Sunday, May 01, 2016

Dame Helen Mirren Talks, Mostly about Shakespeare

When I was twelve, I went on a class field trip to Odessa,  with my beloved teacher Beth.  Bizarrely and incredulously, in the middle of this mostly forsaken oil town in far West Texas, there's a replica of the Globe Theatre on the campus of Odessa College

We saw The Tempest.  I don't know if it was a touring production or perhaps a college production, but I'll never forget the feeling of being there.   I will also never forget "Caliban" as he bounded up the aisle, practically into my lap.   I have never been so simultaneously thrilled and frightened.  

I had traveled as a child but we moved to West Texas for my parents' jobs and to be closer to wasn't an unhappy time but it also felt like a million miles from everywhere.  Going to the theatre gave me the feeling of independence and escape.  I still feel this way, even living almost 2000 miles from that little place.

Since that field trip, I've seen many productions of The Tempest and it still remains my favorite.  Most of all, it opened a feeling and a world to me that I never grow tired of visiting.

Then this past Wednesday night, I heard something incredibly rare, extraordinary and equally unforgettable.  It was but a moment, but equally transportive:  Dame Helen Mirren read Caliban's monologue from an iphone.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
The Tempest, Act III, Scene II, William Shakespeare.

This came at the end of Dame Helen's interview by Paul Holdengraber at the New York Public Library. 

I could never compare myself to Dame Helen.  She's too everything that I am notBut I did find my past experience collide with hers as she told her own story of coming into Shakespeare.  When she was also about twelve or thirteen, she saw her first Shakespeare; a touring production of Hamlet in her rough little coastal English town, Westcliff-on-Sea.  She says she was transported and hasn't forgotten that experience in fifty or so years.    What if she hadn't seen that?  I shudder to think of an interruption of the fate that perhaps inspired one of our greatest actresses: 

"I am a very strong believer in the fact that children, young people I should say, should have their first experience of Shakespeare should be an experience of watching it in the theatre, or an watching
it being acted.  Certainly, that was my first experience....and I was utterly transported...And it lead me into this wonderful imaginative world of characters and storytelling and drama that was so different that was so different than the street I was growing up on..."

The talk was mostly about Shakespeare, a celebration of his 400th anniversary year, and Dame Helen's career as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. 

The interview was filmed and is still available here:

I admit that I've been watching it on loop.  

Shakespeare Noir!

Frog & Peach Theatre Company is throwing an all-star reading tomorrow night.   Actors Zach Grenier, Judith Ivey, Austin Pendleton, Peter Gerety and the fabulous members of the Frog & Peach will read Shakespeare's text in honor of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.  I am so stoked to see the thrilling Zach Grenier again, plus I'm excited to be a part of honoring the terrific Gale Brewer, who was also my city council member. 

Eight years ago, I walked about 8 blocks from my apartment to be immersed in Macbeth as staged by Frog & Peach.   I was in awe and since then, they've become my favorite New York Shakespeare troupe. 

The evening proceeds support free and discounted tickets to Frog & Peach Main Stage productions for under-served public school students city-wide.   I love that this Company remains committed to sharing making Shakespeare accessible to kids, which is arguably is the most important and best way to learn the Master's works.  

The evening takes place tomorrow, May 2 at 7 pm, at The Greenwich House Schol of Music at 46 Barrow St, in Manhattan’s West Village.  Tickets are $49-$99 each, or a table of six for $499.

Tickets are available via Eventbrite. 

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Henry V at Rogue & Peasant Players

My favorite thing about seeing Shakespeare off-Broadway is that nothing is made into everything.  The Rogue & Peasant Players is doing this now with their new production of HENRY V at The Access Theatre, a wonderfully intimate black box in Tribeca.

The production, directed by Kelly Monroe Johnston, is at once simplistic and chaotic.  Out of a cacophony of sound, cleverly punctuated by a wonderful percussion set of hanging wine bottles and buckets, comes forth a clarity of text.  It's interesting and entertaining. The cast is mostly female and plays the roles as they are written.  At times it seems that there are a lot of actors in the space, but even then they switch characters seamlessly, thanks to simple costume changes, designed by Liliana Casabal.  I also loved the lighting.  The Access Theatre is fitted with typical stage lighting, but Lighting Designer Susannah Baron added very cool effects with lamps and in particular a flash camera during the battle scenes.

I saw HENRY IV last fall so I was happy to see HENRY V so soon since, as I'm making my way thru the History Plays.  Shakespearean quotes are so much of every day life that I find it a bit of a epiphany to hear them in context.  I was thrilled to hear the St. Crispian Day speech ("We few, we happy few, we band of Brothers") delivered beautifully by company member Brenna Yeary as Henry.

The rest of this cast is represented by company members Sarah Bonner, Tim Down, Dee Dee Popper. Alejandra Venancio (a delightful Katherine), and Malka Wallick.  Joining the company for this production are Alyssa May Gold, Elizabeth M. Kelly, Jess Milewicz, Adam Kee and apprentices Madeleine Escarne and Brandon Rachal. 

I have to shout out to Falstaff's soldiers played hilariously by Jess Melewics as Bardolph, Alyssa May Gold as Nym and Sarah Bonner as Pistol, especially with their use of some unlikely weapons.

In this 400th year since the death of Shakespeare, it's a great idea to add Rogue & Peasant's production of HENRY V to join in on the commemoration.

HENRY V runs Wednesdays thru Sundays until February 14th at the Access Theatre, 380 Broadway, just north of White Street and close to Canal Street.  Tickets ($18 well spent) are available via Brown Paper Tickets:

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The No. 1 Reason Why Star Wars The Force Awakens Will Be Even More Awesome Than I Expect

The No. 1 Reason why Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be even more awesome than I expect when I see it on Christmas Eve:  Dame Harriet Walter has a cameo as Dr. Kalonia.  

Now, if only Janet McTeer appears as a storm trooper...

Via The Daily Beast - Spot the Cameos in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Friday, December 18, 2015

Insignificant at Infinite Variety Productions

I loved the new play Insignificant by Sean Michael Welch at Infinite Variety Productions
so much that I'm going again tonight. 

Set in 1925, a young female astronomy student, Cecilia Payne, doubts her own findings.  It's not the data that necessarily holds her back, but her station as a woman in the field where men are dominant and the resultant self-doubt.

Her colleague and veteran astronomer Annie Jump Cannon leads Cecilia through her own struggle as a brilliant female scientist in a male world by sharing her own story and that of her colleagues to drive home the necessity to continue the fight against the struggle of equality.

From the Press Release: Insignificant tells the true stories of the women behind the stars and their astounding but uncelebrated triumphs in the field of astronomy. Defiantly unconventional, the play reminds us that women have to break all the rules to make history.

The production is superb with almost an ethereal quality at times, perfect for it's heavenly subject matter.   The story weaves back and forth from present to past, without becoming overly sentimental or maudlin thanks to a fantastic company and a deft touch by director Colleen Britt.   The actresses, lead by Kathleen O'Neill in the role of Annie and Deanna McGovern as Cecilia, brilliantly and powerfully depict this true life story of these early female astronomers is dramatized beautifully, highlighting their friendship and sisterhood and sometimes even weaving back further in their past.   The other real female astronomers and Annie's contemporaries brought to life are Williamina Fleming by Laura King Otazo, Antonia Maury by Ashley Adelman, and Henrietta Swan Leavitt by Alla Illvosa. 

The drama is also kept light by a sort of Vaudevillian troupe of male villains who also serve as their chauvinistic professors.  They are delightfully played by Andrew Dunn, Jordan Gwiazdowski and Timothy Ellis Riley.

The other subject of the play is astronomy, not an easy science.  Sean Michael Welch keeps it real without making it too much to understand.  I'm not a complete novice, having taken astronomy in college to satisfy my requirement science component, but this is not easy stuff.  That alone makes this a fascinating topic to explore especially given that these women were not even allowed to look through even the most rudimentary of telescopes by their male superiors in university.   They are confined to the very tedious work of measuring distance between the stars on photo plates.

Infinite Variety Productions is a company which devotes itself to little known stories of women in our history through drama.   This passionate company is producing thrilling stories and I can't wait to see more from them.  Each time I've seen one of their plays, I've been compelled to learn more of the history they presenting - and inspired to make sure that my nieces are aware as well.  

This is the last weekend of Insignificant, although I'm sure it will get another, much deserved life in the very near future.  It's not too late to see it - it's playing at the Kraine Theatre at 85 East 4th Street, just off 2nd Avenue tonight and tomorrow night at 7 pm.   Tickets are available online via Horse Trade Theatre Group

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Great Scott! The Pipes of Christmas are Coming!

This Saturday, December 19th, the Scots will be invade the Upper East Side of Manhattan (and they'll move over to New Jersey on Sunday, December 20th).  Specifically it's the Highland pipes and drums of Scotland along with brass, strings, and percussion native to Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.  This Celtic concert, the Pipes of Christmas, celebrates the holidays and the Christmas season like no other. 

I have been attending the Pipes of Christmas annually since 2010.  This concert of music and readings stirs my soul and reminds me not only of the wee dram of Scottish blood in my family line but also of my heritage as a Christian celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.   It's one of my favorite events of the entire year and I plan my December around it. 

The Pipes of Christmas is produced by Clan Curry Society to both celebrate the season and raise money for its international music scholarship program that includes annual gifts to students in the United States, Scotland and Canada.

Performing are the fiddle champions, Paul Woodiel and Calum Pasqua, "Riverdance" piper, Christopher Layer, guitarist Steve Gibb from "Jersey Boys", cellist Sarah Hewitt-Roth, Scottish Country Dance aficionado Susie Petrov, bassist Mark Verdino, the Solid Brass ensemble, organist William Peek, Scottish Gaelic Mod Champion harpist Jennifer Port and the Kevin Ray Blandford Memorial Pipe Band of Redlands, CA.

This year, the Pipes of Christmas also honors the late Academy Award winning composer James Horner.  Horner composed hundreds of film scores, including "Titanic," "A Beautiful Mind," "Field of Dreams," and notably "Braveheart" which tells the story of Scottish hero William Wallace to who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independece against King Edward 1 of England.  To pay tribute to James Horner's legacy of bringing Celtic music to a broader audience, three "Braveheart" case members - Mhairi Calvey, James Robison, and Andrew Weir - are reuniting to perform readings.  It's thrilling to hear their brogues as well as speak in native Scots. 

The concert will also feature the world premier of a new work composed by a music student of Edinburgh Napier University as part of the university's Christmas Composition Contest which is sponsored by Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith ("No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series).

The Pipes of Christmas opens on Saturday, December 19th at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, located at 921 Madison Avenue (at 73rd Street) with performances at 2PM and 7PM.  The concert moves across the Hudson River on Sunday, December 20th to Central Presbyterian Church located at 70 Maple Street in Summit, NJ for 2PM and 7PM performances.

Concert highlights will also be televised via cable to 11 New Jersey towns on December 24-26, 2015 and streamed online.  Please visit and on

To experience this miraculous and soul stirring Christmas concert live, visit SmartTix to purchase tickets.   Attend Saturday, December 19th at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, located at 921 Madison Avenue (at 73rd Street) with performances at 2PM and 7PM.  The concert moves across the Hudson River on Sunday, December 20th to Central Presbyterian Church located at 70 Maple Street in Summit, NJ for 2PM (sold out!)  and 7PM performances.  A Blithe Yule!

Monday, November 09, 2015

Harriet Walter would love to play Macbeth. Yes, please.

"A third production with Phyllida Lloyd is planned, and although the play has not yet been determined, there is one tragic hero Walter would relish taking on. 'Having played Lady Macbeth'—opposite Antony Sher, in 1999—'I would love to play Macbeth,' she said. 'We were yin and yang. I would like to try the yang to the yin—or whichever the female is. I can’t remember.'"

Dame Harriet Walter, to the New Yorker in "Women's Work" by Rebecca Mead, November 16, 2015 issue

Having seen Dame Harriet twice in the all-female production of "Julius Caesar," once at the Donmar in London and once at St. Ann's Warehouse here in New York, I'm here to tell you that she knows what she's doing when it comes to Shakespeare and playing a traditionally male role.  She's equal parts thrilling and terrifying.

In a few weeks, I'll see her in “Henry IV” at St. Ann's with two other card carrying members of the Dame Harriet Walter Society.   It's imperative.  

(and yes, I've seen that Macbeth in which Dame Harriet played Lady M to Anthony Sher's Macbeth - it was released to DVD in 2003)

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Sylvia at the Cort Theatre: Hey! Hey hey hey!

Almost exactly twenty years ago I saw A.R. Gurney's play Sylvia at the Zach Theatre in Austin, Texas. It was the first really grown-up comedy I saw and I've never forgotten it.

It's a play about a dog and the man who loves her...well, mostly. It's a really the sweet story about a married couple but it's the dog named Sylvia who really steals the show. Over the years, I would recall that dog named Sylvia, especially after I adopted my own little dog named Little Bit (actually shortly after I saw this play - maybe I was inspired). Mr. Gurney perfectly captures the voice and actions of a dog, with the help of the actress who plays her. I would imagine Little Bit talking to me as Sylvia talked to her human.

I was thrilled to see Sylvia in previews and was treated to "blogger night."  Two of the stars, Julie White who plays the wife and Annaleigh Ashford who plays Sylvia, were on hand to discuss and share stories of their process in preparing for this comedy.  Both ladies are dog owners: Julie has an ancient Pomeranian named Lulu (my Little Bit was a Pom too) and Annaleigh has a toy Australian shepherd named Gracie.   Annaleigh took obedience and agility classes with Gracie to help her prepare for this role. 

The play made its New York debut off-Broadway starring Sarah Jessica Parker as Sylvia the dog at the Manhattan Theatre Club.   Now, her husband, Matthew Broderick, is starring as the husband who adopts Sylvia, on Broadway at the Cort Theatre.    Robert Sella marvelously plays various roles to round out the cast.  

This time around, I'm a little more mature than the first time I saw it so the sweet, matures themes of the play touched my heart differently, but I still found Sylvia to be one of the most hilarious plays I've ever seen and my sides aching from laughing were proof of that.  I'm still chuckling at the thought of Annaleigh Ashford and her antics as the dog, especially in her scenes opposite Robert Sella.    (I want to see Annaleigh in EVERYTHING - she's delightful, brilliant, fabulous...)

Because the dog is played by an actress, you are privy to her thoughts and conversations and it's sometimes easy to forget that she is in fact playing a dog.  However, her movements in prancing about and constantly sniffing at things keeps you in the suspension of disbelief.  Her barks and greeting are "Hey! Hey!"  She doesn't hold back on her feelings for her new owners, the husband she loves, the wife of whom she's a bit wary of and just a tad jealous.  From her antics in the dog park to her behavior in the living room to her reactions to the stranger in her home, she has the audience in her paw...and practically rolling in the aisles with glee.  When she sees a cat in the park, her reaction is just about the funniest - and spot on dog characterization, save the wonderfully foul language - you'll ever see.   The performance is raucous and the audience laps it up.  A friend of mine went with her husband and she told me she never remembered him laughing so hard.  While it's sweet and simple adult-themed play, it's one of the best nights of laughing you'll have, particularly if you've ever had a pet. 

Beginning this coming Tuesday, November 10th, audiences will be invited to stay for post-show discussions that will feature members of the Sylvia cast and company, in addition to leading animal experts, authors, media personalities and animal-related non-profits for its Tuesday Talkback Series.

Sylvia runs until the end of January.  Tickets are available via Telecharge or by calling (212) 239-6200 or in-person at The Cort Theatre box office (138 W. 48th St. between 6th and 7th avenues, around the corner from the B/D or the N/Q Trains ).  Discounts are available via BroadwayBox.   A limited number of Rush tickets are available for purchase in-person at The Cort Theatre box office beginning at 10am Monday - Saturday (12pm on Sundays) for that day's performance(s) only. Rush tickets cost $32 with a maximum of two tickets per person. Rush tickets are subject to availability and may not be offered at all performances. Rush seating locations will be determined at the discretion of the box office.
Annaleigh Ashford and Julie White - Blogger Night

Annaleigh Ashford and Julie White - Blogger Night