Thursday, August 4, 2022

Theater Reviews: Confronting Tragedies in “Oresteia” (Greek), “The Butcher Boy” (Community) and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (Drink)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (c) Miles Skalli

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 
Theatre at St. Clement’s 

The best way to pass the time during the current “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” billed as the first ever approved Off-Broadway production of the Tennessee Williams 1955 Pulitzer-Prize winning play, is to make it a drinking game. Be Brick (Matt De Rogatis), the tortured, alcoholic hero drinking nonstop, waiting for the little click in his head to calm his mind, and take a shot every time you hear “mendacity,” “spastic colon” or the title. This ambitious but woefully tepid revival doesn’t give us much to engage with otherwise. Just like the infamous 2017 National Theatre revival with Jack O’Connell and Sienna Miller, this Ruth Stage production is in modern dress, has Brick take his Act 1 shower on stage instead behind a bathroom door and includes a British actress as Maggie, the titular “cat on a hot tin roof” (drink) elongating every Southern syllable to the point of incomprehension. I have been of fan of Sonoya Mizuno since her small but pivotal role in the movie “Ex Machina” and her impressive turn as the heroine in the TV show “Devs” (both created by Alex Garland). Her choice to tackle one of Tennessee Williams’ most verbose heroines (the first act is essentially a long monologue) is admirable but she is just not up to the challenge. De Rogatis does better embodying Brick with the required sadness and anger at his situation, which includes a loveless marriage to Maggie, the recent death of Skipper, his one true friend, and his disgust at the mendacity (drink) of his family battling over the fate of his father’s plantation estate.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (c) Miles Skalli

Christian Jules LeBlanc and Alison Fraser are probably the fittest Big Daddy and Big Momma I’ve ever seen, which is at odds with the text that mentions Big Momma’s size and of course Big Daddy’s health problems – certainly not the spastic colon (drink!) he believes it is. LeBlanc certainly brings an energy to the part that is welcomed, but he lacks the warmth and nuance to make Big Daddy less of a caricature. Fraser is rather mannered, but always fun to see on stage, even though she is inaudible for many moments because of poor sound design. It is always interesting to see which of the many endings Williams wrote for “Cat” a production chooses (it’s like “Clue” in that respect), but Joe Rosario’s uneven direction had already lost me long ago for me to care. 

The Butcher Boy (c) Carol Rosegg

The Butcher Boy 
At Irish Repertory Theatre 

Have you ever wondered what the first Broadway preview audience of “Sweeney Todd” on March 1, 1979, thought when they saw Sondheim’s now-considered masterpiece? There must have been some unsuspecting theatergoers that night looking forward to a little song and dance after a hard day’s work, getting assaulted with themes of murder, revenge and cannibalism instead. While not as musically daring as Sondheim (who could be?), the world premiere of Asher Muldoon’s uneven “The Butcher Boy” certainly gave me feelings of “Sweeney Todd” with its unrelenting story of Francie Brady, the titular character and unreliable narrator of this ambitious if unsavory new musical. Whatever you think of the show, there is no doubt that Nicholas Barasch as the unwaveringly, unsentimental and chilling Francie is the highlight of this production. When we first meet Francie, he is a young school lad in 1960s Ireland, who gives the outward appearance of an energetic and rowdy scamp, but it soon gives way to some bullying tendencies as a product of a volatile homelife that will forever affect his destiny. Based on Pat McCabe’s novel of the same name (later made into a 1997 movie by Neil Jordan), Muldoon (who wrote the book and the songs) doesn’t shy away from the disturbing aspects of Francie’s character, not least of which are the imaginary pigs who egg him to exhibit ever-increasingly antisocial behavior. Barasch accomplishes this by having Francie believe in his own cheerful, “just being a kid” demeanor, which turns out to be just a coping mechanism for his real actions. And if you know either the book or the movie, you know it’s as upsetting as anything in “Sweeney Todd.” Big props to the rest of the cast who fully commits to this dark material, with Andrea Lynn Green as Francie’s Ma and Daniel Marconi as one of Francie’s bullied schoolmates as standouts as they also play the most sympathetic characters in this tale. Muldoon and director Ciarán O’Reilly have crafted the show cleverly enough to lure in the audience before all hell breaks loose. But like “The Twilight Zone” this production references constantly, “The Butcher Boy” is more interested in the eventual twist rather than character development. An admirable debut for Muldoon and I certainly look forward to what’s next for this young composer. Whatever it is, it won’t be what we expect. 

Oresteia (c) Joan Marcus

At the Park Ave Armory 

Two Almeida Theatre productions from London have taken residency at the Upper East Side’s Park Avenue Armory in repertory: Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and the Greek trilogy “Oresteia.” It’s interesting to note that unlike the poster for “Hamlet,” which features the titled character, the poster for “Oresteia,” doesn’t feature Orestes but his mother, Klytemnestra. And after seeing the ambitious over three-and-a-half-hour production, you’ll understand why. Anastasia Hille is indeed a marvel and a force of nature, in contrast to the rest of director and co-adaptor Robert Icke’s production, which seems more interested in spectacle and morality than human emotion. Icke devotes two acts of this production to the first play in the trilogy, “Agamemnon,” focusing on Klytemnestra’s reaction to her husband Agamemnon’s (Angus Wright) declaration that the only way to end the current war, according to a prophecy from the gods, is to sacrifice their daughter Iphigenia. The third act is a combination of the other two plays of the trilogy, “The Libation Bearers” and “Eumenides” (with a pause between them), which focus on Iphigenia’s brother Orestes (Luke Treadway) and how he deals with the aftermath of his parents’ deeds. Icke frames the entire play with Orestes working out what happened with a therapist and thus narrating the play as a flashback. And like all therapies, the problem always comes down to the mother. Except for Hille, the rest of the cast recites their lines in mostly a monotone, although there is a cute moment when young Iphigenia (Alexis Rae Forlenza and Elyana Faith Randolph in alternating performances) realizes she might become a vegetarian. The rest of the production is rather sterile, which is not a bad thing, especially when all the odd touches finally tie together and make sense by the end (although the fate of the character Electra, played by Tia Bannon, is never resolved or explained satisfactorily). Still, I was fascinated by Icke’s manipulations of Aeschylus’ original text in creating a satisfying modern take in our time of wars and political machinations.

As I am also part of the theater community in addition to being a reviewer, I will occasionally see a show that a friend or acquaintance has worked on. I believe I can be impartial in my assessment, but now in full disclosure, you know.

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