Winter Play Reading

For lots of us, this season is a good time for curling up with a good book. And for actors and theatre artists of all stripes, it’s a great time for exploring new plays and masterpieces of dramatic literature. Here are four classics — some that are well-known, and some that may be new to you — that are worth the read. You may find audition material, creative inspiration, or remember what drew you to theatre in the first place. I’ve included links to e-texts where available. Happy and deep reading!

GHOST SONATA: Strindberg’s phantasmagoric convocation of ghosts, vampires, and mummies remains one of the most innovative plays of all time, and feels like a prototype for the weird world of David Lynch. You may also enjoy checking out THE GHOST SONATA page on the Ingmar Bergman site.

A DREAM PLAY: Another by Strindberg! This truly moving flesh-and-sprit fantasia follows the strange, yet strangely coherent, logic of a dream. Strindberg loved the dreamworld, where things split, dissolve, blend and double; where anything is possible, and everything takes on a special immediacy and intensity. The play is about the young daughter of the god Indra, who comes down to earth to discover what it means to be human and what it feels like to suffer and to love. Free e-text here.

SUNSET: Before the great Isaac Babel was shot by Stalin’s men, he wrote this teeming tragedy about tradition and waning power, a kind of ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ meets ‘The Godfather’. It’s about a leading family of the Jewish mafia in eastern Europe, and especially its iron-willed patriarch, who refuses to hand over the reigns of power to his three sons and face the sunset. This sadly neglected masterpiece, not seen in New York for nearly 50 years, is a knockout.

THE PRETENDERS: For me, Ibsen is second only to Shakespeare. And, in historic scope, breadth and magnitude THE PRETENDERS is Ibsen’s most Shakespearean play. Many Ibsen lovers consider this sweeping historical tragedy, at once stirring and profound, his very greatest play. And it’s never, that’s right, never, been produced in NYC. This is one to look forward to! Free e-text here.

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Four Greats

Watching the discussion of the new fall theatre season over the weekend got me to reflecting about some of the most memorable productions I’ve seen – electrifying, inspiring, definitive. Here are four that will, for me, last a lifetime.

The late Michael Langham’s staging of “Love’s Labor’s Lost” at Canada’s paradisal Stratford Festival was just about the best Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. Stripped of naturalistic trappings except for a few charming scenic reminders, and unencumbered by directorial concepts, the production placed primacy on the actors and the words. And the use of direct address during the soliloquies (the actors spoke right to us when alone on stage, as if we were their friends and co-conspirators) created the kind of pact between actors and audience that makes the theatre–where both breathe the same air–such a uniquely exciting encounter.

Moliere’s astonishingly unpredictable, radically unclassifiable “Don Juan” was given a production of penetrating clarity and beauty by Princeton’s McCarter Theatre about ten years ago. A rare case of lots of money well spent. Stephen Wadsworth’s production scrupulously, but lovingly, recreated seventeenth century production conventions, including ornately artificial backdrops, layered costumes, depth-of-field staging and floods of candlelight. But the production never for a moment seemed musty, mannered, or fussy; instead, the element of time travel made the play seem even closer to us, more fresh and modern, as if it had just been dropped in our laps for the first time. This was due to the production’s conviction, visual eloquence, and full-blooded acting.

Some of my favorite experiences have been university productions. Juilliard’s production of Gozzi’s rarely produced commedia-esque masterpiece, “The King Stag,” was magical. Unabashedly theatrical, epically imaginative but charmingly low-tech, Andrei Belgrader’s production captured an otherworldly balance between naivete and wisdom, which is the key to the play. And the students performed with ardor, enthusiasm, and high-flying improvisatory brio.

Finally, Elaine Stritch in her solo Broadway show, “At Liberty,” was a knockout. When she sang “Everybody Rise!” at the end of “Ladies Who Lunch,” it was so primal and so direct, you felt like you had to get out of your chair, or she would kill you. Tough, funny, gutsy, intelligent, this was the kind of performance that makes you want to blow trumpets.

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Why Musical Theatre Actors Should Take On Shakespeare


So many terrific musical theatre performers I have met feel nervous — or even downright terrified — of tackling their first Shakespearean role. Let’s put an end to the notion that performers whose main experience has been acting and singing in musicals should not be playing Shakespeare, right now. In fact, they are uniquely equipped to excel in Shakespeare. And almost immediately. Why?

First and most important, it has to do with oxygen, which Shakespeare’s characters need a lot of. Hamlet, Juliet, Desdemona, and the others think big, long thoughts. And they require a great deal of breath to make it to the end of a thought, which is often the most important part. Singers are accustomed to this kind of expansive, sustained breathing, which is one of the keys to playing Shakespeare.

Also, singers not only have highly developed ears, but highly developed “inner” ears. This enables them to be especially attuned and alive to the hidden poetry in heightened language, whether in a Sondheim lyric or in Shakespeare’s verse. By hidden poetry, I mean the aural clues and cues embedded in the verse that help the actor release intention and communicate it with optimal clarity. Having consorted with the likes of Irving Berlin, Lorenz Hart, and Oscar Hammerstein, musical theatre actors come to Shakespeare with a deep love and respect for language.

Joy Franz as Emilia and Susan Derry as Desdemona in OTHELLO directed by Lenny Leibowitz

Joy Franz as Emilia and Susan Derry as Desdemona in Othello

And Shakespeare’s characters adore language; they need it to reach out, to engage and connect with the world, and they choose their words brilliantly and passionately. This is why you can’t paraphrase Shakespeare, any more than you can paraphrase Cole Porter. The words that Shakespeare’s characters speak are vibrant intersections of thought, action, shape and sound. And musical theatre performers have the intuition and training to seize and own Shakespeare’s language with ardor, commitment, and command.

So, musical theatre performers, what’s holding you back? Seize the day, seize your unique talent, and let’s harness it in service of speaking some of the most glorious words ever written. Sign up for Shakespeare for the Working Actor today!

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An Opera Conceived by Beggars

The entire glorious company in the final scene of Marvell Rep’s Drama Desk Award-nominated production of The Threepenny Opera. We thought the horse-head on a stick was a cheekily appropriate solution for an “opera conceived by beggars.” Photo by Jill Usdan.

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Lenny’s Top Fifty

Many of you know that I’m an ardent movie buff, and you’ve asked me over the years to compile a list of my favorites. So I thought this would be a fun way to kick off this blog. Here are my fifty favorite movies so far, the ones that cause me to smile every time I think of them. From the exquisite (“The Earrings of Madame de…”, of course) to the bizarre, the silly to the sublime, the tone-y to the trashy (“Fatal Attraction!”), they are all knockouts–richly layered works that offer a multitude of delights and reward repeated viewings. Thrillers, romances, westerns, musicals, often several things at once, there’s just about something for everyone. Most of them can be found on Netflix and can be enjoyed alone or with someone you love, and all go great with air conditioning. Hope this makes for some pleasurable discoveries and re-discoveries!

Anatomy of a Murder
Annie Hall
The Band Wagon
The Big Heat
Bonjour Tristesse
Citizen Kane
Charade
Chinatown
The Conformist
Dogville
Do the Right Thing
The Earrings of Madame de…
Eyes Wide Shut (critics missed the boat on this one; it grows in mystery and meaning)
Fatal Attraction
The General (Buster Keaton)
The Godfather, Part 1
His Girl Friday
Husbands and Wives
It’s A Wonderful Life (a film noir posing as a family classic!)
Jaws
Kiss Me Deadly
The Lady Eve
Laura
Letter From an Unknown Woman
Let the Right One In (the Swedish original)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
The Long Goodbye
The Magnificent Ambersons
Meet Me In St. Louis
Mulholland Drive
North by Northwest
Persona
Red River
Rio Bravo
The Rules of the Game
Sansho the Bailiff
Silk Stockings
Singin’ In The Rain
The Social Network
Some Like it Hot
Summer (also called The Green Ray, directed by Erich Rohmer)
A Star is Born (George Cukor’s)
Taxi Driver
The Third Man
To Be or Not to Be (the Lubitsch original, although Mel Brooks’ is great too)
Tokyo Story
Tootsie
2001: A Space Odyssey
Ugetsu
Vertigo

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