Jul 18, 2017

Martin Landau on Acting

I had the pleasure of interviewing the late, great Martin Landau back in 2005 for the shortlived magazine Moving Pictures. Here's my story in its entirety.

Martin Landau has been places, both in actuality and in his imagination. And at this point in his five-decade career, he's the kind of actor for whom the distinction between the worlds he's experienced and those he can conjure, like a kind of sorcerer, is marvelously fluid.

Yes, he steeped himself in the famous actor's Method—was a protégé, in fact, of its main guru, Lee Strasberg, at the Actors Studio, where his best friend for a time was James Dean—which had as its mission a recreation of real life down to its tiniest detail. The Brooklyn neighborhood in which he grew up was filled with the kind outsized characters he can still flip through like a sort of actor's Rolodex, and into whose personae and accents he'll go at the drop of an anecdote: Italian goombahs, Irish upstarts, Jewish kvetchers. And New York City's hustle and bustle provided a virtual laboratory of walks, voices, types, and quirks to observe and imitate.

For evidence of how well he learned the lessons of Method-style realism, his Oscar-nominated performance as a quietly anguished philanderer in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors stands as a model of acting economy—of maximum emotional impact with minimum histrionic fuss.

But the role he won the Oscar for—aging Hungarian horror star Bela Lugosi, in Tim Burton's elegiac comedy Ed Wood—is an appropriately theatrical, even fanciful creation. While that performance is finely detailed enough to honor the rigorous tenets of the Method, it is nevertheless a brilliant act of sustained imaginative creativity on Landau's part.

This skill—for "going places" he's never been—is one he developed over decades, traveling everywhere from dusty Western streets to Space: 1999, inhabiting everyone from Simon Wiesenthal (in the TV movie Max and Helen) to toy-maker Geppetto (in a series of live-action Pinocchio movies), from sleek superspy Rollin Hand (in the series Mission: Impossible)  to Hebrew patriarch Abraham (in the biblical film In the Beginning).

The gift of a wide-ranging imagination began not on the mean streets of Landau's childhood but in the Sunday color comics.

"New York had a lot of newspapers in those days, and all had color comic sections," Landau recalls with relish. "On Sunday morning, there was this short pile of comic sections—Mickey MouseBringing Up FatherDick TracyKrazy Kat. I couldn't read yet, but those strange worlds—the Krazy Kat world, the Willie Winkie world—were all in color and all strange, and the people were all unique and different. I could sit and look at these pictures for hours."

At 17, Landau took some drawings of his own to the New York Daily News and—in what may be may have been his first successful acting performance—lied about his age and got a job as staff artist, working a four-to-midnight shift after his high school classes. For a time, he thrived on the breakneck pace of the newsroom.

"In those days it was still about scooping the town, and re-plates, and extra editions, and getting the newspaper out, and beating the other papers," Landau recounts. "There was a sense of drama, because if a story broke, they would stop the presses."

But one day he realized that grind wasn't for him.

"I was doing at 17 what these guys who were 45 or 50 were doing," Landau recalls. "And I looked around at these guys, and said, 'You know, I don't wanna be doing this when I'm their age.' "

He'd been introduced to the theatre by his mother, and, like the comics, it had always seemed like a "fanciful place." He'd never seriously thought that he could be an actor himself—"I always thought you were an actor because you were born to it or something"—until a newsroom colleague who moonlighted as an actor invited him to a performance.

"He did an Off-Broadway show, T.S. Eliot's Family Reunion, and I went to see it," Landau says. Was his friend's performance so inspiring that he caught the bug, too? Not exactly. "I thought he was awful. He was a nice-looking guy, had a wonderful kind of joie de vivre, but he was terrible. And I said to myself, 'I could do it a lot better than that right now, without any training!' "

Still, Landau did end up getting training, doing seasons of summer stock and getting into Strasberg's exclusive Actors Studio. By the time he made his Broadway debut in 1957 in Paddy Chayefsky's The Middle of the Night, he was well on his way. The relatively new medium of television, still based largely in New York, had appeal mainly as an occasional odd job to pay his rent.

"For me, it wasn't about film or television, it was about theatre—only about theatre. It was about getting onstage, having rehearsals, doing interesting plays. I think it's different today—why people become actors is different. It's about being a television star, a movie star; it's a different thing that motivates people."

This lack of purpose shows in a lot of today's acting work, he says.

"There's an inordinate amount of bad acting that has become 'good' acting in people's eyes, and in the critics' minds," he says. "I start thinking: 'Am I one of those old farts who thinks because I've been around, the younger generation doesn't know anything?' It's not that! Stuff I see that's awful, that's up for an Oscar, I think, 'That's really not very good work.'

"I don't get Sideways at all. I wouldn't spend 20 minutes with these guys, why am I going to spend two hours? I mean, in life, maybe I get stuck with them—but the next time, I would say no, I promise you. It's a nice little slice of life, it's well acted, but who gives a shit? Million Dollar Baby: It's a nice boxing movie—a nice boxing movie. But so is Body and Soul; so is The Champion. OK, Scorsese, The Aviator: a wonderfully mounted movie—about a very rich nut, and there's no one to connect to."

He gives some tell-tale signs of deficient acting craft.

"No one in the world tries to cry except bad actors," he points out. "Good actors try not to cry. No one tries to laugh except bad actors; people try not to laugh. No one tries to be drunk; drunks try to be sober. You ever see a drunk who wants another drink pick up a drink?"

He illustrates with a coffee cup, slowly and meticulously trying to raise it to his lips without spilling. This illuminates his key point: "How a character hides his feelings tells us who he is. No one shows their feelings. I mean, anger—the clenching of the teeth, the gripping of the hand is holding back anger, that's not anger. Bad actors run to all that crap.

"Jimmy Woods once asked me, 'How would you succinctly define acting?' And I said, 'In a well-written script, the dialogue, what characters say to each other, is what a character is willing to reveal and share with someone else. The 90 percent he isn't saying is what I do for a living.' "

He has offered such acting wisdom, first as a much-sought-after coach in the 1970s (his students included Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston), and now as a moderator of the Actors Studio's West Coast incarnation. And he continues to follow it in his work: In his most recent project, John Daly's The Aryan Couple, Landau plays a Jewish industrialist during WWII who makes a deal with the Nazis to exchange his wealth and property for his family's survival. Landau was able to draw on both realism and imagination for the part: One location in Poland was a 15th century castle actually used by the Nazis to intern Jews en route to a nearby concentration camp. But, chillingly, Landau learned that in contemporary Poland there is still one thing he'd rather imagine than experience firsthand.

"Stacy Keach is married to a Polish gal, and he spends months in Warsaw with her every year. So Stacy said to me, 'You're going to Poland! That's wonderful, I can give you some names of people.' And then he said, 'Maybe I shouldn't.' I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'Because they're all anti-Semitic. It's crazy. I'm not Jewish and my wife isn't Jewish, and so I hear these things that are mind-boggling to me! These are wonderful people—we're talking about the intelligentsia, writers, editorialists, artists, playwrights, actors. And the degree of anti-Semitism is shocking. It's profound. It's centuries old.' So I figured: The script will give me enough of that, I don't need to feel it for real."

A good actor, Landau concludes, brings all his experience, and all his imagination, to a role. That's why, for him, actors are creators as much as interpreters.

"A role is a bunch of words on a piece of paper. When a performance fulfills what the author allows, and illuminates it, and affects you to the point where you are connecting viscerally—that is magical. It's hard to get 10 people in a room, your best friends, to agree on anything. But if that's going on, whether it be on a screen or on a stage, you have 1,000 people all experiencing the same thing, literally fighting tears, laughing vociferously, erupting with laughter. And if ideas are also along with the feelings, if you can get people to think about things in ways maybe they hadn't before—that's art."

May 4, 2017

'Monsoon' Overflow

Vishal Bhardwaj.
One of the joys of reporting on the upcoming Monsoon Wedding musical, apart from the chance to chat over chai with one of my idols, director Mira Nair, was that everyone involved could have been the subject of their own feature, not only Nair herself or writer Sabrina Dhawan but also Namit Das, the actor who plays Dubey, who comes from a family of classical musicians and is best known in India as the star of its version of "Everybody Loves Raymond" ("Sumit Sambhal Lega") or Palomi Ghosh, who was the star of a film about Goa's answer to Edith Piaf (Lorna Cordeiro). I could go on, seriously, this cast and company are an embarrassment of riches.

Possibly my favorite under-explored subject was Vishal Bhardwaj, the show's composer, who I learned is a major Indian filmmaker in his own right, known for his musical adaptations of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. I was intrigued to learn that he started as a composer but became a film director for the same reason many screenwriters say they do: because they crave more direct creative input. As Vishal put it to me, he realized at a young age, "If I want to express my kind of music, I need to become a filmmaker." This is at least partly because, as he also pointed out, Indian popular music is Bollywood music, and vice versa.

He also told me that when he writes songs for the musical, he likes to go for a walk or have tea with the lyricist, Susan Birkenhead, and he makes sure to compose with the whole tune before he ever sits down at an instrument. (I told him this was Cole Porter's method too, minus the lyricist.) But by far the favorite quote from anyone I couldn't use in my story was this:
Before I became a composer, when I was in college, what I used to do before my exams was, when I had to remember four pages of an answer, I would compose a paragraph, so the melody could remind me of the lines I had to remember. That’s how I started to enjoy my studies. Now, today, if you give me the front page of The New York Times, I will musicalize it. 

Apr 16, 2017


Orville Mendoza at Stephen Sondheim's piano.
I first saw Orville Mendoza in the lead role of Sweeney Todd at East West Players in 1994; I later had the distinct joy of reviewing him in the lead role of Kayama in a definitive-for-me production of Pacific Overtures, also at East West Players (though in a different space; more about that below). Apart from Aladdin at Disney Adventure (a production, directed by Francesca Zambello and scheduled to close soon after 13 years to make way for a Frozen stage show, that is not to be confused with the Broadway version), I think the only other show I've seen Mendoza in was Road Show at the Public.

Which means that Orville Mendoza has been one of the central Sondheim performers of my theatregoing life. Needless to say I'm excited to see him in Classic Stage Company's new staging of Pacific Overtures, directed by CSC artistic director John Doyle. Mendoza plays Manjiro, essentially Kayama's opposite number, in the new production.

To celebrate, I dug up my reviews for Back Stage West of both Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd. Though my memory of each of these shows remains vivid, rereading my impressions of them is like a ritual reimmersion. No bird exploring in the sky explores as well as I the corners my life, or at least the corners of my own back catalog.

Back Stage WestMarch 26, 1998

at the David Henry Hwang Theatre
Reviewed by Rob Kendt

East West Players' current revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Pacific Overtures is a triumph on so many levels that it feels churlish to point out its shortcomings. Yes, in its move to a new mid-sized theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, this scrappy Asian/Pacific American theatre company bit off a lot more than an Equity rehearsal schedule could chew--a wide load of technical and political hurdles that had more to do with putting up a new theatre facility than putting up a show. And the resulting production not only evinces the expected signs of under-rehearsed performances, it also has moments in which the staging ideas, not just their execution, seem under-developed.

But giving a frame and purpose to this inspired imperfection is a project of such passion, grace, and intelligence that it often takes the breath away--not only Sondheim's bold, lapidarian score or Weidman's witty, serious, absorbing book but director Tim Dang's gorgeously imagined and movingly played production. Employing floating and sliding Japanese screens on Lisa Hashimoto's beautiful modular set, lit evocatively by G. Shizuko Herrera, the show moves like a dream--a haunting, outsized dream outfitted with the stunningly signifying costumes of Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez and the letter-perfect hair and make-up of Newton Kazuo Koshi, and choreographed mostly winningly by Betsy Chang and Kabuki consultant David Furumoto.

In telling the unlikely story of feudal Japan's reluctant opening to the West, Weidman and Sondheim's 1976 show adapts a roughly recognizable revue format to Asian theatre practices--or vice versa--and comes up with as many pristinely lyrical moments as it does fiercely pointed passages. Kayama (Orville Mendoza) is a low-level samurai thrust by the ruling Shogun into dealings with the West--of which his first is meant to be a deal-breaker, since the Japanese from the 17th through the 19th century were militantly xenophobic, strictly forbidding any foreigner to even touch their soil. To help Kayama negotiate with the Americans, whose Admiral Perry has come with four warships to open East-West trade relations or else, the Shogun releases a prisoner, Manjiro (Michael K. Lee), who has lived in the U.S.

These two bond in the playful modal duet "Poems," which is staged beguilingly by Dang and performed sunnily by Mendoza and Lee, and which typifies the score's brilliance. As in the serenely moving "There Is No Other Way," the ploddingly prickly "A Bowler Hat," and the soaring "Someone in a Tree," Sondheim somehow makes the knottiest harmonic material and the trickiest intervals sound as natural as folk tunes, and this production's crowning success--adequate rehearsal time or no--is in perfectly realizing this difficult simplicity. Music director Scott Nagatani has done his job exceedingly well, and continues to do so, directing a small but precise arsenal of drums, winds, and keyboards from across raised platforms.

There are too many high points in the cast to mention them all: Mendoza is an embracing, generous presence, with a husky, pliant baritone and a jack-o-lantern face that registers emotion tellingly; David Furumoto is funny and menacing as Lord Abe, and about equally so in a pair of drag roles; Alvin Ing, who was in the original Broadway cast, has a beatific peace about him (which is wrong for a few of the roles he's assigned) and a searing, feminine voice; Tedd Szeto and Hisato Masuyama score big laughs as Russian and French admirals, respectively; Reggie Lee flawlessly executes a pair of expressive dances; Sabrina Lu has a striking turn as a ventriloquist priest, and Paul Wong and Deborah Nishimura each especially bolster the vocal department in a variety of roles. And as the Reciter, who narrates, comments on, and occasionally steps into the action, Keone Young runs through a kaleidoscope of facets and faces, from warm to proud to distrustful to sardonic, and finally to heartbroken (and he plucks a mean shamisen).

The show ends with the brash, buoyant "Next," in which the Japan that has embraced American-style modernity struts its stuff, both tacky and impressive, while Young collapses in tears at the memory of lost traditions. Needless to say, the resonance of this stirring production seems to multiply endlessly as one walks out of the new theatre into bustling Little Tokyo. It's been a long time since I was this proud to live in Los Angeles.

"Pacific Overtures," presented by East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theatre, Union Center for the Arts, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo. Mar. 18-Apr. 5. (800) 233-3123.

Back Stage West
Sept. 15, 1994

at East West Players
Reviewed by Rob Kendt

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's gruesome operetta Sweeney Todd is full of unlikely pleasures: an overachieving score of equal parts bile and grace, an absurdly intricate pot-boiler plot, and an overlay of lipsmackingly draconian social satire. This tale of a murderous, revenge-starved barber and his grasping capitalist handmaiden piles gleeful Gothic mayhem upon stark, Dickensian squalor. It's musical comedy with a body count.

In an ambitious current revival at East West Players, most of the show's felicities remain robustly intact, starting with the first: Under Scott Nagatani's flawless musical direction, both the operatic scope and the prickly particulars of Sondheim's score are in perfect proportion and focus. The hair-raising chorales and peripatetic solos are in solid vocal hands, and a busy pit band of three keyboards and drums gives unerring support. Under director Tim Dang, the show's non-musical virtues are strongly realized as well. For one, Dang has worked wonders in East West's small space, with a fluid, modular set by Chris Tashima and amazingly varied staging and lighting (by G. Shizuko Herrera) that parallels the dynamics of the music. He's also mostly achieved the text's grim penny-dreadful tone, with a rabble dressed down in Naomi Yoshida Rodriquez's raggedy costumes and Christina Souza's blowsy make-up and hair giving us the declamatory stare-down demanded by the opening line, "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd..."

In the lead, Orville Mendoza has a leering jack-o'-lantern face and a wracked, righteous baritone, though we can't help feeling, as spunky Mrs. Lovett (a fine, comically ruthless Freda Foh Shen) complains, that he's "always brooding on your wrongs." Also worth mentioning are Deborah Nishimura, whose Beggar Woman has a demonic authority, and Radmar Agana Jao, who makes a perfectly childlike, clarion-voiced Toby. If the villains of the piece hardly threaten, if the small space is at times constraining or overwarm—these are minor quibbles. It is a forceful rendition of a contemporary classic.

"Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street," presented by and at East West Players, 4424 Santa Monica Blvd, Silverlake. Sept. 9-Oct 30. (213) 660-0366.

Apr 6, 2017

Big Sister's Clothes

Patrick Wilson and Amanda Peet in Barefoot in the Park. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
Amanda Peet recently contributed this funny, lightly harrowing essay about the weird contortions she put herself through to not read Ben Brantley's slam of her performance in the 2006 Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park. It drove me back to check my review of same. For the record: I thought she was all right.

I've republished it below.

Barefoot in the Park
at the Cort Theatre
Reviewed by Rob Kendt
Feb. 17, 2006

Here's something you don't see every day: a film actress making her Broadway debut with nary a trace of gratuitous glamour or hammy, I-have-arrived overstatement. As Corie, the erratic young newlywed in a perky if pointless new revival of Barefoot in the Park, Amanda Peet doesn't get a single star's entrance; instead she opens three out of the show's four scenes already onstage and haplessly engaged in some solitary housewifely duty, from wallpapering to butchering a batch of martinis.

And though she's dressed in loving retro designs by Isaac Mizrahi, Peet has a knock-kneed, perpetually disheveled look about her, like a tomboy dressed up in her big sister's clothes. Or her mom's: As Corie's wry, widowed mother, Jill Clayburgh gets sleeker outfits and better lines. These, and her budding romance with a rakish eccentric, Victor Velasco (Tony Roberts), make an excellent case that youth is overrated. This was not quite the point of Neil Simon's 1963 hit, which seems to share some of Corie's dizzy screwball romanticism about her brand new marriage to Paul (Patrick Wilson), an ambitious young lawyer. But by taking a tone of affectionate, knowing hindsight, both for the '60s and for just-married puppy love, director Scott Elliott's production gives off an attractive patina of worldly wisdom, even if it's short on revelations.

Like most of Simon's best work, Barefoot is a kvetchy valentine to New York City, though the new production has relocated its young couple's underfurnished fifth-floor fixer-upper from the East 40s to the more iconic Greenwich Village. Certainly Mr. Velasco's beret, and his matter-of-fact question to Corie, "Are you a folk singer?" fit the new neighborhood, but one suspects that this downtown-ization owes more than a little to our contemporary sense of where New York's youthful heart is. Like the nearby Broadway revival of The Odd Couple, the first act of Barefoot dramatizes an applause-getting apartment makeover (set by Derek McLane), and its second builds to a near-breakup of this fragile, transient domestic arrangement.

At least this roommate saga has better chemistry than that odd Couple. While it's very hard to imagine this marriage proceeding very smoothly past the final curtain, Peet and Wilson do come off as exactly the sort of pair that would end up—or at least start out, and maybe keep coming back—together.

Wilson's strapping, babyfaced Paul has enough cocky virility to explain his attraction to and for a volatile wildcat like Corie, even as he's edging into a recognizably cranky, baiting exasperation that will only make her wobble and worry all the more. And both performers have the crucial capacity to seem both genuinely riled and amused by the other—what Corie's mother must mean when she tells her uncertain daughter, "I've never seen two people more in love."

There's a whole other play, a delicious side dish, simmering between Roberts and Clayburgh. Both actors have gracious, unpushy comic timing, which makes them seem positively courtly, and in their own way much sexier than the randy youngsters. When Corie starts to rave to her mother about the joys of carnal love, and recommends that Mom give it a try, Clayburgh turns her character's studious avoidance of the subject into a witty generation reversal—a turnaround of the well-known discomfort of young people with the topic of their parents' sex lives. "Don't you even want to discuss it?" asks Peet's Corie, guilelessly. "Not with you in the room," replies her mother. In Clayburgh's hands it's clearly not prudery that makes the subject out of bounds, but a thoroughly earned, and lightly worn, sense of superior knowledge. She knows what Corie will have to learn on her own: that a companion for life's journey will have to be good for more than a roll in the sack, or even a walk in the park.

Mar 9, 2017

TBT: 'Sweeney' Stripped Naked

Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone, Manoel Felciano, and Donna Lynne Champlin in "Sweeney Todd" (photo by Paul Kolnik)

It's hardly controversial that Sweeney Todd is Sondheim's masterpiece (and, as I got him to reveal to me, possibly his most personal show). Not that it's production-proof, but I don't think I've ever seen a bad staging, come to think of it, or a pair of leads that were like any other pair: From Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel to Orville Mendoza and Deb Nishimura, from Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski to the stars of the smashing new New York revival, Jeremy Secomb and Siobhan McCarthy. (The film is a whole nother ball of wax.) In honor of the show's current revival, whose reviews except for Ben Brantley's have largely been ecstatic (a perfect argument for the value of a site like StageGrade or Show-Score), I look back on my Broadway.com review of the last big New York revival. Attend the tale.

Nov. 4, 2005

As sharp and glistening as a straight-edge razor, director John Doyle's stripped-down concert/theater rendition of Sweeney Todd gives the kind of buzz you don't expect, and certainly almost never get, from a Broadway show. It is the distinct hum of musical and theatrical intelligence; it is the glow of sheer brilliance as an entertainment value in itself.

There has surely never been a grimmer or bloodier musical written for the Broadway stage than this 1979 masterpiece from composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler. And Doyle's abstract, poor-theater staging only italicizes the show's unforgiving gallows humor. But somehow the artistry of this Sweeney lifts the spirits.

Actually, I think I can guess how: By having the 10-member cast play the score while they act and sing the show, Doyle's production makes the show's craftsmanship lovingly, nakedly transparent (the deft new orchestrations are by Sarah Travis). What this production lacks in definitive acting turns, vocal virtuosity, and realistic staging--and it does have some deficits in all these departments--it gains in intimacy and intention.

There's a matter-of-fact seamlessness to the concept that saves it from gimmickry. When Judge Turpin (Marc Jacoby) sits to converse with the Beadle (Alexander Gemignani) about his disturbing plans for Johanna (Lauren Molina), both are holding trumpets, at the ready for the next number. Are they in character or out? When Mrs. Lovett (Patti LuPone) emerges with a tuba, sassily tooting some bass notes and waggling her derriere in time, are we watching LuPone or Lovett? Actress, character, musician, or all of the above? These three identities bleed together throughout the cast, and the result brings both the score and the show to tactile, surprising life--or at least to the kind of life we've never seen before.

Certainly, we do miss the sweep of Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations--the crushing timpani and high Bernard Herrmann strings that gave the show's penny-dreadful contours near-Wagnerian fury. And the symbolic staging of the show's murders is pretty wan indeed: tipped buckets of red paint, red lights, that blood-curdling factory whistle, all played in front of a tall backdrop of wooden slats and junk-shop shelves. (Don't ask about the baby coffin.)

And it must be noted that in the title role, Michael Cerveris is slightly off the mark. Looking like a mod Nosferatu in his thin black tie, leather jacket, and trademark shorn pate, Cerveris is appropriately chilling and pathetic, and he does bring a few unique assets to the role. Sweeney is supposed to have been so altered by 15 years of wrongful imprisonment that no one in his old neighborhood quite recognizes him on his return; I've never exactly bought that before, but Cerveris powerfully embodies that alienation. And hey, a bald barber--that's pretty unsettling by itself.

But Cerveris is too much of a bloodless vampire--and he's probably too young--to convey the damaged virility of a Sweeney like Len Cariou, who originated the role. There's a human touch missing from this revenge-addled monster.

Not so LuPone's tarty, lovable Mrs. Lovett. In a black Louise Brooks wig and seedy baby-doll dress and stockings, LuPone relaxes into this witchily sympathetic role with supreme confidence. She doesn't push or prod a single moment, nor does she oversell either Mrs. Lovett's craven, amoral practicality or her sweeter, dafter romantic side. Whether she's cleaning the tools of her dismembering trade or draining spit from her tuba, LuPone gives us a wonderfully undespairing anti-heroine.

Her evident joy brings out the best in Cerveris, in the delicious "A Little Priest," surely the funniest song ever linking cannibalism to capitalism. Consider the tools of the trade here: Mimed without props and sung without a single pop wail, "A Little Priest" brings down the house on the strength of its lyrics, delivered with lip-smacking relish by the leads. Forget the sight of LuPone playing the tuba for a second: How often do we see sheer wit stop the show on Broadway?

Jacoby captures the bourgeois banality of Judge Turpin's villainy, while Gemignani plays the Beadle so drily I thought he'd snap; he gets more laughs from this absurd flunky, and in more unexpected places, than would seem possible. So do Molina and Benjamin Magnuson, as the show's slightly befuddled young lovers, Anthony and Johanna; we know these two make a good match because they share a love of playing the cello and warbling ardent operetta. Donna Lynne Champlin plays the grandstanding Pirelli as a weird wind-up doll. Manoel Felciano's Tobias is another performance in which the sweetness of the playing (the violin, in the case) blurs nicely with the singing and acting. And I've never seen Beggar Woman as winningly pitiful as Diana DiMarzio's shuffling, clarinet-playing specimen.

Soon enough we don't notice the things we might have missed at first, not only because of the cast's conviction but because, as a show like Shockheaded Peter proved, a judicious use of light and shadow, and a properly placed accordion, can be infinitely creepier than any literal bloodbath or screeching string section.

I'm no box-office prophet; I have no idea whether this Sweeney will be a hit beyond the Sondheim cult. It certainly deserves to catch on with the sort of New Yorkers who feel too cool to go to Broadway shows. But the tourists and tired businessmen? They may not get the entertainment they're looking for here, but what they do get--essentially, the best bleak, funny Gothic chamber musical ever--they're never going to forget.

Sweeney Todd
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by John Doyle
Eugene O'Neill Theatre

Dec 8, 2016

TBT: Weeden's Othello, OSF's Company

Derrick Lee Weeden and Anthony Heald in Othello at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 1999. (Photo by David Coooper)

I'm about to take in New York Theatre Workshop's new production of Othello, directed by Sam Gold, and in anticipation I began to think back on the best production I've seen of that play--I saw it twice, in fact, in 1999 at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. For Back Stage West's annual "Actors We Love" issue that year, I wrote about the extraordinary actor who played the lead, his take on the role, and about the world-beating acting company of which he was a part (and still is to this day). The story is reprinted in full below.


Firing the Canon

There's no star system in Ashland's peerless acting company, but there are stars.

by Rob Kendt
Forget, if you will, our culture's purported current love affair with Shakespeare, and also the ongoing discussion about the American vs. the English approach to the Bard's timeless verse. And please, please set aside the rancorous debate about "non-traditional" casting in classical roles, and the claptrap pronounced on the subject by everyone from John Simon to August Wilson.

All these fleeting sideshows fade in the face of a stunning and inspiring, and too little known, matter of fact: that the leading actor at the leading Shakespeare company in the United States is a statuesque African-American man of extraordinary prowess and sensitivity who is, with his seasoned company mates, doing some of the best classical theatre anywhere at the moment.

Hyperbole? On the contrary, Derrick Lee Weeden and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland have raised the artistic bar for themselves, and the past few seasons have represented a creative peak for both: In last year's sweeping mainstage production of Lorraine Hansberry's seldom-performed Les Blancs, Weeden nailed the meaty role of Tshembe Matoshe, a brilliant, Western-educated African with a Hamlet-like calling to return to his homeland and avenge colonial wrongs.

And this year he is playing the role: Shakespeare's earnest military fool, Othello, whom Weeden steeps in a warrior's pride and a lover's anguish and renders with a voice like a cello in Tony Taccone's spare, heartrending production.

"I've worked on this play for 20 years," said Weeden, off-stage a tall but not overbearing man with a Greek mask of a face and huge, sad eyes; he played Othello once years before, at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. "Othello is basically the hardest role in the canon to make work. It's overclimaxed; his arc is so long. There's a reason that Stanislavski focused his book Building a Character on Othello, for arcing and modulation and restraint. For me, it's really about how to stay it, how not to blow it, how to keep it going in different forms."

For Weeden, it's not a play about jealousy per se. Echoing the insights of James Earl Jones, who called Othello's plight not jealousy but "tragic confusion," Weeden said, "The key for me is in the lines, 'Perdition catch my soul/But I do love thee! and when I love thee not/Chaos is come again.' Again—all the early stuff in the play is about how Othello has been a soldier since he was seven years old, he's been in slavery, he's had all these horrific things happen, he has all this scarring, so that's the life he knows-and then he has this light in his life, Desdemona. Then to have it turn, as he believes, means he's going back to all that stuff, and he can't go back. In killing her, he's killing himself."

Such a psychologized reading belies Weeden's training in Southern Methodist University's M.F.A. acting program under Jack Clay, where the stress was on voice and body work and the plays of Shakespeare, Shaw, and Shepard. And while I've seen few actors onstage upon whom a character's inner life registers as richly and spontaneously as on Weeden, he is clearly an actor versed to his marrow in speech, text, and movement.

In repertory with Othello, he's also playing Hedley, a crazed, pathetic old street vendor in 1940s Pittsburgh, in August Wilson's Seven Guitars—a boldly unlikely casting move by director Kenny Leon. Costume and makeup aside, Hedley is played by a physically different actor altogether; articulate arms and a noble if unclear head seem to be the centers of Weeden's Othello, the broken-down Hedley's center is in his clogged, tubercular chest, as he hunches intently stocking his cart or furrowing a small garden.

But all these roles—Othello, Hedley, last year's virile Matoshe—have something in common. While he's played his share of classic urban or Southern-inflected African-American roles, and more than his share of Shakespearean parts of all kinds, Weeden brings a unique onstage power, rooted in his voice and physiognomy, to larger-than-life Mediterranean, Caribbean, and African characters, and this quality is nowhere more unexpectedly resonant than in Shakespeare. Weeden seems to tap some ancient stream in which the classics are not merely European or American or Greek, and in which the voice of the African Diaspora clearly and deeply belongs.

No Fluke

"For years, as a younger actor, I read reviews by people like John Simon that we, African-Americans, shouldn't be doing Shakespeare," recalled Weeden, a military brat born in Panama and raised all over the world by his African-American/Cherokee father and West Indian/Irish mother. "My sense of dealing with that is to say, Hey, we have a tradition. My mother speaks English in a wonderful way; you hear phrases that are directly Shakespearean phrases, the semantics and everything. That's what my ear hears.

"And I think of all the great African-American Shakespeare actors—James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, James Marshall, Ira Aldridge. I look to those people as much as I do to the thrill of hearing Paul Scofield speak. It's as if to say that these plays are from one country and one time, and we weren't there. But in 1600, Elizabeth banned all Negroes, Negresses, octaroons, etc., because there were so many in England. All the first black people in America came from Spain and England and Portugal before they came from Africa. We were there.

"The more I've worked on this play, the more I believe one thing: Shakespeare knew Africans. Also, that Othello is Shakespeare; it's so close to the bone. You read the sonnets—his jealousy, the dark lady. It's him. And I never saw it until a few months ago."

Company Man

Theatre and its practitioners often seem starved for self-worth. Even among much good theatre I see, there is an indefinable quality of it not being enough somehow-not for the people onstage, and certainly not enough for us in the audience. In L.A., it's easy to spot the culprit in actors' need for a showcase to the local industry; in New York, it is the feeling of high-volume trade, and in regional theatre, there is often the attenuated air of politically correct controlled experiments. The only place I've consistently felt that theatre was an end in itself, both aesthetically and professionally, was in my two visits to Ashland.

As much credit as I should give artistic director Libby Appel and her associates, Tim Bond and Penny Metropulos, and the vigorous artistic staff there, I get this feeling of belonging in the festival's large and loyal audience most viscerally from the actors, who look like they belong on the stage. Maybe that's because they do: A company of more than 60 actors, they're on Equity LORT contracts almost year-round, working in as many as three plays apiece-many of them for many years now. Weeden estimated he's averaged between 200 and 250 performances a year for the last 12 years (nine of those at OSF), so one believes him when he says, "I've gotten to grow here."

And if Weeden exemplifies the stage-worthiness of the OSF actor, there are so many others in whose work I've experienced as much awe, delight, intellectual pleasure, and pure entertainment value as I've ever gotten from any so-called movie stars. There are the comic powerhouses: the impossibly gleeful Catherine Lynn Davis, whose hyperventilating giggle makes her Roxie Hart, in this year's Chicago, seem somehow diabolically innocent; the snappily droll Tony DeBruno, who even when he uses broad strokes—as the cynical reporter in Chicago, as a befuddled vendor in The Comedy of Errors—remains a study in comic delicacy; the remarkably malleable G. Valmont Thomas, a meek, clumsy Flute in last year's Midsummer and a show-stealing Red in this year's Seven Guitars, and tall, preposterous David Kelly, last year's daffy Bottom in Midsummer and one of the officious gods in this year's The Good Person of Setzuan.

And there are dramatic masters, starting at the top with Weeden, and including Anthony Heald, whose plays a fiesty, feral Iago to Weeden's Othello and a hollowed-out, melancholy John Rosmer in Rosmersholm, and Robynn Rodriguez, a rueful Emilia in Othello and a tart landlady in Good Person.

Of course, such distinctions melt away with these versatile actors. Was Ray Porter's scruffy, effrontive Puck in Midsummer entirely a comic creation? Not if you count his moving closing speech. And how to classify a performance as full yet human-scaled as BW Gonzalez's achingly beatific Shen Te/Shui Ta in Good Person? How to bottle the infinite variety of an actor like Dan Donohue, who gave us a glam Prince Hal, a comically impatient Ezra Pound, and a simpering Restoration fop, all last year?

Weeden himself is the first to attribute his own onstage power to the collective bonding of the company.

"What you're seeing here is a company for real," Weeden said. "It's not about a performance, it's not about how I can make the audience laugh. The aesthetic is about the script-how do we tell the story? At our best, that's what we go for; otherwise, I'd rather be doing something else. If I can't take this great script by this great playwright and try to tell it fully with 20 other people-if it's just about me showing off or getting my laughs or trying to get an agent-it makes no sense.

"What I love is when people leave talking about the play."

Sep 20, 2016

A Goat and Two Lizards

Patrick J. Adams, Cynthia Mace, Brian Kerwin, and James Eckhouse in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? at the Mark Taper Forum in 2005.
I've seen a fair amount of Edward Albee's work in my time, indeed the majority of his major plays, in one production or another, and Virginia Woolf in several (I loved the most recent Broadway revival, and I also share Ben Brantley's awe for a special out-of-time staged reading with Uta Hagen, Jonathan Pryce, and Mia Farrow, though on the West Coast I saw Peter Gallagher as Nick; I talked to Hagen about it here).

I think I must have reviewed his work elsewhere (and I did speak to him to this one brief, memorable time), but it turns out that the only instances I can recover from the Internet quicksand are a pair from 2005, during the summer of which I moved to New York after years in L.A. So the first is of a great production of The Goat at the L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, the second of a very fine Broadway revival of Seascape. I'm hard pressed to think of two more different plays in his oeuvre; in any case it's an unalloyed pleasure to recall them, and of their residing, synchronistically, on other side of a major cleavage in my own life.

I find myself agreeing with Tracy Letts, who in a lovely tribute for American Theatre wrote, "The real reason you pay money to hear what he had to say is because of Mr. Albee’s aching, generous love. It is the bedrock of his work...It might be the disappointed love of a crushed romantic, the bitter love of a neglected child, the angry love of a victim of injustice, but as reflected by his characters, that love was pure and primal and it burned hot."

Feb. 14, 2005, L.A. Downtown News

Getting Your Goat

Albee at the Taper Is a Conversation Starter

I always wince slightly when theatergoers or critics praise a play primarily for being a conversation starter, as if the theater's highest purpose were to send us chattering, even arguing, out the door. Surely this can be among the pleasures of any art form. But mere conversation-worthiness is an unreliable barometer of artistic substance or merit; whether you have a good long chat after a show is as much a matter of your company as the subject. And who hasn't delighted in a good kvetch about a terrible play, concert or film?

Still, it must be said that as a bald-faced dare and a provocation, the likes of which we seldom see in mainstream theater--or mainstream anything, for that matter--Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? is a corker. A one-act play about a successful middle-aged architect and family man who is in unashamedly carnal love with the animal of the title, it is the very definition of play-as-conversation-piece.

It also happens to be an incisive, brilliantly modulated comedy of middle-class American mores strained to their ultimate extremity, and director Warner Shook's sharp new production at the Mark Taper Forum plants it firmly in the toxic domestic soil which is the unnatural habitat for all of Albee's marital scrimmages (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance). It is a topsy-turvy place where the humor hurts and the horror heals.

We see this immediately in the stony expanse of Michael Olich's set: a purgatorial living room, coldly furnished with tasteful ethnic art and immaculate, unlived-in furniture. It is not a homey haven but an in-between place, a neutral zone where Martin (Brian Kerwin) and Stevie (Cynthia Mace) cross paths to talk innocuously about evening plans, friends' children and the office, and to josh each other in the well-worn way of long-married couples.

But Martin is especially absent-minded, even befuddled today - so much so that he can't even get through a puffy TV interview with his friend Ross (James Eckhouse) without losing track of his thoughts.

What's on Martin's mind, of course, is his new mistress of the pasture. With excruciated equivocation and almost endearing vulnerability, Martin unburdens himself to Ross about Sylvia - his name for the goat he happened to glimpse while house-hunting in the countryside, whose look apparently so powerfully attracted him that he couldn't resist getting more closely acquainted.

This is so absurd that laughter is the only response, at first - until we, along with Ross, Stevie and the couple's teenage son Billy (Patrick J. Adams), realize that Martin is quite earnest, and so is Albee. Then laughter becomes even more desperately needed, as a release of tension and as a shield. "Be serious," Martin pleads with Stevie after a singularly rude and cutting joke. "No, it's too serious for that," she replies. Past wit's end, with nothing to lose, comes wit's second wind.

Albee's own wits never desert him; every time the play threatens to become a one-joke riff on bestiality, or merely a crude twist on the male midlife crisis, he pulls back and takes another angle. A penultimate father/son scene culminates in a rather self-consciously weepy breakdown, but it's the only misstep in the play's deft juggling of the grotesque and the empathic. The cast, particularly the querulous Kerwin and the tightly wound Mace, match the play's unrelenting dissonance note for note.

One might question whether the family's pre-goat life must be portrayed retrospectively as an idyll of happy wedlock and supportive parenthood. This may be Albee's version of a sick joke on "normalcy" - that such fulsome domestic bliss must portend something radically amiss. But the main function of his sketchiness about the family's past is to heighten the contrasts and keep our focus on the present conflict rather than trying to second-guess motivations or back-story.

It also bolsters one of the play's more dubious and unsettling themes: the absence of causality, of consequence, of meaning. "Nothing is connected to anything else," Martin says near the end. "Things happen." This is as bleak as Albee has ever been, and once the squirms and the jokes about "animal husbandry" subside - once we're done, in other words, with all those lively conversations about the play - we're left with the sulfurous aftertaste of apocalypse.

Far from a talking point, that's a conversation stopper.

The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? is at the Taper through March 20, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or marktaperforum.org.

Frederick Weller, Elizabeth Marvel, George Grizzard, and Frances Sternhagen in Seascape at the Booth in 2005.


Nov. 22, 2005, Broadway.com

Can a lizard cry? That we find ourselves wondering this, let alone forming such a thought in the first place, is a testament to the uncanny artistry of Edward Albee, whose 1975 oddity Seascape has the writer’s signature blend of provocation, pretension, and put-on. Director Mark Lamos’ splendid new Lincoln Center revival adds another shade that helps this strange, lopsided meditation blow by as smoothly as a sea breeze: playfulness.

The light tone seems proper, since Seascape is essentially Albee’s vacation play, in which he takes the sort of long-married couple his plays usually confine to domestic purgatory and sets them loose on an unidentified beach for a little R and R. This being Albee, these letters could stand for regret and recrimination, as Nancy (Frances Sternhagen) and Charlie (George Grizzard) rehearse a familiar argument over how to spend their twilight years and, by extension, their lives. It’s never too late in the day, though: Michael Yeargan’s set, a furrowed dune with grassy and rocky outcrops, is lit in perpetual afternoon brightness by Peter Kaczorowski.

And while Grizzard and Sternhagen expertly nudge this sweet-and-sour badinage close to an emotional brink or two, the usual notes of marital discord are not the play’s main agenda. Instead, with assured imaginative perversity, Albee introduces a younger couple to the dialogue--of another, quasi-fictional species.

When Sarah (Elizabeth Marvel) and Leslie (Frederick Weller) make their entrance, in Catherine Zuber’s resplendent Komodo Dragon-like costumes, a buzz of absurdist comedy enters the air of the play and never leaves it, even if Albee dances close to the edge of dorky science fiction. These two lizard-people come off less like less literal earthly creatures who’ve crawled from the slimy deep than like aliens from a 1950s film, arriving with a selectively articulate command of English and lots of questions about human behavior, all the better to shine a clarifying light on it.

Watch Leslie’s withering reaction to the news that humans keep their young with them for “18 to 20 years,” or Charlie’s too-eager pouncing on the lizards’ disdain for fish as a form of bigotry. This is observational shtick on the level of a children’s book. Fortunately that’s not all the play has up its sleeve: It makes a case, tenuously but movingly, for a tragic view of human progress, linking the first act’s marital squabble with the lizards’ sense of not belonging, of needing to change but not knowing how.

Lamos’ extraordinarily sensitive cast brings out all these levels, and still more. Grizzard, his gut filling out a blue polo shirt and his voice rasping like a rusty yacht, conveys in Charlie a bone-deep peevishness which has encased his despair like a barnacle. Flitting and poking at it until it’s lanced, as only a loved one is authorized to do, is the bird-like Sternhagen, who brings an unfakeable aplomb to Nancy, even in what she apologetically calls her flare-ups of “petulance.”

Weller and Marvel, coached by movement coordinator Rick Sordelet, slither and preen in a more or less convincing anthropomorphic simulation of reptilian watchfulness and hauteur; there’s an admirable lack of showoff’s fussiness in their performances. Weller works his eyebrows for maximum irony, while Marvel uses her wide, plaintive eyes to accent Sarah’s pathos.

And yes, she’s the one who makes with the tears. While we’re none the wiser by play’s end whether lizards actually do cry (crocodiles, maybe), Seascape does manage to suggest, in its persuasively irrational way, the terrible unknowns and crushing losses they might cry about if they could.

“Seascape,” by Edward Albee, directed by Mark Lamos, at the Booth Theatre.