Thursday, January 19, 2012

Weekend in review (1/7-1/8/2012): The Mountaintop, Chinglish, Billy Elliot closing

I started the weekend with three very funny shows about serious topics: The Mountaintop (closing Jan. 22), Chinglish (closing Jan. 29), and Billy Elliot (closed Jan. 8). What a way to start my year in theater!

First up was Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, a strange fictional account of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s last night on earth. I'm not a religious person, but I do care about civil rights, so it's really a shame I don't know more about the man. And this play really didn't do much to correct that ignorance, I suspect. Was he really a philandering, chain-smoking, sometimes-foul-mouthed megalomaniac? Ok, that might be overstating the play's portrait of him a bit. A bit.

I went in excited to finally see Samuel L. Jackson in something that wouldn't be curse-strewn, to see him act in a role different from anything else I'd seen him in. (I'm pretending those terrible Star Wars prequels didn't happen.) While it's true that Jackson doesn't curse--much--Angela Bassett more than makes up for him in her role as a maid/newly minted angel. (Huh? Yeah, it makes about that much sense a lot of the time.)

Jackson is great, which doesn't surprise me at all. Bassett disappoints me, though, and I suspect it's because the writing for her character is pretty awful. I appreciate the effort to humanize MLK and inspire everyone to "pick up the baton" and make the most of the time we have on this earth. It isn't a very good effort, and it shouldn't have worked on me at all. But it did. And it rains on stage, which almost always wins me over. Mostly, though, the show sucker-punched me at the very end with a weird spoken-word bit that made me think of The Normal Heart, a play that rocked my worldview last season. (More on that soon!)

Up next was Chinglish, my first encounter with Henry David Hwang. I laughed a lot at this display of the communication troubles and culture clash that results when American businesses expand into the Chinese market. The enormous supertitles showing the correct translations for the words misspoken on stage are hilarious, as is its somewhat charming example of sad-sack American As Buffoon. The performances are excellent, and the set movements are fun. The show is basically great fun with a few serious points thrown in. I liked it well enough that I insisted that Arthur see it the following weekend. I'll talk more about this show in connection with another Chinese-English bilingual play, Zayd Dohrn's Outside People, which I saw the following weekend at the Vineyard Theatre.

Last up was the closing performance of Billy Elliot, the dancing/mining/Thatcher-hating musical that I have been lucky enough to see many times with various casts and will miss very, very much. There were so many Billys on stage over the course of the show. Brilliant! The scene of the dance class interwoven with the police brigade is still one of my favorite stage scenes ever.

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