Sunday Morning Michael Dale

Welcome to a new weekly column by BroadwayWorld's former Chief Theatre Critic.

By: Nov. 14, 2021

"You don't like to criticize people's work, Michael."

That may strike you as a peculiar thing to say to someone who has been spending a good part of this century sporting the title "Chief Theatre Critic", but I must admit, as I sat two beers away from a good pal in the makeshift COVID shelter outside of Jeremy's Ale House, the heat lamps above keeping both us and our fish and chips comfortably warm, she was right.

Especially when noting the many times we've gone to the theatre together when what I posted in my review seemed considerably less harsh than my immediate post-show reaction. Not that I've ever told my dear readers that a work of inexcusable dreck was a solid gold smasheroo, but I do tend to lean on the side of considering that something done with reasonable professional competence may provide many with an enjoyable night out, no matter how baffled I may be by its appeal.

And while I have committed to the keyboard my snarkier side at times (My sincerest apologies to the city of Denver.), the most pleasurable part of my stint at BroadwayWorld has always been when I can't wait to help spread the word about an exciting new theatre piece, especially when it's in an out-of-the-way venue, being produced on a modest budget and severely under-publicized.

Broadway is grand and glamorous and Off-Broadway contains much of New York's most sophisticated and intellectual theatre, but not enough recognition is given to those artists who are a bit further off the radar; creatives who are oftentimes busy with low-paying survival jobs and keeping late hours to work on pieces that, hopefully, might be put in front of audiences with the help of a grant, donations or someone's maxed-out credit card; attracting patrons happy to accept lower production values in exchange for more affordable ticket prices.

So with Sunday Morning Michael Dale, I intend to not only share views on the current Broadway and Off-Broadway scenes, but to offer an appreciative spotlight to Off-Off Broadway artists and other lesser-known entertainers who are just as important in making New York the nation's live performing arts capital. To encourage rather than critique. But hey, this is only the first five paragraphs. Stop by every Sunday morning to see where this goes. I'll probably be as surprised as you are.

So everyone's been asking me...

...what I'm most looking forward to seeing in this brand new theatre season. Well, there's a bit of a story to that.

Back in B.C. (Before COVID) I was attending one of your classier gatherings of show people (real glass stemware, no plastic red cups) when standing in front of me, ready to introduce herself, was Erin Cronican, Executive Artistic Director of The Seeing Place Theater. Like any good Executive Artistic Director of a non-profit Off-Off-Broadway theatre company, she had been enthusiastically working the room, a skill this somewhat introverted fellow greatly admires.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale
Erin Cronican in The Seeing Place's
2020 production of Animal Farm
(Photo: Russ Rowland)

After telling me about their upcoming season, which would include Margret Edson's 1999 Pulitzer-winner Wit, about a university professor who reflects on the metaphysical poetry of John Donne while undergoing an experimental treatment for ovarian cancer, Cronican noted how her company likes to take familiar titles and add interesting twists to them.

When I asked what interesting twist they would be adding to Wit, for example, she replied, "I'll be playing the role and I have Stage IV cancer."

If I admired her skill in working the room, I admired even more her totally understanding what I meant when I blurted out a delighted, "Oh, that's wonderful!"

Committed to projects that promote social justice, in recent years The Seeing Place has been cited numerous times by Parity Productions, which tracks theatre offerings employing at least 50% women, trans and gender-expansive artists in creative roles. I caught their terrific adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm before the theatres closed and the company has been keeping busy during quarantine with fine virtual productions. Wit begins performances December 30th, and I'm sure it'll offer more appropriate reasons for me to delightedly blurt out, "Oh, that's wonderful!"

If T.S. Eliot can win the Best Book of a Musical Tony Award ...

..without ever knowing he had written the book of a musical (His 1983 Tony win for Cats came 18 years after his death.), does it seem all that preposterous that Reality Winner, FBI Agents Wallace Taylor and Justin Garrick and an unknown male may at least find themselves nominated as Best Play authors without ever having intended to write the script of Is This A Room?

While it's not unusual for gripping drama to come out of real life conversations, speeches and interviews edited and adapted for the stage (Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight Los Angeles, 1992 and Lucas Hnath's Dana H. are two great examples currently on the boards), the text of the theatre piece conceived and directed by Tina Satter is, from start to finish. the complete transcript taken from the interrogation and arrest of Winner, a former intelligence specialist, charged with leaking evidence of Russian interference in American elections to the press.

As the saying goes, the play didn't write itself.

Chez Josephine pianist Gabe Kuslansky not only knows the secret... providing a romantic dinner atmosphere with a choice selection of jazz standards and American Songbook favorites, he also knows the secret of a hidden portrait of the famed bistro's namesake, the fabulous entertainer, military hero and civil rights activist Josephine Baker, painted on one of the dining room walls.

Considered a bit too risqué for public viewing, it has been covered by another painting of the classic chanteuse, whose 13th adopted child, the beloved restaurateur Jean-Claude Baker, opened the gorgeously appointed rendezvous where, on occasion, I've been known to indulge in my favorite crème brûlée in town.

Waitstaff members have confirmed the exact location for me, and perhaps if I continue to tip well I might be offered a courtesy viewing, but in the meantime, as the crispness of the fall wafts through the November air, I'll be content taking another martini sip while quietly bobbing my head to Kulansky's sumptuous variations on Autumn Leaves.

Ritual artist Timothy White Eagle describes himself as an undocumented urbanized mixed race Indigenous American...

Adopted by white parents in Washington State, and not registered with any specific tribe, he began creating performance-based art inspired by Native American, Pagan and other earth based Spiritual practices as a protégé of Shoshone Elder Clyde Hall.

So you might call his beautifully meditative The Indigo Room, which plays through November 21st at La Mama (tickets are on a pay-what-you-can scale beginning at $10), as a bit of a clash between the culture we live in and the culture that gave him his artistic voice.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale
Timothy White Eagle in The Indigo Room
(Photo: Amanda Lynn Kim)

The first part of the piece puts us in a carnival midway, where along with the traditional ring toss and bean bag games, there's a life-sized replica of the board game Operation, where the patient inside cracks wise about the inaccessibility of affordable health care as we try and remove vital organs. There's also a game which is little more than violently throwing naked Barbie and Ken dolls up against a wall.

We then enter the quiet sanctuary of Timothy White Eagle's performing space, with all audience members seated circularly, and are asked to pour the contents of a packet of salt into a bucket which the performer then pours into a clear container placed center stage. I must admit to feeling a sense of community with my fellow audience members from this simple gesture.

We're told the story of a people who lived by the practice of always giving more than you take, thus creating a continual communal abundance. But one day they're invaded by a monster who wants everything, and for the first time the people experience want and hunger.

As White Eagle continued, I noticed many audience members imitating his gestures, rhythmic foot movements and hand clapping, which cued others, like myself, to do the same. I'm usually one of the people who sits and observes audience participation but the soft, inviting atmosphere made me feel comfortable with being a part of this temporary community of playgoers.

These days New Yorkers may have noticed many performances having pre-show announcements recognizing the people who lived on this land before the arrival of Europeans, particularly the Lenape. That's a terrific idea, but experiencing the artistic traditions of such people can establish connections that reach far beyond words and facts.

Curtain Line...

"I don't think I ever saw a Broadway flop until I wrote one." - Robert Patrick, whose Kennedy's Children may not have done well financially, but Julie Newmar tried pulling him into her cab in an attempt to convince him to let her star in it.