounded out by Bunny (crowd favorite Na’Tosha De’Von), who relishes all  that life brings her way.  Through this battle between dreaming big and playing it safe, Morisseau tells a story that covers race, class, and the lies of the American Dream in a deeply personal and genuine way.  

Christopher Alexander Chukwueke, Devereau Chumrau, Na’Tosha De’Von and Tenisi Davis; photo by Wesley Hitt

Well-timed comebacks and the use of uplifting Motown tunes provide light around the shadows.  The songs of the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and others form a bridge between the characters and the audience and momentarily erase all barriers.  It is the soundtrack of a particular time and place, but also a connector to our world.

The staging by director Dexter J. Singleton is somewhat constrained by Baron Pugh’s detail-oriented set.  Look closely at the walls, and Chelle’s and Lank’s childhoods envelop them.  The essential bar, worn furniture, and decor lend an appropriate hemmed-in vibe to the action.  Costume designer Azalea Fairley visually differentiates the characters, giving Bunny bold prints and highest heels, dressing Chelle in muted tones and flats, and displaying Caroline’s petite curves in Chelle’s cast-offs.  Sound design by Bill Toles expands on the wondrous playlist.

I deeply appreciate the considerate and inclusive opportunity TheatreSquare provides to participate in their varied season.  Their modest four-camera set-up always provides an engaging home experience complete with a warm welcome from their staff and volunteers.  Each streaming pass is good for 24 hours.  The instructions are easy to execute and the recording is of above-average quality. 

As the first piece in Morisseau’s Detroit Project, Detroit ’67 is a thrilling introduction to her potent work.  It is available on-stage and via streaming through Sunday, November 6.  Runtime is approximately 2 ½ hours including intermission.  Tickets are available at https://tix.theatre2.org/events and range from $37-$57 for the live show at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville and $25-$35 for individual and household streaming passes.

Lynn Nottage on Mlima’s Tale

Playwright Lynn Nottage is seemingly everywhere.  Her wide appeal and astonishing tonal range stretch from the gut-wrenching Ruined to the broad humor of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.  Two of her plays — Clyde’s and Sweat — are among the ten most produced of this year’s season.  The operatic version of her drama, Intimate Apparel, for which she wrote the libretto, is currently on PBS as part of their Great Performances series.  And she wrote the book for the Michael Jackson jukebox musical, MJ, now playing on Broadway. Her long reach is made possible in part by a form of self-care.  She gives herself a mental break from covering thornier issues by simultaneously writing a comedy.  

Last Thursday in an evening co-presented by the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn and Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner sat down for her first conversation with Damon Tabor.  The investigative journalist wrote an article, “The Ivory Highway,” that inspired her play Mlima’s Tale.  He had tracked the intertwined entities responsible for the horrendous international ivory trade.  Offenders include poachers, smugglers and all-too-knowing buyers.  Moved by what she read in his piece, Nottage buried herself in research. It revealed a genuine possibility of a world without elephants and she felt the need to sound an alarm.  She educated herself about the communication style of elephants, especially their deeply social nature.  Eventually she developed a story from the viewpoint of a rare big-tusker, beginning with his murder and following the trail through all of those who were complicit in his death.  She named him Mlima, Swahili for mountain.

The script is structured as a series of one-on-one conversations illustrating the chain as Mlima’s tusks move from one possessor to the next.  Always one for putting a face on an issue, Nottage had the lead character of Mlima portrayed by a human actor.  This enabled her to let him more easily communicate to the audience and bring his emotions fully into the room.  Rather than using the traditional approach of hiring the production crew after the cast had begun their work, Nottage brought the entire team together from day one, resulting in a more cohesive artistic statement.  Oscar winning director, Kathryn Bigelow, brought her genuine outrage and big picture thinking to the initial run-throughs.  The impactful concept of having Mlima physically leave his mark on all the perpetrators by smearing them in white came from costume designer Jennifer Moeller. 

Mlima’s Tale, was nominated by the Outer Critics Circle in several categories when New York’s Public Theater presented the world premiere in 2018 under the direction of Jo Bonney.  The book can be purchased here: https://shop.aer.io/tcg/p/Mlimas_Tale/9781559369114-9511. Performances are currently playing at 1st Stage in Tysons, Virginia and due to open soon at the Arsht Center in Miami, Florida.  Productions are also being prepared internationally, though significantly not in China where the ivory trade still flourishes.

Image: Ito Aghayere, Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo in the 2018 World Premiere of Mlima’s Tale.  © Joan Marcus.

A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored – Live Stream

January 6th will never again be just a date, but rather an historic occurrence.  Some consider what happened in 2021 to be the most serious attack against democracy.  Others saw brave patriots who took action when they felt those same institutions had betrayed them and their leader.  A third group finds the entire episode to be just so much more political blah-blah-blah that has nothing to do with them.  All of these viewpoints are presented by the unreliable narrator and sole character in Roland Tec’s A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored, a live Zoom-based theatrical event.

A ticket to this happening comes with precise instructions.  We have volunteered for a citizen panel.  Check-in is at 7:45 PM and while the piece will conclude by 9:00PM we are requested to stay for “processing”.  In order to participate fully, we will keep our cameras and microphones on and wear headphones to eliminate extraneous noise.  (I further recommend using the Full Screen mode and Do Not Disturb to block out any notifications.)  After hearing his story, our judgement of “the subject” will be legally binding.

Roland Tec is The Subject in A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored

These directions set the expectation for a serious and intense engagement with the solitary character, Benj.  Eery music and distant voices that we hear upon entry only heighten the mood.  As portrayed by writer Tec, Benj is an attempt to create an Everyman in what is becoming the everyday experience of many.  Shot at a slight diagonal, this man clearly needs to clean house in all the meanings of that phrase.   His headphones are askew and there’s a ladder and a towel behind him hinting at a mess beyond.  COVID has kept him home alone more than at any time in his life.  Most of his news is delivered through social media.  New connections are only made online, where it is often hard to tell who is genuine and who is a bot.  The valley has never been more uncanny than in Benj’s landscape.

As directed by Leigh Strimbeck, Benj speaks in a manner that alternates between rushed and halting.  He shares his circumstances just before and shortly after the actions that took place on January 6th, with asides that give insight into his personal life. How deeply you are touched will depend on how well you are managing your own feelings.  

The distractions are many.  Chat has been left open, which allows for some important intervention but also unnecessary prattle.  One of the disadvantages of conversations over Zoom is that the highlighted speaker is the loudest instead of the most important.  With over 30 microphones open, those featured including a man with a persistent cough, a woman making clattering noises, and several very personal laughs.  Perhaps this is meant as a metaphor for how easily our attention is diverted from discomfort.  How deeply can we ever react to something on a screen?  But there is no question that the technical set-up made it difficult to remain fully absorbed in what we had been told was a civic duty.  

The section that leaves a lasting impression is the post show discussion, which on the night I attended was led by retired psychologist Henry “Hank” Greenspan, a playwright/historian whose work focuses on survivors of genocide.  Our audience was less invested in whether Benj should suffer any consequence than in finding productive outlets for their own grief and discouragement.  Reactions were only partially to the play and the rest to very real life.  One woman pointed out that her feelings are not nagging at all, but in her face screaming 24/7.  

That a short work like A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored could bring forth that level of emotion at this time of perpetual overwhelm is noteworthy.  And while there are problems with Zoom, it does allow for sharing of the work across the country.  There is one more scheduled opportunity to be a witness on Wednesday, September 7, at 8PM.  Tickets are $22.50 and can be purchases on Eventbrite at  https://www.eventbrite.com/e/302460416247.

Lavender Men – Los Angeles and Streaming

Taffeta, one of three characters in Lavender Men, describes what we are about to see as a “fantasia”.  The piece explores a personal chapter in the life of Abraham Lincoln as filtered through the mind — indeed the entire body — of playwright Roger Q. Mason.  In 1860, Lincoln mentored a young law clerk, Elmer Ellsworth.  Ellsworth went on to help Lincoln campaign for president.  He eventually made history of his own when he became the first Union casualty of the American Civil War, killed while removing a large Confederate flag from the rooftop of a Virginia inn.  That the men admired each other and became good friends is well documented.  In Lavender Men, Mason speculates that the two meant much more to one another.

The fast moving script, developed in Skylight Theater Company’s resident playwrights lab, covers many themes and styles.  Taffeta proposes that she take Abe and Elmer back in time to reexamine their relationship.  She will take on the role of “everyone else” including a young soldier, a cleaning woman, Mary Todd Lincoln and even a tree near a swimming hole.  Black, large, boisterous, and proudly queer, she is everything the two men are not, opening up plenty of space for conversation about oppressed voices throughout our history.  Themes of body image issues and social biases are explored, though the main plot always returns to a heartfelt love story.  

The play works best when it is self-aware such as when a character questions what is currently being taught in classrooms.  Mason seems to be using personal experience to deepen the emotions of the storytelling, which also makes the viewpoint very specific.  Their haunting voices literally make themselves heard in Taffeta’s ears.  The work does an admirable job of showing the imperfections of Lincoln’s legacy, but there are missed opportunities to connect those events more tightly to today’s political and social climate, particularly as that relates to Lincoln’s own party.  

Director Lovell Holder, who has been attached to the production since a reading at New York’s Circle in the Square, has brought out an intensity in all three actors.  His staging makes great use of a relatively small space and every speck of furniture.  The company has wisely hired Seth Dorcey to direct and edit the streaming version so that the flow translates for home viewers and harnesses the power of the enthusiastic live audience.  The set designed by Stephen Gifford uses a wardrobe as the main doorway so that Abe and Elmer literally go into and out of the closet throughout.  The backdrop includes some wonderful detail — a photo of Frederick Douglas, a paste-up of Lincoln — but nothing that distracts from the terrific performances.  Like a proper fantasia, there is original music by David Gonzalez which smooths the transitions ranging from burlesque to gravitas with cello played by John Swihart.  The shifts in mood are further supported by Dan Weingarten’s atmospheric lighting. Erin Bednarz’s sound design also incorporates some well-timed gun shots.  

Pete Ploszek, Alex Esola, and Roger Q. Mason; Photo credit Jenny Graham

Swirling in Wendell Carmichael’s glorious skirts and bonnets, playwright Mason portrays their unique creation, Taffeta, as bold yet self critical, wise, but with lessons to learn.  The chemistry between Pete Ploszek’s Abe and Alex Esola’s Elmer is electric.  The two maintain connection as they move through time — now, then and never — while manage Taffeta’s coaxing, interfering, and micromanagement.  This renders the tightly choreographed slo-mo love scene superfluous and, with Taffeta as a witness, cheapens what had felt genuine.  

Lavender Men is an engaging and emotionally charged look at pages from history you think you know.  It is currently playing at the Skylight Theater at 1816 1/2 North Vermont Ave in Los Angeles.  It is also available On Demand which is how I was able to enjoy it in New York City.  Run time is 95 minutes with no intermission.  Seats for the live show are $23 – $80.  Showtimes are Saturday 8:30pm, Sunday 3:00pm, and Monday 7:30pm.  The virtual experience is $28.75 for a secure link good for 72 hours.  Tickets through September 4 are available at https://skylighttheatre.org/program-lavender-men/.

Cymbeline – FREE in NYC

For its 23rd season, New York Classical Theatre has chosen Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.  This inventive, lively company is the perfect troupe to take on a work that even Will’s Mum likely thought a headache.  Equal parts comedy, tragedy, romance, and fairytale, the work has a cast of nearly 40 and spans multiple locations.  With a wink and a smile, NY Classical’s jovial band of seven actors skillfully tackles the Everest-high pile of coincidences and present an evening of pure enjoyment. 

The group’s signature style includes traditional staging from the 19th century and the use of New York City parks as a natural backdrop.  In years past, viewers would physically move with the actors as the scene changed.  This year, the city has requested that a single area be used in each location, but the action is staged so that the audience remains the focus of attention. Costumes are minimal with a simple hat or cloak often distinguishing between multiple characters.  (Thanks to designer Sabrinna Fabi, Queen looks as if she shaved the neighbor’s cat to trim her dress, which befits her character.)  Lighting is provided by stagehands holding common flashlights; all the better to focus on engagement and storytelling.

I will not recount the sprawling tale of Cymbeline, which isn’t even about that king so much as his feisty daughter, Imogen.  A read through the dramaturgical notes provided on the website and via email is highly recommended for your enhanced enjoyment of the production.   Even if you do not heed this advice, the cast will give you a helping hand in their concise introduction to the evening, which also sets proper expectations and tone.

Artistic Director/Director Stephen Burdman has wonderfully edited the dialogue and uses each space to full advantage.  Fight scenes are amusingly choreographed by Sean Michael Chin and punctuated with Batman-like sound effects.  Oft-tangled pun-filled lines are delivered with clarity and wit.  Moments that could have been groan-inducing are transformed into delightful farce, as if we and the actors are together chuckling behind Shakespeare’s back.  Evan Moore-Coll is a standout in his four roles including the juicy part of Cloten the clod.  Also pivotal to success is Terrell Wheeler, who undergoes several hot changes between a kindly servant (Pisanio) and a powerful warrior (Caius Lucius).  He makes an imposing contrast to the slight Nick Salamone as the easily manipulated Cymbeline.  Holding the heart of the story as Imogen is an elegant and fiery Aziza Gharib, who also appears as Jupiter in one of the plot’s more outrageous moments.  Brandon Burk, Christian Ryan, and Jenny Strassburg complete the strong company.

Attendance on the Circle Lawn in Carl Schurz (enter at 87th and East End Avenue) is limited to 200 people.  Reservations are recommended in large part so you will receive helpful information including notice of a rain cancelation.  If you do not regularly attend a yoga class, I recommend bringing a short beach chair.  (Taller chairs are permitted, but you will be seated to the side.)  The logistics are described well on the company’s website.  

Above all, this entrance into N Y Classical’s line-up reminds us that sometimes Shakespeare can be FUN!  The strangled twists of Cymbeline are in support of an all-is-well ending that is sorely needed at this time.  Performances continue in Carl Schurz Park in Manhattan through Sunday, July 3, and then move to Brooklyn Commons Park at MetroTech from July 5 through 10.  Tickets are FREE to encourage every theater goer with a pulse to come out and enjoy the show.  Donations to support the professional actors are highly encouraged.  Visit https://nyclassical.org/cymbeline for further information.

The Orchard – NYC and Live Stream

Long before Joni Mitchell decried the paving of paradise to put up a parking lot, Anton Chekhov’s emotionally paralyzed Ranevskaya family auctioned off their cherished cherry orchard to make way for summer homes. His last play, The Cherry Orchard, centers on Madame Lyubov who is hopelessly in debt after years of living in Paris.  She and her daughters have returned to their estate for one last party and it is only then that they reflect on the once-prized fruit trees that will be chopped down to make way for modernization.  Like many of Chekhov’s works, there is a sense that happier alternatives have simply slipped out of reach.  

In Arlekin’s (zero-G) imaginative retelling, The Orchard, the work is simultaneously performed live and streamed to a global audience.  Typically, live streams have been made available because there was no audience permitted at the theater or it was presented in a way meant to simulate as closely as possible the live experience.  This is the first theatrical piece I’ve seen that deliberately gives those watching from home a different experience from those seated at the venue. 

While it is simply wonderful to make this production available worldwide and Ukrainian director Igor Golyak has unique experience using virtual reality to enhance traditional theater, it seems unnecessary to have augmented this particular work with an interactive component. The video-game-like curtain-raiser features various rooms of the house containing Mikhail Baryshnikov as Chekhov reading some the author’s more personal words in the original Russian.  Much of the interaction during the play involves being able to select something other than the main camera, though the few times I switched to another unit, it wasn’t revealing so much as disorienting.  And it was impossible to avoid FOMO when just before the auction of the property — during which the audience makes non-binding bids with proceeds going to support the company — the home audience was addressed directly by matriarch Lyubov Ranevskaya while a completely different scene was taking place on stage.

Furthermore, the production is straight-up terrific and needs no embellishment.  Golyak, whose homeland is currently undergoing life changing destruction and loss, has harnessed those feelings of disconnection and grief and made additions to the work that are engaging and meaningful.  The elegant script was translated by Carol Rocamora, who preserves the poetry while tightening the storyline and punching up the more farcical elements.  On scenic designer  Anna Fedorova’s all-blue stage, blossoms litter the floor and even the nursery room teddy bear and hobby horse appear melancholy.  The backdrop envelops the players in dramatic projections by Alex Basco Koch, including lines of dialogue, stars and planets, and the faces of the enraptured audience. The onstage robotics by Tom Sepe lend an eery futuristic and fatalistic feel to the tale.  

Denisova, Hecht, Brett and Nelson in The Orchard; photo by Maria Baranova

The cast is led by the sublime Jessica Hecht, who gives Ranevskaya’s delicacy meaning and tenderness.  Baryshnikov appears again as Firs, the faithful older servant.  His interpretation of an aging, submissive body practically collapses in on itself and he never stops being fully present, even providing a warm interaction with a mechanical dog.  The clowning of Arlekin Players regular Darya Denisova as Charlotta  the soon-to-be-displaced governess, adds appropriately discordant levity.  While Nael Nacer’s booming voice is just perfect for sounding the alarm as Lopakhin, the man best positioned to win the orchard his ancestors tended to as slaves.  John McGinty has been cast as Trofimov, though it’s unclear whether making the perpetual student deaf is a comment on communication between characters or Golyak just appreciates McGinty’s talent.  Juliet Brett, Elise Kibler, Mark Nelson, and Ilia Volok round out the company.

As a fresh take on a classic, The Orchard blossoms under Golyak’s knowing hand.  The themes of class division, misplaced materialism, and cultural loss are sadly timely and touching.  A quick read of The Cherry Orchard will only deepen your understanding of events.  Live performances run through Sunday, July 3, and take place at the Baryshnikov Arts Center at 450 West 37th Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues) .  Showtimes are Tuesday – Thursday at 7PM, Friday – Saturday at 8PM, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2PM.  Proof of vaccination is required for entry and face masks must be worn throughout the two hour runtime.  Prices for the intimate live show run from $39 to $125.  The virtual experience — which requires a plugged-in laptop or desktop — is $29.  There are bundles to purchase both live and streaming together.  For tickets and additional information, visit www.TheOrchardOffBroadway.com.  

Manifesting Mrs. Marx

Though you have no doubt heard of economist/revolutionary Karl Marx, his gifted and loyal wife has been all but erased from history.  Encyclopedic entries of her life are usually reduced to her lineage, marriage, and the early death of her children.  You will learn something more of Johanna “Jenny” Von Westphalen Marx by watching Manifesting Mrs. Marx, but that is not its ultimate goal.  Still evolving three years after it was performed at the famous Edinburgh Fringe, the piece is the brainchild of actress/musician/producer Clara Francesca who employs a wide range of techniques to shape the story.  In less than an hour, she puddle jumps from Von Westphalen’s biography to the constrictions of the patriarchy to the struggles of creative process itself. 

Jenny had her own distinct views of social revolution and the suppression of the working class.  But she was also a writer of criticism which makes it particularly fitting to have her character critique parts of her own performance.  The work is unconventional in that Ms. Francesca plays not only herself, Mrs. Marx, and characters in Marx’s world, but also against herself as the unseen writer who is heard over the theater’s speakers creating the script in real time.  This allows the actress to simultaneously narrate and comment on the story.  She is both the center of the work and being controlled by it, an apt metaphor for the constrictions faced by early feminists like Jenny Von Westphalen that continue into present day. 

Laurence Olivier Award winning director Guy Masterson wisely keeps the focus on his talent, placing her in drab shapeless clothing against a dark backdrop.  Ms. Francesca is given only a chair, a microphone and a “bag of tricks,” which suits an actress this playful, expressive, and bright.  Her physical comedy is likely to make you think of another Marx — Harpo — especially in a segment where she brattishly defies her writer who is giving her too many instructions.   She also uses her well-tuned voice to manipulate her audience, poking fun at “the pace of perfection” in measured dulcet tones and then rapidly firing off some of Jenny’s pent up frustrations.

Manifesting Mrs. Marx is a broad rather than deep experience.  But while it’s hard to retain much of the detail, the impact of the performer’s energy and passion lingers.  It is making its New York City debut as part of the The New York Theater Festival at the Teatro Latea at 107 Suffolk Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Three performances have been scheduled: Wednesday, May 18, at 4PM; Friday, May 20, at 6:30 PM; and Sunday, May 22, at 1PM.  It will be paired with a second short play to create an 85 minute event.  Tickets are $25 for advanced purchase general admission, $30 at the door, and $45 for VIP seating (https://innovationtickets.com/product/manifesting-mrs-marx/).   

Our Daughters, Like Pillars – Boston and Streaming

Playwright Kirsten Greenidge understands the impact of order: birth order, marriage order, and trying to keep order.  In her family drama Our Daughters, Like Pillars, she explores the significance of order in three full acts, allowing her characters to leisurely reveal their affecting histories and conflicting hopes for the future.  

This was my third viewing of a Huntington Theater play made possible by their digital insurance policy.  These offerings are not films, but rather live capture of a singular experience using 10-12 cameras.  While nothing can replicate the energy of sharing a performance with an in-person audience, The Huntington’s digital works offer quality productions to those who remain unable to sit in a venue with strangers.  All three had exceptionally clear audio. My first of these was the darkly funny Teenage Dick, energetically directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel with a first rate cast.  This stream was later shared with the Pasadena Playhouse for an extended run.  Next was Toni Morrison’s devastating The Bluest Eye gorgeously adapted by Lydia R. Diamond.  Director Awoye Timpo’s swirling camerawork allowed home audiences to better view the characters’ movements around a stage poignantly shaped like a chopped tree stump.  With Kimberly Senior’s traditional proscenium staging, Our Daughters, Like Pillars uses more expressive close-ups than shifting angles, but it never loses pacing. 

The story revolves around the three Shaw sisters who are vacationing in a house rented by oldest sister Lavinia (Seldes-Kanin fellowship winner Nikkole Salter) and her husband.  What should be a celebratory time of togetherness turns increasingly tension-filled as Vinny becomes progressively more controlling of her siblings and their mother.  Having felt isolated during the first year of COVID, Vinny’s vision is to have the entire family under one roof on a permanent basis.  But though she tries tactical cajoling, needling guilt, and outright manipulation, that goal is not shared either by people-pleasing middle sister Octavia (Arie Thompson) or youngest Zelda (Lyndsay Allyn Cox) who has only just taken her first steps towards independence.  We gain a deeper understanding of the siblings through their mother Yvonne (Lizan Mitchell) and their stepmother Missy (Cheryl D. Singleton) who are each given profound fourth-wall breaking monologues.  Race and class play important but smaller roles in the script.

Lyndsay Allyn Cox, Arie Thompson and Nikkole Salter; Photo by T Charles Erickson

While the spotlight is clearly on the women — by turns strong and brittle — it is the two men who supply the softness.  Genuine light shines from Julian Parker’s Paul King, Zelda’s casual conquest living by his wits who gets caught up in the whirl of family conflict. And Postell Pringle portrays Vinny’s husband Morris with intensity as he tries to rein in his wife’s darker, more destructive instincts.  The set by Marion Williams includes several levels which provides a feeling of movement to the dialogue-heavy drama.  The family is tightly contained, with the outside world intruding only through the ringing of a telephone.  Costumes by Sarita Fellows add essential color and flow while Jane Shaw’s sound incorporates music from Prince to Sam Cooke.

At 3 ½ hours including two 15 minute intermissions, Our Daughters, Like Pillars, indulges in the kind of rolling storytelling rarely seen since March 2020.  It is playing at the Huntington’s Wimberly Theatre in Boston through May 8 and On Demand through May 22.  Prices range from $25 – $99.  For tickets and information visit https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/plays-and-events/.