Saturday, February 25, 2012
Li'l Bit--one of the two central characters in How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel's funny, smart, deeply disturbing memory play currently in revival at Second Stage--comes of age in rural Maryland during the 1960s and early 1970s, at a time when the country stopped making much sense. This is fine, really, because Li'l Bit's immediate world doesn't make much sense, either. She is enormously intelligent, but seems only to be noticed and appreciated--by friends, acquaintances, and family members alike--for her particularly large breasts. Her mother and grandparents, with whom she lives, are uneducated and crass, and if her mother is not a full-fledged drunk, she has, at the very least, a complicated relationship with alcohol. Li'l Bit's entire family has serious boundary issues, especially when it comes to gender and sexuality; all of their nicknames for one another have something to do with genitalia, and nothing is considered off-limits during conversations at the dinner table. Li'l Bit's grandfather is an ignorant misogynist; her grandmother has internalized the most traditional of gender roles; and her mother is a little too forthright in offering Li'l Bit a more contemporary perspective. Li'l Bit has no father. Complicating matters is that her sister's husband, Uncle Peck--the only person who really seems to understand, connect with, and attempt to protect her as she grows up--can't keep his hands off her breasts. Many members of her family are aware of this, but they choose to keep their mouths shut, anyway.
How I Learned to Drive explores a number of dense, interconnected themes in following its angry, damaged narrator through a series of hazy childhood and adolescent reminiscences: the shifting mores of an embattled, rapidly changing country; family bonds and family dysfunction; gender roles; alcoholism and addiction; and the ways in which close relationships can simultaneously heal and destroy, weaken and empower. To say that I liked the play is something of an understatement: I felt positively cold about the play upon leaving the theater late last week, but it's wormed its way under my skin, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since.
Like my fellow blogger Wendy, whose review of How I Learned to Drive appears here, I am not fully convinced about the structure of the show. But I think I'm getting close. I don't think Peck ever stops molesting his niece, and the jumbled way in which Vogel delivers bits and pieces of Li'l Bit's past works effectively in keeping the audience engaged and perpetually uncomfortable. Also, I am enormously compelled by the idea that one addiction can take the place of another. In How I Learned to Drive, Peck neatly substitutes alcohol for Li'l Bit; in turn, Li'l Bit learns to manipulate Peck in ways that suit her needs, all the while remaining his victim. One of the more fascinating aspects of the play is the clear-eyed way it depicts two people who are perfectly capable of simultaneously destroying and sustaining one another in a relationship that is at once disturbingly parasitic and yet weirdly understandable for its rules, structure, and mutual negotiations. This makes perfect sense to me: relationships are never as clear-cut as all that; there is often only a razor-thin line between a relationship that is healthy and one that is rotten to the core.
The cast is strong, but the show very clearly belongs to Norbert Leo Butz, whose portrayal of Peck, the benevolent, manipulative pederast, is superb. Much has been written about the lengthy, increasingly unsettling monologue during which Peck teaches a nephew how to fish for pompano; that, too, was a high point for me. But so was a much smaller, shorter scene, during which Li'l Bit, at age 13, strikes a bargain with her uncomfortably inebriated Uncle Peck: if he stops drinking, she will agree to visit with him, alone but in public, once a week. Butz's reaction to Reaser's suggestion is so deeply, movingly appreciated, so choked with conflicting emotions, that Peck's entire damaged, disturbed psyche flashed vividly before my eyes. The scene, simple as it was, took my breath away.
The ensemble, too, as Li'l Bit's friends, family members and various acquaintances, was uniformly strong. I was initially bothered by the fact that so many of the supporting characters are portrayed so two-dimensionally, while Peck is depicted in such sharp relief. But then again, I think that's precisely Vogel's point: Hazy memories play funny tricks on a person after a while.
I wish I could rave about Reaser. Don't get me wrong: she did a fine job as Li'l Bit, and her icy distance through the show can certainly be (and has been) interpreted as a strength. Li'l Bit was molested as a child, so why should the actor playing her as a grownup be warm, fuzzy, and approachable? Reaser is not, but her studied distance, which didn't let up through the show, did not always work for me. I am not sure if this was the function of the character or the woman playing her, but I was left feeling like I understood Peck far more than I did Li'l Bit, even though this was her show, her past, her conflicted, complicated youth.
That being said, I suppose leaving the theater wanting to know more about the characters you've just spent an evening with is not necessarily the worst criticism you can fling at the production of a play you just can't get away from.
Saturday, February 18, 2012
Monday, February 13, 2012
While I thought the production was quite good, I was considerably less impressed with the play itself. Here's why.
[spoilers abound] [really, nothing but spoilers]
How I Learned to Drive seems initially to be examining how incest is not always a simple case of older-perpetrator-abuses-younger-victim. Teenaged Li'l Bit is flirtatious with her Uncle Peck, and he comes across as more of a supplicant than an abuser. And Peck is a sympathetic character, a World War II veteran who has seen horrible things he will not, cannot, discuss.
I bought all of this. I even found it intriguing, compelling. Life is not black and white. Older people are not always the ones with power. Otherwise nice people can do terrible things.
But, then, at the end of the play, which is told mostly in reverse-order flashbacks, we see the beginning of the story. Li'l Bit, only 11 years old, is on a long drive with Uncle Peck. He offers to let her drive. She is too small to reach the gas pedal, so he suggests that she sit on his lap; he'll control the speed while she steers. And then he seriously, flat-out molests her, grinding against her to orgasm while roughly feeling her up.
No, no, no. The relationship that Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck have through most of the play did not develop out of that beginning. I think it is possible that Li'l Bit would continue to spend time alone with Peck and would even want his attention and approval, would even almost flirt with him, particularly considering the weird sexualization of her entire family. However, there is zero reason to believe that Peck would develop the sort of boundaries and supplicating attitude that he has with her for the rest of the play. The trajectory of molestation isn't less and less; it's more and more. If he had grabbed her like that once, he would do so again. And again. And again.
If How I Learned to Drive were played in chronological order, it would fall to pieces.
(tdf ticket; 6th row extreme audience left)
Photo by Michael J. Lutch
While watching The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, the newest incarnation of the famed opera, Audra McDonald’s performance in the title role continually reminded me of the first time I saw her—in another revival—1994’s Carousel. Like then her presence resonated with vitality and the richness of that voice lingered even after she left the stage.
And that’s the problem: despite some excellent staging and singing, whenever McDonald disappears, the show loses luster and all the flaws that critics, scholars and others discuss become magnified (see Elizabeth Wollman’s review). Just as McDonald’s vivacious Carrie Pipperidge white-washed the poignancy of Sally Murphy’s Julie Jordan, her portrayal of Bess with its tough fragility mesmerizes and that power is missed when she’s gone. Since nothing ever reaches her intensity, the rest of the production feels uneven.
Ultimately, Porgy and Bess never connects beyond an appreciation of the musicality of the piece. As Ben Brantley said recently in the New York Times, “The first requisite of any work of art—theater, opera, or novel—is that it create a universe that is complete and consistent unto and within itself.” Besides the flaws in characterization that critics often cite, the imbalance of the performances also interrupts the authenticity of the show, and while the three hours of theater entertains rarely does it really touch you. It becomes easy to remain uninvolved in the unfolding drama and, instead, to scientifically dissect the opera: from the dance moves that seem arbitrary at times to the singing, which, while performed competently, rarely consumes the soul.
Of course, there are some highs: David Alan Grier’s snarky Sporting Life conveys more with a quick charming smile than others do with sweeping operatic solos. NaTasha Yvette Williams also offers a sassy interpretation of Mariah, one of the backbone presences on Catfish Row. Joshua Henry displays a loving presence as Jake, a new father and easy-going family man.
Especially good is the lighting by Christopher Akerlind who colors the sparsely decorated stage—just a hint of a boardwalk, a courtyard, some rudimentary homes—in a beautiful buttery light during the early morning calls of the strawberry seller and the honey man, later darkening that same venue with the forbidding flickers of a fierce hurricane.
At any rate, Porgy and Bess offers enough to keep audiences interested apparently since the production’s run was recently extended to September 30th.
Since it premiered in New York in 1935, Porgy and Bess has been dogged by nagging questions: Is this an opera, or a musical? Is this show respectful, or racist? More recently, there have been even more questions and controversies: Is this show worth reviving? If so, how? Should it be staged in its original--and thus, presumably, "authentic"--state, or can we tweak some of its more outdated aspects? Perhaps most importantly, what does Stephen Sondheim think about all of this?
Full disclosure: As much as I love him, I don't care what Sondheim thinks about Porgy and Bess. I like to think that Gershwin had benevolent, and not racist, intentions in researching, writing, and staging it. As to whether it's an opera or a musical, Porgy strikes me as being about as comfortably everything as its composer was. Gershwin was a master of Tin Pan Alley, the concert hall, and the after-hours jam session, so why should it be surprising that Porgy shows up in repertory at opera companies and occasionally gets revived on Broadway, or that many of its songs have become standards covered by singers in every genre you can think of? Gershwin was brilliant; his show has a gorgeous, memorable, hugely adaptable score; enough, already.
What surprises me, though, is that amid all the controversy about Porgy and Bess, there is so very little bitching about the book, which, when you get right down to it, is just not as good as the score. The music in Porgy absolutely soars, seguing seamlessly from one genre to another and back again. Church-house moans become piercing arias; work-songs become big, Broadway show-stoppers. The music is timeless. The book, however, is very much a product of the 1930s. It reflects the comparatively sketchy character development, lack of cohesiveness, and emphasis less on motivation than on song and dance that was typical of the burgeoning musical in its pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein days. Hence, Porgy is a benevolent sap; Bess is a broken, coke-snorting slut. They get together because they are both, in their own ways, desperate. Bess would like to change her ways; she slowly becomes accepted by the community and even gets a shot at child-rearing, which by 1930s standards is, I guess, supposed to be about as legitimizing and fulfilling as it can possibly get for a woman. Yet for all her attempts at decency, Bess is a total disaster. Porgy puts up with her, helps her, saves her, and defends her over and over and over again until the final curtain, which implies that nothing is ever going to change. The end.
Another full disclosure, here: I have very little patience for this type of premise, so really, this might be entirely my problem. Romeo and Juliet is my least-favorite Shakespeare play, I absolutely loathed Jules et Jim, and I haven't fallen for any "will-they-or-won't they" TV premise since, oh, the Maddie and David plot trajectory on "Moonlighting." And through the years, I've had many people react vociferously to my dislike of such pieces--especially Jules et Jim, which is apparently a masterpiece that I just need to view through different eyes, or something. Perhaps this, then, is the test: If you love Jules, you might totally go wild for Porgy. If you are as tepid as I am about that sort of thing, maybe think about catching another show, instead.
The current production of Porgy and Bess aims to update the book, at least a little bit: some of the libretto was rewritten as dialogue by Suzan Lori Parks, and Diane Paulus worked with the cast to add depth to the characters and to make the show more appealing to new, young audiences. Porgy no longer sits pathetically in a goat cart, but instead hobbles around, just as pathetically, on a mangled leg. While the intentions may have been good, and while I am certainly happy to have seen the show, Porgy and Bess still leaves me cold: despite the changes to the book, the characters still strike me as about as one-dimensional as they always have been. Not only is there Unruly and Wild Bess and Endlessly Patient, Almost Irritatingly Virtuous Porgy, but there is also the Brutish, Dangerous, Magnetic Ex Boyfriend; the Tisking, Devout Matriarchs of Catfish Row; and the Sneering, Godless Drug Dealer. What motivates any of them? Where did they come from, what do they think, and why do they make the choices that they make? Dunno. Is there actually any heat, any real passion, between Porgy and Bess? Or is this a connection that has been made entirely as the result of convenience? If there is, in fact, true attraction, I just can't see it. And if this is all about convenience, then who the hell cares?
I do not think that my reservations are the fault of this particular production, which was rock-solid in a number of ways. The look of the show is warm, earthy, and inviting; the sound is, typically, gorgeous. My theater-going companion did not like some of the performers and hated the choreography, but I did not agree with her; I thought the various ingredients were all top-notch. The actors, too, did a fine job with what they have to work with. Audra McDonald is typically bionic, the supporting cast is strong, and on the night I saw the show, Norm Lewis struggled admirably through the first act with an almost completely blown-out voice; he was replaced in act II by Nathaniel Stampley, who was in great voice and made the transition gracefully. And David Alan Grier, who tore the roof off as Sporting Life, is the newest addition to my list of people I would pay to watch read the phone book.
But still, and for all the talent, Porgy and Bess is just not my cup of tea. Its score has blood, gore, and guts that somehow never extend to its characters.
Saturday, February 11, 2012
I saw the Lincoln Center reunion performance of Merrily We Roll Along in 2002. It was a joy to be in the room, to hear the score sung live. But the book and concept (going backward in time) did neither the cast nor the audience any favors. For all its faults, for all the confusion, there were those magnificent songs. And then, there was Ann Morrison. Every utterance layered, every note perfection. When she sang, I couldn’t help but wonder about her trajectory, her story in reverse, which moment, which turn kept her from being a star. It was one of those unforgettable performances, probably all the richer because she was old enough in 2002 to infuse it with the ache and regret she could only imagine and "act" in the original production.
Merrily We Roll Along is significant in musical theatre history. It’s failure marked the end of Sondheim’s unparalleled collaboration with Hal Prince. They wouldn’t work together again for over two decades. That break-up led to a long and often successful collaboration with James Lapine, who directs the Encores production currently running at City Center.
It is a bold approach to a concert mounting of a Sondheim musical to cast someone who can’t actually sing the music. Far bolder to do it twice. To make those choices for two of the three leads takes a director with balls, deftness, or deafness. James Lapine seems dead-set on fixing some of Merrily's historical flaws, namely a book that meanders two step forward and two decades back. By and large, he’s made welcome changes, using a series of projections, for instance, to great effect to provide linear references for a decidedly non-linear show. Unfortunately, he’s created problems no Sondheim musical should have—musical instability.
Celia Keenan-Bolger, who I adored in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is delightful as Mary Flynn. She gets every joke, every jab. To watch her reverse trajectory from bitterness and cirrhosis to insecurity and hope is both delightful and devastating. Unfortunately, every time she sings, the show falls apart. She can’t hit the notes (low or high), her voice is thin and trapped in her nose, and her words are bizarrely over-articulated and unsupported. Perhaps her voice is strained from the intense and brief rehearsal period. Having enjoyed her so much previously, I am happy to give her a pass on a future performance, but not in this role. She’s half thrill, half thud.
Lin-Manuel Miranda can actually sing most of the music, he just doesn’t have a very pleasant voice; and he harmonizes like a fist-full of nails in a clothes dryer. He is similarly well-cast from an acting standpoint. His Benjamin Button aging routine is shockingly real with as much credit going to his physical inhabitation of the character as hair and make-up. He isn’t ultimately as delightful as Keenan-Bolger, nor is he as disastrous.
In the leading role Colin Donnell acquits himself best. His acting isn’t as strong as his co-stars. He plays Franklin Shepard as either unpleasant or unaware, not much else. The pompousness that I hated so much in his performance in Anything Goes, serves him better here. Not sure I would have loved his voice (it gets a little loungey at times) had his Mary and Charlie been stronger, but we both deserve the chance to find out.
The stand-out in the cast is Elizabeth Stanley as Gussie Carnegie. She sings, moves, acts, charms, and reviles with near perfection. In some ways, she is so good she undermines the gimmick of the show. Merrily is designed to shine a spotlight on those moments we all make that we don’t realize at the time will change our lives irrevocably. For the other characters, the looking back is clouded by heaviness, regret, and tragedy. Her character is so well played that her rewind just looks like a life—could have gone left, could have gone right, but ultimately went just fine. It is an interesting counterpoint. This isn’t to say that her character’s stagelife ends in a bed of roses. She just isn’t standing at a crossroads lamenting the road she didn’t take—and neither are we.
Friday, February 10, 2012
Patrick Murtagh and
Photo: Bella Muccari
Monday, February 06, 2012
When I was in grade-school--I don't remember which grade, specifically--my classmates and I were taken by yellow bus on a field-trip to see the matinee performance of a local college production of Godspell. While most of my memories of the experience have long since melted into the haze of early childhood, I can remember a few things about it: The costumes were colorful. There was a lot of movement. The woman who sang "Turn Back, O Man" flung herself into the laps of various unsuspecting male spectators as she wended her way up the aisle to the stage, which made a lot of people in the audience laugh.
What I remember with even more clarity, however, was the ride home in the yellow bus: The score had worked its way under my skin, and as we wove back to my suburban grade-school, I pressed my face against the bus window, looking dreamily out at the perpetually overcast Pittsburgh landscape, and singing "Day by Day" to myself, probably fairly tunelessly, over and over and over again. In short: I remember seeing this particular production only vaguely; I can still feel it to this day.
When it comes to Godspell, I am hardly alone, of course. Godspell is one of those productions that evokes comforting, hazy childhood memories in a lot of people from my generation. The musical, which presented parables taken from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, was something of a monster-hit through the 1970s, which only seems ironic in that the musical is in no way a "monster" the way we conceive of spectacles nowadays. Otherwise, its reception history makes perfect sense. The show harnessed the Christian revivalism of the 1970s, and unlike its contemporary, Jesus Christ Superstar (also a childhood favorite for lots of us), was remarkably free of the culture of cynicism that pervaded the times. Teachings from the New Testament, which were presented vaudeville-style in broadly schticky sketches, were updated by means of innovative staging, tons of topical humor and a contemporary setting. In the original production of Godspell, which began Off Off Broadway at La MaMa in 1971 before moving Off Broadway to the Cherry Lane later that year, Jesus's followers are a group of young, contemporary lost souls, and Jesus is a kind, lovable clown in a Superman t-shirt. I suppose it helps to know something about the teachings of Christianity in seeing the show, but then again, it may not. As a suburban Jewish kid, I had no idea about the religious stuff; I just liked the songs, the schtick, and the colorful costumes.
Godspell is easily adaptable to any number of settings: there is no need for lots of scenery or props; emphasis is simply on bodies in motion. An ensemble cast reenacts the parables, engages in lots of slapstick, and sings its guts out, revival-style. The cast members also hug each other a lot. Jesus here is no robe-clad, ancient savior, but a loving, hip good buddy: the nicest, most awesome, most magnetic dude these lost souls have ever met. When he dies at the end, his new hippie friends are sad, but then again, they have internalized his teachings and resolved to live by them anyway, because he has helped them all immeasurably.
It is no wonder, then, that this show, with its joyful, wide-eyed embrace of Christianity, took off as wildly as it did: after its lengthy run in New York (where, despite very mixed reviews it lasted at the Cherry Lane for 2124 performances before moving up to Broadway for another 567 before closing), the show toured nationally, and also spawned countless local productions. When I was a kid, not only did colleges across the country stage Godspell, but so did community centers, professional and amateur regional troupes, and, of course, churches, churches, churches. I made it to college knowing pretty little about Christianity and never having read a word from the New Testament, but I knew every single lyric from every single song from Godspell.
I admit that my interest in seeing the current production--which was received by critics about as iffily as the first run was--had mostly to do with the nostalgia trip. I've seen the show performed a few times since my childhood, and have always appreciated its endlessly variable topical humor, its kinetic energy, and its catchy score. My friend and neighbor, who confessed a similar relationship to the show, suggested that we see it with our children, so she took hers (ages 13 and 8) and I took my older daughter (almost 9). My daughter is now about the age that I was when I first saw the show.
I know, I know, the current revival has been reviewed already, and not always terribly well. I don't feel that I have much to add on that front, so, in short: I agree that the new prologue and the new song in act II don't add much to the show. I agree that this production lays on the topical humor so thickly that it can sometimes suck the energy from the show. There was so much rapping, so many imitations of current celebrities, and so many Republican primary jokes that some of the sketches dragged unnecessarily. On the other hand, I had absolutely no problem with the trampolines that the cast bounced on during "We Beseech Thee".
In general, then, I found the show to be quite enjoyable. Some of this has to do with my feelings about the show, sure, but also, this production was done well by a cast that was good to excellent, and that genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves. They made me enjoy myself, too.
But even more, I enjoyed Godspell this time around because I got to see it with my daughter. And while she doesn't always connect with the show she's watching, this time around, she proved an absolutely terrific audience member. Like I was, she is being raised Jewish, and is just beginning to develop a sense of what that means and how that relates to her overall identity. So seeing this show was an experiment in comparative religions for her; her questions and comments, whispered into my ear during the show, reflected a real attempt to tease out the differences between Judaism and Christianity: "Wait! They're singing in Hebrew!" "Hey! Why did they call Jesus a rabbi?!" "We drink wine in Judaism too!" Finally, near the somber, comparatively talky and heavily liturgical end of the show, a frustrated sigh: "Mommy, Judaism is so much easier to understand!" This last comment was easily her funniest, but was also most reflective of her own experiences: she is learning about all religions through the lens of her own. She worked hard, during the show, to figure out where she fits, not only as an audience member, but as a spiritual person.
She was not alone. There were clearly plenty of other kids who were busily watching the show and relating it to their own developing senses of the world. During intermission, I overheard another mother telling her small son how proud and happy that she was that he "recognized so many of the stories!" Clearly, this little boy is learning all about the parables in Sunday school, just as my little girl is learning to recite the Hebrew blessings in hers.
The long and the short of it is that it's a rare and wonderful experience to be able to relive a happy childhood memory while simultaneously watching your own kid formulating ones of her own. I enjoyed Godspell a lot. I suspect that, like a lot of people in my generation who are taking their offspring to this particular show, I enjoyed watching my child watching Godspell even more.