As You Kink It

Because of serendipitous scheduling, I saw Kinky Boots on a matinee and the New York Shakespeare production of As You Like It that night.

Kinky Boots is about a guy who gets to say and do some things because he dresses up as a woman. As You Like It is about a woman who gets to say and do some things because she dresses up as a guy. Both productions feature songs by singer-songwriters (Kinky Boots, Cyndi Lauper; As You Like It, Shaina Taub). Seeing them on the same day reminded me that the heart of the theater (for me anyway) is the power of transformation.

In 1987, when I was story editor on a TV series, I worked with a director named Jonathan Sanger whose hobby was translating short stories from Portuguese. He let me read a couple of them. One of them made a particular impression on me. I told Jonathan, “I don’t know how to do it, but there is a great evening of theater in this.” Jonathan laughed as if I were amiably deranged. (I tend to see potential for theater pieces even in mashed potatoes.) In 1988, at Theater at St. Clement’s, a show based on that story opened under the direction of Julie Taymor. It was called Juan Darien. It opened in a Broadway version at Lincoln Center in 1996, which is where I saw it and felt the satisfaction of having been proven right. (The success of Juan Darien led Taymor to be hired to direct The Lion King.)

What was it about the short story that made me respond to it that way? “Juan Darien” by Horacio Quiroga is about a tiger cub, fleeing the hunter who killed his mother, who is turned into a human boy by the love of a human mother in order to protect him. Transformation again.

Which reminds me of one of the great influences on my thinking about theater – Viola Spolin, the extraordinary teacher who created the theater games that are the basis of improvisational theater. Many of her exercises, too, concern transformation.

I won’t bang on about this too long, but it seems to me that transformation is one of the things theater does better than any other story-telling medium. It’s not for nothing that Ovid’s Metamorphosis and the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm have provided the bases of so many enchanting productions. Certainly the big “ah” moment in Beauty and the Beast is when the Beast turns into the handsome prince (though, truth be told, most people I know prefer the Beast). Theater is metaphor to begin with, and the audience transforms what it sees by making a deal to believe. As Shakespeare has the Chorus say to us in the audience at the beginning of Henry V, “let us … [o]n your imaginary forces work.” For me, productions that most engage my imaginary forces work better than productions stuffed with detailed scenery and costumes.

Back to Kinky Boots and As You Like It. I saw the original production of the former when it premiered on Broadway in 2013. I like this production better because it’s scaled back a little and a more modest presentation (small house, smaller orchestra) suits the modesty of the tale better. The performances (Christian Douglas as Charlie, a man trying to save the family shoe factory, Callum Francis as Simon and his alter ego Lola, and Danielle Hope as Lauren, nursing a crush for Charlie) are all immaculate and serve the material well. Harvey Fierstein’s book tells the slight story breezily. This is my second encounter with Cyndi Lauper’s score, and, though some individual numbers land for me, most of the songs involve characters singing about things I already understand before they sing them, adding nothing much to the movement of the narrative. But the songs have catchy hooks and they allow the performers to hit impassioned high notes. That was more than enough for the audience around me. If you have family visiting from out of town and you can’t get tickets to Into the Woods, this is a pretty safe bet.

The As You Like It playing in Central Park is really a 90-minute condensation of Shakespeare’s play, and much of the playing time is given over to Shaina Taub’s catchy songs, some of which are sung by Taub (who in another bit of transformation, is playing Jaques). Produced in cooperation with a number of community groups, the stage is often filled with enthusiastic civilians, most of whom manage to perform their parts of Sonya Tayeh’s choreography with enthusiasm and sufficient coordination to charm. Any production of this play pretty much rises or falls on its Rosalind, and this production is particularly fortunate to feature Rebecca Naomi Jones, a Broadway star-in-waiting. She scores forcefully with a knockout Taub song, “Rosalind, Be Merry.”

This reminds me of another great Rosalind I saw. A Cheek by Jowl production that played BAM in 1994 featured a luminous Adrian Lester in the role. I’m going to venture a guess that Lester is the only actor who has triumphed playing both Rosalind and Othello. Lester has certainly to be counted one of the great transformational actors to have pulled that off.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
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2 Responses to As You Kink It

  1. Sylvia Toone says:

    Brilliant!

  2. Yet another inviting commentary filled with inside insights into the New York theatre scene. Jeff makes you feel like you’re there sharing the experiences with him. Always a delight. Thanks.

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