Monday, January 30, 2012

Bon Voyage Daniel Kitson

This day had to come and I am coping...fine.  Because I am a grown-up (even if I use emoticons and sometimes fangirl out a bit on the page).  I've been a little excited about this show and it's creator on this blog but I feel like if there is something I'm going to go overboard about it should be something this good.   And no one has yet to tell me I am wrong (I mean about the show being effing great--people tell me all the time how wrong I am about everything else so don't you worry about that).

It's sad when a show you love closes and I do love this show: It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later.  But oddly enough I can say goodbye to it more happy than sad.  I got to see this show as much as I wanted, got to see some of Kitson's famous stand-up work,* I introduced eleven friends to the show (and they loved it) and I met some wonderful Kitson fans along the way.  In the end, I received so much more than I could have expected. 

For some reason the show in New York involved more breaking the fourth wall, asides to the audience and delirious Kitson giggles than the show in London.  After multiple viewings, I could stop worrying about keeping up with the rapidly moving story.

I enjoyed luxuriating in the language:** "every erratic undulation," "the ponderous pace of his solitary consumption," "cosseted in the comforting cacophony," "the bullshit bonhomie of everyone getting along really well actually," " his hands covered in something sticky...the smell of nettles thick in the air," "less a slippery act of intimate eroticism, than a semi-submerged nightmare of flailing limbs and frantic apologies."

And the humor:  "These are facts provable by science: teenagers are dickbags, cows have pretty eyes, marshmallows are delicious if not dangerously moreish." "Being on time is dangerously close to being late. It's just one away if you think about it."  "Parks are for children and pedophiles.  You William are clearly not a child."  "That aquatic atrocity aside, it had been a lovely holiday." "I've nailed this being a person thing." " In for a conversationally awkward penny, in for a socially crippling pound."

And as someone who saw the show more times than the average person might, I got a peek at the constantly evolving "text" and performance: an unexpected bobsled/toboggan (Ben Brantley?) joke, a mother's new-found hobby of hat-making, a sudden change in the weekly agenda to include a trip to the haberdasher, messing up a line because he was distracted when his fly started to unzip, giggling and stopping the show when an audience member's laugh made him laugh, stopping the show when it sounded like we were about to be raided by police helicopters, and the semi-occasional return of my favorite phrase "tuck in."  Every performance was slightly different and then the night of "the incident" well it just became something entirely different (the stuff of myth and legend).

And thank god for multiple viewings so I could actually concentrate on different bits that otherwise I would have missed.  There is so much richness to this show that it is easy for thoughtful, subtle pieces of it to slip right by you on only one or two viewings.  It certainly is resonant and meaningful with one pass but the parallels, the character development and the overall themes became more apparent to me after about the third or fourth visit.

And yes often the show makes me sad.  I relate far too much to the cantankerous, misanthropic William (have I given those speeches about babies--because I may have).  I spend much of the show wondering why I am content not to be Caroline (though recently I felt like her when it turns out I bought the same exact eyeglasses that I already have--just MORE purple--apparently I stopped changing my eyeglasses "look" in 2009).  Though slightly jealous of her Benjamin, I will admit.  I guess I find bits of myself all over the show which is one of the points I think.  It is about our roles as children, parents, lovers, friends.  How we change through time.  How some things remain fixed.   How we deal with loss or regrets.  How people in our lives come and go and how we cope with that.  How honesty can bring you closer together or "truncate hitherto promising evenings with staggering alacrity."   

I found it funny when I was talking it over with friends and they made one assumption about William and I made a completely different one (who is right--we'll never know. I'm pretty sure they are right and I am wrong).   Nothing like good theater to make you examine your own assumptions and world view.

The show is not easily forgotten.  It has left me thinking about life in a totally different way.  Being present in moments that I might otherwise have overlooked.  Paying attention to the sights, smells, sounds and sensory overload that is New York or my life.  

Recently, this went very poorly when I realized a certain subway stairwell in Chelsea smells of deep-fried-chicken & urine all blended together--deep-fried urine basically.  But there have been less horrific applications of this thesis.  I recently had to go in for an MRI.  And because of the show I thought this is this moment of my life, this is NOW--and it's taking place entirely in a narrow metal tube with a droning, drilling sound rattling my teeth, I'm cold and exposed, I'm clutching a panic button to my chest, Hotel California is playing in headphones on my head, I feel awfully trippy and maybe I might just throw up.   Paying attention to everything and nothing got me through the 35 minutes of complete stillness and distracted me from the creepy technician who said I could keep my "panties" on for the MRI procedure. <Shiver>

Daniel Kitson made me pay attention to the moments in my life in a way I would never have otherwise.

Bon voyage sir and we hope you return to these shores again soon.  You'll always be a Mildly Bitter fave you delightful rapscallion. 

*As a wholly irrelevant aside, the multicolored stripey shirt (with lots of orange in it) he wore one night during his stand-up was very sharp and fetching.  And the blue sweater of unrequited love was also a good pick.  He was very funny during his stand-up bits (I laughed until I cried) and clearly that was the main focus of those evenings but I feel like no one ever gives him credit for dressing nicely and well sometimes he does.  So I'm noting it here for posterity. 

**Again, these are my best recollections of the quotes and may not be 100% accurate which makes me feel terrible about myself.  After so many shows you'd think I'd have it memorized.  I really, really don't.  But in my defense I am a visual learner.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Farewell to Follies

Last night New York said goodbye to the Kennedy Center's production of Follies.  For shows I really like, I enjoy going to the closing performance.  Sometimes you get the added bonus of cast speeches when the curtain comes down.  Understudies who have never gone on get to join the bow.  Stage managers get recognition from the cast.  The big fans of the show will be there and are often openly enthusiastic. It can feel a bit more like a party if it has been a good run or a bittersweet goodbye to something leaving the Great White Way too soon. 

Last night was no exception.  Every entrance was met with generous applause.  After the big cast tap number of "Who's That Woman" the audience burst into a standing ovation.  Although I find New York audiences tend to overdo the standing O, I thought in this instance it was called for.  It's an athletic number and these performers have worked incredibly hard to make it work. Terri White got teary and called the ladies in the number in for an extra group hug.  

Elaine Paige got a few standing fans after her I'm Still Here number.  

Bernadette Peters did the honors for a cast speech at the end of the show.  She gave thanks to Sondheim, the late James Goldman, the Kennedy Center producer Michael Kaiser, Jonathan Tunick and the show's director Eric Schaeffer.  She thanked New York for embracing the show.  

For those seeing the show for the first time last night (and there were some and they were really confused), the audience explosions of cheers, applause and "bravas," might have been unexpected and distracting.  But for those who were fans of the show, the cast and Sondheim, it was a celebratory send off as the show heads West to Los Angeles. 

Stage Door Madness

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Criticism is an Act of Love

A couple of recent internet related spats over criticism have left me wondering about the role of criticism and whether it is a good or bad thing. 

First, dear twitter friend @MrTylerMartins quoted a Broadway World message board quote "Why do people who love theater hate so much of it?"  A loaded question to be sure.  Second, John Lahr, the esteemed New Yorker theater critic, went so far as to accuse Mildly Bitter fave Daniel Kitson of "defaming" critics by telling people to punch them if the critics were distracting them in a performance.

I'll take the second part first.  Lahr was critical of not only the suggestion that critics could be punched if distracting but that Kitson does not release scripts so the critics were FORCED to make notes and be a distraction.  He seemed to suggest this is why he could not possibly focus on the work (which by the way he did not seem to find particularly compelling)  I guess because he had to make notes and at the same time fear being violated.

Instead of taking notes during the Kitson show, I just saw the show a couple of times and relied on my brain to remember what I could (and scribbled down some thoughts afterwards).  And I'm a wholly unprofessional blogger with a degree in film production and law (yeah, call my mother and you can all talk about my poor life choices).  But I managed.  In any event, I think Lahr missed the mark a bit in thinking Kitson was anti-critics.  I don't think Kitson was saying critics should not exist or all criticism should be met with violence.  But that some people paid for tickets, some critics did not.  And the non-payees were ruining it for the payees.  The quote I recall from the last show I saw, Kitson went on to say that punching a critic might be more distracting than the original scribbling distraction but we could all stand to be "distracted by justice."  I think was more about economics than criticism.

And also, why the hell did you not go during previews like a normal critic John Lahr.

Ok.  As for the bigger question of how can you love theater and hate so much of it.  I think there are several reasons:

1) Expectations of Art and Commerce:  Theater in New York might be art or commerce and on the rare occasion both.  We all come to theater with different expectations for what we want out of our experience.   Let's take my step-dad for example.  He will only see Broadway musicals...that are funny.  Anything else is not good theater to him.  I am programmed exactly the opposite.  Is it sad?  I mean really sad.  I mean do they club baby seals.*  And they don't sing.  Perfect.  I'm in.  But sad-sack seal-clubbing non-musicals probably don't make money.

Broadway producers are taking huge risks and investing in projects they want to succeed.  It might be nice if it is art, but they hope they get some return on their investment.  They are not going to produce works just for weirdos like me or they would lose lots and lots of money.  They are probably going to find the most common middle ground and produce something safe enough that will make money, but might be hit.  If it turns out it is art, well that's nice.  For Broadway, they are also heavily dependent on the tourist trade.  Say what you will but I'm guessing they are a driving engine of the Broadway economy--even if they don't know how to walk on sidewalks.

Producers often rely on pre-existing material because there is a built in fan-base and name recognition (movies to stage adaptations) and if a tourist is going to shell-out $150 a ticket they want to be damn sure they already like it (jukebox musicals).  Producers are likely going to revive works that have succeeded in the past because maybe they will succeed again (How to Succeed, Rent).  And then there are the maverick producers who try to revive works that have not succeeded in the past in the hopes that THIS version will become successful (Follies, On a Clear Day, Carrie).  So obsessive theater lovers might not necessarily be the people the producers are most focused on.  I'm really curious about the economics of Broadway business and if someone can point me to any studies on this I would love to read them. 

2) Criticism Can Be Love:  I love criticism.  I sometimes feel like a show doesn't exist unless I talk about it.  I love seeing shows with other people for that reason.  But I also enjoy being able to go on twitter after a show and share my experience (good or bad) with other people and hear about their experiences.  I love mining the good and bad bits in a show.  I learn from that.  I learn about art, structure, writing, performance, direction.  I like to learn.  Don't you?  Some people love everything.  Wow.  What was it like to be hugged a lot as a kid?  Tell me.

Seriously.  How can you love everything?  There are so many different types of shows, performers, music.  They are ALL great?!  They are all great, EQUALLY?!

I know I am on the end of the spectrum that hates more things I see than things I like.  But most of the time I don't mind that.  There is nothing better than being blown away by something you did not know would move you, excite you, and entertain you.  Recently, Goodbar was that show for me.

I just pictured me trying to tell my step-dad about that show:  Well it's about a woman who likes rough sex (Step-dad places fingers in his ears and starts saying la-la-la-la) and is stabbed to death by one of her hook-ups and it is performed by a glam-rock band and they sing a song called Best Fuck of Your Life.  As an aside my step-dad thought When Harry Met Sally was a disgusting movie because all they talked about was sex.  That's why the above scene would be really funny to me.  Maybe you had to be there.

Anyhoo....I know my expectations for theater are really too high.  Rarely will a show meet my expectations for being emotionally engaging, exciting and new, and entertaining.  That's a lot to accomplish especially when I have seen a lot of theater, films, art in my life.  The chances that you have something new to say or have a new way of saying something I have seen before is rare--which is why I get so excited when I find that work.

And hating a show doesn't mean I don't want people to stop trying or to do better next time.  I still love theater which is why I want it to be good.  Like a homing pigeon, I keep coming back no matter what.

Of course, there is good and bad criticism, just as their is good and bad theater.  And that's a blog post for another day.

CONCLUSION:  Let's keep talking about theater.  Good, bad.  Let's keep writing about theater.  Good, bad.  Let's hope people keep trying to make theater--big, small, weird, mainstream, crazy, subdued, funny, sad.  Maybe don't go punching any critics unless it is in the name of justice.

*I'm not advocating clubbing baby seals.  Nor do I actually want to see baby seals clubbed.  I'm saying this for melodramatic effect of something that would make me cry.  And when you have to explain stops being funny.  Sigh.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Leaving at Intermission: The Horror (Amended)

In my life, I am required to measure my work in billable hours.  My free time is generally limited and precious.  So when I find myself sitting in a show I am not enjoying, I have now started to leave at intermission.  I used to stay for the whole show even if it made my skin crawl.  But I've reached a place in my life where I don't need to torture myself.  Even if a second Act becomes amazing I am not sure it will make up for the pain of a really bad first Act.

I can think of only one instance in my life (before 2011) when I actually left before the end of a show.  I had to attend a show for work.  It was some sort of "I'm Jewish-Italian-Obnoxious" one-man show.  I knew it was not the type of material my company was interested in and after suffering through a lot of stereotypes (for full disclosure I am 100% Italian) I could not stand it any longer and left.

I will wait until intermission but I don't think they want me in the audience just to fill a seat if I am not enjoying the work being done.  

Recently I left two shows.  The first was The Public Theater production of King Lear.  I know how the play ends.  After a particularly painful first Act I went on twitter and asked around if it was worth sticking it out.  The twitter-verse said to run for my life.  So I did.

I also left a preview of Road to Mecca.  I feel a little guilty about this because of the illustrious actors in the show (Rosemary Harris and Jim Dale).  But the first Act was painfully slow.  I felt no sympathy towards any of the characters.  And the lights got so dim I thought I might be having a stroke.  My friend was getting fidgety and I decided it was worth leaving.  When the best moment of the show is the older couple behind me arguing about the candy-wrapper announcement ("Why should I unwrap my candies now?  It's not like they can hear me onstage unwrap it."), then I think it might be best to cut your losses.  It just was not the show for me.

I find it funny that every review of Road to Mecca seems to talk about how slow the first Act is and the fact that it takes AN HOUR to get to the actual reason anyone is in the theater.  Some reviewers claim it's worth staying for the second Act.  I am comfortable with my choice.

I have also given up on certain play series.   I happened to see the original Angels in America on Broadway.  Certainly a stunning achievement in its own right but it was a powerful personal experience for me.  I will admit it was the only time in my whole life I ever stage-doored.  It was for Tony Kushner.  Only autograph I ever asked for.  I'm a weird, weird theater-nerd. 

I was really excited when I heard the Signature Theater was reviving Angels in America and I would have a chance to revisit it, all these years later.  However, after seeing the Signature's Millennium Approaches (with the replacement cast) I could not bring myself to go back the next day to see Perestroika.  Seeing a work I had always found to be well-written dragged down by terrible performances drifting into stereotype....I just could not see something I held so dear ruined.   Also some falling snow caught on fire and was maybe the best part of the show...My friend and I were desperately hoping we would be evacuated because the theater would burst into flames.  Never the kind of feeling you actually want to have at a show. 

I had not fully appreciated how incredible the original actors were until I saw the same words spoken by less incredible performers.  I can still hear Marcia Gay Harden's voice and line delivery all these years later.  She created a character who oscillated between powerful and powerless with skill, care and delicacy.   She could be child-like without being childish.  She could be vulnerable and yet biting.  I thought she was great when I first saw it but seeing another actress attempt the same role and miss made me appreciate her work so much more.  All the complexities of the text that the original actors brought to the stage just seemed entirely absent in the revival.  It is clearly a play that requires deft hands and careful interpretation.

I learned something from the experience.  But that didn't mean I needed to see Part II. 

The same could be said for The Coast of Utopia.  For those who know me in my former life, you know Ethan Hawke and I have a history (I mean like personally) and I will only begrudgingly go see his stage work if I have to.  But I like Stoppard--it turns out, some Stoppard and not all Stoppard.  I bought the ticket to all three parts of Coast of Utopia.  I made it through two of them.  If there was a Russian train I could have thrown myself in front of to stop the madness, I would have.  Let's just say no one could make me go see Part III. 

NPR has a discussion about this topic today.  They mention second-Acting.  I wonder if there would be a way to coordinate my bolting with someone else wanting to Second-Act so that net-net the audience size remains the same.

What about you?  Do you bolt when things are not going well?  Or do you stick it out to be respectful.

How to Succeed: Glee Edition

My cousin dragged me to see Glee star Darren Criss who recently joined the cast of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying for a very short 3 week run.  Despite twitter grumblings that he was dreadful, I thought he managed a respectable turn in the role of J. Pierrepont Finch but lacked the projection and voice to really ever be a Broadway belter.

Clearly I'm not the demographic for either Dan Radcliffe or Darren Criss.  In fact, I've never particularly liked How to Succeed in Business as a musical.  I caught the awful Matthew Broderick-Megan Mullally version years ago when I was the right demo and I thought the show was dated and frankly insulting.  I'm pretty sure I marched out with a scowl on my face and a feminist rant in my throat.  

I wanted to see Daniel Radcliffe give it a go as a musical theater performer so I got over my misgivings about the material and checked out this new production of H2$ last year.  In the end, I enjoyed the Rob Ashford directed and choreographed production a lot more than the 1995 production.  The staging, choreography and energy were just far and away more visually compelling.  The source material remained dated but (maybe I have soften in my old age) it bugged me less because it seemed to know that the material was a bit ridiculous. 

Radcliffe was not an amazing singer but managed to sound pretty strong for 90% of his performance.  His dancing was the biggest surprise.  He seemed incredibly comfortable moving on stage and gave a charming, winsome performance.  With that in mind, Criss does an ok job as a replacement.  His voice was not very loud and even with microphones he was not projecting much.  He hit his notes (though the whole thing sounded a bit out of his range and he was straining to get there).  I thought he did a fine job with the dance numbers, and considering a short rehearsal time, I found that impressive.

For some reason he read much younger to me than I would have expected so even Rosemary seems a bit old for him.  I don't watch Glee anymore (it jumped the shark for me pretty early on) so I came to his performance without much Glee baggage.  Criss was a bit slicker than Radcliffe in his role as Finch.  A bit more devious and a bit less sweet.  Radcliffe's adorable beaming smile was still burned into my mind as I watched Criss's performance.  It was hard to shake how much I liked Radcliffe to make room for another "interpretation" of the role by Criss. 

Criss had a lot of bounce, vim and vigor.  But Christopher Hanke was stealing the show left, right and center...even from an audience that was there to see Criss.  Beau Bridges, as J.B. Biggley, was gruff and marble-mouthed the entire show (I kept wondering why he was the person they went to as a replacement).  I missed John Laroquette who had been warmer and more fun to watch in the Radcliffe-run.  Mary Faber was out of the show I saw, so I caught her understudy, Tanya Birl, as Smitty.  Birl was adorable and energetic.

The audience behaved itself and honestly cheered quite loudly for the cast as a whole which I was happy to see.  I'd like to hope bringing people in to see someone like Darren Criss will convert people who have never been to a Broadway show into theater-goers generally.  But I often worry that people have just come for the "star" and won't be back anytime soon unless it's again a Glee cast member.  I was listening to people in line talk about how much they spent on these tickets (around $500 through ticket agencies).  I was a little stunned that people would spend that much on someone who is not Hugh Jackman.  Just think of how many more shows they could go see if they just paid retail. 

I think the producers were brilliant to do this during the January doldrums.  But it would be nice if these folks were coming to town for H2$ and then seeing other great shows playing around the corner too.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Porgy & Bess: Still Classic Enough to Be Boring

Despite the controversy stirred up by Sir Stephen Sondheim, I found the revamped version of "Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" directed by Diane Paulus to be a relatively safe, "traditional" interpretation of the work.  The staging was painterly beautiful, operatic and mostly boring.  I am not sure how a purist would feel about this version that is not an opera but much to my disappointment not really a musical either.  I have never seen the original version of Porgy and Bess, so my views are from that of an uneducated theater-goer* who really doesn't like opera.  So there is your giant grain of salt to consider with this review.

By traditional, I mean that the adaptation did not feel like crazy, unbridled revisionism of the underlying material.  I sadly wished that had been the approach.  I am sure they have done a ton to change this from the original work but the final result does not make enough changes to make the material feel rich and full enough for me.

The Paulus version is set in the 1930's, uses period slang, and is still about a drug addicted, floozy who is torn between a good man, "cripple" Porgy, and an abusive boyfriend, Crown.   I had read that the creative team behind this version (Paulus as director and Suzan-Lori Parks on the book) tried to give more back story to the characters and transform them from caricatures to more fully formed characters.  I argue they did not go far enough.  Even with the changes they made, the characters are a challenge to work with (Bess is still a drug-addicted lady bouncing between men) and the show does not give much time to the development of their relationship.  It takes a while, in fact, for the story of Porgy and Bess to get going, and until then I was really bored.  When all we are left with are the remaining cardboard cut-out characters of Catfish Row, it's rather dull and depressing.  Maybe for some audience members the Gershwin tunes are enough to get them through the non-Porgy and Bess material, but as a self-proclaimed narrative junkie, I was gasping for theatrical nourishment.  And I don't shy away from dark material, but this felt dry, antiquated and lacking in vitality.

Audra McDonald, as Bess, is a riveting stage presence.  She manages to imbue Bess with so much more than I am sure was ever put on the page.  She is not the vampy-harlot I was expecting.   She plays Bess more as a pawn, easily led by the men around her, whether bad men or good men.  She becomes the woman they want when they want it.  She is desirable and coy when the situation calls for it.  When she joins Porgy, she does her best to become the dutiful house-wife.  She has no power over what she wants.  It's a hard character to like or to play.  McDonald makes her compelling despite such challenges.  McDonald is such a physical presence.  She has such muscle and poise that she is almost playing against type to be this powerless ragdoll bouncing from man to man--but it works.  I "understood" more about Bess than I probably would have in earlier productions: why she does what she does.  I did not feel sympathetic or empathetic but I got it. 

Norm Lewis, as Porgy, throws himself physically into the role.  He twists his body in all sorts of contortions to portray Porgy's disability.  He is sans goat cart** and uses a cane and a leg brace.  I loved his songs the most.  Just a gorgeous voice, expressing his love, pain, and hope. 

But what I noticed the most was that there is precious little Porgy and Bess in P&B.  When they were together the show was stronger, more compelling and engaging.  But the show did not have the emotional impact I wanted.  In the final analysis, Porgy and Bess don't sing a lot.  They don't dominate the stage time.  It is actually more of an ensemble work and I wish it wasn't.  I also don't like opera.  So the sung dialogue, the operatic voices and the lack of a musical in this musical was disappointing for me.

The ensemble is talented (Joshua Henry is charming as Jake, Phillip Boykin is physically imposing and terrifying as Crown, NaTasha Yvette Williams is fun and caring as the de facto mayor of Catfish Row) and they do a great job with what they are given but I think at its core P&B needs a serious revamp and I would argue Paulus did not go far enough.  David Alan Grier was excellent as Sporting Life (I have not seen him on stage before but he's got a great voice and was a pleasure to watch).  His upbeat numbers were a nice contrast.  The picnic dance sequence that opened Act 2 was incredible.  Colorful, toe-tapping and fully engaging. The second Act was far and away better than the first Act.  But at some point I wanted them to move things along in the second Act.  The story just drags and unless you have been captured by the emotional struggle of the characters (which I wasn't) it was a lot of work to sit through this show. 

There is no question that the staging of this show is gorgeous: from the period costumes, to the delicate use of lighting and shadow play.  Each scene was like a painting.  The staging allowed for two shows--the one on the stage and the one projected behind the actors.   I was a little surprised by how uninteresting the set was.  The flat, monotone background was nice for the use of the shadows but other than that it adds no sense of place.  And for some unexplained reason the entire set disappears for the final scene (spoiler alert--I guess to allow Porgy to walk off into the "unknown" in hopeful search of bringing Bess back).

On the whole, I was disappointed in this show because of the antiquated story and lack of emotional connection.  The whole show felt like a lot more work than it should have been.  There are definite reasons to see the show: a terrific cast, Norm Lewis, Audra McDonald, beautiful staging.   But there is a lot that holds me back from enthusiastically recommending it. 

*I remember learning about Porgy and Bess in my 7th grade music class.  So my knowledge and memories are rather fuzzy and at the 7th grade level.

**I desperately want to see the comedy version of P&B with an actual frickin goat cart.  How could you ever put that on stage without it being ridiculous.  I wonder if I just don't get this underlying work at all.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Goodbar: Fan-effing-tastic

The live concept album/theatrical event, GOODBAR, created by by Bambi and Waterwell, directed by Arian Moayed and Tom Ridgley, was an unexpected visual and auditory delight.*  I'm not sure anything would have properly prepared me for this show but it did not matter.  At its core, it was a tight narrative, creative design and fantastic music that made it an engaging night at the "theater."

Based on the Judith Rossner novel Looking for Mr. Goodbar (which was in turn based on the true story of a murdered school teacher--and was a controversial film by Richard Brooks starring Diane Keaton), GOODBAR is performed by the band Bambi with additional performances by Kelli O'Hara, Ira Glass, and Bobby Cannavale among others in video projections.  It tells the story of a young teacher of deaf children, Teresa, scarred from a scoliosis operation, who picks up men in bars for rough, sexual encounters.  It ends in her stabbing death by one of these pick-ups. 

Hanna Cheek and Kevin Townley performed the lead vocals and the primary live characters in the story.  With gorgeous voices and a musical score full of emotional urgency, the raw rock power of the songs worked well to convey Teresa's sexual needs, her emotional struggles and the world in which she is exploring.  The music was sometimes infectiously catchy, soulful at other times. Both Cheek and Townley had fantastic voices and serious stage-presence.

I was really impressed with the use of video to add to the narrative at times and at other times create a sense of place, feeling or texture.  Alex Koch did the video design. For the majority of the time I thought the images and graphics used enhanced the production.  They acted as both background and at times took center stage to deliver the story.

The graphic murder at the end played out in video with the cast leaving the stage (which I liked).  But I thought the images were the most "literal" of the evening and maybe a little too on the nose.  A lot of images were quite graphic.  For the sensitive out there, there is full-on pornographic imagery used.

Another fantastic design element was the costumes by Erik Bergrin.  My photographs could never capture the creative use of texture, color and character through costuming.  There was a jacket with its fringe made of colored pencils, Teresa's dresses had buckles all the down the back to represent the scars on her back. The costumes were inventive.  They added to the characters without being a distraction.

For those bemoaning the lack of new musicals or complaining that musicals based on previous material are all too common (this is probably me at various times a year), GOODBAR shows that adapting known material but making that adaptation feel utterly fresh, creative and new is possible and entirely welcome.  The material is disturbing and controversial but they managed to present it without judgment and with a real emotional integrity.

Maybe I kinda sorta wish they'd had a go at adapting Once as well.  Now that would be controversial.

*We were encouraged to live tweet the show and take photographs which explains my many photos and the head of the girl in front of me in all of them.  Damn her giant head.


Monday, January 9, 2012

The Past is a Grotesque Animal: Under the Radar

I checked out El Pasado es un Animal Grotesco (The Past is a Grotesque Animal) at the Under the Radar festival this weekend.*  It is a play from Argentina with text and direction by Mariano Pensotti.  It was performed in Spanish with super-titles.  The set is a rotating platform and the cast of 4 switches off roles and acts as the narrator for each scene.  Spanning a ten year time period, the characters fall in love, travel the globe, experience successes and failures,...wank off with a severed hand.  The director, using discarded photos from a closed down photo lab created the four characters who were his age and how they experienced social change over the past 10 years. 

It's a great concept (though the photographer in me wished we got to see these inspirational photos).  The rotating staging was an unusual but effective tool to keep the action moving and the stories changing.  I found it largely engaging and only draggy at the end (it was 1 hour 50 minutes with no intermission).  Each scene was narrated by another player.  Although there was dialogue in many scenes, the text was mostly narration.  I did not love the fact that narration was the driving force, though it connected it to a more literary history  (which according to the director's notes was his intent).  Not all the dialogue was translated either. 

Seeing a work in a foreign language is a challenge.  I know I do not connect to the material in the same way I would if I spoke that language.  Watching super-titles introduces a certain level of distance from the performance (in this case the narration structure furthered that distancing device for me).  But I do not think that should stop audiences from checking out these works.  Hearing stories from other countries and cultures is one of the pleasures of the New York theater scene.  One of things I miss about my old job of watching foreign films is seeing what stories artists in other countries are putting out there (some of my favorite "recent" Argentinean films include Herencia, Son of the Bride, 9 Queens, The Secret in Their Eyes).  It's telling when the works show you that certain human experiences are universal (here for example, falling in love, dreaming of fame and fortune, family betrayal) but also where our cultures differ (here a Jesus theme park called Holyland--well I guess that might be something the US has somewhere).   

*Complimentary ticket was provided to me by @PataphysicalSci

Sunday, January 8, 2012

It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later: Daniel Kitson in New York

As I have previously reported (ad nauseum) Daniel Kitson, monologist/storyteller extraordinaire and my someday boyfriend* has returned to St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn this month to present his show It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later.  Though I saw the show during it's sold out run at the National Theatre in London (and loved it) I was excited to check it out at St. Ann's.

St. Ann's is much more intimate and suitable forum for this show than the National Theatre.  The staging was similar to the staging at the National with an array of naked lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling, a chair and a small ladder (and a mug).   Each lightbulb represents a moment in time and they brighten when Kitson speaks of that moment.  He races from lightbulb to lightbulb as the show moves through time.

Because of the smaller space the acoustics are much improved.  It makes a world of difference because Kitson's rapid-fire delivery is an auditory workout.  I miss to some degree a bigger stage for the simple visual effect of the distance in time between the lightbulbs.  But I prefer the smaller stage overall because the stories are so much closer to the audience.  It seems more urgent and relevant when it is right in your lap.

The limited description about the show being about "Everything and Nothing" makes it hard to prepare an audience for what they are about to see.  I think keeping an open heart and mind will serve you well.

In It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later, Kitson tells the story of two lives: one of William Rivington and one of Caroline Carpenter.   One story is told from death to birth and the other from birth to death.  The narratives are interwoven though time but notably their lives are not.  Expectations for this being an epic love story are kept at bay (William and Caroline will not fall in love--he makes this clear up front).  These stories are largely about the moments in these two lives that would otherwise be unremembered (even by those that lived them).  Kitson describes life as a deluge and these moments are mere drops in the ocean of that flood.  They are ordinary people and their lives are ordinary.  But what takes place on stage is anything but.   

From graveyards to backyards, the two characters are fully drawn people even if we see only glimpses of their lives.  We've heard their joys and their tragedies.  We've seen them love, laugh and cry.  As Kitson says, we have only heard some moments in their lives but "our brains fill in the gaps"** and we think we know them, but in fact "there are no gaps" in time.  The fabric of time is that constant flood even if we do not stop to reflect on every moment.

Kitson's love of language illustrates these moments with sensory precision--the consistency of a wet newspaper, the defeated feel of rain-soaked socks,  the sound of panicked running in slippers, the symphony of cutlery during breakfast.

I tend to leave the shows a bit suspended in my own time.  It's hard to just walk away with the many images, words, and emotions about these stories still fluttering through my mind.   The transformative power of a voice, that can take you back in time.  The pain of betrayal and the unbelievable power of forgiveness (no matter how long you've waited for it).  The dreamy reverie of thinking about one's future when it stretches out before you. 

It is very easy to get swept up in Kitson's verbal torrents.  He has a rhythm and beat to his delivery and abruptly moves from the profound to the banal delivering humor from the juxtaposition.  No matter how many times I've seen this show (if we are keeping track, so far 3 times in Brooklyn with a total of 9 times I hope by the end of the month) I still struggle to keep up with every vignette.  Most of the time it's because I start laughing and get distracted.  For all the profound messages or rich text, this is also a funny show.  He's basically made it so I can never look at a park bench in the same way again.  Forever changed.  He also breaks character and for different reasons at different shows, so it often feels that each show is slightly different. 
I saw several performances where he seemed to be finding the temperature of American audiences for his delivery.  He seemed to revel in vocabulary and cultural differences but refusing to pander to American audiences just because we don't all use the same words ("Ladybird...I believe you call them ladybugs."  "Eggy bread is French toast but I'm not going to call it that."  "Do you have garden centers? Cause that usually gets a laugh in Scotland and England.").  Although I did notice that one night he changed the phrase "tuck in" to "dig in."  I sort of miss "tuck in" now.

He had a few incidents of cell phone use in the theater and he stopped the show and suggested to a house manager that the manager should punch the cell phone user in the face next time.  Concerns over his stuttering also met with a sharp retort: "I stutter.  If this makes you uncomfortable, you're a bigot."

Despite his repeated insistence in asides to the audience that he is not an actor, he brings to life an array of characters in this show.  Beyond William and Caroline, he introduces us to their family and friends.  As I said before, the strength of this particular piece is that it feels as if Kitson has the god-like ability to turn on the audio of humanity's inner monologue.  What I've come to appreciate, after seeing it several times, is that he's able to hear the age-specific nuances in that audio track for people at different stations in their lives.  He captures the wonder, hope and possibilities in the minds of teenagers.  He penetrates the ambivalence drifting through the mind of a married woman and young mother.  He recounts the anger and frustration of someone who has passed love by.  He drops all pretense for an older man facing his mortality.  Each voice seems real, relevant and honest. 

I like stories that are about moving through time, reflecting on the choices made, and what it all means (see Arcadia, Follies).  This show seems a natural extension for me of the type of material I like.  You cannot leave without it making you think of your own life--your own moments unexplored. 

I stumbled across this lovely quote by Shelley via the Morgan Library and it immediately seemed relevant to this show:

Original illustration by Daniel Kitson. Photo & edits by Mildly Bitter 

 "Life, & the world, or whatever are called that which we are & feel, is an astonishing thing. The mist of familiarity obscures from us the wonder of our being ... Life, the great miracle, we admire not, because it is so miraculous. It is well that we are thus shielded by the familiarity of what is at once so certain and so unfathomable, from an astonishment which would otherwise absorb and overawe the function of that which is its object." (emphasis added)

Watching the light dance and refract through Kitson's eyeglasses as he wraps his hands around the lightbulbs telling his stories, I am warmed at the thought that for at least 90 minutes I'm in absolute wonder.  It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later dissipates the mist of familiarity and gives us back the wonder of our being with beauty, honesty and humor.  What could be more amazing than that?

*I jest though I'm sure he'd make a lovely boyfriend and certainly he should feel free to get in touch with me while he's in town.  I have a working kettle if that is a selling point. 

**Quotes are my best estimation of what he said and may not be 100% accurate.  This pains me as I expect he's very precise about his word choice and I'm sure I've not gotten his quotes exact.  There are no scripts of his shows and I didn't want to be called out for scribbling away during the show.   So the errors are mine. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Other Desert Cities: Warm & Fuzzy Family

Other Desert Cities, written by Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Joe Mantello, is a thoughtful drama that explores questions of truth in families.  The Wyeth family gathers for Christmas in Palm Springs.  Lyman and Polly Wyeth are former Hollywood stars and Republican old guard.  Their daughter Brooke, recently recovering from a breakdown, announces she has written a memoir about the family.  The substance of the book sends the family into crisis and chaos dredging up a painful chapter in their lives from the past. 

Beneath the surface fights and political debates, the pain in this family is palpable but the reasons for it are not clear (though all is eventually revealed).  There are some terrific actors on display here.  Stockard Channing as the ice queen Polly Wyeth achieves so much with a look, or a single line delivery.  She's the matriarch who holds things together but does so with an iron fist of control.  Judith Light is the often funny, alcoholic aunt who has been the thorn her sister Polly's side for most of her life.  Rachel Griffiths is the daughter demanding truth at all costs. 

I thought Stockard Channing was riveting.  Her character Polly is accused by her sister Silda of pretending to be someone she is not.  Channing manages to give shades of both the character she is and the one she pretends to be.

The material was compelling and you want to know what has happened to these characters.  You want to know how it all came to this, but I struggled with feeling sympathetic toward most of the family.  The most sympathetic character for me was the younger brother (played when I saw it by Thomas Sadowski and soon to be played by Justin Kirk) who has been putting up with all this nonsense for his whole life but he was too young to "remember" the event that set it all in motion.  Brooke was a particularly challenging character to process and connect to. I understood her compulsive need to get to the truth to help her heal but her "shock" that the family would not embrace her activity played false to me.  Her brother calls her on this a bit and I enjoyed when the two of them started dealing with each other more directly and honestly.  Sadowski's performance grew on me.  As the play went on, I could see more clearly the parallels between the children and their parents.  

The play sets up these characters with certain assumptions and then deconstructs those assumptions in the final analysis.  I guess I was less taken with the build up of drama in this story because it felt a little predictable.  I kind of expected one truth grenade to be taken out by someone else's truth bomb.  Part of me thinks I would be most interested in the sequel to this play that follows upon the the big "reveal" at the end.  I want to know how you live with each other after all that's said and done.

That said, I had such a strong reaction to the characters.  There was real artistry to the writing and acting.  But it would not have changed my top 10 for 2011.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Blood and Gifts: Dark Comedy of World Politics

Blood and Gifts by J.T. Rogers and directed by Bartlett Sher is about American global politics and the CIA's behind-the-scenes involvement in the war in Afghanistan in the 1980's.  For the weight and seriousness of the material, the approach was thankfully more black comedy-drama that straight up drama. Though it covers a great deal of history, it does so in an accessible way.  What could have easily drifted into dull, dry lecture managed to stay crisp, funny and interesting until almost the bitter end of the show. 

My aunt, uncle and cousins lived in Iraq in the 1980's.  From an early age, I grew up with the perverse understanding that the US could very easily support someone like Saddam Hussein (who was bugging all the calls we made to our family) in the war against Iran until he turned around and pointed US guns back at us.  And then you back a different horse.   The play's snarky, hindsight view of America's involvement in Afghanistan was particularly appealing to me.  The show does a great job laying out the situation where the US chooses to get involved to keep the Soviets at bay but inevitably gets into a dirty business with everyone and anyone else to fight the Soviets.  Questions of the morality of the choices made are explored through various characters.  Most interesting is the question of "success" and when does this game ever end.

The story is carried by Jeremy Davidson (who has a very sexy speaking voice by the by), as the CIA agent James Warnock sent to lead the covert mission in Afghanistan through his station in Pakistan with the help of the Pakistan government (which has its own agenda).  Also involved is Jefferson Mays playing an MI6 agent who is trying to coordinate his approach with the Americans but finds himself constantly at odds with Pakistan's approach.  Warnock gets deeply entangled with a mujahideen freedom fighter and his team (played by Bernard White and Pej Vahdat), though the Pakistan government wants another "freedom" fighter backed against the Soviets. 

Despite all this history, the caustic and amusing banter between characters keeps the story moving and the material riveting.  The actors are all strong.  Jefferson Mays was a stand-out (with an amazing regional British accent which slips out depending on his anger/drunkenness).  He does a great job portraying the character who starts to unravel with the consequences of long-term game-playing in the region.  He has some febrile drunk scenes that are incredibly believable without being over-the-top.  Bernard White also does a fantastic job of being a man of principles knowing he is a pawn. 

Sher stages the actors around the edge of the stage as the scenes unfold.  As an audience member, this choice is a constant reminder of all the players in the region and that no action can be taken in a vacuum. 

I found the show dragging a just little as the story came to a close and the more it became about the characters personal lives.  But on the whole I was glad I caught this show before it's January closing.  J.T. Rogers is a writer I will look out for in the future. 

Once: Once Again I am Alone

Another movie gets a screen to stage makeover and the result is a guilty pleasure bittersweet romance that left me a little disappointed.  Based on the John Carney movie, Once is the story of a Dublin street musician, Guy, at the end of his musical rope who is encouraged by an immigrant Czech girl, Girl, to believe in his music and himself again.  Using the same music and lyrics from the movie music, the stage adaptation by Enda Walsh stays faithful to the movie's story.  It is directed by John Tiffany and choreographed by Steven Hoggett. 

I wanted to both hate and love Once.  I wanted to hate it because I feel like the underlying material is paper thin and has had so many various opportunities already (first it was a movie, then the "actors" toured with the band they formed and then there was the documentary of the band's tour, and now here is the musical version of the same material in the movie).  I wanted to love Once because there were so many talented people involved in the adaptation and I had high hopes that they would take a thin piece of material and enrich it.

Somehow the final result fell between love and hate for me.  It is a bittersweet love story that delivers exactly what the movie delivered and sadly not much more.  If you liked the movie and all it's trappings, you're golden.  If you were hoping/expecting more (me), you'll be disappointed. 

I think my expectations here were too high.  I've seen a couple of productions directed by John Tiffany including his amazingly dark and creepy Peter Pan in London (wish that had transferred) and the powerful Black Watch in Brooklyn.  I've also seen a couple of shows choreographed by Steven Hoggett including Black Watch and Beautiful Burnout.  And recently I saw Enda Walsh's Misterman which was soul-rattling.  A lot of really talented, visionary creative artists were involved in this adaptation.   All of which raised my expectations that this work would be more than just the movie on stage.

They use all the same music from the movie.  I didn't identify any new pieces (though it is possible there were one or two but it all sounded exactly like the film's soundtrack to mine ears).  And it's a wee story about a guy and girl meeting, falling in love, and life getting in the way of love.  99% of the emotional content of Once the movie was provided by the music (don't get me started on movies where the director's musical crutch covers up all the holes in the actual film-- see also Garden State).  I mean turn off the soundtrack and watch that movie.  It would be unwatchable.  I think it serves the same purpose here, though the stage voices are better.

The movie music is certainly mournful and folk-catchy but it doesn't move a lot along on stage.  It provides an emotional outlet for Guy and Girl in a few scenes but otherwise it's a guy standing around serenading with a guitar.  Although there are some nice moments of choreography in Once, the main songs sung by Steve Kazee were largely stationary ballads with him just standing around with his guitar.  It felt like when the cast stopped moving, so did the show. 

When they used Hoggett's choreography, the show had real energy but I wanted more of it.  Let me be clear I generally hate dance.  I struggle to find the "narrative" for the most part in dance pieces.  What I like about Hoggett is how his use of movement supports and enhances the narrative.  I didn't see American Idiot (Sorry AI fans) but Beautiful Burnout which Hoggett was the co-director of used movement so well.  I didn't think the story and book of Beautiful Burnout was very strong but what was there was largely accomplished through the staging and movement.  Black Watch has one particular sequence where costumes and movement tell an epic story of the history of the military unit.  There is no question that Hoggett is incredibly talented and when used well accomplishes a lot.  I felt he was under-used here.

I wasn't totally sold on the staging with the "band" being on the fringe of the set most of the show and then doing double duty as the supporting cast (bad flashbacks to John Doyle productions came to mind).  As for the cast, Kazee is adorable and much more attractive than Glen Hansard from the original film.  He has a great voice and sings the hell out of the songs.  But when he stops singing, he has an incredibly passive role.  This might be more a complaint about the role rather than the actor but it felt very slight and one-note.  He did not have a lot to do between songs.  I wanted to like him.  Did I believe he pined for Girl?  Yes.  Did I believe she loved Guy?  Yes.  But did it piss me off that all he did was stand there looking hang-dog & adorable for 2.5 hours.  Yes, it did.

Cristin Miloti has the showier role as Girl, since she is driving the narrative and the relationship.  She's the catalyst for all the changes in his life.  She gets to be more outwardly quirky and vocal.  She's the one weaving the fairy tale and it is clear what tale she is weaving for Guy.  But how she fits in and what tale she hopes for herself is a lot more opaque.  She is more of an enigma in the stage version and I think the story suffers for it.

It is easy to just ride along with this show and enjoy the romance and the music.  I just thought with the talent behind this production I was going to see a standout show that was truly magical.  

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Top 10 for 2011: Mildly Bitter Comes Back to Theater

I have lived in New York for 17 years.  Typically I would see about 15 shows a year when my schedule allowed it.  But 2011 was the year I really came home and committed to seeing everything I wanted to see on stage.  I blame Tom Riley and Arcadia.  Revisiting Arcadia after 16 years and stumbling upon a great performance by Tom Riley led me to his twitter feed (he's funny you should follow him).  From there I discovered a community of theater lovers on twitter and joined into the conversation. This spring was a great time to return to New York theater.  I have always been more of a straight play gal and the spring offered so many options.  I enjoy musicals (well I enjoy Sondheim--that's not the same thing as musicals) but not usually as much as straight plays.

In the end, I managed to see 67 shows in New York and the UK (I even ventured beyond London to see 2 shows).  Not a lot compared to most of you.  Next year I will try harder.  I missed a bunch of shows I would have liked to have seen for completeness sake (Venus in Furs, Other Desert Cities, Mike Daisey).  But as you may recall I was abducted to Europe for about 2 1/2 months so it cut into my theater time a bit and despite having tickets to many of these shows I was not able to attend.

I am also kind of picky (ok, a lot picky) and won't just see everything.  I intentionally skipped a bunch of shows that I figured I would not like (The Mountaintop, Stickfly, Master Class, On a Clear Day).  And then there were the ones I wished I skipped (King Lear--The Public, Terrible Advice, Angels in America).

However, there were some shows that I went to begrudgingly and left really liking (Catch Me if You Can, Bonnie & Clyde, Ghost--I see a musical theme here).  And then there were the ones that I had to visit a couple of times (Arcadia, Jerusalem, Follies, It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later, Hair).

Although I had the opportunity to go to the UK a couple of times to see theater, I thought it would be more appropriate to do a my top 10 based on shows I saw in the NY area only.  Here are my top 10 based on what I saw in the US:

1)  The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church:  Well was there any question in your mind that I would not put my first Daniel Kitson show on the list?  I had no idea what to expect from this performer and I left the show becoming his biggest cheerleader. The show was funny, sweet, poetic, and beautiful.  It left me wanting more.  It is the rare show that gives you the chance to just revel in our collective humanity.  I've had the amazing opportunity in my life to travel and in those travels have met some people who have gone on to tell me their life story and it changed me.  It changed my view of history, cultures and made me wonder what I would have done in their situations.  A Daniel Kitson show reminds me of these experiences because he tells you stories that make you think about your place in the world and how you experience life.   I can't think of a more perfect way to spend an evening.

2)  Jerusalem:  A longtime fan of Mark Rylance I was unprepared for his epic performance in the rich play that Jez Butterworth wrote.  The play was funny, sad, compelling and monumental.  I can't think of the last new play (not written by Stoppard) that worked on so many levels and would be worth reading and studying for years to come.  In addition to the power of the play, it was often hilarious.  A terrific supporting cast brought these characters and place to life.  For me, it was a delightful and tragic place to visit on multiple occasions. 

2)  Misterman:  Slipping in as the year was about to end, this show written and directed by Enda Walsh will stay with me for a long time.  The success of the work is the fact that while watching I was engaged but did not realize until the end how emotionally invested I had become in the character and the play.  It is the rare treat when a play can be so stealthy in its effect on the audience.  Cillian Murphy achieved a performance unlike any other channeling voices of several characters as well as creating a disturbed protagonist who I could not take my eyes off of.  I've never been to a play that left me speechless and breathless in the end. 

The performances in Jerusalem and Misterman are basically neck and neck now in my mind and I could not choose which of the two was slightly better so they are tied at #2 for me.  Deal with it. 

4)  Arcadia:  Arcadia is my favorite play of all time.  It is on my bedside table and I read it at least once a year.  It's smart, funny, complex and romantic.  I saw it in 1995 and no production could really ever compete with that production.  It was perfection--Billy Crudup's Broadway debut, Victor Garber, Blair Brown, Robert Sean Leonard, and Paul Giamatti.  Trevor Nunn's direction.  The great staging on the thrust stage at Lincoln Center.   I still will never get over the first time I put the story together in my mind--when he hands her the candle--gasps, tears, enlightenment.  When I heard it was coming to Broadway again I was really excited.

The 2011 David Leveaux production had some delicious discoveries (Tom Riley as Septimus, Lia Williams as Hannah, David Turner as Chater) and some struggles (Bel Powley whining, Billy Crudup gesticulating).  But the cast found the beauty in Stoppard's words and recreated a lot of the magic from the 1995 production for me.  It was also a bit of a personal time machine, taking me back to my college days and the thrill of the discovery of Broadway shows then. 

Tom Riley had some big shoes to fill and did so admirably.  He made Septimus sexy, charming & sweet.  There was something more delicate in his performance than Crudup's but no less powerful.  He then went on to blow my mind completely several months later when I traveled to London to see him in My City.  Hoping he comes back to any stage anywhere because I'll get on a plane and go (keep up to date with his work on his unofficial webpage).  You should too!

In the final analysis, this Arcadia was a pleasure.  I could not really let it go and visited it 7 times because I wanted to stock up on the magic and wonder because I expect it will be another 15 years or so until it is revived again.  I'm already looking forward to that.

5)  The Normal Heart:  I never expected this to be as moving and powerful as it was.  I was anticipating Larry Kramer polemics or something that felt dated.  Instead, it felt like a piece of American history had come alive--not the history of AIDS, not gay history, but American history--a relevant chapter of history we still need to hear today.  It was great to see Joe Mantello on stage again after seeing him in Angels in America.  He found a way to make a difficult character lovable (again).  He found so many layers to his character's rage and anger and never once did his performance feel shrill.   I admit I could have done without Ellen Barkin's monologue.  But the story about the brothers, John Benjamin Hickey, everything else...amazing.  Sobbing.  Tears.  Wonderful.

6)  Good People:  I am always looking for films and plays that actually deal with class issues in America and I was delighted to see Good People tackle these issues with humor, wit and skill.  Though not a perfect production, I loved the underlying work.  Frances McDormand was great (even if her Boston accent was not.  A special shout out to Patrick Carroll who's small supporting role was fantastic and his accent was spot on).  A solid piece of writing about America, Boston, and the choices we have and don't have in life.  These were not characters.  These were real people.  A massive achievement in playwriting.

7)  Follies:  A musical!   I have a warm spot in my heart for the darkness of Sondheim.  Follies goes to a dark emotional place with barely a candle lit to guide your way.  It is chock full of amazing songs, performed here by some great interpreters.  Jan Maxwell is killer whether she's dancing or spitting vitriolic lyrics in Could I Leave You.  Bernadette Peters offers up a girl-child emotional breakdown like no other and as the production has progressed her voice has strengthened.  Ron Raines voice was a discovery for me and his Too Many Mornings makes me cry every time.   Jayne Houdyshell and Elaine Paige make fully drawn characters from small roles.  A lush production that was moving and beautiful.  It might not be everyone's cup of tea but I love the idea of spending the evening thinking about past loves, loss and regret.

8)  King Lear:  This was never one of my favorite Shakespearean plays but Derek Jacobi's performance and Michael Grandage's direction made this one of the greatest Shakespearean interpretations I have ever seen.  The story moved along at a frenzied clip.  Lear's fall from grace for once made sense to me and I was even sympathetic to it.  The supporting cast was largely fantastic--Ron Cook as the Fool, Paul Jesson as Gloucester, Gwilym Lee as Edgar, Gina McKee as Goneril, Justine Mitchell as Regan.  I am happy to say this is probably the definitive production of King Lear and I will never need to see another as all others will pale in comparison (If only I had made this pledge before seeing the awful production at The Public later in the year).

9)  Sons of the Prophet:  I was happy to stumble up on this Stephen Karam play recommended by @TwoShowDays.  The story and performances came across as powerful but realistic.  I felt as if I knew who these people were and their struggles were both specific and yet universal.  Santino Fontana, Chris Perfetti and Yusef Bulos form a convincing family on stage that doesn't always get along but loves each other deep down.  It was funny and touching.  Despite setbacks, personal struggles and the challenges that life throws at people, there was a hopeful spirit here and a lightness and humor that made the material even richer.  Balancing lightness and darkness is a difficult task but here it worked.  It was also a happy marriage of great acting and a fantastic script. 

10)  Company (Concert):  Not sure if this counts but it was one of my favorite musicals of the year so I am counting it.  It was the concert staging at the New York Philharmonic.  Company is one of my favorite musicals of all time.  I've had the OBC album on vinyl since I was a kid (yes discuss amongst yourselves how effed up that is...)  I hated the John Doyle version (Stop with the instruments already) despite the presence of Raul Esparza and bringing back the fantastic Marry Me a Little song so I was craving a production that would fulfill the show that exists in my mind.  I found the concert staging was a great format for this show.  I was pleasantly surprised by the cast who were fantastic actors with actually reasonable voices.  Katie Finneran, Martha Plimpton, Patti LuPone and Neil Patrick Harris were the stand-outs for me. I walked out of that performance hall happier than I have been in a long time.

Beyond the top 10 a few other notable shouts outs for shows and performances that I really liked:

Special Mentions (Shows):  Anything Goes, Black Watch, Blood and Gifts, The Blue Flower, Catch Me if You Can, Completeness, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,  One Man, Two Guvnors (UK), Othello (UK).

Special Mentions (Performances): Tom Riley unexpectedly blowing my mind in My City (UK) after his lovely turn in Arcadia, Ben Daniels being creepy and convincing in Haunted Child (UK), Stephen Pasquale being heartbreaking & real in iHo, Dominic West being funny and maniacal in Othello (UK), Carey Mulligan having a total breakdown in Through a Glass Darkly,  Colin Donnell crooning and dancing his way into my heart in Anything Goes, Sutton Foster tapping the hell out of Broadway in Anything Goes, Tobias Menzies delivering a slice of reality in 9/11 play Decade, James Corden and Oliver Chris cracking me and each other up in One Man, Two Guvnors (UK), Andrew Knott embodying John Lennon in Backbeat (UK), Yul Vasquez breaking all stereotypes in the Motherfucker with the Hat, Pedro Pascal being seductive and mysterious in Maple and Vine, Melissa Van Der Schyff delivering zingers and being the vocal reincarnation of a young Dolly Parton in Bonnie & Clyde, Jeremy Jordan showing everyone how a star is born in Bonnie & Clyde,  Patti and Mandy reminding us why they became stars in the first place with their Evita numbers, Hugh Jackman making Soliloquy look natural and easy, and Sam Kelly making me cry in Grief (UK).

Special Mentions (Other): Aaron Rhyne's projections in Bonnie & Clyde, Goose in War Horse for the best performance by a goose in an overrated "show" about horses, Ultz the set designer of Jerusalem, Steven Hoggett's use of movement to deliver the boxing narrative in Beautiful Burnout, best use of a blow job on stage in Backbeat (UK), the Rupert Goold site-specific staging of Decade, and the Follies ghosts who don't trip and fall down in their giant headdresses and costumes though I expect them to every time.

Special Mentions (Blogs):  I would not have started blogging without the encouragement of @touchofgr3y.  So if you are looking for someone to's her!

And I am awed and intimidated by the other bloggers who write so passionately and well about theater: @thecraptacular, @pataphysicalsci, @twoshowdays, 100 Shows a Year.  Y'all keep the bar pretty high!  But I am hoping to improve my writing in 2012.  Looking forward to spending another year with you guys!