Wednesday, January 30, 2013

All the Rage

In his one-man show, All the Rage (directed by Seth Barrish), playwright-performer Martin Moran shares his intimate exploration of the sometimes-thin lines between hatred and love, victimhood and survival, and anger and compassion. Part yarn, part philosophy, and part show-and-tell, All the Rage takes us from New York to Las Vegas to South Africa and introduces us to people as varied as a somewhat wicked stepmother and an amazingly resilient victim of torture.

Moran is a charming performer and a likeable man, and he knows how to tell a story. His style is reminiscent of Spalding Gray's in terms of tone and the way he meanders back to where he started--except that it's not quite the same place anymore. In contrast to Gray, however, Moran is all over the stage, dashing and jumping from here to there to show us maps, photos, and other memorabilia of his journey. It's possible he and director Barrish got a little carried away with their quest to provide the audience with visuals--the show would have been fine with a slightly less frenetic presentation. But that's a small complaint: All the Rage is smart, fascinating, funny, and frequently moving.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


A young man dances energetically in his dorm to the music his iPod feeds into his ears. Another young man sneaks into the room and puts up posters of Che and Kurt Cobain. The first young man doesn't notice him. The moment isn't convincing--it's an unlikely setup. In itself, this incident would be no big deal, but when it turns out to be one of the better parts of the play, we have a problem.

Nick Lawson, James Kautz
Photo: Russ Rowland
Lyle Kessler's Collision, currently receiving its premiere in an Amoralists production, examines how lost people can find each other and how a charismatic person can lead others astray. However, since neither the people nor the setups are remotely believable, or particularly compelling, Collision is ultimately about how even excellent theatre companies can have bad days.

Amoralist productions generally sizzle with human foibles and desires. Their shows, many by resident playwright, Derek Ahonen (The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, Happy in the Poorhouse), combine highly entertaining, heightened, almost cartoony acting with an unerring sense of the absolute messiness--and wonder--of human existence. Usually, Amoralist productions, even when being totally unrealistic, are somehow true. Collision is a major exception to this rule.

In Collision, ostensibly smooth-talking Grange can convince people to do almost anything, as when he cajoles Doe, with whom he has just had sex, to go to the next bed and have sex with his roommate. Or as when he convinces that roommate to beat up someone he barely knows. The plot, such as it is, comprises a series of such incidents interspersed with "meaning of life" conversations and speeches, such as, 
This Meteor changed the course of life on this planet. One Species disappeared and another Species emerged. We emerged in all our multi colored brilliance. If that Meteor had not plunged into the ocean at that particular Time and Place, we would not exist. We would not be here at this moment discussing the Relativity of Being. So the question we are addressing today, the question I put forth today is the following...Is that Meteor, was that Meteor, God? Or was it just a random collision, a throw of the Celestial Dice?

Since the title of the show is Collision, this speech is likely thematically significant, but it doesn't matter if what transpires is God's work or a throw of the Celestial Dice. It's still boring. Oh, and unpleasant.

The show is not helped by the usually excellent James Kautz's lackluster performance in the central role of Grange. For this play to have any chance of working, Grange must be the ultimate salesman. He must be compelling, charismatic, fascinating. He must spin his verbal webs gracefully; he must entice others to enter his web voluntarily, even enthusiastically. Kautz does none of this. Granted, the writing is weak, but with some energy and personality, Kautz could have given the production a desperately needed center.

It feels unlikely that the Amoralists--and in particular, Krautz--would make these particular mistakes. Is Collision's flat falseness deliberate? Perhaps, but why?

(fifth row center; press ticket)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

If silliness can be an art form--and I believe it can--then The Mystery of Edwin Drood is an artistic triumph. From the pre-show call-and-response to the audience-chosen denouement, this musical play-within-a-play version of Dickens' unfinished novel is delightful. 
Will Chase, Stephanie J. Block
Photo: Joan Marcus
It's 1895 London. Edwin Drood and Rosa Bud are engaged to be married, but is their romance what it seems? Edwin's uncle Jack is a respected choirmaster, but is he what he seems? And what about the opium dealer Princess Puffer? The Reverend Crisparkle? The orphaned Landless twins? What exactly is going on here?

Because Dickens died before finishing the book, that last question is unanswerable. Nevertheless, with the audience's help, The Mystery of Edwin Drood answers it, while also providing ear-pleasing melodies, wonderful performances, dreadful puns, intrigue and disaster, and a fabulous kick line. The cast is game and energetic, and their clear love of the show is contagious. Stephanie J. Block does well by her various roles and nails her 11:00 number. Jessie Mueller and Andy Karl are polished, elegant, and sly as the Landless twins. Peter Benson's sheer likeability is equaled only by his talent. Will Chase and Betsy Wolfe are both a tad too hammy for my taste (and that's saying something in this ham-filled show) but effective nevertheless. Chita Rivera was out, and while Alison Cimmet lacks star power--and is too young for the role--she pulled it off with flair. By the time she sang "The Garden Path to Hell," the audience had forgiven her for not being Chita.

Another of Drood's many delights is the breathtaking scenery. From street scenes to parlors to a graveyard, the audience is presented with a luscious tour of late-19th-century London. Every time a curtain goes up, the audience is given another visual treat. I imagine (and hope!) that designer Anna Louizos has a Tony in her future.

One criticism must be voiced: at least 50% of the lyrics are indecipherable as sung. When I saw Drood at its first preview, 80% of the lyrics were indecipherable, so I guess this is progress. And, amazingly enough, the show survives this major flaw. But I certainly expect better of a Broadway show.

(press ticket; third row on the aisle)

Parsons Dance

A screen filling the back wall of the stage springs to life with vibrant video footage of the Everglades and other South Florida parks. Voices speak of nature, honoring nature, the importance of nature, the meaning of nature. It feels like a National Geographic documentary. Then a dancer flows on stage, arms beckoning, and seems to entice an on-screen alligator from stage right to stage left. The effect is playful, with a hint of magic. A line of performers snakes (alligates?) across stage, echoing the alligator's vertebrae. The interactions continue. Then one of the dancer appears, startlingly large onscreen, and others as well.  As we see sunsets and waving reeds, egrets, herons, anhingas, woodstorks, ibis, and hawks--and more giant humans--the performers evoke, complement, and imitate nature, all the while playing with size and movement. In one particular case, a performer does a pas de deux with herself in a multimedia duet for one.

Dawn to Dusk
Photo: Eric Bandiero

Commissioned by the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, David Parsons' new piece Dawn to Dusk is a beautiful and enjoyable ode to nature, but perhaps not a totally successful dance piece. The video often overwhelms the dancers, and the switch to Miami at the end, going from the lovely music of the aptly named Andrew Bird to the timba of Tiempo Libre, along with the switch to quick-cut eye-assaulting video, is painfully jarring. The contrast between nature and nightclub may make some sort of point--or not--but as choreography it doesn't cohere. And yet much of the piece is wonderful to watch.

Parsons' 2005 piece Wolfgang, to music by Mozart (natch), is a complete delight, a totally satisfying piece of Parsons-ania (Parson-age?). His trademark playfulness is perfect for this riff on relationships, and the piece is in turns coy, seductive, and funny. The choreography feels colloquial, as though the dancers are talking to one another--and to us--in the familiar vernacular of romance. Parsons' frequent focus on hands and arms adds to the beauty and the meaning of the piece. It's as though the dancers' bodies tell the story and their arms and hands provide the boldface and italics and punctuation. It's a wonderful effect. The lighting by Howell Binkley frames and focuses the piece perfectly, forming a significant part of the choreography.

The evening's other premiere, Black Flowers, choreographed by Katarzyna Skarpetowska to anguished music by Chopin, provides a sharp emotional contrast to Parsons' work. She utilizes much floor work and a unique, uncomfortable choreographic vocabulary that is evocative, painful, vivid, and, to me at least, not much fun to watch.

The other two pieces are Parsons' ever-exhilarating Caught, a magical tour de force that everyone should see at least once a year and his joyfully exuberant In the End.

The troupe is consistently strong and beautiful to watch, and their stamina makes Olympic athletes look like wimps. They are Eric Bourne, Elena D'Amario, Lauren Garson, Abby Silva Gavezzoli,
Christina Ilisije, Jason MacDonald, Ian Spring, Melissa Ullom, and Steven Vaughn.

(press ticket, row N)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Other Place

Even as the audience finds their seats at Manhattan Theater Club’s presentation of The Other Place, the juxtaposition of human strength and fragility and the whisper of the bridge between, sits in elegant contradiction on the stage.  In dusk-like shadow Laurie Metcalf as Juliana, a neuromedical researcher turned drug therapy shill, meditates in a chair. Her erect posture and cross-legged position emanate businesslike certitude: here’s a woman who knows her place in the world.

Or does she? Like the simple but symbolic set’s multitude of white-framed windows stacked erratically against one another (designed by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce)— a giant Jenga game waiting to topple over—the audience, as well as Juliana, soon recognize that memory can also unexpectedly and easily unravel, leaving even the most confident persona in confused pieces.

What makes playwright Sharr White’s storytelling so compelling, and sometimes also frustrating, is the nonlinear unfolding of Juliana’s situation. When Metcalf finally rises from her seated position, she offers a hint of the problem as she begins talking about her first “episode” during a presentation about a patented protein therapy she helped create. As Juliana narrates her power point to an invisible St. Thomas crowd of doctors, she tells the theater audience about a bikini-clad woman at the conference and the caustic remarks she inflicts on her from the stage. Does Juliana mock her because of the youth she represents? Does the hate generate from her own husband’s philandering? Or is it something more?

Intercut with Juliana’s presentation, we see her interact with a lost daughter, she recently and awkwardly, re-connected with, spar with a young doctor she thinks incompetent, and argue with a husband who insists he’s not unfaithful nor is he divorcing her. The Other Place makes its audience uncomfortable—not just because it ultimately addresses the terrible result of dementia, but as Juliana grows more befuddled, we do, too. The barrier between what’s real and what’s invented memory perplexes us and reminds all of the precarious nature of the things that make us ourselves. Metcalf, who also appeared in last spring’s MCC Theater production of the play’s Off-Broadway premiere, shows Juliana as the bristly and sarcastic person dementia created, while subtly hinting at the charm and wit overshadowed by the disease.  The rest of the cast support Metcalf beautifully, with Daniel Stern as her husband, Ian, and Zoe Perry, Metcalf’s real-life daughter, playing several roles, including the prodigal daughter and a nicely rendered turn as a kind stranger. Although the play’s end mimics a Lifetime television, disease-of-the week movie, with its pat-like finale, The Other Place still resonates with the very real sadness of someone coming undone  (TDF ticket, mezzanine).

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The Other Place

The Other Place, which ran last spring at MCC and which opens tomorrow night on Broadway at MTC's Friedman Theatre, has been described as a "psychological thriller" and a "dark comedy." It struck me as neither. The mystery at the center of the play--the relevance of the woman in the yellow bikini that the main character thinks she sees during the first episode of dementia she experiences--takes its time unfolding, but hardly in a "thrilling" sort of way. Rather, The Other Place creeps up on you, building in ways that are at once enormously compelling and increasingly uncomfortable, before reaching a gentle, sad conclusion. As for "dark comedy"? Um, no. Sure, there were some light moments, and some very funny asides. But more often than big collective chortles were inappropriate ones emanating from solitary members of the audience at jarringly weird times. The Other Place is a highly disorienting play made up of increasingly uncomfortable moments where laughter would help, but isn't encouraged by the playwright, performers, or director.

But I suppose marketing the show this way would be utterly disastrous. And that would be a shame, because The Other Place is worth seeing: it's tightly written by Sharr White, beautifully acted by a small and deeply committed company, and directed with cutting insight by Joe Mantello.

It is also about dementia, which is no secret, but which isn't easy to sell to the masses, either. We all have our stories, don't we? The ones about family members, friends, or loved ones who, sometimes very quickly and sometimes at a snail's pace, descend into a sort of twilight of the mind that initially creeps around the edges ("What day is it?")  and ends up taking over completely, in the most painful and disturbing of ways ("Who are you, again? My husband, you say?"). The subject has certainly been tackled before, in various entertainment forms that range from absurdist and slapsticky (Where's Poppa?), to mawkishly sentimental (Driving Miss Daisy), to heartbreaking.

Full disclosure: I found The Other Place to be an excellent example of the heartbreaking variety, which doesn't necessarily mean that you will, too. Sometimes, art is all about what hits you, and why, and when; timing, here, is of the essence. I've watched a number of older family members slide into dementia in the course of my life, and am in the process of watching it again. My personal experience has thus caused The Other Place to stay with me in a way that it would perhaps not have a year ago. But then, I suppose this applies to just about everything we see and interpret.

Seeing and interpreting are central to the show, which jumps around in time and shifts from scene to scene in terms of perspective, mood, and allegiance to characters. The exceptional Laurie Metcalf plays Juliana Smithton, a biophysicist in her early 50s who is married to a successful oncologist (the surprisingly nuanced Daniel Stern), works for a pharmaceutical company that (cruelly, ironically) sells a drug that aids with dementia, and has deeply conflicted feelings about her daughter, with whom she has had no contact for a decade. Onstage before the house opens and there until the curtain call, Metcalf does an exceptional job of depicting a terse, caustic, highly efficient woman who slides suddenly--and with terrifying rapidity--into a dementia that makes her worse in every way: she becomes disoriented and aphasic, delusional and paranoid. She also becomes viciously nasty, snidely condescending, and shrilly combative, to the point where you might ask yourself--as I did midway through the show--why we should even bother with such a character.

But that's what dementia does, and the play follows the twists and turns of the disease and its impact on Juliana and her husband bravely and without a lot of pandering to the audience. It is a testament to all involved with this production that by the end of the show, Juliana--along with the circle of characters who suffer along with her--earns our understanding, our support, our sympathy.

She also makes us question our own hold on reality. Are the scenes we are being shown actually happening? Is what we are left with at the end of the play true at all? Is the scene, for example, where Juliana sits on the floor being fed Chinese food taking place where the production is telling us it is taking place, or is Juliana in a nursing home being fed something much blander by a kind orderly? The more I think about The Other Place the less I am sure about any of it.

The fact that I began to cry at the curtain call last night surprised the hell out of me. I was drawn in to the play deeply enough that I didn't think much about my emotional reaction to it until it was over. And, to reiterate, the sorrow that the play has left me with is not just about the play itself. But then again, the fact that The Other Place--for all its twists, turns, and slightly inaccurate marketing descriptions--shook me as deeply as it did is perhaps the most superlative praise I can give a production and the people involved in it.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Ode to Anticipation

Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor
Waterloo Bridge

When I was a kid, Sunday was one of the highlights of my week because it included the Sunday NY Times Arts and Leisure section, with its robust and exciting theatre section. On particularly good weeks, my parents would be in the mood to drive the two miles to the store that had the Sunday Times on Saturday night. That was a real treat.

I remember leafing through the Times in the store to make sure that every section was there. Well, maybe not every section--I probably wouldn't have noticed if the business or cars section was missing--but the big three: Arts & Leisure, Book Review, and the Magazine.

I remember learning how to handle the large pages, folding them just so. I remember the smell of the paper. I remember the feeling of the ink on my hands. I remember calling friends because, oh, Debbie Reynolds was going to be in Irene or Colleen Dewhurst was doing a show.

Similarly, I remember the excitement when the TV guide was delivered. If Waterloo Bridge or Kings Row was on at 2 a.m. a week from Wednesday, I'd have all that time to look forward to seeing it. My parents would get me up in the middle of the night--even on a school night--because who knew if we would ever get a chance to see it again?

I wouldn't go back. I love having the world at my fingertips. I love knowing that someone is going to be in a show practically before they do. The ink from the newspaper made me sneeze. I'm glad I don't kill so many trees. I love that I can watch Waterloo Bridge any time I want to.

But I miss anticipation.

Last year I went to Madagascar, and toward the end of the trip I ran out of books to read. I had brought six paperbacks, but I had read them all in various planes and airports and lodges and tents. Where we staying had one book in English: The DaVinci Code. I had read it, and once was more than enough. So, for about 30 hours, I didn't have a book to read. That's a long time for me. The only other time I can think of, I was in the hospital.

I knew that I would be able to get a book or two on the way home, when we had a layover at the Johannesburg airport, which has a lovely bookstore. I can't tell you how much I looked forward to that bookstore. When we finally got to the airport, I practically skipped there. It felt wonderful to leaf through various books with their worlds of possibility. (I wanted to stroke the covers, but I didn't want to get arrested in South Africa.) I bought Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín. I read the entire The Empty Family on the way home, and loved it.

When I told people this story, many said, "Why didn't you take a Kindle? Then this would never have happened." But that misses the point. Doing without for a whole 30 hours didn't kill me, and when I did get my hands on some books, it was a flat-out joy. Anticipation enhanced the experience.

I'm tempted to do a "things were better in my days" rap now, but that's not the point either. The access to art, information, books, words, the entire world, is wonderful. But I do believe that young people nowadays, in being given so much, have been denied the deep pleasure of anticipation.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Show Showdown's Most Read Stories of 2012

In 2012, Show Showdown published 146 total posts. These twenty were the most read--or at least the most-clicked-on. I have tried to find a theme, but with no luck. Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and regional theatre are all represented. Some are positive reviews, some quite negative. Some shows were reviewed on Show Showdown more than once, but only one review made this list--not necessarily the first review, not necessarily the review written by a particular writer. Six of the shows are musicals; one is about musicals; and one is a cabaret performance. Six shows were revivals.

I guess the only theme is that our readers have catholic tastes.

  1. Les Miserables (Eastlight Theatre in Illinois; Jamie Fuller)
  2. "Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City" (Liz Wollman)
  3. Fort Blossom Revisited (2000/2012) (Wendy Caster)
  4. Venus in Fur (Liz Wollman)
  5. Annie (Liz Wollman)
  6. Judy Kuhn at Feinstein's (Wendy Caster)
  7. Nice Work If You Can Get It (Aaron Riccio)
  8. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Wendy Caster)
  9. A Streetcar Named Desire (Wendy Caster)
  10. Don't Talk to the Actors (Wendy Caster)
  11. Menders (Wendy Caster)
  12. A Man of No Importance (Wendy Caster)
  13. Rock of Ages (Liz Wollman)
  14. Disaster! (Wendy Caster)
  15. Clybourne Park (Wendy Caster)
  16. Wendy Caster's 2012 Top Ten (Wendy Caster)
  17. How I Learned to Drive (Liz Wollman)
  18. Other Desert Cities (Liz Wollman)
  19. DEINDE (Wendy Caster)
  20. Red Dog Howls (Wendy Caster)

To Spoil or Not to Spoil: A Discussion

An interesting thread on critics and spoilers on All That Chat got me thinking. As a theatre blogger, I've already thought about the role of a critic quite a lot, as discussed here. One conclusion I've come to is that I'm a reviewer, rather than a critic.  (An interesting discussion of the difference can be found here. Based on this differentiation, I think Michael Feingold is the only true full-out theatre critic we have right now, and it remains a sin that he doesn't have an unlimited word count for his writing.)
The Critic from The Critic

As for the spoilers discussion: I completely do not understand why people can't just label spoilers as such. It's such an easy thing to do.

But, of course, reader self-protection is also important. For example, if you don't want to know the ending in advance, don't read John Lahr's reviews (though, of course, he's no longer writing them, which is not a huge loss). And if you really don't want anything spoiled, don't read any reviews or articles before seeing a show. Save them for afterward.

A personal bugaboo is when the one-line descriptor of a show or movie is in itself a spoiler. For example, a friend of mine was reading a book, and I said, oh, that's her AIDS book, right? And my friend actually started yelling at me, because the main character's illness had not yet been diagnosed, and I had taken away the surprise. But I had no idea it was a spoiler--I hadn't read the book, and it was referred to all over the place as a book on AIDS.

I personally don't like even hearing, "Oh, you'll love the twist." It changes how I view things. I recently read a book about which I knew nothing, and every twist and turn was a complete delight. If I had read even the first line of most reviews, I would have been denied much of that delight.

Ultimately, it's hard to write about anything without, well, writing about what you're writing about. Sometimes too much will be said. But, where possible, segregating spoilers into one part of the review and labeling them as spoilers is a form of customer advocacy I can live with.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Fun Home

One show I accidentally neglected for my top ten list was Fun Home.* This amazing musical version of Alison Bechdel's brilliant graphic memoir, by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, was one of the best new musicals I've seen in years and years. I hope it gets the full production it so richly deserves. And I hope it happens soon, before the cast's amazingly talented young people--in particular, Sydney Lucas as Young Alison--outgrow their roles.
Sydney Lucas sings a song from Fun Home at the Public Theatre Block Party
Photo: Simon Luethi
*I didn't review it because it was a workshop, so it didn't show up on my list of shows I saw this year.