After weeks of rumor, scandal, innuendo, and allegations of actors running around backstage in their underwear, Taboo has finally opened. Thas a lot going for it, including a pungently original score and a sensational cast. But there’s a considerable downside, as well. Charles Busch’s book is both a biography of pop star Boy George and a portrait of the 80s club scene in London, which, apparently, was dominated by a crowd called the New Romantics, whose exemplar, Leigh Bowery, was famous for his bizarre clothing designs. Swirling around these two main characters is the vengeful club promoter Philip Sallon; the female impersonator Marilyn; two women, Nicola and Big Sue, who fight over the homosexual Bowery, and Marcus, a bisexual photographer who alternately romances and fights with Boy George (in one of the show's stranger moments, he is revealed to be a composite character). They're all attention grabbers, but the book never provides any context for them—we never get a sense of what they’re rebelling against, or what the New Romantics wanted to achieve—so they come off as bitchy oddballs who spend their time composing queeny insults and stabbing each other in the back. (A late-in-the-second-act attempt to portray them as loving family of outsiders doesn’t wash at all). Furthermore, it’s not long before one begins to wonder what Boy George and Leigh Bowery have to do with each other. Taboo is an odd, disjointed story, with characters who remain at a distance. A friend of mine described it as "a show about a group of people who went to the same club every Thursday night." I'm afraid that's about it.
Still, the score is filled with striking things, although the best of them tend to dwell on the characters’ lonely lives. The cast is also particularly strong: Euan Morton makes a stunning debut as the young Boy George; he also sings like an angel. Raul Espazra sizzles with sarcasm as Philip Salloon and his Act II solo, “Petrified,” brings down the house. There’s also good work from Liz McCartney as the lonely, tough-minded Big Sue, and Sarah Uriate Berry as Nicola, Leigh Bowery’s on-the-make assistant. Jefrrey Carlson pouts hilariously as Marilyn, and, as Marcus, Cary Shields is a most attractive composite. Boy George himself (here billed as George O’Dowd) is quite a presence in Leigh Bowery’s wild outfits. To some extent, however, all of them are let down by Christopher Renshaw’s flat, stop-and-start direction, and Mark Dendy’s uninspired choreography.
The design is really something to see, however. Tim Goodchild’s warehouse setting is an industrial-chic environment, with the orchestra on two levels above the stage and the proscenium wrapped in black, like a Christo art project. The costumes by Mike Nicholls and Bobby Pearce recreate some of Bowery’s wildest, most disturbing creations, as well as every other outlandish getup pioneered by the New Romantics. Natasha Katz’s lighting is a free-for-all of disco lighting effects. This is some of her mostly flamboyant and evocative work. Jonathan Deans’ sound design is first-rate, and allows one to hear every word of the lyrics. Still, Taboo is a fascinatingly original misfire; it's hard to imagne there’s much of an audience for these professional exhibitionists.--David Barbour
Seen at the Movies: Production designer Bo Welch makes his directorial debut with Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, and the movie is nothing if not designed. The Seussian town of Anville is rendered by designer of record Alex McDowell in bulging shapes and queasy-making tones of green and purple, a color scheme that extends to Rita Ryack’s costumes and the movie’s cars and props. The look is vaguely reminiscent of Welch’s work on Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, though it’s far more aggressive and heavy-spirited here. The gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is left flailing in an attempt to make something magical out of what’s in front of his camera. After this film and Ron Howard’s version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, it’s clear that the skewed two-dimensional world of Dr. Seuss does not translate in visual terms to live-action film. It becomes much too literal, and the necessary filling out of detail robs the stories of their broad-stroked, nimble quality.
This is true as well of star Mike Myers’ Cat in the Hat makeup, created by Steve Johnson of Edge FX, and applied by Mike Smithson. The cat of the book is elongated and loose-limbed, but there is no way to create this effect on a relatively short, squat actor without resorting to digital and animatronic solutions. What we’re given instead is basically a fat furry feline. That said, Myers does have his moments. He channels Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, Joe E. Brown, and Charles Nelson Reilly, and even sings and dances—the performance is pure vaudeville, which is at least more authentic than anything anyone else on camera can muster. The movie becomes truly terrifying during the antics of Thing One and Thing Two, a couple of acrobatic children outfitted with rubber noses, but it is blessedly short. I suppose younger kids might enjoy it.
The new horror film Gothika inadvertently does a better job than Scary Movie 3 of parodying recent examples of the genre like The Ring and the oeuvre of M. Night Shyamalan. Mathieu Kassovitz’s dank mess of a thriller stars Halle Berry as a shrink in a mental institution that makes The Snake Pit look bright and cheery by comparison. One rainy night Berry encounters a wraith-like figure who bursts into flames; soon, she is herself an institution inmate, accused of butchering her husband with an ax. She is forced to wash in a poorly lit communal shower redolent of Auschwitz, and casts a new sympathetic eye on the wild claims of satanic sex by inmate Penelope Cruz. Gothika is laughably unbelievable, and rigged up with cheap scare tactics; when in doubt, the director simply gooses the viewer with a loud noise. Matthew Libatique’s steel-gray cinematography is gloomy and “atmospheric,” and Graham “Grace” Walker’s production design is, well, gothic.--John Calhoun
Seen Off Broadway: The title character of The Cook, now at INTAR Hispanic American Arts Center, is Gladys, a young woman who works in a wealthy Havana household. The time is 1958, and Gladys’ employers flee as Castro approaches; the mistress of the house, Adria, urges Gladys to keep the house in perfect order until the family returns. This is what Gladys does, over the next four decades of revolution, social upheaval, persecution, and wrenching change. Gladys’ marriage to Carlos, who rises in Castro’s government, falls apart and comes together again. Her gay cousin Julio is persecuted and dies in jail. Gladys takes in Carlos’ daughter from an affair. She and Carlos open a restaurant that thrives off the tourist trade. And still she endures, even when Adria’s American daughter shows up and refuses to understand what has happened in her parents’ home. This is a big, sprawling play and not everything works: Julio’s story is abruptly dropped and leaves no aftereffects. We don’t get to see how Glady and Carlos’ marriage is revived. But, for 20 years, Machado has written authoritatively about the divide between Cuban-Americans and their homeland, and this is another distinctive addition to that body of work. Michael John Garces’ direction is not as nuanced as it might be, but the production is anchored by Zabryna Guevera, who skillfully evokes the odd mixture of hardheaded practicality and romantic nostalgia that makes up Gladys’ character.
The production also benefits from Antje Ellerman’s gorgeously detailed kitchen setting; her work extends into the auditorium and lobby, which have been made up to resemble other rooms in the house. Ellerman has only been known to be as an assistant to the likes of Derek McLane and Robert Brill; here she emerges as a major talent in her own right. Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s costumes neatly evoke three different eras and David M. Lawson’s sound design includes party noises, buzzers, and plenty of Cuban music. Lighting designer Kirk Bookman has been handed the impossible task of simulating different times of day and night in a tny space, but his work is, as always, highly professional.
The Beard of Avon, at New York Theatre Workshop, has earned glowing reviews and I have no idea why. Amy Freed’s hero is Will Shakspere, a country bumpkin who falls in love with the stage and ends up in London, working as a spear carrier in potboilers with titles like “Scurvy Wives.” When the dissipated aristocrat Edward De Vere, fearing scandal, requires a front for his plays, Will gets drafted for the job. Soon, everyone in Elizabethan London, including Queen Elizabeth, wants Will to take credit for the dramatic works. Meanwhile, Will’s lusty wife, Anne Hathaway, shows up, disguised as a courtesan; before long, she’s in a triangle with Will and the bisexual De Vere. All the ingredients are here for a high-style farce, but Freed’s aim is too scattershot; for every laugh, there are three or four lines that just sit there. Worst of all is the play’s extreme overlength; did no one ever question whether two and three quarter hours was an appropriate running time for what is, essentially, a cartoon? It doesn’t help that director Doug Hughes has encouraged the actors to shout and mug; as Will, Anne, and De Vere, Tim Blake Nelson, Kate Jennings Grant, and Mark Harelik display very little charm. Even the great Mary Louise Wilson can do little with the role of Elizabeth I. After an hour, the fun wears very thin indeed.
The production is stunningly designed and, also, I’m afraid, quite possibly a mistake. Neil Patel’s timbered theatre setting is backed by a black and white etching of 17th-century London and Michael Chybowski’s lighting reaches into the auditorium to embrace the audience. Catherine Zuber’s costumes appear at first to be models of period design, but they’re filled with gags—check out the see-through underwear on De Vere’s male lover. David Van Tieghem’s sound design includes his faux-Elizabethan compositions. It’s all superbly done, but it’s far too deluxe for material as thin as this. At under two hours, in a simpler production, The Bard of Avon might be a treat; here it’s a lushly produced, marathon-length attraction that wears out its welcome all too soon.
Let it never be said that Judith Ivey avoided a challenge. In Women on Fire, at the Cherry Lane Theatre, she embodies 12 different ladies in 90 minutes. They include a Midwestern housewife who battles with her daughter about everything; an ad executive who is suddenly revolted by her work; a matron who believes in the therapeutic nature of shopping, and a frustrated novelist who takes hostages in an Barnes-and-Noble style chain bookstore. Some of Irene O’Garden’s characters work better than others, but Ivey makes most of them sparkle (although she comes off pretty silly playing a black construction worker). But there’s no time for any piece to develop and they all run together in your mind afterward. Michael Krass’ simple setting works well (although his costume isn’t too flattering to Ivey), and Pat Dignan’s lighting is generally fluent (although she makes inconsistent use of a photo flash motif). Bart Fasbender’s sound design consists mostly of cello music to bridge the scenes. But there’s something wrong with a world where Ivey, one of the finest American actresses, has to go to Houston to star in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? while in New York she gets this sort of glorified audition material. Where is the producer who will give this star the production she deserves?--DB