Thursday, January 31, 2008
It’s only January, but I can be sure that Wakka Wakka's very special, brilliantly realized Fabrik will be on my Best list at the end of the year. As I stumbled out of Urban Stages, choked with emotion and high on the cathartic power of theatre of quality, I wondered how and why this intimate three-actor puppet show had so deeply moved me. The story, of a neighborly Jewish businessman in Norway who is arrested and persecuted by the Nazis, is not essentially new, but the way it is told - in the manner of a musical folk tale, with the devices of childrens’ theatre -is freshly disarming, and the cumulative power of its many small theatrical wonders makes it newly devastating. The seventy minute show, never less than inventive and captivating, tells the story not only with a variety of highly expressive puppets but also on chilling occasion with the actors in masks, a purposeful mix that makes for strong dramatic imagery. Perhaps the power of Fabrik is that it tells a story of us at our brutal worst, with a creativity that us at our joyful, humanity-affirming best. Yes, that is its magic.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Jerry Springer The Opera
There are singing and dancing Klansmen, and songs about the joys of pants-pooping or of pole dancing, but the most shocking thing about this obscenity-laden protest-provoking musical take on the trash-tv show is that it’s boring and dated. The first act, which mostly seeks to musicalize an episode of the show, passes by mostly on the promise of its one-joke conceit, but how many laughs can be wrung out of the incongruity of filthy-mouthed trailer trash singing faux-operatically? The answer is about half as many as are tried for. The freakshow passions of the talk show guests - the guy who wants his fiance to indulge his diaper fetish, the chick with a dick who is lovesick for a two-timer, etc: - are treated as lurid pageant as on the tv show and then mined for "meaning". They have their crazy needs and demands but deep down they just want to be loved. That’s about as deep as we get, and since the show eventually puts them all in Hell anyway, it could hardly be said that the characters are written with anything like genuine compassion or dignity. The second act, which imagines God and Satan as the sparring guests in Springer’s afterlife, has always felt pretentious and entirely superfluous: in this concert version it was also interminable, since it demanded so much of Harvey Keitel, miscast and off the mark as Springer. He played him like a milquetoast. The show is a sendup of America as its British writers see it, but it’s not particularly sharp or insightful stuff, and with the television show now long gone from our pop culture radar, the musical now lacks even the illusion of cultural relevancy. I have one good thing to say about the evening and it’s that Max von Essen’s cheerfully sassy turn as transexual Tremont pumped a few minutes of real juice into this sucker. Otherwise, Jerry Springer The Opera hit New York dead on arrival.
The Devil's Disciple
Although it's his only play set in America and it functions atypically as a farcical spoof of the melodramatic conventions of its day, you nonetheless know right from the first scene that you're in the land of Shaw's wit, as newly widowed Mother preaches God-fearing goodness and charity while emotionally neglecting the bastard child in her care. Set during the Revolutionary War, the quick-paced, enormously entertaining comedy (at Irish Rep) takes sure but gentle aim at the notions of good and evil: it's not one of Shaw's more complex plays, and it's a cinch that he writes the "good" people who are the quickest to proclaim love of God or of country as the true bad guys, but it's mostly lively, merry fun, put over by a game cast who - if perhaps sometimes a tad too broad - know how to get the laughs out of the material and how to let us savor the succinct jagged gems sprinkled among Shaw's dialogue. This was easily the most enjoyable time I've had at Irish Rep since Mrs. Warren's Profession: maybe they should do a Shaw every season.
The Devil's Disciple
Sorry for ditching you, Patrick. I hate Shaw.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
At times reminiscent of the best in both Cabaret and Maus, Wakka Wakka's puppet-driven drama, Fabrik, is no less heartbreaking on its miniature scale. The play begins innocently enough, with a lighthearted song from the proud Jewish businessman Moritz Rabinowitz (David Arkema), and an introduction to some of his forty rules for success, and slowly grows darker. The first glimpse of something amiss is when socialite Mrs. Hansen (Gwendolyn Warnock, who plays all the female parts) deliberately snubs him -- in his own suit-making shop -- choosing instead to talk with Moritz's soft-spoken, Beaker-like assistant, Mr. Askeland (Kirjan Waage, who also created the puppets and masks). As things get darker, the troupe grows more creative in their displays, which in turn only heightens the effect of that horror. Only one play -- Cabaret -- has ever made me sob in a theater; Fabrik now has the powerful distinction of being the second.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Me, Myself & I
Hunting and Gathering
Brooke Berman's new play, Hunting and Gathering has the personal connection -- the playwright's been in and out of homes since the '90s (she writes about it on her blog) -- the hipster street cred of a YouTube tie-in, and a ticket initiative at the occasionally musty Primary Stages ($20 tickets through 2/2 with code PS35 if you're under 35). It's got an LED, Buck Hunter, and plausible definitions for words like "couch surfing" and "housesitting." But the big-box ideas of Hunting and Gathering are overflowing with Styrofoam wit; from Ikea to Park Slope ("a place where everyone pretends it's Woodstock"), it's all just glittery surface, a long stretch of disconnect between what's said (ahem, referenced) and what's experienced. This works well for the direction of Leigh Silverman, who dresses up the presentations as slickly as she can, emphasizing that home is what you make of it, and for the cast (especially Michael Chernus), who excel -- perhaps a little too well -- at playing in the shallows.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Sunday In The Park With George
Second Preview Alert! No sense in elaborating on the performances as they will be evolving over the next couple of weeks. I assume the design is frozen so lets talk about that. The science of animated projections, which was the big gimmick in The Woman In White, is back again here in Sondheim's Pulitzer Prize winner and it's just as dim, faux and blurry around the edges. There is intermittent visual whimsy like when our George Seurat is narrating a conversation between a pair of dogs "rolling around in mud and dirt" but for this first Broadway revival to rely so heavily on the projections in a show that is so noted for its gorgeous scenic design was a bit of a let down. Aside from a few pieces of furniture and a couple of draped curtains (and no tangible Chromolume), all we have to transport us to La Grande Jatte is projected onto the walls via this digital trick that seems to still be in its novelty phase. Add to that a mere 5 person orchestra tucked away in a box stage left and we have a first major revival that came off looking kinda cheap.
Friday, January 25, 2008
An Evening With Carol Channing
Thursday, January 24, 2008
The Maddening Truth
The current Keen Company play, which concerns the career crisis of Ernest Hemingway's third wife Marth Gellhorn while in her mid-60's, is unfocused: I didn't know what it was driving at until the final scene. Until then, smartly-dressed Lisa Emery moves from chair to typewriter quite a lot as the famed journalist, looking too young for the role and talking to this one or that one (including Hemingway, in flashback scenes) mostly about the demons that have kept her from turning novelist. Too many of these conversations are contrived and ring false, especially the ones with a long term adulterous lover who is essentially a handsome silver-haired sounding board for her too-declamatory dialogue. The play provides something of a genuine character foil for Gellhorn in a young lit snob whose rising career contrasts Gellhorn's water-treading, but we don't see enough of him: if their confrontations were the narrative spine of the play, The Maddening Truth might not be so maddening.
The Main(e) Play
I'm a fan of playwright Chad Beckim, but The Main(e) Play needs to drop the burdensome (and often contradictory) asides and get down to the main point. His new play is blessed with two good actors (Alexander Alioto and Michael Gladis), doing the best work I've seen from either, but it doesn't have the richness of character and circumstance that 'nami did, nor does it have the straightforward narrative and first-person demands of Lights Rise on Grace. It's also a lot tamer: almost all of the action in this play is implied or taking place off stage -- it also strains credibility that a seven-year-old "monster" of a child, whose toys are strewn about the place, and whose violence is enough to drive two brothers apart, never actually appears in the play. I'm also disappointed in director Robert "In the Continuum" O'Hara, who directs so leadenly that the set seems like an obstacle for him. In any case, with a little less telling back and forth, and some wisely edited scenes, there's a good story about the alienation from home that comes with age; until then, stick to more honest work, like Bombs in Your Mouth.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
The Main(e) Play
I thought I had this new living-room drama (by Chad Beckim) all figured out within fifteen minutes: here we are again as so many times before watching the guy who's made some good in the big city returning to the frozen-in-time working class suburban home he fled years before. But the condascension I feared toward the blue collar characters was nowhere to be seen, and it quickly became apparent that the playwright was interested in rendering the two brothers at the center of the story - the actor who left and the single father who stayed - with respect and dignity. The play is at its naturalistic best when these two are its focus: the gulf between them, even at their kindest to each other, is well-observed and credible. The play gets a bit bogged down with eleventh hour exposition of the melodramatic backstory kind - less would have been more there - and the play's other characters are not as interesting as the brothers. But the playwright's dialogue almost never rings false and the play ultimately has a quiet, affecting melancholy as it finally evokes the contradiction that while you can never go home again, neither can you ever really leave home behind.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Slaughterhouse-Five or: The Children's Crusade
Despite Joe Tantalo's interruptive "time shift" staging, Eric Simonson has adapted enough of Vonnegut's novel to thrill those familiar with Slaughterhouse-Five. It doesn't help that the acting is divisive, and although the central Billy (Gregory Konow) holds the show together with a knowing smile and Zen-like grace, the message doesn't connect, and the satire turns to clowning, clowning done atop a blood-soaked stage. There are glimpses of strength in the palm-flashlight portrayal of the alien Tralfamadorians, but even the best work of Deanna McGovern, who bleeds bits of her characters into one another as she spins from Billy's wife to daughter to mother, comes across as accidental: that's how loose of a show this is.
Sunday, January 20, 2008
Edward The Second
While Marlowe's four-century-old tragedy has always featured the doomed gay love affair between the King and his low-born "favourite" Gaveston, this highly visceral production (from Red Bull, using an adaptation by Garland Wright) hyperfocuses on it with relentless intensity, as did Derek Jarman's film version a couple of decades ago. It's now, more than anything else, a story of devastation wrought by homophobia. While this mutes some of the play's themes (we're likely to think that Edward is an ineffectual king not because of his consuming passion for another person but because he's the victim of anti-gay persecution) the in-your-face, queer-revisionist result is nonetheless vivid and exciting theatre: it jolts us into seeing the story in a new way. The production, under Jesse Berger's intelligent direction, derives some of its power from its volatile blend of the elegant with the sensational (the sex and violence play out overtly) and its stylish, always purposefully anachronistic visual design. The rest is derived from the cast, commendably up to the challenge of delivering this freshly-contextualized story with sharp clarity. Although Gaveston's political ambitiousness is absent from this version, Kenajuan Bentley is able to hint at some stirrings below the character's surface. And in the production's most electrifying performance, Matthew Rauch plays an entitled, hurricane-eye deliberateness at the center of Mortimer's animal aggressiveness.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Heather Christian and the Arbornauts in "North"
Heather Christian and the Arbornauts could've chosen a better theatrical vehicle to widen their exposure than the crashing plane of their new show, North, but given the seemingly unlimited range of Mrs. Christian's voice, the packaging hardly matters. She's absolutely arresting, one of the few female singers I've seen who can honestly be called a siren (after her ability to freeze her upper register and vibrate it so it sounds like the wailing of a melodic police car). That shouldn't excuse the ambiguity of the wintry set, or the static snow and loopy graphics of the sundry televisions, but it does. Had the actual theater been as cold as the "plot," I'd have sat through it to hear Heather lilt through covers of The Decemberists ("The Engine Driver") and Cyndi Lauper ("All Through The Night"), not to mention her own songs, like the titular "North."
2.5 Minute Ride
It's not easy to walk a mile in another person's shoes, especially when they're as cynically comedic as Lisa Kron, and yet, Nicole Golden, playing sweet innocence as Kron in a revival of the actor's autobiographical 2.5 Minute Ride, manages to go the distance. She does so in her own way, with lights instead of photographs, and warmth instead of crackling self-deprecation, but the emotions are the same, and it's impressive that Golden can shed tears for a theatrically adopted family. The play occasionally falters when director Matt M. Morrow has to slow the jumps between Sandusky, Ohio, and Auschwitz, Poland, or when Golden has to imitate Kron's father, but what roller coaster isn't a little bumpy? There's honesty aplenty, and that's the important part.
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Friday, January 18, 2008
Come Back Little Sheba
Although it takes some time to adjust to, it isn't the color-blind casting of S. Epatha Merkerson that trips up this in many ways otherwise sturdy Broadway revival of William Inge's classic. It's that there is no chemistry between her and Kevin Anderson: we don't believe that these two have been sufferrng through a co-dependent marriage for decades. Additionally her physicality is something of a hindrance: when we're told that husband was in the habit of hitting wife during his alcoholic binges, we have to work to suspend our disbelief. She looks like she could haul off and knock him to the floor with one arm behind her back. These things considered, it's remarkable that Merkerson is able to sound as many notes of quiet desperation as she does in a performance that nearly overcomes her miscasting. It helps that Inge's play has gained something as it has aged: it's now a period piece, rendering a time before the popularization of feminism when the suburbs were full of married women who were expected to raise children and keep busy keeping house. It's no longer only this woman's childlessness and her husband's alcoholism which can be plainly seen as isolating forces: we're now keenly aware of the options that society did not allow for women in 1950. Excepting that the play's central relationship does not ring true. and that the final moments are curiously devoid of their intended emotional impact, the production is handsome and efficiently staged, also offering excellent supporting performances from the ensemble including Zoe Kazan, Brenda Wehle and Brian J. Smith.
Crimes Of The Heart
First Preview Alert! As this revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play is still finding itself (and I think it will find itself within the week), I'll only offer up a few observations.
1. My Lily Rabe is MIA. Dammit. (Though understudy Jessica Cummings was charming.)
2. If you sit house left, you can intermittently hear dialogue from another play being performed- possibly from a rehearsal hall or from Speech And Debate playing in Roundabout's smaller space. Oops.
3. I can't stop looking at the way Chandler Williams is filling out his pants. Yum.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Almost An Evening
One of the toughest tickets in town right now is this trio of short one-act mindfucks by Ethan Coen. The middle one is a dud, save for a fun visual joke near the top, but the opener - about a guy whose afterlife in Purgatory gets screwed up seemingly by red tape and human error - is terrific. It plays like a black comedy version of an old Twilight Zone episode. Even better is the show's final one-act, which kicks off with God (played with gusto by F. Murray Abraham) berating the audience: "They're called the Ten Commandments you assholes not the Ten Suggestions!". Coen has written these plays so that each scene peels back a layer to reveal what's really going on - in other words, the less you know going in the better because the fun is in Coen's gradual reveal. While ultimately slight, the show is thorny, playful fun and, except that the scene changes are too long and threaten to break the momentum, the production is smart and precise. The show's entire run sold out in advance of performnces, but it's worth braving the stand-by line.
The 39 Steps
Everything that was impressive about Gutenberg! The Musical! and The Eaten Heart is lost on the gigantic set of the American Airlines Theater (Famous last words: "It was supposed to be a cast of four! A cast of four!"): Maria Aitken's clever direction often just gets swallowed up, as does this trite farce, which runs out of steam at about the same time that Richard Hannay (Charles Edwards) gets fed up with his co-stars (Cliff Saunders and Arnie Burton): "That's enough," he says at last, confronted with yet another "inanimate object" blocking his midnight escape. Saunders, who has already juggled roughly thirty characters (like lovable Mr. Memory) obliges, scurrying offstage to change for his next role -- that of a terse innkeeper -- while Hannay and fellow handcuffee, Pamela (Jennifer Ferrin) walk around in circles wide enough to set up the next scene. It screams gimmick, and while the first half of the play is loud enough to be wholly entertaining (especially if you recognize key props from the Hitchcock film or listen for the constant puns: "No! Don't go out that way! Use the Rear Window!), the entire package is too big and sleek for its own good. That said, the ensemble ought to get a gold star for being such good sports: it takes a very special sort of skill to be that believably silly.
[Also blogged by: Patrick]
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Widows is a political play that digs remarkably deep, showing the stubbornness, futility, fearfulness, and courage of passive resistance -- and of military governance. Ariel Dorfman's script is best when it wells up into a rapids of sound that could smash even the sturdiest of rocks on the shore, but director Hal Brooks has done a solid job throughout, confining the action to a raft of a stage that, while occasionally tilting, is never in danger of sinking. Of particular note is the paradoxical tone of the play -- a loss even in victory, a victory even in a loss -- that has Sofia Fuentes (the strong Ching Valdes-Aran) rebelling by waiting (because she cannot bear to wait any more) and her nemesis, the good-intentioned but naive Captain (the excellently tormented Mark Alhadeff) trying to avoid using the force that he knows will only weaken them all.
Monday, January 14, 2008
Reading: Don't Fuck With Love
Under The Radar (Site-Specific)
-Small Metal Objects
The drug-dealing plot of Small Metal Objects may be slight, but the location -- a suspenseful South Ferry Station -- and the actors -- from diminutive specks to fully realized characters -- elevate it through the frisson of the unpredictable into the poetics of the ordinary. For once, we aren't tuning out the plights of our anonymous brethren, and by stopping our busy lives, looking around, and really listening, we get closer to the most beautiful thing theater can give us: a real sense of connection.
-Of All The People in the World: USA
I'm not sure the routine assembly of rice into breathtaking mounds of statistics counts as a play (I've put it down for half of one), but the theatrical presentation of raw numbers is a staggering success. This international tour, Of All the People in the World, finally stops in the US (specifically the World Financial Center), and, using one grain for each person, shows us contrasts that are both serious and slight, as with the ratio of millionaires in the world to the number of refugees or "Number of viewers for the final episode of "'Sex and the City'" versus "Single Women in Manhattan." It's all bigger than you'd think and thanks to the sheer willfulness of counting and displaying all that rice, its obtuseness in the midst of a business sector: these things make the facts unavoidable, and all the more powerful.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
Marking the U.S. debut of a multi-disciplined troupe called Teatro Del Carretto, this production of Pinocchio is spoken in Italian but, except for a couple of relatively static dialogue scenes, it hardly matters. The show speaks the universal language of inventive, heightened theatricality (although it's too intense, and not intended, for children). Aided by an effective soundscape and using a minimum of props, the troupe performs their dark, dream-like adaptation of the tale in which woodcarver/father figure Gepetto is almost entirely absent: the focus is squarely on Pinocchio's determination to become fully human despite the harsh realities of the world. The story unfolds in a semi-circular arena: Pinocchio (Giandomenico Cupaiuolo, giving a physically expressive and memorable performance) spends the entire ninety minutes on the circus ring-like stage enduring each lesson in its turn. Thanks to the troupe's commedia approach, which includes mask work and broad physicality, there's a great deal of levity to balance the grim: the business with Pinocchio's broomstick-long nose is as amusing as his near-lynching is harrowing. Recommended.
Arrive early and have a look in the lobby at some eye-popping stills from other Teatro Del Carretto productions. Or poke around here.
Reading: David's Play
Under the Radar: Day 3
- Generation Jeans
With so much weighty relevance behind it, Generation Jeans doesn't need to be very theatrical. Just like jeans themselves can be an act of rebellion in a country like Belarus, so too can words operate simply. Nikolai Khalezin, speaking in his native tongue, avoids doing too much because he wants to speak directly to us, and it works: his lack of refinement speaks toward a greater honesty. Even the DJ (Lavr Berzhanin), who at times is out of place, helps to unite the piece with samples of music that are wholly effective every time Khalezin pauses for a moment to reflect on his own freedom.
If it weren't for Mark O'Rowe's clever verse (e.g., smitten/admitten, invective/ineffective, identical/antithetical) and graphic language, it would've been hard to sit through his ninety minute triptych of monologues, Terminus. Harder still given the taste of thick smoke in the air and the dim and sideways illuminated sight of the actors on stage. But the language justifies the appearance of demons (composed of worms), easy-going psychopaths, and matter-of-fact violence by elevating it to the metaphor of poetry. Though I'm not sure there's a hidden meaning to a man swinging from a crane by his entrails with a demons barbed tail sticking out of his mouth as he sings "Wind Beneath My Wings," it seems not only plausible in O'Rowe's world, but oddly humorous, too, an impressive feat for such a dark piece. (It brings to mind similarly glamorous works of violence, like The Lieutenant of Inishmore.)
There isn't a person out there who will leave Disinformation saying anything negative about Reggie Watts's voice: the man is an aural artist, capable of many octave-spanning notes, and that's without the assistance of his voice modulators and track-recorders, two twinned devices that let him layer distortions upon distortions upon himself. However, this show seems more like a sampler of what he can do than a statement of anything worth saying, and one of his faux-corporate slogans rings a little too close to home: "The More That You Use, The Less That You Are." That said, there isn't a person going to Disinformation who won't be amused. From his satirical intellectualizing (his stuffy accents are enjoyable) to his retro film clips, Reggie Watts really knows how to pick his words carefully (even at their most vulgar, his "Shit Fuck Sandwich" rap is still eerily specific).
Saturday, January 12, 2008
Under the Radar: Day 2
"We can talk about love and all the ways it wraps itself around us until it's just another form of suffocation," cries one of the many characters caught up in the pains and pangs of Jay Scheib's This Place is a Desert. And that's exactly what happens: a series of tight and interconnected rooms give way to a tangled snarl of relationships that overlap and clash like human hurricanes. Furthermore, a series of cameras and a passive observer (Kenneth Roraback) air the real time scenes from multiple angles, catching each character's reactions like windows to the soul, a creative use of multimedia that allows for poetic, image-heavy transitions.
- In Spite of Everything
In Spite of Everything is the best use of spoken word that I've seen in a play yet; an urban yet arty mix of Laramie-like exploration and poetic imagination that divorces itself from reality even as it plunges itself back in, deeper, through brilliant metaphor. Only The Suicide Kings (Rupert Estanislao, Jaime DeWolf, and Geoff Trenchard) know how much of their story is true, but it hardly matters: whether it's a poem about getting fed up in the service industry, dealing with acne, or watching Columbine in reverse, there isn't a verse that isn't relevant, not a thought that someone in the audience won't agree with.
- Low: Meditations Trilogy Part 1
Photo/Jean Jacques Tiziou
Low opens with a blank slate: an empty chair on one of those white-floored and white-walled setups most familiar from a modeling session or an Apple commercial. For the first fifteen minutes; Rha Goddess endears us to Low, putting a high squeak in her voice to sound purposefully cute, moving around the space freely yet gracefully. But Meditations is an all-too accurate description of this trilogy, for if the first part is any indication, her characters will all be internalized rather than experienced. Chay Yew has done an excellent job of casting cages of light on the floor, and moving his actor across the stage, but it's up to Rha to show us something more. Right now, Low is just talk, and it's nothing we haven't heard before.
I'm sure that Michel Melamed's Regurgitophagy is a great stream-of-consciousness play: I say this because it's one of my fundamental beliefs that you should always give a man who is electrocuting himself the benefit of the doubt. But what I saw was a man desperately trying to communicate something to the audience about consciousness, and an audience desperately trying not to laugh. You see, thanks to Melamed's "Pau-de-Arara," any time we made noise, he'd get an electrical shock. Honestly? After ten minutes, I wanted to clap just to hurt him.
Friday, January 11, 2008
Under the Radar: Day 1
For the most part, Young Jean Lee's Church, a quiet exploration of the power of faith, avoids the pontification that she declaims early on as "masturbation rage." Instead of focusing on anything negative, she opens with a voice calling out from the darkness, then introduces us to four ordinary people, Reverends Jose (Brian Bickerstaff), Weena (Weena Pauly), Katie (Katie Workum), and Katy (Katy Pyle), who each deliver a sermon asking simply for our prayers to help them (and us) through the most understandable of troubles in our lives: the tendency to whine, for instance. The play then moves into a series of absurd testimonials which, because they are delivered straightly, without satire and with tenderness, give us a touchstone for why some people are able to believe, and why others are not.
- Poetics: A Ballet Brut
They may not be from Oklahoma, but if Nature Theater of Oklahoma's recent works prove anything, it's that they understands nature: human nature. Just as No Dice exaggerated our casual conversations through the veil of dinner theater, Poetics takes our ordinary movements and filters them through a dream ballet. They dress like hip twentysomethings, all colorful sneakers, funny socks, and graphic Ts; and they act like us -- sipping on a soda, crossing their arms behind their head or placing their hands in their pockets, basically trying to find a way to idle comfortably on a narrow swath of space between the audience and a looming red curtain. And when these movements start coming together in sync, as "All By Myself" starts playing, they dance like us too, or like those of us who don't know how to dance would dance (or have danced: like children, unfettered by form, unrestricted by rules).
WORKSHOP: Crime or Emergency
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Amazons And Their Men
Rebecca Wisocky plays "The Frau" (code for Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl) with eyebrows up and cheeks sucked in: she's a couple of hand flourishes away from turning into Norma Desmond descending the staircase. No one else on stage seems to live in the same silent screen pantomime world that The Frau does, which is fine considering that she's the only one gripped by an artistic vision. As Jordan Harrison's seriocomic play imagines the director, on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland, she's tired of filming rallies and hyperfocused on making a "pure art" feature film in which she plays Penthesilea. She has to employ Jews and gypsies and other "undesirables" on the Nazis' dime to realize her vision: the playwright intriguingly links her ruthless artistic perfectionism and her blind passion with Fascism. But the most compelling contradiction about Riefenstahl - that her work honoring the heinous Nazi party which subsidized her did in fact yield stunningly beautiful works of visual art - seems beside the point of this play, which is more interested in her as a metaphor than as a believable complex character and visionary artist. She's simplified into dictator and destroyer to serve the playwright's aims.
COIL: Particularly in the Heartland
Particularly in the Heartland is a fantastic journey into the meaning of America, a tale that unites not only a left-wing New York businesswoman (Jessica Almasy) with a trio of Rapture-fearing Christian children (Kristen Sieh, Frank Boyd, and Libby King), but with their American past, a resurrected Robert Kennedy (Jake Margolin), and their probable future, a pregnant alien (more like the immigrant kind) named Tracy Jo (Jill Frutkin). The collaboration of a hard-boiled theater group shows: their subtle nuances all succeed, and director Rachel Chavkin gets away with some of the most fluid and heartbreaking montages. If anything, it's the more experimental stuff that gets in the way -- the audience adds nothing to the performance -- and the play, though I suspect left intentionally lumpy in places, could benefit from being about fifteen minutes shorter.
COIL: The Rise and Fall of the Rising Fallen
This "how the band met" tale from Banana Bag & Bodice is punk absurdism taken to a point at which it hardly seems satirical of the genre, a point at which it's as easy for me to believe that the Rising Fallen once toured the oil rig circuit (or at least an oil rig), finding themselves and their message amidst the cranks of their amps and the slosh of the oil, the hiss of the steam, the heat of the metal cage, and the constantly coerced blow jobs. The lyrics are nonsense ("And I tried to turn a monkey into a bee/and I lied when I wrote the wrong history"), but Peter Blomquist's giving one hell of a performance in his delivery of them, looking all the while like he's being electrocuted by the words, jerking around and collapsing to the floor after every song. It's an energetic mind-fuck, but their little living room performance space, where everything is everything, needs a little insulation to ground us.
Wednesday, January 09, 2008
CULTUREMART 2008: Water & Miranda 5x
- Water (or, the secret life of objects)
This should be the year of Sheila Callaghan. Not only will we see Crawl, Fade to White later this year with 13P (and two more in early '09), but Water is the opening salvo in a much longer piece that, if this is any indication, will be a series of international vignettes (in their native languages) with the common theme of water. Hence April Mattis plays a Katrina survivor, sitting, starving, on a roof, watching the press helicopters fly overhead (her thoughts literally bubble on screen behind her); Carolyn Bost and Gerardo Rodriguez play a couple from Oslo dealing with another 100-degree day; and in a series of prerecorded events, we see possible futures (in which Bloomberg is Chancellor of Saudi-America, faux fish are in, and fresh water goes for $400 a gallon) and hysterical pasts (like a retro 1985 educational video where a scientist promotes the "hard science" that disproves all the environmental alarmists). As directed by Daniella Topol, and with videos and lighting from William Cusick (the creative team from my #1 show of '05, Dead City), the play is already a heartbreaking maelstrom of interconnected thoughts, and it's already creative, most notably in the easygoing audience participation, which I wouldn't dare spoil. I'd happily get intoxicated on this Water, hyponatremia be damned.
- Miranda 5x
Welcome to "You Bet Their Life," a game show that lets the audience judge supposed criminals, like this week's unknown murderer. To help introduce us to the suspects, jovial host Dave (Joel Marsh Garland) and his clueless cohost, Julie Faluda (Kamala Sankaram) appear in prerecorded clips to introduce live "flashback" performances between Miranda (Sankaram) and the three men suspected of killing her. These pieces are blocked simply, with Miranda standing in front of a projection of various locales that are coupled with subtitles for her operatically cryptic conversations. She's assisted by her ensemble, Squeezebox, who provide a folksy classical spin on her arias. The most promising segment from this presentation is a fast-paced staccato song in a Starbucks that keeps Sankaram out of her falsetto, and which is coupled with some frantically edited close-ups of Miranda; as the scene continues, the melody becomes a loop for Miranda's inescapable future, and Sankaram removes herself from the role to add in a layer of gasping accordion notes, this time layered over surveillance footage from the coffee shop.
Frankenstein (Mortal Toys)
Erik Ehn's Frankenstein (Mortal Toys) is the most faithful adaptation of Shelley's novel yet (remember Captain Walton?), despite the fact that it's pint-sized. It's described perfectly by the initiative that produced it -- HERE Arts Center's Dream Music Puppetry Program -- as Janie Geiser and Susan Simpson have brought about a play as visually beautiful yet elusive as a dream (and only occasionally as soporific), and Severin Behnen's mostly electric score is somnambulistastic. Chris Payne and Dana L. Wilson, the two real life actors who provide visible voice-overs from the "wings" are still enough that we can imagine them inhabiting those paper-thin shells, and they exist as just one more "double" of the characters on stage, much like those who theorize Frankenstein and the Monster to be parts of the same psyche. The overlap of scenic layers within the boxed-in stage gives for an illusion of depth, as do the play's poetic narrative and various devices: it gives the audience a sensation of freefall in which time slows, and like Alice down the rabbit hole, we can be lost amidst our thoughts.
Monday, January 07, 2008
Amazons and Their Men
Jordan Harrison's new play, Amazons and Their Men, is a clever work of fiction that investigates the escapism of film during a time in which the world was being plunged into darkness. Loosely following the real-life attempts of Leni Riefenstahl to film herself as and in Penthesilea, Harrison writes with a director's fluid grace, connects scenes with an editor's masterfully sudden sequencing, contrasts characters in the film with those in the play like a verbal cinematographer, and ultimately comes away with an elegant piece.
[Read on] [Also blogged by: Patrick]
Sunday, January 06, 2008
The 39 Steps
This screwball spoof of the old Hitchcock suspense film isn't essentially unlike the movie send-ups from The Carol Burnett Show but it has an extra high-concept kick: three of the cast of four have to manage over a hundred different roles and the movie's story has to get told with only a few multi-purposed props and set pieces. (My favorite moment: when our debonair hero is led deeper and deeper into the villain's mansion, it's accomplished on stage by having him walk through the same repositioned door over and over again). Sometimes an actor will play four or five different characters in the same scene: we're meant to delight in the breakneck speed of the quick-changes which, although obviously planned down to the most minute detail, often feel as spomtaneous as genuine improvisation. The show may be spoofing a film, but it's mostly designed to make us laugh at the simple age-old tricks of theatre. I did laugh, but not nearly as often as I'd hoped to: a good deal of the gags are more clever than funny, and at ninety minutes the show outlasted my interest by about half an hour.
Yes, yes, martial arts are impressive, I get it. But in the rapidly growing "niche" of spectacles in the theater industry, Jump is, at best, a mere hop in the right direction. You have to admire the rubbery cartoon energy of these live action anime heroes. But that's about it. This show has at least four different directors (comedy, choreography, consulting, &c.): I'm astonished they manage to get off the ground at all and all the more surprised at how often they recycle the same jokes, the same moves, and the same effects, none of which are particularly impressive the first time. Jump falls flat on its face. And unfortunately, because the floor is one giant rubber mat, it doesn't have the grace to stay down.
[Read on] [Also blogged by: David]
Fact and fiction don't bother me -- do what you have to do to tell the story -- but why bother going through all the effort if you're going to keep hiding behind a mask? David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face operates right now simply as an intellectual play: Hoon Lee comes on stage, introducing himself as the author, DHH, and then partakes in a compressed and conflated history of "his" (DHH's) rise as preeminent Asian-American theatrical spokesperson that begins with his award for M. Butterfly, travels through his failed farce, Face Value, and ends with his persecution at the hands of [Name Withheld on Advice of Counsel]. Humorous and Sorkin-lite scenes zip us from moment to moment, pausing briefly for HYH's (Francis Jue) fatherly counsel or to reiterate the main plot point: that DHH accidentally cast a white man, Marcus (Noah Bean) as his Asian lead, after protesting Miss Saigon for doing the same thing with Jonathan Pryce. But without David Henry Hwang actually onstage, it's just rhetoric in a sleek, cold framework: Extras without Ricky Gervais, Well without Lisa Kron. The extra dimension of vulnerability isn't there, so while we may think of artistic freedom and our race, we do not feel for it.
[Read on] [Also blogged by: David | Patrick]
Edward The Second
Friday, January 04, 2008
Hansel And Gretel
The Met's new, 1930's-set production of Hansel And Gretel (imported from the Welsh National Opera) is extraordinarily grim and more than a little perverse: it never strays far from the kitchen. Even the haunted woods of the story are reimagined as a dining room, where Hansel and Gretel dream of being rescued not by a chorus of angels but by chefs. Driving home the theme of hunger with sledgehammer delicacy, the production feels severe and joyless: it even denies us a gingerbread house, instead substituting a single cake on a mechanical trolley. Does the Met really believe that this gruesome production (which also features Mom toying with a suicidal overdose before flushing her pills down the kitchen drain) will become a holiday staple for families? I can't imagine that anyone under the age of twenty will appreciate that the Witch resembles Julia Child (the production's one bit of mischievous levity) and I can't imagine that children will know what to make of Gretel sticking her fingers in batter and painting a Hitler moustache on Hansel. I can't imagine what any reasonable adult is meant to make of it either.
Thursday, January 03, 2008
The one nice thing about blogging theater is that I don't have to wait until the press embargo lifts to warn you all about certain shows, such as this piece of "happy horseshit," the occasionally funny but completely pointless David Mamet comedy, November. Without anything to talk about beyond the basic bashing of the theatrical-stand-in-for-Bush ("Why do they all hate me?" "Because you have fucked up every single thing you've touched."), Mamet relies heavily on an exaggerated circumstance -- President Charles Smith sets out to extort $200M from the National Association of Turkey By-Products Manufacturers by threatening to pardon all the turkeys -- for a plot, and then piles on absurdities through a series of one-sided phone calls that turn away from actual human interaction and into The Nathan Lane Show. Funny, perhaps, but you don't need Joe Mantello or David Mamet for that.
Wednesday, January 02, 2008
Here We Go Again!
I'm sure I speak for all three of us when I say how much fun it has been to blog the race in 2007 and how exciting it has been to see a wide variety of theatre this past year.
All three of us are ready to have another go at it and race in 2008. We want to keep the blog essentially as it is - focused on our concise posts about shows and free of advertising - but we think there might be room for some changes. For instance, you'll soon see a box in the sidebar where each of us will spotlight some recommendations. And you might be seeing an irregular feature or two during the year.
We do wonder why we get more email than we get comments. It's a mystery, considering how many thousands of readers come here in a week, Who's reading us nearly every morning in San Diego? I look at the blog stats, and I see you! Hi!
Once again, the rules of the race are as David laid them down this time last year.
It has to be blogged (promptly) to count.
A show can only count once in the calendar year. (Damn. That includes Passing Strange doesn't it!)
Concerts don't count. (But Kiki & Herb do!)
And we're off!