February 24, 2021

“BABEL”: Passage Theatre has presented an online production of “Babel.” Written by Jacqueline Goldfinger and directed by Jill Harrison, the dark comedy is set in a future in which genetic testing may prevent a person from being welcome in mainstream society. Renee (Tai Verley, above) must make a painful decision, with unwanted help from a tough-talking stork. (Photo by Lauren Eliot Photography)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In Jacqueline Goldfinger’s darkly comic play Babel, Renee (the main protagonist) exclaims, “What is this, an old episode of Star Trek?” She probably is thinking of a 1992 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Masterpiece Society.” In that story, the Enterprise crew encounters a colony that has been developed through genetic engineering and selective breeding.

Because most episodes of Star Trek take place on a fictional planet in the far-distant future, the concepts it examines tend to be comfortably abstract. Although Babel is set sometime in “the future,” Goldfinger strips away that cushion of remove. The play is set on Earth, much closer to our own time, with characters that are vividly relatable.

Babel’s page on the New Play Exchange’s website credits McCarter Theatre with a 2019 developmental reading. The play is the recipient of Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s Generations New Play Award, as well as the Smith Prize for Political Theatre.

Passage Theatre presented an online reading of Babel from February 18-21. Ticketed viewers were sent links that entitled them to watch the prerecorded video, skillfully directed by Jill Harrison.

Babel begins wordlessly; we hear controlled, rhythmic breathing. We then see that it is Renee (who is given an outstanding portrayal by Tai Verley). She anxiously consults a book, and continues her exercises. Her spouse Dani (infused with steely composure by Leah Walton) appears, and soothingly starts singing “Beyond the Sea.” Renee joins her, and it is clear that they often sing it together.

We learn that Renee finally has gotten pregnant after trying for eight years, and that an unspecified condition prevents Dani from being the one to give birth. Renee is apprehensive about a medical test that she must undergo the next day. In the play’s dystopian world, there is a “precertification law” that requires all embryos to be screened for physical, cognitive, and behavioral defects.

Renee is distraught at the test results. The physical and cognitive results are acceptable, but the doctor is “concerned about the baby’s behavioral genes” and refuses to issue a certificate. If Renee chooses not to “take the shot” and terminate the pregnancy, the child will be tested again at 18. Unacceptable results at that point banish a person from society. They are forced to live in an “underground village” with constant monitoring, and manual labor as their only career choice. Renee’s state of mind is worsened by a sense that “someone or something” is following her. more

January 27, 2021

“UNBECOMING”: The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater is presenting “Unbecoming.” Directed by Eliana Cohen-Orth, the video will be available online, to view for free, through January 31. Above: Lady Charlotte Guest (Paige Elizabeth Allen, center) is torn between Victorian societal expectations personified by the Wife of England (Eliana Cohen-Orth, left) and ambitions to complete a translation of the “Mabinogion,” which includes the tale of Blodeuwedd (Nora Aguiar, right). (Photo by Cathy Watkins, for the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The Lewis Center for the Arts is presenting the first full production of Unbecoming, a new play by Princeton University alumna Emma Catherine Watkins. The play is inspired by the true story of Lady Charlotte Guest (1812-1895), the Victorian aristocrat who became the first person to translate the Mabinogion — a Medieval collection of Welsh stories that originated from oral traditions — into English.

Unbecoming, which employs a play-within-a-play format, has two protagonists: Guest, and Blodeuwedd, a central character in the last of the “Four Branches” of the Mabinogion. The legend of the “fairest, and most graceful” woman — whom the magician and warrior Lleu Llaw Gyffes conjures out of flowers to be his wife, but transforms into an owl as punishment for infidelity — is juxtaposed against a somewhat fictionalized depiction of Guest, whose husband tries to mold her to Victorian conceptions of an ideal wife.

Guest is given a strong portrayal by Paige Elizabeth Allen, who also is the production’s dramaturg. After Allen discovered Unbecoming through a development workshop hosted by Princeton University in January 2020, she and director (and cast member) Eliana Cohen-Orth proposed the project to the Program in Theater, as their senior theses. The production was developed in collaboration with Watkins. more

January 13, 2021

“ETTA AND ELLA ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE:” Round House Theatre, in association with McCarter Theatre Center, is presenting the world premiere of Adrienne Kennedy’s “Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side.” Directed by Timothy Douglas, the prerecorded video will be available online through February 28. Above: Ella (Caroline Clay) describes a contentious relationship between two sisters, both of whom are authors. (Video still courtesy of Round House Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter is partnering with the Round House Theatre (in Bethesda, Maryland) to present an online festival, The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence.

Kennedy’s many awards include an Obie for Lifetime Achievement, and in 2018 she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. A press release notes that her plays are “taught in colleges throughout the country, in Europe, India, and Africa.”

This series, which has been a fitting tribute to an underperformed playwright, consists of prerecorded performances produced by the Round House. All four productions have been conceived with a theatrical sensibility, while taking advantage of the visual — even cinematic — possibilities offered by video.

The festival opened with He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, which depicted young lovers, separated by physical space as well as their racial backgrounds. Their letters to each other illuminate America’s history of racial injustice. The excruciatingly relevant second installment, Sleep Deprivation Chamber, is inspired by the treatment Kennedy’s own son (and co-author) experienced at the hands of police officers. Ohio State Murders was the third play presented. While not as overtly autobiographical, it examines the racial prejudice Kennedy experienced on a mid-20th century campus.

Elements from all three of these plays appear, to varying degrees, in the final installment: Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side, which is receiving its world premiere via this festival. The multilayered, deceptively stream-of-consciousness piece — which runs a little over a half an hour — is a monologue, though multiple characters speak.  more

December 16, 2020

“CHRISTMAS 2.0”: Passage Theatre presented an online reading of “Christmas 2.0.” Written by Donna Hoke (above) and directed by Michelle Tattenbaum, the romantic comedy probes the extent to which social media can jeopardize interpersonal relationships. Online contact with a former classmate endangers the protagonist’s current relationship with her husband. (Photo by kc kratt)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

This is an era defined by Apple,” observes Angela, the protagonist of Christmas 2.0. Angela’s mother, in a critique of restaurant patrons she sees absorbed by their phones throughout their meals, remarks, “What’s more fascinating than the person right in front of you?”

That conversation could point to an expedient partnership between technology and live theater. Under normal circumstances, the allure of electronic devices and social media would seem to hamper theaters’ ability to attract audiences’ attention to a live show, where they (presumably) would be fascinated by the person in front of them — on stage. However, faced with the fact that live venues have been closed because of the pandemic, a growing number of theater companies are presenting shows online.

Passage Theatre has presented a reading of Christmas 2.0. Playwright Donna Hoke’s wry but charming romantic comedy, which probes the extent to which social media and overreliance on technology can jeopardize interpersonal relationships, is an example of a play that is well suited to online performances. (The New Play Exchange’s website notes that the piece was workshopped at the 2015 Hormel Festival of New Works at Phoenix Theatre, and it won third place in the Pickering Prize for Playwriting Excellence.)

Victoria Davidjohn reads the stage directions, which establish the play’s first setting as “Jeff and Angela’s middle class living room. Jeff is busy on his phone; Angela is on her computer.” Angela (whom Autumn Hurlbert infuses with down-to-earth, mild-mannered earnestness) turns away from her screen to examine the couple’s Christmas tree, which she is concerned might be crooked.  more

December 9, 2020

“OHIO STATE MURDERS”: Round House Theatre and McCarter Theatre Center are presenting “Ohio State Murders.” Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, the video will be available online through February 28, 2021. Above, writer Suzanne Alexander (Lynda Gravatt) returns to her alma mater to give a lecture, whose subject matter includes her turbulent experiences as a student. (Video still courtesy of Round House Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter is partnering with the Round House Theatre (in Bethesda, Maryland) to present an online festival, The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence. Kennedy is an African American playwright whose accolades include multiple Obie Awards, including Lifetime Achievement. As a press release notes, her plays are “taught in colleges throughout the country, in Europe, India, and Africa.”

This four-part festival, consisting of videos filmed by the Round House, opened with He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, in which a multi-racial couple’s letters reveal disturbing family histories; and continued with Sleep Deprivation Chamber, in which a writer seeks justice for her son when he becomes a victim of police brutality. 

Ohio State Murders is the current installmentwhich became available as of December 5Following the drama’s 1992 premiere by the Great Lakes Theater Festival, which commissioned the piece, it was included in a Signature Theatre Company season (1995-96) devoted to Kennedy’s work. Theatre for a New Audience gave the play its New York debut in 2007.

The protagonist of Ohio State Murders also is that of Sleep Deprivation Chamber: African American writer Suzanne Alexander, a partially fictionalized version of Kennedy. In both dramas, Suzanne confronts a series of incidents that has a devastating impact on her family.  more

December 2, 2020

“SLEEP DEPRIVATION CHAMBER”: Round House Theatre and McCarter Theatre Center are presenting “Sleep Deprivation Chamber.” Produced in partnership with the Department of Theatre Arts at Howard University, and directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, the video will be available online through February 28, 2021. Suzanne Alexander (Kim James Bey, left) and her son Teddy (Deimoni Brewington) discuss Suzanne’s efforts to ensure justice for Teddy. (Video still courtesy of Round House Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter is partnering with the Round House Theatre (based in Bethesda, Maryland) to present an online festival, The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence. The four-part series continues with a Round House video of Sleep Deprivation Chamber, which became available to view as of November 22.

The edgy production is directed by Raymond O. Caldwell. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is the director of photography, returning from the festival’s production of He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box.

In a press release, McCarter’s Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen praises Kennedy — an African American playwright whose accolades include Obie Awards and an induction into the Theater Hall of Fame — for breaking “convention in the face of traditional barriers that prevented a much-deserved spotlight.” Round House Theatre’s Artistic Director Ryan Rilette adds that Kennedy’s plays are “beautiful, poetic conversations on race and power that are just as necessary now as they were 50 years ago.”

Sleep Deprivation Chamber premiered in 1996, presented by the Signature Theatre Company at the Public Theater. That year it won an Obie Award for Best New American Play (which it shared with another Adrienne Kennedy play, June and Jean in Concert). more

November 25, 2020

“WELCOME TO MATTESON!”: Passage Theatre presented, to ticketed viewers, an online reading of “Welcome to Matteson!” Written by Inda Craig-Galván (above), and directed by Andrew Binger, the dark comedy depicts the class tensions that erupt when a couple is forcibly relocated from a housing project to a more affluent suburb. (Photo by Julián Juaquín)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre has presented a live online reading of Welcome to Matteson! Inda Craig-Galván’s poignant comedy portrays “a suburban couple that hosts a welcome-to-the-neighborhood dinner party for their new neighbors, a couple recently (forcibly) relocated from Chicago’s roughest housing project,” notes a press release, which adds that the dinner turns out to be “anything but welcoming.”

“The play, at heart, is about how we relate to each other, how we value things over people,” Craig-Galván says. “It’s taken on sort of a different feel, now that we are in our own bubbles, and our own seclusion.”

As with Passage’s presentation of the prerecorded Panther Hollow last month, the reading was treated as a theatrical event. The purchase of a ticket entitled audiences to watch the livestream via Zoom on November 21, or the recording on YouTube through November 25.

Craig-Galván is developing new works with theater companies such as Primary Stages and Company One. She has received awards such as the Jeffry Melnick New Playwright Award, Blue Ink Playwriting Prize, and Stage Raw Best Playwright Award. She is a writer on the CBS All Access series Happy Face, and previously was a writer for How to Get Away with Murder and The Rookie, both for ABC. The reading of Welcome to Matteson! is her first collaboration with Passage. more

November 18, 2020

“HE BROUGHT HER HEART BACK IN A BOX”: Round House Theatre, in association with McCarter Theatre Center, is presenting a prerecorded video of Adrienne Kennedy’s “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box.” Directed by Nicole A. Watson, the video will be available online through February 28, 2021. Above, Kay (Maya Jackson, left) and Chris (Michael Sweeney Hammond) exchange letters that reveal disturbing family histories. (Video still courtesy of Round House Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter is partnering with the Round House Theatre (which is in Bethesda, Maryland) to present an online festival, The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence. The four-part series debuted Saturday, with Kennedy’s one-act play He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box.

In a press release, McCarter’s Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen praises Kennedy as “an African American woman … who broke convention in the face of traditional barriers that prevented a much-deserved spotlight.” Round House Theatre’s Artistic Director Ryan Rilette adds that Kennedy’s plays are “beautiful, poetic conversations on race and power that are just as necessary now as they were fifty years ago.”

Kennedy has won multiple Obie Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement (2008). She has been commissioned by companies such as the Public Theater and the Mark Taper Forum. In 2018 she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. McCarter’s press release notes that her plays are “taught in colleges throughout the country, in Europe, India, and Africa.”

He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box depicts a young couple separated by disparate racial backgrounds, as well as distinct physical locations. Dual train rides become journeys in which each discovers the other’s troublesome past.  more

October 21, 2020

“PANTHER HOLLOW”: Passage Theatre presented, to ticketed YouTube viewers, a prerecorded video of “Panther Hollow.” Written and performed by David Lee White (above), and directed by John Augustine, this candid and wry monologue describes the artist’s struggles with clinical depression at age 25. (Photo by Michael Goldstein)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre has presented a prerecorded video of Panther Hollow. Writer and performer David Lee White’s candid, darkly humorous monologue was originally presented in March 2016, as part of Passage’s Solo Flights Festival. John Augustine was the stage director; the video was produced and directed by Susan Ryan.

In an introduction, Managing Director Damion Parran acknowledges that the video was donated by White to Passage, for use as a fundraiser for the company’s upcoming season. Although the video was distributed via YouTube, its presentation was treated as a theatrical event; ticket buyers were emailed a link that entitled them to view the performance from October 17-20.

White’s work with Passage has included serving as its managing director, and subsequently, its associate artistic director and resident playwright. Previously the company has presented his plays Blood: A Comedy, If I Could, In My Hood, I Would… and Slippery as Sin. Currently White is collaborating (with Richard Bradford and the members of The OK Trenton Ensemble) on The Ok Trenton Project, which is “scheduled to premiere as a full production in October of 2021,” according to Passage’s website.

In a video interview for Passage, White was asked about the process of writing Panther Hollow. He credits previous Solo Flights productions with its inspiration. “A lot of people would come on and do these shows, and over the years I got really fascinated with them,” White says. “I thought, ‘I wonder if this is something I can do.’” Offering a taste of the humor that pervades his monologue, White adds, “I had always wanted to tell the story of my battle with clinical depression … because first of all, I thought, ‘that’s going to be a laugh riot!’” more

October 14, 2020

“THEATRE AND CIVIC ENGAGEMENT”: In partnership with the New Jersey Historical Commission, New Jersey Theatre Alliance presented “Women in New Jersey Theatre: Theatre and Civic Engagement.” Among the panelists were McCarter Theatre’s Artistic Engagement Manager Paula T. Alekson (left) and Passage Theatre’s Artistic Director C. Ryanne Domingues. (Paula T. Alekson photo by Matt Pilsner; C. Ryanne Domingues photo by Claire Edmonds)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In partnership with the New Jersey Historical Commission, New Jersey Theatre Alliance presented Women in New Jersey Theatre: Theatre and Civic Engagement on October 8. Among the panelists were Dr. Paula T. Alekson, McCarter Theatre’s artistic engagement manager, and C. Ryanne Domingues, Passage Theatre’s artistic director.

The panel also featured Dr. Jessica Brater, assistant professor of theater and dance at Montclair State University; and Amanda Espinoza, education and community engagement manager of Two River Theater Company in Red Bank. The Alliance’s deputy director, Erica Nagel, moderated the online discussion.

“Community engagement is happening every time an audience member connects with a theater,” Brater asserts, when asked by Nagel to define “community engagement” and  “civic engagement” as the terms pertain to theater. “It can also happen when a theater partners with a community organization.”

“Civic engagement happens when a performance intersects with our role as citizens,” Brater continues, adding, “civic engagement asks artists, who are creating the performance, to move a step beyond community engagement, to a connection that prompts all involved to consider their role as citizens — and perhaps even to take civic action.” more

September 30, 2020

“THE AUTUMN SONGS PROJECT”: Singer Katie Welsh (above) has launched an online series, “Live From My Living Room: The Autumn Songs Project.” This series of performances debuted with “September in the Rain,” and will culminate with a live Zoom Q&A session on November 1. (Photo courtesy of Katie Welsh)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Singer and scholar Katie Welsh has launched a YouTube series, Live from My Living Room, which begins with the six-part The Autumn Songs Project. Pianist David Pearl is overseeing arrangements and accompanying Welsh (online). A press release describes the series as “a miniature ‘Informative Cabaret’ from Katie’s living room, to yours!”

“With my live performance schedule tentatively on hold during this time, I really wanted to find a way to share the music I love from home … and so Live from My Living Room was born,” Welsh elaborates in an email to this writer. “The series will consist of various ‘projects,’ and I’m starting with The Autumn Songs Project. So, every Friday for the next six weeks, I’ll upload a short YouTube video in which I sing one song about autumn and share a ‘fun fact’ about it — its original context in a musical, a backstory about its creation, [and/or] an insight into the lyrics or music.”

“Each video I upload will be relatively short (4-5 minutes), and while each video will of course be a complete experience on its own, I’m really thinking of each ‘project’ I do as being a cumulative experience,” Welsh adds. “In the case of The Autumn Songs Project I’m hoping that by the end of the six weeks, listeners have not only enjoyed listening to six gorgeous songs about fall, but have also learned a bit about how composers and lyricists have approached writing ‘autumn songs’ and gained some new knowledge about the songs themselves.” more

September 23, 2020

“BROADWAY ONLINE TRIVIA NIGHT”: Broadway performer Kathryn Boswell (above) hosted State Theatre New Jersey’s “Broadway Online Trivia Night.” Boswell read trivia questions, chatted with viewers, and performed a song. (Photo by Corinne Louie)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

State Theatre New Jersey presented Broadway Online Trivia Night on September 16. Kathryn Boswell, a member of the Broadway casts of Gigi and Anastasia, hosted the event.

Boswell performed at the State Theatre in November 2019, as songwriter Cynthia Weil, in the North American tour of Beautiful–The Carole King Musical. Boswell told Broadway Online Trivia Night viewers that the New Brunswick-based theater “was one of our favorite stops as a company. It was so wonderful to be so close to New York City; we felt like we were coming home. It’s just such a … beautiful, welcoming space.”

Broadway Online Trivia Night was hosted via Zoom. A donation, of $5 or higher, allowed viewers to participate in the contest, by using a smartphone-based game app (Kahoot!).

“Proceeds raised support State Theatre’s Community Engagement programs,” states a press release. Director of Communications Kelly Blithe elaborates in an email, “The donations are going towards the general community engagement funds which include our Artist-in-Residence program, virtual school programs, the Milk & Cookies series [an interactive storytelling and music program for families], and Ticket Subsidies including free tickets for community partners, charities, and veterans.” more

September 16, 2020

“SUMMER 2020: EONS AT THE SAME TIME”: Fly Eyes Playwrights presented an online anthology of documentary-style monologues. Top row, from left: Sandy Kitain, Mimi Schwartz, Donna Clovis. Second row: Tri Duc Tran, Fulton C. Hodges, Aixa Kendrick. Third row: davidbdale, Joey Perillo, June Ballinger. Bottom row: Carol Simmons, Jill Hackett. (Photo montage courtesy of Fly Eyes Playwrights, and the participating actors)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Fly Eyes Playwrights offered a free online presentation of Summer 2020: Eons at the Same Time on September 10 and 12. The play is an anthology of monologues, derived from interviews in which people react to the convergence of the COVID-19 lockdown and the Black Lives Matter movement.

A press release reveals the project’s origins as an “online documentary theatre course at McCarter Theatre, under the direction of former Artistic Director Emily Mann. After the four-week program ended, the students decided to form Fly Eyes Playwrights and continue their work in documentary theatre, gathering monologues from diverse real-life voices of the moment.”

Summer 2020: Eons at the Same Time is the culmination of the playwrights’ coursework, combined with additional pieces to expand the show into a full-length play. The disparate monologues deftly have been woven together into a thematically unified larger show.

During a post-show discussion following Thursday’s performance, playwright and actor Donna Clovis emphasized that the monologues contain the words spoken by the interviewees. “They’re not our words; we just transcribe them,” Clovis said.  more

September 9, 2020

“SENECA”: Pegasus Theatre Company presented an online conversation featuring the film’s co-writer, co-producer, director, and editor Jason Chaet; and its composer, Robert Manganaro. Above: Actor David Seneca (Armando Riesco, left) struggles to be a good father to his daughter Annette (Claudia Morcate-Martin). The film is available on HBO and HBO Max. (Image Courtesy of Kosher Quenepa LLC)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Pegasus Theatre Company of West Windsor premiered its “Intimate Conversations Series” on September 3. The online discussion featured two of the artists behind the 2019 film Seneca: director and editor Jason Chaet, and Princeton-born composer Robert Manganaro. Pegasus board member John Paxton, a teacher and independent filmmaker, curated the conversation.

The event came about because Manganaro is a family friend of Managing Artistic Director Jennifer Nasta Zefutie. “I grew up with Jennifer’s husband, John. He and I have remained close friends for years,” Manganaro says in an email to this writer. “I was best man in his wedding, so it’s fun that this came full circle.”

As a songwriter and performer Manganaro has collaborated with Hamilton star Anthony Ramos on songs including “Ocean City,” “Take Me To The Middle,” and “Freedom.” He has performed the National Anthem at NBA and NCAA basketball games, in stadiums such as the Prudential Center and Barclay’s. He met Chaet through the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, where both are on staff. more

July 22, 2020

“GRUDGES”: Online performances are underway for “Grudges.” Presented by Knowledge Workings Theater and directed by Dora Endre, the production runs through July 24. The play is written by Princeton resident T.J. Elliott (above) and Joe Queenan. (Photo by Bill Wadman)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Robert Louis Stevenson writes, “Purge out of every heart the lurking grudge.” Late in Grudges a character adds, “Everybody in America today is the opposite of that. Let’s keep making these grudges bigger, every hour of the day!”

Grudges is presented online by Knowledge Workings Theater. T.J. Elliott, a Princeton resident, is one of the playwrights. His collaborator is author, Wall Street Journal columnist, and filmmaker Joe Queenan, whose books include If You’re Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble. “It would be crazy for me to do anything other than write comedy with Joe, because he’s a great satirist,” Elliott remarks.

Elliott’s previous theatrical activities include writing, producing, and directing two off-off-Broadway runs of the Captive Audiences revues. Regionally he has acted, taking roles in plays including The Devil’s Disciple and The Dumb Waiter. more

July 1, 2020

MCCARTER LIVE: McCarter Theatre presented an online conversation between outgoing artistic director and resident playwright Emily Mann; and composer Lucy Simon (above). (Photo by Jamie Levine)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter LIVE: In Conversation with Lucy Simon” was presented June 26. Artistic Engagement Manager Paula T. Alekson curated this final installment of McCarter’s series of discussions between Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann, and some of her collaborators on past and current projects.

Singer, songwriter, and Broadway composer Lucy Simon is working with Mann and lyricist Susan Birkenhead on a musical adaptation of Kent Haruf’s 2015 novel Our Souls at Night.

Her sisters are singer and songwriter Carly Simon and opera singer Joanna Simon. “There was always music in our house,” Simon recalls, speaking from her home in Nyack, N.Y. “My father [the co-founder of Simon & Schuster] was a wonderful pianist. My mother was a beautiful singer. We would all sing together. Joanna would bring home three-part glee club songs.”

A setting of Eugene Field’s 1889 poem “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” was Simon’s first composition. “I was in sixth or seventh grade,” she says. “We had to recite a poem to our class. I had difficulty remembering words; I didn’t have difficulty if I set them to music. Carly and I recorded it years later, and it became a big hit.” When Lucy was 16 she and Carly formed a duo, the Simon Sisters. “They were just a little bit older, and I wanted very much to be them!” Mann remembers. more

June 24, 2020

“LIVE MUSICAL THEATER REVUE”: The Princeton Festival organized an online concert of soloists performing songs from classic and recent musicals. Top row, from left: Erin Brittain, Michael Caizzi, Ronald Samm, Rachel Weishoff, and Billy Huyler. Middle row: Matt Flocco, Mekelia Miller, Paloma Friedhoff Bello, Jami Leonard, and James Conrad Smith. Bottom row: Amy Weintraub, Michael Motkowski, Natalie Rose Havens, Jordan Bunshaft, and Shannon Rakow. (Photo montage courtesy of the Princeton Festival)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Princeton Festival presented a Live Musical Theater Revue on June 20. The free concert was part of the Festival’s ongoing series of online events, “Virtually Yours.” Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk hosted the livestream, which featured 14 soloists performing selections from Broadway or off-Broadway shows.

The soloists chose the songs they performed. The resulting selection was an eclectic but remarkably well-balanced mixture of numbers from mid-20th century “Golden Age” classics, and more recent material.

Online concerts present unique technical challenges. One soloist, Mekelia Miller, was unheard due to a lost connection. At times a few of the other performers’ voices were less audible than their instrumental tracks. On the whole, however, the evening proceeded smoothly, with little lag time between performances. Every soloist briefly chatted affably with their predecessor before starting their own song.

The opening soloist was mezzo-soprano Shannon Rakow. who confidently began the concert with a cheerful, sincere rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” singing to an orchestral track. Composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill wrote the exuberant, uptempo number for Funny Girl. Isobel Lennart wrote the book of that 1964 musical, whose semi-biographical plot is based on the life and career of entertainer Fanny Brice (1891-1951). more

June 17, 2020

“IN CONVERSATION”: McCarter Theatre presented an online conversation between outgoing Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann and playwright and librettist Nilo Cruz. (Emily Mann photo by Matt Pilsner; Nilo Cruz photo by Marc Richard Tousignant)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter LIVE: In Conversation with Nilo Cruz” was presented June 12. Artistic Engagement Manager Paula T. Alekson curated the discussion between playwright and librettist Cruz; and outgoing Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann. McCarter’s productions of Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics and Bathing in Moonlight were directed by Mann.

The conversation begins on a somber note. “Given the events of the past two and a half weeks, I felt the need to not simply dive into the past, but to be in the present at the top of our time together,” Alekson says, adding that she felt a responsibility not to create a “structured absence of the outrage, pain, unrest, and division. I thought, as a memorial, we might mark the present moment first.”

Cruz recites “The Weight of a Knee,” a poem he has written in memory of George Floyd. The harrowing elegy is unsparing: “The knee in uniform, made of law, crushed the tendrils of an already buried throat, as it strangled the breath of history once again,” Cruz reads. “The knee, known to be used for the sacred ceremony of prayer, now profaned.”

Reflecting on the ensuing national dialogue about racial justice, Mann offers, “We are at a turning point in history. It’s a seismic shift that has great possibility — and of course great danger in it as well, as all great possibilities do.” She observes “people around the world feeling the need to walk together, and show … their need to see justice and change for their fellow human beings. This is something that artists know: the whole thing is to go deep inside yourselves and dream big, and see where you want to go, so that then you can go there together.” more

June 3, 2020

MCCARTER LIVE: McCarter Theatre presented an online conversation between outgoing Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann; and actor, director, and political activist Cynthia Nixon. (Emily Mann photo by Matt Pilsner; Cynthia Nixon photo by Victoria Stevens.)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter Theatre presented “McCarter LIVE: In Conversation with Cynthia Nixon.” The May 29 discussion was part of the theatre’s ongoing live-streamed series, McCarter @Home. Artistic Engagement Manager Paula T. Alekson curated the conversation between Nixon and outgoing Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann.

Nixon perhaps is best known for her portrayal of Miranda Hobbes in the television and film series Sex and the City, for which she received the 2004 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. She also has appeared in films such as Amadeus and A Quiet Passion. She has won Tony Awards for her Broadway performances in Rabbit Hole and The Little Foxes.

In 1996 Nixon portrayed Nora Helmer, the protagonist of A Doll House (1879), in McCarter’s production of the Ibsen classic. She regards being directed by Mann, who staged that production, as “one of the high points” of her career.  more

May 27, 2020

“EXECUTION OF JUSTICE”: A community reading of “Execution of Justice” was presented May 22 as part of McCarter Theatre’s continuing McCarter@Home series of online events. Written by McCarter’s outgoing Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann, the docudrama examines the trial for the murder of Harvey Milk — and reactions from a “Chorus of Uncalled Witnesses.” Above: “My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you!” (Photo ©1978 by Daniel Nicoletta)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Emily Mann started writing Execution of Justice in 1983, seven years before she began her 30-year tenure as McCarter Theatre’s artistic director and resident playwright. The docudrama examines the trial of Dan White, who in 1978 assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk; the latter was the first openly gay official to be elected in California.

Execution of Justice was commissioned by San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre Company. The play was presented in 1985 by Arena Stage in Washington D.C. A Broadway production followed in 1986.

McCarter hosted an online community reading of Execution of Justice last Friday. The event commemorated the 90th anniversary of Harvey Milk’s birth, and was presented in collaboration with the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice.

“No theatrical or performance experience is presumed; this is not a performance,” Artistic Engagement Manager Paula T. Alekson assured a multigenerational and diverse group of over 50 participants who had logged into Zoom, or dialed into a specially designated telephone line, to play one of the roles. Readers who participated via Zoom were asked to log in using their first name and last initial; before the reading started their captions were edited to identify the characters they were portraying.  more

May 13, 2020

MCCARTER@HOME: McCarter Theatre presented an online conversation between Emily Mann, its outgoing artistic director and resident playwright, and Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater. (Mann photo by Matt Pilsner; Eustis photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy of The Public Theater)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter Theatre presented “McCarter LIVE: In Conversation with Oskar Eustis” on May 8. The discussion was part of the theatre’s ongoing McCarter@Home series of livestreamed events. McCarter’s artistic engagement manager, Paula T. Alekson, curated the conversation. The event was hosted via Zoom, as well as McCarter’s Facebook page.

Eustis became artistic director of San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre Company in 1986, following his position there as resident director and dramaturg. He became artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum (Los Angeles) in 1989, followed by Trinity Repertory Company (Providence, Rhode Island) in 1994. He has been artistic director of The Public Theater in New York City since 2005. His association with Emily Mann predates her 30-year tenure as McCarter’s artistic director and resident playwright.

Their first collaboration was a production of Mann’s Obie Award-winning play Still Life. Speaking from his home in Brooklyn, Eustis recalls that Still Life — the result of Mann’s interviews with three people whose lives have been affected by the Vietnam War — was “one of the most brilliant and piercing things I’d read. I was about 21 years old. This was before I’d met Emily; I just knew she’d written this brilliant play, and somehow we’d get the rights to do it.”

“That’s how I got to meet Oskar,” says Mann. “I remember Oskar calling with Tony Taccone [the Eureka’s artistic director at the time]. We had what ended up being, for me, a life-changing conversation. I had never talked to a pair of directors, or a dramaturg [Eustis], who understood the play on such a deep level. So I got on an airplane, and I went out to San Francisco — and the rest is history. We became fast friends.” more

May 6, 2020

CELEBRATING 30 YEARS: Emily Mann, McCarter’s outgoing artistic director and resident playwright, delivered heartfelt remarks to conclude an online gala celebrating her 30-year tenure with the theatre. (Photo by Matt Pilsner)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The arts — and the theatre — are not a luxury,” asserts Emily Mann. “They are essential for the health of the soul.”

This comment was included in a segment of a video that was shown during a livestreamed tribute to Mann, who in 2019 announced her decision to step down from her dual position as McCarter Theatre’s artistic director and resident playwright. Because current restrictions necessitated by COVID-19 rendered a live gala impossible, McCarter hosted Saturday night’s heartfelt event via Zoom, as well as the theatre’s Facebook page.

A slideshow was presented before and after the event, featuring candid photos and production stills. Music by jazz trumpeter, composer, and arranger Baikida Carroll — who composed the score for the musical Betsey Brown (1991), one of Mann’s first McCarter productions — accompanied this montage.

The event served as a retrospective, featuring effusive plaudits from colleagues who have worked with Mann throughout her 30-year association with the theatre. Managing director Michael Rosenberg began the program by welcoming “over a thousand” viewers. He recalled meeting Mann in the mid-90s, when McCarter presented his West Village theatre company’s production of George Kaufman’ and Ring Lardner’s play June Moon. more

February 12, 2020

“ANTIGONICK”: Performances are underway for “Antigonick.” Presented by Theatre Intime and directed by Paige Elizabeth Allen ‘21, the play runs through February 15 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Antigone (Allison Spann, center) is visited by the spirits of her dead brothers, personified by NIck (Natalia Orlovsky, left) and Chorus (Kai Torrens). (Photo by Naomi Park ‘21)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Poet, essayist, and former Princeton University professor Anne Carson’s 2012 play Antigonick originally was published as a book, with illustrations by Bianca Stone. The work is an adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone (c. 441 B.C.E.), as well as a meditation on previous interpretations of it, including mid-20th century productions by theater practitioners such as Bertolt Brecht.

Theatre Intime, whose cast and production team consist of Princeton University students, is presenting Antigonick. Directed by Paige Elizabeth Allen, the production brings its own point of view to the story, while borrowing some of the book’s imagery.

Carson retains Sophocles’ use of a chorus, whose poetic interludes demarcate the play’s seven scenes. However, Allen has repurposed these lines for a single character, still referred to as “Chorus” (portrayed by Kai Torrens). more

February 5, 2020

“THE BIG TIME”: Directed by librettist Douglas Carter Beane, and conducted by Fred Lassen, “The Big Time” was presented January 31 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. The cast included, from left, Michael McCormick, Jackie Hoffman, Bradley Dean, Raymond Bokhour, Will Swenson, Laura Osnes, Santino Fontana, and Debbie Gravitte. (Photo by Tom Miller)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

During a scene in The Big Time a prim British diplomat, Penelope Briggs-Hopkins, stiffly asserts that she is “not a fan of musical comedy.” She would disapprove of the musical in which she is a character; The Big Time is an unabashedly cheerful comedy, in the style of Hello, Dolly! or The Producers.

A concert performance of The Big Time was presented January 31, to an enthusiastic audience that filled McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. The event was the second installment of the Princeton Pops series, a new collaboration between McCarter and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.

The show’s witty book is by Douglas Carter Beane, and the sprightly, memorable songs are by Douglas J. Cohen. The lyrics, which match the tone of Beane’s dialogue, have been set to music that evokes the big band era, as well as the sly saxophone-infused sound of a 1960s spy movie. Cohen’s well-crafted score establishes the characters’ personalities, while taking advantage of the performers’ vocal ranges.

Music director Fred Lassen opened the show by leading a band, formed by 16 members of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, in a crisp rendition of the overture, which established the jaunty musical style. The orchestrations favor the drums, saxophones, and brass; however, the flute and clarinet stand out in other numbers.

In a program note Beane relates that the show originated as a screenplay for Oliver Stone. The plot was crafted to parody the film Under Siege (1992), in which mercenaries, posing as caterers and led by an ex-CIA operative, hijack a battleship. more

January 22, 2020

“GOODNIGHT NOBODY”: Performances are underway for “Goodnight Nobody.” Directed by Tyne Rafaeli, the play runs through February 9 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. While discussing the frustrations of parenthood with a new mother, K (Ariel Woodiwiss, right), Mara (Dana Delany, center) tells a story that embarrasses her grown son, Reggie (Nate Miller, left), who was friends with K in high school. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Goodnight Nobody is receiving its world premiere at McCarter Theatre, which commissioned the show from playwright Rachel Bonds. This tragicomedy depicts a weekend during which artistic friends reunite, but an initially affable atmosphere becomes contentious when buried feelings erupt.

The effect of motherhood on the life of a creative person is one of several themes that are examined in Goodnight Nobody. The play also offers a more general exploration of inter-generational relationships, including romantic entanglements. It also considers situations in which jovial conversations mask feelings of deep pain that unexpectedly collide.

Mara, an acclaimed sculptor who is in her late 50s or early 60s, lives in a rustic farmhouse in upstate New York. She is dating Bo, a painter who is her age. However, she also has romantic feelings for Nan, a successful artist who is in his 30s — the same age as Mara’s son, Reggie.

To the character of Mara, Emmy Award-winner Dana Delany brings commanding stage presence and smooth, often wry, line delivery. The performance poignantly juxtaposes early scenes, in which Mara bluntly recalls the exasperating aspects of child care, against a later one in which she attempts to be more warmly maternal. more