9/14/2023 From the Video Book Shelf: PBS Great Performances
I’m still a little behind on the last batch of Dramatists Play Service scripts, so I thought I’d take a Broadway Deep Dive into PBS’s Great Performances and their (too rare) forays into theatre. It was a most memorable wallow in some shows I couldn’t get to NYC to see, as well as a couple “movies” of interest to theatre lovers, which, I assume, incudes some of you.
Forthwith are thumbnails of a different kind. (I’ve included links to their Video streams for those of you with PBS Passport – and, like me, do you respond “You’re Welcome” every time the announcer says “…with contributions from Viewers Like You. Thank You!”?)
MERRY WIVES (Shakespeare in the Park)
By William Shakespeare, adapted by Jocelyn Bioh
Originally Produced by the Public Theatre, New York City July 2021
Ms. Bioh has taken Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and moved it to contemporary Harlem. She has given the characters Afro-centric first names and “countries of origin” and has retained most of Shakespeare’s original text and plotting. Okay, some characters are gone (only Pistol remains of Falstaff’s minions), and some have changed genders giving some sweet and simple same-sex couplings. But the essence of Shakespeare’s comic masterpiece remains and comes alive.
I’ve already thumb-nailed this piece as part of an earlier batch of DPS Book Club offerings, and it was a joy to see it come alive. This video is essentially a filmed performance of the Shakespeare in the Park production, and it is a delight. Stars Jacob Ming-Trent (Falstaff), Pascale Armand (Madam Ekua Page) and Susan Kelechi Watson (Madam Nkechi Ford) give the story a decidedly Harlem flair and, thankfully, do not lose the glory of Shakespeare’s language with their African accents.
Sometimes you just want to laugh, and this production hits the funny bone in all the right places.
RICHARD III (Shakespeare in the Park)
By William Shakespeare
Originally Produced by the Public Theatre, New York City July 2022
Another filmed production from Shakespeare in the Park, this riveting thrill-ride features Danai Guria (TV’s Walking Dead, MCU’s Black Panther) as Richard. The “hump-backed toad” is here freed of a hump and any physical deformity but is supported by a cast of “differently-abled” actors, including Tony winner Ali Stroker (Lady Anne) and deaf performer Monique Holt (Duchess of York). It’s a brutally brilliant concept that wallows in the ironies of Richard’s (supposed) motivations. Director Robert O’Hara (Slave Play) keeps the proceedings fast and bloody, but it is Ms. Guria who captures our attention. She struts and preens and woos and plots and is never-tiring in her pursuit of the crown. This is a Richard who takes giddy delight in WINNING, and who stoops at nothing to get her own way.
INTIMATE APPAREL: A NEW OPERA (Lincoln Center)
Music by Ricky Ian Gordon,
Libretto by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage based on her play
Recorded March 2022 at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre of Lincoln Center
Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel has become a favorite of theatres around the country (including a terrific 2006 production at the Alliance Theatre). But I couldn’t help feeling a tad surprised at learning it was being adapted into an opera. It’s (at heart) a play about unspoken secrets, about unexpressed feelings, about small emotional victories. Opera is the opposite – BIG feelings and LOUDLY SUNG secrets and, basically, nothing left unexpressed.
To my surprise¸ this opera retains much of the subtlety and appeal of the original play, and I have to confess to finding myself sucked into its familiar story, despite my limited enthusiasm for the score.
It’s 1905 in New York City and Esther is a spinster seamstress who begins a “lonely hearts” correspondence with a worker on the Panama Canal. They create a serious emotional connection through their letters, despite Esther being illiterate and needing others to do the writing and the reading for her. Her “friends are polar opposites – a society matron, unhappy in marriage and a “Tenderloin” prostitute who wallows in the sensual.
What can possibly go wrong?
So my only quibble is the music itself. It was not my “cup of tea” (a catchy Opium Den number excepted) and all the women (more or less) sounded too similar in that mezzo-soprano way I personally find grating. But their expressive faces and voices nevertheless hid the emotions that needed hiding and expressed the lies that needed expressing. I found myself spell-bound.
REMEMBER THIS: THE LESSON OF JAN KARSKI
(Laboratory for Global Performance & Politics at Georgetown University)
by Clark Young and Derek Goldman
This one is very special. A one-person show in which David Strathairn plays Jan Karski and over 30 other characters, it was filmed in stark black-and-white on a Brooklyn Sound Stage with no set and minimal furniture.
It is a visually stunning account of Jan Karski, a Polish diplomat who brought eye-witness accounts of the Holocaust to British and American officials “when there was still time to stop it.” He was virtually ignored, even by those officials who believed him.
Mr. Strathairn uses the space and the camera well, bringing to life the risks to himself, the compassion for those Jews he encountered when he was allowed to “tour” the Warsaw Ghetto, and the exasperation for the politically-minded bureaucrats he encountered in London and Washington.
This is accompanied by a documentary short, “Remembering Jan Karski,” that includes sequences of the real Karski taken from the Claude Lanzmann documentary Shoah.
I look forward to seeing the Atlanta premier of this piece, January 24, 2024 at Theatrical Outfit with Andrew Benator.
FIDDLER: MIRACLE OF MIRACLES
A Documentary, produced, written, and directed by Max Lewkowicz
This is a documentary about Fiddler on the Roof, the iconic 1964 musical we all know and love. It takes us behind the scenes of the original production, features interviews and commentary from Fiddler on the Roof composer and lyricist Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Joel Grey, Topol, Harvey Fierstein, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and many other famous fans. And it also includes full production numbers in several languages from around the world.
Fiddler is famous for “speaking to” audiences of all ethnicities and religious traditions – one of my favorite quotes form this documentary is from a Tokyo fan who wonders how it can be so popular in America – “It’s so Japanese.”
I loved this movie and have actually seen it twice, enjoying hearing songs cut from the show before opening, including an amusing but totally “wrong” “When the Messiah Comes” that proved not only unpopular, but show-stoppingly awful (although hearing it out of context, it’s not so awful). We also get to see excerpts from the popular YouTube video of Lin-Manuel Miranda and his future father-in-law performing a fully-stage “To Life” to surprise his bride-to-be. Good Stuff!
So, before going to see City Springs’ production next month, this is a great reminder of why Fiddler on the Roof has lasted for 60 years and remains painfully relevant even unto today.
Thank you for indulging in my little thumbnail reactions. I look forward to future theatre-based Great Performances and will report on them as they become available, perhaps even dredging out of my brain and computer full-length reactions and columns. Time will tell!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #GreatPerformances #BroadwayOnPBS #WABE #GPB_TV #PBSPassport)