Weeks 48 & 49: Documentaries, Royals
Updated: Dec 29, 2019
Sometimes the best drama is ripped from the headlines. We spent our pre-winter hibernation digging into scandalous historical performances and figures with fascinating backstories. From witnessing a legendary roundtable with dames, to flipping through the fashions of well esteemed ladies in power (tiaras included or implied), our appetite for entertainment was a royal flush.
#TheatreCrushThursday was given to Global Hives Laboratories and Interrobang Theatre Project. #FollowFriday went to Chicago Childcare Collective, Sincerely, Chicago, The Key, and Riff Raff Revolution.
Spit spot, and let's begin!
Six by Sondheim is an interesting documentary. Choosing six select songs from composer Stephen Sondheim's career, he divulges details into the process behind creating his standards. Watching how the sausage gets made is exciting and also offers new renditions that are met with questionable results. Jeremy Jordan, Darren Criss, and America Ferrera make for a comfortable trio of old friends who exasperate and dream in "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along. Power ballad "Send in the Clowns" turns into a love duet from Broadway power couple Audra McDonald and Will Swenson, which makes it less egregious. What they did to "I'm Still Here" from my favorite Sondheim musical, Follies, I cannot discuss nor forget. It's a great nugget for Sondheim fans, but for those who prefer a great documentary about a subject they wouldn't expect to enjoy see our Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened post.
XOXO, Patsy Cline. In a friendship built on letters, laughs, and love, Patsy Cline and Louise Seger had one for the books. Check out our review on Firebrand Theatre's latest production from guest contributor Julie Brumbach now.
Hey, old friends. The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened documentary is an emotional, vulnerable ride. Regarded as a box office failure when it premiered and only recognized later as a beloved show, Merrily We Roll Along holds a special place in theatre lovers' hearts. And it especially means a lot to its original Broadway cast who felt they landed the opportunity of the lifetime that then got cut short. Going into this documentary with this expectation makes the temporary hope that was Merrily sting in its disarray. From replacing one of the core leads during its Broadway run, to seeing how many of the characters found their lives imitating their art, it's a heartbreak that only time can heal. Much like the show closes with the uplifting anthem, "Our Time", this documentary ends on a similar note of triumph. For a show that means a lot to me whose history I was only briefly familiar with, I thoroughly enjoyed getting to go on this deep dive into the Broadway history vault.
Fleabag is the perfect fit on screen and stage. Phoebe Waller-Bridge has blazed through many mediums this year with Fleabag, Killing Eve, and solidifying new works in progress with Amazon and more. In wanting as much of her as we can get, the National Theatre welcomed the West End premiere of her play that kicked off the acclaimed Amazon Prime series. As a play, Fleabag pulls punches and takes shots that only land in this setting. It's most fulfilling to watch after completing the television series as you get to pick up on all the threads Bridge was able to expand upon and connect further in her stunning character tapestry. Also seeing her imitate every character she crafted from iconic sister Claire, to hamster Hillary, to Arsehole Guy, is so delightful to take in it feels sinful. While screenings are now limited, the script of Fleabag is available to read now so there's still a chance to get a taste of its scripture.
There's nothing like a dame, or four. We're only afforded ninety minutes, but even just a taste is a blessing as stage and screen titans Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright gather and recount their careers. They of course each touch on the moment they were honored as a dame and their notable films. But what really makes this doc so meaty is the ways these four connected across their collective struggles in the entertainment industry. Their genuine, almost life long, if not career long friendship is incredibly touching to witness. In Tea with the Dames, there's moments of humor and solemness to be found in kicking back with the stiff upper lip, crème de la crème of British society.
Marys Seacole is a riveting play that makes for a satisfying reading. Jackie Sibblies Drury has a spirited way of writing material that challenges and confounds its audience. This all female cast take on variations of the name Mary with the one at the center being the historical Mary Seacole, a Jamaican woman who notably served as a nurse and humanitarian in her lifetime. Drury taps into the idea of black women tending to white women starting in roots with slavery and into the modern age in nursing homes. She produces powerful imagery and the biggest trick of all that she plays on the audience is how across two acts, all of the characters end up being an extension of Seacole. This tailspin results in one of the most choked up, emotionally exhausting, and somehow healing endings I've seen. As a reading, there's the luxury of imagining the many ways this play could transform and that would make mounting a production a difficult, yet enticing task.
The First Deep Breath leaves you truly breathless. Plays that require enduring more than three hours is a tough ask; just look to your August: Osage County, Long Day's Journey into Night, or Angels in America. But similar to these bursting family epics, The First Deep Breath has legs to make this triathlon accelerate like a sprint. Each act feels evenly paced, and its magnificent efforts are fortified by an ensemble that truly feels like family. They each know how to expose the others' weaknesses at the most inconvenient (or for our benefit convenient) time. The beats of this family drama that nicely takes place over the holidays play out as expected. But Lee Edward Colston II makes great strides in showing the strife of a black family in a genre that's been dominated by white playwrights and acclaimed by critics for years. It follows in this great canon of O'Neill and Letts, but with a poetic style that's all his own.
Southern discomfort and adventures in time and space are where we've come from. Confused? Check out our latest recap.
The Crown is television royalty. And it's not just because everyone's favourite queen, Olivia Colman sits at the throne. It's a series that in this day and age benefits from its longevity. Every season feels like its own limited series yet they're all well connected. The stunning Claire Foy bowed out after two seasons alongside her playful Prince Phillip, the dreamy Matt Smith, and their other cast of predecessors (Vanessa Kirby as the Queen's sister, Margaret, is forever a television treasure). Having jumped in time, it's time for new blood and while years have past some problems never truly die. Margaret despite dazzling with a visit to President Nixon, struggles to find ownership in her limited power in the monarchy, never being permitted to step out of her sister's shadow. Phillip's more settled in his role as husband and father first rather than breadwinner, yet fumbles in his attempts to make his family and the monarchy symbols of pride rather than mockery. And our queen in the stoic and stone nature she's known for, reflects on these mannerisms from childhood and attempts to break through new methods of empathy while being a public servant and mother. The scandals only get better with age on The Crown, and royal darlings Harry and Megan prove a promise of what's to come.
Evita, Evita. Andrew Lloyd Weber and I have always had our issues, and Evita is perhaps the most divisive one I've encountered so far. It's not to take umbrage with Madonna who plays the role in the film fine, although if in the hands of a Broadway actress I'm sure it would have knocked my socks off. Antonio Banderas delivers such a strong performance as an everchanging narrator that he practically steals her thunder. But in general, I have some of the same complaints that I do about Jesus Christ Superstar. The music is great and performances are tight, but it has severe dramaturgical problems. Its male centric narratives are one thing (it's clear Weber will never care to write a female character with dimension), but the issue with Evita is that no matter how it's cast the source material will always come from a place of white washing. Evita was a controversial Argentinian political figure, but she accomplished many things that are ignored in this adaptation. Instead it focuses on her seduction of men and power plays that cast her in a light of shame rather than a woman who was able to maneuver systems of oppression to socially advance in order to make change. Despite being the title character, her story isn't truly told and is controlled by the men who pen it on paper and on stage.
you are happy, or are you? Red Theater poses this question in their latest production. Taken from a French text, the European attitude and presentation of humor, tragedy, and plot is still intrinsically present in the piece. From practically incestuous siblings to frank talk of suicide and depression, I was definitely hesitant of how well it would be received in a U.S. adaptation. The integration of ASL and actors who are deaf made this production and the overall piece more impactful. It not only made the story strengthen in terms of accessibility, it really demonstrated the collective struggles for communication and connection. While the set-up is hard to swallow and it includes an intermission that's unnecessary, the production ends up being visually engaging with a message that hits home in that the search for happiness is lifelong, and at times is a leap of faith.
Read it to mean it. Play reading is often a great idea in theory, but can be frustrating in its execution. While there's a benefit of skimming through pages or skipping ahead, I often would prefer sitting through a so-so production than reading a difficult play. I often find it easier to find moments of redemption while watching something. When reading, the options can feel endless of the search for intention and meaning. And at least when watching there can be an actor who delivers a stellar performance or a moment of direction that achieves clarity. When it comes to reading new plays, you often have to enter at your own risk. You could discover a new favorite or one best left on the shelf.
Mary Queen of Scots is a captivating film with great promise. Remembering the skepticism the film was met with, I was impressed by Saoirse Ronan as the titular queen and with complicated support from Margot Robbie as her cousin, Elizabeth. At times, it felt like a play and that has to be attributed to the direction of theater director Josie Rourke. I longed to see more of these two pivotal figures intersect more and similar to the musical, War Paint, their long awaited reunion isn't until the end. It feels like it could have benefited from using the strengths of both of these actresses united instead of separated as the men and political events surrounding them do enough of it already. Ultimately, it's worth tuning in. It's thrilling to experience the stakes of theatrical gravitas on screen.
It's a bird. It's a plane. It's a Mars rover. In case you somehow missed this intergalactic dissection of humanity, check out our review of The Passage Theatre's latest production. Prepare for lift off with this starry eyed, spitfire ensemble.
Life post-grad is far from easy. Red Tape Theatre beautifully tackles the challenge of navigating personal and professional relationships when it feels like everything is out of your control. Check out our recap of Queen of Sock Pairing now!
Your reign, your rules.