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Posts Tagged ‘Tony Kushner’

How can you not like a musical whose characters include a washing machine, dryer, radio, bus and the moon?! That makes it sound silly, but it certainly isn’t. Tony Kushner’s highly innovative, ground-breaking, partly autobiographical Olivier Award winning show, with an operatic score by Jeanine Tesori, is ten years old, not seen since it’s NT UK premiere, and this is a hugely successful revival at Chichester’s intimate Minerva Theatre.

Caroline is the black maid in the Louisiana household of the Jewish Gellman family. Young Noah’s mum has died and he lives with his dad Stuart, with whom his relationship isn’t strong, his step-mom Rose, who’s trying hard but has yet to be accepted, and grandma and granddad Gellman. He’s fond of Caroline, who seems to spend most of her time in the basement doing a seemingly endless volume of laundry, where her appliances come alive to sing, her radio as an archetypal black girl trio. There’s often money left in trouser pockets and Rose tells Caroline to keep it, to teach the lazy a lesson, but perhaps as charity too.

Outside this world there is a lot going on, notably the civil rights movement and the assassination of JFK. It’s a time of change, represented by Caroline’s friend Dotty who is going to night school to attempt to improve her lot, and her daughter Emmie who challenges the servile, reverential attitudes of Caroline’s generation. We learn how Caroline became a single mom, and how she struggles to bring up Emmie and her two younger brothers on $30 a week. The blending of the personal stories of Noah and Caroline with the social history of the deep south in the sixties is deftly handled and Tesori’s sung-through score is packed full of lovely melodies rather than songs as such.

It’s a fabulous, faultless cast, with people of the calibre of Alex Gaumond and Beverley Klein in relatively minor roles. Nicola Hughes and Abiona Omouna are terrific as Dotty and Emmie respectively. Ako Mitchell, Angela Caesar, Me’sha Bryan, Gloria Onitiri, Jennifer Saayeng and Keisha Amponsa Banson are all wonderful in their various non-human, but far from inanimate, roles. Daniel Luniku is sensational as Noah, and there is yet another towering performance from Sharon D Clarke, the second in as many months, as Caroline. She is absolutely perfect for this role, acting of real power and soaring vocals. 

It’s only six month’s since Kushner’s great new play iHo at Hampstead and his masterpiece Angels in America is currently blowing people’s minds at the NT, all three proving his importance to world theatre. Michael Longhurst’s staging of this is masterly, Fly Davies design is brilliant and the musical standards under MD Nigel Lilley are sky high. I left on a high. This is why I go to the theatre. 

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Tony Kushner writes great plays with dreadful titles. The full title of this one is The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. He wrote one of the greatest plays of the second half of the 20th century, the two-part six-hour Angels in America, both parts first seen together here in 1993 and returning to the NT in 2017. He hasn’t produced much original work since, none of it anywhere near a match for AiA. It’s been a long time since I saw a big, meaty play and I found this a real theatrical feast.

Whereas AiA was epic, iHo is a family saga, though it seems like a lot more once you’ve taken it all in. Gus Marcantonio is an Italian American longshoreman who made his name as a union man. His eldest son Pill is gay, in a long-term relationship but with an addiction to paying for sex, latterly with money borrowed from his sister Empty, four years his junior. Empty has left her husband Adam and is in a lesbian relationship with Maeve, who is pregnant with a child from sperm donated by Empty’s younger brother V, who is married with two young children. V is ten years younger, his mother died giving birth to him, and he’s the only one of Gus’ children who hasn’t followed his politics or indeed career. Keeping up?

They meet at the family brownstone in Brooklyn because Gus thinks he’s getting Alzheimer’s so he wants to sell the house, share out the proceeds and die, a year on from an earlier attempted suicide. His sister Clio is currently in residence. She used to be a nun, before becoming involved in dubious left-wing militant groups like Shining Path. Empty’s ex Adam is also in residence. All sorts of family history, some surprises and more than one cupboard full of skeletons emerge in this dense, complex and dramatically rich concoction. It becomes a struggle to keep up when the dialogue overlaps, which is often. This adds to the realism, but is pushed a bit two far in the second section. 

Tom Piper has designed an austere three-story revolving house, though most of the action takes place in a ground floor living room occupied by little more than a couple of tables and some chairs. There’s not much to distract you from the unfolding story. It would be invidious to single out performances from such a terrific ensemble. Quite how they keep it all together at times is beyond me; it must be a real challenge to speak your lines in a conversation with another character whilst there are several other conversations going on – it was hard enough listening.

I left the theatre deeply satisfied, full to the brim but not bloated after an excellent theatrical meal. We get so few of these really meaty plays in the Miller / O’Neill / Tennessee Williams mould these days. Now I can’t wait for the AiA revival next year.

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It’s a long way from the epic Angels in America to this – and I’m afraid it’s all downhill. I thought Tony Kushner was a major new playwright, but everything since Angels (with the exception of the musical Caroline, or Change) suggests he’s more of a one-hit-wonder. Only one of these five short plays really works – the rest is like Beckett on acid.

The first play has Albania’s Queen Zog with a fictional American musician on the moon. It’s preposterous, pointless and dreadfully over-acted. The second is a conversation between a lesbian therapist and her gay ex-client; I haven’t got a clue what it was about. The third takes an interesting true story of tax evasion but by presenting it as a breathless monologue I became so irritated that I stopped paying attention to the story. If you return after the interval (we did!) the fourth is another obtuse sketch about a man in paradise. The play that does work is the last one – a chilling tale where Laura Bush reads Dostoyevsky to dead Iraqi children. Sadly, this is too little to late.

I found a lot of the acting coarse, but given the material this may be excusable. Of course, it may be that I’m just thick, but it seems to me Kushner is following the well-worn path of others like Beckett, Pinter and Churchill; playwrights whose become minimalist with work so ambiguous, so obtuse and so obscure that they appear to be disappearing up their own backsides (or in this case, butt – he’s American). 

It’s also a long way from Minneapolis, but I have to be honest and say that from where I was sitting it was a wasted journey.

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