Seen Off Broadway: The “no cellphones” announcement that’s now standard at New York theaters is irrelevant at Howard Katz, a British import that has opened at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Off Broadway venue, the Laura Pels. The constant metallic ringing of cellphones is an integral part of David Van Tieghem’s sound design, and the star, Alfred Molina, is never far from their call. When we meet Katz, a hard-driving London agent fallen on very hard times, he’s seated on a park bench, and approached by a rent boy (Euan Morton, who, like the rest of the cast except for Molina, plays multiple roles). Flashbacks show how he arrived at this sorry, suicidal state. As Scott Pask’s vignettes roll on and off, we see him at work, mauling his C-list reality TV show clients; at home, berating his wife (Jessica Hecht) and son; and visiting his barber father (Alvin Epstein), who has his own late-in-life discontents. With each passing scene the bull-headed Katz loses another piece of his life and livelihood. To make amends, he devotes himself to a God he never really believed in previously, which only puts him further out-of-sync with the people he once knew and the person he once was.
Working in a different, somewhat more redemptive vein than his muck-and-mire play Closer and his harrowing, Oscar-nominated screenplay for Notes on a Scandal, Patrick Marber has crafted an absorbing, if distant, work. Molina handles both sides of Katz—punisher, and punished—with a pro’s ease, and has a wonderful scene where, forgetting the name of his Rolodex but recalling its purpose when he tries to worm his way back into his old job, instead mimics, with sweaty desperation, the flipping of namecards. The problem is, he has only two sides, a condition that afflicts every character in the show, who never fully emerge from the page. That we are either victim or victimizer is a point made long before the show ends, or, rather, stops, with Katz a modern-day Wandering Jew in a futile search for answers. What might have been a full-blooded portrait of a man in turmoil and transition comes out instead in a dull monochrome, which as it happens is the color of Pask’s weird, prison-like set. The play begins and ends in a park, with a little green poking out, but it appears that Katz’s bench is located beneath a particularly forbidding bridge, with “No Entrance” signs and, embedded in one stone, a Jewish star that Christopher Akerlind’s illumination occasionally alights upon. I assume we are in limbo, which would not be a bad place to be if the show itself weren’t stuck in the same gear.
Combined with its fierce central performance, Doug Hughes’ direction is at least pacy, and the designers keep the one-act show moving at an acceptable clip. Akerlind’s lighting, much of it positioned behind institutional-looking cubes atop Pask’s set, sweeps colorfully from vignette to vignette, with a casino lit a devilish red. Van Tieghem’s audio and score remind us that we are in a park or a zoo or a gambling parlor if these aren’t immediately clear. [Showman Fabricators constructed the scenery, Scenic Technologies got it moving, PRG provided the lights and Masque Sound the audio.] Catherine Zuber’s costumes are entirely naturalistic, with Katz’s unchanging suit a fitting outfit for a contemporary eternal exile. Howard Katz has powerful moments but is stubbornly unaffecting; audiences unmoved by his plight can at least thank God that Marber has cut upwards of a half-hour from its running time since its London premiere in 2001.—Robert Cashill
Seen In Brooklyn: The Wooster Group has long been a proponent of using video in their work, including images actors seen off-stage live while their filmed counterpart is on a monitor on stage. In their current adaptation of Hamlet—now on stage at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn and opening next October at The Public Theatre—they have brought Shakespeare into the digital age by re-editing the film of a special 1964 stage production, starring Richard Burton as Hamlet, that was captured on 17 cameras and shown in movie theatres as a new form called “Theatrofilm.” The Wooster Group has used this film not only as a backdrop for their production but also as a template to inform their performances, and the actors on stage are quite frequently moving, speaking, and gesturing in tandem with their same characters on the screen. But to complicate matters, The Wooster Group’s lead actress, Kate Valk, plays both Gertrude and Ophelia, so naturally the two characters can never be on stage at the same time. This allows Scott Shephard, as Hamlet, to direct the proceedings, saying things like “Let’s skip the Ophelia scene.” Video monitors add to the digital landscape, and provide close ups of actions, for example, when Hamlet stabs Polonius, a close up of Polonius’s body appears on a screen, only to be dragged off, out of the screen as it were. When the Players arrive to perform the play within the play, they have a laptop and show a Charlton Heston film in an anachronistic bit of humor. As Hamlet sees his father’s ghost and sets out to revenge his murder, The Wooster Group is looking at the ghost of Richard Burton and company as the ghosts of a Hamlet from the past. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, Hamlet’s design/technical team includes set designer Ruud van den Akker, LDs Jennifer Tipton and Gabe Maxson, sound designers Goeff Abbas, Dan Dobson, Joby Emmons, and Matt Tierney, sound technician Matt Schloss, video by Reid Farrington, video assistant Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck, costumes by Claudia Hill, plus production manager Bozkurt Karasu and technical director Aron Deyo. Mark Coniglio donated the Isadora video software, and Big Apple Lights provided the lighting equipment.
The Forsythe Company appears this week as part of the Spring Season at BAM, with a new work, Three Atmospheric Studies, directed by William Forsythe, a Frankfurt-based American choreographer who was the director of the Frankfurt Ballet for 20 years. Now out on his own, Forsythe’s work has become more political, perhaps freed on any restraints a ballet company might impose. Based on a 16th-century painting—Cranach’s Lamentation Beneath The Cross—and a 21st-centuty photograph on a car bomb explosion in the Middle East—the three-part evening length work is extremely physical, especially in the third section where the dancers’ movement is underscored by a wide range of loud sounds (bombs, gunfire, helicopters…) and is the choreographer’s response to trying to understand the current situation in the world. The costumes by Satoru Choko and Dorothee Merg are contemporary street clothes, loose pants or jeans with t-shirts or sweaters, and a few dresses on some of the women, including a character whose monologue in the second section is the retelling a scene not unlike that in the car bomb photo. Forsythe is credited with the stage and lighting design: the stage design includes a dance floor that was white for the first and third sections, while changed to black for the middle section, and in the second section a series of wires dissecting the stage and a “citadel” made of layers of multi-colored fabric. The lighting included a small front of house rig plus a series of six large single sources housed in black fabric “tents” over the stage. These were used in the first and third sections of the work, with the stagehands adding large sheets of blue gel for the third section. The technical team for the company includes Susanne Brenner, technical production, Dietrich Krüger, sound and video designer, Ulf Naumann, technical production, Julian Gabriel Richter, production manager, Tanja Rühl, lighting supervisor, and Max Schubert, technical director. Although Forsythe says the piece is not specifically set in Iraq, it is easy to assume it is, from the car bomb photo to the scene where the woman’s monologue is being translated into Arabic, and a female dancer whose voice has been altered to sound like a man (is this the Rice/Rumsfeld pastiche character?). In a highly charged evening of words and actions, Forsythe has certainly given his audiences something challenging to think...and talk...about.—Ellen Lampert-Gréaux