Thursday, June 21, 2012

Theater Roundup: Shanley in the Bronx & Shakespeare in the Park

Storefront Church
Starring Bob Dishy, Giancarlo Esposito, Zach Grenier, Ron Cephas Jones, Jordan Lage, Tonya Pinkins
Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley
Performances began May 16, 2012; opened June 11; closes June 24
Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street, New York, NY

As You Like It
Starring Andre Braugher, Donna Lynne Champlin, Jon DeVries, Susannah Flood, David Furr, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Robert Joy, Oliver Platt, Lily Rabe, Will Rogers, Stephen Spinella
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Previews began June 5, 2012; opened June 21; closes June 30
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park, New York, NY

Storefront Church (photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia)
The final play in his “Church and State” trilogy which began with the masterly Doubt and brittle Defiance, John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church displays his virtues and vices in abundance. Notably, there’s Shanley’s uncanny ability to not only believably differentiate his characters from one another but allow them their dignity, whether it’s Bronx Borough President Donaldo Calderon or middle-aged neighborhood resident Jessie Cortez, losing her house to foreclosure.

They are just two of a half-dozen characters, all shot through with Shanley’s characteristic humanity. But that’s also where Shanley stumbles. He crams so many of their individual idiosyncrasies into a two-hour running time—along with other interests related to “Church and State” (both institutions interconnect more here than in the other plays)—that the drama is shortchanged.

Donaldo is asked by the intensely religious Jessie to help her and “secular Jew” husband Ethan Goldklang—whose opening-scene heart attack in the office of the local bank’s uncaring loan officer Reed Van Druyten greases the play’s creaky dramatic wheels—in their battle with the bank, but since Donaldo is also teaming with the bank’s slick CEO Tom Raidenberg on a brand new mall that will bring lots of minimum-wage jobs to a borough desperate for them following the 2008 financial meltdown, he feels there might be a conflict of interest to intervene on Jessie’s behalf.

Also as a favor to Jessie, Donaldo confronts Chester Kimmich, a Pentecostal minister from New Orleans living rent-free in a storefront that Jessie has a second mortgage on; spiritually paralyzed by Hurricane Katrina, Charles cannot bring himself to sermonize, so he hasn’t opened the storefront church whose collection money would help him pay his back rent to Jessie.

Eventually, all six characters come together in the title place one Sunday morning, and many of their secrets come out in characteristically revealing ways. Shanley (who also directs) is helped by an immaculate cast led by Giancarlo Esposito’s wounded, weary portrait of a believer and politician realizing that politics and community service may be impossible to reconcile.

If Storefront Church ends with a forced but wearily jubilant finale, there’s much to chew on from our most consistently intelligent playwright.

As You Like It (photo: Joan Marcus)
Right before intermission of Daniel Sullivan’s otherwise lackluster As You Like It are five of the most memorable minutes I’ve encountered in 25 years of attending free Shakespeare in Central Park performances. Although Stephen Spinella’s sing-song recitation of the great “Seven Ages of Man” speech is awkwardly spoken, Sullivan stages the physical action with a welcome awareness of the text and an understanding of Shakespeare’s awesome humanity.

We are in a world of genius for a few fleeting moments, but such gracefulness is missing from the rest of the production, whose Forest of Arden—despite the surrounding foliage of the Delacorte Theater’s environs—is supplemented by a massive wooden fort at stage center whose lone function is to obscure the trees making up the rest of set designer John Lee Beatty’s forest.

Despite the play being nonsensically set in the Wild West (which accommodates Steve Martin’s appealing bluegrass music performed by a group of musicians including the talented Tony Trischka on banjo and vocals), the big problem is that Sullivan misses the big picture to concentrate on individual scenes.

The many comic interludes, led by a jolly Oliver Platt as the clown Touchstone and the invaluable Jon DeVries as the old shepherd Corin, receive the evening’s biggest applause—especially when supplemented by hijinks not written by Shakespeare, always a touchstone for Central Park audiences—but the main plot’s cross-dressing and comic romance featuring our heroine Rosalind, her cousin Celia and paramour Orlando are treated lackadaisically.

David Furr makes an appealing Orlando and Renee Elise Goldsberry is a decent Celia, but the show’s biggest disappointment is the Rosalind of Lily Rabe, an actress whose strident, piercing voice and bulldozing manner are all wrong for Shakespeare’s greatest female creation. Compare the one-note Rabe to Rebecca Hall at BAM in 2005, whose Rosalind I still remember for an affecting, slightly gawky quality that beautifully brought out her vulnerability while in disguise as the boy Ganymede.

At BAM, Rosalind’s audience-pleasing epilogue was spoken by Hall with a winning combination of humility and good humor, while in the Park, Rabe hammily underlines every word to ensure all “get it.” Audiences may eat it up, but the sublime As You Like It should not be treated as a mere rewrite of the crude Comedy of Errors.

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