Jun 17, 2013


Insert obligatory apology for light posting here. The slowdown has been mainly due to my being out of town to report a big story on the Goodman Theatre's new Jungle Book. You may have heard about the show last week when a controversy over director/adapator Mary Zimmerman's alleged cultural insensitivity exploded on the Internet, a few days after I'd returned from reporting in Chicago (the post most worth reading is the kerfuffle's civil, and hopefully definitive, denouement). In the hours I spent with her, as well as watching rehearsals and talking to songwriter Richard M. Sherman, music director Doug Peck, performer Andre De Shields, and others, the issues of both Rudyard Kipling's colonialism and the Disney film's perceived racism definitely came up, and not trivially. I would argue that it's not the main thing worth talking about with this relatively lighthearted family musical, but it's not negligible, either, and I was convinced from my interviews that Zimmerman and the entire company had given these issues considerable thought and care.

So maybe that's why, when I read her explaining her approach to these issues, I immediately understood the context of her comments, particularly the most infamous one: In trying to debunk the common perception that the Disney film's singing orangutan, voiced by an Italian jazz singer, is somehow a racist caricature, she said, "It's something I think where the racism is in the eye of the beholder." If you lop off the words "It's something I think where the," as even usually circumspect Thomas Cott sloppily did, then you do indeed have an inflammatory and sweepingly dismissive statement--just not one the Mary Zimmerman happened to say or mean. Even her comment about the British imperial period in India ("No one is sitting around moping about the raj"), while it certainly sounds flippant and dismissive, I understood to mean--in the context of a show in which Zimmerman, her designers, and music director Doug Peck are paying tribute to the story's Indian setting in a fascinating, and to my ears and eyes, joyous way--that Indian culture is not ultimately confined to or defined by its interactions with the West.

In any case, I'm glad that Jamil Khoury, whose initial anti-Mary Zimmerman post reads more like a full-career slam than a "conversation starter," was gracious enough to let her explain herself at length on the same site. My story will be out this week, and you can read more then.

In the meantime, the Tonys happened and proved the StageGrade critics' poll wrong on some big categories. I caught the best-play winner Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and liked it enough that I'm going back this week, not least to ponder why I liked it so much (it seems upon reflection to be a flimsy, self-congratulatory, even reactionary little sitcom, but it also happens to have been the most fun I've had at a big Broadway "boulevard" comedy since, well, ever). Speaking of comedies, Shakespeare in the Park's new Comedy of Errors is also strong and supply done, with Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson playing the piece's absurd, confounded comic mechanics blessedly straight. They do something that is all too seldom achieved with Shakespeare, and most particularly his comedies: They make it funny on its own terms, without the sort of mugging, winking, or interpolated shtick that nervous directors and actors typically graft onto the action to make Shakespeare seem funny.

I was less taken with The Nance, which I had hoped from the reviews would be a solid, old-fashioned comedy/drama. Well, it's old-fashioned, at least, leading to an experience that's not unlike catching a third-string feature on AMC late at night. Nathan Lane is, no surprise, extraordinary, and there's a great, wrenching scene in Act Two that's all the better because it's the kind of obligatory confrontation--between Lane's older, closeted gay man and a young lover poignantly unable to make claims on, let alone name their relationship--that the whole play's been building to, and which we approach with dread, fearing that Douglas Carter Beane is not going to handle it in anything like an original fashion (given the alternately hamhanded and muddled way he handles a lot of the rest of the show). Instead, the scene is searching, emotionally honest, painful in the best way, and on the strength of that--not to mention Jack O'Brien's sparkling direction--I'd say The Nance is worth a look.

While in Chicago, I caught Othello: The Remix, by the Q Brothers of Bombitty of Errors fame. Though I never caught that hit, I was duly impressed with this all-rapped four-man (plus DJ) update of the Shakespeare play (performed at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, no less). In fact, with its mix of geeky wordplay and free-flowing, spot-on presentational style, it may be the best piece of hip-hop theater I've seen. (Guess I should at check out Venice here in town for a point of comparison.)

Finally, I found Caucasian Chalk Circle at Classic Stage Company a dispiriting slog, not least because of Duncan Sheik's somnabulent songs. (It might also have been that the play itself didn't register very strongly; it strikes me that the best versions of this play I've seen have been major overhauls/updates, including Lynn Manning's The Central Ave. Chalk Circle and Chuck Mee's The Berlin Circle, the latter of which deals with the thorny post-communist question head-on, and brilliantly so.) I was surprised, then, to see that CSC has doubled down on the Sheik/Brecht alliance, announcing that they'll do A Man's a Man next season with music by the Spring Awakening tunesmith. I know that Sheik has it in him to make music that's spikier and punchier than the contemplative pastels of his Circle score; may I suggest that he give a spin to Dave Van Ronk and Frankie Armstrong's extraordinary record of Brecht songs, Let No One Deceive You? A version of the song "A Man's a Man" is included but not embeddable here, so I'll close this catch-up post with this shattering rendition of a Brecht/Weill classic.

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