It’s true, I stepped out. Tempted by online exchanges, I stole out of town to consort with strangers in dark places. Shamelessly abandoning child and husband, I indulged willy-nilly in my own flights of fancy. Yes, you heard me, I took a four-day theater trip to New York City. And I regret nothing.
With increasing direct flights on the boards at Charleston International Airport (including the new British Airways CHS-London offering) and more affordable accommodations via Airbnb or that friend with a couch, it’s a no-brainer. The chance for local theater lovers to zip up, take in, and parse away is nothing short of dramatic.
Sure, there is plenty afoot locally, whether it’s a bedazzled, splashy musical from Charleston Stage, a probing thinkpiece of a play from Village Rep or PURE Theatre, or a crowd-pleaser by way of The Footlight Players. However, consider this: Many of those terrific regional productions gained the momentum to land in town by first finding their bearings elsewhere — then leveraging favorable reviews and word of mouth to go local (think PURE’s recent go at Sweat, which ran on Broadway in 2017 or Footlight’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill).
Spoleto Festival USA also regularly finds fertile artistic ground in theater hubs like New York or London. A soft parade of dance companies and numerous co-productions with the now-shuttered Lincoln Center Festival have made their way to Charleston (like The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, which enjoyed a healthy New York run just before popping up at the festival last year, or works by New York theatermaker Mike Daisey). There is also much to gain by taking a temperature check on emerging trends, breakthrough talent, and other developments that will inform our Charleston experience.
So with all the meaty justification crammed into my carry-on, I made for the Public Theater (publictheater.org) to see my first booked show, Girl From the North Country. The Minnesota-set mashup of Bob Dylan hit ballads was written and directed by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, and makes its way to New York by way of London’s Old Vic. For the faint of Dylan fanatical, Duluth was the place from whence sprung the songwriter, so spinning a hard-scrabble, wintry chill of a Depression Era story around songs like the titular “Girl From the North Country,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Hurricane,” and “Forever Young” has artistic credence. Enlisting McPherson, who is known to haunt stages with rough-hewn Irish pubs and troubled souls, has ample merit, too.
As a family home falls prey to harsh economic winds, and race relations hit the skids, Dylan’s ballads fit the bill. Performance-wise the strength centered around Mare Winningham’s gruff, disjointed portrayal of the fierce, fraught maternal figure, Elizabeth Laine, with the ensemble coming together to perhaps overly smooth out Dylan’s songs in a fashion that, while mournful and elegiac in its own right, for me did regrettably polish some of their craggy, oblique grip. Still, the story ably weaves together all manner of the songwriter’s decades-long oeuvre, and hitting the skids in earlier times rightfully resonates. The show is running at the Public through Dec. 23, so you still have a chance to sound in.
From there, I headed for Broadway to see The Nap, British playwright Richard Bean’s quirky, spoofy take on the game of snooker that first saw the footlights in London in 2016. For those unfamiliar with the sport, Britain’s consuming passion takes over the tellies for long stretches, offering the masses billiards and blathering in the comfort of their homes. Produced by nonprofit Manhattan Theatre Club (manhattantheatreclub.com), this production wrapped up a limited run last week, and is but one of many plays landing on the musical-minded Great White Way this season in a noteworthy boon for the commercial viability of the artform. A romp wrapped in a riddle with a dollop of bait-and-switch, The Nap folds in high-stakes gambling, family dysfunction, and surprises that make for a fun theater outing, though some of its twists and turns careened the overall thrust of the production from snarky to sappy.
The next day, I headed to a favorite venue, the excellent, edgy St. Ann’s Warehouse (stannswarehouse.org) in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood, to catch a matinee of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Directed by theatermaker-provocateur Daniel Fish, the production was arguably the most buzzed about on my itinerary, with the intrigue amplified by frequent emails from St. Ann’s regarding gunshots, fog, and timely arrivals. Though not nearly as radical as anticipated, it still thrilled. On a stretch of a raw wood set punctuated by picnic tables and flanked by audience seats, a seven-piece acoustic band infuses folksy feeling to the American classic songbook, revealing the beating heart of the show. Nontraditional casting, including a wheelchair-bound performer playing the ever-randy Ado Annie, triumphed.
There was not a lick of corniness that one might associate with fringe-topped surreys, bow-legged cowhands, and foot-stomping square dances. This is clearly no small feat, but the performances were so intimate, and the menace again contorting the Americana in a now disillusioned country, that it laid bare how flipping soul-crushing its dissolution can be. Anyone familiar with the Technicolor film version may have scratched their head at its dance scene — and this new iteration similarly nudges the dream sequence into eerie terrain. However, the general conceit of the lone weirdo in the creepy lair packing both heat and hatred is visceral and uncomfortably familiar.
Back on Broadway, I treated myself to the singular pleasure of seeing the great Elaine May dominate the stage in The Waverly Gallery, a reprise of Kenneth Lonergan about Alzheimer’s that originally ran Off-Broadway in 2000. An all-star cast featured Joan Allen in an elegant performance and Michael Cera in an undercooked one, but it was the 86-year-old May who carried the show, delivering spot-on comic timing and sheer poignancy as a plucky West Village gallerist who holds fast to the stuff of her life, even as both mind and circumstances betray her. It’s a fine piece of theater, and the privilege of seeing a legend like May act circles around some of the other cast members is one for my own bucket list.
And speaking of bucket lists, the weekend culminated with a work I’ve long jonesed to see, Philip Glass’ 1979 opera Satyagraha, on offer at my old place of employment, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, or BAM as it’s known (bam.org). Part of this year’s NEXT WAVE Festival, which annually mounts a mind-blowing lineup of works by some of the world’s most fierce practitioners of the avant-garde, the piece explores the term coined by Gandhi for peaceful resistance, doing so through Glass’ mesmerizing composition, sung in Sanskrit, and through circus artists and projected texts featuring the words of Gandhi as well as the Bhagavad Gita — all against a backdrop of undulating white swaths of fabric and dusty red balls of string.
To say it blew me away does not scratch the surface of its effect on me. Exploring Gandhi’s lessons on pain and pleasure, on physical control, by way of Glass’ otherworldly score and the limits of the body manifest in acrobatics is something that defies description. Rather it is an experience that inhabits and transcends your every sense. At the persistently powerful BAM, there is that potential with every performance, and their ability to identify and broker the most innovative, relevant artists from around the world abides. Halfway through the show I realized that the gentleman seated in front of me, lovingly clutching the hand of his partner, was none other than Glass himself. I thought to myself, yes, that’s BAM, regularly over delivering on your theatrical experience.
Some of these productions have come and gone, but may well land in the city in our own productions. Others are done and dusted, with their epic nature or convergence of artists not likely to converge again in the same fashion. They have gone on to tackle other notions, and their magnificent, ephemeral efforts in an autumn in New York remain only in the minds of those who nabbed a spot. However, forget the FOMO. Their next transformative theatrical work could be as readily available as an economy JetBlue booking and a college buddy’s Brooklyn air mattress, and a well-deserved splurge on an epic show. These days, access to cutting-edge work that shapes the art form is literally nonstop.