Friday, March 30, 2012

Pipe Dream: Love Through a LITERAL Pipe

If only this had been a musical about crackpipe users who fall in love.  If only...that would have had some dramatic potential.  Rodgers & Hammerstein may not have been involved but it would have been something to see.

The "real" Pipe Dream is a flop Rodgers & Hammerstein musical about a girl living on the street, Suzy, (Laura Osnes) taken in by a madam, Fauna, (Leslie Uggams).  Immediately upon arrival (well after she steals a donut), Suzy manages to insult the town's loveliest, kindest, handsomest and most helpful man about town, Doc (Will Chase).  Doc is a marine biologist.  Suzy's harsh words make Doc reconsider the direction of his life which up until then involved staring into tide-pools with his mentally challenged sidekick Hazel (Stephen Wallem).  Suzy's insults convince Doc he needs to write a paper on octopuses!  But poor Doc knows he can never write a good paper on octopuses because he doesn't have a microscope (sad trombone).  His buddy Mac (Tom Wopat) has a secret plan to raffle off the flophouse he lives in (but does not own) to raise money for the microscope.

Are you following this...Should I draw a map?  Fuck it.  A map will not help you out of this hole.  BUT WAIT, there is more.  Where is the pipe you ask? 

I was seriously confused by the advertising for Pipe Dream.  The cartoon ads made it look like Laura Osnes's character lived in submarine at the bottom of the sea. This is wrong (though I really wished it was true...that...or a pineapple).  She lives in a boiler than can only be accessed through a pipe (Pipe Dream...get it).  At some point the man she may or may not be in love with must crawl through a literal pipe to bring her flowers...Thankfully the man tasked with this is Will Chase.  And he seemed game and willing to muss his nice chinos for the love of a good woman...(and he does this after he has chased off Suzy's other suitor, Joe the Mexican--yes Joe the Mexican).

But the good woman in question isn't so good.  She's kind of a bitch to dear Will Chase.  And she's dealing with some low self-esteem issues.  Suzy is misunderstood...but we never know why.  It's not for us to know I guess.  But will it ever work out for Will and Suzy?  They sing a duet and you think maybe it will...but then it turns out the duet is really about the fact that they both have learned that they were fools to fall for each other and they should move on.  And they both seem ok with that!  BUT YOU HAVE TO FALL IN LOVE OR MY TIME HERE IS WASTED!  Fear not...the love story gets back on track shortly thereafter.  All it takes is a broken arm, some soup and an invitation to the tide-pools of LaJolla and they are good to go. 

Gentlemen reading this at home.  Do not try to woo any gal with an invite to the tide-pools of LaJolla.  This will only work if you are Will Chase.  #professionaldriveronaclosedcourse

Between the ragtag group of squatters and the ragtag group of hookers and a song about fish, this show is a total mess.  It's why it is not revived.  But I do appreciate Encores! letting us see exactly why that is.  This production, directed by Marc Bruni, is a feat.  Excellent choreography and staging.  They have tried to put on the richest production possible even if this is a "concert" staging.  But none of that can fix the fact that the plot is ludicrous.  But not fun ludicrous.  Painfully confusing, awkward, not funny, and a little bit racist ludicrous.  But I can say I have seen it.  Check.

I can even say the song All At Once You Love Her was darling and I'd listen to Will Chase sing that to me anytime.  And the whole company does an amazing job to treat the work seriously and respectfully.  And my snide tone is not a dig at them at all.  Everyone sounded great.  Laura struggles with Suzy when she's supposed to be tough and rough around the edges but as always she excels at sweetness.  I'd love to hear Will and Laura sing again together in something else.  Their voices are well-suited to the Rodgers & Hammerstein oeuvre.  Stephen Wallem is great as Hazel.  Tom Wopat was the right kind of salty and crusty here.  I really applaud everyone involved for doing a great job with this material.  I am sure this is the best production of Pipe Dream I will ever see.  And I mean that sincerely. 

And in the spirit of octopus study, here is my favorite Octocam for your enjoyment.

Newsies: Extra! Extra! Get Your Jeremy Jordan Here

Disney's Newsies The Musical has finally made it's way to Broadway and is a high-flying, upbeat adventure full of dreamboats and peppy melodies.  For some gals, Newsies finally making it to Broadway will fulfill a longtime dream.  No question the audience is full of die-hard fans who have been waiting a long time for this moment (and I wasn't even at the first preview where it is rumored the show was stopped by standing ovations and thunderous applause).

For those of us who have never seen the movie Newsies, it still has a lot to offer.  First and foremost, the cast of Newsies is led by the rising star of Broadway Jeremy Jordan.  Second, it contains some of the most high flying and dynamic choreography (by Christopher Gattelli) on Broadway.   It's a high energy show that has a quick pace, constant action (Jeff Calhoun's direction), and if nothing is actually happening someone will at least be dancing (given the preference I vote for Ryan Steele who is otherworldly--talk about defying gravity).

The story is simple.  The Alan Menken music is giddy with a few belt 'em out high note numbers to make you pee yourself.  It's a lovely Broadway meringue. 

Set in 1899 in New York, Jeremy Jordan plays Jack Kelly, the leader of a rag-tag group of young newsies who hawk newspapers for a living for Joseph Pulitzer until Pulitzer decides to raise the rates the newsies must pay.  Kelly leads the charge to resist this rate increase which puts his best friend Crutchie (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) in danger.  He organizes the newsies all over the city with the help of the more articulate Davey (Ben Fankhauser), gets press for his efforts with the help of local journalist Katherine (Kara Lindsay) and attempts to creates a union of not just young newsies but child workers all over the city. 
What makes the show work for me is Jeremy Jordan.  My main "complaint"-- not enough Jeremy Jordan.  He is absolutely adorable and charming.  Heart-melting when he needs to be (seriously swoonworthy in the scenes on the rooftop--massive girly sigh).  Say what you will about Bonnie & Clyde but it demonstrated that Jordan has acting chops beyond just his killer voice and his handsome looks.  He is absolutely a delight to watch here but I felt like he did not have very much to do.  Don't get me wrong I am happy to have Jordan on Broadway, now and forever.  I just wish this role was meatier because he can do more.

The rest of the cast does a fine job with the light-hearted material.  Like I said Ryan Steele is an incredible dancer but most of the time I was just struggling to keep up with which cast members were tumbling, leaping, and flying (additional stand-outs were Ryan Breslin, Andy Richardson). 

My nits...are of the mildly bitter variety.  I wished there was a bigger cast (fill the stage with more cute newsies).  It gets a little silly when they are "recruiting" newsies from other boroughs (in particular they need Brooklyn on board) and the Brooklyn newsies show up...and they are the same guys we've already seen as part of Kelly's gang.  It just makes the show feel a little anemic and cheap at a moment when it should feel lush.  The set is not my favorite.  It's functional (metal frame work that is moved around a lot to accommodate multi-level dancing and performances with a little projection added) but not particularly inventive and did not really give a sense of place for most of the show (though worked well as the rooftop/fire escape dwelling of the boys).  The love story is fine but I was not a fan of Kara Lindsay.  She reads so much older than everyone else and was dressed by someone who clearly hates her and believes that synthetic dyes were significantly more advanced that I believe they were in 1899 (Holy bright palette Batman!).

But really none of this matters.  Every girl (and some guys) will have a favorite Newsie hottie by the end.  You'll be impressed with the incredible dancing and singing and you'll have a fab time if you just go along for the light-hearted ride.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Now. Here. This.: Grump Alert

Now. Here. This. is an unusual, personal musical that means well but fails to come together as a cohesive show.  It is always a challenge to tell a personal story or turn a personal narrative into something dramatic.  One of the impressive things about storytellers, whether working in non-fiction or fiction, is to bring an audience in and hold onto them.  But sometimes talented and charismatic people do work that is personal but does not rise to the level of a meaningful, universal truth.

Now. Here. This. is a musical interpretation of episodes from the lives of the four actors (Susan Blackwell, Hunter Bell, Jeff Bowen, Heidi Blickenstaff)  playing the four characters in the show.  The action is set initially in a museum and the characters break out from their museum wanderings and tell stories about their lives.  In the museum, they discuss the universe and our place in it.  From there, the musical further explains that what ties the show together are the writings of monk Thomas Merton who encouraged people to focus on the intersection of Now, Here and This.

However, this entire piece is about Then, There, and That.  If it is supposed to be a treatise on staying present and connected to the moment being experienced it is a little strange that it is all about these characters reflecting on their own past.  It's certainly a bold idea to make a musical about your personal past and your personal struggles (being gay, getting caught masturbating, embarrassed by your parents hoarding, lying to people) (and I did not see [title of show] so this is my first interaction with these performers).  The challenge is being able to tell those stories in a way that serves more than an audience of your acolytes, friends and family.  I did not find the connective tissue between each of these stories to be strong enough to bring the piece together.  The personal reflections never seemed to rise above that level and become deeper stories of human truth.  I kept waiting for a moment in the end where I would get the emotional payoff I was seeking, but it did not come.

Some individual scenes were quite touching but they sat in isolation.  For instance, Hunter Bell's fantasy view of his success as a teen model contrasted with the reality of that scene was one of the most powerful visuals of the show.  Susan Blackwell told a great story about her father's struggles with literacy contrasted against her own achievements as a writer.  But in the end it was nothing more than a series of vignettes and I am sorry to say some of them felt very obvious and overdone (ugh the emotionally constipated parent one and the dead grandmothers one in particular--I know I am that person who thinks a vignette about dying grandmothers is maudlin, sappy, and overdone.  I already have my seat in hell reserved.).  The museum structure did the musical no favors.  The first 30 minutes of the show dragged as the conceit got going.  I was happy when it was ultimately left behind.

At one point, the cast starts to quote from the movie Tootsie.  It was then I realized how much better Tootsie was than anything I was watching. 

I have struggled to pin down why this show did not work for me when I have seen a lot of other personal theater lately that I liked (Bad Kid, No Place To Go, with a grain of salt the now-admittedly-fabricated The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs).  Maybe it was the flip tone of the piece juxtaposed against serious moments or just a sense of humor I did not share.  The real problem was I did not care about these people and their stories.  As someone who really loves to hear stories of human truth (Hello! Entire month of January spent listening to Daniel Kitson tell me about life), I was a little surprised by how this show did not strike a chord with me.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Regrets: The Men of 1950's Nevada

Regrets* by Matt Charman and directed by Carolyn Cantor offers a window into a fascinating period in American history but struggles to emotionally connect the characters to the themes in the most effective way. 

The story is set in 1954 in Nevada as a group of men wait out their six weeks time in a rustic cabin encampment so they can get their Nevada residencies for their Reno divorces.  New arrival Caleb (Ansel Elgort) shakes things up with long-time resident and de-facto leader of this camp Ben (Brian Hutchinson), pushover and worry-wort Alvin (Richard Topol) and tough-guy Gerald (Lucas Caleb Rooney).  Mrs. Duke (Adriane Lenox) manages the camp and spends much of her time chasing local girl Chrissie (Alexis Bledel) off the premises.

Charman sketches out some interesting characters which the actors go to far lengths to flesh out.  Brian Hutchinson does a great job of creating a character demanding honesty from others but keeping his own secrets.  Although Alvin and Gerald seemed to be more archetypal than individualized, the actors gave them more dimensions.  Ansel Elgort is a high school student making his Off-Broadway debut.  He held his own in fine company but since the character is designed to be an enigma, his performance is very subtle (arguably underplayed or underwritten--it's hard to tell which is the problem).  Adriane Lenox was great as the no-nonsense woman who runs the camp.  I thought the scenic design was fantastic giving the feel of a real camp site and the intimacy of these men living on top of one another in rudimentary conditions.  All the creative elements worked well together. 

The camaraderie and tension between the men was genuine and believable but when the stakes were raised, the play and the characters began to falter.  I struggled to understand how the play's "set-up" melded with the play's "reveal."  What the first Act revealed about these characters did not necessarily resonate in the second Act when the characters were challenged.  Though the material was thoughtful and something I had not seen explored before in this way, it did not deliver the necessary emotional payoff.  Nevertheless, the writer explores interesting facets of male friendship, loyalty, honesty, thoughts about divorce in the 1950's and other larger historic issues.  It's a worthwhile production to check out, even if it does not necessarily connect up all the pieces.

*A complimentary ticket was provided to me for this production.

Monday, March 26, 2012

I Can Hear You Googlers: Stephen Oremus is Married

Not a photo of their wedding
For some reason the most popular search that leads to my blog is "Stephen Oremus Married."  I am the first hit on google for this...which is a little crazy.   But in my series where I answer weird google queries I will answer this one...

Stephen Oremus IS Justin Bohon.  See a photo of the adorable couple here.  Justin is in the ensemble of Book of Mormon.  Stephen is the music director, vocal director and co-orchestrator for Book of Mormon (and a Tony and Grammy award winner...on his way to an EGOT).

According to the Wedding Channel, they got married on September 12, 2011.

Oremus mentioned their wedding at the American Songbook concert he did with Gavin Creel at the Allen Room.  Because I reviewed that show I expect that is why I keep getting this traffic.  I just can't believe Google thinks I am the most relevant authority on the subject.

I had no idea how popular a query it would be because at least once a week a couple of people google it!

I feel bad crushing your dreams boys (and well girls I'm not sure you were ever in the running) but in the interest of answering the Googlers questions I had to do it.  That wedding ship has sailed...


Much happiness to the lovely couple.

xoxo MB

No Place to Go: Comic Cabaret Play

With a slow burn, but a solid emotional core, Ethan Lipton's No Place to Go is a serio-comedic "musical" that seems equal parts wacky cabaret act and thoughtful monologue.  A three piece band joins Lipton, who is the lead vocalist and performer, as he takes us through his journey from employment to unemployment, when he finds out his job is "breaking up with him."

With Bad Kid, Now. Here. This., the Mike Daisey debacle, and now No Place to Go, I feel like I have been swimming in personal reflection theater lately.  But No Place to Go, directed by Leigh Silverman, managed to have a gentle presentation style that succeeds at being personal, emotionally engaging and yet more universally accessible that some other works I have seen.  At its core, the show is about what happens when your foundation (your paying day job) shifts under your feet and how you cope with that.  As Lipton described it: "I keep telling myself anxiety is excitement in disguise."  Having had my out bouts of unexpected unemployment in my life, the themes resonated with me.  But beyond Lipton's personal experiences and the "gooey malaise" he experienced, he tries to connect it to larger questions of corporate actions, unemployment in this country, and how good people survive in the modern world today. 

Lipton is not the most charismatic actor.  But when he starts to sing he lights up.  He has a wry vocal style and really shines when he makes convincing invocations of James Brown, Woodie Guthrie, and Randy Newman.  It took some time for me to adjust to the piece, the format, and warm up to Lipton but I did eventually.  There were really nice moments in the show and I laughed when he described freelancing as "Everybody hates me and I can't find the bathroom" which reflected my experience as a temp to perfection.  He did a series of songs by the last sandwich in the conference room and by the final one I actually had feelings for this lonely sandwich.  I think I appreciated the work more than loved it, but I am glad he made it.  He took an unusual approach and I would check out other works by him in the future.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Truth in Theater Panel

Adam Feldman organized a panel of artists and journalists this week to discuss the fallout from the Mike Daisey situation and discuss questions of Truth in Theater.  The Public Theater, which hosted Daisey's now-controversial show, offered space for the panel.  On the panel were, journalists Peter Marks of the Washington Post, Jason Zinoman of the New York Times and Slate, and Adam Feldman of Time Out New York.  Also included on the panel for the theater artists' perspective were Jessica Blank (The Exonerated), Steven Cosson (Artistic Director of The Civilians investigative theater), and Taylor Mac (The Lily's Revenge).

Oskar Eustis opened the panel noting that "the Public is the kind of place where we should talk about these things" and that L'Affair du Daisey (my words not his) " was as surprising to us as it was to most folks."  He read a new prepared statement about The Public's take on the situation as it has evolved over the last week.  Eustis's new statement focuses on the "contract" implied or explicit between the artist and the audience and being faithful to that contract.

The panel offered a fascinating discussion of a broad range of issues that were raised by Daisey's actions including the spectrum of types of theater that fall under this umbrella, issues of labeling, marketing, disclosure, as well as the harm Daisey's actions might have on Chinese workers, other artists, theaters and the movement to improve labor conditions in China overall.

Peter Marks wondered if this was really a "crime of labeling" by putting "This is Non-Fiction" in the programs for the Daisey show which was something he took at face value and it guided his belief that what he was watching was true.  Taylor Mac suggested that he did not believe "non-fiction theater exists."  Cosson suggested that non-fiction theater does exist but there are a broad range of shows, works and artists in the spectrum of non-fiction theater, each with different approaches and different ways it is presented to audiences.  But he suggested that "there are different rules for theater that engage reality and journalism."  Blank described her own process for something like The Exonerated where the work is based on transcripts and real people's lives and it has been vetted by attorneys for libel.  She felt strongly that no matter what you do, you have to "stick to your contract" with the audience.

Blank felt that her work is not journalism because of the advocacy arguments her works are trying to make.  Cosson countered that there is also a spectrum of journalism and documentary where advocacy is a part of that practice (whistle-blower articles for example).  But Cosson and Blank returned several times to the point that when you are handling works that involve people's lives you have a responsibility to those people.  That responsibility was a great one.  One question that was raised was when you are fabricating or embellishing "facts" that are personal can you be more loose in your presentation of truthfulness where the impact is localized but where "facts" have an impact on others can you ever really take that lightly?  Something like David Sedaris creating funny stories about his family that are not strictly true versus making up facts about bigger issues in the world.

Feldman noted his concerns where people make dramatic things up about the Holocaust and present it as fact.  Finding the subject matter too important to bend the truth and by doing so it gives Holocaust deniers ammunition. 

Jason Zinoman focused on Daisey's more recent statements at Georgetown and took umbrage with Daisey's new argument that he had to do this because journalists were not doing it.  Zinoman reached out to people who have dedicated themselves to these issues and found that people at Human Rights Watch feel "this piece undermines their work."  Daisey's lies have caused harm to their cause--the cause he claimed he wanted people to pay attention to.  Further, looking to academic studies and international journalism, Zinoman pointed out a number of pieces over the past few years that were focused on the issues Daisey addressed in his show arguing that Daisey's view that this story would have died without him was not necessarily true either. 

Whether Daisey's actions will cause theaters to demand more accountability from their non-fiction artists is a question that these artists will face.  Taylor Mac's view was that he got into theater "so he could make shit up."  Putting journalistic restrictions on artists would likely constrict artists.  Cosson and Blank seemed to offer that their own ethical standards for their works are the guidelines they work from.  But there is no universal or acceptable canon of ethical practices in this arena. 

During the Q&A, Oskar Eustis offered that The Public usually engaged in fact-checking in certain works but they had not done so with this particular work.  For a moment I wondered if Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was not historically accurate!  Was he not President Sexypants?  Joking aside, I was curious which Public Theater works were vetted and which were not and what works would raise that question of needing fact-checking versus those that do not.

Eustis pointed out that Ethan Lipton's current show at the Public refers to Connecticut as Mars and that change liberates Lipton from having to be tied strictly to the facts as an artist.  Blank believed that had Daisey presented the work properly up front (admitting it was memoir/not strictly true) it would have had the same powerful impact without all the fallout. 

Adam Feldman noted that the panel's "conversation ha[d] been a lot of philosophical groping" without concrete answers.  But the panel gave the opportunity to talk about Daisey's actions in the context of theater and stirred up a lot of passions in the speakers and the audience.  As usual the Q&A was slightly more uncomfortable than a colonoscopy with people not asking any real questions but sharing their "feelings" on the subjects discussed.

I was glad to hear a variety of opinions, especially by other artists working in that realm.  Certainly there were no easy answers for anyone.  But hearing these artists speak to the efforts they have gone to to be respectful of the personal stories entrusted to them and yet still manage to change policy or bring attention to important causes made me believe Daisey could have taken a different path to achieve his stated goals.  It might not have been the most high-profile path, but it would have been good clean work focused on the issues that still need attention.

The panel also made me realize I have a lot more investigative theater I need to see!   

Audio of this panel is now available here.  Hopefully my reporting and quotes were accurate.  #irony

Jesus Christ Superstar: It's Electric

Jesus Christ Superstar oscillates between delicious camp and serious moments making for an enjoyable night of theater that won't stretch your brain but will possibly tickle your funny bone.  And it may be the rare evening you find yourself raucously cheering whilst someone is being crucified.  Awkward on many levels of my Catholic guilt, but it was a sparkly, loud, rock out moment and one of the more memorable ones in the show.

This Des McAnuff production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock musical comes to Broadway from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.  The story is structured around the last days of Jesus Christ (Paul Nolan) as seen through the eyes of Judas (Josh Young's fantastic understudy Jeremy Kushnier performed during a lot of the previews including the one I saw).  McAnuff has staged the show as a love triangle between Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy), Jesus, and Judas. 

As much as this "love triangle" approach is apparently a new angle on this material it seemed to me (who had never listened to the cast album or seen the show before) as a completely reasonable interpretation.  But just to be clear, the love triangle seemed to be Mary and Judas both being in love with Jesus more than Jesus and Judas both being in love with Mary.

Depending on the number I felt like some songs were still rocking and fun ("Heaven on Their Minds") and others a little dated, synth-y and twangy ("What's the Buzz").  I loved the post-apocalyptic look of some of the costumes and set mixed with vaguely "period" style garments.  When things were supposed to get a little "sexy," the costuming went very camp and I enjoyed it for that fact alone but it was out of sync with the rest of the design elements.  Gold cod-pieces and spandex are not the most digestible of choices for "serious" theater.  

I had to stifle my giggles during several scenes (afraid that others around me might be taking this very seriously--I mean it's Jesus after all).  But some of it is so ridiculous you have to laugh.  The Herod scene is like Paul Lind and Liberace had a baby!  Either you'd enjoy that or you wouldn't (I would and did!).  I found the "escalator to Heaven" moment really awkward...but in a delightfully hilarious way.  If this was a Frank Wildhorn musical the literal song of this moment (a game The Craptacular likes to play) would be a song by Jesus called "Dad I Am Standing on My Escalator to Heaven and It's Going Up."

The digital projections worked at some moments (I LOVED the use of text and the use of the red lights during the lashes scene) but otherwise found them to be too early Atari for my taste. They came out looking a little more cheap retro-tech than may have been intended.

I liked the modern look to the production overall.  The metallic framed stage and the idea of projections worked well.  But as mentioned the tone shifts from high camp to seriousness were problematic.  I decided to forgive these whiplash moments because in the aggregate I was having a good time with it all.  I'm not sure a fully camp production would have worked and I appreciated not having it be deadly serious from beginning to end (that would have just been "church").  But maybe the costumes, design, or staging could have been improved to smooth over the bumps in these jarring tone shifts.

There is no question that Jeremy Kushnier and Paul Nolan are compelling and engaging leads.  They seemed well-matched to each other and the tension between their characters whether out of love or jealousy or some philosophical fracture was palpable through the music and performances.  Chilina Kennedy was less effective.  A little too gaped mouthed and non-specific in her actions.  She hit her marks, turned her head, and sang her songs but without emotion or passion.  It's too bad because the cast is largely a lot of fun to watch.

I really enjoyed the fight and movement work by the ensemble (Julius Sermonia was a stand-out here).  Mike Nadajewski as Peter and Lee Siegel at Simon Zealotes stood out to me with their great voices and touching moments.

If you want to purge the hyperactive, lecture driven Godspell from your mind, this production will do the trick (If there's one Jesus you see this season...I vote for this one).  Jesus Christ Superstar was a lot of fun, talented singers are on display, and some really interesting choices were made in the direction and staging.  Definitely worth checking out.  

Thursday, March 22, 2012

I Can Hear You Googlers: Rolling Calls in Hollywood

I've noticed a lot of google traffic lately over "Rolling Calls."  I reviewed the play Assistance where it is a large part of the staging of the show because the assistants handle a high volume of calls for their crazy big time boss.

I thought for fun, dear random Googler, I would answer your query:  What do we mean by rolling calls in Hollywood?

This Nun might be rolling calls. You don't know.
Well, when you are a Hollywood assistant it's your job to keep your boss hopping and conversing without a moment of rest.  As they are bathing, working out in the gym or even on the toilet they might decide to "roll calls."  You prioritize the calls on their callsheet (who's called in and is looking for them) and you start dialing and feeding them call after call after call until they cannot take it anymore or their girlfriend shows up for dinner or a flight attendant forcibly removes the phone from their hands.

I was always instructed to stay on the call and I would be responsible for everything learned during every call in case the boss wasn't really listening or if he promised to do something.  It was assumed I would follow up and execute whatever task came out of the call.  Occasionally if the call went into really personal territory (let's face it in Hollywood I never knew if I was at a business meeting or on a date because as far as I can tell those are the same things) I was told to get off the line.

In Assistance, that office had multiple assistants, so one assistant would line up a pending call while the boss was still talking on the first call.  The second assistant would feed the waiting caller to the first assistant who was working the phone with the boss. It's a delicate balance.  You can't have an important muckety-muck hold for too long waiting for your important muckety-muck.  It's a skill and an art.  When done well it is beautiful to behold. 

I hope I have answered your question dear Googler.

Maybe I will do more of these if you keep googling wonderful questions that I have an answer for...And always feel free to email Mildly Bitter with your queries.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

New Directors/New Films: Check it Out

I got a sneak preview of some films at New Directors/New Films this year and I thought I'd give a little shout out to this cool local film festival.  It has always been a favorite of mine.  Without the frenzy of Sundance or the pretension of other festivals, it is really about discovering great new voices.  Sometimes these films will get distribution, but often enough this will be your only chance to see them. Films are playing at MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

I know it can feel overwhelming to look at a program and try to select films that involve unknown directors, actors, and writers so here are a few that stood out to me (and there's your giant grain of salt):

Fear and Desire by Stanley Kubrick (yeah that Stanley Kubrick):  A largely unseen first film that Kubrick made when he was 24.  Even if it is an imperfect mess, I feel like it would be great piece of cinema history to see with an audience.

5 Broken Cameras by Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi:  A documentary collaboration between  Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi addressing land appropriation, settlements, and family.

Hemel by Sacha Polak:  Referred to by some as the female "Shame" it is a film about a sexually aggressive woman and her sexual addiction.  I saw a clip of this and the lead actress is really compelling.

How to Survive a Plague by David France: A documentary about the AIDS epidemic and the political movement sprung from it in the 1980's with a particular focus on the groups in New York.

The Minister (L'Exercise de l'Etat) by Pierre Schöller: A political thriller about corruption and politicians abandoning their principles to achieve their goals. Co-Produced by the Dardenne Brothers and starring Olivier Gourmet.  

Omar Killed Me (Omar m'a tuer) by Roschdy Zem: Actor turned director Zem (a favorite of mine in a little wacky comedy called Ma Petite Enterprise) investigates the 1991 killing of a wealthy widow in the South of France and focuses on her Moroccan gardener who was convicted of the crime. A journalist believed in the gardener's innocence and goes to work to prove it.

Oslo, August 31st by Joachim Trier:  A recovering drug addict tries to adjust to life outside of rehab.  I saw a clip of this and I happen to love Nordic films.  From the clip I saw this is more humorous than the description suggests.  I saw this director's first feature Reprise and he is interested in contemporary, hip cinema.  It just happens to have subtitles.

The Rabbi's Cat by Joann Sfar, Antoine Delevaux: A wacky animated film about a cat which eats a parakeet and starts speaking. The cat expresses a desire to have a bar mitzvah.  Apparently appropriate for family audiences. 

Romance Joe by Lee Kwang-kuk: I have liked some Korean films and their complex narratives so this description appealed to me. 

It's worth perusing the website and see if any titles jump out at you. The festival starts today!  Bon cinema!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Venus in Fur: Bring Me My Whip

Photo Provided by Production

Venus in Fur* written by David Ives and directed by Walter Bobbie is an infuriating, one trick pony play that may provide a platform for Nina Arianda to clutch a Tony award in June but offers little else.  The play is an under-developed work that inartfully obscures more than it artfully reveals. 

The play introduces "Vanda" an "actress" (Arianda) who arrives "late" for an audition with Thomas the director/playwright (Usually played by Hugh Dancy but I saw understudy Mark Alhadeff) and weasels her way into a reading.  The play within a play is an adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs which explores power, sexual proclivities, arousal through pain, and gender dynamics. 

SPOILER ALERT.  But what really happens is Nina Arianda arrives, tears up the stage for 90 minutes in skimpy lingerie, spouts a lot of bad fake play dialogue, attempts to seduce the writer/director, but the motives for the seduction are left entirely unclear.  It becomes painfully apparent a few lines into the play that Vanda has some other agenda and is hiding something.  One expects the playwright Ives to explore what she is hiding but he doesn't.  Instead, he sets up a fake "mystery," gives the slow-pokes in the audience an "Aha!..What now?" moment 90 minutes later but doesn't ever really develop the characters in a meaningful way.  The play is structured to maintain "tension" between what Vanda claims she is there for and what her "real" motives are.  But again SPOILER ALERT....Ives choose not to ever reveal what her true motives are.  Now an open-ended finale is an artistic choice and one that I am comfortable with in other contexts.  But because Ives spends the entire show harping on that exact question, holding it up as really the ONLY question of the entire play, it seems utterly churlish to punk out at the end and not answer it. 

It probably did not help that Hugh Dancy was out the night I saw the play.  I'm not sure the "strength" of the play's power dynamic would have shifted if Dancy was on-stage but as I saw it performed it was Nina Arianda in a one-woman show with a mannequin of a man as her scene partner. 

Photo Provided by Production

This is a play like God of Carnage or Seminar where the playwright has some fun playing around with actors and dialogue but chooses not to delve into the material presented in any serious or substantial way.  And I'll be frank, I hate these kinds of plays.  If I wanted something with the depth of a sitcom, I'd sit on my sofa at home with the television on.  I personally expect more from the theater (unless it's a musical and then I make some allowances for the ridiculous).  That's just me.  I like character development.  I am a theater-crack-addict for humanity,  emotional connection and psychology.  You'd think a play that involves the work of Sacher-Masoch might explore psychology but it really doesn't.  I want my theater to say something or at least attempt to.

If you don't care about story, plot, character development, humanity or meaning then you might enjoy the "wild" ride this play offers up--by which I mean if you are kind of interesting in a mystery that involves a woman in lingerie and you don't really care about that mystery but like the woman in lingerie...well you are good.

Venus in Fur oddly reminded me of Magnolia the film by Paul Thomas Anderson.  I remember watching that film and accepting the magical realism, the coincidences, obviously interlaced stories because I believed as I watched the film that the director was trying to make a greater point about life or humanity....until frogs fell from the sky.  It was at that point in the movie it felt to me that Anderson basically said, "Yeah no I was just kidding, I don't have a clue what any of this means either...but I just made frogs falls from the sky.  Cool, eh?"  Not cool Paul.  Not cool.

I had a similar feeling about this play.  Because Ives chooses not to explore the reasons why Vanda seduces Thomas, or focus on specifics between these two characters, all we are left with is a 10,000 foot view of the "themes" of traditional and non-traditional power dynamics and gender roles.  But there is no actual heft to these themes as offered in the play.  They are bandied about as if something is being said, but really it's all window dressing for the "seduction."  It's just pseudo-intellectual babble to make people "think" there is a point but it is just as useless as the black leather skirt Arianda takes on and off as the play goes on.  Is it all just for titillation?  Is this what Broadway needs?   Do we really need a play that offers a female character, with no backstory, no character development, and whose greatest strength is manipulation through sexual seduction?  I'm gagging on my feelings of female empowerment.  Can I have my Silkwood shower now, because I feel dirty. 

Everyone raves about Arianda's performance in this play and how she is so incredible to watch.  But much like Thomas,  the audience members seem to have been blindly seduced by a chick in thigh-high, fuck-me boots.  I'm not sure what that says about the play, the audience or what people are seeking from Broadway theater.  Is that actually the point?  Are David Ives and P.T. Anderson off somewhere laughing it up?  Probably putting thigh high boots on frogs.

I will admit THAT would be funny.

In the end I would have rather watched Nina Arianda in Born Yesterday again. At least in that play, the woman uses her brain, her voice and not just her sex appeal.  Thank you Garson Kanin for your enlightened views from 1946. We miss you here in 2012. 

*Tickets were provided to me free of charge by the production as part of a "Blogger Night."  If it makes anyone associated with the production feel better I actually purchased two tickets to this show that I was unable to use.  So ultimately I've paid for this show and then some.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Daisey Chain of Lies

On Friday, Twitter exploded with the news that This American Life was retracting the Mike Daisey episode because Daisey had "fabricated" parts of his monologue.  Despite the quick rush to judgment, the "I knew that story couldn't be true" naysayers, and angry Ira Glass fans, my initial thought was disappointment and sadness.  My fear was that an important topic would be more easily swept under the rug because it's most vocal advocate lost some credibility (Steve Jobs is/was still an enormous dickhead no matter what Mike Daisey did or said.  Let's not forget that important takeaway). 

This "scandal" has of course launched a thousand ships of opinions on truth, theater, journalism, documentary, authorship, dramatic license and lying.  So here is opinion 1001.  I think it is worth discussing because the issues of Apple supply lines, how we use foreign labor, and labor practices in China remain a valid and important topic of discussion even if Daisey overreached and acted inappropriately in how he presented his work.  And I think it is good opportunity to discuss truth and art.


I had not listened to the Daisey episode of This American Life.  I had only seen the show at The Public Theater but I knew Daisey had been out there sharing his monologue and speaking out on the labor abuses he "witnessed" in China.  My view of the monologue was that it was mostly true with probably some advocacy elements embellished.  I expected the embellishments related to characters (maybe composites), the character of the translator (which seemed hyperbolic but entertaining), dialogue made up for dramatic effect, but I imagined the overall facts offered were accurate.  I assumed Daisey went to Hong Kong and China.  I assume he went to factories, met with workers and the labor abuses and the facts about unfair labor practices and trade unions were real even if they did not unfold in front of Daisey exactly as he described them. I imagined the work was based on his research of the topic and for me I was galvanized by a discussion of labor issues in the modern market and how a supply chain can be connected from corporation to consumer. 

After listening to the Retraction, most of those central facts in the monologue remain true.  But Daisey, in the context of the This American Life presentation, actively lied about specific facts he was asked about and it appears he presented the work as journalism to This American Life.

From listening to the Retraction episode it would appear he lied about: 1) the factories having armed guards, 2) meeting anyone who had been injured by the n-hexane chemical, 3) meeting a lot of secret union workers, 4) meeting workers who confirmed they were underage, 5) the total number of workers he spoke to, 6) having access to factory dorm-rooms, and 7) cameras in dorm-rooms.

Daisey actively avoided telling people that this was not all true.  When questioned about it, he lied.  And in an attempt to gain a larger audience he damaged the tool he was using to reach that audience. 

The intersection of journalism and theater is a odd one.  I have not seen a lot of "journalistic" theater.  Certainly the rules for journalism are very specific.  When Daisey took the monologue to the radio and promoted it as fact This American Life had a duty to vet and review the accuracy of the "reporting" they were relying on and it would appear from This American Life's reporting in Retraction Daisey actively lied in their attempts to vet. Both sides seemed too eager to put out a story without confirming its "truth."


One thing I think needs to be clearer is the difference between a journalistic "truth" and the "truth."  Can we all agree we never know the truth about anything really?  Journalists strive for the truth but if your reporting is dependent on people then right there you are opening up room for personal perception.  I believe we have only our perception of things and that will be as close to a personal truth as we can get.   It may not be the "actual" truth.

Even in Retraction, the reporters for This American Life have to admit that they cannot just take Cathy the translator's memories as fact all of the time as her memory of events two years ago are hazy.  But journalism needs to draw a line somewhere.  By having rules and structure, reporting can carve out the semblance of journalistic truth which we rely on for forming opinions, taking political action, and educating ourselves on events a world away.

But real truth is a lot harder to really pin down.  I think that is why storytelling is such a lovely medium to work in.  Good storytelling should "feel" true.

My brother shortly after birth. I'm clearly helping.
I realize even in telling stories about my own life I struggle with what is really true and what is memory or belief.  It is easy to unthinkingly embellish the truth in hindsight as to you tell someone about it.  Might you be swayed by the photograph of that day and have the photo supplant your actual memory of events.  As a lawyer we prepare witnesses and they need to testify to what they know.  But think long and hard about what you KNOW to be true versus what you guess, surmise, imagine, extrapolate, or think is true. For example, I don't actually KNOW what my brother's true birthday is.  I was there.  I was 3.  But I have no memory of the date.  I have vague memories of visiting my mother in the hospital...and the rest of my "memories" are likely built from photos I have seen of that day.  I'd have to rely on someone else's reporting to "know" when it is.

I was bothered when people started suggesting Daisey's monologue should be as truthful as a documentary, as if documentary was pure truth.  The next time you watch a documentary film remember that the filmmaker has an agenda.  Editing, context, juxtaposition, music, color tones, camera angle all can change your emotional reaction to the work.  One reaction shot of an interviewee might make them sympathetic or not sympathetic.  Did they make that scowling face?  Maybe.  Was it in exact reaction to the shot immediately before it? Maybe or maybe not.  You are being manipulated by the filmmaker.  Is it still a reflection of some shade of truth?  Probably and hopefully most of the time.  But I often think it has more of a relationship to a memory or a personal truth, than factual truth.  Where a filmmaker intentionally stages scenes, has someone re-say what they said because the camera was not rolling, think about how that fits with your idea of the truth (Check out the film Broadcast News for the broadcast media version of these questions and also because it is a great film overall). I have included a photograph I took for an example.  With no context, it could be interpreted a number of different ways. 

Fact? Fiction? Truth? Documentary? Art?


That all being said, how do Daisey's actions fit into this.  I think the monologue standing on its own could have weathered some level of scrutiny as a piece of political theater and drama.  But the additional efforts Daisey took did to pass himself off as an expert and advocate in this area he kept masking the drama with an air of journalism.  In fact, he benefited from that confusion because it gave him a larger platform to discuss the monologue and the issues dressed up as cold facts.

When I walked out of The Public Theater I believed I had watched a show about Daisey's first hand account of his experiences in China and Hong Kong, mixed with research he did about Steve Jobs, Apple and China, offered up as a dramatic monologue.  But I likely believed more of it as fact than I should have.

When Daniel Kitson presented The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church last year he explained at the outset that the piece was largely a work of fiction even though he uses his own identity as a character in the story.  There was no way you could actually be led astray by this disclosure (@zinoman has reported on Kitson's relationship with truth and fiction in his works of stand-up comedy and storytelling).  I think the audience then is properly primed for the story.  What it allowed the artist to do was build a fiction from something that was partly true.  In the end, it all felt incredibly real even though it was fiction.

Daisey had the chance to do the same thing (I had never seen a Daisey piece before TAATEOSJ so I don't know how this would have fit in with his past practices).  Would an admitted fictional gloss over factual issues make the monologue less compelling as a piece of theater?  I don't think it would have.  I thought Blood and Gifts was fantastic even though it was a fictional telling of the events in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  I am fascinated by the real story behind CQ/CX even though I saw a thinly-veiled fictional telling of it.  The Normal Heart is all about events that happened but dramatized for the theater and is devastating.  If this was a discussion about pure theater, than a fictionalized account of a Hawaiian shirt wearing Daisey wandering around in China looking for answers about how an iPad is made would still be entertaining.  Could that monologue have led to actual news outlets investigating the issues at Apple and more largely at electronics manufacturers in China?  I don't see why not. 

But since he chose a different path, I think Daisey has hurt the monologue.  The scene that keeps playing through in my mind is from the film All the President's Men.  When the journalists in the film make a mistake and report that Hugh Sloan testified to something in the grand jury and he expressly denies this and the White House can directly deny it as well there is a moment where their entire series of reporting could fall apart because their credibility appears shot (I know I am referencing the film, based on the book, based on the reporting of actual events that none of us actually witnessed).  Daisey's credibility even as a theater artist is at risk here.  Although he argues in Retraction that the context of theater is enough to protect what he does, I think he's limited his own purview of what he did with this particular monologue.  It did not live hermetically sealed in a theater labeled Hall of Fiction.  Even if it had, do all theater audiences know what they are consuming is fact mixed with fiction for dramatic effect?  Sometimes.  Sometimes not.  It's a bold assumption for Daisey to make that everyone automatically "gets" what he is about when they sit down in a theater seat. Also when he specifically asks audiences to take action based on what they saw he's suggesting the material is sufficient enough to inform you to take such action.  I think that further blurred the lines between fact and fiction.

For me, there was one fact that Cathy claims he lied about that really rubs me the wrong way (probably because I believed it was a fact).  It was the bit about the highway suddenly dropping off.  I know, why would I fixate on such a thing?  It suggested to me a China that is growing so rapidly it cannot even keep up with itself. It was certainly a compelling visual but it also fed into the concept that China as a country does not care about its citizens or their safety.  If there were facts that were true that could have supported that premise why not use those facts?  There was no reason to make up a fact when other true things could have supported your argument.  I don't really care if he was in a car where this happened, or someone else was in a car where this happened, or he merely saw an unfinished highway off in the distance and filed it under--ooo cool visual let's use that.  But if it never existed at all then I am bothered by his choice to include it.  But he claims it is true, Kathy just wasn't there to witness it.

Trust is a precious commodity.  I fear Daisey might have squandered his theater audience's trust in him.

What was your reaction to the Retraction?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Death of a Salesman: Little Boats In a Storm

Mike Nichol's production of Death of a Salesman is a practically flawless, emotionally wringing evening of theater.  Philip Seymour Hoffman, Linda Emond, Andrew Garfield and Finn Wittrock lead a tremendously strong cast of actors who seem as if they were born to play these roles.  The Arthur Miller classic feels relevant, funny, alive and devastating.  This production fleshed out the ebbs and flows of the text and gave clarity to the emotional tempest created by the father and how each family member coped and weathered that.  With a focus on the personal, this production is a powerful interpretation of the play.

Hoffman plays Willy Loman the traveling salesman whose constant dreams and big talk feed and comfort him while his ever-dedicated wife Linda (Emond) is barely holding their life together as she sees the man she has always loved start to come apart at the seems.  Returning to this house of sadness, is Willy and Linda's son Biff (Garfield) who has aimlessly wandered through the last 15 years of his life while finding work out West.  Oblivious to much of what is going on around him (or intentionally avoiding looking at it) is younger brother Happy (Wittrock) who lives on liquor, women and lies. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Willy Loman, started the show with a monotone, lifeless voice that seemed to be channeling a half-dead Dustin Hoffman but it worked in contrast with his Willy Loman the dreamer.  Every wrung-out ounce of Willy spills from Hoffman's mouth and in varying vocal intonations we can hear Willy when he is selling, when he is dreaming and when he is dying.  On many levels Willy is an unlikable character.  Hoffman does such a fine job with taking sympathy where warranted but not shying away from Willy's less desirable characteristics.  I found myself more easily and readily blaming him for his troubles.  The delusional bubble that Willy creates for himself is incredibly destructive for everyone around him and this production highlights those moments.  Willy is a man full of contradictions and Hoffman plays these up getting strong laughs from the audience. 

Emond is sparkling as younger Linda in flashbacks with an openness that is heart-breaking having already seen her Linda of "today" who is embittered and gravely disappointed in her sons.  Emond's Linda was angrier and less passive than I recall in my reading of the play.  Much like Hoffman she finds great humor in some of Linda's lines and delivers them with icy aplomb.  Though for me (and others likely disagree), her final scene was the least effective emotional beat for me.

Garfield was a total unknown quantity having never seen him on stage before.  But he is heartbreaking as Biff.  As the son whose life spun out of control and who never found his footing again, he seems to tremble in each scene with his internal suffering and the years of repressed anger, lies and frustrations.  Both Garfield and Hoffman are mesmerizing in the Boston flashback.  Garfield goes from fear, to happiness, joy, and complete destruction in a few moments.  Each emotion conveyed through the eyes of a hurt child.  Hoffman pushes on with his denial convincingly until he can no longer ignore his sons sobs.  Garfield's final confrontation scene with Hoffman is riveting and gut-wrenching.  It is staged magnificently with Garfield clutching Hoffman as a child would, prostrate at Hoffman's knees.  And in the moment where Biff seeks relief, Hoffman's delusional response is shattering.  Hoffman and Garfield have explosive chemistry and it is a painful delight to watch.

Garfield can read a little too young for the "contemporary" scenes when he is supposed to be 34 (in fact Wittrock sometimes looks older than Garfield) but he reads perfectly for the flashback scenes from high school.  Garfield's performance illustrates the shifting emotional state of Biff.  There is of course Linda's famous line about Willy being "a lonely little boat looking for a harbor."  Watching Garfield gracefully and elegantly shift from boy to man, from penitent to perjurer, was like watching a sailboat tacking into strong winds.  Each scene and each confrontation, his character is pushed and pulled in new directions and as an actor he handles these shifts effortlessly. 

Wittrock does a great job of playing the hapless, younger brother who much like his father never spends much time near the truth and is awash in contradictions.  As staged, he comes off as the oft forgettable son.  And no matter how much he tries to play into his father's wants the focus has always been Biff.  One night I saw it, Wittrock's performance of Happy's Judas moment in the restaurant in the second Act was met by audible shock in the audience.  Wittrock's performance works well with Hoffman's.  Happy's choices are nicely illustrated as shades of his father--all big talk, empty promises, and denial.  During the occasional moments Happy feels regret Wittrock suddenly turns into a guilty child before your eyes as he makes empty promises to his mother that he will marry, settle down, and stop his carousing.  The play is full of so many big moments that I think Wittrock deserves attention for these fantastic small moments. 

The rest of the cast adds to the atmosphere and tone of the piece.  Molly Price's haunting, shrill laugh is perfect and her shifting reaction in the Boston hotel room is the right amount of excited to embarrassed.  Bill Camp is great as weaselly Charley.  Fran Kranz has the difficult job of being young and adult Bernard but is successful.

Using the original orchestrations and the recreation of the original set Mike Nichols has given us a truly great production where the relationships between the characters and the psychology of the characters is front and center.  For me, that is worth the ticket price. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Galileo: Faith and Science Snoozefest

F. Murray Abraham stars in a tedious production of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht (translation by Charles Laughton) at Classic Stage Company.  Directed by Brian Kulick, it is the story of Galileo's scientific discoveries and how he dealt with the advance of science in a age of religious power and control.  Though the subject matter still has relevance today (with efforts to eliminate the theory of evolution from schools or teach it with creationism), this production and this translation do nothing to connect to a modern audience.

With the set covered in circles (the giant silver bubble objects hovering over the stage reminded me of the beryllium spheres in Galaxy Quest) and the staging on a large lazy Susan platform (I wish it rotated for complete ridiculousness), everything about this show felt on the nose.  Costuming in heavy tapestry material in matchy-matchy tops and bottoms was dreadful.   F. Murray Abraham took a very naturalistic approach to the role of Galileo.  But often the production did not.  Awkward tone shifts between comic and serious moments did little to help the material feel powerful or meaningful. There was an incredibly awkward scene with stick-dancing.  I just...what else can I say?

Suffice to say, this was not my cup of tea.  In the end I enjoyed the comic relief brought by Steven Rattazzi and the haughty cardinal as played by Robert Dorfman even if it was not part of a cohesive production.

If you have to skip a show this spring because of all the new shows opening, this would be one you could skip.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Daniel Kitson: Where Once Was Wonder WIP

I am reticent to encourage reviewers to cover work-in-progress shows.  It defeats the purpose of being able to work out and develop material if you are subject to "media" scrutiny before your work is done.  In theater, generally media outlets do not review workshops of shows.  That said a friend of mine has articulately discussed in the New York Times how far some theaters have gone to stamp out preview discussions of works, overreaching to control the conversation.

Since the googling public seems to be desperate for reviews of this show or any Daniel Kitson news (I am still trying to figure out what the person searching for "mildly bitter depressing blog theater and daniel kitson pain" was trying to tell me) I feel a little obliged to point out the review and at least share some basic facts reported about the new show and the shiny, new Daniel Kitson.

The Bristol Times reviewed the Where Once Was Wonder work-in-progress show this week.  They report that the structure of the show will be "three stories about 'the impossible.'"  If the material remains as it was in that WIP show it will cover themes such as "the feeling of inevitability, contradictory opinions about love, defiance and the meaningfulness and meaninglessness of existence."  They also mentioned Mr. Kitson's new look (again you googlers and your searches for "Daniel Kitson shaved head" and "Daniel Kitson shaved beard" and "Daniel Kitson shaved" have not gone unnoticed).

Apparently the reason for the hairy to glabrous switch is based on "[Kitson's] concern that his previous look (beard, thick-rimmed glasses and cardigans) had been appropriated by hipsters and become “a look” [which] lead him to shave both his beard and his head so as not to be identified with them."  A noble pursuit if there ever was one and another reason he earns the title King of Contraryland.
Come back to New York Mr. Kitson <sobs>. Bring your "Wonder".
I'm glad the story about the run-in with the St. Mark's Bookshop clerk is still in the show and other than that I am just really mad at my parents for birthing and raising me in the wrong country so that I am missing out on all these great previews in the UK.  Having seen some not great comedy lately I really do appreciate how skilled and impressive Kitson is even as he is working through new material.  And if I don't get tickets to the finished show in Edinburgh, watch out internet.

Seriously, watch out.  I'm Italian and I will commune with my dead Great-Aunt* for a good old-fashioned curse if need be.  Sadly I don't think she has the power to conjure up a ticket.  Fingers-crossed it will all work out.  I'm legitimately worried and it's only March.  The speed at which the preview tickets have sold out is astonishing though nothing new with Mr. Kitson.  My concerns are not entirely irrational with this ticket sales history.  If you find yourself with an extra ticket in Edinburgh, you know who to email or tweet at.  I'm not sure what I could give you in exchange.  Daniel gets my imaginary firstborn...but I assume cash would work just fine.

UPDATE:  Reviews of finished show are available here.

*My Aunt Sid was one of my favorite relatives.  She used to hide cookies from herself all around her house.  She was tall and elegant and always wore black, for as long as I knew her, she was mourning the death of her husband (and if you know me and my, erm, petite stature you'll understand she was an aunt by marriage and not blood).  She'd talk to her dead husband, mostly to tell him to shut up while she was talking.  She talked to the dead a lot and she could cure a migraine over the phone with some olive oil and some chanting.  A lovely lady.

An Iliad: A Storyteller Tired of War

An Iliad, an adaptation of Robert Fagles's translation of Homer's The Iliad by Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson is a unique anti-war treatise filled with humor and sadness.  "The Poet" played in repertory by Denis O'Hare and Stephen Spinella plays the traditional role of oral storyteller singing the tale of the Trojan War.  Assisted by a Bassist (Brian Ellingsen--super cute by the way), the Poet proceeds to tell a modern audience an ancient tale and in doing so builds parallels to modern life.

Rather than just a celebration of great warriors or an explication of the meddling Greek Gods, this Poet tells the human story behind the Iliad.  I saw O'Hare perform the role of the Poet.  Dressed as a vagabond and asking for assistance from the muses (his Bassist appears and plays music at varying points throughout the show), the Poet at times is reticent to speak of the past, in other moments carried away by the muses and full of vigor.  But at all times, the Poet is speaking to us, the audience, directly, aware of our presence and begging our attention.  The Poet seems to possess the men and women of Greece and Troy and not only tells his story but feels everything that these people felt.  Subtlety and then more directly, the Poet tries to draw parallels to all wars including current ones. 

It was a captivating approach to material that could otherwise be dry.  I will admit to being a little poisoned by the film Troy for at every mention of Achilles, I thought to myself, "Right.  Brad Pitt."  But I enjoyed the focus on the human struggle in the epic tale of heroes: the vastness of the army, the sensation of nine years away and at war, the smells of the encampment, the character of the soldiers.  At 100 minutes with no intermission, the performance is itself epic.  At times sweat was pouring off O'Hare's face and the entire works rests on his shoulders.

Supported with interesting sound, music and lighting, the play was strongest when it was about the dialogue with the audience--about the telling of the story more so than the story itself.  I liked the idea of being audience to a traditional storyteller singing this tale (though to be clear there is no actual "singing").  An Iliad is best appreciated as bearing witness to one storyteller weaving the tale as he wants to tell it with his own agenda coming through.

As an avid lover of storytellers and monologuists, for me that was the angle I enjoyed most.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Tribes: A Struggle Being Loved, Seen, and Heard

If a Lifetime movie about deaf culture and Tom Stoppard had a baby, it would be Tribes by Nina Raine. I mean that in the nicest way possible, because the play could have drifted into treacly sentimentality, but instead Raine takes an erudite and often funny approach to language, character and story and offers a robust play that explores characters struggling with how they communicate and how they love.

Presented by the Barrow Street Theatre and directed by David Cromer the play is about, Billy (Russell Harvard) a deaf college student, who has always read lips, who meets a woman, Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), who grew up with deaf parents and is now going deaf herself.  As his relationship blossoms with Sylvia and she teaches him sign-language, his tacit acceptance of his family dynamic starts to unravel.  His father, Christopher, is a tyrannical wordsmith, professor and author (Jeff Perry) who browbeats his hearing children Daniel (Will Brill) and Ruth (Gayle Rankin) demanding they live up to high levels of academic and social achievement but at the same time remain unconventional, criticizing them at every turn.  Allowing this to go on, quite passively, is his wife Beth (Mare Winngham) who also suffers at her husband's sharp tongue.  The family is quite insular and speaks in rapid fire, with their own language and their own sense of humor.  Billy has spent a lifetime watching and observing this family (and is the most sensitive to everyone's feelings) but never fully participating in this family or its sport.

At each step where you think the narrative or emotional beats are going to go, I found the playwright shifted those expectations.  Where things could turn maudlin there was something in the writing that kept it sharp and strong. Although it is about rather obvious themes of family, love, finding your voice, and becoming heard (I know that sounds rather barf-y but trust me in this play it is not), the execution managed to avoid cheap sentimentality and gave us fully shaped characters worth watching.

As much as the story is about Billy and his transformation on one level, we get to see quite a lot of Sylvia's struggle as she loses her hearing and what that means to her.  In addition, Daniel, Billy's brother has auditory hallucinations and a stammer and as Billy gains independence and establishes himself as an adult, Daniel's health issues worsen and he starts to fall apart.  We also get to see the family have to take a look at itself and what this accepted dynamic has done to each of them.  None of them seem to enjoy it but none of them are willing to question it either.  But oddly you do believe they all love each other even if love is communicated through criticism, provoking and aggression.  As Daniel says with resigned acceptance, "Abusive love is all that is on offer here."  Although, the playwright tried to squeeze in a lot of plot strands and in the end not all of them were fully developed, I appreciated the strong character work.  I felt similarly about another Royal Court play I saw in December.  But I'd much rather see a play try and fall a bit short than not try at all.

Although British accents seemed to come and go, and they did not sound like they were all from the same part of England, the performances otherwise were strong and believable.  Russell Harvard is a deaf actor and was very charismatic and compelling as Billy.  Will Brill was heartbreaking as Daniel and I often wished to know more about his character and his story. Susan Pourfar was fierce as Sylvia and offered a unique perspective as a deaf person who has lived both in and out of deaf culture.  I feel like I have met opinionated and strident fathers like Jeff Perry's Christopher.

Cromer staged the play in the round which made it very difficult to see the actors and their reactions a lot of the time.  Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I think he was trying to parallel Billy's struggle to be involved in conversations when people moved around and he could not read their lips.  It might have been an interesting intellectual choice but besides my mild annoyance at this format I did not feel like it added to the play.  The writing and performances demonstrated the struggles with "communication" quite well and this direction choice undermined this.  There were subtitle projections used in varying ways throughout the play to represent the sign language, to illustrate songs being played and to say the unspoken.  They were highly inconsistent and I wished they were either used more or less to better effect.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Bad Kid: Goth Kid Makes Good

David Crabb's one-man show Bad Kid at the Axis Theatre Company is an enjoyable and sweet tale of Crabb's personal experiences growing up as a gay boy and goth in Texas.  Written and performed by Crabb and co-written and directed by Josh Matthews, Crabb's love of his subjects comes through in every scene.  He paints sharp portraits of his friends, his family and the people he encountered in his journey to adulthood.  Punctuated with a few actual photos of the people he talks about, a music heavy soundtrack and some nice sound-work, the 75 minute show covers his teenage years, his loves, losses and mistakes made along the way.

I enjoyed the scenes where Crabb played both he and his father in awkward conversations.  In particular I liked the one scene where the father asked Crabb about the "girl situation," and Crabb quite happily shares with his Dad that ALL the girls at school like him and ALL his friends are girls.

There is also a particularly hilarious sequence about pickles and I may never be able to eat a cornichon again.

In the end I felt it was charming, but a bit slight.  Repetitive scenes about his youthful drug-use got a little tiresome.  And the perspective on these friendships and relationships comes a bit late in the show.  Much like a teenager, the show is heavy on emotional ups and downs but lacks an adult outlook to give structure and resonance to all the scenes.  Crabb is a compelling performer and a storyteller to watch (and clearly 2012 is the year I collect storytellers--I have joked I am going to start a boy band called The Monologuists I just need to get Daniel Kitson, Mike Daisey and now David Crabb on board).  His portraits spring to life in vivid colors and I would be curious to see other works by him in the future.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Carrie: Chilling Teen Returns to the Stage

The famous 80's Broadway flop Carrie returns to the stage in a chilling, but overall unsatisfying revival.  A strong cast and moving songs can't rescue the material from coming across as dated and stiff.  Rather than a fresh, edgy teen story it felt like an awkward PSA for the dangers of mixing bullying and telekinesis.

Carrie White (Molly Ranson) is a repressed teenager tormented and bullied by her classmates and locked in a closet by her religious-zealot mother (Marin Mazzie).  After she reaches delayed puberty at 17 (with a graphic getting-her-period-in-gym-class scene), she discovers she has the power of telekinesis which flows from her rage and repression.  After the teasing gets out of control, popular girl, Chris Hargensen (Jenna DeWaal), refuses to apologize to Carrie and Chris is banned from the prom.  Feeling bad for teasing Carrie, Sue Snell (Kristy Altomare), popular girl and girlfriend of Tommy Ross (Derek Klena), asks Tommy to take Carrie to the prom.   These two events lead to tragic consequences.

For the positive aspects of this production, I actually got goose-bumps a couple of times during the show.  Although the original production was known for it's camp, this production is straight-forward and bone-chillingly serious.  The special effects were well executed including the famous pig's blood scene.  There were genuine surprises and it is rare that I find myself scared in play or musical.

Molly Ranson is great as Carrie bringing real sadness, confusion and child-like exploration to the role.  Marin Mazzie is terrifying as the mother and might actually swallow pieces of furniture with her giant mouth.

But overall, the show kept losing me.
The young cast attempts to create the teen movie spirit but the book and direction lets them down.  No amount of jumping choreography, cheerleader shorty-shorts or forced high school pep seemed to help.  I understood what they were going for but somehow the show did not grab me emotionally.  30+ years of teen movies since Carrie have explored many of these themes and this show did not seem to add much to that canon. 

No big surprise that the characters are teen movie archetypes.  But it is hard to believe any teen movie girl would give up her spot at the prom with her handsome boyfriend because she felt bad about teasing someone.  Something seemed to be missing from the Sue backstory to justify her actions.

Although the subject matter of bullying is still substantively relevant, as executed, it did not feel like a fresh or inventive take on the subject.  Even though it is a revival (albeit one that has been seriously revamped in the intervening years between the original production and now), it still should deliver something new to today's audiences.  Despite occasional special effects, the remainder of the production felt anemic.  Perhaps it was the stripped down set, the bleak colorless approach or the awkward direction but I did not find the characters believable or worth the emotional investment.  In the end I was disappointed in the overall production even if I could be chilled and swept up in moments.