There are many things that could turn people away from seeing War Horse. A play about a horse? Eh. A play about a horse that uses puppetry? Eek. A play about a horse that uses puppetry that is 145 minutes long? Oh, no.
But I am glad I didn’t let my preconceptions get in the way, and I’m sure the packed house of Tuesday night’s show at the Straz Center was glad to be there as well. The play, based on Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book of the same name, is about a boy, Albert, who loses his childhood horse, Joey, to British troops during WWI, and the great lengths he endures to get him back. The stage adaption, which was first shown at the Royal National Theater of London in 2007, commissioned the South African puppet company Handspring to make Joey and the rest of the horses come to life, and come to life they do. The three people who operate the horses, which are made of metal, wicker, and fabric, quickly disappear as we focus on what is seemingly a real live horse on stage. From the breathing to the fly-swatting tails, no details of the horses’ personalities are left untouched.
The Broadway musical tour production of Elf the Musical, inspired by the film, is up at the Straz Center’s Carol Morsani Hall this weekend, through Sun., Nov. 25.
I took my 8-year-old nephew, Mason Courtney, to see it this past Tuesday night. Just walking into the lobby got us excited for the holiday themed musical. Christmas trees twinkling; people wearing antlers and Santa hats; jars and jars of candy and treats. The anticipation of the upcoming holiday trumped the anxiety of the thought of last-minute present shopping.
And the most famous story of good and evil, that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been revamped and redone countless times. The newest U.S. tour of the musical Jekyll & Hyde, at Straz center until Sun., Oct 28, stars American Idol alum Constantine Maroulis and R&B singer Deborah Cox, which I enjoyed watching at Wednesday night’s performance.
For a third summer in a row, the Dear Aunt Gertrude Improv group has offered family-friendly improvisational fun at The Box, a studio theater located in the heart of Ybor City. This year's theme is "Summer Skool", and the team has created an atmosphere unlike any summer school program you could have wished to flunk into.
I admire Rent more than I like it.
I admire Jonathan Larsons idea of translating Puccinis La Bohème into a turn-of-the-millennium New York rock opera, in which AIDS and not TB is the disease stalking everyone, and gays, lesbians and cross-dressers surround the central hetero relationship. I admire Eric Davis staging of the musical, which evokes the 1990s East Village just as persuasively as his work on Hair last year (also for American Stage in the Park) brought us a 1968 Big Apple, and I admire a lot of the acting in this fine production (which I saw in a preview), from Pete Zickys clever portrayal of Roger to Alison Burns spectacular work as Maureen. If these features inspiration, direction, acting were all that Rent offered, it would easily be a winner.
But this is an opera 99 percent singing and 1 percent spoken dialogue. And the music of Rent is second-rate. Or worse. And its a chore to hear the lot of it.
I first saw A Lesson Before Dying in a top-notch production at Sarasotas Florida Studio Theatre more than a decade ago, and my ultimate response was: Wheres the beef? After all, this was a show that promised to show us how an innocent black man, condemned to die in the electric chair, was taught by an impassioned schoolteacher how to bear his terrible fate. But there was no lesson in Lesson it seemed to me that the promised epiphany never appeared, and that the attitudes conveyed to our falsely-convicted hero came to little more than Keep your head up. Fortunately, the acting was superb, so even if the script failed to deliver, the evening still offered some satisfactions.
Well, now Ive seen Stageworks new version of Romulus Linneys play adapted from a novel by Ernest J. Gaines and Im sorry to say that its every bit as disappointing as its predecessor. Further, the acting in the Stageworks show (which I saw in a preview) is only occasionally persuasive, so there are moments in this experience when theres very little to hold our attention. Fortunately,
Miss Julie (first produced in 1889) is an important play in the history of modern theater, one that demonstrated a thoroughgoing naturalism when such a thing was still controversial, and that also brought to the stage a daring degree of sexual candor. In its tale of a young aristocratic woman who lusts after her fathers valet, it gave author August Strindberg a chance to weigh in on class and gender conflicts, and to create two memorable characters as notable for their contradictions as for their consistencies.
The good news for local theatergoers is that the current freeFall Theatre version of Miss Julie is first-class in every way: acting, directing, set and costume design. The bad news is, the play itself can, to moderns, feel windy and overlong (even at 90 minutes), and the class issues especially can feel irrelevant to a contemporary American (we may be a plutocracy, but were not an aristocracy).
Still, the pluses outdo the minuses in this fine production, directed impeccably by Eric Davis. If you dont mind the occasional longueurs, its worth your attention.
Several years ago, the Polish critic Jan Kott published a book called The Theatre of Essence, and ever since then that provocative title has affected how I think of a whole class of modern play. Waiting for Godot is a play of essence, I think the tramps Didi and Gogo represent not real hobos but a modern spiritual inscape composed of doubt and longing, terror and confusion. A play like Tennessee Williams Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also shows us the essential in this case, pure id, animal desire, demanding, craving, shouting to be heard above the din made by the other beasts.
And after having seen the fine production of Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at American Stage, Im convinced that this too belongs to the theater of essence that its real subject is the madness that every good marriage represses, the hatred and rage and resentment that lurk somewhere south of consciousness and only surface, in most relationships, for the briefest of moments before the apologies start and normal functioning resumes.
If Virginia Woolf is a great play and I think it is then its greatness comes from its pitiless illumination of the evil beneath our best intentions, an evil which doesnt cease to hunger for its moment. And instead of an embarrassing slip of the tongue which is already more than most people render George and Martha offer us three full, noisy acts of unrestrained malice. The resulting spectacle is gripping, enthralling and (nervously) very funny.
Dael Orlandersmiths Yellowman is a powerful, shocking, and finally poignant play about light-skinned and dark-skinned African Americans in South Carolina in the late 20th century. Following two in particular dark-skinned Alma, played brilliantly by Fanni Green, and high yella Eugene, portrayed sensitively by the impressive Jim Wicker (who is himself white) Orlandersmith shows us how prejudice within a small community can shatter lives, wreck futures, split families and define the whole world. Green and Wicker also play Alma and Eugenes parents and schoolmates, and theyre so successful at doing so, youll walk out of the theater thinking you just saw not two but a dozen actors, each wonderfully talented and crushingly authentic.Yellowman was a Pulitzer Prize finalist nine years ago, and, in my estimation, it might easily have won. This is theater so honest it hurts and if youve ever been the target of someones bigotry, or of your own self-doubt and loathing, it will speak to you eloquently. For reasons I cant fathom, there were lots of empty seats on opening night at the Straz Center, so maybe I need to spread the word: this Jobsite Theater production is fascinating theater whatever your color, and so wrenching its cathartic. Catch it if you can.