Summer comes and goes so quickly–so fast, two of the shows I’m reviewing this time are closing today, and one has already gone. (I do hope it comes back.) So let’s get to it.
Suggestion for your New York Sunday: Do a double feature at the Public Theater. Assuming you got up early and waited on line to obtain your free tickets to the final Shakespeare in the Park performance of The Taming of the Shrew, head downtown from the Delacorte to Public HQ and take in the afternoon performance of The Total Bent, which is new from Stew. The multifaceted musician had a Tony-winning success with Passing Strange (2008), a dazzling production, originally at the Public, that Spike Lee filmed for HBO. I remember it with pleasure. But the followup, while not without its pleasures, is a blur, which eventually gives up on the theater in “musical theater” to become an overextended jam session. Part of the problem is that Stew, whose bear-like presence filled the room in Passing Strange, is far more self-effacing here, playing guitar and piano and only rarely leaving the orchestra.
Another is that his bluesy/funky music, composed once more with Heidi Rodewald, is let down by his book, and neither he nor director Joanna Settle figured out how best to beef up an incident-heavy but still slender storyline steeped in religion and the political upheavals of its era. The good news, and why it’s worth a couple of hours of your day off: a smashing performance by the underacknowledged character actor Vondie Curtis-Hall, as a preacher at constant odds with his son (Ato Blankson-Wood), a gay man who used to write songs for him but is now blazing a pathway in rock music in the Sixties. The two performers are in perfect harmony, even when The Total Bentgoes off key.
It should be a glorious night in Central Park, the site of Phyllida Lloyd’s memorable staging of The Taming of the Shrew. I use the word “memorable” advisedly, as audiences used to the Delacorte’s often half-heartedly antic stagings of the Bard’s lighter works may be thrown for a loop by this one. But you won’t be indifferent to it. Starting with an all-woman cast, with a beauty show framing device narrated by “Donald Trump,” Lloyd (the director of Mamma Mia! and other, more sober work, like the play Mary Stuart and the film The Iron Lady) has ransacked the play, plunking it down in a trailer park and going all in on a manically festive interpretation that breaks the fourth, fifth, and sixth walls at regular intervals. I loved the unbound quality of it (comedian Judy Gold does a standup routine at midpoint), even when Lloyd’s choices don’t work. Maybe it’s my middle aged male prejudices showing, but I think after several centuries we can handle the sexist elements of the farce without body-slamming the entire work in its final minutes. Before that, however, it’s a rowdy cartoon, showcasing the great Janet McTeer as a white-trash Petruchio who might have stepped out of a Sam Shepard or Tracy Letts play and the quicksilver Cush Jumbo (who stole The River from Hugh Jackman before co-starring in The Good Wife) as a full-tilt Kate. I can only hope some of the same spirit animates the Delacorte’s second show this summer, the oft-deadly Troilus and Cressida.
There’s still a few weeks left to see Hadestown, another musical offering from New York Theatre Workshop, after the Bowie-based Lazarus last winter. And you may want to, in part to check out the unprecedented transformation of a utilitarian space into something cozier (wooden chairs abound) and darker (the force of heartless, soul-breaking industry hangs heavily). Anais Mitchell has adapted her 2010 concept album, a folksy, jazzy riff on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, into a stage show, and as directed by Rachel Chavkin (whose Off Broadway success Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812 comes to Broadway this fall) it does not lack for inventive touches, as the performers move freely about the theatre. The staging’s first-rate; the problem may be the album, which has been insufficiently downloaded from iTunes. Songs titled “Epic I,” Epic II,” and “Epic III” hint at a certain repetition that bogs down the playing, as the piece proceeds to its melancholy conclusion. Thanks to veteran Patrick Page, hitting all the low notes as Hades, Amber Gray as the calculating Persephone, and the amusing intercessions of the three Fates, Hadestown is never hell to sit through, however.
Gone but not forgotten is Paula Vogel’s wrenching Indecent, which deserves more productions after an outstanding presentation at the Vineyard Theatre. A play with music conceived by the author of the Pulitzer-winning How I Learned to Drive, it’s something of a companion piece to Broadway’s Shuffle Along, resurrecting another shard of forgotten theatre lore. Director Rebecca Taichman has the company quite literally shaking the dust of history off themselves to recount the story behind Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance, a play about a respectable Jewish family profiting from a basement brothel. Felt to be anti-Semitic when it played in Yiddish, the play took on an entirely new and even more unwelcome dimension when an English-language translation, which sensationalized a lesbian element in the script, was performed on Broadway in 1922, leading to arrests and further recriminations. Fluidly moving among time periods and cultures, Indecent is a beautifully rendered elegy to a vanished theatrical legacy suitable for any season.