Quick take: NYC theater weekend

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Ah, nothing like a the-ah-ter weekend in New York City, particularly after the Tony nominations are announced: productions are at their tiptop best as potential voters flood the theater. My quick takes, in order:

WARHORSE: A transfer from Britain’s National Theater, WARHORSE tells the story of a boy and—surprise—his horse, drafted into service in WWI. The text, adapted from a young adult novel, often betrays its origins in its clichéd characters (the alcoholic father, the stern mother, the dastardly uncle, etc.), and there are few shockers on the level of plot, particularly in the expository first act. On the level of stagecraft, however

wow, what a production. All of the animals—including several horses—are represented by gigantic puppets, crafted by the Handspring Puppet Company. These puppets are simply amazing—I could spend the entire evening watching the horses just breathe. (The puppeteers must be exhausted by the end of a performance; it takes three men to operate a single horse.) And there are at least three indelible stage images in the second act. I wish, though, that the text had been adapted as a fable, or, better, a parable about the stupidity of men and war; poetry better suits these elegant puppets than the production’s more pedestrian prose.

PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, THE MUSICAL: An unexpected delight, and possibly the gayest thing I’ve ever seen on stage. (And this includes a fringe show about same-sex dungeon orgies. Which is pretty gay.) Though the score—like MAMMA MIA!—is recycled from disco and pop hits of the 70’s and 80’s, it’s smarter than that musical: less a nostalgia piece, and more a real show. Everything’s over-the-top (costumes, set, choreography), but anchored by a surprisingly sweet plot about the meaning of family/“family” in the new millennium. Word on the street is that Priscilla is simply too gay for the tourists, but a Saturday matinee seemed packed with happy squads of ’em. It’s too early to tell whether it will morph into a national touring production like XANADU or—of course—MAMMA MIA.

JERUSALEM: A mounting of Jez Butterworth’s epic about contemporary Britain, with a Tony-nominated (and I’m pretty certain, Tony-winning) performance by Mark Rylance. Rylance is great, but the play is one of those singularly Irish/Anglo texts in which a group of eccentric characters tells stories for three hours and then the curtain falls. (Some of the stories are highly entertaining, but lord! my kingdom for some plot.) A slim narrative concerns Rylance’s eviction from what he considers his ancestral lands, but since his character is a drug-addled narcotics-pusher who corrupts teenagers, I’m sort of on the side on the law, here. In any case, the plot is beside the point: the production works entirely on the plane of metaphysical metaphor – it might as well be called WORDSWORTH. In short: Rylance is the incarnation of Britain’s ancient druidic heritage, a time of giants and nymphs and trolls and other numinous spirits currently threatened by blinkered modernity. And Butterworth obviously wants us to side with the druids, etc., but I simply couldn’t buy the conceit, at least not without more plot. Much more plot. (The set’s amazing, though. Like a forest primeval in midtown Manhattan.)

BENGAL TIGER IN THE BAGHDAD ZOO: Another highly innovative play by Rajiv Joseph, author of the wonderful GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES (which, if we’re lucky, might one day see a production in SA). BENGAL TIGER nabbed a Pulitzer nomination for its L.A. run, and one can see why: it’s a stimulating and disturbing take on the American invasion of Iraq, mostly seen through the eyes of a dead, pensive tiger. (Robin Williams is somewhat miscast as the tiger—he nails the humor, but misses some of the pathos. In a role that’s mostly monologues, the production really needs a stage-experienced actor, preferably with a lot of Shakespeare under his belt.) But Joseph’s wacky plot wins the day, as it follows the tribulations of two American soldiers and two Iraqis as they crisscross from life to death (and back again) over the course of the American invasion. Perhaps Joseph’s reach exceeds his grasp, but it’s refreshing to see a playwright unafraid to push the form and limits of theater. Derek McLane’s marvelous set is practically a character in itself.

THE BOOK OF MORMON, THE MUSICAL: The LDS wisely refrained from boycotting this production, but surely they can’t be happy about it: the guys from South Park—and the composer from Avenue Q—have concocted a giddily hilarious evisceration of the Mormon Church’s mythology, centered on two missionaries in Uganda. Individual numbers aren’t listed in the program—the surprises are part of the fun—but most of them seem to involve the word fuck: a concept that’s welcome in most any context, but doubly so in a Broadway musical. Along the way, MORMON parodies a zillion other Broadway shows, including LION KING, THE KING AND I, and even Fred Astaire routines. With fourteen nominations to its name, it’s sure to win a slew of Tony awards – but I sort of doubt that Broadway Across America will ever take it to conservative San Antonio. Best, then, to see it in NYC.

Respectfully submitted by Thomas "Priscilla" Jenkins, Current theater critic.

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