by Lia Chang
AsAmNews Arts and Entertainment Reporter
Award-winning playwright Martin Casella’s compelling new drama The Report, adapted from the novel by Jessica Francis Kane, and directed by Alan Muraoka, has been receiving rave reviews since its world premiere on August 15th at the Lynn Redgrave Theater @ Culture Project during the New York International Fringe Festival.
The Report examines the true, unknown story of the British government’s cover-up of the largest civilian disaster of World War II. On March 3, 1943, 173 people died in London’s Bethnal Green tube station, which served as a bomb shelter during air raids. But not a single bomb was dropped that fateful night. The cause of this tragedy was kept secret for almost 30 years, until a young BBC journalist making a documentary began to uncover what actually took place. As the truth is revealed, we discover how trauma, fear and the paranoia of war impact our very humanity, and how the specter of a single public calamity resonates throughout multiple generations.
What the critics are saying:
“A more scrupulous approach to history is offered in The Report. The story itself is gripping, and the script hops ably between 1943 and 1973…the actors, among them the Broadway veteran Michael Countryman, are excellent.” – Alexis Soloski, New York Times
4 STARS! “Gripping. The outstanding (Michael) Countryman plays Dunne as both a young investigator brought in to speak to witnesses and an old man looking back on his legacy. The play’s powerful depiction of wartime panic, guilt and ethical confusion offers a fascinating look into a forgotten corner of England’s wartime experience.” —Dana Varinsky, Time Out
“The play is as challenging as it is worthwhile, sure to haunt you for days as you try to unfold the conflicting accounts and motives of the characters involved. Director Alan Muraoka marshals the 12-person ensemble through a barrage of overlapping scenes jumping across time and space. With the help of Darren Lee’s hyper-specific choreography and Lauren Halpern’s utilitarian set, Muraoka thrillingly succeeds in not only keeping everything straight, but adding the little details that one would expect from a particularly good mystery novel. Brian Hemesath’s handsome costumes give us a sense not only of the period, but the individual personalities at play. The Report tells the story of the messy relationship between truth and reconciliation, two concepts that don’t necessarily go hand in hand.” – Zachary Stewart, TheaterMania
I caught up with director Alan Muraoka, best known for his 17 years playing Alan on Sesame Street, at the opening night party to talk about The Report, what it is like to navigate The Fringe Festival, his collaborations with Darren Lee, his years on Sesame Street and what’s next on his docket.
Lia: What is your relationship with producer Sarahbeth Grossman and playwright Martin Casella?
Alan: Sarahbeth Grossman and I have known each other since my freshman year at UCLA. We were both Theatre Arts majors who did a lot of Musical Theatre as well. We have acted together, choreographed Once Upon A Mattress at UCLA together, and even did running crew together. She is one of my oldest friends, and I am so proud of the work she is doing as a producer. The fact that she has a hit with An American In Paris brings me so much joy. Martin and I met through Sarahbeth, and we have been friends for at least a decade. I have seen every show that Martin has written, and am so proud that we are all finally in the same room together creating a new show. It’s a thrill.
Lia: How did The Report come your way?
Alan: The playwright, Martin Casella, and I, have been looking for a project to collaborate on for some time. When the opportunity for a stage reading of The Report arose last summer, he immediately asked me if I was interested and available. I read the script and was immediately enthralled. We teamed up with members of Cutting Hedge (one of the producers of our Fringe production) and performed a staged reading in August of 2014. We knew that we needed to move forward with the project, and this Fringe production is the fruits of our labor.
Lia: How has the experience differed from other projects you’ve directed?
Alan: I come from directing musicals and comedies, which proved to be very beneficial for The Report. As I was doing my pre-production work on this, I realized that one of the crucial moments in the show was the representation of the accident that killed 173 people. It happened on an underground entrance stairwell, and that there was no way to represent the horror of that accident in a realist way on a flat stage. So I began to conceive more unconventional ways to make that happen, which led me to the realization that I could use unconventional movement to help tell the story and convey the emotions that were integral to the story. That is when I asked choreographer Darren Lee to come on board to create “emotional movement.” He came with some amazing ideas, and it enhances the show in such visceral ways. And when the movement became a reality, I also realized that original music was needed to help augment the movement and the mood of the overall piece. That is when I brought my musical coordinator from Sesame Street, Paul Rudolph, on board to compose original music for the show. There are themes of both literal and emotional suffocation in the piece, and so we used ideas of air compression and wind as a jumping off point for the music. There’s also a very effective, mournful sound he achieved by striking artillery shells with a mallet which was perfect, since one of the theories of what caused the accident in Bethnal Green was that there was bombs that went off that night.
Lia: What have been the challenges of navigating a show at The Fringe Festival?
Alan: Ah, Fringe. Where do I begin? Doing Fringe is like being back in college and you have no budget and limited resources and time. You only had 2 1/2 weeks to mount a brand new show, and you only get 4 hours of tech in the theatre for lighting, sound and spacing. You have to wait on the street with your props and costumes, and then you have 15 minutes once you are in the theatre to set up your show and 15 minutes after the show to strike everything and move it back onto the street. The very first time we ran thru the show with full lights and sound was our opening performance. The cast had never gotten to do the whole show in the theatre until that very first performance.
But even with all of those challenges, I’m very proud of the work we created. I could not be more proud of my cast for hanging in there. Especially Michael Countryman, who is a veteran of several Broadway shows and countless tv and motion picture appearances.
Lia: What other projects have you and Darren worked on together?
Alan: Darren and I have collaborated on several projects together regionally (Once On This Island (Olney Theatre), Disney’s High School Musical (Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, Casa Manana)), and he’ll be choreographing this years BC/EFA benefit of Christmas Eve With Christmas Eve starring Ann Harada. What is wonderful about our relationship is that we throw ideas off of each other, protect each other, and aren’t afraid to tell each other what is bad as well as what is good. I trust him and rely on him.
Lia: What has it been like to work on “Sesame Street” for so many years?
Alan: I actually just wrapped my 17th season of the show, and it is still the best job I could ever have asked for. The writers on the show understand me and my unique qualities, and so are able to create scripts that are tailor-made for my comedic skills, my singing ability, and my heart. I have worked with some of my comedic and theatrical idols (Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, Lin Manuel Miranda), and we have weathered waning budgets and more competition from Nickelodeon and Disney. But the quality of our show speaks for itself, and I am so proud to be a part of the legacy that Jim Henson created 45 years ago. As you have heard by now, we are now in a partnership with HBO, which has created some controversy given that we have always been a part of PBS. But PBS has not been able to help support our show financially, and we were on the verge of collapse. So the fact that we now have a second life on HBO I consider a god send. I’m hopeful for the future for the first time in many years. Long live “Sesame Street”!
Lia: What experiences as an actor have you brought to your career as a director?
Alan: What I am proud of is that I know how to talk to actors and how to create a work environment that is safe and productive. Because I know their process, I’m able to talk to them in a way that is emotionally informative. Feedback from my actors has always been positive, and I try to protect them as much as possible. I have worked with wonderful directors, and I have worked with tyrants and egomaniacs. I try to take the lessons from the good directors and bring that into my rehearsal room.
Lia: What has been your favorite project to date as an actor or director?
Alan: As a director, The Report is my second World Premiere, so I am extremely fond of this show. If I had to choose a second, it would be either my production of Falsettoland for NAATCO, or Once On This Island that I directed last year at the Olney Theatre in MD. Both had the heart that I always try to find in any show that I direct. As an actor, I’m gonna say of course my work at Sesame Street. To be able to educate children and make them laugh is one of the greatest plusses of my life.
Lia: What do you hope audiences will take away from The Report?
Alan: There is such a parallel to the story and subsequent cover up of the disaster at Bethnal Green and all of the tragedies that are a part of our daily lives. The book of The Report was written in the aftermath of 9/11 and the agonizing 2 years it took for the commission to render its findings. There is a quote from Reservation Road that says, “When hope is lost, blame is the only true religion.” When any tragedy happens, especially today with technology that allows us to view events almost as they occur, the idea of getting and demanding immediate answers seems even more prevalent. This play resonates with me because I am still haunted by many tragedies of my personal history: The interment of my family during WWII, the loss of friends during the AIDS crisis, being in NYC during 9/11. I think it will speak to anyone who sees it, because although the tragedy of Bethnal Green happened in 1943, the parallels to present day are obvious and frightening.
Lia: Do you know anything about the future life of The Report?
Alan: I do not. We are inviting tons of folks who might be able to help us advance the show to its next level, but it’s always a crap shoot given the economics of theatre. I think this is a fantastic regional theatre show, so I’m trying to invite Artistic Directors that I have worked with to see if there might be a future production to be had. But I feel like there is a life for this show, and I hope that the right person walks into the Lynn Redgrave Theater in the next 2 weeks.
Lia: What others projects do you have on your plate?
Alan: Next up for me is actually producing an “Inside The Actor’s Studio”-ish evening with the human cast of Sesame Street called, “Humans of Sesame Street”. It will involve many of the human cast of the show to tell their unique stories of how they arrived at the most famous street in the world, memories of their favorite episodes and star interactions, and how they have evolved and changed in the 45 years of filming the most beloved children’s show in the world. We will use photos, video, and live performances of iconic music to create an evening of nostalgia for guests of all ages. And given Sonia Manzano’s announcement of her retirement from the show, as well as our partnership with HBO, that it is a great time to do this.
I also will be directing a concert in October with stars from Wicked, produced by Telly Leung, and then Ann Harada’s Christmas Eve With Christmas Eve, which is a BC/EFA benefit that will be at the Cutting Room on Monday, December 14th. We will have a bevy of Broadway leading men to do iconic scenes from Broadway shows with Christmas Eve (Harada), and it is a hilarious evening. It is our 5th installment of the show, and it sells out every year. Then it’s back to filming Season 46-47 of “Sesame Street”. Whew! I’m exhausted just talking about it.
The remaining shows for The Report are Monday August 24 at 4:30 pm, Thursday August 27 at 4:15 pm and Friday August 28 at 9:00 pm at Venue 13: Lynn Redgrave Theater @Culture Project located at 45 Bleecker Street.
Playwright Martin Casella is the recipient of the Outstanding Playwrighting Award in the 2005 FringeNYC for The Irish Curse, which has enjoyed successful Off-Broadway and worldwide productions. Other recent theater credits include the award-winning Directions for Restoring the Apparently Dead and Scituate. He is the screenwriter of Tom’s Dad starring Will Ferrell and directed by Lasse Hallstrom, and The Land of Sometimes, an animated British feature film.
The Report is being presented by Barry Goralnick, Sarahbeth Grossman, Craig Zehms in association with Cutting Hedge Productions.
Broadway veteran Michael Countryman (“Boardwalk Empire,” “The Sopranos,” A Few Good Men, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, The Common Pursuit, You Can Count on Me) leads a marvelous ensemble of British, Welsh, Canadian and American actors including Philippa Dawson, Denny Desmarias, Natalie Frost, Jenny Green, Louis Lavoie, James Physick, Sophie Sorensen, Jonathan Stephens, Zoë Watkins, David Wells and Stuart Williams.
Here’s what more critics are saying:
“This is a show not to miss and a producers dream … a play that could win the Pulitzer Prize and possibly the Tony. Martin Casella’s script is heartbreaking and powerful. From the first moment we are drawn in. Michael Countryman performance is a layered well thought out masterpiece. Director Alan Muraoka, draws us in and keeps the suspense. The scenic design by Lauren Helpern, costume design by Brian Hemesath, lighting design by Michael O’Connor, sound design by Chris Sassano, specialty movement by Darren Lee and incidental music by Paul Rudolph are all first rate and add to the over all feeling. – Suzanna Bowling, Times Square Chronicles
NY Post Pick! “the rare Fringe show to sport a big-ish cast and an ambitious subject, as Martin Casella — switching genres after his comically endearing “The Irish Curse” — revisits a catastrophe that killed 173 people in the London tube during WWII.” – Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post
“…this play is all about shades of gray. The nuanced writing by Martin Casella, based on the novel by Jessica Francis Kane, is strong. Alan Muraoka provides smart and inventive direction and lead actor Michael Countryman is mesmerizing. It’s a serious, superb production that will likely go on to a commercial run. If you’d enjoy an exceptionally well done dramatic play, take a break from the cake and ice cream of most Fringe shows and partake of this steak dinner. – Hy on the Fringe
One of the Festivals hottest shows. Not to be missed! – Playbill
“One of the shows leading the pack in ticket sales. Saw The Report w/ Michael Countryman at Fringe Saturday. It is a moving and complex play that succeeds both as melodrama and thoughtful serious play. Excellent production by any standard. Should sell out quickly. – Talkinbroadway.com/All That Chat
Times Square Chronicles: Fringe Festival: Calling All Producers The Report is the Play to See
StageBuddy.com: FringeNYC Review: The Report
AsAmNews.com: Sesame Street’s Alan Muraoka Directs New Off Broadway Drama THE REPORT
Alan Muraoka Celebrates A Sweet Sixteen Years on Sesame Street
Lia Chang is an award-winning filmmaker, a Best Actress nominee, a photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Jade Magazine.