Two Musicals: Theater Is Live And Well In New Hampshire

Having performed years ago in theaters tucked away in tourism towns across the country, my very first sighting of Weathervane Theatre in Whitefield, New Hampshire inspired a déjà vu rush. It is somehow fitting that this picture-book New England venue is the nation’s first authorized by Actors Equity Association since the Covid-closure in March to offer indoor theatrical performances with multiple cast members. They are doing so with three shows in rotating repertory: two musicals, “The World Goes ‘Round” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” and Tom Dudzick’s vintage comedy, “Miracle on South Division Street.” I attended both musicals last weekend.

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It’s Live! A Socially Distant Group Hug: “Godspell”

“Not to put any pressure on you, but the entire American theater is depending on you to be smart.” Thus spoke Kate Shindle, president of Actors Equity, to the cast of “Godspell,” the first live production her union has authorized since the nationwide shutdown in March. And smart they were on opening night last week at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Colonial Under the Tent facility in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Smart, and smartly prepared to perform the 1971 musical chestnut within the boundaries decreed by the state of Massachusetts and by Equity (eight of twelve cast members and two Stage Managers are members) without dampening the show’s live-ness. In fact, for this audience member at least, the restrictions, including spittle shields, sometime masks and social distancing, became incidental to the performance about ten minutes in. (Massachusetts limits attendance at outdoor events to 100, capped here at 75.)

Each actor has his/her own pod behind a sliding panel six feet from those adjacent. Most of the action and musical numbers are performed at front stage, 25 feet from the first row. During backup singing, the panels protect the downstage singers from saliva-droplet spray. The panels are clear as air (and wiped during intermission), and Nathan Leigh’s marvelous sound design is not affected at all.

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Zoomed “Blues” Still Sweet

Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” premiered at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey in 2016. The cast (with one replacement) re-assembled last week for a remote Zoom reading of the play, streaming through 7PM on Thursday, July 30 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfQBkKxkep0 . The following is culled from my 2016 review with comments on the Zoom reading.    

It is hard to believe that “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet like Mine” is Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s first full length play. (His Obie-winning “Lackawanna Blues” was a solo show.) Line-by-line and scene-by-scene, the play rivals that of many an established playwright. Having previously directed August Wilson’s “Jitney” and “Two Trains Running” at Two River, Santiago-Hudson also assumed that role at Two River, as well as remotely for the Zoom reading.

Dealing with Black resentment of white tone-deafness, “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet like Mine” on stage was as subtle as a thunderstorm. Tweaked in the interim, it is even more unsparing now (despite the excision of the pungent line about white privilege being “the longest ass-whippin’ in the history of civilization.”) Set in 2002, the play begins with an exchange between Zeke (Brandon J. Dirden), a Black pick-up man for a used-clothing charity, and Judith (Merritt Janson), a white donor, in her upscale NYC apartment.

Merritt Janson and Brandon J. Dirden (The painting becomes significant.)

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Zooming Across The Pond: “Lungs” at The Old Vic

How’s this for minimalism: Playwright Duncan Macmillan’s instructions for the staging of “Lungs” specifies a bare stage with no scenery, no furniture, no props, no mime and no costume changes. Nor should light and sound be used to indicate a change in time or place. The absence of a full stop at the end of a line, he informs, indicates “…a trailing off or an interruption of thought.”

Further, other than forward slashes (/) to indicate overlapping dialogue, and a comma (,) on a separate line to indicate “a pause, a rest or a silence, the length of which should be determined by the context,” there are no stage directions or character hints in the “Lungs” text. Not one. (Beckett’s spare “Waiting for Godot” has a couple hundred.)  Zoom-streamed last week from the Old Vic Theatre in London, the Covid-mandated empty auditorium might as well have been an extension of Macmillan’s instructions. Nonetheless, stripped as it is of theatrical contrivance, “Lungs” is as rich and complete a play as any that is dense with descriptive aids.

Over ninety minutes, a couple, identified only as W and M, converse in variously open and guarded intimacy at different stages of their relationship in a dozen or so locations. Some lines of dialogue signal the end of a conversation thread and the start of another simultaneously: “Come straight home…and bring cake.” “Okay.” “…Cake.” “I missed you.” But there is never any doubt about where they are or at what juncture in their relationship or about what is revealed – or obscured – in their assertions or evasions.

Claire Foy and Matt Smith on The Old Vic stage

Claire Foy and Matt Smith are an actor-couple to reckon with. W and M are diametric opposites from Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, whom they played in “The Crown” on Netflix. “Lungs” is contemporary not just in time (It premiered in 2011), but in attitude, tone and distinctly non-Royal language. (Multiple R-rated bombs, but not gratuitous.)

The play opens with an exchange about how having a child might affect their relationship…

“A baby?” “Breathe.” “A baby?” “I was just thinking.” “About the future.” “We’re having a conversation.” “You’re having a conversation.”

That deeply personal conversation occurs, we learn, while they are on the checkout line at Ikea. (“that kid with the panda is staring.”) Offbeat humor like that is sprinkled throughout the otherwise serious piece. It felt a little strange to laugh out loud at my iPad, but only the first couple times.

Later, the environmental impact of adding a new being to the planet is a consideration:

“I could fly to New York and back every day for seven years and still not leave a carbon footprint as big as if I have a child. Ten thousand tons of CO2. That’s the weight of the Eiffel Tower. I’d be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower.”

While there is considerable back-and-forth on the parenting issue, the topic is as much a window into the pair’s overall psyches as it is a plot-point. (It does ultimately factor in. Think Chekhov’s baby.) Foy and Smith find remarkable emotional depth in mostly clipped lines; there are only a few extended speeches. So many quick exchanges make incontrovertible sense:

“Don’t tell me what I need to hear.” “I don’t know what you need to hear.” “Then it shouldn’t be a problem.”

There is also eloquence in Macmillan’s pauses (those separate-line commas). One such, waiting for M to drop a one-word clarification, is a study in hold-your-breath anticipation. Their drawn-out silence speaks volumes, especially when presented in close-up.

Which brings us to the staging and the viewing experience. Overseen by Old Vic artistic director Matthew Warchus (“God of Carnage” and “Matilda” on Broadway), “Lungs” was ideally suited to be the first in The Old Vic’s “In Camera” series of Zoom-streamed performances (more below).

There were three cameras: One, sparsely employed, projected wide shots from the front stalls; the other two were in tight, one on each actor, projected on a split screen. Foy and Smith are on stage together – occasionally one is seen crossing through the other’s space – but in a nod to social distancing, they do not actually embrace – or touch in any way. Marvelously staged by Warchus (and a tech-savvy crew), the actors seemed to be close, even leaning against each other back-to-back across the split. By the time W and M appeared to be romantically intimate, the fact that they were really at least two meters apart never crossed my mind.

Okay, it’s not like actually being there (even with the pre-curtain audience buzz), but with the brilliant Claire Foy and Matt Smith interpreting Duncan Macmillan’s fascinating play in close-up, my iPad was the best seat in the house. More than just drawn in, I was mesmerized – by the play, the performances, the technique. And grateful, under the circumstances, to be back, even virtually, in a theater.

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[ The Old Vic’s “In Camera” initiative will continue with a series of rehearsed play-readings Zoom-streamed live with the empty auditorium as a backdrop. With minimal staging and accessible only via camera, the series is an exciting creative experiment and, based on “Lungs,” one well worth the price of admission. “Lungs” tickets ranged from 20 to 60 British pounds. (I paid 40, about $55US.) For information and to register for timely notifications: https://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on ]

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Quality Time Spent With Willy Loman

July 29, 1949 Playbill. Gifted to me by a friend who found it in a thrift-shop desk drawer

Since its premiere in 1949, when it won all six of its Tony Award nominations (and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama), Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” has had four Broadway revivals, all of which I am fortunate to have seen: in 1975 with George C. Scott as Willy Loman; 1984 with Dustin Hoffman; 1999 with Brian Dennehy; and Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2012.

This piece is prompted by an item in the New York Times about a film of the 1984 revival, which is streaming on several platforms. Not a review or a detailed analysis of the play, this is more a rumination on time spent with it.

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What Would You Do?

A column by Ginia Bellafante in the Metropolitan Section of  the  Sunday May 31 New York Times about last week’s Central Park incident between bird-watcher Christian Cooper, who is black, and white dog-walker Amy Cooper (unrelated) reminded me of an exchange with the Times from twenty years ago.

In the Central Park contretemps, after Christian C asked her to leash her dog (required by law), Amy C unleashed her inner vitriol in an hysterical 911 police call against a bogus color-coded threat. (Google either name for details.) In her column, Ms. Bellafante suggested more temperate options that Ms. Cooper could have employed: rolling her eyes while complying; dissing birds in general; and “giving him the finger and moving on.”

Twenty years ago, on Sunday, July23, 2000, another Times column about action-and-reaction choices was headlined “What Would You Do?”  In it, columnist Peter Applebome presented what he called “a little real-life morality play about suburban life and manners.”

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