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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Tempest

The Tempest

July 7, 2015: He cuts quite a figure, this sorcerer-duke: the seaweed cape flowing from his shoulders, the ram’s-head staff he carries. But it’s the straw top hat, adorned with a tiny skull and tied festively with dried grass, that makes Ron Cephas Jones’s lonely Prospero look island magnificent. In Classical Theater of Harlem’s “The Tempest,” Hispaniola — the island that Haiti and the Dominican Republic share — is the place Prospero has ruled by magic since he and his daughter, Miranda, washed up there. All shimmery crags on a bed of deepest blue, the island has spirits in abundance, foremost one tricksy Ariel (a fine Fedna Jacquet), in streaming white and gold (the costumes are by Rachel Dozier-Ezell). Directed by Carl Cofield and staged outdoors on a steeply raked set (designed by the twins Christopher and Justin Swader) at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park, this is a beautiful yet uneven production, parts of which just don’t work. But it’s ambitious; studded with bits of French, Spanish and Creole; and enlivened by music and a smattering of dance (choreographed by Byron Easley) that will make you wish for more. What’s good in it — including Mr. Jones’s understated, ultimately moving Prospero and Carl Hendrick Louis’s angry, tenacious Caliban — is enough to make it an energizing experience on a balmy summer night.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Legacy

Legacy

July 6, 2015: Lifetime movies and Philip Roth don’t usually pop up in the same frame of reference. Yet it’s hard to avoid thinking of both those sudsy topical television films and the author of “Portnoy’s Complaint” as you watch “Legacy,” Daniel Goldfarb’s uneasy comedy of morals at the Williamstown Theater Festival here. You might even, if you were in a whimsical mood, perceive this play as a sort of custom-made fantasy purgatory whipped up for Mr. Roth, a just dessert of womanly woes served to a writer who has sometimes been accused of misogyny. Not that Mr. Goldfarb, a dramatist who specializes in anatomies of Jewish identity (“Modern Orthodox,” “Adam Baum and the Jew Movie”), probably had any such objective in mind. Though the tone of his latest offering is often flippant, its concerns are anything but frivolous. Mr. Goldfarb has said he conceived this work as a contemporary reimagining of the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, in which the limits of a father’s faith are tested by a child-sacrifice-demanding God. That aspect of the play doesn’t become fully apparent until the second act, in a genuinely harrowing scene centered around a life-taking medical procedure.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Oklahoma!

Oklahoma!

July 5, 2015: It’s a brash, fresh wind that’s sweepin’ down the plain of “Oklahoma!” these days, the kind that dispels mists and must. Daniel Fish’s vibrant, essential excavation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 classic — which opened Thursday at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College — asks that we listen with virgin ears to the show that changed the course of the Broadway musical. And what do we hear? Why, America singing, of course, in all its insolence and innocence, its optimism and anxiety, its gregariousness and its guardedness — America as it was, and is, and probably ever shall be. I caught the production’s second-night performance, on the eve of the Fourth of July, and it seemed as appropriate to the holiday as “The Nutcracker” does to the Christmas season. But the mood of Mr. Fisher’s ingeniously simple staging of this tale of cowboys in love and in conflict isn’t entirely celebratory, though the glittering, multicolored banners that hang over its rural town hall set might lead you to think so, not to mention the spread of jamboree-style food (chili, cornbread and lemonade) to which the audience is free to help itself. Yes, this “Oklahoma!” revels in the exhilaration of pioneers forging their identities in wide open spaces. But it also suggests — in ways that remain disarmingly subtle until it slides into sledgehammer bluntness at the end — that these good country people aren’t as frank with themselves as they think they are. And it reminds us that despite their reputations as robust sentimentalists, Rodgers and Hammerstein created deeply divided characters, with songs that shivered even as they soared.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Of Good Stock

Of Good Stock

June 30, 2015: In the middle of a Scotch-and-tear-soaked session of recrimination and consolation with her two sisters, the kind that begins with insults and ends in a group hug, a woman named Jess sees fit to wail, “I am trapped in a bad chick flick.” You said it, Jess; not me. But I think you’re being a little hard on yourself. The play in which you are trapped, Melissa Ross’s “Of Good Stock,” actually feels like a better-than-average chick flick — well acted, smoothly paced, occasionally touching and, for those who indulge in such forms of reassurance, as comforting as a quart of mint chocolate chip ice cream, eaten straight from the container. See, I’m falling into the language of the genre myself, using that ice cream simile. Of course, this comic drama about the three romantically challenged daughters of a famous novelist, which opened on Tuesday night at Stage I of City Center, is replete with the clichés often found in lighter film fare starring the likes of Jennifer Aniston or Kate Hudson.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Shows for Days

Shows for Days

June 29, 2015: Though she has been known to chew scenery into sawdust, Patti LuPone shrewdly resists making a feast of her high-calorie role in “Shows for Days,” the unresolved new comedy by Douglas Carter Beane that opened on Monday night at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Ms. LuPone has a part that comes with full license for going over the top and staying there: Irene, a coercive community-theater diva and a showy specialist in blackmail, emotional and otherwise. She’s a character a less savvy actress would use to vamp and camp until the cows come home (or until the audience goes home). There are tasty elements of vampery and campery in Ms. LuPone’s performance in “Shows for Days,” which depicts the sentimental education of a 14-year-old boy (the appealing Michael Urie) in the mahvelous world of the theatuh. Yet she also locates a molten core of anger — and honor — in Irene’s affectations. This small-time tyrant may be a bulldozer wrapped in gold lamé. (And there is real gold lamé on hand, courtesy of William Ivey Long’s spot-on bourgeois-gone-bohemian costumes.) But as anyone knows who saw Ms. LuPone as Momma Rose in “Gypsy,” this actress does bulldozers with many gears. And she finds something genuinely and affectingly credible in a play that often taxes credibility.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Happy Days

Happy Days

June 29, 2015: The wattage of Winnie’s smile is what makes it so disconcerting — that and the way it lights up her eyes as she chatters on, her willful cheer sparkling in the sun like the diamonds that glint from her earlobes. A girlish romantic in a lacy, low-cut top, she is a middle-aged remnant of the coquette she once was. Now she’s buried up to her sternum in a mound of packed earth, and her husband, Willie, the grimy fellow scrabbling around behind her on hands and knees, is nearly feral. Events, clearly, have overtaken them. “Not the crawler you were, poor darling,” she says fondly as he struggles, and it amplifies the comedy to know that Brooke Adams, who plays Winnie, has been married for decades to Tony Shalhoub, who plays Willie. “No, not the crawler I gave my heart to.” Andrei Belgrader, that specialist in star-spangled classics, has brought his production of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” to the Flea Theater, and there are laughs to be had. What’s missing, or was on Saturday afternoon, is the darkness and dread that trigger Winnie’s natterings: the panic she’s trying so desperately to keep at bay.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: SeaWife

SeaWife

June 28, 2015: In the past several years, whales have returned to New York Harbor, breaching and blowing in sight of the city skyline. And these leviathans now drive much of the action of “SeaWife,” a folk musical produced by Naked Angels and performed at the Melville Gallery of the South Street Seaport Museum. “SeaWife,” scripted by Seth Moore and the band the Lobbyists, is a doleful fairy tale ornamented with occasional puppets and agreeable chanteys, performed by the cast of six and one borrowed cellist. Set sometime in the 19th century, the story centers on Percy, a whaler’s son, “who saw his first boat at birth and had his sea legs before his first steps.” Though sickened at first by the blood and brutality of whaling, a series of tragedies transform Percy into a deadly harpooner until the sea calls him home again. The director Liz Carlson, the set designer Jason Sherwood and the lighting designer Jake DeGroot have converted the Melville Gallery into various ports and boats and taverns with the aid of ropes and nets and lanterns set with flickering bulbs. (On one rainy night, a leaking roof provided authentic puddles.) There’s also a bar that sells a $5 shot of rum or a can of I.P.A.

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