Monday, April 1, 2024

Theater Reviews: Eclectic Off-Broadway Productions Include a Magic Show Worthy of Vegas (“Stalker”); a Fully Stocked, One-Person “Hamlet;” and Drag Superstar Charles Busch Battling “Ibsen’s Ghost”

Ibsen's Ghost (c) James Leynse

Theater: Ibsen’s Ghost 
At Primary Stages at 59E59 

You will be forgiven if you thought that Charles Busch’s new play Ibsen’s Ghost is the playwright’s adaptation of the prolific Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1881 Ghosts. But alas, if you were expecting to see Busch’s interpretation of the play’s heroine, Helen Alving, as she cares for her ailing son Oswald, you will be disappointed (although those who stan Ibsen will get some sly references). And that will be your only disappointment of the evening, as Busch, as usual, has written another wonderful play, this time about Ibsen’s widow, Suzannah. The title’s singular ghost is indeed Ibsen, who metaphorically hovers over Suzannah as she deals with his estate in the aftermath of his death. This includes the unexpected appearances of Ibsen’s former protégé Hanna (Jennifer Van Dyck) as well as a mysterious sailor named Wolf (a welcome return of Thomas Gibson to the New York stage). Both confront Suzannah with secrets in Ibsen’s past, secrets that Suzannah, in typical Busch heroine fashion, resolutely does everything in her power to refute or ignore. Suzannah, who may be harboring a few secrets of her own (reminiscent of Glenn Close’s character in The Wife), is another in a long line of wonderful parts Busch has written for himself, with hysterical one-liners usually accompanied by a melodramatic actorly flourish that tickles the funny bone every time. Busch has always been generous in giving all his characters memorable moments, but he has really written a juicy part in Hanna, who, in Busch regular Jennifer Van Dyck’s capable hands, almost steals the show with a masterful and exhausting monologue. Also giving wonderful turns are two-time Tony-winner Judy Kaye as Suzannah’s snooty stepmother, crackerjack Jennifer Cody as her physically deformed maid and chameleon Christopher Borg in two memorable roles, but who shines brighter as the unfortunately named Rat Wife. Compared to Busch’s ambitious last play, The Confessions of Lily Dare, the slighter Ibsen’s Ghost does feel like a minor diversion. But it’s an enjoyable diversion, and the play certainly lives up to its subtitle An Irresponsible Biographical Fantasy. The handsomely mounted production by Busch’s invaluable long-time director Carl Andress will delight devoted fans and curious newcomers alike. 

Eddie Izzard's Hamlet (c) Carol Rosegg

Theater: Eddie Izzard's Hamlet 
At the Orpheum Theatre 

If, as Shakespeare noted in As You Like It, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” how is an audience to accept a stage in which “all the men and women” are portrayed by only one player? This is the challenge actor Eddie Izzard has accepted with gleeful wit and virtuosity in her one-person Hamlet, adapted for the stage by Mark Izzard and unfussily directed by Selina Cadell. If you only know Izzard from her stand-up, you might be expecting an outrageous send-up of the Shakespearean tragedy. But from the first moment Izzard steps on stage, it is obvious she is going to adhere to the spirit of Hamlet as she plays all the soldiers who witness the ghost of Hamlet’s father respectfully. Even in the following overpopulated scene in the palace, where we are introduced to two sets of families, Izzard is able to keep everything clear, although if you have never seen or read the play, it might be a bit more difficult. Izzard has tackled drama before, most memorably on Broadway in the masterful Joe Egg over a decade ago, but performing Shakespeare is a different, daunting beast, which in turn makes playing all the parts quite Herculean. And as much as I admired Izzard’s dramatic heft, the moments I most enjoyed were when she played some of the more comedic characters or situations. While giving the mostly lighthearted Polonius some nice, humorous line-readings, Izzard really sinks her teeth in the ones involving the Player King and the gravedigger. And her interpretation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is so fun that you look forward to every time these minor characters show up. Izzard, who also performed a one-person Great Expectations, doesn’t rely on anything but her voice and physicality for this show, eschewing costume changes and props of any kind, and utilizing the most barebone of a set. That just leaves the hardworking Tyler Elich, whose invaluable lighting design does most of the heavy lifting. The production, which ends its New York run on April 14th before heading to Chicago and eventually ending in London, is enjoyable throughout, but one has to wonder what a non-theatergoer would think if they wandered into the Orpheum Theatre as Izzard is performing the famous fencing scene as both Hamlet and Laertes. It may seem laughable on its own, but by this time in the show, the audience has already been seduced by the talented Izzard and is holding their collective breath as to who will actually win the duel. 

Stalker (c) Jeremy Daniel

Theater: Stalker 
At New World Stages 

New World Stages is sort of becoming the Las Vegas of Off-Broadway. The once discount movie theater (who remembers that?) is now hosting a variety of family friendly spectacles as well as a couple of more traditional productions (The Play That Goes Wrong) with the long-running Gazillion Bubble Show, the theater complex’s anchor. The latest show to join this roster is the ominously titled Stalker, Swedish illusionists Peter Brynolf and Jonas Ljung’s first New York show in which they continually amaze a mostly skeptical Manhattan audience with some unique tricks of their trade (the guy behind me gasped, “No way,” at least six times, a couple even before the magical reveal). Brynolf and Ljung are certainly ingratiating performers, but there’s something about their sly presentation and just enough outsider vibe that keeps the audience’s guards up, although not enough to stop them from gleefully volunteering to be part of the show. What starts off as seemingly random traditional tricks we’re used to seeing, like card tricks and bending things with the mind, the pair (with expert assistance from director Edward Af Sillén) subtly weaves a topical, paranoia narrative that someone is always tracking your every move with technology. This leads to a finale that is pretty impressive and mind-blowing, even for me, the guy who’s always looking for the sleight of hand. But even my theories (they are wearing earpieces the whole time, and occasionally, they enter the audience to do some tricks, leaving the stage in darkness where who knows what is going on up there) don’t begin to explain some of the more outrageous tricks, like the one including a cake and another involving a dictionary. Brynolf and Ljung are protegees of the incomparable Penn & Teller, who, after the pair opened for them in (naturally) Vegas, is now producing this show. Sometimes things that seem to be mistakes or mishaps turn out to be planned, while at other times, there do seem to be cultural and language differences that throw the two for a curve. At the performance I was at, a woman was so flustered that she kind of messed up the trick when she misheard the question. But later in the show, all was redeemed when they brought up a father and his young son to the stage, and after every trick, the joy and surprise on the kid’s face was priceless. And I can guarantee you that at some point in the 90-minute show, even the most jaded audience members had that same look of wonder.

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