What a grandiose statement. As if I could cover the depth of theatre happening in New York City- hardly. But I did spend a week there in April and managed to see six shows whilst I was there so I thought I’d give a quick review of my impressions of those shows.
First up was ‘Bullet Catch’ at 59 E59th St Theatre in conjunction with The Arches, Glasgow as part of their Brits Off Broadway season. Written, directed and performed by Rob Drummond and co-directed by David Overend, ‘Bullet Catch’ refers to the magic trick that is supposedly the most difficult to execute- the one where you appear to have caught the marked bullet in your teeth.
Drummond, an accomplished magician, recreates one of the tragic scenarios of this trick from Victorian times and takes us through this role play, with a foot firmly in contemporary times too, in order to examine what makes a man risk his life and seek out an unwitting accomplice from the audience to assist in the trick and the effect on has on them both.
59E59 is a tiny theatre, like Belvoir Downstairs, as so its intimate nature is perfect for audience interaction. Like any magician worth his weight in gold, all you need is a convincing stooge and then to direct attention away from the trick itself. Drummond was outstanding on both counts. Not only did he have the audience convinced that he might die doing this trick but the volunteer from the audience was just as convincing. One of my students had to leave the room, the tension was so palpable. It’s not until after the show you try to put the pieces together of how we were all so completely manipulated into believing what just occurred in front of us. And that’s the beauty of the trick- that it did occur directly in front of its audience- each magic trick was executed in this 75 minute narrative with utter conviction and flair. This show went down as one of the highlights for the students.
You have to see at least one big name on Broadway if you’re in NYC and for us it was Alec Baldwin in ‘Orphans’ at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. But as good as he was (and he was), it was the other two actors who stole the show. Ben Foster (replacing Shia Le Bouf…can anyone tell me why he ‘quit’ the show weeks before it went on?) and Tom Sturridge put in a real star performance as brothers Treat and Phillip, orphans trapped in their dead mother’s house, living frugally and relying completely on Treat’s ability to steal and scam. Enter Harold (Baldwin), who starts as Treat’s drunken kidnap victim and ends up being a surrogate father, deep in the belly of the underworld and taking these young men with him. Harold teaches each of the boys to hope for better before the inevitable tragic ending.
This play is classic realism and although engaging, it was overshadowed by other shows we saw in NYC at the time. However, Sturridge in particular, deserves his own special mention for his agility and integrity as naïve and lovable Phillip. The play also deals beautifully with the theme of loneliness and emptiness- of love and hope and, most obviously, of a father figure. It offers up hope in filling the void and then the profound loss of something potentially healed only widens the gaping despair of that emptiness when it is removed.
RSC’s ‘Julius Caesar’ was playing at BAM when we were there and we took advantage of seeing it. It turned out to be our most disappointing show of the six. Maybe it was because it was a matinee and we were sleep deprived. Maybe it was the freezing air conditioning malfunction or maybe it was because I performed an uncharacteristic act of charity and swapped seats with a man so he could be next to his elderly mother to discover that there was a huge supporting pole right in front of my new seat that obstructed my view. I’ll say it was a combination of all but not aided by the actual show itself.
The acting was great, the design was beautiful but the sum of all of its parts never came together. I felt like I was watching a series of puzzle pieces floating about on stage that could never effectively complete the whole picture. There was a lack of cohesion. The rhythm of the language in this Jamaican/African inspired interpretation just seemed to falter. The pace of the show consequently kept falling into holes, much like my consciousness.
It did help to assert in my mind that so much of the Shakespeare performed professionally here is some of the best you’ll ever see. If you’re getting the job done better than the RSC, kudos to you. We might only make up 2% of the world’s theatre companies in Sydney but you get one big tick for getting it right.
Going from professional to amateur, we also caught ‘Our Town’ at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Sentimental and long (I didn’t quite realise how long until this show), ‘Our Town’ served the play’s form and narrative with some of the strengths and flaws you’d expect from a high school company. There were some very strong performances and I can’t fault their focus and commitment.
‘Our Town’ is part of the American canon of works and a classic staple of any student work but I think I can retire from seeing it again for a while. I’ve seen three productions of it now and as much as I like its message, it feels dated. I appreciate how it played with form, especially for the time it was written but it now carries a ‘do not disturb’ sign firmly on its cover.
And while I’m at it, what’s with giving everything a standing ovation in the States?
‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ at New World Stages was our next outing. If I tell you that I gave this one a standing ovation (my only one in NYC), that should indicate how good I thought it was.
Prequel to Peter Pan and based on the books by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Rick Elice’s play was spot on for entertainment and sheer audience joy. ‘Peter & the Starcatcher’ is a Grotowski-inspired physical embodiment of the actor’s power in creating not just characters but environment, mood, tension, humour and audience engagement. It answers for us why Peter wants to stay as a boy and how he and the lost boys found their power. It also deals with the history of Captain Hook and Wendy.
The golden moment of the lazzi of (soon to be Captain Hook) Black Stache’s hand in the trunk was one of the funniest things I’ve seen. I loved the shifts in movement to suddenly create a brand new location, attitude and plot twist. Roger Rees and Alex Timbers’ direction with the movement choreography of Steven Hoggett was superb. If I was to recommend a show you have to see in New York, it would be ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’.
Finally we headed off to see the newest musical on Broadway, ‘Matilda’ at the Sam S. Schubert Theatre. Roald Dahl’s book has been re-written for the stage by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin by The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Dodgers and directed by Matthew Warchus. The striking design by Rob Howell of the jumble of letters amongst the huge library with fly-ins of huge set pieces is enough to excite any audience.
The play was a great night out, although I felt that the cast couldn’t handle some of the songs with clarity and articulation. Acting wise, Bertie Carvel’s Miss Trunchbull, the Headmistress, was a highlight and the kids on stage were a ball of energy and mugged to the audience with cuteness galore. These are very skilled and focused kids.
No theatre experience is complete without the crankiest ushers in the world and this show had them in a plentiful supply. I get the impression that they were only one step away from becoming Miss Trunchbull themselves.
Being in New York reminds you how wonderful it is to be in a place that offers a huge market of theatre. I’m appreciative of all the choices available and if you haven’t been to NYC, get there when you can, hunt down the shows you want to see and go for it. It’s as hit and miss as anywhere really but there are hundreds more options that you won’t find anywhere else and I guarantee that you will find something that you will love.
I heart NYC.