stage dive

Theater Review: The Off Broadway Weekend Roundup

Steven Boyer and Megan Hill in Robert Askins’ Hand to God. Photo: Courtesy of The Ensemble Studio Theatre

King Lear (at the Public Theater through November 20)
Sam Waterston’s King Lear looks like a soaked marmot and sounds like a broken klaxon: Long before he’s cast out into the elements by his treacherous daughters (Enid Graham and Kelli O’Hara, both delightfully poisonous) and hurls himself into the famous storm scene (“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”), this Lear seems like he’s been rode hard and put away wet: He looks like the sort of king who’s been at loose ends for years, perhaps long before senescence began to eat away at his reason. Waterston, I suspect, is building on foundations he laid a few seasons ago as dotty scarecrow Polonius in Hamlet-in-the-Park. In that production, he would nightly stop the show — literally — with a 40-second “senior moment” that terrified the crowd. But this ramshackle, James Macdonald–directed Lear, however, is longer on bellowing indignation than awkward silence, even if it’s neither as screamy (nor as tidy) the Michael Grandage production (starring an empurpled Derek Jacobi) imported by BAM last year. And it’s not as stylistically consistent as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version at the Armory last summer, which was technically perfect and perfectly tedious. It’s a bit of a jumble, actually, with its spare, sere, rubble-strewn set design, its burnt-parchment cyclorama, and its kinda-nifty, mostly distracting chain curtain — which advances, slowly, inexorably compacting the stage, but also tinkling cheerily with every entrance, like the bell on a shop door.

That said, this is also one of the more enjoyable Lears I’ve seen in a while. Which isn’t saying much: It’s just too easy to stage a bad Lear, and, in all honesty, I’d don’t think I’ve ever loved a production of this play. Even the most seasoned elder statesmen of the stage have an uphill climb ahead of them when taking on a character “who hath ever but slenderly known himself” — it’s too easy for Lear to slip into mere disorientation, and that, I’m afraid, is where Waterston seems to spend most of the show. There are ample, welcome distractions, however: Bill Irwin marshals all of his bug-eyed Bill Irwin–ness to play the Fool, Lear’s gadfly, chorus, and companion — the play’s plumb role — deploying actual stops-out clowning instead of the usual crying on the inside. John Douglas Thompson, one of the finer interpreters and updaters of Shakespeare’s language onstage, makes stalwart Kent, Lear’s spurned yet endless loyal retainer, a credible fiftysomething man of action and no simple spaniel. And Michael McKean, whose ease and grace in performance is magically disarming, proves a worthy Gloucester, another merry old sinner who sees past mistakes come to haunt him, here in the form of his bastard son Edmund (The Wire’s Seth Gilliam, having a good time playing one of the Bard’s great scoundrels).

Hand to God (at the Ensemble Studio Theater through November 20)
Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin haven’t opened yet, but I think we’ve already found the theater’s couple of the year: Troubled Christian teen Jason (Steven Boyer) and his friend Tyrone (Steven Boyer) are inseparable, and not just because Tyrone is attached to Jason’s left hand. Enlisted in the “Puppet Ministry” run by his recently widowed, ready-to-crack mother Margery (Geneva Carr), Jason has created Tyrone to teach kids about Jesus. But Tyrone has his own ideas: Like most Id-demons, he’d like to see his host assert himself and act on his basic (or base) impulses a little more freely. Capering impishly between campy B-horror and a deadly serious revisionist Sunday-school lesson, Robert Askins’s daffily devout black comedy is just the sort of juicy little morsel the hard-bitten theatervore hopes to find, and seldom does, Off Broadway. The fiendishly talented, wildly committed, remorselessly granite-faced Boyer pulls off a suite of full-on puppet-versus-puppeteer hand-to-hand combat that’s one of the more fascinating physical maneuvers you’re likely to see onstage this season.

The Blue Flower (at Second Stage through November 27)
More of a concept album brought to life than a true stage musical, The Blue Flower is the best and only Weimar-pop-pseudohistorical epic I’ve ever seen or am likely to see. There’s no book writer; the composers, Jim and Ruth Bauer, have taken care of everything for you — including the sepia-toned, collage-art short films that play throughout and overwhelm even Beowulf Boritt’s bomb-went-off set. I exited nicely bemused, and a little confused: The question “what the hell was that?” has never been asked with such happy afterglow. Marc Kudisch (A Minister’s Wife) once again shines in a challenging role. He’s Max Baumann, a composite of the post-Expressionist New Objectivity movement. (He seems principally based on Max Beckmann.) After dying on a New York park bench in the mid-fifties — having spoken nothing but an invented nonsense-language called “Maxperanto” since the thirties, when the Nazis took over — this Max tours his eventful and unhappy life, with the help of a repertory company of angelic types. We chart his rise to fame, his friendship with fellow painter Franz (Sebastian Arcelus), and his bumpy love life — he pines for scientist Maria (Teal Wicks), but settles for the the Dadaist Hannah (Meghan McGeary), who adores him. (This sounds like a pitch for a Woody Allen comedy.) Then, of course, comes the War to End All Wars, and the Weimar era, and the Nazis, and the next war, all floating on a glistering tide of molten art-rock. The Blue Flower doesn’t engage our emotions so much as phase-shift our theta waves, but it’s a steamer-trunk-full of worthy, often wondrous experimentation — and maybe a prospectus for a new language of musical theater. Once the Bauers get over the iPhone-app newness of what they’ve achieved — press a button and everything turns sepia and Weill-ish! — they might use that language to tell a truly rapturous story.

Queen of the Mist (at the Gym at Judson through November 20)
With Queen of the Mist, Michael John LaChiusa has written a strange, unwieldy, and obscure art musical about a strange, unwieldy, and obscure American original, Annie Edson Taylor, a 63-year-old schoolteacher who in 1901 became the first person to plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel. LaChiusa wrote it with another American original in mind, the great Mary Testa, who plays Taylor as a heroic crank. She invokes “science!” in the building of her custom-made cask, which she dubs “The Queen of the Mist,” a craft whose name she doesn’t so much speak as decree, in Bible tones, as if she’s cuing the Crack of Doom. And she might be: Edson, the show suggests, was never satisfied with the strictures of her sex or her society, and would rather seek fulfillment in the jaws of death than die comfortably in mediocrity. “I have greatness in me” is her leitmotif and cri de coeur, and the contrast of this sentiment with the absurdity of her quest (not to mention the scruffy mundanity of her theatrical environment, the Gym at Judson) gives the show its frisson. LaChiusa lets loose a surging, swirling score, with lavish emotional overwashes that often submerge the story itself. (Which isn’t hard to do: There’s not much story.) He’s assisted by master orchestrator Michael Starobin, whose small-ensemble arrangements produce the desired effect of Great Size through Small Means. As directed by Jack Cummings III, the musical more or less is what it portrays: a crazy errand carried to completion with Ahabian overcommitment that’s both heroic and ridiculous. It’s far too long, the bloated, overstuffed opening number prolapses badly and gets the show off to a jack-legged start, and I’m not sure any of it would work without Testa, whose presence onstage, vocally and otherwise, is that of a sublimely furious Greek deity. Queen, like its subject, is a curio that thinks it’s an epic. Its path leads to cult immortality, and maybe that’s enough for all involved.

Theater Review: The Off Broadway Weekend Roundup