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Shows Worth Seeing:


Astronome: A Night at the Opera
by Richard Foreman and John Zorn
The Ontological at St. Marks
131 E. 10th St.
Box office: 866-811-4111


Foreman’s new production, a first-ever collaboration with the avant-garde composer John Zorn, was a revivifying experience for me. In recent years, Foreman’s productions have been experiments with film, attempts to incorporate provocatively static and disjointed film sequences into the live action in a way that stayed true to his desired experience of jarringly revelatory “pearls” strung together in a sensorily heightened, Gertrude Steinian continuous present. I’ve found the results a bit disappointing. The recorded images sucked all the air out of the room (as media always will), and Foreman, recognizing this, tried to compensate by making that into a virtue. He pared and slowed the live action almost to a catatonic stupor, but the stasis wasn’t jarring or revelatory. It was dull, even though the stages were as chockfull of fascinating clutter as usual. Astronome has gone completely in the other direction. There is very little text, but the score by Zorn—in his signature idiom of deafening and cacophonous mixtures of clashing, screeching, wailing, and driving rhythms (imagine an interminable Pink Floyd jam remixed by an aggressive punk band)—supplies a propulsive energy that wakes you up and keeps your mind wonderfully active. There is much more activity by the seven-member cast than there has been in the last five or six Ontological-Hysteric pieces, and also more use of the props sprinkled about the stage. A man reaches up into a nostril of the giant, chimney-like nose mounted on the wall and picks out wadded paper boogers, which are then sniffed, studied and worried over. Another actor is stuffed into the cutout mouth beneath the nose. Someone dons a bizarre strawberry helmet-mask, which someone else then greedily devours. Giant scissors are poised to snip off actors’ noses. These gestures, coordinated with Zorn’s pumping, anarchic rhythms, are weird and funny enough to work as surrealism. Foreman’s recorded voice occasionally intones “stage fright,” and near the end he mutters some comments about a “new world.” But the enduring strangeness doesn’t come from the language. It comes from those manifestations of the Marvelous generated by the stage activity and the score. This operatic path is a potentially very fruitful one for Foreman. Here’s hoping he pursues it.



The Winter's Tale
by William Shakespeare
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton St., Brooklyn
Box office: 718-636-4100

New Yorkers should ignore any nonsense they may have read about this Winter’s Tale being only half realized. I’ve seen a half-dozen productions of this exceedingly difficult play, and Sam Mendes’s is one of the best: touching, funny, visually delightful, lucid and intelligent. There is a bear of a staging problem at the heart of Shakespeare’s text, and that is its unique bifurcated form. Its first half is tragic, then it shifts abruptly to pastoral comedy, and then it ends with a strange, quasi-supernatural finale that mixes all the disparate characters and tones together. How to deal with all the wrenching mood changes? How to make both the grave seriousness and the knockabout foolishness convincing without sending the pieces in such radically different directions that they end up irreconcilable? Mendes answered these killer questions with aplomb. The play’s serious Sicilia scenes are like a lost story from 1001 Nights, staged intimately in a carpeted bedroom with dozens of lanterns hanging behind a gauzy scrim. The silly Bohemia scenes are like a lost story from Christopher Durang. The long and absurd sheep-shearing festival that defeats most directors has been wisely Americanized and postmodernized, filled out with folksy western tropes and an over-the-top bawdy balloon dance that clearly originated in improvisation, which is why it leaves such a wonderful sense that the cast truly owns the comedy. The play’s subtlest points become startlingly clear in these environments: the possible attraction of the kings for each other, for instance, and the surprise that the supposedly good king, Polixenes, is potentially capable of the same impulsive cruelty as his jealous and tyrannical friend Leontes. There is one glaring casting goof in the role of Perdita, but otherwise the acting is strong and in a few cases splendid. Rebecca Hall is exquisite as the wronged queen Hermione, as is Sinead Cusack as her fearless defender Paulina. Ethan Hawke gives the comic cutpurse Autolycus vivid life as an endearingly incorrigible, Bob Dylanesque balladeer. Simon Russell Beale is not an especially compelling Leontes, mostly because his dumpy, unprepossessing physique is too obvious an explanation for his jealousy (he can’t see how gorgeous Hermione could love him). But he makes up in realism what he lacks in mystery and depth, and there’s a sort of adventitious profundity in his utter bafflement in the final scenes. Unlike the rather uneven and unremarkable Cherry Orchard, the Bridge Project's previous offering at BAM, this Winter's Tale is a must-see event. No production of the play is likely to show off its strengths this well for a very long time.





By Lynn Nottage
Manhattan Theatre Club
NY City Center
131 W. 55th St.
Box office: (212) 581-1212






Ruined takes a while to get going. For about fifteen minutes it seems worryingly like one of those painstakingly researched, painfully earnest yet dramatically inert docudramas about “troubled regions” that theatrically naive activists schedule to lighten the atmosphere at human rights conferences. It soon weaves a gripping dramatic web, though. Set in a brothel in the contemporary Democratic Republic of Congo amid the endless factional fighting there, it tells a story akin to Brecht’s Mother Courage about a bar-owner-cum-madam who thinks she can profit from the war without sacrificing much to it or ever choosing sides. That’s the tale that Lynn Nottage wants you to think she’s telling, anyway. The wrinkle is that Mama Nadi’s supposedly amoral commercial enterprise also serves a protective function. The brothel may be degrading but it also saves its prostitutes’ lives because they are all refugees from even worse danger and degradation. Nottage has no interest in simple moral inversion, though. She presents a fascinating array of extremely varied characters who make a range of different choices for the sake of survival. In the end the audience must weigh all those choices against the costs to the characters’ humanity. This is the tightest, most compelling drama based on sociological “field research” I’ve seen in a decade (Nottage traveled to the Congo and interviewed many women there), yet there’s no documentary feel to it at all. Ruined lives—thrives and sings—as drama, and that is its most secure claim to the truth.




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