Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Performers

If you blinked, then you missed The Peformers, which ran for all of four performances on Broadway and closed last Sunday. It's sort of a shame, because the show was very funny, and, as my favorite review of it pointed out, was a lot stronger than some of the stuff producers manage to keep open for a lot longer. There was a monologue in the middle of it by Henry Winkler that made me laugh so hard I teared up. How often can you say that about a Broadway show?

Anyway, I saw the show and wrote about it as a tie-in to Hard Times. The essay is posted on the OUP blog, but I thought I'd call attention to it here since, really, I'm shameless.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Mies Julie

Circles loom large in Mies Julie, Yael Farber's adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie currently running at St. Ann's Warehouse in Dumbo. A slow fan circles endlessly above the stage. As they pass the birdcage that hangs upstage right, the four actors have the habit of sending it spinning in ever-slowing circles. The musical underscoring is less linear than it is circular: various timbres repeatedly wax and wane in intensity during the show, often in imitation of lazy mosquitoes, or rainstorms that promise to arrive but rarely do. The actors don't so much as enter as slink onto the stage, and they have been directed, often, to circle the stage slowly before joining the combative action taking place at its center. Once there, they tend to pace around one another, stalking like restless, hungry animals. The circles here don't represent the life-cycle, or power, or renewal. These circles are destructive ones: snakes viciously attacking their own tails; time that passes but changes nothing; repetitive redundancies that make up stagnant, empty, desperate lives. How I wish that the show worked for me as well as its circle imagery did.

The adaptation reimagines Strindberg's play in an isolated, rural, and very poor region of South Africa almost two decades after the end of apartheid. Julie is the daughter of the master of the homestead; John is the master's favorite servant. Christine here is John's mother, not his fiancee. John's ancestors haunt the production in the form of a walking, singing, native instrument-playing woman who wanders the stage; Julie's ancestors are ever-present in the rows of boots that John spends much of his life shining, reshining, and reshining again. Julie and John desire, envy, love, and despise one another. There is furious, frantic sex that they have near the start of the show; there are horrific consequences that play out through the rest of it. Their complicated feelings for one another--which carry with them centuries of collectively imagined and yet deeply rooted baggage about class, race, and social propriety--unravel, with increasingly manic intensity, as the 90-minute play careens toward its conclusion. There is no way out; no way to break through the endless, exhausting circles, whether through death or escape.

Yet, to paraphrase--and, at the same time, directly contradict--Gertrude Stein, Mies Julie feels like there's just too much there there. While the idea for adaptation makes good sense, at least on paper, it somehow failed to work for me onstage. The South Africa setting seems like a foregone conclusion, and yet it felt a little forced in some ways, especially when dialogue from the original play got in the way of the re-imagined setting. The ancestral Xhosa music was pretty, and interesting, but didn't connect to the action on stage as it somehow should have. The underscoring--all the building and fading, the tones that become noise that become tones again--got irritating after a while, and not, I think, in the way the production intended. Most importantly, the central relationship didn't ever become, for me, more than a serious of abstractions. Thus, while the entire exercise made perfect intellectual sense to me, I never got a true grasp of where the passion was, or what was driving it.  

Some of this--maybe an awful lot of it, in fact--is my fault. I am simply not a fan of films, shows, or books in which characters are so driven by desire or love for one another that they end up saying things like, "I love you so much that I hate you," or, "I hate you so much that I love you." Sondheim's Passion was isn't a show I will be rushing back to see anytime soon, regardless of how brilliant future interpretations may be. And please, don't get me started on Jules et Jim. Perhaps I'm just not enough of a romantic, or I'm too pragmatic, or I'm just too impatient with most dramatizations of intensely mixed emotions. Or maybe I'm just an uncultured boob. For whatever reason, these sorts of entertainments are utterly lost on me. Alas, add Mies Julie to the list.

Yet a few words in my defense: When it comes to watching people self-destruct and destroy one another in the process, I want to be in on why it matters so much, and I couldn't find the connection between Julie and John, here. Clearly, many others have: Mies Julie won critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; got rave reviews in the press here; has been extended past its original closing date. And when I saw it, there were plenty of intense audience reactions, indicating that many of my fellow spectators were riveted to the show. There was, to be fair, also a partial standing ovation at the end. On the other hand--and St. Ann's attracts a fairly die-hard, serious theatergoing crowd--there were plenty of moments when audience members tittered at dialogue that fell flat, or that shifted too abruptly from one mood to another. A mixed reaction, to be sure.

The show didn't cause me to titter, certainly, but then again, I was hardly moved to stand at the end, either, despite the notable intensity of the drama that had just played out before me--and the clear physical and emotional exhaustion of the hard-working actors. I was not moved, in the end, to feel anything at all, despite the hope that I, too, would at the very least be able to share in the sense of emotional exhaustion. This was a problem. But again, perhaps the problem was mine.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


How do you like your classics acted? Do you like naturalism with a touch of formality? Somewhat stagey orating? A colloquial, contemporary attitude? Monotones? Performances totally in the service of the play? Performances totally in the service of the actor's ego?
Juliet Rylance, Ethan Hawke, Joely Richardson
Photo: Josh Lehrer
Whatever your preference, it's on display in the sporadically interesting Classic Stage Company production of Chekhov's Ivanov, directed by Austin Pendleton with little interest in consistency. It's a lovely thing when actors get to express themselves, but it's even lovelier when they are all in the same play--or even in the same century.

Ivanov (Ethan Hawke), who has either depression or manic-depression, has gotten himself into a corner, with tremendous debts, a dying wife, and a heart and a brain that switch from being empty to being filled with hurricanes of guilt and self-hatred. Borkin (the unnecessarily noisy Glenn Fitzgerald), the manager of Ivanov's estate, has many plans to save it. However, Ivanov, with the "we-don't-do-those-sorts-of-things" principles that often ruin the lives of Chekhov's landowners, vetoes them all. (If this were the Cherry Orchard, Borkin would end up owning Ivanov's land.) Ivanov is offered a chance of rescue by Sasha (Juliet Rylance), the much-younger daughter of an old friend and a prototypical woman-who-loves-too-much.

The biggest problem with this production is Ethan Hawke, who tears his hair and his vocal cords in an unconvincing, frequently annoying performance that in no way acknowledges that he's supposed to be in Russia in the 1880s. Its biggest asset is the amazing Juliet Rylance, who gives an honest, textured, subtle, and moving performance that stands out amid the general messiness like a classic fountain pen in a pile of discount multicolored metallic gels. The best scenes are those between her and Austin Pendleton, who is wonderful as her father. When the two of them are together, there are hints of how interesting a play Ivanov could actually be.

(first row center; CSC subscription)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Murder Ballad

With viewers on two sides and at tables on stage, the sung-through Murder Ballad happens in the audience's collective face, offering immediacy, excitement, and the chance to be close to extremely attractive actors. The storyline is flimsy (love triangle), and the characters (wild woman, nice guy, not nice guy, vaguely defined woman) are two-dimensional, but it doesn't matter. Murder Ballad is about the rolicking sexy music by Juliana Nash and Julia Jordan; the electric direction-staging-choreography by Trip Cullman and Doug Varone; and the compelling and occasionally thrilling performances by Karen Olivo, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Will Swenson, and John Ellison Conlee.

Karen Olivo, Will Swenson
Photo: Joan Marcus
Kudos are also due to Mark Wendland for scenic design, Jessica Pabst for costume design, and especially lighting designer Ben Stanton, who managed to provide 360 degrees of sharp and evocative lighting throughout the extensive performance area.

On the Manhattan Theatre Club website, it says, "A love triangle gone wrong, Murder Ballad centers on Sara, an Upper West Sider, who seems to have it all, but whose downtown past lingers enticingly and dangerously in front of her. This sexy, explosive, new rock musical explores the complications of love, the compromises we make, and the betrayals that can ultimately undo us." Well, yes, that's true, but what it really explores is how to revel in the sheer talent and energy of the show's performers and creators.

I'm not sure how Murder Ballad would come across in a less fully realized production. Its flaws might well outweigh its strengths. But in this production, it kicks ass.

(Sat at table on stage; tdf tickets)

The Whale

I didn't believe a word of Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale, directed by Davis McCallum. I didn't believe that the characters were real people. I didn't think that the references to Moby-Dick and Jonah and the whale had any relevance other than that the main character, Charlie (well-played by Shuler Hensley) is huge and whales are huge. I didn't find the conversations about religion compelling or even vaguely interesting. I didn't believe that anyone could spend five seconds with Charlie's daughter Ellie without having her locked up as a psychopath. I didn't believe that Liz didn't have any other friends. I didn't believe that anyone would sit on Charlie's couch, which had been presented as sweaty and smelly. I didn't believe that Charlie's ex-wife would lay her head on his chest, which had also been presented as sweaty and smelly. I didn't believe that Charlie is fat; he's a man in a fat suit who sits, rather than falls, and gets up without moaning in pain. I didn't think there was anything at all behind the sound and fury of The Whale. I didn't like this play.

(first row, Playwrights Horizons membership)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Roman Tragedies

Truly brilliant, innovative theater is also deeply humbling, and thus I doubt that I will be able to adequately describe Ivo van Hove's Roman Tragedies, which was performed over the course of six stunning hours by the Toneelgroep Amsterdam at BAM yesterday. I am going to try, nevertheless, if only because I just can't stop thinking about the production, its extraordinary innovations, and its many dense, chewy, interconnected themes. Nonetheless, I don't think there are enough superlatives to apply to this piece. Not in English, maybe. Perhaps in Dutch, the language of the production, which is also currently striking me as the language of the gods. Goeie genade, I'm awed, inspired, amazed, impressed.

Roman Tragedies is a staging of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra, which are conceived, the program notes explain, as a continuous performance about the contemporary world of politics. None of the tragedies is presented traditionally--rather, the language has been contemporized (and translations are presented above the stage, as well as on the many, many televisions that are used onstage during the show), as has the setting. Televised news reports break in on the action throughout; death scenes are clean and bloodless and highly stylized. The stage looks very like a particularly generic television newsroom, and, at the same time, very like the waiting room at one of your larger airport terminals. The cast dresses, for the most part, in businesswear: tidy, solid-colored button-down shirts and suits. Makeup is minimal, and the cast gets frequent touchups at a makeup station at stage left. On the stage, there are rows of squarely arranged couches and chairs in neutral tones, tv screens everywhere you look, and, in the center of the stage, two glass panels that face one another, creating between them one of the few spaces in the theater where the audience is not permitted to enter. They are barred from this space for practical reasons: this is where the actors go when their characters die. But then, the spectators are barred from this space for symbolic reasons, too: this is where the actors go when their characters die.

The airport-lounge theme extends to the far sides of the stage, where prepackaged snacks, salads, and sandwiches are available for purchase, alongside a variety of beverages, served up in disposable plastic cups. The audience is invited--encouraged, in fact--to move around frequently during the show: from seat to seat and tier to tier in the enormous opera house; up into the cafe and out into the lobby, where more televisions await; and up onto the stage, where spectators eventually mingled so closely with the actors that it was occasionally difficult to tell which was which and who was where. Spectators are also encouraged to photograph the show, to tweet, and to type their impressions into computer terminals set up to the rear of stage right, behind one of the two bars.

Boiled-down Shakespeare set in the modern world, featuring lots of televisions that are watched by spectators as they use phones and eat food would be merely cool and gimmicky at worst, but the triumph of Roman Tragedies is just how very much it says, and how well it says it. The political arena theme comes through well, of course, but then, there are just so many interrelated threads that emerge over the course of the performance. Among them: what becomes history and what mere pop-culture ephemera, and where lies the divide? What is real, and what is mediated, and where is the divide, there? And do the divides matter? What is the relationship between audience and performer, and how do they merge? Are we truly saturated by the media, and if so, how has that influenced the way we process war, conflict, emergency, death? Have even the most immediate, urgent, serious events become ones that we have distanced ourselves from, or does media work to unite us? Or can it do both at once? Does popular culture give us what we want, or do we merely react to the triggers it has constructed for us? Has contemporary reality been compromised by just how scopic we have become, or have we humans really not changed at all over the course of so many bloody, violent, brutish centuries?

Some of the questions I ask above are ones I came up with my own answers for during the course of the performance. And then changed my mind, and changed it again. Just when I became convinced that watching performers up close, on stage, surrounded by hundreds of strangers (and a few friends, and my spouse) was the most beautiful, ecstatic, communal thing, ever, I realized just how many of us were essentially slumped on couches, sipping beer and watching tv or taking pictures with our cell phones, and I grew uneasy. And even lonely. And then, I reminded myself that just because something is mediated--wars, attacks, disasters natural or not--doesn't mean that it cannot unite us in some ways, just as it can divide us in others. One suffers, mourns, and dies alone, just as one tweets alone; common cultural practices unite us, though. As, sometimes, do hashtags.

I found myself fighting the urge to focus entirely on the projections myself, even though watching the live performers was problematic too, since I speak no Dutch. I needed both; I think we all did. To rely entirely on the actors as they performed live, or to focus entirely on the screens that broadcast their actions, would both have yielded far less of the whole. I rejoiced in the freedom being on the stage allowed me; I just as suddenly needed to head up to the balcony, and sit as far as I could from anyone else for a while. Whereupon I really missed being up on stage. I was relieved, during the last hour, to take a seat in the orchestra and to remain there (as per the instructions to clear the stage and sit for the duration), but then I missed how the stage looked when it was at its most crowded, and felt curiously more self-conscious as a traditional spectator than I had as a wandering, wine-sipping, sandwich nibbling spectator. And whereas I had felt ready to shift back into a traditional audience/performer relationship as Antony and Cleopatra came to its increasingly stagey, campy end, I noticed, once back in it, how newly distracted I felt by the noise of spectators around me. After four hours of watching others watch the action in front of, behind, and around me; after tweeting and watching others tweet; after accepting the movement, actions, and transactions of fellow spectators for the past five hours, I suddenly grew exasperated by the frequent, involuntary grunts and throat-clearings of an older man who chose to sit directly behind me.

The fact that the show ended with a traditional curtain call struck me as positively bizarre--not because the cast did not deserve the roaring adulation it got, but because I felt that we'd all been through far too much to conclude simply by going through the traditional motions. So I came home, sat on the couch, and spent the rest of the evening reading tweets about the production I'd just seen. Does that cheapen the experience somehow? Does that make the experience less real? I sure as hell hope not. Because the last performance of Roman Tragedies is taking place at BAM right now, and as soon as I post this, I'm going right back to the twitter feed to read what today's audience is experiencing. It won't be the same as being there, but weirdly, it'll be as close as I can get.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


A few weeks back, I was invited to participate in the Gallery Players' first talk-back, appropriately titled GalleryTalk, which took place this weekend after one of the performances of the Gallery Players' production of Company.  I accepted the invitation for a number of reasons: The Gallery Players, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, was one of those local theater collectives I'd always wondered about, driven past, heard positive things about. Plus, I was flattered to be asked, I am trying to sell my book, I am always happy to support a local theater company, and Company is one of my all-time favorite musicals. My only concern was that I've seen Company a lot, in some very shiny, expensive, highly publicized, star-studded productions...and, snob that I am, I expected that this production would be, at best, sweet and endearing in its amateurish inconsistencies, and, at worst--well, a lot worse than that.

I was dead wrong. Wronger than wrong. Stupidly, wonderfully, blessedly wrong. The Gallery Players put together an absolutely dynamite production of Company that rivaled--and, in some spots, transcended--those fancier ones I've seen. The show was a reminder not only of just how much white-hot talent there is in this city, but of how good theater--really, really good theater--trumps marketing, expensive stage gimmicks, shrewd publicists, and regular writeups in far-reaching newspapers.

The talkback? I think it went well, but frankly, the show was a tough act to follow, and that's as it should be. And alas, Company closed today; I could discuss the smart directorial choices, uniformly strong (and refreshingly, wonderfully unmiked) cast, great music direction, deft choreography, and terrific pit band, but you'd not be able to act on my demand that you go see Company at Brooklyn's Gallery Players RIGHT NOW, so I won't.

Instead, I'll encourage you to check out their website, which is here:, and to consider seeing a a future production. Company was only the first show of what looks to be an interesting, eclectic season. Check them out--they're worth it. Maybe I'll run into you at the concession stand during intermission.

Monday, November 05, 2012


Please note: This is not a traditional review. I saw Annie this past weekend, but shortly enough after the hurricane that I don't feel I can discuss it without my downbeat mood, compiled with my memories of the original production, coloring my opinions. So I offer this more personal essay about New York, the first production, and my experiences seeing the revival post-Sandy instead.

The original Broadway production of Annie opened in late April, 1977, at the tail end of a season that featured a lot of very heavy, if also well-received, straight plays (including Mamet's American Buffalo and Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box), a lot of quickly forgotten, disappointing musicals (Ipi-Tombi, anyone?) and a few unspectacular revivals (Porgy and Bess and Fiddler, neither of which lasted terribly long). By the time Annie opened, critics had more or less given up on the season. As they did with Cy Coleman's I Love My Wife, which opened four days prior to Annie, a lot of the city's critics fell all over themselves with excitement upon encountering an original musical that was engaging, well-performed, upbeat, and reasonably entertaining. While I Love My Wife and Annie were vastly different shows--one was about partner swapping in Trenton, and the other focused on a redheaded orphan girl who finds a dog and gets adopted by a rich guy--they both quickly became big hits. Of the two, though, Annie easily took the cake: it ran for 2377 performances, and "Tomorrow," Annie's plaintive act-I paean to optimism, was positively ubiquitous through the rest of the decade.  

What's funny is that really, if you think about it, Annie is hardly the greatest show in the world--it's got a comic book-thin plot, strange pacing, a lot of really corny jokes, and a strong but perhaps not iconic score. In retrospect, what helped nudge Annie into the Broadway canon was its timing: not only did it come along at the tail end of a disappointing theater season, but also at a time when New York City was slowly but surely recovering from a genuinely terrifying financial crisis that cast a years-long pall over the city and negatively affected just about every aspect of city living. When Annie opened, just on the brighter side of near-bankruptcy, New York was in the process of reinventing itself into a stronger, cleaner, more tourist-friendly city. Annie captures some of that. The musical is all about New York, after all--and not just any New York, but one that sparkles and dazzles, rejuvinates and inspires; one whose inhabitants' dreams come true, one whose resources and riches flow directly to those who deserve it. Annie's New York is a Christmastime fairly land; those of its characters who keep a positive attitude and don't try to swindle one another are justly--and, quite literally, richly--rewarded.

Clearly, audiences loved the shiny, happy version of New York that Annie presented them. One of my earliest theater memories was seeing the original production of Annie, probably in 1978, when I would have been around nine, with my parents and younger sister. I can't remember the entire show clearly, of course, but the number "NYC"--and, even more so, the audience response to it--was a real high point. The number was big and energetic, and it filled the stage, and when it was over, the audience wouldn't stop applauding. And applauding. And applauding. And applauding. I don't think I've ever since seen a musical number stop a show like "NYC" stopped Annie. Finally, I nudged my dad, who sat to my right, and asked him what exactly was going on. "It's been a really rough time for New York, honey," he whispered back. "People are applauding the song, but they're also applauding the city."
If timing is everything, then Annie has it all, because it's about to open in revival during another really rough time for the city it depicts so optimistically. The past week has been particularly hard on New York and its people, in a number of ways. Sandy--the hurricane, not the dog--has destroyed property, houses, and in some cases entire neighborhoods. People have died. Systems we take for granted have slowed or stopped in ways ranging from inconvenient to deeply unsettling. I recognize that a natural disaster is not the same as a financial one, but sorrow is sorrow, and my city is, at the moment, as it was in the 1970s, a little bit broken, a little bit tentative, and very, very sad.

Five long, mood-swingy, restless days after the hurricane, 38 of us--neighbors, friends, family members, and many, many children ranging in age from 4 to 13--took a trip from Brooklyn to Manhattan to see a matinee of Annie, which is currently in previews at the Palace, and due to open this coming Thursday, November 8. We are all safe and sound, and thus we are a lucky bunch, but getting from one place to the other was not quite as easy as it usually is: there's a gas shortage here, now, so driving was more complicated than it might have been. The subways are rapidly coming back into service, but were, on Saturday, running through Brooklyn and then again above 34th street in Manhattan, and connected by shuttle buses that were either really great or utterly disastrous depending on your timing and your destination. Small inconveniences compared with those who lost their homes, I know. I didn't stop thinking about this as I sat with my friends and my neighbors and my daughter, all of us watching the show together, up in the balcony of the Palace Theater on Saturday afternoon.

While the grownup consensus was mixed, I think our children loved the show. Midway through act I, I looked behind me where, two rows up, my nine-year-old daughter sat in the middle of a row of ten or more of her buddies; they were as rapt through "Hard-Knock Life" as I am sure my sister and I were back in 1978. Even our group's toughest critic--a very serious four-year-old boy in a tie and a suit jacket who gave Annie a resolute 'thumbs-down' at the curtain call--was, according to his mother, overheard singing "Tomorrow" softly to himself later that evening.

The show itself? It was fine. Maybe a little flat. Maybe occasionally miscast. Maybe less relevant than I was hoping it would be for its time. And I admit to some disappointment over the fact that "NYC" did not prove to be the same showstopper that was back when I saw Annie in the 70s. But then again, my memories of seeing Annie as a child were so enormous, and so weirdly formulative--how could any revival, ever, compete? I am no longer nine. And, at least at the moment, I am many shades of sad. No show-stopper, however extended and ecstatic, could make this past week go away.

My own nine-year-old will preserve her own memories of Annie, if she chooses to. And whether or not the kids we took to the theater on Saturday remember seeing the show at all, I am quite certain that they will all always remember the week that a hurricane completely shut down New York. Really, then, who cares that the revival of Annie didn't strike me as quite the same kind of balm that its predecessor did? Crisis or not, New York isn't what it was in the late 1970s. And crisis or not, perhaps our children don't need a highly optimistic, glitzily staged reminder of just how wonderful, strong, and resilient their city is.