The conceits and wonders of bringing art to the stage drive two strong evenings
By: CHRISTOPHER BYRNE
THE GLORIOUS ONES
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 W. 65th St.
Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.;
Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.
The Public Theatre
425 Lafayette St.
Below Cooper Sq.
Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.;
Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 & 7 p.m.
Through Jan. 13
In the idiosyncratic but appealing musical “The Glorious Ones,” Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) tell the backstage story of a 16th century troupe of Italian street players who are responsible for the establishment of Comedia dell'arte and the transformation of the theater. Under the direction of Flamino Scala, a flamboyant actor/manager, who it could be argued was the first to put his faith in typecasting, the improvisational troupe go from the streets to the court, back to the streets and are left pondering their future and relevancy as the culture – and the theater – changes around them.
It's a backstage story of rags to riches to irrelevance that we've seen time and again, and its familiarity is really part of its charm. The actors refer to themselves as The Glorious Ones, without a trace of irony, really seeing themselves as just that, and even being humbled in their one appearance in France can't dim the spirit.
Ultimately, it is that spirit, the indomitable sense of optimism, the ability to blithely move forward in the face of setbacks that would crush lesser mortals that we respond to in backstage stories, and Ahrens and Flaherty capture that. There are shows within the show as we watch the Commedia form develop, and it is Flamino's outsized ego that drives his narration.
Ahrens and Flaherty have also captured the bawdy zaniness and all the stock-in-trade characters and situations of the form, and we see how this kind of comedy has influenced theater for the last 600 years. (Commedia was actually about 100 years old at the time of this story, but Francine Prose's original novel was historical fiction.) Even if we miss the historical precedence created by the form, all of that is made abundantly clear in the finale.
The score encompasses diverse styles, or rather is true to Flaherty's style. While there may be no songs you leave the theater humming, they are marvelously integrated into the book, and under the simple and effective direction of Graciela Daniele, the story unfolds with an endearing simplicity that keeps the focus on the characters.
The cast is tremendous. Marc Kudisch as Flamino is bombastic and human at the same time. He finds a subtlety in the performance that recalls the fine work he did in “See What I Want To See” at the Public, balanced with his more humorous, over-the-top work as in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” or “Bells are Ringing.”
Erin Davie as Isabella has a relatively small role, but she's pivotal to the plot, as she is the agent who introduces change into the staid formulas of Commedia. She has a beautiful voice, the most traditional of the cast, and it plays well against the equally beautiful but distinct voice of Natalie Venetia Belcon as Columbina. Julyana Soelistyo, however, steals the show as Armanda. She has the best comic song, “Armanda's Tarantella,” filled with naughty double-entendres, and she is irresistible as the dwarf who adores Flamino from afar, though she's right there all the time.
Even amid the simplicity of the production, there are a lot of wonderful details. The wood frame set by Dan Ostling is reminiscent of “The Fantasticks,” and Mara Blumenfeld's costumes are terrific. Like those in “Cymbeline” upstairs from this show, they imply period wonderfully rather than being down to the threads accurate.
“We're actors. We're the opposite of people,” says The Player in Stoppard's “Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead.” Opposite, perhaps, but as Ahrens and Flaherty show us once again, still glorious.
In “Yellow Face,” playwright David Henry Hwang gleefully hoists himself on his own petard, and while the play may ostensibly be about racial identity in the macro sense, at the end of the day, it's an engaging story of a man seeking to resolve his relationships with his father, his girlfriends, the theater, and his racial identity – and by extension with himself.
The play is narrated by the character Hwang, who here is called DHH, and the action is set in motion when he leads the protest against the casting of the British actor Jonathan Pryce in the Asian role in “Miss Saigon,” something that is called Yellow Face, akin to Caucasians playing black roles in black face.
However, the play then spins through a variety of events in Hwang's life that include a stint on the board of his father's bank, a Senate investigation, a snarky reporter, known only as “Name Withheld On Advice of Counsel,” and the central conflict of the play between DHH and Marcus, a Caucasian actor that DHH hires for his play “Face Value.” The problem is, Marcus isn't Asian and DHH creates a fiction about the actor's part-Asian ancestry to cover his own use of Yellow Face tactics. When Marcus' identity becomes aligned with the Asian community, DHH goes nuts.
In writing this play, Hwang mingles fact with fiction, as DHH does in the play, so “truth” is never clear. Nor does it really matter. The scenes come one after the other, the plots mingle and overlap, and through it we get a wonderful impression of just how confusing the issues of personal and racial identity are, and how we shape our perception of our experiences – or at least try to – always with the view to making sense of them.
Ultimately, DHH is forced to find his own truth and his own resolution to the issues that are raised. Hwang juggles all of this marvelously, giving one of the best renderings of the inescapable chaos that characterizes much of modern life. As humans, we seek the insight to make sense in ways that we understand, yet we only gain understanding when we make peace with the fact that such sense is elusive – and also context-specific.
Leigh Silverman has done a great job of directing this, keeping the pace high and the intensity at a fever pitch. Hoon Lee is sensational as DHH, as is Noah Bean as Marcus. The rest of the company – Francis Jue, Juliene Hanzelka Kim, Kathryn A. Layng, Lucas Caleb Rooney, and Anthony Torn – take on all the rest of the roles. Jue is particularly good as Hwang's father, HYH, and he does an impression of B.D. Wong that will knock your socks off.
The play may lean a little far to the confessional and it's clear that even in poking fun at himself Hwang is lining up events to suit his dramatic purposes. Still, it's a fun and thoughtful evening that will definitely keep you on your toes.