The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings
A CurtainUp Streaming Feature
To Stream or Not to Stream-— It''s not whether to stream or not but how to accept it as part of the theatrical landscape. For your streaming consideration here: Uncle Vanya. . .Atlantic Crossing. . .Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir. . .
By Elyse Sommer
A comment made by a friend and colleague during a conversation the other day put a new twist on Shakespeare's famous question for me. Like all of us, he's had many suddenly free hours to fill. He coped with lockdown boredom by taking on more work projects than he usually does. As he explained, he hoped to cut back on work when theaters reopened. "I look forward to going back to the theater, but in the meantime I can't find as much enjoyment in these streamed shows as you seem to do."
For me, screened entertainment has indeed been a pleasurable diversion topped only by masked and distanced visits from my family; and more recenty, from fully vaccinated friends. I've always loved the movies and, yes, those lavishly costumed and drawn-out for weekly screen viewing series like Downton Abey, and endless adaptations of Jane Austen's novels and Charlotte Bronte's romantic saga of the fictional Jane.
The thrill of weekly outings to the still smallish TV screen of my youth and the big one in a movie theater paved the way for my excitement about attending theaters where the actors were actually on stage. As a New Yorker, I didn't have to wait for special visits here to see a Broadway show or explore the off and off-off-Broadway scene. It was all just a quick subway ride away.
While for many years I saw more actors strut their stuff on television or movie screens than on stage, that changed when I launched Curtainup. I was soon going to the theater at least three times a week, sometimes twice in one day. Dinner between matinee and evening performances added the social element that's integral to the live theater experience.
Though Curtainup's focus has been on the theater it always included a page about small and big screen shows — especially any that gave theatergoers a chance to see the film and tv work of actors and playwrights they knew from live theater. This made my transition to strictly onscreen theaater outings and coverage as close to natural as anything could be in this surreal life COVID has put us all in.
My home screen certainly offered plenty of shows to see on my home screen. In fact, productions available on the various subscription platforms has been overwhelming. New postings plus a wealth of never seen or previously ignored films and series tturned me into a treasure hunter as much as a critic.
In addition to digging through the stuffed indexes of the streaming platforms, there were also survival efforts by theater professionals to follow. The way in which some used Zoom to revive plays from past seasons has been inspiring and well worth writing about. Newly filmed versions of some previouly mounted plays made promising new use of this technology. Whichever way presented, these revivals connected the theaters with their regular as well as new audiences.
While a play that's intended for Zoomed staging has its limitations, from the getgo, it worked well enough for the Public Theater to recently return The Line for another run, and for me to move the link back to the active feature section of the front page
As I've noted in some of my past blog entries, the advances in presenting stage plays to be seen on screen make that format likely to continue as a secondary viewing option and viable audience builder.. Kwame Kwei-Armah, the London Young Vic's Artistic Director, strongly confirmed this in a recent Guardian interview about his intention to not just film each new play but to do so in a way that eliminates the boxed-in constraints of basic Zoom. Armah's plan is to "innovate, not just replicate." For the project he calls "Best Seat in Your House" he will use multiple cameras to allow online audiences to change what they are. This use of cameras will enable the viewer to not just look where the director points the camera but wherever he wants — the idea being to tap into every aspect of the live experience. Armah's own aappreciation of having as much staged work available on film dates back to when he used to fly to New York to watch all the directors and actors he'd never seen in the Lincoln Center film library.
Integrating filmed performances into the theatrical landscspe makes a persuasive case for even the most staunchly commited to the live experience to see the value of available filmed productions. Case in point: my friend who voiced his lack of enthusiasm for theater to watch on screen, did admit that he appreciated and enjoyed the chance to see the Lincoln Center filmed version of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike as it enabled him to see the performance of another actress than the one he'd seen.
Glad as I am to hear that the theater is starting to come alive again, the abundance of theatrically rich on screen entertainment warrants continued coverage. This past week had me so busy checking out the new additions to the PBS organization's programming. This typifies the continuing abundance of absorbing, colorfully staged stories available onscreen, including series and documentaries that wouldn't work on a live stage but fit under the umbrella term "theatrical experience."
As the competition among streaming platforms keeps heating up, the Public Broadcasting Organizations own THIRTEEN membership platform of PBS's flagship station is holding its own with access to years of programs in a wide range of categories. Following last week's posting of the National Theatre's edgy 90-minute Romeo and Juliet is the latest adaptation of one of Chekhov's most popular and produced plays, Uncle Vanya . by Conor Mc Pherson, himself a notable and widely produced playwright. McPherson's full of dark hum0r and pent-up emotions was recorded in 2020 during a sold-out run at London's Harold Pinter Theater. Ian Richardson who directed it there turned the directon for the screen over Ross MacGibbon. in this version which, ulike Romeo and Juliet, is not trimmed, Toby Jones, who stars joins my list of actors interpreting the titular star's emotional turbulence memorably. Jones is superbly supported by Richard Armitage as Astrov, Rosalind Eleazar as Yelena, Aimee Lou Wood as Sonya, Anna Calder Marshall as Nana, Dearbhla Molloy as Mariya, Roger Allam as Serebryakov and Peter Wight as Telegin. If you've never seen this Chekhov masterpiece, you could do a lot worse than getting to know it with this top-of-the-line cast. (For more about Chekhov and links to our many other reveiws of his plays, see our chapter on him in our Playwrights' Album.
The British royals have not only been a steady presence at Netflix but dominated the headlines. To feed the public's appetite for royal stories, the PBS Masterpiece series has dished up an 8-episode inside look at a somewhat less famous royal couple, the Norwegian Crown Princes Martha and Crown Prince Olave. Created and co-directed by Alexander Elk, Atlantic Crossing, is a drama about the period up to snd through World War II. It revolves around the friendship between the Crown Princess and President Roosevelt before and during World War II. He offered refuge to her and her family when Hitler ignored Norway's neutrality, and she did much during that exile to help her country. While events and characters are based on fact, Elk has taken a fiction writer's liberties with the chsracterizations and interactions. It does all work in the interest of keeping things moving along and to ratchet up the emotional aspects of the times and situation. However, Harriet Sansom Harris, an Americsn actress who I've enjoyed in many plays on and off-Broadway, is oddly characterized as a rather sour Eleanor Roosevelt. Mr. Elk does eventually give us a peek at her much and justly admired kindness and diplomatic abilities.
The real star turns here belong to new-to-me Sofia Helin as the Crown Princess and the Americn Kyle MacLachlan as the President trying to stay out of war. But wait. . . there's no minor credit due to the eye-popping scenery and the costumes. Women really did drape those fox tails, complete with hesds, around their shoulders.
Amy Tan's best selling novel The Joy Luck Club successfuly moved from page to screen but never to the stage. PBS's new American Masters piece Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir could easily transition into a one-person play. Tan is a personable and seasoned public speaker who would no doubt command the stage as she has during frequent lecture tours. But while Tam is an interesting subject, I liked reading the book better than hearing her talk about it. Yet, since so much of Tan's story is about her relationship with her mother, it is especially poignsnt to watch it so close to Mother's Day.
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