MY TEN FAVORITE LIVE PRODUCTIONS: THEATRE, OPERA, BALLET, AND CABARET (Well, really Fifteen Favorites. I cheated.)

(Editor’s Note: In this iteration of sessumsMagazine.com, this Top Ten list will take the place of the latest chapter in our serial, Porterhouse, which will be back in the magazine’s next edition.)

 

Kathleen Chalfant reading T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” as a member from Pam Tanowitz Dance manifests its themes.

(1) FOUR QUARTETS“At the still point, there the dance is,” wrote T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets  I saw this performance/dance piece based on Eliot’s poem at Bard this past summer and, now with months to absorb it and process it, I remain more convinced than ever that it was one of the greatest works of art I have seen in the last several years. The actress Kathleen Chalfant –  who combines the divine with a forthright earthy throb that all great acting has at its performative heart –  read  T.S. Eliot’s poem to choreography by Pam Tanowitz for the extraordinary artists in her company Pam Tanowitz Dance. The music was composed by Kaija Saariahoa and performed by The Knights. The stage images were painted by Brice Marden. The scenic and lighting design were by Clifton Taylor. The costume design was by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung. The sound design was by Jean-Baptiste Barriére. I mention all these people because the intersection of all these artistic disciplines resulted in a rare and mysterious alchemy that was transcendent.

Dance critic Alistair Macaulay in The New York Times wrote that he was inclined to call this the most sublime new dance since Merce Cunningham’s Biped in 1999 and  the greatest creation of dance theater so far this century.  He also focused on Chalfant:  “The actor Kathleen Chalfant, seated between stage and musicians, reads all four poems with a quietly sonorous range of expression. She makes them sound contemporary and newly contemplative; she understates the dimensions that can seem religiose or portentous; she shows both wry humor and deep poignancy. In the first quartet, she attends so much to sense that she seems to underplay Eliot’s rhythm. But by the fourth, speaking in darker tones, she reveals a pulse within the verse with telling drama.”

Within the piece’s  mystery and movement, a sublime sort of incongruous stillness settled over the whole piece as it came to settle, as well, inside one’s self while witnessing it.  That buzz of an exalted stillness is what I search for when I attend the theatre.  “We shall not cease from exploration,” Eliot also wrote.  “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  I knew stillness anew.

Four Quartets will be in London on May 23rd and 24th at the Barbican.  Do not miss it if you are there.

Ganesha is revealed in the Philip Glass opera.

(2) SATYAGRAHA.   It is no secret of my spiritual relationship with Ganesha. I have written about it on social media and in my second memoir I Left It on the Mountain when I had visions of Ganesha and his assembled minions that competed with those of Lucifer and his when my addiction to drugs opened a kind of portal in my life that some could describe as psychosis, but I chose instead to recognize as mysticism. No, I take that back. Ganesha did not compete with Lucifer. Competition is too mundane a term for his manifestation in my life. He and his minions simply arrived in all their humble splendor to offer an alternative. It was a glistening alighting of an alternative spiritual path, which sobriety itself is. They did not come to rescue me. Theirs was not an arrival at all, for they have always been there. Been here. It was a manifestation of their presence. There was no rescue taking place, only surrender. One does not live a life of rescue when Ganesha is recognized. One lives a life of reassurance. He himself is not a resurrected God but one of new beginnings.  Ganesha hovers always in the dignified essence of humility and enables instead resurrections within oneself. I have come to describe the grace that can unfold from such an alighting as Ganesha’s giggle, an indescribable sense of elation and comfort. A kind of bliss results at times when one is blessed with knowing it. And yet a quieting of the quest occurs too, and in that incongruity is a sacred space.

I was reminded of all of this at Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at the English National Opera last year. Much of the opera, which is a meditation on Gandhi and non-violent resistance (a kind of surrendered resurrection as insurrection which is sung in Sanskrit) was both mysterious and mystical to me. The mysticism arrived in the bountiful beauty of Act Two in director Phelim McDermott’s brilliant, spiritually inspired production of the opera. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but my body began to buzz with a kind of inner light and tears were running down my face as I watched what I could not really comprehend yet acknowledged as something greater than myself – art, God, grace, humanity’s one soul. I knew it as something deeper than knowledge. Then there on the stage, emerging in the last image of the act, was a mysteriously assembled great giant Ganesha hovering over all of the stage imagery. I was both shocked by it and safe inside Ganesha’s giggle yet again. There was a kind of perfection in that one moment.

The climatic , ecstatic ending of Satyagraha

And at the end of Act Three – the very end of the opera itself – there on stage hovering above it all was an assembled array of spiritual minions so much like I had seen in my visions so many years ago when Ganesha and his hovering horde of light arrived in my life in the first sweep of mysticism that swept me toward them and my sober resurrected self which, even when I stumble,  continues to sweep me along in my life.

The sweep of art itself can do that – give us spiritual sustenance, give us mystical experiences. Art – like Ganesha – offers us in its creation an alternative pathway to ourselves.

Phelim McDermott has a theatre company he has named Improbable. Some might call all of what I have written about above as just that.   But I find in that incongruous name of his company just more probability again for this: a sacred space.

That is what my spiritual practice finally is – The Probability of the Improbable. The creation of art is itself a probable attempt at an improbable miracle.  Wherever art exists, I find a temple. And sometimes, giggling and in tears, I find Ganesha.

(3) Here is my first cheat on this list as I combine two artists I saw in cabaret settings.  BARB JUNGR  in her performances in London at The Pheasantry jazz club in Chelsea on King’s Road, as well as in New York at Joe’s Pub.  And PENNY ARCADE who also performed at the latter club, which is the cabaret space inside The Public Theatre founded by Joe Papp.

Jungr

Jungr sang an evening of Sting songs in London. At Joe’s Pub, she curated an evening of songs from 1968 which are still, alas, pertinent today.  Jungr is not only a brilliant cabaret artist and interpreter of songs which, when she digs into them, we hear in new even discomfiting ways, but she is also a deeply talented actor who redefines our preconceived notions of the venues needed to contain great acting. Even as she redefines the venues where acting can occur, she redefines what constitutes acting itself. Lyrical becomes something a bit more lacerating and more oddly, deeply lovely in her hands – well, more precisely, in her body and in her voice; she is like a modernist Mabel Mercer in her mercilessness as she mines a lyric for a stranger, truer seam in it. John McDaniel, her musical director and accompanist at these two shows in London and New York, possesses an expert and intuitive musicianship which is sinewy and smart and has found a way to enhance such lyricalness in her and, in finding that, has also found a perfect musical mate for himself.  The Australian media wrote of Jungr: “It’s as if Edith Piaf and Nick Cave had a lovechild who was adopted by Carmen McRae.”  She will be performing in Berlin at the end of February and in London at the end of March.  (Click on her name above for her website and schedule.)  A renowned interpreter of the songs of Bob Dylan and Jacques Brel, she will also be premiering her new act Bob, Brel, and Me in May at at the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room in London.

Arcade. Photo by Bobby Miller.

Penny Arcade is a downtown New York legend.  She was doing a kind of workshop rendition at Joe’s Pub of the performance art piece she titled BITCH! DYKE! FAGHAG! WHORE!  It was roughhewn and rowdy and randy.  It was so very lovely to watch her navigate the narrative of the piece as well as the narrative of trying out the piece in its roughhewn state and making that itself narrative fodder as she folded it all in together. “It’s like this,” she told us at Joe’s Pub.  “You didn’t fit into your family. You didn’t fit in at school. You didn’t fit into your town. You were certain that you had been abducted from some aristocratic family. You were told that being gay was a sin, that it was against the law. You knew that if your family or other people’s families knew, you would be ostracized, rejected, maybe beaten, maybe killed. So you grew up with a certain amount of drama. You lived a secret life, by yourself, going to school and coming home, and you knew that you traipsed on the edge of scandal and humiliation – until you were able to leave that place. And when you escaped, you escaped to a big city, the more anonymous the better. And in that big city, you met people you were drawn to, who turned out to be a lot like you. And you found out that these people had also escaped – from towns like yours, from schools like yours, from families like yours. And this knowledge that you shared made you giddy. It excited you. It made you want to live. And suddenly, the world was a beautiful place.”

Check out her Australian tour in March on her website by clicking on her name above.

Andrew Garfield and Tony Kushner. Photo by Robbie Fimmano

(4)  These next three plays when seen over the last year encompassed, in that one year, much of the scope of modern gay history over the last 70.  I started the year by seeing the National Theatre production of Tony Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA: A GAY FANTASIA ON NATIONAL THEMES when it transferred to Broadway.  I saw both parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, on opening day with a dinner break between.  I had originally seen the play over two nights in its first Broadway production in 1993, directed by George C. Wolfe, and then saw a revival at Signature Theatre off-Broadway in 2010, which was directed by Michael Greif.  But after seeing this reimagined production directed by Marianne Elliott, I am now certain that Kushner’s epic play is a timeless piece of dramatic art. A masterpiece.  I often say that the greatest play of the 20th Century is Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.  I stick by that assessment.  But in this alternative view of America as a gay fantasia – an America which Wilder’s more circumspect gay sensibility served up as a fantasia of its own in its aching ordinariness – Kushner, an artistic progeny of Wilder in his wilder dramatic moments, has created a companion piece to Our Town.  I like to think of them wed together in equality.

The revelation of Elliott’s production for me was Andrew Garfield as Prior.  I have always been drawn to Garfield as a person, if not an actor.  Those who know him – and whom I trust about these things –  have told me my instincts about him are correct, that he is as bright and engaging as he is humble and witty with a wonderfully curious intellect.  His performance as Prior reached levels of wonder for me and embodied many of those personal characteristics, just with a lot more flair. Indeed, it is a Callas-like performance in its flamboyance at times and yet he finds a very pure, very simple truth in its grace notes.  And filled with grace, it is.  He is magnificent.

I also liked the more stolid grace of Lee Pace as Joe. The performance in that role calls for a  counterpoint to the hysterical heights that are reached by those to whom Kushner has given, yes, operatic parts and monologues that are aria-like in their reach and depth and musicality. Joe is the beating, conflicted heart at the center of the play.  The tension the character feels in his own life that he keeps shut down is the tautness itself that Pace – just as Russell Tovey before him in the role when the production debuted at the National over in London –  furnishes in his performance. He keeps the production on its own even keel even as his character is teetering while attempting to keep his.

It took me about half the play to warm up to Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn. The first scene with him on the phone gave him too many opportunities to fall into his Nathan-Lane-being-exasperated schtick and played to me as if Max Bialystock from The Producers had been cast as Cohn in Angels in America.   But during the restaurant scene in which he tries to convince Joe to be his made-man in Ed Meese’s Justice Department and run interference in his disbarment proceedings, Lane captured me and I was mesmerized by his performance from that point on.

Angels in America is not only about AIDS, but also about an America in which our own iteration of fascism could rise.  That aspect of the play was even more pronounced in 2018 than it was when I saw the play in 1993 and 2010, for fascism has now indeed risen in this country in the age of Donald Trump – or, as I refer to him: The Tacky Know-Nothing Fascist Vulgarian.  Roy Cohn knew more than Trump will ever know, but he too was tacky and fascistic and vulgar.  Cohn was one of the most vile and evil men to have ever risen himself within the political and cultural structures of power and is proof himself how fascism could rise here in America – no fantasia, this – based on his having “clout” for decades in America before he died of AIDS. Cohn continues to have such “clout” because Cohn was Manhattan mentor of Donald Trump and almost singlehandedly helped escort him into such corridors of power.  Trump is Cohn’s cultural and political spawn.  Trump learned at Cohn’s demonic knee. He is Cohn’s revenge for every slight he ever suffered in his own rise to power, and then his clinging to it toward the end. Cohn’s grubby fingers live on in Trump’s stubby ones as Donald Trump and the ghost of Roy Cohn clutch clumsily at the levers of power. There is a term called a “grudge fuck” in certain circles. Donald Trump is Roy Cohn finally grudge fucking America.

Kyle Soller, Samuel H. Levine & Andrew Burnap in “The Inheritance.” Photo by Simon Annand.

This past spring I saw both parts as well of Matthew Lopez’s THE INHERITANCE, directed by Stephen Daldry at the Young Vic, which some have labeled the Angels in America of this generation and in which there is even some grudge fucking going on.   I think this play’s being given the Angels pedigree is giving it too much artistic credence – it felt, at times, as if I were binge-watching a Netflix series –  but it is an important work and, in parts, quite moving.  I had some qualms with it – especially how its most fully realized role with a real dramatic arc, portrayed by the brilliant American actor John Benjamin Hickey, is the rich middle-aged Republican gay character to whom I would refer as a Vichy Gay, if he is truly a Trump supporter and, in his less vulgar way, a spawn of Roy Cohn as well.   The play is a bit too white for me in its telling for it actually to be a fully realized portrait of a new generation of gay men, but maybe in the troubling era through which we are all living that is one of its points – and I am just missing it instead of seeing it as a criticism.

At the end of the first part there is a coup de theatre that left me gasping with sobs.  I didn’t realize how much grief I still carry within me as a member of an earlier generation of gay men decimated by AIDS which the play does honor and memorialize in its narrative, which is based on E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.  But as much as I loved Part One and especially that ending, the beginning of Part Two left me shaking my head as the playwright fixated on Fire Island  and the play swerved frustratingly from Forster to Jackie Collins territory.  Once Forster – he’s an actual character in the play much like, well, the Stage Manager in Wilder’s Our Town – reappears the play rights itself.  I look forward to its production in New York when its producers decide where it will land.  It is a great, flawed achievement.

I thought a lot about Larry Kramer during The Inheritance.  This latest generation of gay men stands on his shoulders, as well as a new generation of social justice warriors that, alas, does not include a vast majority of gay men which, come to think of it,  is also what The Inheritance is about: a lack of politics in gay men as a dramatic political statement itself.  Moreover, and more important, the playwrights Matthew Lopez and Tony Kushner stand on Larry’s ever-broadening literary shoulders. Larry is not only a great activist and historian and novelist and essayist and screenwriter,  but also a brilliant playwright.  I believe his play The Normal Heart will be considered part of the American canon along with the works of Wilder and Kushner and Williams and Miller and Hellman and O’Neill and Wasserstein and the Wilsons (August and Lanford) and Albee and Hansberry and Fornes and Shepard and Nottage and McNally and Deavere Smith.

Larry Kramer and Ellen Barkin, who won a Tony for her work in the Broadway premiere of “The Normal Heart.”

I saw a one-night-only benefit reading for The New Group of his THE DESTINY OF ME, directed by Trip Cullman, this past summer on Larry Kramer’s birthday at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street.  The whole cast was superb, including Mark Ruffalo, who portrayed Ned Weeks (a stand-in for Larry) in The Normal Heart on HBO, directed by Ryan Murphy; Gideon Glick as Alexander (a stand-in for the boyhood Larry); and Lee Pace as Benjamin, his brother.   But it was Ellen Barkin – who won a Tony for her earlier work in Kramer’s The Normal Heart on Broadway – in the role of the mother Rena who was truly extraordinary that night. “I’d like to play Lady Macbeth and call it a day,” Barkin once told me.   If she doesn’t get to do that role, I do hope she gets to play Rena in a full production of The Destiny of Me.  Barkin burrowed deep into the role and was riveting that night at the Lortel.  She later told me that she always uses aspects of her own mother in all her roles, but for Rena she went full-bore Mama Barkin.  However she arrived at what was on the stage of the Lucille Lortel Theatre that night, I am glad she had the guts to go there.  All of us who were in the audience will always remember her Rena.  I hope others get the chance to witness this woman at the height of her artistic power in this role.  I have an idea.  In the mode of the two-part Angels in America and The Inheritance, I envision a two-part production of The Normal Heart paired with The Destiny of Me.  Producers, are you listening?

Tony Kushner introduced the reading of The Destiny of Me that night at the Lortel. This is what he said:

The Destiny Of Me is not a play that needs any introduction. You don’t need me to tell you that this is an important American play. The brilliant cast will show you how true that is, just by reading the play to you. It has a gripping story to tell, universal and specific.  It tells it beautifully; its central meanings, immediately accessible, will continue to generate new meanings, new questions, new life long after its final line has been spoken, because its dramatic power goes deep.

“So what am I doing here? Because I love this play, and I love this playwright, very much, even though he sometimes drives me crazy.

The Destiny of Me is the second half of a dramatic epic masterpiece that begins with The Normal Heart. Together the two plays comprise a work absolutely unique in its focus on political activism and its magisterial dismissal of the widely accepted, often-expressed certitude that a work of art can only be diminished and devalued when partisan politics – which is to say coherent, meaningful, unapologetically political expression – enters into it. Activism and art are indistinguishable for Larry; his indisputable greatness as an activist and an artist reside in his indefatigably courageous willingness and his capacity to struggle with the demands of both art and politics. He keeps politics alive in his plays by rooting what’s political in specific, detailed reality, fueled by the activist’s ardency to change reality; he doesn’t aestheticize the political. Nor does he allow activism’s urgent need for political certainty to overwhelm art’s exploratory uncertainties; he never allows his politics to circumscribe his imagination or his empathy or flatten his art into propaganda.

“The reason Larry works with such force to keep both art and politics alive in his writing is that this duality, this dialectic is, I think, precisely what his writing means: In everything he’s written since the mid-1970s, Larry has insisted that our personal destinies and our political – which is to say our collective, communal destiny – are inseparably intertwined. There is no remedy for one without the other. There’s no cure possible for the wounded individual psyche or soul within the context of an unjust, oppressive society; and no possibility of avoiding injustice, and the most terrible crimes of which an unjust society is capable, including genocide, without the bravest, most scrupulous, most unsentimental and unsparing self-examination of which we surely are, Larry keeps telling us, capable – or he admonishes us that we will become capable of such self-examination the moment we open our eyes and our minds, face the evidence history and contemporary reality provide us, the moment we realize, as Bertolt Brecht wrote, that we’ll certainly go down if we don’t stand up for ourselves.

The Destiny of Me is Part Two of Larry Kramer’s Song of Myself. It’s American in its darkness and in its search for the light, in its angry despair and in its immensely open heart, in its tireless conviction that the new world can and must be made and re-made and is always waiting for us down the road, waiting for us to guess at and then move in what we hope is the right direction.

“Happy Birthday, Larry. I love you. You can be a pain in the ass, but I love you anyway and maybe because of that, you’ve made yourself irreplaceable if not always easy. You’ve always known that being easy or well-behaved or well-mannered or reflexively deferential isn’t the point of anything worth having; it’s certainly neither the point of democracy nor the means by which democracy is extended, and when democracy is threatened, politeness isn’t what’s called for. Nowadays when we’re endlessly lectured about how even in the face of a terrifying threat to our rights and our republic, we need to remain polite, and worse, how we’re told to show the other side that we’re willing to let them build walls and discriminate against us; now, in the face of the very real threat of fascism posed by the Trump gang, its malevolent lieutenants, adherent kleptocrats, white supremacists, sexual predators and anti-LGBTQ theocratic thugs and its congressional enablers, let’s remember, back when these dreadful people first started dismantling our republic, Larry Kramer went to the White House and loudly booed Ronald Reagan. In the White House! Fuck Ronald Reagan. Fuck his whole treasonous party. Fuck Trump.. And Happy Fucking Birthday, Larry! Bis hundert und tzvatzik yor!”

Francesca Hayward of the Royal Ballet.

(5) MANON at the ROYAL BALLET choreographed by Kenneth McMillan.  I am embarrassed to say that I had never seen a Kenneth MacMillan ballet until this past year on one of my cultural pilgrimages to London.  I was raised mostly on George Balanchine and Jerry Robbins and Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham and have never liked story ballet. But seeing Manon at the Royal Ballet corrected the impressions I had about story ballet and my stubbornness regarding my dislike of it – well, at least where MacMillan is concerned. In addition, the set design by the late Nicholas Georgiadis and the lighting design by John B. Read  – and acting, yes acting – were all exemplary.  I am also a convert to the Stalls Circle at the Royal Opera House. I had seat 19, Row A on Stalls Circle Left and I was at stage level and I felt almost as if I were there on it with the dancers. Francesca Hayward was transcendent in the title role. I also loved Alexander Campbell as Lescaut. Frederico Bonelli as Des Grieux impressed me more with his partnering of Hayward and his acting than he did with his dancing although he is certainly a wonder to behold in his solo turns. I even loved the souped-up orchestrations for Massenet’s score where I was perched over the orchestra to absorb the sweeping sound of it all.  I could have sat there for another three hours.  I am looking forward to MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet on my birthday, March 28th, at the Royal Opera House when I am back in London.  I even have a seat next to the one I had before.

Pas de Deux from “Bud Suite” performed by members of the Stephen Petronio company. Photo by Amitava Sarkar

I also was very moved this summer by a program I saw at Hudson Hall here in Hudson, New York, where I now live, presented by the STEPHEN PETRONIO dance company.  The choreographer also has established an intersectional arts center – Petronio Residency Center – in nearby Round Top, New York.  Among the works at Hudson Hall were excerpts from Underland (2003), inspired by music of Nick Cave; and Bud Suite (2006), which muses on the melodic riffs of Rufus Wainwright.  Petronio’s is a more roughhouse and homoerotic – even roomier – choreographic refuge than the rather staid though sensual confines of MacMillan’s place in the dance world even as the latter pushed past the stateliness of the ballet before he arrived in its environs and made his home there and, throwing open a window or two, remodeled it a bit.  And yet MacMillan always, I hear, felt as if he were an outsider at the Royal Ballet.  I am grateful that Petronio is more modern and, well, Cage-ier in his aesthetic – but no less worthy or moving – than MacMillan when Sir Kenneth was cutting his own choreographic path through those souped-up passages in Massenet.  Petronio has found a way to celebrate his own outsiderness – and ours – and elevate it into his own singular artistry.

Carey Mulligan. Photo by Matt Doyle.

(6) The Royal Court is one of my favorite theatres.  GIRLS & BOYS, Dennis Kelly’s one-woman extended one-act which was directed by Lindsey Turner at the Royal Court last year was stringent and clear-eyed yet soulful, even searing.   It starred Carey Mulligan as the woman who tells us the story of her courtship and her marriage and her parenthood, and the aftermath of it all.  Mulligan, who can be a bit cold and calculating as an actress but one that is always compelling, was magnificent in the role.  She was hilarious and even kind of cold and calculatingly mean when called upon – and deeply heartbreaking when it all became clear as to what she was bearing almost unbearable witness to before us.

Cecilia Noble in “Nine Night.”

(7) NINE NIGHT at the National Theatre.  This play by Natasha Gordon and directed by Roy Alexander Weise did what all great plays do for me: it took me to a world which I’d never inhabited and settled me into it.  In this case, it was the life of a Jamaican immigrant family in London. The whole cast was remarkable, but it was Cecilia Noble as Aunt Maggie who wowed me.   It was a great comic performance, which took a turn at the end that stunned and stirred me.  There is a touch of the great Bert Lahr to her.  I know that sounds – here we go again – incongruous.  But incongruity is to me, as this list is proving, a touchstone of great artistry.   I wasn’t aware of this actress’s work until I saw her in this glorious production of Nine Night.   But I will now watch for her whenever I am over in London on one of my theatre trips.  I’d love to see Noble do some Beckett.

(7)  Director Sam Mendes’s production of playwright Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN was sensual in the deepest, most corporeal sense.   Butterworth puts his shoulder into his writing; one can smell the effort it takes him, the artistic musk that is a part of the fleshy magic of the theatre he creates.  The Ferryman is certainly somatic.  Visceral.  It was so visceral, in fact, that it was practically a marauding presence there on the stage of the John Gielgud Theatre when I saw it back in February of 2018 in London before it transferred recently to Broadway,  The theatre was an ironic venue named as it is for the plumy, carefully pleasing actor who maybe would not know what to make of  this show’s hyper-reality, which is used to ground its more fanciful – even corny – dramatic moments.   Hell, it was a visceral experience just standing in line on that early frigid February London morning to get a same-day discount ticket.  I am glad I did.  I was on row F right in the center for only 12 pounds sterling for this remarkable production.  

Niall Wright, Paddy Considine, and others in one iteration of the cast of “The Ferryman.” Photo by Johan Persson.

I was a big fan of playwright Butterworth’s Jerusalem and this production of The Ferryman sealed the deal for me.  Set in 1981 in Armagh, one of the six counties that form Northern Ireland, while Bobby Sands and other IRA members are on hunger strike, The Ferryman is a portrait of  a rollicking, ribald cross-generational family, politically and poetically engaged, which inhabits an old farmhouse haunted by familial sagas even as new ones are being played out before us.  The work is deeply magical in its earthy appeal in the way the Irish have of being grubby and grounded as they so gracefully take their un-fancy flights of fancy; the play is pungent with soiled souls as well as the Irish soil itself that is so fertile with folly and courage and confession.  There is room in this expansive, three-hour play for two matriarchal aunts on this farm – one dotty with faerie-fodder and lost love and the other with the fodder of radicalism and hatred for Thatcher that is lost on no one.  The Ferryman is rambling.  It is robust.  It is shocking.  And it sure-as-hell is a great piece of theatre.  Afterward, I was reminded of the W. B. Yeats quote:  “They must go out of the theatre with the strength they live by strengthened from looking upon some passion that could, whatever its chosen way of life, strike down an enemy …”

Heidi Schreck. Photo by Ike Edeani.

(8) WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME by Heidi Schreck.  I saw this at New York Theatre Workshop.  It then had a limited run off-Broadway and now will be moving to Broadway starting March 14th at the Helen Hayes Theatre.  The play, in which Schreck also stars and holds forth in an almost one-woman show, is a brilliant distillation of this political and cultural moment even as it is a discursive dramatic event. The scholarship is as impressive as the performance. I was in tears almost the whole time because of the Constitutional chaos we’ve been going through the last two years. But the production is filled with a kind of ornery joy, too, even as its anger and engagement are fraught with both a timelessness and a timeliness. This was one of the most thrilling and important works I have seen in a long time. A conflation of politics and art and the devastatingly personal. Thank you, Heidi Schreck, for your courage and your art and your engagement.

Ben Batt (left) and Jonathan Bailey in “The York Realist” at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo by Johan Persson

(9)  I adored the THE YORK REALISTwhich was  a co-production of the Donmar Warehouse, where I saw it last winter in London, and the Sheffield Theatres, where it ran last spring.   A revival of playwright Peter Gill’s keenly observed romantic story of a North Country farmer and his more metropolitan boyfriend set in the early 1960s, it was directed with an acute kind of care by Robert Hastie, who is the artistic director of the Sheffield.  I was reminded of Chekhov in its teeming simplicity as so many complex emotions roiled beneath the household’s surface, its narrative divided between country life and city life, and the utter longing that wafted about the proceedings like the winter air sneaking in through the cracks of the rustic tied cottage where it was set as the characters warmed themselves not only with the old stove at the center of the room where all the action took place, but also with the proximity of human bodies within such a cottage and such lives.  The play was less about the emotional traumas of being gay – there was a refreshing comfort that the two main characters had about their sexuality and their attraction – than it was about the deeply English conflicts of class and geography and culture.

The production could not have been bettered, nor could its cast.  Lesley Nicol – whom you may know as the cook Mrs. Patmore in Downton Abbey – played the mother of the farmer who was  himself played by Ben Batt.  The more cosmopolitan boyfriend was portrayed by Jonathan Bailey, who is singing “I’m Not Getting Married Today” as part of the same-sex couple in the hit revival of Company reimagined in distaff ways by director Marianne Elliott at that Gielgud Theatre.   The two mirroring monologues that each of these men had about, respectively, Batt’s character’s love of the foreignness of London and Bailey’s about his character’s love – but foreignness – of the North Country were spellbinding and, yes, heartbreaking.  I will remember this production and the two performances of these two fine actors in years to come with more fondness than I can remember being conjured for me in a theatre in quite a while.  Fondness, once conjured, once found, is a fine thing. This rediscovered play helped me rediscover that. 

(10) OKLAHOMA!  I saw this re-thought and re-orchestrated version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at St. Ann’s Warehouse after its first being produced at Bard a couple of summers ago at its Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. It is moving to Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre in March.   Director Daniel Fish has done the production’s rethinking.  Daniel Kruger has done the orchestrations and arrangements for a country-and-western band complete with steel guitar.  I had chills when that final rendition of the title song was sung in the context of all that had gone before it in this starkly American rendering of a starker America, not the romanticized one in that original production which, according to its choreographer Agnes de Millemoved servicemen to tears on their way to World War II who saw it back in 1943. That final rendition of the title song now is an indictment of this starker country for we see in this production Trump’s America aborning – which, in some way, was also the America for which those teary serviceman were fighting as well.  And yet this production when I saw it at St. Ann’s was filled also with a juvenile kind of joy, one that injuriously, alas, turns in on itself and becomes cynical in order to salvage what is left of it for the fewer folk left to feel it.  I am glad that it is making the move to Broadway so audiences can experience the curdled wonder of this production which hasn’t been so much reimagined as it has been tilled and told anew in the context of our country’s realizing how we revel not in the lies we tell ourselves, but the lies that are told to us.

Mary Testa as Aunt Eller and James Davis as Will Parker. Photo by Sara Krulwich

The cast was perfection in the show’s St. Ann’s iteration – especially Patrick Vaill as Jud, Damon Daunno as Curly, Mary Testa as Aunt Eller, and Ali Stroker as Ado Annie.  But the “Dream Ballet” – led by the gorgeously androgynous Gabrielle Hamilton – is something perfectly other than perfection.  The ballet in the original production closed Act One.  In this one, it opens Act Two.  I think the choice was made to relocate it because of its shock value.  There was something brutal about it.  Elemental.  Lascivious.  Louche.  There was not a lyrical elongated moment to savor in the whole damn thing.  It sashayed at times, as the earlier one did, but did so with more self-knowledge and swagger.  It was a kind of galloping dare to its being a dream at all.  It was not a balletic dream, but a fever one – nightmarish even – and fully female.  Choreographed by John Heginbotham, there was no Agnes de Mille-ing about; those poetic, fluttering hands of hers got booted aside. There was even a rutting prosaic quality to this “ballet” that roughly pushed any poetry aside along with any faux, affixed beauty.  There was the rank aroma of sex in this dream, not the perfume of it.  The androgynous Hamilton – I’ll be as blunt as the dance itself –  did remind us that she has a pudendum; she led with it; pushed it forward; propelled herself along the floor with it.  She never displayed it but did seem displeased that choreographer Heginbotham had not felt it necessary to do so.  Being reminded that it is there – unseen, but not unknown – seemed the whole point of this dream now.

There was  a dark, golden haze to this whole production – sometimes quite literally as all the lights went out before another shock to the play’s system took place in Act One with video projections of Curly and Jud in close-up on the wall across from which was another wall filled with guns and rifles.  This was a violent and brutal Oklahoma! for a more violent and brutal America, which such a southwestern state helped to pioneer.

The ending was certainly more violent and brutal too as it mirrored all the guns on that wall.  In the original, Jud fell on his own knife in the final fight with Curly, but in this production Curly used a gun to kill Jud.  It was much clearer what frontier justice was allowing him to get away with.  And there was blood.  Indeed, there were aspects of this production that reminded me at times of the film There Will Be Blood, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, which was inspired by Upton Sinclair’s Oil!.  I think Sinclair would have loved this production.  I don’t know if Rodgers and Hammerstein and DeMille would have.  But this show, back in its initial day, was thought of as fearless.  I think they would have responded well to that aspect of this production: it is fearless.  We need more of that in the theatre.  And right now in this fantasia of a country.

MY UNFAVORITE PRODUCTION

ABSOLUTE HELL at the National Theatre in London.  It almost was.  There were a few lovely moments, however,  that saved it from being an absolute one.  This was director Joe Hill-Gibbins’s interpretation of playwright Rodney Ackland’s The Pink Room which had its premiere in 1952 and that many people of that time considered a libel of the British people. Ackland reworked the play in the 1980s and retitled it; Judi Dench starred in a television version of it in 1991, which was directed by Anthony Page.

Some of the ensemble in “Absolute Hell.” Photo by Johan Persson.

The play, with a cast of almost thirty actors, is set in war ravaged, war rattled London at a private club filled with lowlifes of every kind.  I saw it after it had opened and noticed in my program that the running time listed had been cut by almost 40 minutes by the time I saw it.  And yet it all still seemed interminable.  The cast – not the dissolute, intemperate characters they were playing – seemed quite an unhappy lot at the curtain call.  Even the audience seemed happier after having witnessed it all for we realized  we didn’t have to go through it again the next night.  That said, I do admire actors who come in each night and give it their all.  They were game and even gallant to do so in this play in this production.  Good for them. In some perverse way, I admire actors in  productions I don’t like even more than those in productions I do. Glenn Close in a story here at sessumsMagazine.com pointed out a similar artistic gallantry: “I love my fellow actors. You go to some terrible play, some off-off-Broadway play and you see somebody being not very good, and I love them even more. It takes a certain type of bravery.”  Bravo to the bravery of actors in plays that are not bravoed.

MOST OVERRATED PRODUCTIONS

THREE TALL WOMEN and NETWORK.  Ironically these two productions contained within them two towering performances which, in their brilliance, caused an imbalance to each production that caused the plays they were in to teeter over and the productions to falter and fail.

Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale in “Network.” Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Well, Network is not even a play; it is instead an adaptation by Lee Hall of the better script for the film by Paddy Chayefsky   I did not see the production at the National in London but caught it early in its run when it transferred to Broadway.  Director Ivo van Hove’s hive-like approach to adapting the film to the stage pointed up its weaknesses.  The lead role – the newscaster Howard Beale – is not a character.  He is a cypher-as-oracle. It speaks to Bryan Cranston’s ability that he, in his portrayal of Beale for the stage, redefined the famous mad-as-hell monologue and slowly mined it for a stunning pathos as he refused to rely on its simply being a cultural and political cri de coeur.  Cranston created a character before our eyes, one that was not there in the script.  The rest of the cast was rather awful.  The busyness of the video screens and the diners clinking their wine glasses and tinging their fork tines on their plates and the waiters to-and-froing at the bar bringing them their wine and food to the side of the play’s action was maddening in both its noise and visual interruptions, and its lack of adding an iota to the narrative.   It was all a distraction and yet still couldn’t distract from the emptiness at the center of this production.  This play of that film was no longer a warning.  It was a wallow.

I am an outlier about the production of Three Tall Women that received so many hosannas on Broadway last year.  Glenda Jackson gave a bellowing beauty of a performance as the character the play’s author Edward Albee labeled as “A” in this biographical bellow too of a play, another cri de coeur, but this one from Edward’s haunted heart.  I did not like Laurie Metcalfe as “B” and Alison Pill as “C.”  Metcalfe has become rather mannered to me as an actress and keeps giving the same performance over and over now, a kind of heightened naturalistic how-are-you-liking-me-I-ain’t-haughty-or-highfalutin bunch of folderol and fiddle-de-dee of feeling and low-grade luster.

Glenda Jackson as “A” in “Three Tall Women.” Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

I saw the off-Broadway production back in 1994 at the Promenade Theatre, directed by Lawrence Sacharow, with Myra Carter as “A,”  Marian Seldes as “B,”  and Jordan Baker as “C.”  I loved it so much I saw it again the next year during its run when  Seldes assumed the role of “A,” with Frances Conroy as “B” and Joan Van Ark as “C.”   I even saw the much more elaborately staged London production in the West End in 1994, directed by Anthony Page,  with Maggie Smith as “A” and Francis de la Tour as “B.”  Maybe it was all the lovely, moving memories I had of the array of those performances that spoiled this latest iteration for me.  If I had never seen the play and the other performances, I might have liked this one more.

I actually met the real tall woman on whom Albee based this play: Frankie Albee, Edward’s mom. I had gone over to Edward’s home in Montauk with our mutual friend, poet Howard Moss, for a dinner Edward was giving for his mother who was visiting him from Palm Beach.  Elaine Steinbeck was also at the dinner and Joanna Steichen. When Howard and I walked in Frankie was coming out of the bathroom off the entranceway in her Halston Ultrasuede. She immediately and rather regally turned her back to me. “Zip me up!” she demanded. “You look like a young man who knows his way around a zipper.”

I quickly headed for the kitchen where Edward was in the process of pureeing our entire meal so everything on our plates would later look as if we were being served an assortment of baby food. Frankie was in her late 80s at that point and having digestive issues, Edward explained, when I asked about the pureeing. “I assume you met the cunt,” he said, growling over the growl of the food processor.

I wrote more about this scene in my second memoir I Left It on the Mountain. Before I published it, however, I sent Edward the scene and asked if it were okay that I quoted him as calling his mother the c-word. He asked me to take it out, which I recalled while watching Three Tall Women with the magnificent Jackson as Frankie. So much of that play is about calling his mother just that and yet asking himself to take it out.  It gives the whole play its loving, malevolent frisson that I just did not feel in this production as Jackson big-footed the evening just as Frankie had big-footed that dinner out in Montauk.

 MY TWO FAVORITE PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR

Falco photographed by Nigel Parry.

(1) EDIE FALCO.  Her performance as the foulmouthed political operative Polly Noonan in The True at The New Group was profound in its, yes, truthfulness.   I have seen Falco in several productions now and I can safely say she is one of our greatest stage actresses.  She’s also smart enough to space out these roles and to await the ones for which she has an artist’s instinctive empathy.  In this play by Sharr White which was set in the Democratic machine politics of Albany in 1977, the character of Noonan (based, I hear, on the mother of New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand) served as a glorified factotum  for the city’s mayor, played deftly by Michael McKean, but their longtime symbiotic relationship went much deeper than work.  It was a dissection in both the writing and the performances of the unspoken sort of romantic relationship – the characters were rather elliptical about it themselves when they attempted to speak of its depth – which gets gossiped about in offices and around a town.   Falco was magnificent in the role.  The whole ensemble was sublime – Peter Scolari, John Pankow, Tracy Shayne, Austin Cauldwell, and Glenn Fitzgerald.  Scott Elliott directed with more than deftness.  There was real grace to what he conjured.  Falco – both vulgar and vulnerable – was fucking transcendent.   I’d buy a ticket just to watch her stockinged right foot again work the pedal on her sewing machine which anchored the woman when she was home mending her her clothes along with her ways.  When I say Falco acts down to her toes, I mean she acts down to her toes.  I will never forget this performance. 

Rory Kinnear as Macbeth at the National Theatre. Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

(2) Rory Kinnear.  London theatre critics all seemed to have disliked the Macbeth this past spring at the National Theatre directed by its Artistic Director, Rufus Norris. I found it rather thrilling in its dystopian Mad Max kind of way. And Rory Kinnear was revelatory in the title role – both raw and royal, lurid and eloquent, lost and found out, weakened not weak. He made Macbeth’s almost aphoristic lines seem new and deeply moving – especially his “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow …” From those “tomorrows” on, he held me spellbound. He’s a character actor who is a leading man. It is as if Ed Harris and John Malkovich had a son and Malkovich won the argument about having him schooled in England.

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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