NEW YORK CITY — This has been a month of travel and tri-city theater going. I flew from home in Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., for my commission meetings, then on to Manhattan for the weekend. And wherever I am, theater is something I search out. It is my refreshment, my muse and my passion.
Before I left Los Angeles, I had taken in two wonderful productions, the Odyssey Theater Company's interpretation of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in contemporary dress and an imaginative new play based on the myths of Ovid, "Metamorphosis," by Mary Zimmerman at the Mark Taper Forum. Even before I began my trip to the East, I was transported back and forth through time by both productions with their ever-compelling tales that still resonate with such contemporary relevance. To quote Mary Zimmerman, "Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths."
Then on to Washington, D.C., for the meetings that consumed most of my time there. On the last night, I joined friends for dinner and theater. My friend Marc Okrand sits on the board of the Washington Shakespeare Company and the play we were to see that night was its interpretation -- in collaboration with the African Continuum Theater -- of Shakespeare's "As You Like It." And I liked it! It was delightful. It was very today. Have you ever heard iambic pentameter spoken to hip-hop rhythm? Can you see the forest of Arden in New York's Central Park? And can you imagine the frolickers in that park as Blacks, Whites, Asians and Latinos? I saw it, I heard it, and I was thoroughly enchanted by it. Old Will can be so now! Shakespeare was vibrantly multi-ethnic in his infinite variety.
The theatrical offerings of New York can be overwhelming in volume as well as in diversity. One has to be selective -- and lucky. Tickets for new Broadway shows can be enormously difficult to get. I was very lucky. I was able to secure great tickets to three dazzling new productions. The first night was Julie Taymor's stylish "The Green Bird." The next was a matinee of Elton John's and Tim Rice's rock version of "Aida." And the final evening was the highly praised import from London, the Royal National Theater's production of "Copenhagen."
Julie Taymor is the boldly inventive director who created the big Disney smash of a few seasons back, "Lion King." She has the gift of taking the conventions of ancient theater such as masks, marionettes and shadow puppets and magically transforming them into the language of today's theater as she did with the Disney hit. With "The Green Bird," she used the style of the old Italian, Comdia del Arte with its cast of stock characters in masks and comically exaggerated costumes to create an entertaining evening of Broadway theater. As much fun as the style was, however, the story was as rambling as a tale told by an over-enthused Italian raconteur.
The tragic love story of Aida, the Nubian princess, is one that lends itself to extravagant production excesses. Some opera productions have even had real elephants and camels parading on stage. Elton John's and Tim Rice's "Aida" is also richly produced but, unlike other Broadway musicals, there are no chandeliers crashing, helicopters landing or other show-stoppingly spectacular effects. The effects used are imaginative and organic to the plot and the characters. The satire on the obsession some women have with high fashion is dead on and the fashion effects are hilariously, fabulously spectacular. The effect of looking down on a huge oval pool with swimmers languorously moving about in the water is pure stage magic. And the music is not only beautiful but has deep resonances beyond the love story. The lovely song "Elaborate Lives" could be taken as a cautionary commentary on our present affluent society. The bookending of the play with contemporary scenes in the Egyptian gallery of some museum seem to underscore the story's relevance to our times. At the core is a deeply moving tragic love story sung and acted by three brilliant performers. Heather Headley as Aida, Adam Pascal as the hero, Radames, and Sherie Rene Scott as the Princess Amneris are all shining stars.
Perhaps the most impressive play was the London import from the National Theater, "Copenhagen." It is based on an actual event but moves beyond that to explore issues of morality, nationality, personal responsibility and the mysteries of the human psyche. The central event is a meeting between Niels Bohr, the brilliant Nobel Prize-winning physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb and his former student, Werner Heisenberg, also a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and a Nazi. That they met in 1941 in Copenhagen during the war is known fact. Why Heisenberg wanted to see his mentor and what they discussed is unknown. Michael Frayn, the playwright, moves us back and forth in time to speculate from different vantage points on the motives, the discussions and the reactions of the brilliant but conflicted scientists at that meeting. "Copenhagen" was theater at its finest.
American theater at the beginning of this century is vibrantly alive. It is inventive and pertinent. It has substance as well as style. It is finding new theater languages to interpreting classic theatrical forms. It is thoughtful and provocative. And it is fun.
What's next on my busy theater calendar? I'm looking forward to East West Players' production of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" at the David Henry Hwang Theater in downtown Los Angeles. This musical, directed by Tim Dang, runs from May 17 to June 11. If you're in the L.A. area, why not catch the show?