Thursday, July 11, 2024

Broadway Review: Cole Escola’s Irreverent and Hilarious “Oh, Mary” Reimagines Mary Todd Lincoln as a Frustrated and Petulant First Lady Longing to Be Back on Stage

"Oh, Mary!" (c) Emilio Madrid 

Theater: “Oh, Mary!” 
On Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre

Premise: Actor and comedian Cole Escola has created some truly memorable characters on TV and YouTube (including Jesus’ sister Jessica Christ, Bernadette Peters doing her taxes and the spoiled Chassie from At Home with Any Sedaris), and now they have turned their attention to the legitimate stage with “Oh, Mary!” The sold-out hit off-Broadway, directed by Sam Pinkleton, has moved to Broadway, with Escola doing memorable national TV appearances with Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon, sometimes even in character to promote it. And that character is Mary Todd Lincoln. It is the waning days of the Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln (Conrad Ricamora) is feeling the pressure to find a resolution, so he can’t possibly also deal with his bored and drunk wife, Mary (Escola), who yearns to return to the cabaret stage. As a compromise, Abe agrees to let her be in a play if she takes lessons from a handsome, acting teacher (played charmingly by James Scully, reuniting with Ricamora, his Fire Island film co-star), whom Mary takes a liking to, so she agrees. Also in the play are Bianca Leigh as Mary’s much-maligned companion and Tony Macht as a soldier who is Lincoln’s closest (wink, wink) confidant. It’s an understatement to say "Oh, Mary!” is not historically accurate, but it is hysterically inaccurate. 

Monday, July 8, 2024

The Interested Bystander’s 2024 Theater Awards Round-up

The Outsiders (c) Matthew Murphy

Here are the theater awards given out for the 2023-2024 season. 

2024 Tony Awards

Best Play 
Stereophonic by David Adjmi

Best Revival of a Play 
Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Thursday, July 4, 2024

Film Reviews: Indie Cinema Tackles Themes of Old Age (“Thelma”), Young Age (“Janet Planet”), Indigenous Life (“Fancy Dance”), Grief (“Ghostlight”) and Whatever It Is Yorgos Lanthimos Dreams Up (“Kinds of Kindness”)

Kinds of Kindness (c) Searchlight Pictures

Film: Kinds of Kindness 
In Cinemas 

Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film gives us his version of the TV series Black Mirror with an unhinged Willem Dafoe personifying Mirror’s theme of technology gone awry. The film stars the same set of actors in three short stories, but they play different roles in each with only the tiniest of threads connecting them. In the first story, Jesse Plemons plays a successful businessman whose perfect life changes when he deviates from his boss’s (Willem Dafoe) prescribed life regimen. In the second, Plemons plays a cop whose wife (Emma Stone) is rescued months after crashing on a deserted island, but he has suspicions that he’s being duped. And in the third, Plemons and Stone are members of a cult (led by Dafoe and Hong Chau) in search of a prophet from God. Like many of his well-received features like Poor Things and The Favourite, these three shorts have characters who are already on the edge of sanity, then the plot throws them into an even more paranoid and hyper reality. The actors are all excellent, with Lanthimos veterans Dafoe and Stone, and newcomer Plemons (who won Best Actor at Cannes), connecting the most with the material in an off-kilter but still lived-in way. Kinds of Kindness (the most ironic title for a movie so far this year) is almost three hours long, so you might as well add Lanthimos’ 2019, 11-minute Nimic (starring a fantastic Matt Dillon and currently playing on MUBI) afterwards and it’ll be like you binged a whole TV season of his unforgiving, unknowable world view. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Theater Review: Off-Broadway Is Burning as “The Jellicle Ball” Celebrates a Jubilant Drag Ballroom Culture With “Cats” as its Jumping-Off Point

Cats: The Jellicle Ball (c) Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Theater: Cats: The Jellicle Ball 

Premise: Imagine, if you will, that your cool and artistic friends have invited you to the social event of the season at a big hotel ballroom, but there’s a P.S. It’s a themed party (like the Met Gala) and the theme is Cats. Not cats as in your pet, but specifically Andrew Lloyd Webber’s huge but derisible hit musical that has lived up to its tagline “Now and Forever” but maybe not in the way Lord Andrew envisioned it. A couple of years back, there was an unremarkable Broadway revival with Leona Lewis as Grizabella, and then, of course, there was the 2019 film version that is probably the biggest flop on Taylor Swift’s resume (she acted in the movie and co-wrote a song), where the CGI cats were rendered in such a poor “uncanny valley” way that Cats’ might have finally used its ninth life. But here we are in 2024 and we get the party invite to a new revisionist version of the musical in which directors Bill Rauch (PAC NYC’s Artistic Director) and Zhailon Levingston (Chicken and Biscuits) reimagine the term “ball.” In the original, it was a yearly gathering of cats competing to be reborn, but in this production, it’s the infamous Harlem ball in which groups (or houses) of LGBTQ+ Black and Latinx drag queens in the 70s and 80s would fabulously strut down the runway in various themed competitions. This niche, underground event became mainstream when Madonna introduced “Vogue” to America in 1990, which was then followed by Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning and, most recently, re-popularized by the TV series, Pose. For “The Jellicle Ball,” each of the musical’s characters (with only the most cursory nod to the Cats theme) become houses, as in the House of Skimbleshanks, where their ALW songs become their signature theme. Along with all the young kids competing, we get respected figures of the past including head judge Old Deuteronomy (crowd favorite Andre DeShields, with a mane worthy of The Lion King); Gus, the Theater Cat, (played by the emcee from Paris Is Burning, Junior LaBeija from the House of LaBeija) and of course, the Glamour Cat (played by "Temptress" Chasity Moore as a faded Shirley Bassey), whose best days may be behind her, but maybe there’s still a flickering light in the House of Grizabella. 

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Theater Reviews: Home Is an Elusive Thing for an Asian Trans Man (“Isabel”), a Black Farmer From North Carolina (“Home”) and a Female War Reporter (“Breaking the Story”)

Isabel (c) Marcus Middleton

Theater: Isabel 
Presented by NAATCO at Abron Arts Center 

In last year’s Japanese animated film, Suzume, directed by Makoto Shinkai, the lead character is a teenage girl who accidently opens a portal into another dimension, turning the handsome stranger she has a crush on into a chair. For the rest of the movie, Suzume and this chair have to work together to close this portal. I am reminded of this movie and that specific plot point while watching playwright reid tang's Isabel, which tries to replicate this sort of magical realism on stage, an especially tricky task for human actors, not two-dimensional drawings. I’m not saying that anyone is turned into a chair in tang’s play, but I’m also not not saying anyone is turned into an inanimate object either. In director Kedian Keohan’s sparse production, we are engulfed in a sort of a fairy tale world in which Matt (Sagan Chen) is living in an old decrepit, possibly haunted house in a small town called Hindsight, surrounded by a forest. Enter Matt’s brother, Harriet (Ni-Ni), who is backpacking through the woods with his girlfriend Isabel (Haruna Lee) and gets lost before finding the house. After a short visit and some family catch-up, Isabel and Harriet leave Hindsight and Matt’s home, and that’s when the play start to go sideways with things that would make sense in an animated film or manga, but on stage needs the audience to take a bigger leap, who, at my performance, seem tentative with every new plot turn. The recurring imagery of a staircase in the woods that lead to nowhere (or everywhere) is one element that intrigues without the need of explanation. The many plot threads do feel connected to the theme of trans-ness. Matt (like Chen himself) is a trans man, and Harriet, who appears as a cis man, also seems to be on the rainbow spectrum. There is an extended and satisfying flashback to Matt and Harriet’s family life when they were teens with their mother (represented offstage as a growling creature) that feels to be the lynchpin and heart of tang’s play. With an identity diverse cast and crew, and a play about a trans man’s search for their place in the world, Isabel is refreshingly odd and curiously riveting. But there’s a higher meaning to the play that tang leaves unexplored or purposefully omitted, like why Isabel is the titled character or how long Matt has been on this journey since leaving home. It’s always fun to try to crack a puzzle play (like say Equus), but Isabel, even with all the provocative elements, seems to be missing a few crucial facts that keep it elusively out of reach.