Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Comedy of Errors

Sheer delight is how I would describe director Daniel Sullivan’s staging of The Comedy of Errors, the first of this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park productions, which opened last night at the Delacorte Theater. In 90 fast-paced minutes the Bard’s silliest play becomes a welcome escape into a world of mistaken identity, physical comedy, delicious wordplay and razor-sharp performances, with Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Hamish Linklater leading the way.

 The mayhem unleashed by the plot of two sets of identical twins, separated as children and now both unexpectedly in the same town, could be confusing to follow, especially since Ferguson (left in photo) and Linklater play the roles of each twin, remaining in the same costumes (wonderful designs Toni-Leslie James) throughout. With the slightest change in posture or tone of voice, we know which twin is involved, the longtime resident of Ephesus or the new arrival from Syracuse.

After being torn apart in a shipwreck 25 years ago, the young men are now master-servant pairs living in rival cities. The craziness begins when one pair crosses the border and locals mistake the new arrivals for their neighbors and the new arrivals are dumbfounded trying to figure out the working of this strange land where people act as if they know them. To further shake things up, the pairs who know each other are more often than not separated, so the servant from Syracuse is abused for not doing the wishes of the master from Ephesus and thinks his master is just acting capriciously. That sort of befuddlement continues as the different characters bump up against each other, not knowing they have a mirror of themselves nearby.

In the role of both servants, Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus, Ferguson proves he is a master at physical comedy. Linklater, playing both masters, Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, is the gentleman (or gentlemen), at least until the wackiness allows him to let loose. Their timing is perfect as they exit as one character only to appear a minute later as the other. These parts are usually cast with two actors who resemble each other, but these brave actors play both roles, and they make each one believable.

I know a bit about identical twins, being the daughter of one and niece of another. One scene reminded me of some family experience of mistaken identity. Antipholus of Ephesus has a wife, Adriana (Emily Bergl) who mistakes Antipholus of Syracuse for her husband and drags him home for dinner, leaving Dromio of Syracuse to guard the door to admit no one. Shortly thereafter, Antipholus of Ephesus returns home and is refused entry to his own house.

In our family, that confusion played out when my parents started dating and friends would report to my mother (a brunette) that they had seen John (my father) with a blonde, who was actually my Aunt Ruth out with her husband, Ed. Ruth would hear the same accounts of “Ed” being out with a brunette -- our own little comedy of errors. The play has a bit of this too, when Antipholus of Syracuse falls in love with Luciana (Heidi Schreck) , Adriana's sister, who is appalled at the behavior of the man she thinks is her brother-in-law.

Adding to the sparkle of this production are John Lee Beatty’s colorful cartoon cutout sets evoking a theatre, church, hotel, train station and jewelry store in an upstate New York town in the late 1930s. They are turned to go from one to the other just as seamlessly as the twins slide from one character to the other. An ensemble of dancers swing to music from the period (choreography by Mimi Lieber) before the show and during scene changes, enhancing the lively sense of fun.

Many other incidents of whimsy abound. I loved when an off-stage Antipholus of Ephesus calls for his wife, Adriana, in a gruff voice that immediately conjures up Sylvester Stallone’s famous “Yo, Adrian” from “Rocky.” All that was missing was the ‘yo,” but I’m sure everyone old enough to remember that feel-good 1976 film heard it.

The Public Theater’s production of The Comedy of Errors continues through June 30. I hope it moves to Broadway. It’s a joy!  

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light 

  Since its 2012 release, the landmark DVD “Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light” (Paraclete Press) has continued to attract a growing audience captivated by the production’s unique exploration of one of history’s most intriguing saints.  This week, in celebration of the first anniversary of Hildegard’s long-awaited canonization by the Vatican, an enhanced version of the DVD is being made available with Spanish and German subtitles to further increase its international appeal.

Produced by critically acclaimed mezzo soprano Linn Maxwell, the production features a powerful film adaptation of Maxwell’s compelling one-woman stage play and more than three hours of supplemental content.  Extras include an annotated script and production notes, a two-part seminar for church or academic group discussion, and a variety of topical interviews with many of the world’s leading Hildegard scholars, authors and experts.

“Having the opportunity to invite modern audiences to meet this extraordinary 12th-century nun, writer, composer, healer and prophet continues to be a remarkable privilege,” Maxwell said.  “Those who do agree she has many important things to say, and it is not surprising that her voice – impossible to silence in her time – continues to grow in relevance and strength today.  The addition of new film subtitles in both Spanish and German will only amplify Hildegard’s international appeal.”

Hildegard has been an admired and controversial figure both inside and outside the Catholic Church for centuries.  Beginning in earliest childhood, she experienced powerful, recurring visions that called her to express herself through her many talents and assume a role of unique leadership in the medieval church – one that often challenged the establishment head-on.

International interest in Hildegard has enjoyed a powerful resurgence following her May 10, 2012 canonization and October 2012 naming by Pope Benedict XVI as a “Doctor of the Church.”  This rare title, bestowed over nine centuries on individuals of extraordinary importance in the life of the Church, has placed Hildegard in the highly select company of only 35 individuals, only four of whom have been women.

Written and performed by Maxwell, the film adaptation of the play “Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light” is based on an original production directed by Erv Raible that has won widespread critical acclaim after 80 performances in both North America and Europe.  Writing in the New York Theater Review, John Hoglund has said, “Hildegard returns...through the artistry of Linn Maxwell in a commanding performance that is as scholarly as it is relevant today;” according to The Times of London, “Hildegard is reborn as mezzo Linn Maxwell,” with her “hypnotically beautiful song.”

The DVD features Maxwell as Hildegard, performing the mystic’s compositions on authentic medieval instruments and, through Hildegard’s actual writings, reveals the life and passion of an extraordinary woman who lived centuries ahead of her time.

Maxwell has performed on the stages of major orchestras including the Chicago, Cleveland, Seattle and Toronto Symphonies, and the Berlin Radio Orchestra, among others.  Her operatic engagements include San Francisco (Placido Domingo conducting), the Cincinnati Opera, Netherlands Opera (with Nicholas Harnancourt), Hungarian State Opera and recital halls across the United States and in 27 countries worldwide.  In addition to her extensive performances of the stage version of “Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light,” Maxwell has also performed cabaret and one-woman shows in New York City and made her European cabaret debut in 2006 at Frankfurt’s International Theater.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Picture of Autumn

In the middle of the last century, playwright N.C. Hunter was known as “the English Chekhov”, an appropriate title judging from his 1951 family drama A Picture of Autumn, which opened in its American premiere last night at the Mint Theater. Director Gus Kaikkonen and a for-the-most-part capable cast give life to the themes of aging, memories and a clinging to the past.

 A Picture of Autumn is a sensitive and often comic portrait of a once aristocratic family’s attempt to gracefully accept the changes that time enforces. Charles and Margaret Denham (Jonathan Hogan and Jill Tanner, in photo) are in their 70s, living in disarray in their decaying ancestral home with Charles’ 80-year-old brother, Harry (George Morfogen), and their demented servant, Nanny (Barbara Eda-Young).  With 18 bedrooms, 60 acres and little money to hire help, Margaret is ready to accept the inevitable when her elder son, Robert (Paul Niebanck), returns to England after several years abroad with the intention of convincing his parents and uncle to sell the estate to a college and move to smaller, more manageable quarters.

“It’s like living in a badly kept museum,” Margaret acknowledges.

Designer Charles Morgan does the place justice, having created one of the largest sets I’ve ever seen at the Mint, with a sitting area before a fireplace and mantel, dining room and imposing circular staircase that illustrate what a grand home this once was. It is largely through Margaret that we learn of the dry-rotted wood and the unkempt grounds. What we see looks both elegant and comfortably livable, making it understandable why leaving is so hard, especially for the brothers who have lived nearly their whole lives there.

Tensions about moving take shape in Act Two, as do the family dynamics that make the decision such a challenge. Memories bubble up right and left, with one having a lovely visual incarnation as Robert’s stepdaughter, Felicity (Helen Cespedes), descends the grand staircase in a 40-year-old blue gown last worn by Harry’s wife, who died all those years ago at the estate. (All the costumes by Sam Fleming are first rate.) She stands out as a sparkling school girl who represents the future while appreciating the elegant past, the bridge between both worlds.

Harry is the hardest to convince, but by Act Three he is seated with the rest of the family, surrounded by draped furniture and partially packed boxes, waiting for the taxi that will take them to the train and a new life.

“Nobody appreciates it, of course, but this is actually a historic moment,” he proclaims with his gallows humor. “This is the fall of the House of Denham. There has been a Denham at Winton Manor since -- when, Charles?”

Charles tells him 1762.

“Since 1762,” he continues. “And now we pass, shuffling out of our inheritance with no more ceremony than if we were cattle being driven to the slaughterhouse.”

Margaret tries to quiet him, but he goes on.

“Thank goodness, I’m perfectly capable of looking at the thing objectively. Let us at least be conscious of what we are doing,” he says, looking around the room. “It’s a fine house -- solid, well-proportioned, light and spacious. We shall not look upon its like again. It was built in the days when Englishmen appreciated good craftsmanship. Even if we have capitulated at last, we may, I suppose, be proud to have delayed its surrender to the barbarians. The spirit was willing, though the flesh was weak. . . Lower the flag and let the enemy advance.”

But as it turns out, departure may not be as imminent as it seems. Hunter has a few surprised in store, although the ending is poignant no matter how it goes.

 A Picture of Autumn has held up well, although it’s a bit long (two hours and 20 minutes) as plays of that era tended to be. The third act definitely drags. I could have done without Nanny, a stock character sent in for laughs. As portrayed by Eda-Young, she could use more work with dialects coach Amy Stoller because she mostly sounds American, when she isn’t sounding cockney or Irish. The two other actors, Katie Firth as Robert’s wife and Christian Coulson as his younger brother, are fine in their rather predictable roles.

The show is scheduled to run until July 14, although Mint productions tend to get extended. This one deserves to.

For information, visit

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Tea for Three: Lady Bird, Pat & Betty

 Meeting a friend for tea is usually a pleasant get-together, a chance to spend a little time in a comfortable setting for a some chatting and often a bit of soul-baring. That is the experience actress Elaine Bromka creates in her intimate one-woman performance of Tea for Three: Lady Bird, Pat & Betty, which she wrote with playwright Eric H. Weinberger. Under the direction of Byam Stevens, the three former First Ladies share their stories and, even more effectively, their feelings in this engaging 80-minute show at The 30th Street Theatre.

Set in a parlor of the While House in 1968, 1974 and 1976, each Lady spends just enough time with us to draw us into her world and her reactions to it without going on too long. This impressed me. These kinds of plays where the character addresses the audience about her or his life can get tedious to the point where I feel like screaming, “Get over yourself.” I felt that last season with the popular one-woman Broadway play Ann, about the late governor Ann Richards. In Tea for Three, each Lady left me feeling sorry to see her go.

The clever device that links the three segments is that each woman, after reminiscing about her husband’s nearly completed administration, is preparing to greet her successor with tea and a While House tour. Lady Bird heads out of the parlor to greet Pat, Pat to meet Betty and Betty to meet the unseen Rosalynn. In between, the lights come up a bit for some brief set adjustments but no intermissions interrupt the flow. (Set coordinator Matt Kapriellian created a simple room with a desk in the background and coffee table and chair at front so the Ladies’ stories are the real focus.)

I also was grateful that Bromka didn’t try to imitate the women’s voices, rather she transforms herself swiftly from one to the other through a change of wig and dress. (Costume design by Patricia Carucci, Bunny Mateosian and Robert E. McLaughlin, who also designed the wigs.) She’ll use an appropriate drawl or speech pattern, but no mimicry.

Tea with Lady Bird is tea with a southern gentlewoman who tells her daughters the idea of a woman having a life of her own is for their generation, not hers. Making Lyndon happy is her goal in life. But this was not easy as their time in the White House was marred by rising protests against the Viet Nam war, and she shares the anguish she and the president felt. Publicly they had to carry on as chants of Hey, L.B.J., how many boys did you kill today followed them. But she lets us know that privately her husband was so anguished he used to go downstairs at night to check on the latest causality counts -- for a war he inherited, she makes a point of telling us. She is a staunch defender of her husband throughout. But like a proper southern gentlewoman, she does not linger in complaint, pointing out the positive changes she has been able to make, such as highway beautification.

Next, having tea with Pat (photo by Ron Marotta) was the most interesting because she is the most complex character. We see the spirit she had that she suppressed before the public. Her early life growing up in a small California town was marked by economic hardship and a heavy domestic load cooking and caring for her father and brothers. She dreamed of travel and an acting career and those dreams light her face as she talks. But an even deeper passion -- anger -- takes over when she talks about the 1960 election she believes the Kennedy campaign stole from her husband through voter fraud and when she discusses Watergate. She is like an animal trapped in a cage when she describes how that unfolding scandal kept her inside, pacing the room -- she can tell you how many rotations it takes to make a mile -- or slipping out at night with daughter Julie to the worst parts of town where no one was out so she could walk and walk, Secret Service agents following, until they could walk no more from exhaustion. I really felt I had been let into a private world in this segment and gotten close to the real character.

Betty was my least favorite portrayal, although she was my favorite of those three First Ladies. I had fun with her, but she was a little too much of the good time gal, giddy from painkillers and booze, while I would have preferred more depth, such as when she discussed how she was able to use her breast cancer, discovered only one month after her husband assumed the presidency, to encourage women to be screened. She maintained rather a whoopee attitude throughout, rather than displaying more of a range of emotions. Having had such a great time during her husband’s term, she is not the least bit ready to leave the White House. She illustrates this by mentioning that when she was having her First Ladies’ tea and tour after Nixon resigned, Pat had pointed to a red carpet and told Betty she’d get sick of them. I never did, Betty tells us with glee. She departs to welcome Rosalynn, the wife of the man who has deprived her of four more years of excitement in the White House, playfully speculating on whether she could offer Rosalynn a drink instead of tea.

Bromka has been performing Tea for Three since 2005. It was inspired by her appearance opposite Rich Little in The Presidents, which she performed across the country and on PBS.  Called upon to impersonate eight First Ladies, she spent months poring over videotapes of the women. Studying nuances of their body language and speech patterns to explore psychologically why they moved and spoke as they did, she became more and more drawn in by their personalities.

“These were women of intelligence and grit who suddenly found themselves in a fishbowl,” Bromka has said. “I realized I wanted to tell the story from their point of view. And I wanted to explode myths. Pat was called ‘Plastic Pat’ in the press, for example, because she was always smiling. Look more closely at her eyes, though. There’s nothing plastic about her. You see the eyes of a private, watchful survivor.”

This Amas Musical Theatre production of Tea For Three will run through June 29. For information, visit