Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Catch Me if You Can Is Haggis In this Scenario

I am a little behind with blog posts due to the hurricane/tropical storm mishegoss.  MB and her trusty sidekick Claudia are all fine (although apparently I have begun to refer to myself in the third person) and weathered the storm upstate where of course it turned out to be worse than things were in Brooklyn.


Anyhoo...I went to see Catch Me if You Can last week before its September 4th closing.  I had low expectations.  I never saw the movie (hate Tom Hanks) .  I had heard the show was boring.  Besides some folks waxing poetic about Aaron Tveit's thighs and Norbert Leo Butz being Norbet Leo Butz (and never having seen him on stage before--for shame) I expected it to be a pretty disappointing evening.  But it was closing, and they were offering this backstage tour thing...so I thought I might as well go.

I didn't win the backstage tour with Aaron Tveit.  Though my friend's friend did!  She exclaimed "Hot damn!" when her name was called much to Aaron Tveit's amusement as he was selecting the winners.

Full disclosure:  My friend was able to put my name on the stage door list...so I got to go backstage after the show which was a first for me.  Not for nothing, passing by everyone waiting for autographs and going in the stage door made me fell ultra-glam and powerful.  Like I could part the Red Sea or something (I really need to get out more).  I might have done nothing backstage except stand around on the stage...but hell, I've never done that before.  Chatted with the cast member who allowed us access and got to check that off the imaginary bucket list I have never written. 

As for the show...I actually really enjoyed the show.  No one was more surprised than I was!  What the hell is wrong with me?  Did I drink some sort of Kool-Aid pre-show?  Did Starbucks put a happy pill in my iced tea?  Have I lost my mind?  Did Aaron Tveit put a spell over me?  I have no answers. 

I have always liked con men stories.   I am fascinated about why con men do what they do.  Years ago I tried to get Miramax to buy a real life con man story to turn into a movie (they didn't bite).  And I think what was satisfying to me about the show was that they wanted to explain the motivation behind the characters actions and I liked the reason they offered.  I found the storyline about fathers and sons really moving and I found the music helped establish the emotional resonance of that story.  I enjoyed the performances of Aaron Tveit, Norbert Leo Butz and Tom Wopat.  I liked the dynamic established by those three characters and I like what each actor did with the role.  I found most of the female characters underwritten.  I could have done without the entire medical subplot...and frankly probably the second act as a whole....but oddly enough I didn't mind sitting through it at the time.

I was dreading what had been described as a "jazzy" score but found the music suited the story and often communicated the emotions I was interested in.  Considering the 60's nostalgia writ large these days with Mad Men I am surprised that the show has not been able to capitalize on that.  Maybe a show without a big Hollywood name, with new music just isn't something tourist audiences will take a risk on.  But it had all the trappings of a palatable mainstream musical (although really weak in the love story department).  I guess I did not leave the show humming any tunes (not that I ever do really) but in the moment they worked for the characters and the story (again except for the second act).

How can I like a show and yet feel like the second act was useless and unnecessary.  I guess because I was willing to go with the actors in the characters they created.  I think the father/son stuff really got to me and I guess once I was on board for that I was willing to go where the show took me.  The second act was weaker, in my estimation, because they were quickly trying to set up a love interest (after an hour and a half without one), love interest backstory, and squeeze in another layer of his con man antics.  I wish there was a better love story.  In the end I thought it was unnecessary because the real "love" story was the father/son story (whether real or surrogate father). 

I didn't have a problem with the "show within a show" conceit.  Didn't think it was necessary but didn't think it was problematic. 

Of course the best part of the show I saw was a blooper in the final number.  Norbert ripped off his tie and accidentally whipped Aaron Tveit in the face with it.  It thwacked AT right by his hairline mic so it made a LOUD noise.  It sounded a lot worse than I imagine it felt but it nearly caused the two of them to fall apart with laughter.  They kept going but were cracking up the whole time.  They genuinely seemed to be having a great time working with each other and it was a bittersweet moment knowing the show only has a week of life left.

I guess this show taught me that I should check out shows that I might otherwise not...I should stop being so judgey.  Maybe I will like it.  I mean once I tried it I actually liked haggis.  Wow, does my liking haggis undermine everything I have ever said here.  Probably.  Is Catch Me if You Can haggis in this scenario?...Maybe. 

Don't knock it until you try it.  Lesson learned.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Yeast Nation: Oh Noooo My Jelly

I never saw Urinetown.  I feel like I keep having to make these confessions.  Some shows I just did not care enough about to see.  I have never been the type of person who needs to see every show or movie.  I am really selective and sometimes that means I miss out on great things.  That said, I heard they added some shows for Yeast Nation so I pounced on tickets.  For $15, it did not seem like much of a risk.

Plot: Uhm, yeast, all named Jan, live at the bottom of the sea (I was hoping there would also be a pineapple there but there was not) eating salt and trying not to procreate because the salt food is running out.  The leader of the yeast rules with an iron "fist" and does not tolerate anyone breaking the rules he has laid down for this society.  But his son, Jan the Second, thinks that they cannot survive if things remain as they are.  His daughter, Jan the Sly, wants her goody-two-shoes brother out of the way so she can be in charge.

Yeah, there you go.   Sort of Shakespeare meets Treehuggers. The cast included Harriet Harris (who I haven't seen on stage since Jeffrey) as Jan the Unnamed.

I think you have to be of one of two minds about this show.  Do you look at this as a $15 fringe production?  Or do you look at this as the product of Tony-award winning creators?  For a $15 fringe production, it was amusing at times.  Not laugh out loud funny.  It was a limited idea and I smiled from time to time.  The performers were really a cut above for a fringe work but the duct-tape covered rocks moved around as set pieces reminded me of exactly where I was. 

The cast did their best to play up the broad comedy.  The voices were generally strong overall.  I really liked the full chorus number "Stasis."  I liked several of the leads for their comic turns (in particular Jan the Wise & Jan the Sly) but thought the young boy, who was the voice of reason, and the leader of the yeast were not very good. It is too bad because I felt like that counter-point voice of reason was really important to the tone of the piece and would have liked more from that "character."

But I just didn't think it was sharp or witty enough for me.  If I was to change lenses and consider this an offering of Tony-award winning creators I'd say, what the eff?  It felt like it was only half-baked (ugh not even trying to make a yeast pun).  At two and a half hours, it needs trimming and sharpening.  It oscillates between being silly and trying to thoughtfully execute a message.  For example, if a yeast gets it's membrane punctured they shout out "Noooooo, my jelly."  Words like jelly, magma, jamboree are used because they are funny words...but that might be the extent of the humor.  The thoughtful message about limited resources, learning to adapt and change...yeah I get it but the delivery was weird and not really engaging.

The cast really did the best they could with what they were given.  The strongest comedy came from the Machiavellian scheming by the leader's daughter, Jan the Sly (Joy Suprano) and the leader's consigliere, Jan the Wise (Manu Narayan).  But I am afraid it wasn't enough for me to be fully on board.  I'd like to see it tightened and funnier if it is going to have life beyond the fringe.

I had a pleasant evening for a $15 fringe show. But it was not the riotous comedy I was hoping for.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Nostalgia: Is Follies Just For Old People?

Someone under the age of 22 asked me if she should go see Follies.  Since it is in previews I won't review it yet, but my knee-jerk (emphasis on the jerk) response was "No, I think you are too young for that kind of nostalgia."  Another 20-something took umbrage with that statement and frankly she should have told me to fuck-off.  Now I know a certain 18 year old who is OBSESSED with Follies so it could be the type of material to appeal to certain young people...so why my response.

Follies, in my eyes, is all about nostalgia and a deep-seated fixation on the past.  

I don't think when I was in my 20's I was that focused on the past. I was in fact kind of obsessed with my future.  What was I going to do?  What was I going to be?  How was I going to "make it?"  Life was scary but it was full of opportunities.  Everything seemed possible.  It seemed to me, if you just worked hard enough, you could get where you wanted to go. 

The older I get the less I seem to focus on "my future" and contemplate more of my past.  In my 20's, I could be nostalgic about high school or friends lost in the passage of time, but the balance of my thoughts between past and future, were largely tipped in favor of the future.  In my 30's, I find the scales are just starting to tip the other way. 

Confession:  I bought Lite Brite off of eBay this year for a photo project I was doing on nostalgic items of my childhood.  I then bought a Viewmaster with Muppet disks to go in it.  I then bought a typewriter.  Yeah, Ok I might be a little obsessed with the past right now.  My scales might be seriously out of balance.  But having discussed this with some of my 30-something brethren, I guess I am not alone in that.  Also, my body is physically falling apart.  I'm here to tell you--warranty on body parts totally runs out in your 30's. #thingsnoonetellsyou

It's not that now life is no longer full of possibilities and opportunities, it just feels different to me now. Of course you can change careers (I am certainly evidence of that) and multiple times.  You can change cities and partners (been there, done that).  Really nothing in life is set in stone (only thinking that makes it so).  Shifting gears, changing paths is possible, but as my lower back will tell you, it turns out you can become less flexible over time.  I am definitely more susceptible to (emotional) motion sickness upon making drastic changes.  The biggest difference is that now I am much more cognizant of the consequences than I ever was before.  Which brings me back to....Follies. One of the major questions in Follies is CAN you turn back the clock, start again, correct mistakes made.  If you do, there is a cost. As an adult, will you take that risk and endure those costs?

I have no right to say that 20-somethings won't get something out of Follies but my query remains: would someone younger enjoy or appreciate that question?  In a mindset of youthful, infinite possibilities who wants to hear that the possibilities might be actually finite.  Totes depressing right?


Monday, August 22, 2011

Completeness: Even Scientists Do It

I saw the first preview of Completeness, a new play by Itamar Moses.  Because Playwrights Horizons actively asked for feedback from me before the show opened, I have decided to post my review.

I feel like I have not seen a contemporary new play in a while.  This is, of course, not true.  I saw Jerusalem and Good People on Broadway in the spring (both of which I loved).  I guess what I had not seen in a while was a show about young people and relationships--something that could be said is dealt with more commonly in Hollywood rom-coms and not something I see a lot of on the NY Stage (or at least since I stopped going to see friend's shows about their break-ups with their exes which is pretty much all the theater I saw in the late 90's).

I was trying to think of the last great play I saw that addressed young people and all I could come up with was This is Our Youth (Man that was an amazing play, Mark Ruffalo on stage was...I mean tears are coming to my eyes as I think about how heart-breaking and amazing that show was).  It has obviously been a while for me.

Completeness is about two graduate students at a university, one in Computer Science and one in Biology who collaborate on a project and end up in a relationship together.  There is a a substantial portion of the play that involves complex discussions of algorithms, proteins and other scientific talk...though most of it is used as foreplay.

After Act I, I was thinking that the play was funny.  The scientific verbosity of the characters was used to good effect to tell us who these two people are and how they engage with others (through the language of their respective areas of science).  Watching the couple get together was witty and enjoyable...but at the intermission I thought, ok, now how are you going to apply all that we, the audience, just learned to this journey between these two characters.  I mean if you were Stoppard the complex scientific conversations would be about more than these two people (see Arcadia...no seriously if you can ever see a professional top-notch production of Arcadia, just do it.  One of my favorite plays of all time.).

As Act II came to a close, I realized the scientific talk sadly was not as well integrated into the themes of the show as I would have liked.  Yes, the physical and emotional collaboration actually changes these two characters and their professional lives.  Looking at your practice from the perspective of someone else can challenge you and expand your way of thinking in new and wonderful ways.  But the play really just ends up about how hard it is for young people to connect in relationships.  It's not a bad theme but it felt rather pedestrian.  I was also left wondering "why" the characters were the way they were (although previous relationships were blamed for certain aspects of their emotional constipation I didn't get a clear sense of what happened in those relationships--I was left wanting to know more or wanting to see more reasons for their emotional baggage).

That said for the most part the young cast was fantastic.  The comic timing in the first act was terrific.  They managed to get around all the scientific lingo with ease (and remember this was a first preview I saw).  There were some tech problems in the preview and the show had to stop for a little bit but that was fine.  The set in some ways reminded me of the carousel structure of the Motherfucker with the Hat.  The feel of graduate student housing was accurate.  I think they were still working out certain lighting cues and effects and I don't want to discuss them because I don't know if what I saw was intentional (again first preview). 

I got a little confused when the two supporting characters played multiple characters.  I caught on but it took me an extra beat or two to figure out what was happening.  I thought maybe stronger costume choices or bigger signifiers might have helped...but I caught on and it was fine.

It was an absolutely enjoyable production for a piece of light material. 

Disclosure: Tickets to this show were given to me as a gift by Ran Xia who paid a nominal fee for the tickets.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Holy Hell Jerusalem: Mildly Bitter Goes Soft

Even though I hate everything, I really liked this play.  I wasn't a sobbing puddle of humanity by the end but I definitely had tears in my eyes and found it profoundly moving.

I saw Jerusalem several times this season including today's final show.  I find it is rare that I see a new play and walk out thinking, "Wow.  I'd like to read that."  But it was that kind of play.  Even after seeing it multiple times I was still discovering nuances and layers to it.  Seeing a top-notch cast perform it made it all the more remarkable. 

A short, wholly insufficient, description of the plot would be, Rooster Johnny Byron, a Romany man, is about to be driven out of his trailer where he hosts parties for teens, deals drugs, and makes trouble for the local estate.  On St. George's Day, his last day in possession of his piece of England, he continues to provide drugs and entertainment to his coterie of teen hangers on and cannot be persuaded to leave before the bull-dozers are scheduled to arrive.

It is very easy to focus on Mark Rylance's performance, as Rooster Johnny Byron alone.  He's a human-hurricane (as I have mentioned he's the greatest Hamlet I have ever seen).  It is not only an incredible physical performance where he shapes his physical being into a battered old daredevil's body, but a comedic and touching performance as well.  (The last physical performance where an actor magically transformed himself before my eyes was Billy Crudup in The Elephant Man--He was amazing.).  Rylance possesses this character in a way that I will probably have to wait 20 years before I could even accept someone else in the role.  In my mind, they are now inseparable. 

What could be easily missed along side Rylance's performance is the stunning supporting cast in this show. Mackenzie Crook, Max Baker and Alan David each bring their pain and sadness to the feet of Rooster.  Rooster is more than just pied piper; he's priest and confessor to each of these men.  Mackenzie Crook has great comic timing and brings a sweetness and sadness to this character who wants nothing more than respect and love from Rooster.  Alan David, as The Professor, is both whimsical and bereft. 

Why each character comes to Rooster's woods is unique and specific thanks to a talented cast and a great text. 

I saw John Gallagher Jr. perform the role of Lee Piper and today saw his understudy, Jay Sullivan.  Lee Piper is the young man in the crowd who has decided to leave England and move to Australia.  Rooster gives his respect and blessings to Lee.  Gallagher may have delivered the stoner-dude comedy sharper but Sullivan really conveyed the weight of loss from Lee choosing to leave.  The scene between Lee and his mate Davey (Danny Kirrane another standout in the cast) felt more poignant with Sullivan's reading of it.  Gallagher brought a layer of sensuality to the role which worked well in the flirtation with the girls in the gaggle. Sullivan seemed a bit more shell-shocked in the romance department, which played to a different comic effect.  It was really a pleasure to have seen both performances as the character morphed slightly to each actor's bidding and yet each performance was appropriate for the play. 

The women in the cast should not be overlooked.  Geraldine Hughes as Rooster's old girlfriend has a challenging role to convey her love this for man, her fear that he will be destroyed, her fear how this will effect her child, and her own demons.  Charlotte Mills and Molly Ranson (soon to be the new Carrie) are splendid as the teen girls who hang about, with Mills always offering herself up to Lee should he want a "freebie" before he goes away.  Aimee-Ffion Edwards is ethereal as Phaedra. She was flipping ethereal on the sidewalk outside the theater.  Can we please cast all these girls in a bunch more shows?  I really enjoyed their work.

What makes Jerusalem stand out for me is that it is by and large a riotous good time and yet that comedy leads to a serious and deeper discussion. 

The bigger themes here in Jerusalem are epic.  Many of the reviews focused on the fact that it was about ENGLAND (in big honking letters).  And it is on one level. But it can be so much more.  It is about myth, storytelling, revealing ourselves, being understood, being accepted, being seen.  It is about sheltering those who need it despite the consequences and about hurting those who we may love because we cannot do any different.  Being true to yourself and holding fast to your convictions, even if that means utter destruction.  I don't know...it's probably about all of those things, maybe none of those things, and a whole lot more.  Like I said, I really want to read it.  I am sure it will a text to be studied for years to come.

I happen to be more of a straight play person and this play was right up my alley.  It was on some levels fuck-off depressing and at the same time genuinely uplifting and soaring.  It used the "c" word in the English context which is needed more in the US.  And it was lyrical and poetic and yet contemporary and relatable.  It is a joy to see and a joy to see when performed with a great cast. I look forward to revisiting it in 20 years.  Rylance can play the Professor then. 

As tonight was the final New York performance, Mark Rylance at the curtain call gave a speech.  He did so another night when I went.  It happened to be St. George's Day when I saw the play and as that figures into the plot he took some time at the curtain call to just give a beautiful speech about the meaning of the holiday to him and to the cast.  Off the cuff, it had me crying.  And if you have read any of this blog, I mean I'm not a sentimental person (go to War stupid Horse, I will not cry for you!)  Tonight he spoke about being part of wonderful unions, the skill and craft of understudies, the theater family they have created and the wonderful experience of being on the NY stage.  He wrapped up with a delicious statement which I will paraphrase poorly about the state we often find ourselves in: Having to stay, when you want to go places and having to go, when you want nothing more than to stay.

Standing in that theater, in that moment, I wanted it to last forever, but alas the moment had already passed, the play had ended.  Theater being ephemeral, I find I am constantly wishing I could hold it tighter so it would not slip away but slip away it does.  Though good theater, hopefully leaves you with much more than you came with and any sense of loss that the show is over is filled with the feeling you experienced something great that cannot be taken away.

Ah fuck, I got sentimental. Someone call Spielberg.

Friday, August 19, 2011

I Like Things: Can I Flummox Your Algorithm?

I have this reputation for basically hating everything.  This applies to co-workers, restaurants, entire countries...I mean it's a sliding scale from burn-you-with-the-heat-of-1000-suns hate to "yeah I hated that." But it is not true.  I do like some things.  Birds, cats, tea, Scotland, Thelma Ritter, baked goods.  YOU, some of YOU I like.  But when it comes to the arts I am incredibly opinionated.  Of course, I am not immune to the appeal of candy (Pretty Little Liars anyone) or popcorn (Channing Tatum in anything--don't lie, you love Step Up--admit it!).

So I thought it might be fun to talk about two movies: one that I love that is highbrow, and one that I love that is lowbrow.  I looked through my Netflix ratings of the 3052 movies I have rated (is that all?) and tried to find something that I rated 5 stars in each category.

5 STARS: HIGHBROW: The Apartment

I have been in love with Billy Wilder for as long as I can remember.  More awkward now that he is dead.  But his dark humor is what I live for.  It is a window into human behavior that can simultaneously be heart-breaking and gut-busting because it is true and because it is real.  Even as a child I was drawn to his work (pretentious much). My favorite Christmas movie as a child was The Bishop's Wife.  Years later I learned that Billy Wilder did uncredited re-writes on it.  I have to believe I was attracted to his genius even then (because I am incredibly pretentious).  I remember my brother and I nearly-wetting ourselves watching The Fortune Cookie with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. A much later Wilder work and  one I probably wouldn't enjoy as much today but...like I said I have a thing for Wilder.  

I like to think that if there is a perfect movie it is The Apartment.  The cast is fantastic.  The script is sharp. The direction is tone-perfect.  The cinematography is lovely (not like Gregg Toland Citizen Kane cinematography which gives me orgasms just thinking about) but it is pretty darn good (seriously even if you know nothing about movies, you have to watch Citizen Kane just to see how amazing Gregg Toland was--also The Best Years of Our Lives another one of my favorite movies and he shot that too).  It is dark, romantic, funny, and sad.  If you don't know the plot, in short, Jack Lemmon plays a young executive on the rise in a company and to assist in his career trajectory he lends out his apartment to his bosses for their extra-marital affairs.  He falls for the elevator operator in his office building, played by Shirley MacLaine.  She is, however, involved with someone else.  As he is to discover later, it turns out it is someone he knows. 

Jack Lemmon is to die for in this movie.  He manages to play a charming, sweet, adorable guy who is also an active participant in this sordid scheme.  There is a look he gives Shirley MacLaine in one scene that melts my heart.  And there is a moment when he discovers who she is involved with that breaks my heart.  Claudia Shear in her terrific book Blown Sideways Through Life (my Bible from age 19-24) describes Buster Keaton as having "the liquid compassionate eyes of a Perugino Madonna." I think the same could be said for Jack Lemmon here.  A lifetime of happiness and sadness, love and loss, just glow in his eyes and he makes you fall in love with him with just a look.  There is a hilarious supporting cast which includes Ray Walston, Edie Adams and David White.  As someone who has lived and worked in New York for a long time, I  always think about how this movie feels authentic--giant office buildings, a sea of humanity pouring into elevators, quiet brownstone blocks where lovers fight and kiss.  It is New York through a darkly comedic eye but still feels accurate even if it was made in 1960.  I believe this is one of the last, if not the last, black and white movie to win Best Picture at the Oscars (Schindler's List does not count and don't get me started on Spielberg again).  An Oscar win is not always necessarily something I support (erhm...Titanic anyone, A Beautiful Mind! Ok I was trying to keep this positive...I'll shut up now).  But here, I think it was richly deserved and you should give this film a viewing.

5 STARS LOWBROW: Groundhog Day

Ok Groundhog Day isn't like say She's the Man lowbrow (which I apparently gave 5 stars to on Netflix...I assume 4 of them were for Channing Tatum...I can't even bring myself to review She's the Man here...I'm dying of embarrassment as we speak--yet I would totally watch it again--this explains why Netflix cannot recommend movies to me.  I totally flummox their algorithm--I want a T-shirt that says that--"Come up to my room sometime so I can flummox your algorithm."  No.  Not sexy.  Fine. ) but it's not quite Billy Wilder.  That said, it is another pitch perfect comedy (some could argue dark comedy as well).  And it's not like an old fogey classic movie that, of course, I would like.  But it's a totally accessible American comedy that is damn good (see also DAVE. I think a totally under-appreciated comedy).

For like the three of you who have never seen it, it is about a weatherman who ends up covering the Groundhog's Day Celebration in Punxsutawney, PA and he gets stuck their overnight due to an unexpected snow storm.  When he wakes up it is Groundhog Day again.  Every day he wakes up he is reliving that day exactly as he did before.  His TV producer is played by Andie MacDowell.  I will say for the record that I mentally edit out all Andie MacDowell performances in any films that actually star Andie MacDowell.  I have been doing this for a while.  It's a gift.  It allows me to like movies with Andie MacDowell in them.  She is less annoying in Groundhog Day than in other movies (Four Weddings and a Funeral might be a perfect movie if someone else was cast in her role).  I am sure she is a lovely person but I have never been taken with her (unlike the casting directors of the early 90's--WHY WHY OH THE HUMANITY).  

This movie is all about a terrific script and a great performance by Bill Murray.  It is a real testament to script by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis that you can repeat the same lines, and story over and over again as part of the plot device and it doesn't feel repetitive.  Then take what is familiar to the audience and turn it into a playground for Bill Murray to do his best work in.  Bill Murray is an interesting guy.  Worked on a movie he was in and ended up at funeral with him once (Our on-set photographer died during the shooting of a movie--heart attack--and Bill Murray, who wasn't even in this movie, heard that he died, came to this stills photographer's funeral, spoke, gave a lovely eulogy...it was just so generous and unexpected).  As much as I hear he can be very difficult to work with it, I have always liked him for that gesture.  

In Groundhog Day he plays an unlikable, curmudgeon (a role he was born to play) and yet we come to have sympathy for him in his plight and even want to root for him in the end. 

So see, there are things I like.  Not all bitter all the time.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rent-Heads and Hair-Balls: An Essay on What's So Darn Appealing

As I have previously mentioned, I never saw Rent in its original incarnation.  So I decided to see the recent re-boot.  With no prior version to compare it to, I hoped that I could come as a fresh-observer and possibly even enjoy the new version without being haunted by the original production.  Didn't happen.  But please give me some points for trying.  I went in open to it...but it did not win me over. 

If it is your holy grail of theater, then just stop reading.  It is probably too entwined with your DNA at this point and you love it so completely that any foul word against it would be sacrilegious.  Please, seriously, stop reading. I'd like us to still be friends.  Agreed.  No cheating.  You've stopped right...boo.

Ok, the bold of spirit can continue this journey with me into the critical heart of darkness.  The more I thought about my reactions to Rent, the more I realized I had to talk about Hair as well.  Putting aside the current productions of both shows for a moment, I'd like to talk about the underlying texts and what relevance and resonance these shows have to audiences today.  I feel like the press recently has asked the question why young people have been drawn to Hair and Rent.  Besides some snarky all teens are emo response, I honestly want to discuss this. 

Let's start out talking about similarities.  Rent and Hair take the parents vs. kids, us vs them position.  In Hair, the parents provide shelter and money and nag.  In Rent, the parents seem absent and disconnected to their kids and leave answering machine messages and nag.  Both shows allow young people to establish communities of "like-minded" individuals and these young people revel in their rebellious "outside" status.  Both shows focus on a "lifestyle" that requires they live outside the mainstream.  So it seems to me clear why young people would be drawn to these shows.  With cute boys and girls, living in a state of rebellion against parental authority, being misunderstood by those in the mainstream, young audiences can share in that emotional journey.  Isn't that pretty much what life between 12 and 25 is? A constant struggle to be "understood," establish your own identity and then try to find the community where you and your new identity fit in?  Just me?  No I think it is a pretty universal struggle.,

With Hair, it's a hippie tent community where they smoke weed, have sex, trade partners, burn draft cards.  With Rent, they live in a building with no heat and pay no rent. Am I missing something?  Was that it?  My reaction to Rent now was that their squatter lifestyle was not all that edgy.  Moreover, the characters were not all that edgy.  I mean I have lived with strippers, actors, filmmakers.  Just another normal day in NYC roommates.  Ok I have never lived with a drag queen.  I suspect they would hog the bathroom and we wouldn't get along.  Although the characters in Rent are marginalized by their illness, it struck me that this seemed to be a self-imposed exile.  One could also argue that in Rent they were isolating themselves as "artists."  Excuse me while I go gag myself...I'm back.  Ok "artists."  Yeah La Vie Boheme.  I get it. 

Here's where I start to be an old lady.  What artists?  What art? The squatters make about as much art as the hippies.  Maybe the weakness is that the "artist" we see the most is Maureen (in this production she was played by Sharpay from High School Musical--I mean not actually Ashley Tisdale but might as well have been).  Having a filmmaker be the narrator should in fact be a great visual tool to communicate the artist and the struggle...but we never see his amazing riot footage.  He remains an artist in theory for me and not practice.

For both shows, it seems the greatest "creation" is the alternative lifestyle and the space to be who you are.  I sure didn't feel the anger or rebellion in Rent.  Hair comes across angrier.  The characters have taken at least a public position against something larger than themselves.  In Rent, the landlord being their old pal seems to make it too local and small a problem.  I didn't connect to the greater struggle: the greater vision of it.  I didn't detect a bigger theme about homelessness or over-priced real estate.

Another aspect that young people might be reacting to is the fact that both shows allow us the space to explore our feelings about a time, or a place in history either we lived through or we wish to reflect on.  I'm going to be generous and give this to Rent but I thought Rent's exploration of that time period was mild and thin. Any political overtones are broad brushstrokes and not nuanced or deep.  Landlords are bad unless they change their mind and give you keys. Ok. Squatters might be artists and their neighbors are truly homeless, but those two groups don't mix. I guess we might throw an off stage riot over our vacant lot and do ridiculous performance art. But what does it change? Not sure any of the characters are transformed by the political issues.  Although one could argue (not me) that some characters in Rent grow and change, it seems to have little to do with the "political" statements being made.  

AIDS is the other "political" strand in Rent and even that seems to me to be a MacGuffin.  I would argue the play is merely 90's window dressing over teens acting up/acting out. It doesn't feel stinging or even revolutionary.  For dramatic tension to exist, we need to have consequences. 

What are the consequences?  Hair was written for its time.  The audience would know automatically the consequences for these young men and maybe bring their own experiences to that to create frisson. Today that aspect of the show is more historic and academic. Yes there is a current war on (but I think the parallels are weak). The stronger argument to Hair's relevance today is a fight for equality and social acceptance for all. 

My first reaction during Act I in Hair was, "Jesus is this going to be about stupid hippies?" I think I was struggling with the youthful exuberance (or as I experienced it overindulgence) couched in bacchanalian revelry.  Exhausting. But once Claude receives his draft notice the meaning of all that exuberance has a place.  If you are going to draft a boy into war, it has dramatic value for him to sing his soul out in I Got Life.  Suddenly the stakes change and for me I started to "get" why a revival of Hair has merit.  Again maybe audiences in 1967 would have reacted to the exuberance differently.  Perhaps they would already feel this life-death tension from the get go because that was what was happening to them in that moment.  Maybe my reaction comes from a place of comfort and safety some 40 years later and I need the draft notice to bring down the exuberance and sober me (and Claude) with the reality of what was once a generalized external rebellion against "society" is in fact a more personal specific journey. 

I think generally I dislike the non-specific "fuck the man" rhetoric.  I prefer specifically why you want to "fuck the specific man" for what specifically the specific man has done to you.  This is a personal preference. 

Claude has a journey and we see his struggle between a world at "home", a dream world he has created for himself, and the world of his street urchin friends which he participates in but may not be wholly willing to adopt.  The rest of the tribe largely conforms to the group dynamic.  If Claude is on the fence, straddling worlds, Berger seems fixed in his choice to live out his rebellion on the streets, or India, or in some chick's bedroom.  I think it could be very easy to dismiss Berger as a childish boy focused purely on his own personal pleasure.  Immediate gratification, with maybe a protest here or there.  Points to Steel Burkhardt for finding space for that childish nature to be tempered for his love of Sheila and Claude.  As written, I don't think there is a lot of room in the play to explore that "real" adult space where the Sheila/Claude/Berger relationship isn't just about sex but Burkhardt finds the space and explores it. It is a role that could easily drift into antic and ribald silliness (and I imagine some feel that that is exactly where it stays).  But I think it rises above that.  I think Burkhardt grounds his character in an honest place so the emotional impact of the love triangle has some real resonance.  Yeah and he's hot.  Fine. But I'd really like to see him in another show where he can keep his pants on because I think there is more going on there than a nice ass. (I mean if you force me to watch his nice ass and pantless performance, so be it).

Claude has the larger journey and the consequences are played out through him.  It might take a while for them to get set in motion but by Act II it is clear.  I could do with less hallucinations in Act II but that's probably just me and a song with a lyric that includes "gloopy."

For Rent, I still wasn't so sure about consequences even at the end of the play.  They might lose their apartment?  They might die? For some reason that death  "consequence" didn't get communicated for me.  Ok someone dies and someone lives but those seemed more like awkward plot points than statements about the times.  Perhaps I'd need to see it again (god help me) to really get what was being "said."   Maybe the real problem is I can't escape the lens of today looking back at the AIDS epidemic.

Rent reminds me how much the AIDS epidemic was front and center in my teens and 20s.  It decimated the creative community and it impacted such a large part of the art conversation at the time. And yet today watching it I started thinking how even our dialogue about AIDS has changed so much.  So the play's reliance on it feels more historical artifact (not to say the fight is over, or that people are still being infected, or that AIDS in Africa is even remotely addressed).  I mean I can watch the Normal Heart and be gutted by the political shenanigans that went on in the 80's (highly recommend the book And the Band Played On if you are interested in learning about that period in our history).  But we talk about people living with AIDS now as a managed disease.  I don't know...I didn't see what Rent was saying about it.

So what are the Rent consequences.  Please let me know when you find them.

It sucks that Jonathan Larson is dead (probably most for him) because I feel like those in charge of the rights to Rent are preserving his "vision" in mothballs and are afraid to change it, reinterpret it or improve on it.  Say what you will about the Porgy and Bess controversy, I think one of the big questions when reviving a work is to ask what does this say to us TODAY.  I think a show has to at least acknowledge that on some level.  But I expect a lot from shows...and people...and producers...and you wonder why I am mildly bitter. 

Ok that is my texty-socio-cultural rant.  I'm glad both shows are playing right now and I am really curious if others feel more strongly about one or the other.  I mean I never thought I would come out on the side of hippies but between the two, that show had more resonance for me as a text.

As for the productions...

I feel like it would be unfair to judge Rodgers and Hammerstein based on my high school production of Oklahoma. I kicked ass as Aunt Eller but that being said...it was not the production that would shed light on their historical contribution to theater. 

To judge Jonathan Larson on this production of Rent seems unfair too. I felt like half the cast could not handle the vocal range expected of them. One exception for me was Corbin Reid.  She had a serious voice and used it.  There was no chemistry on stage.  I never saw the original but I have to believe (correct me if I am wrong) that you believed in the relationships you saw on stage.  You believed Mimi and Roger on some level loved each other.  You felt the tension between Roger and Mark as friends in conflict.  I did not feel that with these performances.  The chorus numbers when the entire company sang were beautiful and I imagine I caught a glimpse of what the Jonathan Larson hubbub was about.  But the individual numbers largely lacked any emotional impact.  The use of projections can be great but with the set it was hard to see the projections and I got the sense we were not suppose to see much of them.  But then why use them?  I thought a historical perspective through projections might actually imbue the production with a layer of meaning lost from the performances.  But all I could see was an Anita Hill clip and some scud missiles.  Otherwise the time period felt amorphous and non-specific.  Like I said Ashley Tisdale.  And maybe a muppet was playing the stripper/exotic dancer whatever she was. MJ Rodriguez certainly dives into the role of Angel with every fiber of his being.  There was one guy in the swing group who had a gorgeous voice and sang with real conviction.  Too bad he only got a few lines. 

I could write a whole essay on my feelings for reviving productions.  I get it.  They can make money off of this show (and off of the "$10 Long Islands" they are selling before the show that will be delivered at intermission--seriously...seriously!).  Fine.  The audience ate it up because they were singing along in their seats...because they have been primed for the show.  It's almost like Rent has become a jukebox musical because half the audience was seeing it because they already love the music and saw the show on Broadway.  Fine.  But why Michael Grief do you choose to direct this?  What cultural importance does this revival serve?  What do you have to say with this piece that is new?  I'm honestly curious.  15 years have passed since the NYTW production opened right.  So one could argue that there is space between 1996 and now to talk about what was going on in 1991 or 1996.  But I didn't feel it.  And I would have been happy to commune with the time period.  Hug it out with the 90's...but it didn't seem like anyone in the production was interested in a cultural conversation.

I think Hair's revival benefits from the passage of substantial time.  It is both a historic document ("yip"  people, they say the word "yip" and there is the aforementioned "gloopy") and commentary on who we were then, and who we are now.  I mean I don't really "relate" to the characters. I'm an uptight lawyer for christsakes.   But I get the struggle with making your own path, being true to who you are, making difficult choices, and having adulthood thrust upon you.  Say what you will about the tour production of Hair, I have increasingly come to appreciate the performances of Steel Burkhardt and Paris Remillard. They create friendship/love on stage with real feelings attached to it.  So when their characters struggle with one another the consequences and the feelings expressed resonated for me. I saw the Original Broadway Cast back in 2009 but from 9 miles away in a balcony and besides enjoying the music (I didn't realize how much of the music I knew and loved.  I own Age of Aquarius by the Fifth Dimension on vinyl and Three Dog Night singing Easy to be Hard on vinyl) I couldn't really talk about the performances.  I am sure they were acting up a storm somewhere way down there. 

Thanks for reading this ultra-long post.  I am sincerely interested in people's thoughts on this. Maybe I should have just seen Rent when I was a kid and like Star Wars it would just become part of who I am and the "magic" of it would come from the time in which I experienced it and whatever it had to feed me as a teen. I missed the Rent boat.  Or maybe I was never meant to climb aboard it. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I'm starting to think it's you Macbeth

I was interviewing a potential lawyer today and we got on the subject of Shakespeare.  This wasn't some attempt by me to drag some innocent lawyer into my lair of arts talk.  She included it on her resume (She's seen 15 productions of Shakespeare!  I guess for a lawyer she thinks that's a lot and that by saying it on her resume it will make her come across as well-read.  Lawyers amuse me.). So I mentioned Sleep No More to her and then I said apropos of nothing that I've never seen a good production of Macbeth.

And I started to wonder if it was me or was it Macbeth.  

I saw some pretty horrific productions in regional theater in high school.  I do recall a bloody head being rolled across the stage like a bowling ball in one production and the other production using trash can covers for shields (no it was not set in a post-modern urban wasteland--I think it was budgetary).  Nothing worse than having to get on a yellow cheese bus to drive to New Hampshire to see Macbeth in the rain and for it to suck balls and then have to get back in the hot and sweaty cheese bus to drive back home again.

In more recent years I saw Rupert Goold's production with Patrick Stewart.  I saw Cheek by Jowl's production at BAM.  And I saw Sleep No More. I missed Kelsey Grammer's production (and I am pretty sure that is ok) and I never saw Liev Schrieber's Pubic Theater production (maybe a big mistake but life got away from me in 2006). 

What Sleep No More made me think was that a boiled down Macbeth might be what I want.  Just give me witches, prophecy, dead person, dead person, guilt, knives, ghosts, Birnam Wood, and carnage and SCENE.  All those goods are in there right?  Of course, Sleep No More wasn't quite like that.  

There were moments in Sleep No More that were riveting.  Febrile sequences of chasing ghosts down stairways who would simply vanish.  It was like a dream that had come to life.  Heart racing, feet pounding on the steps...electric.  And then there were moments of boredom. " I'm here in this room....Do I wait for something?... Does anything happen here?...  Hello.... My mask is sweaty....  My glasses are foggy....  Don't shush me I am not talking."

I loved being able to interact with the space.  Mad props to the scenic design team.  Texture, smells, everything was so specific and so rich.  I guess that's why when I experienced the actual "performances" I was a little let down.  Ok, more naked people.  Sure.  Wash those hands.  Yup.  Birnam Woods.  Banquet scene. Gotcha.  Often I felt the connection to Macbeth in the performances was strained (Lip-syncing, gender-bending what now?).  That said, I am glad I saw it.  

The Goold production was set in a cold morgue like room.  This production setting referenced Fascism.  But the period choices didn't feel resonant or cohesive to the story.  My recollection was I liked the projections but not much else.  I was disappointed because I craved a good Macbeth.

I completely fell asleep during the Cheek by Jowl production.  Visually it was stripped down with the actors addressing the audience rather than each other.  I didn't feel the power of this directing choice and in fact it came across as disconnected to me.  Macbeth was kinda a whiny bitch from the get-go.  I loved the odd choices for the porter--crass, contemporary, lively.  Now I know how the groundlings felt...desperate for some comic relief. At least THAT delivered.

So is it the play or the productions.  Did I miss the best one ever with Liev?  Has someone seen a Macbeth that they truly loved?

I've seen a great Hamlet (Mark Rylance at the ART in 1991--don't get me started--might have been the apex of my theater-going life--sad to peak so early--wahwah).  I've seen some decent Hamlets (Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law had his moments but I'd take him naked in Indiscretions any day over his Hamlet).  I dug Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center (1998--wow that was a while ago.  But look at the cast! I remember loving the supporting cast so much).  I've seen a couple of fun Much Ado-s in my day.  So I like Shakespeare and I have enjoyed Shakespeare.  So what the fuck is up with Macbeth. 

I don't have an answer.  But I challenge you theater people to produce a fucking fantastic Macbeth.  Show his journey from solider to killer to king/simpering baby.  Do it and I will inevitably buy a ticket. Or I guess take me back in time to 2006 so I can check out Liev.

I would totally support a time machine to remedy all my theater regret.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Only Person on Earth Who Doesn't Like War Horse

Anything I say about War Horse must be caveat-ed with the following statement: I hate Steven Spielberg.  When I was a child, I watched ET.  When it was over I turned to my mother and said "That was totally illogical and made no sense."  Well, I might not have said that exactly but that was how I felt.  I have been a Spielberg hater since then. 

Filmmaking is supreme manipulation.  There are great artists such as Hitchcock who control what you see and experience in every frame.  But for some reason it always felt seamless and masterful with Hitchcock.  Whereas with Spielberg, it always felt controlling and unfair.  Like he doesn't trust his audience is smart enough to follow along.  He can't just sit back and let you experience his films.  He has to guide you with such rigorous control that I just cannot stand it.  It's like A Clockwork Orange for me.  Spielberg has little vice grips on my eyelids and will only let me see what he wants me to see.  Also he's a sentimental hack.

Which brings me to War Horse.  Spielberg is making the movie version of War Horse and that makes complete sense.  War Horse is about as subtle as an anvil dropped on a Looney Tunes character and it is unabashedly sentimental.  And there is nothing wrong with that...unless you are me.  This is not my kind of theater.

The puppetry is amazing.  It takes a substantial number of artists and performers to make that stage magic come alive.  I thought the projections in this production were also used to excellent effect. They were beautiful and appropriate for the production.   The staging is impressive.  People emerging from the mist etc...

So what's my complaint?  Well no one bothered to write a play.  The woman sitting behind me at the performance I saw said at intermission that the show was "indescribable."  This is the MOST describable show ever performed.  Lady I can name this show in 6 notes (remember that old game show...no...just me...sigh).  A horse who goes to war.  There are 4 possible story outcomes in this simplistic tale.  1) Dead horse, dead boy; 2) Dead horse, live boy; 3) Live horse, dead boy; 4) Live horse, live boy.  (I wish it was a choose your own adventure but alas it is not).  
Almost all the characters (save one sympathetic German--my WWII vet grandfather literally just flipped in his grave and will be haunting me in my dreams tonight) are caricatures and not fully-realized characters (actually I am not sure if was the writing or the performance of this character that rose above the fray for me).  The horses have more character than the humans and maybe that's the point.  The horse lobby convinced the National Theatre that humans normally get all the good writing and here finally was a horse-driven show, for horses, by horses. 

Also there is a woman who sings dirges throughout the show.  Who doesn't love a good dirge? (Hint: Me).

Everyone in the audience was a sobbing puddle of humanity at the end of the show.  I was worried my eyes might get stuck in their permanently-rolled position at the end of the show.  I think if you can forgive the show for its lack of writing then you will enjoy it. This show provides top tier spectacle.  Just not my cup of tea.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Someone Wets Themself at Death Takes a Holiday

I wasn't sure what to expect from Death Takes a Holiday.  I should admit have not seen any other Maury Yeston shows so I have nothing to compare this to.  Moreover, the new musicals I have liked as of late (Passing Strange, Next to Normal) would bear no resemblance to this show.  However, I do love classic old musicals and went in with the expectation that this material would be closer in spirit to them. 

I was disappointed that Julian Ovenden had to leave the cast. After reading a couple of articles about him, it sounded like he was fantastic and here was my big chance to see him...and then laryngitis befell him and he was out. 

But I had bought my ticket already so off I went.  First off, someone in the theater smelled of pee.  Now I don't know who it was but it definitely changes the tone of the evening when all you can smell is pee.  In addition, I seemed to surrounded by middle-aged people who it turns out all knew each other ("Judy, oh my Gawd. I cannot believe it.  What are YOU doing heah?" "Judy are you freezing.  I am freezing. I wore this scarf because I am freezing."). These patrons in their wonderful whiny voices felt the need to shout across me before the performance and I could still hear them when the show started (inside voices kids, use your inside voices).  Yeah.  A great atmosphere to prime me for a musical about life in Italy in the 1920's....

But as soon as it started I forgot the smell of pee and the annoying whiners who couldn't get tickets to Book of Mormon (suck it Judy--I saw it months ago pre-Tony's--evil cackle)...

Kevin Earley was Julian Ovenden's understudy and permanently replaced Ovenden in the show.  Earley looks like a young Tate Donovan (excellent).  But he's got a sucky job, because he's Death.  No one likes him.  And awkwardly life's a bitch for Death.  So he takes a well-needed break for a weekend.  But really it's all about a girl.

And so they sing...and sing...lush number after number of longing, sadness, loss, love.  And each song sounds gorgeous.  His counterpart in "lurve" is Jill Paice who has a delightful voice.  I was excited to see Rebecca Luker who I have not seen on stage since The Secret Garden (my fault, for shame).  Everyone on stage is talented and lovely.  But somewhere in the Act  2 I was getting a little bored of all this gorgeous singing.  How can that be a complaint you ask?  Well each song started to sound the same as the last.  It all came across with the same tone, intensity and musical sound.

There was a little comic relief but not much.  There were a few funny lines but the comic bits generally fell flat.  I am pretty sure the leading man's fly was down for a good part of Act 1.  Yes, I was looking at his crotch.  But only because I am sure his fly was down!  And I don't think this really counts as intentional comic relief...but I welcomed it.  This show needed a little life blood.  I know it's about Death and death is a downer but somewhere between death and love hilarity can also ensue.  They had the space for comic relief, and tried a little of it, but what they had didn't hit the right notes. 

I just kept thinking I could forgive the musical monotony because it was gorgeous if the scenes in between had some pep, verve or life.  But they didn't.

In addition, the cast felt bloated to me.  When the grandmother started singing about her love life,  I worried the maid would also get a shot at singing about her love life as well.  I started to feel that there were too many characters and their individual journeys were not moving along the main plot.  Some characters showed up with little explanation and then basically disappeared (Matt Cavenaugh you're gorgeous, great voice, but underutilized here...yet thanks for coming to the party in tear-away pants).  Others seem to get more stage time than necessary (the brother's widow? no offense but why is she there?).

Now I see a lot of three hour theater.  I am not afraid of it.  But this show is 2 and a half hours and I felt it. My interest started to wain.  I wanted them to either get together or for Death to do someone in (even if it was the pee-soaked theater patron or Judy).

Death Takes a Holiday is like a meringue cookie.  One bite is light, airy, sweet and delicious.  Three bites later it's exactly the same. It is firmly consistent in taste but does not get more interesting or dynamic. After a while the sweetness became cloying to me.  Others might not mind so much. 

Nevertheless I'm glad I saw it.  It is worth hearing the wonderful, luscious voices on display.  I hope Kevin Earley gets more work from being able to be showcased front and center here. 

The audience politely clapped but there were few patrons on their feet at curtain call.  I thought the cast did a fantastic job with the material they were given.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

I Never Saw Rent and I Live to Tell the Tale

How can you be a person who likes theater and you've never seen Rent, you ask?  Easy.  I was angry angry teenager when it came out.  I was living in New York City.  I was going to NYU film school.  I was serious.  Very very serious.  I wore black and Doc Martens because I was a film student people.  I took my art very seriously.

I shot black and white movies about the homeless.  (Footnote: I was actually chased out of a vacant lot where I shot a movie not about the homeless by actual homeless people who lived there...and you know where that vacant lot was...uhm Union Square where the Virgin Megastore used to be...yeah a vacant lot people...old school...anyhoo).

And here was this "new" musical about the East Village that was clearly not using the current music of the East Village to express something...And Mike Nichols was seeing it downtown before it moved uptown and as far as I was concerned that meant it had jumped my shark already.  How downtown gritty can it be if Mike Nichols is calling up for house seats? 

It was Broadway bound before it even had downtown cred...so I shunned it.  You know so it would feel the burn of my shun.  #selfaborbedmuthafuckafilmstudent 

And let's face it, it didn't need me or my ticket.  (Footnote: I have this thing for shows or movies or TV shows that NEED me and if it's so popular and doesn't need me I figure I can give my love to something else more needy.  #issues). 

And then it became this thing teeny-bopper girls went to.  Yeah I said teeny-bopper. #dealwithit So I let it go.  We were developing the movie at Miramax when I worked there, so I knew it really had gone beyond anything I ever wanted to see.  

And then Amen it closed and I could pretend it never happened.  

And now it is back.  Opening tonight.  And I kinda want to see it.  Because I am a hypocrite. I am no longer and angry teenager and want to feel like a teeny-bopper girl sometimes.   But I am also mentally rolling my eyes at myself as I type this so in classic Mildly Bitter fashion, the teenager of my heart will possibly love it, while the adult of my brain will probably find 800 different things that are wrong with it (and maybe I can even squeeze in a Foucault reference to be really douche-y)...including things about the 90's that will probably enrage me.  

Although I have been listening to Hair a lot lately and I swear there is a riff from Hair used in its entirety in that song about 96000 seconds of a minute of a year.  But maybe I am crazy. (Footnote: I know nothing about riffs, music, or 96000 seconds and in all likelihood I am crazy).

But break a leg kids.  Have a wonderful opening and maybe I'll check you out.  


Welcome Bitter-ites

Sometimes there just isn't enough space on Twitter to say what I would like.  So I hope to use this space to expand the conversation...of course today, I have nothing to say. *crickets* So...how are you...