Seen and Heard 2/26/10

Seen Off Broadway: Shakespeare's The Tempest lends itself to magic, and this its Bridge Project staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music has in abundance. In its second season The Bridge Project, a three-year alliance of BAM, The Old Vic, and director Sam Mendes' Neal Street Productions, is performing what is thought to be Shakespeare's last credited play in repertory with As You Like It, and has ensured that the Bard goes out with a bang. Besides Mendes' pacy direction (the show runs an intermissionless two hours) and a fine cast led by a wearily commanding Stephen Dillane as the sorcerer Prospero, the lovely Juliet Rylance as his daughter Miranda, Christian Camargo in an androgynous spin as the spirit Ariel, and Ron Cephas Jones as the hot-tempered slave Caliban, much of the credit goes to the design team, who have bent the Harvey Theater to the magician's will.

The production, a saga of hard-won reconciliation and forgiveness, has been given an elemental staging. Upstage is a large pool of water, from which the shipwrecked supporting characters converge upon Prospero's island via ramps (or by simply splashing through). Set designer Tom Piper's center stage element is a large circle of sand, from which some of the actors make surprising entrance and exits from beneath the floor. Stage left, where the onstage musicians who are a typical facet of Bridge Project productions play, also houses a ramshackle book-filled room where Prospero retreats. Fire plays an important part in Paul Pyant's transporting lighting design, giving an extra boost to an already colorful look. The sound design, by Simon Baker for Autograph, is one of the more detailed I've heard at the Harvey, with a number of ear-pleasing directional effects. Costumer designer Catherine Zuber and hair and wig designer Tom Watson have collaborated to give the more otherworldly denizens of the island a distinctive look, with Caliban a chalky monstrosity in full body makeup and Ariel all but taking flight in a winged apparatus. The revels of The Tempest (and As You Like It) are ended on March 13, with international dates to follow through August.

Horton Foote's last work, The Orphans' Home Cycle, has come to a close with its third part, which is playing in repertory with its predecessors at the Signature Theatre Company. "Big Foote" (I say that with love) condenses nine of the prolific playwright's works into hour-long playlets, set in Texas, that combined form a story not unlike the author's own and conclude in 1928. The limitation of the compression, which Foote completed before his death last year at age 92, is apparent here, as characters introduced in one scene are dead the next and a certain emotional engagement is short-changed. As directed by Michael Wilson, however, the saga makes for compelling, raw-boned viewing, and a large and tight-knit ensemble coalesces around a wonderful central performance by Bill Heck, as the embattled-but-resilient father of the writer-to-be.

Enhancing the show is an eloquent design. Automated sliding panels by Jeff Cowie and David M. Barber are given life by fine projections by Jan Hartley, drawn from research into the town that inspired Foote's fictional locale. The sets are simple but have an equally appealing specificity to them, as does Rui Rita's lighting design. The period flavor is accentuated by David C. Woolard's costumes and Mark Adam Rampmeyer's hair and wig designs, which, along with John Gromada's plaintive music and sound design further anchor the show to its time and place without constricting Foote's theatricality. The entire cycle runs through May 8.

If Brokeback Mountain were to become a musical it might turn out something like Yank!, which after prior incarnations is getting an Off Broadway run at the York Theatre Company. It would probably be less exuberant, however—if more concise and better-organized, as the show, centered around the plight of Stu, a gay World War II serviceman (Bobby Steggert) in love with a closeted squad member (Ivan Hernandez), becomes clotted with more plot elements and themes than it can comfortably handle by its second act. The writers, Joseph and David Zellnick, and director Igor Goldin just didn't know how to quit some of Yank!'s clumsier ideas, like the awkward framing device of a contemporary Stu reading the period Stu's diary in the present, or the second act's show-stopping (in the worst sense of the phrase) "dream ballet." The frothily enjoyable pastiche score and the authors' harder-hitting views on prejudice and discrimination never really align.

But, while the production is too much of a good thing, it has some good things going for it. Steggert and the show's choreographer, Jeffrey Denman (whose journalist character shows Stu the ropes of gay life and gets him a photographer's job on the servicemen's publication of the show's title), are terrific, particularly in a tap number, and it is consistently watchable through its uneven patches. Much of the costume (Tricia Barsamian) and wig and hair design (Ashley Ryan) is shoulder (or shoulder-padded) by its lone female castmember, Nancy Anderson, who is excellent in a variety of roles. Ray Klausen's movable panels make for a functional set design (the magazine covers lining the proscenium are a nice touch) and Ken Lapham's lighting is dexterous, with an interrogation sequence chillingly supported. No need for a sound design in this venue; the voices alone carry Yank!, which is scheduled to run through March 21.—Robert Cashill

Equipment Vendors

The Tempest
Scenic Shop: Coolflight Ltd.—Richard Nutbourne (UK) Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Masque Sound

The Orphans' Home Cycle
Lighting Equipment: PRG

Scenic Elements: Daddy-O Productions

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