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Angela Lansbury and Her London Ghosts

Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati

Angela Lansbury

In the West End’s “Blithe Spirit,” Angela Lansbury’s past is always present


Editor’s note: I’m delighted to welcome London critic and reporter Mark Shenton to TDF Stages. From time to time, he’ll file reports on West End shows that have special ties to New York. His exclusive interview with Dame Angela Lansbury is a perfect place to start.

The channels between Broadway and London’s West End can be remarkably fluid, and some artists seem to belong to both communities at once.

This season, for instance, Shakespeare’s Globe traveled from London to score a New York smash with its repertory of Twelfth Night and Richard III, and right now director Michael Grandage is at the Cort Theatre recreating his sell-out West End production of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead.

In return, The Book of Mormon scooped the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical just last night, with star Gavin Creel also taking the award for Best Actor in a Musical. As Creel told one interviewer, “I’m very much an American to the core, but I really love being here and pretending it’s home!”

Meanwhile, Dame Angela Lansbury has come home at last. Though the 88-year-old legend was born in London in 1925, she hasn’t appeared on the West End in decades. Instead, she’s been starring in plays and musicals throughout the world, including four Broadway shows in the last seven years.

One of those Broadway triumphs has carried her back to London. At the Gielgud Theatre through June 7, she’s recreating her 2009 Tony-winning performance as Madame Arcati in Noël Coward’s 1942 comedy Blithe Spirit. And she couldn’t be more pleased.

“I think it’s one of the best parts I’ve ever had in the theatre,” she says. “Honestly, that is the prime reason I’m here. She’s an extraordinary character. I adore playing it, and I love going out on stage every night to do it. If you’re that happy in a role, you want to repeat it, and what better place to repeat it than London, the place of its origins and of my origins. So here we are, anyway, and I’m terribly excited and very proud to be coming back.” [Read more →]

April 14, 2014   No Comments

Stephen Spinella Will Give a New Performance Tonight

Estelle Parsons & Stephen Spinella

Estelle Parsons & Stephen Spinella

Inside his work on Broadway’s The Velocity of Autumn

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles

“The thing that draws me to new plays is the speech,” says Stephen Spinella. “Does the writer have a good ear for the way people talk?”

His acting career has certainly been marked by thrilling language. From originating the role of Prior Walter in Angels in America to delivering a one-man adaptation of The Iliad, he’s mastered torrents of roof-shaking words.

The trend continues with The Velocity of Autumn, Eric Coble’s tragicomic play about Alexandra, an elderly woman threatening to blow up her Brooklyn apartment if her children try to move her to a nursing home. Spinella plays her son Chris, who climbs a tree to get through her window and coax her outside. Mother and son have been estranged for decades, but as they navigate their various disappointments and a roomful of Molotov cocktails, they’re as honest as they’ve ever been.

And the more they say, the more eloquent they become. If the opening of the play, which is now on Broadway at the Booth Theatre, is all pauses and stammers, then the finale is flush with arias. Both characters say rough, beautiful things about getting old, being forgotten, and finding reasons to keep going.

“All of that means character to me,” Spinella says. “The thing I like about Eric’s writing is that the language is kind of clumsy in places. The syntax is odd. The jokes can be awkward and bad. But then there are these long passages that have a wonderful kind of music to them. The task [as an actor] is to figure out the guy who does all of those different things.” [Read more →]

April 11, 2014   No Comments

Have You Seen this Side of Lear?

Michael Pennington & Lilly Englert

Michael Pennington & Lilly Englert

Michael Pennington finds new facets in Shakespeare’s tragic king

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles

“I’ve always noted that most Lears are either good in the first part or the last part, but not always in both,” says Michael Pennington. “It’s difficult to catch the autocrat and the tyrant in the first half and then the pitiful old man in the second half.”

And if any living actor’s in a position to evaluate a Shakespearean performance, it’s certainly Pennington. In his native England, he’s played almost all the major roles, often with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He’s also toured extensively with Sweet Will, his solo play about the Bard, and written several books on performing Shakespeare’s work.

Now he’s applying his decades of knowledge to his first performance as King Lear, in the production currently running at Theatre for a New Audience.

Asked which part of the play comes more naturally to him—the tyranny half or the senility half—Pennington laughs and says, “The senility half. I’m of an age where one fears forgetting people’s names and does forget people’s names. One fears for one’s short-term memory.”

All joking aside, his performance in King Lear is nuanced throughout. He’s blustering and powerful in the early scenes, when Lear foolishly disowns his devoted daughter Cordelia and divides his kingdom between his perfidious daughters Regan and Goneril. Later, when a chain of tragic events leaves the king mentally broken, Pennington brings palpable emotion to his downfall.
His performance is partially animated by his new discoveries about the play, which continues to surprise him.

Take Act 2, Scene 4, when Lear tries to lodge with Regan after Goneril has turned him away. The king wants to bring a retinue of at least 100 knights to his daughter’s home, but as the scene progresses, the sisters wheedle him out of bringing any followers at all.

“I hadn’t realized what a complex piece of reasoning it is,” Pennington says.” You sort of know what’s going to happen, because you’ve seen it with Goneril. You know what the issue is, and you know that Regan’s going to reject him. In a way, the scene almost looks overwritten.” [Read more →]

April 7, 2014   No Comments

When Bruce Lee Battles His Father

francis-jue-kung-fu

Francis Jue and Cole Horibe

Francis Jue guards the soul of David Henry Hwang’s new play

Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages’ ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles

Want to know how to approach a David Henry Hwang play? Ask Francis Jue. He’s been starring in Hwang’s shows since the late 80s, from the Tony Award-winning production of M. Butterfly to the world premiere of Kung Fu, currently at Signature Theatre.

“Whether I’m playing a large part or a small part in David’s work, I feel like he pays attention to the humanity and the context for that character,” Jue says. “He challenges us to look at the world in a way that’s really exciting. It’s all about surface and what’s beneath that surface.”

Take Kung Fu, about the life of Bruce Lee (Cole Horibe). On the most superficial level, it’s a martial arts spectacular, delivering tightly choreographed routines as Lee uses kung fu to become a renowned teacher and an internationally famous actor.

However, there’s more to the show than flying kicks. Even at his peak, Lee grapples with Hollywood executives who don’t think America’s ready for an Asian celebrity, and perhaps more importantly, he clashes with his father Hoi-Chuen, a star of the Chinese opera who loathes his son’s choices and essentially banishes him from the family.

Jue, who plays Hoi-Chuen, wants audiences to feel the weight of that conflict. “I think that David sometimes isn’t taken as seriously as he should be because he’s so entertaining,” he says. “The challenge for me as a performer, for Leigh [Silverman] as a director, for Sonya [Tayeh] as a choreographer, is to look at this and say, ‘Without proselytizing, without hitting anyone over the head, how can we say what we want to say and entertain people at the same time?’” [Read more →]

February 28, 2014   No Comments

I Can’t Touch You, But I Have to Reach You

Sheldon Best, Malik Yoba, & Zainab Jah

Sheldon Best, Malik Yoba, & Zainab Jah

Malik Yoba navigates the complex staging of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

Welcome to Building Character, TDF’s ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles

Malik Yoba plays two characters in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and they both have strikingly emotional scenes. In rehearsal, though, emotion was often the last thing on the company’s mind.

“We first worked on the staging, really,” Yoba says. “We didn’t really work on the acting until the end. We worked on, ‘You’re gonna move here, move there. This panel moves. That panel moves.’ It was very much from the outside in.”

That might seem like a counterintuitive process—and for many actors, it is—but once you see the play, which is now at Atlantic Stage 2, the attention to movement makes sense.

Adapted by Roy Williams from Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 short story, the show follows Colin Smith (Sheldon Best), a black London teenager who’s arrested for robbing a bakery. Once he’s in a facility for delinquent youth, he’s told he can have a lighter work load if he wins a long-distance race against boys from more privileged backgrounds. This will supposedly prove that the system can elevate troubled young people, but for Colin, playing by the rules feels like ignoring how his Socialist father taught him to live and abandoning the community where he was raised.

The conflict tears at Colin as he runs the race, and throughout the play, his memories keep breaking onto the stage. With a single light adjustment or the quick tilt of a wall, the running path can become Colin’s living room, the yard of the juvenile facility, or the street outside the bakery. The transitions need to be quick and precise, lest the production lose its relentless energy, so every step and costume change must be perfectly calibrated.

“In some ways, it feels like being a member of a sports team, where if your timing’s off you’re gonna miss the ball” says Yoba, who plays both Colin’s deceased father and a man who later dates Colin’s mother. “But when you’re no longer thinking about the mechanics and you’re just responding, the game slows down. Athletes talk about that, and the same thing is true with this. As you keep doing it, it feels like it slows down, and you can continue to find those emotional beats.”

In fact, Yoba has found that the blocking gives him insight on what those emotional beats mean. As Trevor, the man dating Colin’s mother, Yoba is physical with Best, clapping his shoulder and looking him squarely in the eye. It makes Trevor feel like a real and present threat, even if he’s just in Colin’s memory. But during a crucial scene where Yoba plays Colin’s father, he stands behind co-star, meaning Best mostly responds to the sound of his voice. The two actors don’t even make eye contact, even though Colin’s father is trying to give him important advice about how to live in the world. [Read more →]

January 23, 2014   2 Comments