Archive for the ‘Plays’ Category

The 39 StepsThe 39 Steps is an espionage story that has been through several incarnations. It began as a very popular 1915 book by John Buchan, the first of a series of adventures involving Richard Hannay, a resourceful engineer bored with London society, whose life takes a complete turn when someone is murdered in his London flat. Soon he’s on the run, framed for the crime by a mysterious spy organization, and in pursuit of a feisty love interest who’s attracted to him but not buying his wild story.

The novel was immortalized by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock in a 1935 film. This incarnation of The 39 Steps was one of the first films to show some of Hitch’s trademarks, a hyperdramatic style, mistaken identities, mysterious villains, a dapper hero, cross-country chases, long tracking shots, and dashes of quirky humor.

Playwright Patrick Barlow keeps Hitchcock’s plot, but injects it with a love for old-fashioned humor in the style of English music halls and a nostalgia for theater in the days of greasepaint, melodrama, and hokum. The resulting play merrily employs grand old traditions into a show that contemporary audiences will find new and fresh.

Barlow’s adaptation keeps Hannay as the protagonist, but uses just three actors in all of the other parts. One woman plays both the femme fatale and the love interest drawn into Hannay’s mad flight, while two very busy actors play all of the other characters from the film, often changing so quickly that they can’t even leave the stage. The results is a suspenseful thriller made madcap with tongue-in-cheek humor, a screwball romance, references to your favorite Hitchcock films, acrobatic antics, sinister villains, and playful re-imagining of the conventions and language of classic theater.

While I recommend reading Barlow’s play for sheer enjoyment of the language, this story needs to be seen. Barlow employs a minimal set, using just a few moving set pieces, props, light and sound effects, and pantomime to suggest locations ranging from London flats to Scottish country inns, foggy moors to campaign bandstands, even the perilous heights of a towering bridge and a moving train car. The rapid transformations of two actors into a merry-go-round of quirky bystanders, leering villains, and thick-brogued Highlanders has to be seen and heard to be believed.

The Williamsburg Players will bring The 39 Steps to the stage March 12th through 28th in a production directed by the Emmy-winning Abigail Schumann, and featuring local actors David Stallings as Hannay, Annie Lewis as Annabella and Margaret, and Chris Hull and Jordan Wentland as the two chameleon-like “clowns.” If you can’t make that, try searching for The 39 Steps on YouTube to supplement your reading.

Check the WRL catalog for Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps

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Soliloquy to StormtrooperAlas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,

Yet have I taken both uniform and life

From thee. What manner of man wert thou?

A man of infinite jest or cruelty?


I’m not normally a fan of the mashup. The book that started the craze, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was well done, but in most of these projects, the best joke is in the title. Ian Doescher has created a happy exception, taking the scripts from George Lucas’s Star Wars films and translating them into iambic pentameter, making books worthy of both the Bard and the droids. It’s a fine marriage, with the melodramatic space opera of Star Wars suited perfectly for Elizabethan language.

The success of the project has encouraged Doescher to continue with the series. The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return are already available, and more are in process. If you know your Shakespeare even a little, you’ll catch references to his famous lines throughout the works, as in the Hamlet reference in the quote above or when Han Solo quips, “Nay not that: the day when Jabba taketh my dear ship/Shall be the day you find me a grave man.”William Shakespeares Star Wars

Doescher tackles the challenges of the project with panache. R2D2, for instance, begins speaking in iambic beeps and squawks, but then switches to Shakespearean asides to complain about the “prating tongue” of his pompous golden friend. These extras add extra dimension to the interior world of beloved characters, perhaps even improving on the original. When the action cannot be conveyed by character speeches, Doescher doesn’t fret, he brings in a chorus to inform the audience of necessary plot developments. The book is graced by illustrations in the style of Elizabethan woodcuts.

You know the story, you know the style, but this combination is clever and executed brilliantly. I suspect smart English teachers will be using these books to great effect for years to come, but why leave the fun for the classroom? Take it home yourself and enjoy the experience all over again.

Check the WRL catalog for William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

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CyranoFor his combination of physical prowess, braggadocio, mental agility, and artistic flair, one can’t beat Cyrano de Bergerac. Add in the famous nose, with all of its comic exaggeration, and readers are in for a timeless treat.

De Bergerac was a real dramatist and duelist, immortalized (and fictionalized) 240 years after his death in a French play by Edmond Rostand. Those who know the story are most likely to know it from a film: the 1950 classic for which Jose Ferrer won Best Actor; the contemporary retelling Roxanne, which Steve Martin adapted and led in 1988; or the marvelous French film from 1990 featuring Gerard Depardieu. It’s the tale of a man with prodigious talents for dueling and bragging, but also for the facility of his tongue and pen.

Cyrano is in love with Roxane, but she doesn’t know, and makes him promise to aid and befriend the handsome Christian. Loyal to his promise, and embarrassed by his huge nose, Cyrano even goes so far to help the tongue-tied Christian to woo Roxane, figuring that at least he can express his love to her through another. His words succeed, but too well, as Roxane begins to love Christian’s words more deeply than his looks. War intervenes: will Cyrano and Roxane come together? Well, you’ll have to read the story to find that out.

While all three of the movies I mentioned are superb (and the filmed stage performance with Kevin Kline is no slouch either), I recommend reading Cyrano first to appreciate its linguistic force. There are two great adaptations in English. Many prefer the earlier Brian Hooker adaptation, but my favorite is by Anthony Burgess (of A Clockwork Orange fame), who retains the rhyme scheme and emphasizes humor at the play’s opening, drama at the finish.

Skim to one of the spots where Cyrano’s words tumble out in a torrent. Two of the best are in the second act: his list of ways to ridicule his nose and the “no thank you” speech, where he catalogs his reasons for being a soldier instead of a poet. If these sections don’t capture you, check your pulse. This is the ultimate work of bravado, of romance, of panache, a play that every reader should experience once for its exuberant joy and then again whenever a little encouragement is needed.

Check the WRL catalog for Cyrano de Bergerac

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SeminarI’m the kind of hardcore theater devotee that reads the scripts of plays as pleasure reading.  Sure, I’d rather see a good production, but given the economics of modern theater, if you don’t live in a large city where there is enough demand that theater companies can draw an audience with some new or lesser-known plays, you most likely won’t get to see many of these shows on stage.

Besides, plays make for good reading.  The time limits of the stage mean that a play is a quick read, something one can squeeze into a day if need be.  I enjoy playing the game of imagining which of my favorite actors would be good in the roles as I read them.  Even more fun, reading a play is an invitation to project yourself into the role of actor, even if you’d never go near a stage in real life.  Plays are full of cracking good dialogue, meaty conflict, and even the heavy dramas often contain real belly laughs.

So it is with Seminar, a play headlined first by Alan Rickman then by Jeff Goldblum a couple of years ago on Broadway.  Four aspiring young writers have pooled their money to schedule a private seminar from a literary icon, an event held at one of their homes.  In her preface, playwright Theresa Rebeck notes that part of her pleasure in writing this play was to create a chance for an older actor take some younger actors to school.  The writer Leonard is sour, used up, and manipulative, but one can’t help but stifle a nasty laugh at the way he finds the vanities and insecurities of the pretentious students and dissects them after reading a few sentences of their writing.  He doesn’t have their best interests in mind and uses them in every way imaginable, but in the end, each learns something valuable from the contact.

If you’ve ever shaken your head at some of the blowhards that seem to populate the world of modern literary fiction, I think you’ll enjoy the way that Leonard puts a pin in the pomp of these four young writers while facing his own demons.  Give this Seminar a look.

Check the WRL catalog for Seminar

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Next to NormalHow often do you encounter a musical that makes good reading too? With music by Tom Kitt, and lyrics and book by Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010. This isn’t typical musical fare with comedy, romance, a few big production numbers, and a happy ending. Next to Normal has most of those but also large doses of family dysfunction and tragedy. The comedy is dark, the romance is somewhat tortured, and the happy ending comes in a minor key: there’s hope, but no guarantee.

The story begins on a note of normalcy: a husband, wife and their teen son and daughter are busily preparing for another day of work and school. But the upbeat music comes to a crashing halt as the mother’s preparation of sandwiches takes a turn that shows she has mental health issues. I won’t give away the plot twists, but viewers or readers will also soon discover that everything is not as it seems in the family, that a tragedy haunts their past and present.Next to Normal staging

The story progresses to reveal a series of inconclusive therapy sessions and drug treatments, a strained marriage, and a daughter whose history of feeling unloved contaminates her potential relationship. It’s rough stuff, but Yorkey’s clever treatment also provides a share of bittersweet laughs along the way. Kitt’s score of rock numbers and ballads provides energy, humor, and a fast pace that keeps the story moving and vital even at its darkest moments. The finish is certainly not the typical happy ending, but it’s hopeful and honest.

By all means catch Next to Normal if it is produced somewhere near you. But if not, stop in at the library and grab the libretto or the CD of the Broadway production, featuring an amazing performance by Alice Ripley as the mother. You’ll be able to picture the story easily as you take in this moving and potent drama with subject matter that is relevant to so many modern lives. If you or your family have struggled with even minor mental health challenges or the difficulties of finding the right prescription or treatment for those problems, you need to experience Next to Normal, where the underlying message is that families who face challenges are in many ways the most normal of all.

Check the availability of the Next to Normal libretto in the WRL catalog

Or get the audio CD of the Broadway production

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In his 2011 play Good People, David Lindsay-Abaire confronts the knotty question of class in America with humor and insight. As the action opens, Margie (pronounced with a hard “g”, everything about Margie is a little hard) is fired from her undignified work as a clerk at a dollar store. She’s been late too many times, and Margie’s tough mouth makes everyone around her nervous. Even as she’s being fired, Margie takes shots at the manager’s thieving mother, her co-workers, the manager’s favoritism for a girlfriend who’s also a clerk, the potential girlfriend’s ethnicity, and the manliness of the manager’s visits to the local bingo game.  It’s not that Margie is wrong, but she’s more than a little bigoted and her filter just doesn’t work at all.

What makes this play work is that Margie, despite all her bad qualities, is sympathetic. The reason that she’s always late for work is that she’s trying to support an adult daughter who functions like a child, and taking care of her or maintaining a household on an insufficient salary often makes it difficult for Margie to get to work. Margie works hard, stands at the center of her social group, and displays an intelligence and humor that shine through her anger.

A conference with her South Boston neighborhood cronies, along with a healthy dose of desperation, convinces Margie that her best hope for work is Mike, a long ago high school boyfriend who escaped Southie and has become a doctor. That leads to confrontations at his office and ultimately at his luxury home, where the story culminates in a scene between Margie, Mike, and his young African-American wife. It’s there that Margie’s anger and bigotry, Mike and Kate’s well-intentioned inability to understand the limitations placed on Margie by poverty, family, and gender, and the sheer awkwardness of the situation lead to some sparkling, darkly comic conflict.

On the stage, the role of Margie has already been taken up by actresses such as Frances McDormand (who won a Tony for her portrayal) and Jane Kaczmarek. It’s an exceptional part, one that actresses who can blend comedy and drama will covet. It makes for entertaining reading too, leavening exploration of important, relevant issues with a hearty dose of humor.

Check the WRL catalog for Good People


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I would like to make you all love Stephen Sondheim as much as I do.

I admit bias. I’m working on my third Sondheim role in three years since returning to the stage. He wrote half the shows I’ve done, and I rarely pass on a production of one of his works. I’ve done Company, Merrily We Roll Along, and now Follies, and Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Assassins, Sunday in the Park with George, Road Show, and Into the Woods are all high on my bucket list of shows I’d love to try. Even people who aren’t theater fans recognize iconic shows like West Side Story and Gypsy, for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics.

But musical theater isn’t everyone’s thing, and even for fans, Sondheim takes work to enjoy: the books for his shows are often dark or satirical without the pat happy endings that many associate with the genre. While his music and lyrics are catchy, he also loves dissonance and uses big words liberally. Performing his music can be a love/hate proposition: Sondheim tests your ear, memory, breathing apparatus, and the muscles of your tongue and jaw to the maximum degree. Performers are warned off auditioning with Sondheim for other shows because the music is notoriously difficult to play, with tricky accompaniments and frequent changes in key and time signature.

Still, it’s hard to find a musical theater afficianado (at least one under 50) who wouldn’t put Sondheim atop the canon. His shows are revived more often than any contemporary and his songs frequently cobbled into new revues. Why?

There’s depth in his work that rewards years of listening, that leaves one finding new pleasures in even the smallest songs, appreciating another level of wordplay in a line that one has heard again and again. His rhymes are perfect and more often than not surprising. Lyrics are stuffed with internal rhymes, clever puns, and interesting ideas, but if one can stay in tempo, they come gracefully off the tongue, always well-matched (or cleverly undermined) by the underlying tune. And Sondheim’s subject matter is much more diverse than the variations on boy-meets-girl that dominate most of the genre.

Which brings me to Sondheim’s lyric collection Finishing the Hat, which collects lyrics from the first half of his career (everything I say here applies equally well to Look I Made a Hat, the second volume which covers work from 1981 to date). These two books are many things: a sort of memoir, a history of modern musical theater, a treatise on the art of songwriting, and a delightful collection of poetry all wrapped up in one package.

This is dense reading that contains not only all the lyrics (including those for numbers that were cut), but his honest opinion about his successes and failures, facsimiles of early drafts of his work, behind-the-scenes production pictures, and perhaps most interesting of all, his notes on each show and his thoughts about other composers and lyricists (those who have died; he assiduously avoids the subject of his living contemporaries).

Unless you’re a huge fan, don’t read this treasure chest from cover to cover. Read the introduction and the lead-in notes to each show, but after that, sample. Just as many re-read Shakespeare before attending a play, you might preview the lyrics of a Sondheim show to help you catch more nuances during the actual performance. Browse through favorite shows or numbers, preferably as you listen to a cast album or watch the film of a production that you checked out on the same library visit. Enjoy the pictures, and watch for sidebars, where Sondheim often has very pointed things to say.

Check the WRL catalog for Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes

Or try Look I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011)


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