Category Archives: streaming

Judgment Day – Streaming on Demand

From the opening phone call (an old narrative device cleverly employed), you know what drives ambitious lawyer Sammy Campo in Rob Ulin’s hilarious modern comedy, Judgment Day.  Samuel is greedy beyond compare, defies the law he practices, and reframes every narrative to make himself look like a hero.  He is also about to die.  On the way to his hellish unrest, he is confronted by his former Sunday school teacher.  Now an angel, she gleefully delivers the bad news of damnation to this once naughty boy turned worse adult.  Recognizing that she has badly bent the rules by approaching him before he’s quite breathed his last, the silver tongued devil talks his way into a second chance at life in order to rack up the points he needs to be sent to heaven instead.  

Returned to earth, Sammy sets out to do good without actually BEING good.  It’s a warped journey gleefully interpreted by Jason Alexander, an unsurpassable master of the rant.  To fulfill his plan, he enlists the help of a Catholic Priest portrayed with doubt and discomfort-tinged charm by Santino Fontana.  Casting Director Patricia McCorkle deserves her own standing ovation for filling the entire ensemble with such remarkable foils for Alexander.  All bring out the best in Ulin’s well constructed banter under the practiced direction of TV vet Matthew Penn.  These also include Justina Machado as Sammy’s wife Tracy, by turns vulnerable and fury-driven, and great find Julian Emile Lerner as his edgy mini-me son, Casper.  The always assured Loretta Devine leverages her knowing stare and purring voice as assistant Della and Patti LuPone is clearly having a blast as the long dead Sister Margaret. In smaller supporting roles, Michael McKean (Monsignor), Josh Johnston (Doctor), Bianca LaVerne Jones (Principal), Michael Mastro (Jackson) and Elizabeth Stanley (Chandra) make the most of their interactions while the indispensable Carol Mansell almost steals the show as Edna, the slightly slow widow who becomes one of Sammy’s clients.

The script is a brilliant choice for web-based entertainment.  Ulin — writer/producer for Ramy, Malcolm in the Middle and Roseanne among other brainy comedic hits — has a remarkable way with language and wordplay.  This allows Penn to avoid the common pitfalls of Zoom from effects to false movement.  Scene-setting black and white drawings dissolve to the actors in front of solid white backgrounds.  Characters’ spacial relationships are established with the use of the stunningly well-timed handoffs of props.  Original music by Jordan Plotner supports the naughty tone of the work.

The pandemic has brought forth many a profound production exploring the freshly exposed rips in our social fabric.  While Judgment Day may make you contemplate what constitutes goodness, it’s most valuable contribution to this moment is undoubtably to make you laugh.  A lot.  (Thank god?)   This encore presentation in support of Barrington Stages is available to stream on Stellar (https://www.stellartickets.com/o/barrington-stage/events/judgment-day.) from July 26-August 1.  Runtime is a breezy 83 minutes. Tickets are only $11.99.  Advance purchase using the code “EARLY” and receive a $4 discount. 

Two Sisters and a Piano – Streaming on Demand

1991 was the beginning of a particularly challenging time for the Cuban people.  Perestroika had led to the break up of the Soviet Union, which began pulling troops and support from the Communist island nation.  It is against the backdrop of the resulting shortages and protests that Nilo Cruz sets Two Sisters and a Piano.  While he frequently explores the immigrant experience, here amnesty and escape remain out of reach.  Written four years before his Pulitzer Prize winning Anna in the Tropics, this work is spun tightly around sisters Sofia and Maria Celia who are fighting the diminishing effect of living under house arrest.  Sofia soothes herself by playing a decaying family piano and eavesdropping on her neighbor, while celebrated author Maria Celia pours her soul into letters to her absent husband.  Their country may be playing host to the Pan American Games, but the only sense of movement in their lives comes from their trips to the roof.  An opening is punctured in the crushing claustrophobia when the dashing Lieutenant Portuondo begins romantically pursuing Maria Celia; a relationship that offers both promises and threats.

The production currently being streamed by New Normal Rep springs to life in minute one when the silence of the opening credits is shattered by the entrance of two officers searching the sisters’ abode.  Despite limited physical action, the timing of the actors gives the drama a strong beating pulse throughout the two hours.  The opening interrogation sets the scene as well as the pace.  We can see the stained and browning walls and the once-grand furnishings beautifully rendered by Vanessa Corrente.  Like the previous NNR production, the Zoom backgrounds are designed to look contiguous making the staging appear more cohesive than many online offerings.  Bumper shots of Cuba pop splashes of color into the somberness.  Music by Sancho & Morin — both original songs and classical pieces — provide a wistful soundtrack for old memories and developing stories.

Florencia Lozano, Jimmy Smits and Daphne Rubin-Vega in NNR’s Two Sisters and a Piano

While the Russians may be receding from Cuba in the plot, their influence is ever present on stage.  The similarity between this work and that of Anton Chekhov is clear in both the emotional tides experienced by the characters and the poetry of the language they employ.  Also serving as director, Mr. Cruz enhances this flavor, developing a particularly strong chemistry between his two actresses.  He choreographs the luminous Florencia Lozano in the graceful and carefully considered gestures of the cerebral Maria Celia and brings forth a widening ripple of menace from deep inside a smoldering Jimmy Smits as Portuondo.  Daphne Rubin-Vega, who played the role of Sofia in 1999 at the Public Theater, repeats her performance, but this time her hair bows and childish mannerisms ultimately take on an uncomfortable Baby Jane quality.  Her strongest scene is with the charmingly awkward piano tuner played by Gary Perez as he tries to reverse the results of the instrument’s neglect as well as that of its owner.

Our collective desire to break free from our homes and a desperation for connection gives Two Sisters and a Piano an air of relatability at this precarious time.  It is available to stream on demand from the New Normal Rep website for $25 ($10 for students and theater professionals) through May 23.

Inside The Wild Heart on Gather.Town

When she died in her mid-fifties, prominent Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector left behind a body of work that defies classification.  Her breakthrough novel, Near the Wild Heart, had made her a literary star in her twenties. On the occasion of what would have been her 100th birthday Group Dot BR, a New York based Brazilian theater company, has “re-stage” their interactive piece Inside the Wild Heart, inspired by the writer’s oeuvre.  Originally performed in a 19th Century three story Gramercy Park studio, the production has been transported to gather.town, an online platform that enables participants to navigate through a defined space.  (More on the software later.)  Upon entry, audience members are assigned an avatar which they can move through a model of the studio with their arrow keys.  When they approach an interactive element, they can engage with it by pressing the letter X and disengage by doing the same, creating a personalized experience.

Dominating the event is a filmed version of the 2018 production adapted for the stage by Andressa Furletti and Debora Balardini and directed by Linda Wise The streaming version runs simultaneously on all floors represented in the gather.town “house” just as it did live.  The rooms were obviously small and crowded with audience members perched on the furniture and stairways.  This results in awkward camera angles and poor sound quality further muffled by Sergio Krakowski discordant score performed by violinist Mario Forte.  The script — like Lispector’s novels — is more about feeling than narrative and it is possible to sense the underlying emotions and wild shifts in tone despite the technical limitations.  The expressive cast includes Debora Balardini, Mirko Faienza, Patricia Faolli, Andressa Furletti, Fabiana Mattedi, Gio Mielle, Gonçalo Ruivo, Yasmin Santana, Ibsen Santos, and Montserrat Vargas.  Vargas’s and Furletti’s production design such as the flowered wallpaper with eyes and a globe lamp used to see the future manages to shine through.  

A scene from Inside the Wild Heart filmed in 2018, a segment of Inside the Wild Heart on gather.town

More successful are the other ten stops along the journey.  There are stills of complex art installations, pages of a book to read, and participatory areas where audience members can write or draw.  A photograph of telephones hanging off the hook is accompanied by the reading of poetry as is a film of waves crashing on the beach.  But by far the most powerful segment is a video interview of Lispector herself conducted shortly before her death.  She was in near-constant pain from an accident several years earlier and seems to float between frustration and pride.  The unseen host skillfully elicits extraordinary answers from an author who bristles at comparison and doesn’t have much use for praise either.

While Group Dot BR is to be commended for matching their vision with a platform more easily tailored to their original “choose your own adventure” concept than Zoom would have been, gather.town may prove to be a barrier for attracting audience members who are not comfortable with technology.  It only runs on Google Chrome and Foxfire by Mozilla. Being able to view Inside the Wild Heart requires two entries.  If Chrome or Foxfire isn’t your default browser, you will have to copy the URL from your “magic link” generated by picking up your virtual reservation and paste it into a new tab.  Navigating using the arrow keys is slow and somewhat clumsy.  Chasing a character up a flight of stairs is difficult enough that you will likely miss their entrance into the next room.  You can make movement a little easier by operating in “ghost mode” so you can go through rather than around the other audience members.  However, their presence in a space with you will block a section of what you are trying to see, the effect being similar to having a revolving group of tall people sitting in front of you in the theater.  There is a bar area in which you can turn on your camera and microphone in order to interact with other people, but no one was ever there when I visited.  

For fans of Lispector, Inside the Wild Heart presents a unique opportunity to step inside and roam around her work.  And while there are issues, there is also appeal here for those who miss the unique sensation of performance art not possible in the static universe of Zoom.  All elements are available in Portuguese and English.  Since you will always be missing something, you can have multiple experiences if you choose to return.  Performances continue through Sunday, December 20, with showtimes Thursday through Sunday 7PM ET (21 hours Brazil, 1AM Europe) and Saturday and Sunday at 1PM ET (15 hours Brazil, 7PM Europe).  Be aware there are scenes involving partial nudity.  Tickets for all performances are $20-$50 and are available at Group.BR.com

The Jewelry Box (Streaming)

Though The Jewelry Box is the story of one particular little Black boy buying a Christmas present for his mother, by distributing this production online the San Francisco Playhouse has given us all a gift.  Holiday season brings up a range of emotions; never more so than in the middle of a pandemic when we are likely isolated from the people with whom we’d most like to celebrate.  This warm, human, and utterly heart-melting play is performed and co-written by Brian Copeland, who’s Not A Genuine Black Man still echos in my mind despite the dozens of solo shows I’ve seen since.  Though there are storytellers who depict their assortment of characters with more physical distinction, Copeland has a singular flair with language and the ability to paint vivid and lasting images with his words.  Moreover, he has a fantastic sense of humor and periodically draws on his stand-up experience to share a little secret with the audience as his adult self.  

The Jewelry Box covers an early chapter in Copeland’s life, but it stands complete on its own.  We’re in 1970s Oakland where a six year old Brian has spotted a wooden jewelry box he knows will make his Mom smile.  His family had been forced to move four times in a short period and personal possessions had been left behind at each stop.  He sets out to raise the $11.97 he needs to purchase the box, showing himself to be a tiny but mighty entrepreneurial spirit.  We get to meet many of his neighbors — some more understanding than others — sketched out in detail with the colors filled in by mixing Copeland’s artistry with our own imagination.

David Ford directed the original production for The Marsh Theater.  The intimacy of this project makes it well suited for the streaming environment where San Francisco Playhouse’s Artist Director Bill English did the editing.  For this rendition, English balances mimicking the theater experience with more intense close ups. No set is necessary as Copeland builds his own landscape with some sound effects and lights fully focusing the picture.  The choice of a slightly baggy primary colored striped shirt makes it easy for Copeland to embody his much younger self.

No reflection on all those theaters who will once again stage A Christmas Carol or A Child’s Christmas in Wales, but the San Francisco Playhouse deserves praise for finding such an appropriate fresh offering for this unique holiday season.  Class and race play important supporting roles in The Jewelry Box, evergreen themes that have taken on renewed significance.  Two COVID compliance officers kept Copland and the production team safe and a brand new Equity agreement made it possible for this to be seen online for a limited time.   The final screenshot is a long “Heroes List”: a visual reminder that now more than ever we need to pull together and keep the performing arts healthy as well.  The only element I dearly missed was the laughter of my fellow audience members.  But I know for certain it was there.

The on-demand video stream of The Jewelry Box is available through Christmas day.  Single tickets are $15-$100. Call 415-677-9596, or visit https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/the-jewelry-box/.    Subscriptions in support of the San Francisco Playhouse season may also be purchased.

Political Idol 2020 (Streaming)

Streaming into your living rooms just as early voting wraps up is the latest rendition of Political Idol, a musical review written by Robert Yarnall and Marc Emory and staged online for 2020 by Michael Goldfried.  Hosted by a suspicious Russian accented “Simon Cowell,” the conceit of the show within a show is that the candidates are competing for your votes by singing 16 parodies of pop and show songs.  The opening number to the tune of “I Hope I Get It” from “A Chorus Line” and featuring the cast dressed as many of the democratic candidates illustrates the cleverness of the liberally-bent lyrics.  The contest concept is dropped early on in the script and it’s hard to gauge whether there remains an appetite for revisiting the earlier days of this taut election.  But certainly the performers deliver strong vocals and amusing impressions.

Still shot from Political Idol 2020

For those who can remember the 1970s, the humor is reminiscent of the musical interludes from Laugh-In, with often just a line or two from each entry performed with a punch. The strongest numbers are presented a third of the way through the 42 minute runtime with Mary Trump’s “Everything Comes From Neurosis” (based on “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from “Gypsy”), “Season of Trump” (set to the splendid “Seasons of Love” from Jonathan Larson’s “Rent”) and a memorable medley that will ensure you never forget how to pronounce the Democratic VP candidate’s first name delivering the biggest laughs.  The creative team has chosen to pre-record each performer remotely.  Having witnessed a fair amount of squishy green screen this season, I appreciated having Bruno-Pierre Houle’s virtual production design added in post so that the effects enhance rather than distract from images of the actors.  Sara Jean Tosetti contributes clever costume designs that also add value to the impersonations.

With music direction by Anessa Marie, each actor was recorded separately against a monochrome back drop.  Though I wish the lip synch was more consistently *synched*, the sound quality and vocals are high. Enga Davis has an edge having been given the shining characters of  Oprah, Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris to portray.  She gives each a clear and powerful voice, as you’d expect. Lara Buck Antolik is more exaggerated as Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi.  Her Melania Trump and Kimberly Guilfoyle mug far more than they sing, though her body language has sparkle. Writer Yarnall gets into the act with a hilariously naughty Mike Pence and subtle Mayor Pete among others.  That Scott Foster’s orange-tinged Trump falls flat is not a reflection on his talent.  As feedback on the newest season of SNL illustrates, there is Trump Impression Fatigue throughout our land caused on one side by a feeling that the President is the one true American voice in politics and on the other by a sense of dread that democracy might never recover from his term in office.  Foster’s Biden fairs a little better, though the Democratic candidate plays a more muted role. Joe DiSalle rounds out the cast with a creepy Bill Barr and creepier Mitch McConnell.

As good natured as it is, Political Idol 2020 has an unfortunate timing issue.  This election has become too serious to be treated as a laughing matter.  However, if this jingly musical inspires even one more person to vote, it will have served its purpose well.  It is available online for $20.20 at https://www.politicalidollive.com until November 4. 

Pass Over on Amazon Prime

Spike Lee’s movie rendition of Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over debuted on Amazon Prime in April of 2018 without much fanfare.  It recently received a promotional bump by the service as part of their highlighted material related to Black Lives Matter.  The film couldn’t be more timely for those seeking a theatrical experience from the safety of their couch.

Produced at the Steppenwolf Theater, the 75 minute one-act is bookended with Lee’s footage of a primarily Black audience bussed in from the south side and west side of Chicago. The work is given more humanity by including throughout the faces of those whose lives all too often mirror the Pass Over themes as they witness the performance.  

The play was famously inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin.  Ms. Nwandu was teaching in Tribeca at the time of Trayvon’s murder and regularly coming into contact with young men who were being stopped by NYPD just for “breathing black.”  She wanted to explore whether we are capable of change as a nation, a conversation that has only gotten louder, broader, and more persistent in recent months. 

The tragedy portrays the deep friendship between two young Black men who have been cut off from everyone.  Like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, the classic from which Nwandu’s script takes its form, Moses and Kitch are stuck in a wilderness one-block long, starting each night by creating a top ten wish list.  Their desires are comprised primarily of simple things like clean tube socks with the occasional inclusion of something like a yellow sports car making them briefly smile. 

Julian Parker, left, and Jon Michael Hill in “Pass Over,” directed by Spike Lee_Credit_Chayse Irvin:Amazon Studios

Julian Parker and Jon Michael Hill; Photo by Chayse Irvin/Amazon Studios

Lee takes full advantage of Danya Taymor’s strong stage direction, allowing us to see the characters’ cycles of ease and dis-ease she’s created with his wide shots punctuated by extreme close up.  Music by Howard Drossin emphasizes the stirring, melancholy mood.  The quality of the acting is sublime, with Jon Michael Hill  — who also appeared in the Lincoln Center production in the summer of 2018 — taking control of the stage as the outwardly assured Moses.  Julian Parker gives Kitch a refined and touching delicacy.  Balancing mannered charm and menace is Ryan Hallahan’s Master, with Blake DeLong rounding out the cast as an obvious and overblown police officer.  

Pass Over is not so much a conversation starter as a personal meditation that challenges us to dig deep and ask ourselves how we are each contributing to the patterns of racism.  For anyone who missed the original, this film offers an opportunity to see a well reviewed play performed by a first rate cast and filtered through the sensibility of a filmmaker of color at the top of his craft.  For those who saw the stage production, Lee’s revision displays the work through the sharpened lens of the BIPOC movement.  Pass Over contains strong language and adult themes.  It is available to Amazon Prime subscribers. 

Molière in the Park’s Tartuffe

For the 2020 production of Molière in the Park’s Tartuffe, the greenery of The LeFrak Center in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park has been replaced by green screen.  But the production still provides a breath of fresh air with its engaging performances and a timeless story of a faker whose plots are foiled by love and loyalty.  

Though there are obvious ties to today’s political and social currents (including a visual nod to a recent incident when someone used a bible as little more than a prop), for the most part this is a traditional rendition of the Comédie-Française staple.  Orgon, an aging landed gentleman, has fallen under the spell of Tartuffe, a wily vagrant who uses false piety to cover his lust and greed.  Though most of his friends and family try to warn Orgon about Tartuffe’s deceit, he will hear nothing against his new friend.  So taken is Orgon that he signs over his property to the conman and attempts to force his daughter to break up with the man she loves in order to cement the relationship in marriage.  

lf translation of artistic work is tricky, then translation of verse composed by one of the greatest playwrights of all time is a veritable Cirque du Soleil act.  Fortunately MIP used a script created by Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Wilbur, who completely captures the gleaming wit and social insight of the original.  The production is directed with heart by MIP founder, champion of free theater, and Brooklyn resident Lucie Tiberghien. 

Known for its inclusive casting, MIP has chosen Samira Wiley (Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”) to take on Orgon.  To call this gender-bending is to wrongly emphasize the significance of Wiley’s sex rather than the elegant quality she brings to the part.  Providing a powerhouse performance that explodes beyond her small Zoom box is Toccarra Cash as Orgon’s charming, knowing wife, Elmire.  Between them stands Raúl E. Esparza in the title role.  He delights in playing every false note of Tartuffe’s guff with the twinkle of a Tony nominated star.  The supporting cast includes Kaliswa Brewster (Orgon’s vulnerable daughter, Marianne), Naomi Lorrain (Marianne’s protective brother Damis), Jared McNeill (bringing noble distinction to Cléante, Elmire’s brother), Lucille Lortel Award nominee Jennifer Mudge (clever housekeeper, Dorine), soap star Rosemary Prinz (Orgon’s deluded mother Mme Pernelle ) and Carter Redwood (Marianne’s devoted finance, Valère).

clockwise from top-Toccarra Cash, Jennifer Mudge, Naomi Lorrain & Jared McNeill

Clockwise from top: Toccarra Cash, Jennifer Mudge, Naomi Lorrain & Jared McNeill in Tartuffe

While it must have been frustrating for the artistic team (Kris Stone – Production Design, Andrew Carluccio – Video Programmer & Technology Consultant) to be confined to online resources, their choice to use green screen for the backdrop is an unfortunate one.  The effect is highly distracting, reminiscent of video games from the early 1990s, with parts of props and faces frequently dropping out.  Animated between-act bumpers by Emily Rawson and Jonathan Kokotajlo are somewhat incongruous, but charming.

This highly satisfying production of Molière Tartuffe is co-presented with the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) in partnership with the Prospect Park Alliance and LeFrak Center at Lakeside.  While this may not be the intimate night under the sky originally envisioned, moving online has provided a wonderful theatrical experience to a broader audience.  Replays with French captions have been extended until Sunday, July 12 on MIP’s YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/moliereinthepark).  The runtime is 90 minutes excluding introductions by the director, the producer and a Molière befitting the times.