Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Happy Blog-iversary to Me

When I started this blog a year ago I did not imagine the conversations that it would start.  I have received some lovely unexpected emails and comments from artists, fans and critics: all of them exceedingly polite and remarkably encouraging (and I hope I am not jinxing it by saying so--dickheads continue to stay at home, thank you).  

Despite being quite feisty on the page, I have never really been one to put my opinions out there for all the world to see. Writing this blog was out of character for me.  And I was truly shocked when the world started responding.  I wholly underestimated the vanity google and the power of twitter.


I often joke that I hate everything but that's clearly not true.  I expect a lot from theater (and film and art) because it means something to me.  I believe it says who we are as a people, right now in this very moment and will say something to people in the future when they reflect back on it.  It's part of the fabric of our culture.  It educates our young and young at heart.  It spurs innovation.  It changes us.  Sometimes one person at a time, sometimes many.  It will be there for future generations (assuming no Mr. Burns type meltdown) and provide building blocks for cultural landmarks to come.  Theater reminds us of the ephemeral, the transient, the moment we cannot hold in our hands.  It's precious, beautiful, exciting.  It's important.

I would not write about it if I did not really love it--somewhere deep down beyond the curmudgeonly regions of my heart.  And I do.  I was smiling like a full-blown crazy-person this weekend at Newsies.  Something about that music, those high-flying leaps, and Jeremy Jordan's committed performance just makes something in my inner-teenage heart soar.  To the opposite end of the spectrum, in tiny spaces that seemed to be built into railway arches in Edinburgh, I was blown-away by the work of young writers, directors and actors finding their voices and making work that is sophisticated and deeply enriching.

I'm not too worried about the future when young artists are doing such wonderful work.

Art is hard.  Being creative is really hard.  I remember having to write, direct and shoot five movies in one semester (and work on the crew of 15 other short films).  Besides keeping objects in focus and finding people to act in them, I had to come up with five new ideas in a very short time frame.  And they were pretty awful if you want to know the truth. I fully appreciate the effort that it takes to get from idea to execution and the massive number of people to help get it there (and the numerous people standing in the way of that as well).  But knowing all that, will not stop me from expecting more.

Sometimes with all the money, resources, or talent you can still put on a work that I find appallingly bad (Venus in Fur, Nice Work If You Can Get It, End of the Rainbow).  Hopefully others like it.  'Cause I sure did not.  And that's okay too. 

Isn't that what makes life interesting?  If the same work appealed to all of us in the same way what a boring place the world would be.  I like a show that divides people.   Someone takes risks and makes choices and sometimes they pay off and other times they disappoint.  But hopefully that means the artists are trying: pushing and moving the form in a new direction.  That's certainly what I look for.  Having seen so much "content" in my life (possibly OD'ing on movies when I had basically seen every idea done at least 4 different times at 4 different budget levels), surprising me is hard.  But I  have seen theater in the last two years that has truly surprised me.  It's inspired me.  It's awed me while making me laugh.  It's made me think about life, art, love, family, friendship, politics, and just exactly how you decapitate a pig.  But it's also made me think about form, structure, poetry, lighting, staging, and how dirty your feet can get if you wallow in filth.

There is a lot of interesting, provoking theater our there.  I'm not saying everyone should attempt a one-man Macbeth.  But I'm glad someone tried.  I find it fascinating when artists try to work with established material and make it sing in a new and different way, (Dogfight, Goodbar, Mr. Burns), even if some of those attempts did not work for me (Leap of Faith, Porgy & Bess).  And for every new work I have found frustrating or incomplete (AssistanceRapture, Blister, Burn), I have stumbled upon another that has unexpectedly grabbed me (Tribes, Cock, Uncle Vanya).

Sometimes I am on my strange island of misfit toy opinions all by myself.  And occasionally others swim over to join me. 

Thank you all for a wonderful first year.   I am very grateful (even if sometimes also mildly bitter).

M. Bitter








Sunday, August 26, 2012

Oh the Humanity and Other Good Intentions

"Time is moving forward with or without us."  When you see a Will Eno play, truth (uncomfortable or not) will likely be on the menu.  During his shows, I often feel that I cannot even count on the seat I am sitting on--as if it suddenly might start to drift away mid-show.  Gently he unravels any certainty you might have about the world around you and in those frayed strands you see the uneven beauty and poetry of life as we know it.

Eno writes with gorgeous meter and powerful images  His characters are revealing, confusing, witty, and sad.  They offer so much about themselves but they never seem to have the answers to life.
 
When I described the work of Daniel Kitson to a friend she said he sounded like the British Will Eno.  Now that I've seen a couple of Eno works I do find there are interesting spiritual parallels to their work. They both offer up an honest window into humanity and all its foibles.  They love language and when their characters speak there is beauty in how they express their feelings.  They don't always dwell on beautiful moments--in fact quite the opposite.  They take ordinary moments and stuff them so full of emotional wallop that it is dizzying.  There is something sad in the stories--but with the loss, pain, loneliness or anguish there is also some element of celebration of those feelings.  Without those feelings we are not complete humans.  They both tell stories of us--all of us--with the good, bad, and unfortunate all mixed in.  And most of all, they are both goddamn funny.

They are not identical by any means but if you like the intelligence and darkly comedic moments in Kitson then you might like his slightly more esoteric American cousin, Eno.

It seemed only fitting that after seeing Kitson's new play, As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title, that I should follow it with this collection of Eno plays.  Northern Stage presented these five short plays directed by Erica Whyman (soon to be the Deputy Artistic Director of the RSC) at the Edinburgh Fringe this month.

One was about a coach facing a barrage of cameras after a rough season, one involved intercut monologues of people preparing videos for a dating website, one of an inexperienced airline PR woman addressing the families of people who've just died in a plane crash, one involved a photographer trying to restage a famous old photo, and one of a couple suddenly discovering themselves in a place they hardly recognize. 


Themes of uncertainty and inconvenient truths flowed throughout the plays.  They contained characters full of wanting, loss, and pain.  Words, motifs, and images echoed and ricocheted within the plays.  But despite the seriousness of the themes Eno's writing and the fantastic performances, by Lucy Ellinson, John Kirk and Tony Bell, made these plays sizzle with humor.  And because it's Eno, it was often disconcerting humor at that.

A photographer walking around the audience attempting to take our photo says  with delight,  "Your agonies are so photogenic." 

For me the dating video segment was the most revealing (especially as illuminated by Ellinson and Bell).  We are watching these characters as they struggle and slog through their own self-analysis of what they want out of a partner--but it forces them to assess their own lives.  They contradict themselves.  They openly speak of their belief in someone out there and at the same time their hearts seem to have given up the search.  They dream big and they worry small, articulating what they think they want, who they think they are.  One says "the sky keeps changing and me underneath it."  Nothing is fixed or known and as adults there is something powerful in an image of adulthood with less certainties than one ever imagined when one was younger. 

The coach faced with defeat antagonistically confronts his audience.  He says "When is high school over.? When do I begin my life as me on earth?"   Another lost man, adrift at a time when we project to the world our certitude and authority.  Dancing around words like loss, failure, and forfeit, he begs his audience for understanding and poetry as his vocabulary fails him.  

The plane crash segment was the funniest and wackiest.  Possibly the worst PR woman in the world who can only seem to speak the truth noting that her company has a record of "somewhat excellence."  Rather than spin the facts or comfort grieving family members all she manages to talk about is hopelessness, loss, powerlessness, and death.  

Darkly comedic juxtapositions are hard to pull off but Eno does so here.  The audience at St. Stephens in Edinburgh seemed to hold back its laughter during the show (perhaps not sure they could laugh) but it was met with rousing applause in the end.  For those who missed it in Edinburgh, I highly recommend checking it out when it comes to London in September.  Eno's taut, smart, and insightful work is worth seeking out and this production elucidates his material admirably. 


Friday, August 24, 2012

Will Chase Can Get It: Nice Work

Let's be honest.  I'd been avoiding seeing Nice Work If You Can Get It since it opened in the spring.  My main objection was Matthew Broderick.  Never been a fan.  When @thecraptacular described him as "a reanimated corpse/marshmallow" in this show, I felt my decision to stay away was wise.  That did not sound like a ringing endorsement.

Then I heard Broderick would be out for an August vacation and Will Chase (Pipe Dream) would be stepping in.  Suddenly it seemed like an excellent reason to tick this musical off my list.  As the lights went down I leaned over to my friend and said, "You know I hated Crazy For You."  She gasped. 

I enjoy a Gershwin tune.  Who doesn't?  Hitler maybe?  Zombies?  People who really have no soul?  Spielberg.  But I'm not easy to please in the musical book department.  This show manages to take music I truly enjoy and violently shoehorn it into some awkward crevices to prop up a terrible book by Joe DiPietro (inspired by material by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton).  Despite being chock full of Gershwin music, this Kathleen Marshall directed and choreographed production somehow managed to undermine the spirit and beauty in practically every tune.  The music is forced to take backseat to a base and blunt story.

We find ourselves rooting for street-smart, business savvy, tom-boyish bootlegger  Billie Bendix (Kelli O'Hara) who hides her Prohibition era liquor stash in the unused weekend beach house of newlywed Jimmy Winter (Will Chase), a thrice married playboy with a penchant for liquor and chorus girls.  Jimmy arrives at the beach house with his new wife Eileen (Jennifer Laura Thompson) for their honeymoon, and stumbles upon Billie and her crew.  He mistakes her pal Cookie (Michael McGrath) for a butler.  Add in some temperance zealots (led by Judy Kaye), jokes about modern dance, and some demon lemonade and what you have is a right mess.  Billie falls for Jimmy, Jimmy falls for Billie, but he's got to marry a respectable woman to please his mother...and even though he thought he married Eileen he's got to sort out an annulment from his previous wife first.  So nobody's getting much action in a show where no one's quite married to anyone but everyone is oddly obsessed with chastity. 

The great thing about the classic Hollywood movies of the 1930's (which this show seems to think it is following) was that the simplicity or obviousness of the stories did not matter because the sharp dialogue, cracking performances, and overall lightness of spirit carried the work along.  Here, the wackiness is never quite wacky enough, the funny is rarely funny, it's never sexy (ok maybe the one moment where Will Chase is being undressed is sexy*) and the romance is non-existent.


In the positive column, this show has got Kelli "Sing To Me Angel of Music" O'Hara, Will "Megawatt Smile" Chase, a cameo by Estelle Parsons, and the delightful Michael McGrath (channeling every bumbling comic criminal from my favorite 1930's and 40's films).   But the negatives far outweigh the positives.

All creative elements seem to have been applied by technicolor sledgehammer.  The obvious and vulgar costume design and garish and extreme lighting design really bothered me.  The entire show feels overdone and underdone at the same time.  Too much surface glitz, color and unnecessary crap (my eyes, my eyes) and yet anemic song and dance numbers that never bring the energy up.   Jimmy's dance numbers appear to have been choreographed for a penguin such that Matthew Broderick would only have to move his ankles and his wrists for most of the evening.  Will Chase performs them admirably but even he seemed to look confused as to why he had to perform this role with a rod up his ass. 

With each unnecessary song that doesn't really work for the plot, I found myself losing interest. 

One of the greatest crimes of this show however is having Kelli O'Hara sing Someone To Watch Over Me holding a shotgun for comedic effect.  The person who made that "choice" deserves to be tried for human rights abuses at The Hague.  Come on.  It's not funny.  It's not necessary for the plot.  And you ruin an absolutely gorgeous song, sung by one of our finest voices on Broadway for a pathetic and ultimately cheap laugh.  FOR SHAME.  It's indicative of the mis-matched music and mood here and serves to underline that the marriage of book, direction, and music is an unhappy one at that. 

O'Hara is the consummate professional and gives this show her all, but it's just not worthy of her.


What makes this material really challenging, is that the Jimmy is actually abhorrent.  No one would fall in love with the playboy Jimmy Winter as written.  He's stupid, disloyal, self-involved, and kind of a jerk.  God bless Will Chase because if this asshat Jimmy was being performed by Matthew Broderick I would have walked out in the first five minutes.  I also would have expected Billie to follow me.  She could do better and she's smart enough to know that.   Long Island mansion or not...

The more characters that were lobbed at me the less interested I became in their petty problems.  The temperance folks are tiresome.  The other romances are even less interesting than the main one (though I really liked Chris Sullivan as Duke).

The jokes in the show seemed to be written for one menopausal lady who was sitting in front of me who thoroughly enjoyed herself.  And when vaginal dryness is somehow a running gag in a show I'll have you know you've lost me. 


Chase plays the dimwitted playboy as delicately as he can manage.  He actually delivered some of the lines with such air-headed glee that I nearly grasped Jimmy's dippy charm at moments.  Chase's perpetual grin and easy going demeanor were endearing.  Chase is certainly dreamy and you could forgive Jimmy's stupidity if Billie was looking to have a fling with him.  But we are repeatedly told Billie is this smart gal so why would she fall for him?  We never find out because the build up of their romance largely takes place off stage in a red satin-covered boudoir (maybe Jimmy's worst crime is that even with all his money he's kind of trashy too). 

They do have a totally inappropriate for the moment/scene duet of Let's Call the Whole Thing Off.  But it's played for farce not as their actual feelings...so we are left to wonder where their feelings come from.  Even in frothy shows such as Anything Goes you can get swept up in the sweet talk, easy on the eyes charmers, and romantic moments if they are there.   Here, the music, story and mood set don't actually play that up at all.  Besides an early in the story killer lip-lock, the sustained romance and love story here between Jimmy and Billie is a complete mystery.  And you kinda need to know why they fall for each other because Jimmy frequently acts like a jerk. There's got to be a reason Billie sticks around for him.  I mean if he was particularly good in bed, again, it might be plausible but we are beaten so hard with Billie's virginity stick that no one could even imagine her thinking what might be south of Jimmy's cummerbund.

Will Chase as Jimmy certainly makes this show a lot more palatable than if Lurch was playing the role,  but it's still a tough slog. 


*Though when they started to strip down Chase I thought of how horrific that scene would be with Broderick.  I would have begged them to stop.  Medusa-level-turn-me-to-stone horror.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mack & Mabel: Guest Review

I had to cancel my trip to London this summer (tiny violin for me) and so Ms. Kyle volunteered to go on my vacation for me. She also agreed to do a guest review of one of the shows I missed. For your reference, Ms. Kyle is one of the few people to bear witness to my early musical theater career--cut short by my inability to grasp even the simplest of dance moves and having no vocal range whatsoever. I'm delighted to bring you her curmudgeonly views on theater from her recent London trip--MBitter


Full disclosure: I am not exactly the world’s most avid theatergoer, and I don’t know a lot about theater, but I don’t let that stop me from having Opinions.

If there was any production of Mack & Mabel that could make me like this play, what they’re doing at Southwark Playhouse (through August 25th) probably could.

This production has so much going for it. Laura Pitt-Pulford is incredibly winning as Mabel. It was hard to take your eyes off her when she was on stage, and she has a fabulous voice, one of the most appealing musical theater voices I’ve heard in a long time.* She TORE UP “Wherever He Ain’t,” a high-energy “screw him” torch song. Laura Pitt-Pulford is worth the (eminently reasonable) price of admission.

But there’s so much more good stuff going on! The ensemble was great - really excellent singing, solid dancing, and every one of them seemed really present, reacting to things happening on stage in a way I don’t really remember noticing in a musical ensemble before. The production numbers felt big and were well-choreographed (if you’ve ever wanted to see something approximating a Busby Berkeley number performed by 10 people in an old railway tunnel, “Hundreds of Girls” near the end of the first act should satisfy you handily).

But, here’s the thing. I just don’t like this show. There are a lot of good, solid songs, but there’s a fundamental problem with the characters and the story. You know how some unhappy relationships are tragic romances, but some unhappy relationships are just kind of unfortunate, like the story of that friend of yours from high school and her jerkwad first husband? Mack & Mabel is the second kind of story.

This is the whole plot: Mack is an abusive workaholic director of two-reelers in the early days of Hollywood; Mabel is his naturally charismatic star. They have an on-again/off-again relationship. Mabel dies. THE END. (It’s based on a true story. This does not make it more interesting.) There’s some set dressing in the form of Frank Capra, Fatty Arbuckle, and the Keystone Kops, but that’s pretty much it. Plus, most of Mabel’s actions seem important in the show primarily insofar as they affect Mack. There’s some unfortunate Manic Pixie Dream Girlism.

My dislike of Mack and my frustration with Mabel for being with Mack reminded me of Carousel, another musical with a stupid, frustrating central relationship. But I think it’s kind of important that in Carousel, Billy dies** and Julie finds a way to go on with her life without him (even though she thought he was all she had going for her) while in Mack & Mabel, *Mabel* dies so that Mack can realize that maybe he’s been too focused on his career. Again, it’s all about Mack. And it’s not even interesting things about Mack!

And ultimately, neither Mack nor Mabel is sufficiently well-fleshed out as a character. Mabel came across as more interesting and likeable than Mack, but I think a lot of that was due to Pitt-Pulford’s performance. Why does Mabel take up with Mack in the first place, when he straight-up tells her he fully intends to be an asshole? Come down to it, why does Mack tell Mabel he intends to be an asshole? I guess it’s because he grew up poor in Canada? Since that’s literally all we learn about his backstory?

And here’s a really stupid nitpick Mack couldn’t have had a half-German Shepherd, half-Schnauzer mutt when he was six - German Shepherds weren’t invented until 1899, at which point Mack was 19 years old. There were basically no German Shepherds in North America until after the First World War, certainly not any half-German Shepherd mutts on Canadian dirt farms. Didn’t anyone else read Rin Tin Tin: The Life, the Legend?*** I’m blaming this on the book revision done by Francine Pascal (of Sweet Valley High fame).

So that’s how I feel about the play. Back to the production:

The Vault, which I think is a secondary space for Southwark, is a black box theater in a disused railway tunnel (cool! and musty! bring your inhaler!), seating maybe 120 people? (I’m terrible at estimating these things.) The set design, which consisted of a few pieces of furniture, plus props that were stored on utility shelving at the back of the stage area when not in use, was effective and made a lot of sense in the context of the show, which happens in flashback in an old movie studio. I was impressed/horrified by the amount of dancing and pratfalling the actors did on a bare concrete floor!****

Because it was such a small space, it felt kind of weird that all the actors were wearing forehead mics, or indeed that they were amplified at all - we were like five feet away! But I guess you get used to performing with a mic taped to your forehead, and you learn vocal techniques that rely on mics, and you’re not going to learn a whole new vocal style just because you’re in a small space. The orchestra was off stage and piped in, so they also had to compete with that, and presumably the conductor wouldn’t be able to hear them on his monitor without mics. It still felt odd.

And it *was* odd! I’ve never seen such a big show in such a small space. These people put on a musical with a cast of 15 and a 10 person orchestra in a little black box theater. Who does that? (I wish someone else would!) There were maybe 60 of us in the audience (it was a Monday night, and the the nearest Underground station was a bit of a disaster due to the Olympics). This was so much effort for what was clearly a labor of love that it kind of led me to think, “Really? All this for Mack & Mabel?”

But ultimately, it’s a really enjoyable production, and a great chance to see some talented young actors up close before you have to start paying big bucks to watch them from the balcony.



*For what it’s worth, I have kind of a problem with the predominant vocal style in 21st-century Broadway/Broadway-style musicals... I find most Broadway performers overly bright and nasal. That’s the curmudgeonly place I’m coming from.

**And goes to Purgatory or something? Carousel is such a strange show.

***OMG you should read it, it’s really good! War! America! Movies! Dogs!

****Another thing I was horrified by: the various takes on “Brooklyn” accents, but I will say no more about this; the actors are young, and may yet go forth and sin no more.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Win Tickets to Cock: A Giveaway

UPDATE: Giveaway has ended (8/24/12).  Thanks everyone for playing!

I'm giving away two free tickets to the fantastic Off-Broadway play Cock.  All you need to do is tweet about the giveaway (mentioning @MildlyBitter) or retweet one of my tweets about the giveaway.  The giveaway will end Friday August 24th at 6pm. I will select one winner at random.

So what is the play about....When John and his boyfriend take a break, the last thing he expects is to suddenly meet the woman of his dreams. Now he has a big choice to make. Don’t miss the American premiere of the gripping new play by Mike Bartlett. James Macdonald (Top GirlsDying City) directs this Olivier Award-winning production from London’s Royal Court Theatre.

Cock is one of my favorite plays of 2012 and this could be your chance to see it for FREE! With a stellar cast, an intimate staging, and rapid-fire dialogue, this fast-moving play will make you laugh and make you think. 

“A TERRIFIC COMEDY WITH AN UNPRINTABLE NAME.”
-The New York Times, Ben Brantley


Check out more information about the play at http://cockfightplay.com


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Morning: When the Kids Will Play

I was having a bit of an anxiety attack on Tuesday morning (a near death experience with a double-decker bus and a strange email sent my brain whirling) and when I sat myself down at the Traverse Theatre to see Simon Stephens's new play Morning, I knew I was fucked.  Morning will dial your anxiety up to eleven. 

Stephens's play about teenage girls who take a boy out to a field and end up engaged in something truly grisly is not the least bit light and will not bring peace to anyone's mind.  But staged with elegance by Sean Holmes, and executed with finite precision by the young cast, the uncomfortable play is a powerful but searing trip into the mind of disturbed children. 

Stephanie (Scarlet Billham) is a bored teenager left to care for her dying mother and whose best friend Cat (Joana Nastari) is moving away.  She thinks nothing of stealing her brother's (Myles Westman) iPod to give to Cat as a present or thrusting her unsuspecting boyfriend Stephen (Ted Reilly) into an uncomfortable situation or bite his mouth as she kisses him because she can.  We are led into the mind of Stephanie where things are set aflame, drowned, and buried.  The more she speaks the more she lays out the logic of her disturbance and all we can do is watch the inevitable violence that will come from this. 

From the texture of the set pieces (tarps, glass, harsh lights) to the ominous sound, Morning works on all levels to create tension with the audience.  Stephens's script keeps us guessing as to what is coming next as characters enter and exit, come and go without introduction or warning.  Holmes takes that tension and pulls stunning performances out of the young cast. 

When I saw them later in the theater cafe I was still a little too shaken up to see them as anyone but their characters.  Ted Reilly was wide-eyed innocence, half-wondering whether he had scored big or was actually freaked out.  Scarlet Billham pulls off the challenging role of conveying Stephanie's off-kilter point of view and still flying below the radar of adults who would question her.  Myles Westman was the worried little brother who wanted comfort or relief from his big sister and getting none--one of the few characters to call her out on her disturbing behavior. 

With a rich and dissonant soundscape (sound design by Nick Manning) that is built live on stage as we watch, we endure repeated strands of terrifying sound layered on top of each other so that there is no balm for our eyes or ears.  Much like a gruesome episode of The Peanuts, there are no adults here to monitor these children, see the warning signs, or address their pain.  "Living young and wild and free" these teens are adrift.  Some are falling in love, some are moving away from their small town, and some are innocent pawns in Stephanie's game.  Stephanie takes control in the only way she knows how. 

I kept seeing interconnectedness between the plays and shows I saw in Edinburgh.  There was a line in one of the Will Eno plays at Northern Stage that came back to me after watching Morning.  A professional football coach, late in his life, addressing a press conference says "When is high school over.  When do I begin my life as me on earth."  That perpetual search for adulthood is always weighing on us, but does it weigh any heavier than it does on teens when they think that is all they want, and when they have no concept of what it means.  

Stephens's play might be disturbing but it is disturbing for a purpose.  We are offered a world without hope and the terror is so successful because of the plausibility of such a place.  The play does not explain, moralize, or counsel.  You could grasp at the reasons for "why" Stephanie does what she does but it's not the point.  I could not help but feel that Stephens has created characters who behave like real children: hoping that if they ignore the problem it will go away, not quite believing what they have done.  Nothing feels real to them but it feels all too real to the audience which is why it is so effective. 


Stephanie feels invisible, so she chooses to make her mark.  Stephanie quotes Marx writ large with red lipstick on the side of her house:  "The philosophers have only interpreted the world.  The point is to change it."  And so she does.   Maybe Sondheim was right, Children Will Listen.


Morning will next play at the Lyric Hammersmith in London.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Daniel Kitson's Where Once Was Wonder: A Review

To the women who have emailed Kitson complaining that his new look has made him less attractive he says, "I cannot fuck the love of an absent father into you."*  A newly shaved Kitson (no hair, no beard--well a bit of stubble for both) has returned to stand-up comedy with a roaring vengeance and if you're going to bother emailing him back when he sends out a mailing to his 20,000 person email list the least you could offer him is sex in a ditch.  He hastens to add that's a joke; he's received five emails about it already.

Where Once Was Wonder is Daniel Kitson’s new stand-up show after a three year absence and he's been touring with it since the spring.  He continues to use a story-based format for this show but it's not just the same dreamy, sweet stories of self-deprecation and quiet observation that he's done in the past.  Alongside those stories about love, family, support, and friendship is the trenchant Kitson who can't really be too self-deprecating anymore about his looks when he gets so much "first class minky."**  As one of my twitter followers points out even his new opening music has an edge.

Kitson is redefining himself, his work and his subject matter--but what has not changed is that he's a top-notch comedian and hair or no hair he's got a lot to say and an eager fan-base to hear it.  This 100 minute (sometimes longer) show on at midnight sold out in 43 minutes when tickets went on sale at the Edinburgh Fringe.

I had seen segments of this show when he was doing some work-in-progress shows in New York in January.  But nothing prepared me for how he would take these ostensibly disparate pieces (each funny in their own right) and seamlessly weave them together into a “blistering piece of stand-up.”  He’s advertised this as a show about his view of life and how the impossible becoming the inevitable.  He tells three separate stories to illustrate his thesis.  He tells the story of how he shaved off all the hair on the top and bottom of his head to show that he will not be defined by what he looks like (only to be redefined by what he looks like now).  He tells the story of how he flew across the world to tell a friend he was in love with her to show that we are not defined by the people we love (except that they influence our thinking and change how we look at the world).   He tells the story of how he cut the head off a baby pig to show that we are not defined by our actions (but by showing up at his friend’s house on the wrong day, he becomes defined by his actions).

With each story and each "absolute" principle he lays out, he later tears that same exact principle down. He takes each personal philosophy and skewers it. He lists upfront things that drive him crazy about comedy such as comedians calling their work dangerous, comics using personal anecdotes in their comedy, comics doing bits that are just examples of saying something witty to a stranger, and using lists as a comic device.  He then proceeds to do all of those things and pointing them out along the way (I particularly liked his description of the film Con Air and how he used it to illustrate one of his points—weirdly Con Air is a film I must watch when it comes on TV no matter what, no matter how many times I’ve seen it before). 

You might not be blamed (at least by me) for missing these thought strands because you might be laughing so hard you can’t really keep an eye out for the sophisticated tendrils of his comic structure.  But it’s there (and probably a lot more I could not spot).

After seeing his dizzying play, As of 1.52pm on Friday April 27th, 2012, This Show Has No Title, at the Traverse Theatre the same day as this stand-up show I felt a little woozy about what I actually know about Daniel Kitson.   I think that is his intent.  In both shows he shares things that "feel" personal but deconstructs them so much you have to assume some of it is fiction or a joke.  But it's nearly impossible to know where the reality and the comedy split.  He says he's got a compulsory need to confess.  But is that the truth or just set-up for an excellent joke about teenage masturbation (after confessing every teenage masturbatory act to his father and his father having had "the talk" with him several times already and his father comes to the conclusion that "I'm trying to love you unconditionally but you're making it difficult.").

There was a moment the second time I saw this show where his brain went to a strange place. He was supposed to introduce a scene by saying he and his friend were in the car and he was driving her home. Instead his brain started to tell a story where he was alone in car. He wondered aloud what story his brain was going to tell. He noted quickly that he has to stop his brain from actually revealing anything about himself and get back to the actual show.

He reveals and he obscures with such skill that there are only three things I can say for sure about Daniel Kitson:

1) Daniel Kitson has a keen sense of smell.  (Do not peel an orange or fart nearby him as he will stop the show and try to get to the bottom of this.  He stopped both shows I saw based on smell investigations.)

2) Daniel Kitson is easily distracted by movement.  (He stopped the show for a girl sneezing who looked to him like she was potentially vomiting into her hands.  He stopped the show for both angry and bored facial expressions from people in the front row.  And for heaven's sake please don't talk during the show.  There was a whole breakdown of the show whilst Kitson provided libations to one side of the room from the other side of the room's drink.  I felt bad for fanning myself lest it be a fluttering distraction but it was HOT in the Stand.  Anyway, I apologize.)

3) Toby is Daniel Kitson's favorite character on the West Wing.***


Everything else is a complete mystery and that’s how he likes it (though I'd like to believe he wore a waistcoat as a child when he was obsessed with magic). And why not. It’s not about the man. It’s about the comedy. So what about the comedy.  It’s as good as Kitson says it is (I suspect he's his own toughest critic and it's not audiences as much as his own internal drive that pushes him to be better and better). 
 
Whether he's discussing the fact that the “semiotics of facial hair changed" or assumptions people made about him—beard, glasses, knitwear must mean he reads a lot of books, be generally a nice guy and would never slap a woman’s tits during sex. “Not true,” he says—each segment seemed to be funnier than the last.

And I don't want to give the impression the entire show was some sort of arrogant forum to discuss his sexual prowess.  He manages to be both arrogant and self-deprecating in equal measure and pulling it all off with charm (I am reminded of a line from his play where his girlfriend character says she can't quite decide if she finds him "annoying or charming."  The fictional version of Kitson replies "If you're on the fence, go with charming.") 

As he often does with his storytelling, he can be thoughtful and touching like when he talks about being in denial over being in love with his friend.  He did not even realize how lonely he was until he tries to befriend the mouse he sees in his livingroom (quite the opposite reaction David O'Doherty has when he encounters a mouse in his house). Or rather than be a New Year's Eve guest with a silly gift, by arriving on the wrong night to his friend's house, he becomes the friend who had no New Year’s plans who has foisted his loneliness upon them.  His story about getting glasses as a young boy is there to illustrate one of his points (perhaps even if you have the most loving, supporting parents, they can still miss the fact that their child is basically blind) but I remember him telling it in New York and it stopped my heart. 

His gyroscopic perspective moves so seamlessly around all sides of the arguments.  When he talks about a time when he was a man OUT of love, he was constantly being told by people IN love that even though he could not imagine it, he would not always be where he was right now.  He turns it back on them noting neither would they necessarily.  Biting, sharp and true.

Anyone who lives with certainty that their point of view is absolutely right should not run into Kitson in a dark alley as he will knock the cock out of their cocksureness.

But what does all of it mean?  He quotes a Spanish footballer who (according to Kitson) once said that “result is an imposter” in football-- a positively anathema thing to say about football.  Maybe this is not about the result.  Maybe it's not about concluding who Kitson is (a confessional smell-seeker? A man determined to redefine himself? A man in flux?).  Maybe it's about letting Kitson explore personas (the man who loves uncertainty, the man who hates uncertainty, the man who believes in heroism of unrequited love, the man who finds unrequited love selfish and creepy) because as he oscillates from one principled stance to its opposite he finds humor and truth in each character portrait.

Or is it that contradictions are inherently human?  I saw a number of plays at the Edinburgh Fringe this week (Chapel Street, Oh the Humanity) that reminded me of this point.  We don't always speak the truth.  We don't always know what we believe.  We often do not see our own contradictions as we do not look at ourselves and our pronouncements with any perspective.  Kitson, as he's done before with his story-shows, holds up a mirror to his audience giving us a whole new vantage point on things we thought we knew.

We are not fixed creatures.  We change, inside and out because of who we meet, what we experience and what we do.  Kitson's thesis of the impossible becoming the inevitable reminds us that our security, confidence or certainty in a moment, belief, or place in our life is often unwound, reframed, changed and undone.  But this life lesson is delivered with laughter and heart.

No question, I find him charming.

*As with all Kitson shows I could not take notes so the quotes are my best estimation.

** I'll be honest I don't know how to spell this word.  In my mind I immediately spelled it "Minke" like the whale.  For some reason that made me laugh. 

 ***I might be totally wrong about that.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Daniel Kitson's As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title.

Is it an owl or is it a brown paper bag in a tree?  It's a question pondered by a character named Daniel, played by Daniel Kitson, in Daniel Kitson’s new play “As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title” currently playing at the Traverse Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

The image of the owl in a tree has been dancing around my head for a week now after seeing this show.  When is an owl not just an owl?  When it's part of a meta-theatrical extravaganza hosted by Daniel Kitson and it possibly represents the illusive nature of truth...or it's just a literal fucking owl (or a paper bag).  It's safe to say this play presents more questions than answers.  This is a work that seems to be dividing audiences between those that found it a waste of the audience's time versus those that have found it astonishingly virtuoso.  (See additional reviews here).

For me it was a pleasurable but dizzying wander into the "usual" Kitson verbal gymnastics and razor-sharp humor but also an unexpected exploration of how you get there from here--an artistic rendering of process, audience, creativity, truth, fiction, and love.  I don’t want to spoil anyone’s discovery of this piece. So you might to stop reading if you don't want to know too much about the play.

Imagine you're watching a film. The camera is pushed in too closely on the out of focus image and you cannot see exactly what you are looking at.  You think you know what you are looking at. The filmmaker is showing you small pieces of information and you're putting together in your mind the larger picture of what you think you see.  Slowly the camera pulls back, then more rapidly, and nothing is as it seemed.  Everything you thought you saw was misfiled, misinterpreted, misunderstood.  Your mind is reeling.  You see that all the pieces of information you were taking in would never have added up to the image you were thinking of. The filmmaker was telling you that all along. Or was he.  This is what As of 1.52pm will make you feel.  Imperceptibly the oxygen has slowly been sucked out of the room and in the end you might be gasping for breath.


As of 1.52pm is Daniel Kitson the storytelling artist deconstructing Daniel Kitson "the legend" in rebellion to his audience, expectations, and assumptions. Wholly self-aware of his reputation as a critically acclaimed theater artist, of his audience's rapturous adulation of his delicate stories of unexamined lives, of the pretentious idea of theater turned in on itself, and the wankiness of making a show about his own creative process, he proceeds anyway to make a show about all of those things.  I have said it before: Daniel Kitson has very large testicles indeed.

In Kitson’s hands such a melange of meta-wanking makes for a giddy and unnerving whirlwind.  Focused on an artist sloughing off an identity he has outgrown or wishes to leave behind, the play's most successful aspect is a subtextual engagement between storyteller and audience.

As of 1.52pm is structured around four overlapping stories:

Story One: A Man played by Daniel Kitson is reading from a script. He says it’s a work of collaboration between himself and his friend Jennifer Stott. It was only finished August 5th so that they were unable to stage it properly. But it was to have a cast of six (someone on twitter made the Pirandello reference to which I bow down to you), rotating stages and they were going to make it rain on stage. But because they delivered it so late, they did not have time to build the sets or audition actors, so he’s just going to read the play to you.  But no worries, you'll get what you paid for.

Story Two: The Man reads the script of the play in which he describes scenes of Daniel Kitson (which would have been played by Daniel Kitson) struggling to write a new show and talking about it on the phone with a friend.

Story Three: The Man reads the script which also contains the story of Dan, “a fictionalized version” of Daniel Kitson to be “played by an actor,” and his co-creator of the show Jen (“She's American. No big deal.”),* who are dating and through their dates end up collaborating on the show.  What show?  The same show you are watching now.

Story Four: The story everyone is trying to write is about an old man in the hospital named Maximillian Cathcart and his nurse Cornelia.  Max starts to tell Connie the story of his life and his unique way of living. 

At times Daniel is talking about scenes of Dan and Jen, Max and Connie. Other times Dan and Jen are talking about scenes of Daniel and Max and Connie. All the while, the Man sitting in front of you reading from a script is reading the names and the stage directions and it’s shifting between these three other plot lines. Occasionally the Man breaks from the script to give an aside, an explanation, or to comment on the proceedings.  Sometimes he stops to censure audience members for talking through the show, or to give Boggle tips or to encourage you to expand your culinary exploits.

Some have suggested that the play is just an attempt to emulate other works such as Inception, Adaptation, or The Truman Show.  But what sets this apart from cinema is that Kitson doesn't have the luxury of a camera to explicate the layers, the worlds, the revelations of his play.  All he has are his words and it's a far more challenging project to take on when you don't have a green screen and visual effects artists on call.  But his reputation is well-earned as he is a phenomenal storyteller.   Kitson's words go further than most.


One of the strongest elements of Kitson’s show The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church was that Kitson himself was a character in it.  Here we get several variations of that character (the cantankerous, the loveable, the “dickhead”) and he’s compelling, funny and engaging.  Daniel Kitson, as the Man, is very good at keeping the voices straight, the conversations clear and the trajectory of the story on track.


But what is the story here?  It's about the act of storytelling, it's about story audiences and what they want, need, and do with the narrative given to them, it's about Daniel Kitson's audience to his stories, it's about a man paralyzed by his principles and struggling with the challenges of living out his principled life in way he cannot change. And it is funny. Very funny.

There is true joy in the Dan and Jen sequences. It’s a delightful journey of a couple falling in love. The mere presence in one another’s life gives way to new ideas and the birth of this project.  The character of Jen becomes the voice that challenges Dan, pushes him and yet supports him.** It is through Dan that we hear the skepticism over the project.  He presents every argument against the piece and delineates the various ways in which it can be attacked by critics (preemptively taking the sting out of any actual criticism received on these grounds perhaps).  Kitson’s self-awareness is a constant presence in the work.  He’s first to make fun of himself before anyone else can do it and he’s far better at it than lay people.

Meanwhile, the Daniel scenes involve conversations with a friend over the phone where he gives context to Dan and Jen’s relationship and to his own creative process on this play.  He is also presented as a bumbling Chaplin-esque figure involved in physical mishaps (the creative genius literally falling on his face or with every risk there is a chance of falling).  He's convinced he's seen an owl but his friend does not believe him.  Jen calls Daniel an “idiot.” Dan chides her, “Hey now. He is based on me,” he says.  It is in this segment of the play within a play Kitson buries one of the most emotionally striking lines of the show.  Some critics have argued the show is missing a heart and though it is definitely not like his prior works this piece of the story grabbed my heart.

The Max/Connie story in some ways feels like a MacGuffin. I found the telling of it to be less interesting than the themes it espouses. 

I haven’t seen any UK critics connect this play with the Mike Daisey affair but I could not help but think about it (interestingly enough someone is staging Daisey's The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the Fringe this year). One of the things that made this play stand out for me was the focus on the delicate balance of truth and fiction in storytelling.  Kitson's characters expressly address it and certainly you have to wonder about it when you are confronted with the Man, Daniel and Dan and whether they bear a distant or close resemblance to the "real" Daniel Kitson.  If L'Affair du Daisey taught us anything it's that the contract with the audience is precious and fragile.  It tears easily if you jerk people around too much.  For some, Kitson may have pushed too far with this contract, for others it may be jarring but enlightening nevertheless.

Kitson explores the dialogue between the artist and his work and the work and the audience.   Through the character of Dan he vociferously argues that he will not just keep being the celebratory voice of the unexamined lives of ordinary people just because audiences want that (similarly he said in his stand-up show, doing anything by public opinion is the exactly wrong way to go about things as the public is “a cunt. Collectively. Individually, the public are dicks.”)  To make his point, he quite literally wipes his last show, It’s Always Right Now, Until It’s Later from Daniel’s chalkboard in this play.  He then, through the voice of Dan, proceeds to mock his critical acclaim, the frustrating tendency for all his works to be about loneliness, and profess he’s tired of his shows being all about him where he espouses his opinions and view of the world through young women, old men and talking dogs. Admitting the last one was just there for making his point.

It takes a certain kind of confidence in your own voice to demand your current audience (which might be there based on your prior works) to listen to a character attack the prior works to make room for new ones.  For me, there was definitely a moment of sadness letting go of them perhaps before I was ready to.  But Kitson, or one of his alter egos at least, does not appear to be on the fence about this.

Having now seen his new stand-up work Where Once Was Wonder, I am convinced that these two pieces work as companions (if you can see both I think starting with the stand-up would prime you more for the play). They are completely different styles but together they act as a primal Kitson scream of don't fence me in.  An unfenced Kitson is a danger-dog indeed.


This play feels like a major transition point for Kitson with its ambitious structure, meta design and new subject matter.  However, if he’s the unreliable narrator*** he tells us he is, then maybe this is all just a bit of fun. This is nothing more than just an artist stretching some muscles, playing around with a concept, and being a mischievous imp. If so, what a lark it is. 

Either way I found myself enjoying the uncertainty, the choices he made with the play, and exploring the intimate, emotional space between storyteller and audience.  Days later the words, characters, images and structure are still lolling about in my head, making me think, wonder, dream, and smile.


* As always I must note that the quotes are my best approximation.  Lights were up on the audience for the show and I was not going to take out my notepad and incur the wrath of the artist.

**I will say I was delighted that the voice challenging and pushing "Dan" throughout the show was an opinionated American woman who affectionately calls him "dickhead"…a lot. 

***I followed this play with Oh the Humanity and Other Good Intentions at the Northern Stage at St. Stephens.  It is a collection of Will Eno plays where each narrator seemed even more unreliable than the next.  There's just something about Will Eno and Daniel Kitson that go hand in hand.  Highly recommended.



Chapel Street: An Unexpected Friday Night

"Fuck tomorrow" is the rallying cry of two young lost souls in modern Britain.  I saw a lot of monologue driven works at Edinburgh this year but the two characters who came to life in Luke Barnes's Chapel Street made me sit up and take notice.

This play is part of the Old Vic New Voices Edinburgh season and is produced by Scrawl.  It contained incisive performances by Cary Crankson and Ria Zmitrowicz which illuminate Barnes's crackling script.  Directed by Cheryl Gallacher, the two-hander starts out with the actors standing at microphones telling us about their lives, their stations, their hopes and aspirations and then slowly as the two stories intersect Gallacher increases the action and the props and space are used to great effect.

Joe is a twenty-something who lives at home with his mother but as he points out in his world "no one's got a job, everyone lives with their mum."  His buddy has just come home from Afghanistan and Joe's looking to "live tonight like it's our last."  Kirsty is a school girl who gets dolled up for a night out with her friend Jemma.  She wants out of this town even if no one believes she can do it.  At 14 she's already realized that "in this town, it's not okay to try."  But one Friday night they both decide to go out and "get fucked up."

I feel like every time I am in the UK there is a report on television about young people, binge-drinking and wild weekend nights on the streets of cities all over the country.  This play presents the story behind the story and tells us what's going on in the mind of at least two young people caught up in that world of dirty pubs, underage drinking, chavs, pervs and Red Bull.  Everything comes to us through their eyes, with all the contradictions, bravado, and heartbreak inherent in it. 

The writing and performances were so sharp that there was not a moment in this play that I did not believe in the authenticity of these characters.  Fully-realized and birthed on stage, from the opening scenes I wanted to know them and I wanted to know what their stories were.  Like Kenneth Lonergan's This is Our Youth, sometimes a play comes along that grabs you and gives unique voices to young people, their problems, their dreams, their hopes and their tragedies.  What's remarkable about this work is that every moment of this play felt new, fresh and exciting.  The writer used the hour well.  The plot moved along, the characters were rich, and the emotional quotient was intense.  The texture of the place (leather sticking to legs, shaving foam, a bar that's "proper classy" as it has "no banging base lines") was well-rendered. 

Ria Zmitrowicz deserves special mention for physically hurling herself into the role of Kirsty.  She can be the vulnerable child, the adult wise-beyond her years, the sex object and the driven teen all within a space of a few minutes. 

Without question a writer and performers to watch and well worth your time at the Fringe.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Collection of Reviews for As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th, This Show Has No Title

I have been collecting Where Once Were Wonder reviews since Daniel Kitson started to tour with that stand-up show.  Since it seems like readers have found that helpful, I decided to collect the reviews for Daniel Kitson's new theater show "As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th, This Show Has No Title."

EDINBURGH FRINGE


Exeunt Magazine reviewer Daniel B. Yates  describes the play as "a piece full of artistic self-excoriation and vertiginous auto-critique."  Yates notes that "And so instead of as before, segueing into sparkling comic moments, he has found a form in which his comedy can co-exist with and antagonise his storytelling."  Yates describes the play as "architecturally astounding."


Reviewer  for Culture Wars, Matt Trueman called the show a "brilliantly self-conscious corkscrew."  Describing the layers of the show, its "total knowingness" and the audience's own fanboy role in this work, he concludes it's "a total, unadulterated pleasure throughout."

Edinburgh Evening News says the show is "full of craft, momentum, invention and outright hilarity."


Blogger and reviewer John Murphy calls the play "clever, brilliantly written and spell-blindingly performed."

Edinburgh Guide gives the show five stars and notes "Daniel Kitson takes his audiences on journeys....but we frequently arrive at destinations that are very different from those we expected an hour or so before."  The positive review celebrates Kitson's achievement but finds it's "a nightmare to try and encapsulate their achievement afterward."

The Skinny gives the show five stars and concludes the show is about the "power of ideas" and finding it "mesmeric, moving."

Three Weeks Edinburgh also gives the show five stars saying it is "one of the most intelligent, self-aware pieces you’re likely to see."

The London Evening Standard gives it four stars and says that the show is "terrifically clever and frequently humorous, but it lacks that crucial component, heart."

The Independent gives it four stars and says "It's breathtaking stuff at times, if not for Kitson's structural shenanigans then for his wordplay and lyricism."

Chortle gives the show four stars and says Kitson "writes about the process of storytelling itself" finding it's "all very clever, meta-writing, which he revels in" but that it "comes at the cost of some emotional tug."

Joyce McMillan, theatre critic for The Scotsman gives the show four stars and notes that when Kitson "ventures into wheat he himself calls the solipsistic world of meta-theatre, everything in its unappealing territory turns to gold."  She calls Kitson's use of language "jokey, intimate, passionate, and so minutely perceptive."

Time Out gives the play four stars saying it is " a non-show about not being able to write a show which the comedian manages to pull off via a combination of charm, wit and sheer audacity."

The List gives the show four stars saying the work involves "pleasantly mind-bending, audience-writer-reviewer reflexivity, and more laughter than previous plays"  but "crying in the foyer afterwards is notable by its absence." Concluding however that the challenging format results in Kitson slam-dunking it again.

 Lyn Gardner at The Guardian gives it three stars finding that  "In other hands this might be rather dull, but Kitson is incapable of boring anyone" and calling it "astonishingly virtuoso."

Herald Scotland gives the show three stars and calls the show a "self-reflexive form of anti-theatre cum artistic suicide note."  He may have created something his fans will revel in but this reviewer concludes that Kitson "spectacularly fails to come up with anything for his new show."

Crystal Bennes for Spoonfed gives the show three stars (despite being the subject of an uncomfortable Kitson heckle) finding that the show "ends up being too much about the structural fireworks of the visible framework of a show" and it "feels as if it has nothing to say."  She says "Kitson is a talented performer with an intellect as sharp as a shard of glass" but wishes  he'd "written a theatrical narrative with an idea at the centre bigger than just himself."

Dominic Cavendish at The Telegraph gives the show two stars and calls it "elaborately empty entertainment a sorry waste of his undoubted talent– and our time."

Fest Magazine gives the show two stars and describes it as "bravura display of theatrical reflexivity, self-referential linguistic dexterity and post-modern delight in fiddling with dramatic convention."  But Evan Beswick complains that "just because Kitson knows this is self-absorbed, esoteric, showing off doesn't necessarily forgive its being so."


I will eventually add my own review.  I thought a 7 hour plane flight home would be enough time to write something up but after four days, many notes, and several drafts I'm struggling.  This is a work that defies quick analysis.  It's tumbling around my brain, bumping into things.  Hopefully soon I'll find the words.

UPDATE:  My review.  For what it's worth. It's like trying to stick a label on a needle.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Sampler: Life is Not Like a Fucking Box of Chocolates


As I have mentioned I am not a comedy critic. Frankly if my time in Edinburgh taught me anything is that I don’t know much about comedy at all. I saw a variety of shows and I’m happy to summarize or recommend some. But let’s not pretend my understanding is particularly sophisticated.

I’m trying to learn but you’ll have to bear with me until I actually get there.

DAVID O’DOHERTY: SEIZE THE O’DOHERTY (Pleasance Courtyard)

David O’Doherty performed a small section of this show when he was in New York earlier this year. It was great to see the whole piece at the Fringe.  With only "4 jokes" the show is more about him telling a story interspersed with musical numbers he performs on a keyboard.

His story is focused on his downward spiral after his long-time relationship ended.  He makes a show about “depression that ends in a murder” much more compelling than you might think. 

He often uses musical interludes in his shows.  I was friends with comedy duo Becky and Noelle.  They too used music in this way.  My personal favorite was a song about guys who spread their legs out on subways called Dickwad and the famous Sexual Swingset/Kurt Loder song which needs no further explanation.

O’Doherty’s songs reminded me of these. They are not musically rigorous but they give the show variety and can be quite catchy. Though during the performance I saw, he chided himself for going off on tangents during two of his songs which made him lose his focus. Never the less they were funny tangents.

His set covered topics such as the recession in Dublin, the problem with single-sex education, being an “extraordinary alien,” Cosmo’s “secrets of the ladies” but largely his depression after his break-up. Wallowing in his house over the “worst aspects of humanity” (which he lists as Nazis, self-pity and Dominos pizza), he finds it hard to go and do his “easy” job as a comedian (pointing out what else can he do with his “soft college boy hands”). His turning point involves the discovery of a mouse (which he names Ringo) in his house. His battle with Ringo, which he likens to the movie Jaws, is the best part of the show. Touching, sad, and funny.

And I apologize for taking notes during the show. I was sitting too close to the stage and it distracted him. He thought I was texting. I wasn’t. I was writing down the following sentence “Big talk when you’ve had a mild issue with looking like Alf.” Not sure writing that down was worth causing such a kerfuffle. But there you have it.

Highly recommended

JOSIE LONG: ROMANCE AND ADVENTURE

I follow Josie Long on twitter but I had not seen her perform before. I ended up with a time slot that happened to line up and I bought a last minute ticket to her show titled Romance and Adventure. She was a fucking delight. She covered topics such as her triumphant discovery that she is very good at climbing mountains (though wholly unprepared to go down again), her squee-level obsessive love of social justice, her break-up with a long term boyfriend which sent her spinning off in the last year of her 20’s, and her efforts to get people more politically involved. 



Though some of her political references went a bit over my head (I am aware of the existence of Ed Miliband but I don’t think I’ve seen him to know what was funny about her impression of him). I did however really like her impression of M.P. Dennis Skinner who according to Long “trolls the Queen” during the opening of Parliament ceremony every year.

She kept getting pockets of laughter over certain lines and she started joking that she was pleasing her audience one person at a time. The line that got me such a shout-out was when she wondered if she was the last remaining Romanov noting “I have dainty wrists and I bruise too easily.”

Highly recommend.

STEWART LEE: CARPET REMNANT WORLD (Assembly Rooms/Music Hall)

I’m one of those people who saw Jerry Springer: The Opera at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2002. I really loved it at the time. Not perfect (some pacing issues). Needed some work but audacious and I felt like a well-suited marriage of topic and opera.  When I saw it on the West End a number of years later, it did not feel as fresh.  Maybe it was the setting, or the changes that were made, or maybe it's time had just passed...but it was sad because I was so excited to see it again.  I only mention this because I had never seen Stewart Lee perform stand-up before but I knew his named from JSTO.  


I had heard he created very intellectual, heavily structured comedy.  As that’s something about Daniel Kitson’s work I like I had high hopes. I ran into a friend (American) at the show. When we walked out, she and her friends hated it. I really liked it but it was not exactly what I expected. Another American who had never seen his show before loved it.  So I have basically taken a useless poll of Americans for you...I think we are not to be trusted. 

The show began with some funny quotes, some political humor, and then it changed. Lee turns on the audience, or a segment of the audience, and attacks them for being here for the wrong reasons. He was handing out flyers before the show in the lobby and noticed some people did not even know it was him (I did a double-take. He wasn’t wearing his glasses and I’d always seen photos of him in glasses so I was not sure it was him, but thought it was…and wondered what the hell he was doing). He criticized those who were just there for a laugh. He expected his audience to work for their laughs. Put a little in and you’ll get more out of it. He kept focusing on those who were dragging down the show for those who were “getting” it.

He then has a bit of a “breakdown” over the show just falling apart because of these audience members.  His show “goes off the rails” and it appears he is intentionally taking it on a tangent because of this audience problem.  He then works to get it back on track and make the structural callbacks he laid out in the beginning. I felt some of the “breakdown” went on too long. My friend and her friends just felt like he was making fun of them (because they had never seen him before etc…).  They did not find the parts before he turns on the audience funny to begin with (sort of supporting his view that if you did not find his opening funny then you were not the right audience and you should leave).  I thought it was very good but thought the Office World man bit went on too long.  That was all the Americans who didn't like the show, liked.

Recommended if you can tolerate a comedian berating the audience.

CLAUDIA O’DOHERTY: THE TELESCOPE (Underbelly)

Australian comic Claudia O’Doherty had been recommended by David O’Doherty (no relation). I know her show was one that Daniel Kitson recommended when it was in Melbourne. Upside, I managed to get to her show with only 15 minutes between shows. Downside, I was seated behind the two tallest men on the planet and I’m a midget (oh right sorry, height-ly challenged).

I was chatting with an Australian guy, Declan, in line on the way into the show. He said that her format for this show was very unusual for her. In some ways, like Daniel Kitson’s play “As of 1.52pm GMT Friday April 27th 2012,  This Show Has No Title”, it was a play within a play. Though I guess because it’s comedy it’s really a sketch within a sketch. O’Doherty comes out and suggests she wants to leave comedy to do serious work and so this is actually going to be her serious show called The Telescope. Using sound effects and video, she has a whole multi-character play she is going to put on herself. But the auto-play function breaks down and her show goes awry. She can’t stop it but she also forgets her lines. So she tries to salvage the gig by vamping in between strange video sequences. There’s no question that it was a massive undertaking: making essentially a “bad” movie and then having to deconstruct it, and create a performance around the breakdown of the film.

Now the reason sitting behind the two giants becomes important is that to fully appreciate the show and timing you should be able to see the video screen. I spent a lot of time darting my head on either side of the giants’ heads. I feel like this maybe interfered with my enjoyment of the show. I liked her deer in the headlights personality and I'd definitely see her again.

Recommended for tall people and for short people who get there early and sit near the front.

PAPPY'S: LAST SHOW EVER (Pleasance Dome)

I don't know about these guys.  They are a sketch comedy crew that was recommended to me by a number of people I trust.  There were a couple of their sketches I thought were fantastic.  They did the same physical routine  three times  choreographed to three different songs all creating a different effect depending on the song.  They did a live-action life montage that was very funny.  But the construct of this show, a flashback from the future when these performers are old to what happened at this show tonight, did not really work for me.  It just felt like I could see what was going to happen before it happened so the element of surprise or creativity just wasn't there for me.  But again I'm putting on my theater lenses for comedy...

Everyone else but me seemed to like this show.  So that's probably a recommendation.


I Heart Peterborough: Fantasy and Reality in the Suburbs

Joel Horwood’s I Heart Peterborough is a beautiful, two-hander full of rich language, compelling performances, and a window into the lives of two people full of want.

Presented by the Eastern Angles Theatre Co. and premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it is the story of Michael/Lulu (Milo Twomey) and Hew (Jay Taylor). Michael is an unassuming gay, male office worker by day who transforms into glamorous lip-syncing Lulu* at home. Michael has spent his whole life in Peterborough, a suburban wasteland where nothing happens. It’s full of “human cul-de-sacs.” World events are always taking place outside it.

An unexpected teenage dalliance between Michael and Stephanie produces Hew. Stephanie (possibly schizophrenic) has raised Hew on her own. When she dies, teenage Hew must come to live with Michael. Though they've had it seems no contact before, now in this desperate situation the two must adapt to their new lives together.

Hew definitely does not fit in in this town. He's a little too intense with his classmates. He must maintain strict daily schedules knowing where Michael is at all times to avoid massive anxiety (unclear if he was autistic but seemed likely). Hew’s outcast nature is mirrored by Michael's. He’s never really fit in either. Since his teenage years, he’s been prone to relationships with men who are violent and mistreat him. He’s bent himself to the suit the situation and the people around him, but he's never quite found his own voice.

Hew and Michael come to offer each other some stability and support. Hew turns out to be a talented musician and singer. Michael still is trying to find love, acceptance and a sense of self. The two of them create a safe world for their fantasies behind closed doors. But when they try and take their dreams into the light, reality proves harder for both to maneuver. And those we trust the most are the ones who can hurt us the most.

Full of luxurious writing with vivid words and phrases (“slump clump,” “mary spiking,” “water diamonds in the blood warm Lido”) this play had a strong sense of people and place. Peterborough and all it's lifeless trappings becomes a fully formed character here.

Dead-end lives, in a dead-end place might sound like a downer, but the writing and performances kept this work electric and alive. Horwood uses a non-linear approach to the storytelling and adds cabaret-like musical numbers into the mix. Not always a fan of an experimental format, here I felt like I was in good hands. Even if moment to moment I wondered exactly what was going on, I felt fine going with the flow of the story and letting these characters tell me what was important. The overall arch was clear.

 Milo Twomey was moving as Michael/Lulu. Spending most of the show in half drag (some make-up, some undergarments and a wig cap), he finds specific, different voices for Michael/Lulu as he is at home and as he is at work. He is our narrator as well, setting the stage for various scenes of his life and the background flavor of Peterborough. Twomey really unlocked the musicality of Horwood’s writing and threw himself physically into the role. Jay Taylor was heart-breaking as Hew. Playing a vulnerable teenager wracked with anxiety and social problems he blossoms ever so slightly when he decides to audition for a band. Taylor did a fantastic job finding a subtle way to show that transformation.

 The elements of artifice and suburban garishness were echoed through the set design, low-rent “special effects” and sequined costuming. But there was something about the direction (also by Horwood) that felt a little stilted and claustrophobic. Though thematically appropriate to feel these characters trapped, I wish as an audience member I’d had a bit more room to breathe.

But a strong, unusual piece of writing and great acting. It was a wonderful discovery for me at the Fringe.

*My one complaint was that it was a unclear to me if Lulu was a drag persona or if Michael was a transvestite or transgender. I wish the materials had been more clear so that I could use the appropriate term.



Monday, August 13, 2012

Where Once Was Wonder: A Collection of Reviews

I thought I would aggregate the reviews for Daniel Kitson's show Where Once Was Wonder as they trickle in from around the globe.  I will try to keep this post updated as I stumble upon reviews.


EDINBURGH

Spoonfed has a five star review celebrating the show's mix of stand-up and storytelling.  Playing in an intimate space at The Stand in Edinburgh Kitson brings the "right balance of self-deprecation and arrogance, and a wonderfully comic use of language."

Ed Fest Magazine has another five star review saying Kitson "does what he does best, telling stories and jokes, some very clever, some very simple."   The reviewer notes that "he tells his stories of love and embarrassment, it's the detail, the minutiae that hits home."

London is Funny gives the show five stars in a  review/essay calling it "outstanding" and suggesting other comedians up their game.  Noting the contradictory shifts in the show, the reviewer calls Kitson a "slippery bugger" and a "fucking good liar." This show keeps the "relationship between Kitson and his enthusiastic fanbase... in perpetual motion."

GQ.com offers some best of the fest recommendations including Where Once Was Wonder where their tipster calls it "genius."

Mildly Bitter says that Kitson has "returned to stand-up comedy with a roaring vengeance."  She calls the show at times "thoughtful and touching" and notes that Kitson's observation skills and contradictory structure provide "humor and truth in each character portrait."  In the end Kitson delivers "life lessons with laughter and heart."

The Telegraph calls the five-star show "ironic and playful, self-deprecating and arrogant."

The always eloquent Exeunt Magazine does a fantastic comparison between Where Once Was Wonder and As of 1.52pm GMT, celebrating the parallels and echoes between Kitson's comedy and theater work.  Reveling in the structural joy that is Kitson's work this reviewer describes Where Once Was Wonder as a storytelling show which demonstrates the "comic edifice is finely wrought and towers high above those of his contemporaries but the strings are always visible, the scaffolding is still in place."

WIP--UK

Bristol Times. I have previously discussed this early review here.

MELBOURNE

Squirrel Comedy.com says you'll "certainly get your money's worth for this show."  The reviewer notes that this show has a different vibe compared to earlier Kitson shows (less self-deprecation, more "awesome") but as always funny.  Kitson offers "Arguments and philosophies that are cynical and heartfelt, logical and completely contradictory."  But the take away from Kitson's work for this reviewer was being left with "a kind of warmth, and a moral that I for one have never experienced from any other artist."

The Au Review says Daniel Kitson's Where Once Was Wonder will "take your breath away."  Perhaps revealing far too much about the contents of this show (I would argue one major spoiler so bear that in mind before reading), the review shares several examples of Kitson's tales of the "impossible becoming inevitable."  From wanking to love, Kitson as usual "manages to completely transfix his audience with his stories, which appear to be a random series of vignettes, but all loose threads are tied at the end."

Chortle says that the Where Once Was Wonder is "a show about identity. About how we are defined by our appearance, our friends, or our deeds."  Focused on three stories "the beard-shaving; his rash decision to declare his unrequited to love to a friend; and the time he found himself cutting the head off a baby pig" the reviewer notes that the show is an "elegantly constructed narrative" and "not too far removed from [Kitson's] more recent theatrical monologues."  The five star review concludes "that this is another beautiful show by a comedian who continues to demonstrate the peaks of emotional complexity of which stand-up is capable – while still ensuring a steady flow of laughs."

The Australian says Kitson's show "veers from the poignant to the profane in a way that is constantly surprising."  The 100+ minute show keeps audiences "spellbound."

The Age oddly gives the show 3.5 stars out of 5 but contains no actual praise saying it is "a strange combination of dick jokes and intellectual arrogance."  The reviewer's twitter handle is @MelbourneBitter which suggests she is a distant relation* of Mildly Bitter.  Clearly the Bitter family reunion will be tense this year.

Mint Custard gives the fan's perspective on Where Once Was Wonder.  Noting the "blistering" opening of Kitson's new show leads to a beautiful conclusion and the show starts with "gentle isolated chuckles slowly snowballing into a roaring Playhouse as pennies dropped about another thrilling act of Kitson chutzpah."

Philip Prentice reviews Where Once Was Wonder as a first time attendee of a Kitson show and explores the reasons for polarized (or polarised for those who fear the "zed") reviews of Kitson.  Calling his work "challenging" but not just limited to appeal to "snobs," Prentice seems to appreciate Kitson's skill and approach describing it as "[a]n interplay of ideas, it mixes a broad range of references, with various forms of comedy all set in complex wordplay."

Jason Nahrung describes Where Once Was Wonder as "a superlative performance" where Kitson shares his "thoughts on the meaning of life" and though an "unreliable narrator" is "[i]ntellectually arrogant, confronting, and very bloody funny."

Eleanor Jackson wrestles with her attraction and revulsion to Kitson's work.  "I am slightly ambivalent about Daniel because – somewhere under there, perhaps not far from the surface is someone capable of something I’m not entirely comfortable with."  A fascinating review as it shows it is not always easy to experience Kitson's comedy.

Melbourne Riff Raff reports that "while the material is good, the delivery is off."  Despite the show ending with Kitson's "expected" and anticipated "bittersweet kick" the reviewer found herself carried by loyalty to Kitson more than anything.

PERTH

The West Australian reviewed Where Once Was Wonder in Perth and stated that this stand-up show had the same "refreshing, no-brakes-applied, unconventional Kitson stamp" as Kitson's storytelling shows.  Noting the structure of the show was stories of the "impossible" made up of arguments that were "deliberately contradicted with equal force by the next."  Calling the show "invigorating, off-kilter, and always surprising."

SYDNEY

Not sure how I missed this one.  For shame.  But the Sydney Morning Herald wrote that Where Once Was Wonder is focused on "Kitson himself" on the subjects of fame, love and being Kitson.  With a mesmerizing flow, Kitson keeps his audience torn between "embracing him" or being confronted by him in his self-righteousness.  With a new found ebullience and profane put-downs, Kitson remains a comedian who "presses our buttons" including the one marked "reset."  "Recommended."


*Mildly Bitter does not actually believe she is related to Melbourne Bitter because all of Mildly Bitter's Australian cousins live in Perth.