Monday, July 23, 2012

Simon Amstell: Numb

Hey y'all I'm going to review some comedy even though I know nothing about how comedy works.  I feel like I have to admit this because Daniel Kitson suggested that critics really should put their reviews in context.  His suggestion was starting a review "As someone who has previously shit himself on a bus, I thought..."

So for context, I spent a chunk of time in the late 90's, early aughts seeing a lot of stand-up when my friends were starting out in that game (I definitely saw my friend do a stand-up set after watching a mostly naked woman dance with steaks taped to her breasts--I guess it was a "variety" show.  I think we were both scarred for life from that incident.).  But it has been a while since I have spent significant time in underground clubs for comedy.  I've only done so this year because Mr. Kitson was in New York doing some work in progress stand-up bits in January.  That said...I'm a gonna review some comedy below.

Simon Amstell has brought his show Numb to Theatre 80 in the East Village.  I'd heard great things about Amstell who is the co-writer and star of Grandma's House, a UK sitcom.  This is the first time he's come to New York to do a "residency" and he was previewing this show here before taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe.   Expecting an audience of people unfamiliar with his work he chastised some British audience members who arrived late: "The point isn't to provide a cheap show for people who already know who I am."  It's fun to watch a performer work through material with an audience that is culturally unknown to him.  Jokes land differently.  Some words play funnier and others don't play funny at all. 

Amstell has been compared to a "young Woody Allen."  I found him to be aggressively neurotic or maybe neurotically aggressive.  With a bit of a whiny voice (that he pointed out was his real voice), he presented some intensely personal comedy from a self-deprecating angle but there was a darker edge to this.  He did some crowd work during the show and at some point he commented on a "couple" in the front row who were not having a good time.  He asked if they were engaged and the man quickly said "no."  Amstell had a little fun with that.  But following up on that, later in the show, he pointed out that the previously chilly couple were now holding hands.  He then said to them "Everything ends."  Seriously dark delivery but terribly funny. 

He spent a good deal of this show focused on his struggles with dating, his break-up with his boyfriend, some bits about porn, sex, holidays, and also his tense relationship with his father.  For me the strongest segment of the show seemed to be about his family.  His evolving view of his relationship with his father was mined for quite a lot of humor.  He used a very funny bit about his father to create a nice structural callback at the end of the show.  It's a beautifully structured joke.  It takes a moment to land, you have to think, and then it pays in dividends.  And also it was dead funny.

There were a few jokes that were elegantly structured like this and they took a beat or two to land.  I really liked them but I would have liked more.  Because I am greedy.

His poking fun of the hipster culture whether in London or New York was less interesting.  His observations that Shoreditch was "trendy yet humorless" or that hipsters like to buy objects that look cool, or people who wear cool glasses don't seem to see how funny they are came across a little on the obvious side. 

Not sure if it was planned or an aside, but he did have a bit of fun over Justin Bieber:  "There's something in me that wants to fuck him til he cries." (beat) "I think it's a metaphor."

I found most of the show to be fun but I thought there were moments where the observations could have been sharper, the word choice funnier, and then I realized how spoiled I have been by Daniel Kitson.  It's a terribly unfair comparison.  Simon Amstell is very good and worth checking out as he finds his way with American audiences.  And it's always fun to be able to see a comic in a small venue when it's very possible he will blow up in popularity later (Let me tell you the time when I saw Eddie Izzard when he was UNKNOWN in America.).  Get in on the ground floor now with Amstell.   
Numb plays at Theatre 80 through August 9.  It's an hour long show.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Uncle Vanya: Obsession

It turns out I could stare into Cate Blanchett's face all day.  She's well cast as the "beautiful sleek ferret" Yelena, the object of everyone's affections in the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.  Emotions melt across her serene face and the longer you look the more you seem to see.  Like a portal into another galaxy, I felt if I kept staring into it the mysteries of the universe might be unlocked.  Beyond beauty (which she has in spades), it's the transparency of her emotional readiness that makes her so compelling to watch.  The readiness which tears well up in the corners of her eyes and how quickly emotions ebb and flow.

What's most remarkable is that she's not even the best thing about this production.  And to quote Mary Poppins, she's practically perfect in every way.

From witty direction, to a comedic and revelatory adaptation, to stunning and heart-breaking performances by Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, and Hayley McElhinney, this Australian offering, which is part of the Lincoln Center Festival, brings a bounty of theatrical treats to the New York stage.

Vanya (Roxburgh) and his niece Sonya (McElhinney) slave away to preserve the family estate for the benefit of Sonya's father a respected Professor (John Bell) and his new wife Yelena (Blanchett).  The family servants Marina (completely unrecognizable from her bone-chilling turn in Animal Kingdom, Jacki Weaver) and Waffles (Anthony Phelan) do what they can to assist.  The Professor, suffering from gout, makes unreasonable demands upon the household and upends the quiet but difficult lives of his dead wife's family.  Layered on top of this are love affairs waiting to boil over with the summer heat.  Plain but good Sonya is secretly in love with visiting doctor Astrov (Weaving).  Vanya is driven wild for Yelena who unlocks something long dead inside him. Yelena finds herself drawn to Astrov.

Hungarian Street Art Meets Russian Symbolism
As @GratuitousV pointed out on twitter, if it's Russian it must involve a  "feuding intellectual family, decaying aristocracy...[a] dilapidated country house and lots of vodka."  She's right on all counts. But what makes this production so different is that those external elements are all there but they take a backseat to a more contemporary emotional interpretation.*

The adaptation by Sydney Theatre Company's co-director Andrew Upton brings to the light the characters' obsessions with each other measured against the paralyzing feeling that none of them see the path ahead. But Upton's version is not trapped in some Russian Orthodox relic of the past but instead it is a vital and urgent contemporary understanding of those themes.  There is little of the usual mopey Russian depression (Coast of Utopia anyone).  Despite a heavy story it is delivered with great lightness, mostly through humor.  It becomes a darkly comedic take that feels more Czech** to me than Russian. 

Hungarian Absurdism
Here, Upton's Vanya is a man who has dedicated his life to serving the Professor.  First it was out of love for his sister who married the Professor.  As a burgeoning intellectual, it was also out of respect for the Professor's esteemed intellect.  Later, Vanya maintains this commitment on behalf of his niece.  He has made countless sacrifices and when his dedication, love, and obedience are taken for granted and practically thrown back in his face he does not accept it and will not endure it quietly.

By the end of the play I just wanted to lay down at the altar of Richard Roxburgh and be slayed because frankly I'll never see anything as good as that again.  At all times, he appeared to be teetering on a tiny ledge between laughter and tears. It felt as if, at any moment, he might burst into sobs because he was feeling too much.  Roxburgh showed Vanya was acutely aware of his own situation: the ridiculousness of his puppy-like love for Yelena, his foolish dedication to this forgotten academic, and what he had given up for all of this.  Yet, even knowing this he demonstrates that he must keep going because this hope and this potential was all he had to hold onto.  Roxburgh's eyes sparkled as he delivered his comic lines finding perverse glee in his own absurdities and tragedy.  He's devastating to watch because you are seeing a man reborn, believing in the future, of the possibilities of a life with Yelena, and love. When he sees that that will not be possible, you see Roxburgh emotionally collapse before your eyes and physically return to the broken man he has been for years.  Roxburgh does this all with grace and subtlety.  It's a stunning performance and one that might ruin all Vanyas for me for all time.  There were about six curtain calls at the performance I attended.  Roxburgh was still wiping tears from his eyes throughout them.

Weaving was great as the object of Yelena's affections.  Much like the sex scene in Cock, the wooing scene between Astrov and Yelena with all of Blanchett's frenetic energy  was steamy even without touching.  Weaving managed to exude sexual prowess even if the topic of the conversation was trees.  Never has deforestation been so erotic.  Though I guess between the man who loves forests and the man who loves books, I was rooting for Vanya and could not quite grasp why even as handsome as he was Astrov would be the one to lure Yelena in. 

Hayley McElhinney manages to portray Sonya as childlike in an effective, moony way without "acting" like a child.  Her blind affection and fantasy love for Astrov is believable as a sheltered teen. 

Hungarian director Tamás Ascher stages the play with incredible wit.  The actors when they are not speaking have physical expressions of their character's emotional state.  At some point Yelena responds to a quip by Vanya, I believe, by skipping. There is an incredibly tiny chair that Sonya sits on showing her as the infantilized woman.  When Yelena stops hearing her husband snore and she thinks he may be dead, she rushes across the room only to have him start up a moment before she gets to him.  She must then cover her panic and Blanchett does so with hilarious physical comedy.  Even the key scene where Vanya takes action against the Professor, his character's impotence is comically performed.  These moments throughout the play illustrate the thoughtful directing choices being made.  The direction upends expectations and reveals new facets to the characters and the play.

This production constantly takes moments of lightness and juxtaposes them against moments of real devastation.  The tragedy becomes richer because it is played for laughs.  Nothing in these characters lives is remotely funny but with the sardonic edge in Upton's adaptation, the smart direction and the consummate professionals interpreting these characters the dark comedy is perfectly delivered. The director and writer have trusted the audience will understand the tragedy without having to "play" it for tragedy.  It's a refreshing approach even if you'll be sobbing by the end.  Good tears, well-earned. 

*I felt similarly about Upton's adaptation of Hedda Gabler in 2006.  I connected to the characters in a way that I had not before.  With that production (again starring Upton's wife Blanchett), I was able to find that emotional link.  My friend and I turned to each other at the end of Hedda Gabler and said "yeah I feel like I've been in that relationship before."  I mean we haven't really, but there were shades of those dynamics that felt very real to us.

**I've often noticed a recurrent theme of absurdism in Czech art and cinema.  Because the director is Hungarian it is possible that there is also a tinge of absurdism in Hungarian art as well but I'm not as familiar with contemporary Hungarian cinema, theatre and art.

Wholly unrelated, I've spent quite a bit of time in Budapest and it's maybe one of my favorite places on earth.  You should go there.  It's falling down.  I love it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Get Off My Lawn Millennials (Actually You Can Stay It's Fine)

Twitter follower @kevinddaly pointed out a very interesting article in the L.A. Times by Neal Gabler called "Perspective: Millennials seem to have little use for old movies."

His thesis is "Young people, so-called millennials, don't seem to think of movies as art the way so many boomers did."  His evidence of this is the short turnaround time for remakes now what with Spider-Man getting a "reboot" so soon after the last cycle of it ended.  He also looks to anecdotal evidence from film school professors and university professors where he concludes "As taste goes, millennials seem to have a hard time relating to movies that are only a few years old."  He suggests that the Andrew Sarris generation loved old and new movies but this generation has no use for old movies, only new. 

Gabler tacitly acknowledges ("cinematic ageism is the natural cycle of culture") that every generation at some point pushes off the cultural dead-weight of their parents and fights for a cultural voice that "feels" to them to be current, new and vital.  When I was a film student in the 1990's, I had many film professors who came of age in the 1960's and 1970's film school scene.  They would sing the praises of Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, Leone.  But all my classmates wanted to talk about was Tarantino, Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese and Coppola. We were looking back on the VHS movies of our youth but these were also filmmakers still making movies at that time (save Lucas who had not yet ruined Star Wars with his prequels in these halcyon days).  I know I was sick of hearing about the French New Wave.  I didn't get Godard or Fellini.  I still don't.  I would rather be set on fire than watch Hiroshima Mon Amour.  There were certain black and white foreign films that meant nothing to me.  I could learn their place in history but they didn't move me. That said I love Billy Wilder, anything with Carol Lombard or Jean Arthur in it, and a slew of foreign films that make my heart sing or sink (The Rules of the Game, The Bicycle Thief, Chacun Cherche Son Chat, The Color of Paradise, Sun Alley).

Many of my compatriots in film school didn't talk about movies as high art.  There was a definite divide between people into independent films, those making experimental films, people riffing on Spielberg, and those making documentaries.  It actually was the nice thing about our film program that all those people could make the types of movies they wanted to make.  I'm not sure most of us had much to say but we were learning at least a storytelling language.  Maybe later we'd have things to say.  Before digital video, this was an expensive process.  Not everyone could make a film.  Not everyone could afford to.  I certainly could not and that economic repression was pretty severe.

I prefer today where there is more democracy in the system.  As costs come down more people can express themselves.  But on the flip-side of that, when I worked in film distribution I saw a lot of content because people could express themselves...but few still had anything new to say.

Millennials have the great fortune to be sitting on a mountain of content. And the great misfortune of having to sort through that mountain of content to find anything that speaks to them.  I doubt they are the first generation to be focused on the "new."  Gabler alleges that millennials somehow are so obsessed with novelty that it "obliterates the past in the fascination with the present."  Really? Millennials?  It's such an easy cheap answer.  When I posed the question as to whether teenagers today could connect to the nostalgia and regret in Follies, a show written in the 70's about reminiscences from the 1940's, several young people could not even believe I had asked the question.  Of course they have nostalgia and regret.  It's not a limited by age.  I see a lot of folks on twitter talking about the TV shows of their youth (even if their youth happened like yesterday).  It might not be what Gabler wants them to be reflecting on but how is it less legitimate.

I feel like Gabler's article is meant to be a generational lament for perhaps his generation, but I'm not sure it should also be an indictment of how another generation does it.  Let's be clear.  I'm not a millennial.  I call millennials when I can't get my iPhone to work.  I spend lots of time lamenting TV isn't as good as Buffy was.  Or that no one remembers that Matthew Broderick killed someone once over in Ireland.  I'm old enough to apparently remember things people now don't know about.  I love classic Hollywood cinema and I could talk for days about how much Gregg Toland is a god if you just watch Citizen Kane.  I think knowing film history is important if you want to talk about cinema, write about it or make movies.  But what you take from that history will be unique to you.  You don't have to love Fellini.  You can think he's stupid.  I'm telling you it's ok.

Somehow I find myself on the millennials' side in this argument.

I really like social media and as Gabler calls it the "sustained" conversation about media that exists today.  We take our opinions from the movie theater sidewalk into the twittersphere.  I love that I can see a show in London and tweet to people in New York about it.  Or that I can be anywhere in the world and read reviews from the New York Times on my telephone....that I carry in my hand.  I'm pretty excited about how online voices have a space in the dialogue of today.  I have ended up in conversations with journalists, actors, writers, and critics and would never have had that opportunity without social media.

We now have You Tube where any reference you want to make to a song, movie, TV show of the past can probably be mined for a clip.  This commercial brings me back to when I was a kid.  I shared it on Facebook.  My older cousins (in their 50's) saw the clip and then told me a story about my Dad having done some of the fish shaped carpentry work at the aquarium in the 70's.  I had no idea.  The past can be served well by the present.

Old films won't disappear because the Sarris generation has them in a vault somewhere.  I've seen the pictures of the bunker.  As long as Washington, DC doesn't outlaw the incandescent light-bulb (seriously) then movies of the past will always be preserved and be viewable (interesting MoMA's film archives are preserved on film even if the work was shot on video or digital video but they need incandescent light-bulbs for the projectors).  Gabler fails to mention that we've lost many of our art house cinemas, double-feature shows, and cheap movie-theater experiences. You can't blame that on the millennial babies.

Now we've got Netflix with an incredible array of films you want to see, you should see, and you don't ever need to see again.   In the old days, I had to drive to another town to rent an art-house movie on videotape that maybe would not work.  More history is available at the click of a button now.   

Hollywood might be making remakes of movies that came out five years ago and apparently every comic book character ever created will get a film these days, but let's not forget that Hollywood is also making incredibly shitty art house movies for the Gabler generation (see for example, The King's Speech) and arty movies about margin calls without a single margin call in them (Margin Call).  HOLLYWOOD IS MAKING ART HOUSE MOVIES ABOUT STRIPPERS. (Magic Mike).   All of those films have roots in cinema of the past.  The biopic, the intellectual thriller, uhm The Full Monty.   So if all you saw were those movies, you would have a connection to the past.

I'm just not worried about this.  I feel like the films that are important will survive.  But what is important as culture evolves will change.  I learned that from seeing Mr. Burns, last month.

I wonder if the professors who complained about their students had revised their outlines much in the last twenty years.  Citizen Kane is great.  But are you showing students today how it impacts what they look at today.  Are your lessons in cinema rooted in history but made relevant by connecting to the people sitting in front of you?   It may be their journey to find Citizen Kane, love it or leave it.  I'm happy it's a film I saw and loved and seriously I could talk about Gregg Toland all day...yeah and Orson Welles but without Toland I mean it would not be the same film.  But if you don't get Citizen Kane, and you love movies, I hope you find your Citizen Kane.

It's not however He's Just Not That Into You.  I don't care if you own that on Blu-ray.  That's not your Citizen Kane.  Keep looking. 

Mr. Gabler, maybe I hang out with too many millennials on the internet but I'm not worried for our future.  Our past will be as preserved as it needs to be.  And it will certainly not be your version of the past and it won't be my version of the past.  And maybe that's ok. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Dogfight: Heartbreak & Heartache

Before you roll your eyes at the idea of another musical based on a movie, I suggest you buy a ticket to the delicate and fantastic Dogfight. The creative team has created a show that feels like every contradictory, painful, and lovely moment of an awkward teen romance.  From butterflies in your stomach, to crushing disappointment, to tentative emotional and physical exploration, Dogfight rises above the usual musical theater fray with precious affection and authenticity.   

Directed by Joe Mantello, it is based on the 1991 film by Nancy Savoca (screenplay by Bob Comfort) but it has been adapted into a musical by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics), with a book by Peter Duchan.  I remember the small film starring Lily Taylor (as an aside--she was someone I worked with once and adored) and River Phoenix.  It was a tiny, tiny indie movie but one with great bones.  It provides a terrific framework for a musical.

The real strength here is a stellar cast who get to dig into an edgy and funny book.  Who ever compliments the book of a musical?  Me that's who.  This is a great book.  So good that some old man sitting next me to complained to his wife that this show didn't even need music.  I'd like to think this was a backhanded compliment to Mr. Duchan (and not an insult to the music and lyrics).  The writing gives the characters authentic, raw voices and a solid emotional foundation.  The music builds from there.

The songs are not as lyrically and structurally audacious as Sondheim and the music does not push any genre envelopes like the recent February House.  But the songs serve the story and give another layer for the cast to give their characters musical voices.  For a show that could be downbeat and challenging, there were a lot of peppy numbers interspersed with moving ballads.  The music does what it is supposed to do without overwhelming the exquisite soufflé of a story.

My Dad at Marine Corps basic training.
The setting is 1963 in San Francisco.  A group of Marines are on leave for one last wild night out before they ship out to Southeast Asia.  The heartbreaking and generous Lindsay Mendez leads the cast as Rose Fenny.  She's a quiet folk singer who gets asked out on a date by the devilishly handsome Eddie (Derek Klena).  She agrees but does not realize she is Eddie's candidate for a "dogfight."  Eddie and his Marine buddies Bernstein (Nick Blaemire) and Boland (John Segarra) have a bet on who can ask out the ugliest girl.  The winner of this "dogfight" takes home a big cash prize.  Excited to be asked out on her first date, Rose is in secret competition with working girl Marcy (Annaleigh Ashford) and a generally silent Native American girl (Dierdre Friel).

I have seen Mendez in several concerts as well as on Broadway in Godspell.  She can burn a house down with her powerful belt and can perform a range of musical styles.  Her concert persona is fun and effervescent.  Here, as Rose, she is dowdy, introverted and understated.  Her voice is unquestionably beautiful but it's her acting that will stay with you after leaving the theater.  She makes you care about Rose.  She opens up her broken heart of disappointment after she is confronted with Eddie's cavalier cruelty.  But she does not go down quietly or meekly.  It's that passion and fire that makes her character stand out to the audience as well as Eddie.  Mendez brings intelligence to her shy character and provides the layers to Rose that make it clear why Eddie has mixed emotions about inviting her to the dogfight (a scene that had my stomach in knots--the good kind).

Klena was most recently in the revival of Carrie.  Others found him a bit stiff in that show, but I thought he was a handsome cipher in a woefully underwritten role there.  Here, he gives Eddie a soul.  He can be the fun-loving scamp with his friends or the thoughtful, confused young man trying to figure out his place in world.  He shines a light on the child within his character: the bewildered, immature boy on the edge of manhood.  There were moments that he reminded me of River Phoenix and there really can't be a greater compliment than that. 

Josh Segarra was charismatic and ruthless in his supporting role as Boland.  Annaleigh Ashford (who I did not like at all in Rent) was practically unrecognizable here.  She stole every scene she was in.  Hilarious and biting, she had some of the best lines in the show.  But where her character could have been caricature somehow she reigned it in and was just the voice of reason.

The show benefits from great movement by recent Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli (Newsies) largely working with the male ensemble. 

Without the gentle guidance and direction of Joe Mantello I am convinced this show would not have worked so well.  Each scene feels natural and the tension builds gradually and epically.  There are some (intentionally) cringe-worthy moments of awkwardness in this little romance.  When the story becomes more challenging to tell, Mantello keeps us focused and invested.  

The show seemed to struggle to bring all this to a natural close but the journey there was beautiful.  Prepare to have your heart broken by Dogfight in the best possible way.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Macbeth: Lock Up the Thane, He's Gone a Bit Insane

For once Lady Macbeth's "unsex me here" speech works.  In the bath, reading a letter from her husband, moving sensually, she appears to be overcome with ambition as she writhes and rocks like a woman sexually possessed.  Except she's a he...and he's Alan Cumming and he's kind of crazy.

One of my favorite theater companies, the National Theatre of Scotland, has brought a new Macbeth to the Lincoln Center Festival.  Directed by John Tiffany (Tony award winning director of Once) and Andrew Goldberg (director of The Bombitty of Errors--which I loved and saw Off-Broadway a million years ago), the setting of this production is a mental hospital.  Alan Cumming plays a man who has done something criminal to get himself sent here.  With scratches on his chest, and fingernail scrapings taken, it seems he's committed some sort of violent crime.  He undressed from his work suit to hospital garb.  He is a new inmate/patient.  Left on his own in large hospital room, he begins to recite Macbeth and playing (mostly) all the parts.  The two orderlies or attendants at the mental hospital speak occasionally and interact with him from time to time.  But essentially it is a one-man show. 

An audacious choice and an acting triumph if it can be pulled off.  As much as I am a fan of all involved, sadly, it did not work.  The directorial choice definitely made me wonder about this mysterious man locked up for unknown crimes but it did not unlock the text of Macbeth and bring a dynamic new interpretation of that text to life.  This production was a little reminiscent of Gatz, where an unexpected character launches into textual reading of a work.  But this production of Macbeth did not have the fantastic meta-commentary that Gatz offered.  Because Cumming had to portray so many characters at times it felt like he was rattling off his lines quickly as just text, or he was frenzied/crazy such that distinct character voices were lost or at other times you got the sense that he was embodying each of these separate characters and "living" this play. The why of it all never seemed to be the point. 

Very rarely did Shakespeare's themes engage with this conceptual rendering.  It felt as if this mental hospital "vision" was laid on top of the original work but they never organically blended together.  The bathtub scene in particular stood out because it heightened the sexual language of Lady Macbeth's speech and provided a reasonable narrative connection to the setting.   Cumming physically played a fluid concept of gender in that scene.  But the rest of the work did not seem to play to Cumming's strengths.  His impish qualities were ill-suited to Macbeth or any of the other royal figures he was playing.  And his insanity based "commentary" was not deep enough to unearth a new truth about the play.  It came off as energized, hyperactive but not intellectually satisfying.  It also let down the dramatic structure of the play.  It is hard to build the dramatic intensity you need when you start out the play as insane and every voice comes from that same place. 

As I have mentioned, I have never seen a great production of Macbeth.  I felt this production was haunted by Rupert Goold's interpretation from 2008 at BAM.  Though I felt that production was cold and unemotional, the Tiffany/Goldberg production made me actually nostalgic for it.  As much as I was frustrated with the emotional disconnect in Goold's version, his use of a political overlay, militaristic setting and the tiled/sterile operating theater were more connected to the original work even if they failed to be fully cohesive. 

Here, the tiled set with video monitors reminded me a little too much of Goold's staging (which also had a tiled room with TV monitors but set into the walls of the operating room set if I remember correctly).  Surveillance or security video was used intermittently.  Often when Cumming was performing the three witches the screens would reflect his face as his back was to the audience.  The screens were also used to show some of his monologues and some of his hallucinations.  I'm often a fan of mixing media and using video and projections in plays but as it was used here it felt unnecessary.  I did not find the images so haunting or revealing. They did not add to the work.  Though the production could have benefited from another visual outlet to help communicate the directors' vision. 

That said the music (by Max Richter) and soundscape  (by Fergus O'Hare) were heart-breaking and lush.  Weird as it may be to say, I kept hearing strands of Michael Nyman scores in this music (Carrington anyone...I'm probably the one person on earth who listened to that religiously for years).  For the first 10 minutes, before the text of Macbeth was really performed I almost did not want Cumming to speak.  The music and sound were doing so much of the heavy lifting. Once "Shakespeare" started, the emotional quotient and energy was lost. 

For a staging focused on a psychological breakdown, I found the moments where the man in the hospital connected to the character of Macbeth to be rare.  There is another bath scene where Cumming is playing one of the murderers who is drowning a child and that moment seemed to be more than just a scene out of Shakespeare for that character.  For all the focus on insanity, the performance came off as "playing" crazy rather than feeling crazy. 

I feel like this interpretation of Macbeth should be chalked up to stretching for something new and missing the mark.  A for effort but it did not quite pan out as planned.  I hope Alan Cumming spends more time on stage in New York.  It was great to see him take this risky project.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Your Monthly Kitson Report: Previews, WIPs and New Material

Twitter follower @MrMattDG kindly pointed out to me that Daniel Kitson has some preview shows on the horizon.  Alas they are far from me...but perhaps closer to you. 

It looks like Mr. Kitson is going to be doing his new theater show "As of 1.52Pm GMT On Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has Not Title"  at The Hob July 16, 23-26.  Tickets are on sale July 16 at The Invisible Dot.  He will then take it to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh August 7-26.  I've mentioned it before as the Show That Does Not Yet Exist.

He's also going to do a work in progress called Lucinda Ding and The Monstrous Thing with Gavin Osborne July 17-22 also at The Hob.  This is the "half story" he will be performing outdoors with Gavin at Regent's Park on July 22.  Tickets for the preview are on sale July 16 at The Invisible Dot.  And again Mr. Kitson reaches into his bag of tricks and pulls out a whole new show.  His creative well being a frickin' endless abyss.  Le sigh.  I can't even finish one supremely shitty screenplay and he's got 3 new shows this year.  No idea what this show is about though.  He says it's "an epic poem about a monster and a girl."  

Is this bronze cowboy the Monstrous Thing, Lucinda?
I can't help but think that "Lucinda Ding and The Monstrous Thing" sounds like some sort of Shel Silverstein poem (Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out; I Cannot Go to School Today, Said little Peggy Ann McKay).  Just me?

If you happen to catch one of these shows, please tell me all about it!  Always love to hear how the shows are evolving and what sparkling gems are falling from Mr. Kitson's lips. 

I finally sorted out a very very very very short trip to Edinburgh (basically a two day trip--jet lag here I come) so I am happy to say I will be seeing Where Once Was Wonder and the Show That Does Not Yet Exist.  Only seeing them once even though I love repeat Kitson viewing.  12th of August please bring your A game Mr. Kitson.*

*I'm not sure he has a B game.  I've seen him perform quite ill and it was actually better than the times I saw him perform healthy...But that's not to say eat something dodgy just to make this more interesting. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Harvey: A Giant Bunny but Petite Laughs

Sometimes I find writing reviews to be a total pleasure (see for example the wonderful Mr. Burns). because I want to share my joy over the experience with someone else.  And this one, I have been dreading because I am bored as much by my review as I was with the show.

About fifteen minutes into Harvey I said to myself, "Damn I wish this was Arsenic and Old Lace."  I've never seen AaOL on stage but having seen the film versions of Harvey and AaOL.  I was always partial to Arsenic because it was much more of a dark comedy, with crazy hijinks and some wonderful performances.  Harvey on the other hand was always a bit treacly for me.

The stage version of Harvey is still sugary-sweet but lacks the daffiness and memorable performances.  It felt very much like dated Capra-corn without the deft hand of Capra.

Jim Parsons is Elwood P. Dowd, a rich bachelor who spends his days in barrooms talking to everyone he meets and hanging out with a 6 foot tall+ rabbit named Harvey.   His scheming sister Veta Louise (Jessica Hecht) and niece Myrtle Mae (Tracie Chimo) try to get him committed so they can inherit his home and funds and they will no longer live in embarrassment of their unpredictable relative.  Veta Louise attempts to convince Dr. Sanderson (Morgan Spector) that Elwood is crazy.  But Sanderson thinks that Veta is the ill one and has her committed instead.  Once his mistake is figured out, Veta is let loose but Elwood can't be found and the hospital staff go looking for their lost charge. 

Act One was a major slog.  Jessica Hecht put upon some sort of vocal affectation.  The result was truly bizarre.  The frenzied reaction that is supposed to get her thrown into the psych ward was so muted that the doctor's conclusion that she's crazy seems all the more crazy.  The "comedy" and hijinks of Act One was just dull and plodding.  Things picked up a bit in Act Two as the characters face real consequences and the meaning behind their actions have more weight.  But it was a long road to those points.  And there were some great actors in this cast left to flounder with this material (Charles Kimbrough!!!,Carol Kane).

Jim Parsons was fine in the role.  I just did not care for the material.   I did not find it funny or moving.  I was mostly bored.  The cast of this show is far too talented to be having to tell this stupid old story 8 times a week.  And you are a dear for even bothering to read this.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Magic Mike: A Review

I don't usually review films here.  Probably because I went to film school, I worked in the movie business, and my soul died I'm less apt to enjoy writing about film than theater.  But I'm making a special exception for a special film.

I saw Magic Mike last night and I happened to see Haywire on my flight back from Europe last week.  The recent works of Steven Soderbergh have therefore been on my mind.  Both films reminded me what a great cinematographer, editor and director he is.  This is highlighted so strongly in these particular films because they both have execrable scripts.  Despite this obvious and usually fatal problem, he makes the films visually interesting and at times dynamic to watch.  He might have no interest in his actors or emotion but he still makes the experience engaging.  Who does that?  It's like he's taken on some sort of challenge to prove to his mother he can direct anything--Mom see this pile of dog turd over here, I'm gonna direct the shit out of it and make it look like gold. 

Magic Mike made almost the entire cast look like they had never acted a day in their life.  I mean it's not Laurence Olivier up there to begin with but he really made them look bad (And this comes from someone who watched two Channing Tatum movies on my recent flight).  I don't know if Soderbergh failed to talk to them at all or he just was not willing to edit together passable performances (which I can tell you is how many a lousy actor get by year after year with a career) but nothing made you believe these were real characters.  And it did not seem like the actors believed the lines they were speaking.  On one level, this was kind of awesome and liberating.  It was like watching the best student film ever shot...cast with just some random guys the director found on the street--like mumblecore if the directors actually knew how to shoot a movie.  There is something strangely authentic about that.  That Soderbergh made these "Actors" seem like they could not act.  Like maybe they were just some down on their luck Tampa strippers hoping for the big-time (Miami) to call them up. 

It's so sexy when you take your top off. would have been nice for a modicum of emotional engagement.  Rather than really commit to any emotional arc, Soderbergh kept moving his camera and shooting more Dutch angles than in an Amsterdam corn maze (yeah...I don't know...a lot of Dutch angles).  It felt as if the actors were acting in one place and Soderbergh was like, "Can I shoot their bellybuttons 'cause I'm less interested in what's happening in their facial regions but this light off their abs is cool...."

Ok...there was one scene and one moment where I was emotionally engaged.  Mike makes a personal sacrifice for his little protégé and I'm a sucker for men throwing themselves on their sword (I had to's a stripper movie). 

There's something to be said for making a Hollywood movie about male strippers that's shot like an art film.  The audience was certainly primed for a cheesy/romantic movie with some hot guys stripping.  They got hot guys stripping but there was something to way Soderbergh shot those scenes that made you think he was trying really hard to un-eroticize the activity and make the strippers look ridiculous.  He was not staging well choreographed Broadway numbers but Tampa level stripping.  And I could not help but cringe a little throughout those numbers at the effort the strippers were putting into their numbers and the hilarity of the "sexiness."  Don't get me wrong if Channing Tatum wants to dry-hump me on a stage in a pink thong I mean I probably would go up there...but would I?  You know I'd be the awkward girl he throws his back out trying to do a sexy lift with. 

Matthew McConaughey was channeling a sort of Tom Cruise in Magnolia meets pond scum.  And I mean that as a compliment.  I would under normal circumstances like to revoke McConaughey's SAG card.  Here, he created a truly despicable character who acted as gross as I think McConaughey looks.  Bravo sir.  Bravo.  And he does strip down to cock sock--is that the technical term for it?

The part of this movie that plays into female fantasy is where Channing Tatum is desperately trying to make his fuck-buddy his girlfriend.  We all believe that we would be the one who would be willing to listen to Mike talk about his feelings.  And even better if he takes his shirt off. 

I really think Magic Mike is worth checking out.  Watch how fluid the camera is.  Watch the interesting shot choices.  Watch the energy that comes from the editing.  And also enjoy the stripping between giggle-fits.  For all my snark, I found it cinematically engaging.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Evita: Chipmunks, Kazoos and Wonderstudies

When Evita opened the reviews were quite soft (and had the unintended consequence of making me contemplate Ben Brantley as a disco denizen--shiver).  No one really spoke of Ricky Martin's performance as something worth seeing for anything more than his nice ass in a pair of tight pants, and because of his star-quality, the show was not discounting tickets (grumble grumble).  Seeing this production of Evita did not seem to be in the cards for me...

When I heard Martin was taking a planned vacation in July and Max von Essen would be going on for Che (and the production started offering some discounts), I decided this would be a good opportunity to check out this latest incarnation of Evita.  I had always enjoyed the original Broadway cast recording and was curious.  I had loved Michael Grandage's production of King Lear but was not a fan of his Donmar Warehouse swansong of Richard II (or Hamlet before that).  But I had not seen a Grandage directed musical...

Michael Grandage has staged a beautiful production here with Evita.  Without a massive cast or stage pyrotechnics, he creates elegant scenes to communicate the story.  However, his staging of Che and Che's role in the show was confusing.  At times I felt like he did not communicate the tension between Che's view of events and Evita's very well (especially in Act One).  But it improved tenfold in Act Two.  Rob Ashford's choreography complimented Grandage's direction nicely and had a strong narrative purpose.  Also I feel like I have to mention the lighting design which was really breathtaking at times. 

But clear-eyed direction or even intelligent storytelling means nothing if this story is not well grounded emotionally between Che and Evita.  @MrTylerMartins described Elena Roger's as a chipmunk and that is an apt description.  With her pocket-sized physique, nasal delivery, and unintelligible diction, she's not the typical vision of the charismatic Argentine first lady.  But it would not matter if her singing voice told you a different story.  It doesn't.  She sings through her nose a lot (especially in a dialogue driven songs) so imagine this score as played on a kazoo.  Yet when she sang Don't Cry for Me Argentina it was a lot better and no kazoo to be found.  The vocal kazoo was intermittent--maybe those with vocal training can explain to me the mechanics of this.  Roger's Evita was also woefully underplayed.  She just didn't have the charisma to make you believe she was Evita.  Roger did not convey Evita's calculating nature or powers of seduction convincingly.  She had some nice emotional performance moments in Act Two but it was not enough to carry the show.

On the other hand Max von Essen's voice was gorgeous and he brought heart to the character of Che.  He started out a bit gesture-y (nerves or direction hard to tell) but it went away.  His Che evolved organically from the working class representative of the people who once worshiped Evita to the doubting Thomas that saw her as manipulative and corrupt.  Though he delivered his lines well in Act One, Che's bitter and sharp asides seemed to get lost in this production.  I don't know if it was the direction, the orchestration or what...but Che's lines seemed too small.  Maybe the looming ghost of Mandy Patinkin's Che was too present in my mind.   No one could ever accuse Le Mandy of being small.  But as the show moved on the vision of Che became clearer and von Essen was compelling and moving.

I really liked von Essen's performance and was happy I had waited to see him perform Che.  He carries so much of the production and seemed very much at ease in the role.  And as always it was a pleasure to see Michael Cerveris (with his hand in some sort of ace bandage) who played the thankless role of Juan Peron to the hilt.   I'm glad I did not miss this production even if it was uneven.  And it was a delight to see von Essen get to dominate the stage in this particular show.