Category: Reviews

Photo by Joan Marcus

Billing in at a little under two hours, King Henry V navigates conquering France while searching for love. Playing through May 13th, Henry V is the latest production from The Public Theater’s Mobile Unit program and again shows the power of acting even with minimal staging.

The Mobile Unit program, a reinvention of Joseph Papp’s “Mobile Theater”, offers people across the New York area the opportunity to see and engage with live Shakespeare. Indeed, every year, the mobile unit reaches thousands of people at community centers, schools, correctional facilities, and even homeless shelters. Its goal is admirable and provides both the cast and viewers a chance to experience theater even in untraditional stagings. Now, the production has settled in a more traditional black box theater for the next few weeks.

As part of the program, tickets to the show are free for everyone with distribution happening 90 minutes before each show and through a TodayTix lottery.

And even though tickets are free, the production leverages its bare-bones staging to transport the audience across the Atlantic and to the world of King Henry V. With a bare bones set comprised of a rug, the show leverages blue and red color coding to switch between British and French players. Although confusing at times, it ultimately works out in helping leverage the small cast to portray such a wide range of characters.

The production also features thrilling acting. In particular the relationship between King Henry (played by Zenzi Williams) and Princess Catherine (played by Carolyn Rettig) is as captivating as it is hilarious. Williams plays Henry as a pensive, partially insecure leader with a desire to both find love and create a grad empire. As Henry strives for love with Princess Catherine, he faces a language barrier as the two struggle to converse between English and French. Along with the rest of the cast, the team has indeed created another beautiful production of a classic Shakespearean work.

Henry V runs through May 13th at the Shiva Theater within the Public. Information on tickets for the show can be found here (https://www.publictheater.org/Tickets/Calendar/PlayDetailsCollection/17-18-Season/Mobile-Unit-Henry-V/)

SpongeBob Squarepants: The Musical looks and feels like a kindergartner’s acid trip.

This isn’t a bad thing.

The show contains so many side plots that it can be a bit overwhelming to keep up. The main conflict involves the impending eruption of Mount Humongous, which threatens to destroy Bikini Bottom, SpongeBob’s beloved home. That said, the narrative also explores themes of friendship, chiefly between our three main heroes, SpongeBob, Patrick, and Sandy, as well as themes of discrimination and community.

Also, there’s an apocalyptic death cult, a charity concert headlined by a skateboarding, “California bro” version of KISS, and a sub-arc dealing with anti-mammalian hate speech directed at Sandy.

I’ll admit that I was a bit terrified when Nickelodeon first announced that this show was coming to Broadway. So many screen-to-stage musical adaptations have fallen flat in so many different ways: tacky costumes (The Little Mermaid, Shrek: The Musical); confused plotting; musical scores that fall short of the original score (Mary Poppins). Fortunately, SpongeBob steers clear of these pitfalls, for the most part.

For one thing, there’s the psychedelic aesthetic. Shrek: The Musical, this ain’t: David Zinn’s costumes have the headlining actors unencumbered by prostheses, free to move about the stage (and move they do!). SpongeBob is not, in fact, wearing a sponge-suit; rather, his classic square, yellow silhouette is implied through clever, subtle touches: a yellow gingham shirt; plaid brown-and-yellow pants; suspenders; and, of course, his characteristic red tie. Sandy, a squirrel in the original cartoon, wears a white spacesuit-cum-tracksuit that also manages to give off a ‘70s vibe, while Patrick sports Hawaiian prints and hot pink tie-dye—and an extra-volumized pink pompadour to stand in for his starfish cone head. Squidward’s costume proved a particular audience delight: through an ingenious rigging mechanism, he has four feet (tentacles?) that walk, kick, and dance in unison. There was immediate laughter as soon as he walked onstage.

The ensemble, too, sports an abundance of… stuff: traffic cones, baubles, bubbles, blue-and-purple shag rugs rolled into tubes, skirts made of kitchen gloves, hats made of straws, boxing gloves that become crab claws. There’s no shortage of candy-colored eye candy to take in—every time you look more closely at an object, it becomes something else.

The set, also by Zinn, possesses equal whimsy. The proscenium is surrounded by two massive, neon-colored Rube Goldberg machines constructed of what appears to be industrial scaffolding twisted into geometric shapes. As the impending eruption draws near, these machines, through a complex chain reaction that involves, in turn, a bicycle, a rainbow umbrella, and a shopping cart, shoot “boulders” (orange balls) at our Bikini Bottom friends onstage.

That says something about the hodgepodge nature of the rest of the set. It’s a carefully constructed bricolage of children’s playthings (fun noodles that stand in for coral, inflatable pool toys, and boxes), and strings of sparkling streamers and balloons—all painted in varying neon-bright shades. This playfulness is present throughout the musical. Before the curtain goes up, we’re treated to a backdrop reminiscent of the geometric tiling at the bottom of a pool, atop which Peter Nigrini’s projections of schools of fish and a scuba diver delightfully set the undersea mood. In Act II, the aforementioned Mount Humongous is a series of stacked packing boxes extending to the top of the stage. When we finally see the volcano’s mouth, it’s represented through intertwining, orange ladders, evoking a spider’s web. What’s more, the set has so many different components that every scene becomes a surprise: the Krusty Krab is transformed into Mr. Krabs’ private money stash, actors pop out of boxes and industrial tubing that looks like trash onstage, and pieces of the set are flipped over to reveal an entirely different scene.

As for the music, the generic range wasn’t as jarring as I had expected going into a musical that boasts both the Flaming Lips and Panic! At the Disco as composers, among many, many others (14 different artists and musical teams contributed original music to the score, while musical coordinators Michael Keller and Michael Aarons tweaked the arrangements and Tom Kitt added transitional music, assuring that the songs flowed smoothly). “No Control,” which comes just after the Bikini Bottom denizens learn of their forthcoming doom, pulls out all the stops: the stage is washed in bright red lighting, fog fills the stage, lasers shoot off, and a ticking doomsday clock lingers, ominously, on stage left. Throughout, actors move in and out of panicked tableaux that always leave one or two characters spotlighted, highlighting individual, narrative-specific arcs within a song that its original composers, David Bowie and Brian Eno, doubtlessly had never envisioned including in a musical about a cartoon sea sponge.

There’s also a delightful Broadway send-up headlined by Squidward (Gavin Lee) in the middle of Act II, “I’m Not a Loser,” composed by They Might be Giants, replete with Broadway show tunery, pink glittery costumes, a full chorus line, and a four-legged tap number.

The cast’s high energy is what really sells the show. I can only imagine how exhausted Ethan Slater, who plays the titular SpongeBob, must be after every performance; he never stops moving. He has a spring in his step so tightly coiled that it seems like he’s launching himself into the air, he has the flexibility of an underwater invertebrate, and he keeps absolutely perfect timing with every sound effect (he squeaks with every step). During “Simple Sponge: Reprise,” he lithely climbs the latticework leading to Mt. Humongous’s volcanic mouth, and belts out convincingly earnest lines about redemption and friendship while dangling from the set—and, at times, sings while upside-down.

Danny Skinner’s Patrick Star provides a humorous counterpoint to Slater. While SpongeBob is flexible, bouncy, and enthusiastic, Patrick is slower (in both the mental and physical senses). Skinner delivers a number of one-liners with a lack of self-awareness and perfect comedic timing. The third member of the trio, Sandy (Lilli Cooper), provides a more grounded counterpoint. While the script doesn’t offer her as many funny lines, she makes the most of her role as a down-to-earth squirrel trying to reconcile SpongeBob and Patrick’s increasingly strained relationship.

Wesley Taylor’s Plankton at times reminded me of Robbie Rotten from LazyTown—he milks every minute of his stage time, especially in his rapport with his “Computer Wife,” Karen (played by Stephanie Hsu), serving up a playfully conniving villain.

Amongst the ensemble, Pearl Krabs (Jai’len Christine Li Josey) stands out. As Mr. Krabs’ daughter, she plays a whale who can wail: her high notes—which she executes with ineffable ease—add some gospel soul to what is otherwise a very pop-driven musical. And, at only 18 years old, she remains one to look out for.

Overall, it’s clear that Nickelodeon is capitalizing on its intellectual properties with this production, which also represents a challenge to Disney’s dominance in the beloved-film-to-musical adaptation arena (Disney currently has three shows on Broadway: The Lion King, Aladdin, and Frozen). With its first stage production, Nickelodeon now also seeks to capitalize on “family fun for all”-style entertainment. That said, it was apparent throughout the show that it was primarily marketed toward a young audience, despite some adult jokes designed to go over the heads of little ones, as well some humorous references to Broadway classics (the exodus from Bikini Bottom is sung-through with a rendition of “Bikini-tevka” in a nod to Fiddler on the Roof, while the chorus of Mr. Krabs’ ode to his cash, “Daddy Knows Best,” might sound familiar to some Cabaret fans).

“Poor Pirates,” (comp. Sara Bareilles) which opens Act II, is where the musical is most clearly targeted at kids; effectively, this is pre-show and intermission entertainment, meant to ease kids (and other fidgety members of the audience) back to the main event onstage. The intermission song in particular has no relevance to the plot at large, which is essentially about “pirate discrimination.” It seemed like some of the political references here were a bit misplaced (Patchy the Pirate, the number’s lead, yells “Yo ho, we won’t go” at one point). Nonetheless, this “adult kid” found it all very entertaining to watch.

Which brings me to my next point. SpongeBob also plays off of the nostalgia factor for Millennials and Gen-Z kids who grew up watching both the TV cartoon’s original run and subsequent re-runs. With the fast-pacing and the colorful world created onstage, however, parents (and others who didn’t necessarily see the original show) will also be entertained. In this sense, it’s fitting that the curtain call ends with the original cartoon’s theme song, which invoked a chorus of audience members to sing along (and with vigor, I might add).

For all its (many, many) moving parts, the show never drags, nor does it—as I had feared—become grating. Instead, SpongeBob proves a delight, both under the sea and on the Great White Way.

My previous column was all about the cultural importance of Star Wars as the quintessential modern myth. I even mentioned the need for myth in these troubled times, insinuating my desire for Star Wars: The Last Jedi to acknowledge, or comment on, the current political climate in some capacity. And so, having now watched it, I ask: how good was it, and how does it hold as a modern myth?

To begin, much of the progressivism from The Force Awakens is carried over here, and is given much more room to breathe in some instances, as in Finn (John Boyega) and Rose’s (Kelly Marie Tran) excursion to Cantonica, a desert planet run by greedy, corporate, casino-obsessed profiteers who benefit from the galactic war between the First Order and the Resistance. As many reviews have been quick to point out, this arc is easy to bait as a digressing rambling point, though this is most attributable not to the narrative intentions of the arc, but rather the lackluster execution of these explorations which at times threaten to inspire a blatant indifference on the audience’s part. From the moment Rose begins telling her sob backstory, which then leads into a preachy animal-rights midnight exodus extravaganza, the narrative feels forced and progressive for the sake of being progressive—in short, it feels inauthentic.

I should stress that this lack of authenticity exists strictly on a formal level, by which I mean the film was admittedly doing some interesting things in theory. This includes the incorporation of Star Wars canon material previously unseen on the big screen (How did Luke get there?), the subversion of myth by questioning its authenticity, and the fabrication of a triadic collective protagonist (Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren). However, most reviews that have defended The Last Jedi have tended to rely on these novel narrative deviations to the Star Wars canon as sufficient evidence for the film’s artistic merit, the equivalent of arguing Pollock’s early works as redeemable insofar as they are “dense with mythology and Jungian archetypes” or that James Joyce is a genius on the basis that UlyssesLike many great works of literature…requires repeated reading and deep study fully to understand–and ultimately to enjoy–the many dimensions and layers.” All this is well and fine, but I would argue that the formal ramifications of a work of art (i.e. revolutionary or revisionist technique), or its utter abstruseness, are not enough to warrant—indeed, even measure—artistic merit. Hence, to defend The Last Jedi by way of uttering such generalizations as “The movie works equally well as an earnest adventure full of passionate heroes and villains and a meditation on sequels and franchise properties” is not enough; I mean, sure, but, where specifically do you see this being done well, and, more importantly, how are you measuring “well”?

I would narrow down my problems with this movie to one pivotal, overarching problem that effectively ruined all of the things that could have worked for the film: pacing. By this I mean not only the editing from one plot to another, but the consistent incorporation of “tonal distractions,” both of which, collectively, forbid any one point in the story to breathe and really come into its own. One result of this is that, unlike The Force Awakens, the film no longer feels character-based—the word “feels” is crucial here as the narrative was evidently attempting to darken and flesh out three of its main characters: Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker. This sophistication had the potential to be the holy grail of the film’s engagement, but, whenever this character-building is at play, it is superfluously embroidered by these aforementioned tonal distractions, whether it’s Luke tricking Rey into “using the force” with a blade of grass, Kylo Ren being shirtless (but why?), or a Pog face-planting into a window during what should be a serious rescue scene on the planet Crait. It’s as if Robert Altman had been hired to write a Star Wars movie and immediately decided to Nashville the sh!+ out of it.

The thing is (and this gets to the heart of why I abhor Robert Altman films) the film medium is temporally built to sustain a well-chosen economy of narrative if it has any hopes of fabricating and sustaining any degree of emotional investment. Shows like Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black have shown that the serial format is much more compatible with large ensemble casts because they are given the room to be explored in an organic and engaging way. When condensing these kaleidoscopic endeavors into a film, much of the emotional weight is lost in favor for what essentially amounts to “interesting ideas”: the philosophy underlying Luke’s cynicism, Rey’s development as a Jedi (we are given some “shocking” background story, but how does this affect her character? She’s still on the good side at the end [I almost wanted her to go to the dark side, just to shake things up]), or Kylo Ren’s inner conflict (which, again, amounts to nothing—he is still the “bad guy” at the end of the film).

While The Last Jedi does not have a terribly high amount of plots and characters, it does incessantly move from one thing we are meant to be taking seriously to another, a system which amounts to the same thing: the dilution of the audience’s emotional investment. Sure, much of the frantic pacing works for the fresh new theme of “let the past die, look to the future” which may in fact be commenting on the generally pessimistic milieu of our times, and whose newness does manage to “keep the myth interesting, and hence relevant” as I mentioned in my last column. However, The Last Jedi is revisionism done wrong, in the vein of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, where a lot of interesting things are going down without succeeding in making us care. This is in sharp contrast to the much more cogent (and also revisionist) The Dark Knight, or The Empire Strikes Back. Recall how much time we spend following Luke’s training with Yoda in Episode V, or Rey the scavenger-for-parts at the beginning of The Force Awakens. These are some of my favorite moments in the franchise, and the reason they work is because we’re there for a while, to the point where the depicted world begins to feel organic, our own—thus paving the way for emotional investment.

If anything, The Last Jedi has compelled me to familiarize myself to a much greater extent with the Star Wars canon. Through my current efforts to understand just what in the world was happening in the film, I might eventually be able to tame my currently lashing and thrashing response to such a degree that the film may not appear as messy and improvised as it does now. Who knows, a year from now—maybe less—I may even like it.

“If you weren’t a Democrat when you were young, you don’t have a heart. If you don’t become a Republican when you get old, you don’t have a brain.”

You haven’t seen Uma Thurman destroy someone like this since Kill Bill. The actress makes her Broadway debut as Chloe, the wife of tax attorney Tom (portrayed brilliantly by Josh Lucas), who is on the short list for a Court of Appeals nomination. The Parisian Woman chronicles his path to nomination in five scenes, as the couple navigate their relationships with their politically minded peers. Martin Csokas stars as a jealous lover, Blair Brown as a conniving Fed Chair, and Phillipa Soo as Brown’s rising star daughter.

One of the most compelling aspects of The Parisian Woman is its relationship to the current political climate, having been rewritten after its original run to accommodate the 2016 election. The changes manifest themselves both in simple callout jokes (at every one of which, no matter how lazy the reference, the audience feels compelled to respond) and a stronger overarching question as to what political actors should be doing in a system in which the rules seem to be simply tossed out the door.

While the former seems to capitalize on the popularity of political commentary springing up everywhere today, the latter is unique in the sea in that it casts doubt as to whether it is truly cynical or genuine about our current system. Most of the characters bask in the grey area between party lines, at once admonishing the President while capitalizing on the ever-increasing vacancies in his administration.

This uncertainty, though, is better manifested in the nature of the relationships between characters, which reveal new layers with every scene, forcing the audience to analyze every interaction for notions of sincerity. It is in this limbo of truth that the play finds its real merit theatrically, not in the hollow dramatics of political warfare reminiscent of a Scandal episode. (Much of the nomination drama seems to rely on the basis that Trump is only loyal to the person he mostly recently spoke to. Which makes for a joke, but not the most clever or dramatically inclined one.)

Go into The Parisian Woman with an open mind about its politics. Revel in its pockets of tenderness in an overwhelmingly cold political environment. Appreciate the subtle Bannon digs. Just don’t expect to find firm insights into the Trump era.

After weeks of ignoring her begging, I went with my roommate to see Thor: Ragnarok. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see the movie (Marvel films are actually my guilty pleasure), but I didn’t want to spend the ridiculous amount of money that is New York theater prices to see a film I thought I could predict in its entirety. I had a pretty strong feeling about how the movie was gonna go: we’d start with a dramatic scene where Thor’s at a low-point, then the film’s villain would inspire him to get his act together, and he’d reunite with some random Avenger to defeat whoever was threatening Asgard this time around. Interspersed would be some jokes about his abnormally attractive body, his villainous brother Loki, and of course Marvel’s typical sexual innuendos. I knew it would be entertaining, but also extremely predictable.

So when I sat down in the theater, I was surprised by the film I saw. Don’t get me wrong, I had indeed predicted the general plotline, but something about Thor: Ragnarok was different. Rather than being interspersed throughout, the jokes were continuous and quite upfront. From the very first scene (where Thor was indeed at a low-point), Chris Hemsworth’s superhero was cracking jokes left and right. His relationship with Loki took on a more humorous tone than ever before, and even the villain (Thor’s sister Hela) cracked a joke every now and again.

Even in the movie’s darkest and most serious moments, the characters were joking around. As I watched, it felt a little off-putting: why would Thor and the Hulk joke about the fate of millions of people? Why couldn’t the writers be serious for just one second? I came out of the theater feeling a bit uneasy; sure, the film was hilarious and most definitely entertaining–but what just happened? In an earlier column, I praised this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming for its jokes and for creating a lighter and more entertaining superhero movie than DC’s Wonder Woman. But it seems like Marvel took my feedback and dialed it up, like, five thousand percent.

Earlier this week, Marvel released its trailer for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, set to be released in two parts- one in 2018 and one in 2019. The trailer is typical of Marvel’s superhero universe, and only features one joke at the end of the preview–more like what I had been expecting from Thor: Ragnarok. And the trailer wasn’t released without its own drama: news that Avengers frontrunners like Chris Evans (Captain America), Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), and Scarlett Johansson’s (Black Widow) contracts are up after the film releases is sending every superhero-fan into a frenzy. Is this the last Avengers film? Will Marvel try to continue the Avengers franchise without its stars?

In interviews, Marvel CEO Kevin Feige has said that Marvel intends to continue the franchise with or without its stars, but that Infinity War will definitely mark the end of a particular era in the Avengers universe. And with Thor: Ragnarok shifting so dramatically in its approach, I am left wondering: is this lighter tone Marvel’s new take? And how will that work? Will it work?

Now don’t get me wrong: the fate of the superhero genre is not in danger. People will keep paying to see attractive men and women (although far too few women admittedly) save the world while cracking a joke about it. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and it makes us feel good. But where Marvel has succeeded (and where, I would argue, DC hasn’t) is in making these feel-good movies into films with real quality. Previous Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and Avengers movies are all actually good movies. And that’s because they mix action and humor effortlessly, and invite the audience to feel close to their heroes. But when Marvel decided to focus solely on the humor in Thor: Ragnarok, they lost their appeal (at least to me). And if they continue on in this way, they may find themselves losing at the very genre they brought to the forefront of American cinema ten years ago.