Theatrically speaking…

January 1, 2010

Browsing my usual theatre-related websites, I find they have all fallen into the same end-of-year trap. Each presents two features: one to commemorate the lives of the dead of 2009 and another to ask users to submit their favorite theatrical moments of 2009 (or, in the case of the New York Times, all time). Though I think the former morbid and the latter banal and useless, I thought it right that I (being neither morbid nor banal) use this space to comment on both these items as they apply to me. Don’t worry, I will limit myself to three in each case.

Let’s get the deaths out of the way first.

Bea Arthur. Words cannot approach description of the woman. 5 feet 9 inches “in her stocking feet” with a voice as “deep as a pothole.” Her comic timing was incomparable. The titular character of Maude, Dorthy Zbornak of the Golden Girls, the original Vera in Broadway’s Mame (opposite Angela Lansbury), the original Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof. She is an icon. And, as it happens, the reason this blog is named as such. In 2002, at the age of 80, she performed a one woman show, touring the country with a collection of songs she’d acquired (& adored) throughout her career. I wish I could attach the version of “Where Do You Start” that so inspired me, but sadly I am not technically savvy. Instead, enjoy this odd video.

Natasha Richardson. If you only know her from movies like Maid in Manhattan, you really need to educate yourself with some vintage Cabaret videos. Performing as Sally Bowles in the Sam Mendes production, she completely reinvented the role and changed the way the musical will be played forever. She also performed in the mega hit Closer and met her future husband, Liam Neeson, while doing O’Neill’s Anna Christie. Her passing was a tragic one and made the performance of her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, in Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking all the more heart-breaking. The beautiful Natasha in her Tony-winning role.

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Horton Foote. A Pulitzer-prize winner for drama (for his work The Young Man from Atlanta), this playwright lived a long and healthy life. His final work, Dividing the Estate, continues to tour after its Broadway run with the help of his daughters (one of whom was in the Broadway production). He was also an Academy-Award winning writer of screenplays. His notable works include To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. What I love best about his work is how very close to home they feel. He writes mostly about his hometown in Texas, and every piece has a truly personal touch.

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Now to the works I have appreciated this year.

Mary Stuart. No other production this year provided such a magnificent star vehicle for a female performer. And this one had two such roles. Janet McTeer as Mary, Queen of Scots, and Harriet Walter as Queen Elizabeth I amazed me in every possible way. Phyllida Lloyd, the director and woman responsible for the show’s transfer from the Donmar in London, creates such powerful tension (both internally and externally) for these characters in such a fantastically sparse and terrifying set. And the down pouring rain in Act Two? Not trite in the slightest. Sexual, disheartening, furious: it is all those things and more, but never just an effect. I am not leaving myself enough space to comment fully on this wondrous play, but thank god I saw it.

August: Osage County. Winning the Pulitzer and taking home several Tony Awards in 2008, August tells the story of a family’s struggles with the apparent suicide of the patriarch, including incest, prescription pain killer addiction and marital disharmony. But that makes it sound boring, which it is DEFINITELY not. As Audrey said to me after Act Three ended, “It’s better than a soap opera.” And since the original cast was there and gone off to London by the time I saw it, I was privileged to see the outstanding Estelle Parsons treading (climbing, clawing) the boards at 80+ years old. It was astonishing to watch her throughout the show. For such a successful career, it is monumental to describe this as it is, the performance of a lifetime. Favorite line of the show: “Eat the catfish, bitch!”

La Cage aux Folles. Intimate. Colorful. (Maybe) controversial. And so very entertaining. I was surprised to find how much I loved this show. Relying on the Lane & Williams movie as my background for the piece and the little knowledge I had of the stage production’s music, I went in expecting a three hour farce. And I was wrong. The piece is absolutely gorgeous. Visually stunning, lyrically powerful, and hilarious. The Jerry Herman score tickles the bombastic in the same way his Hello Dolly did, but manages to remain built into the show, a perfect replication of what the book musical should be. Graham Norton (sick though he may have been) provided a sufficient amount of depth (and loads of camp) to his character to make the Act One Finale “I Am What I Am” really moving and inspiring. I guarantee every person who saw the show that night was humming a showtune on the way home.

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