Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ellis & Williamson: Intersections

Friends and creative heroes Sarah Taylor Ellis and Lane Williamson are an up-and-coming songwriting duo. Their 54 Below debut is next week and I've got a discount code. You should go so you can tell all your hipster friends you saw them before they got mega-famous.

Check them out!

At the intersection of classic musical theater and contemporary classical music, Sarah Taylor Ellis and Lane Williamson's vernacular art songs cut to the core. Their smart and contemplative music encompasses settings of prose, sonnets, and tumblr posts, and their new chamber musical The Yellow Wallpaper adapts Charlotte Perkins Gilman's early feminist short story into a haunting theatrical work. Join Ellis and Williamson for the 54 Below debut of a distinctive new songwriting team.

Featuring Michael Parker Ayers, Christina Benedetto, Sally Eidman, Camden Gonzales, Karen Hayden, Rachel Lee, Travis Leland, Mary Kate Morrissey, Rachel Sussman, David Alan Thornton, Rebecca Tucker, and Max Vernon.

Use code EW54BLOG for 20% off the cover charge!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Analog.ue: Daniel Kitson's Mix-Tape

Photo of sculpture, Secret Serenade for an Analog Heart by Icaro Zorbar
"You can never know your own story....Our stories are scattered in other people's stories."

As a man who has spent much of his career avoiding recording devices, and opting instead to make a living out of live performance only, Daniel Kitson's newest theatrical work Analog.ue, currently playing at St. Ann's Warehouse,* moves surprisingly in the other direction.  Analog.ue is almost entirely performed through recordings of Kitson telling a story.

Daniel Kitson is also present as he manages the 23 tape recorders and reel-to-reel players.  He undertakes to lay them out methodically at each show as the story starts to spill out of them.  Clicking from one to another, turning them on, turning them off, plugging them in, arranging them just so.  Fiddling with them when they go a bit wonky.  Filling in the bits of story that might get cut off if the machines misbehave.  But the primary voice you will hear is the recorded voice of Daniel Kitson of the past telling you about two characters.

It's like an elaborate mix-tape and anyone who has struggled to get the transitions between songs on a mix-tape just right knows it's no easy feat.

Analog.ue is a theatrical curiosity that may entertain some newcomers to Kitson's work but I fear if you are devotee of Kitsonalia then this piece may leave you feeling wanting.  Upon first viewing it is really hard to accept that you will not get the usual Kitson improvisational moments which make Kitson's live work so vibrant.  But all the more reason to know going in that the live storytelling will be minimal.  Adjust your expectations and prepare to accept the unusual piece on its own terms--a pre-recorded set of stories and live performer presenting them.

As with many of Kitson's story shows, there are moments of quiet beauty and comic relief but even accepting the unusual format it still may not wholly deliver.

From the whirring tapes comes two stories.  In one, Thomas Martin Taplow, age 80, has been forced by his wife Gertie to sit in his garage and record everything about his life before he forgets things.  What started out as a joke in their relationship, or what he calls a "single sentence of second rate seduction" blossomed into a garage full of recording devices.  Resistant at first to this monumental task of recording "everything," he eases into his reverie of the past and meanders through the stories he can recall in his life including how he met the forward-thinking Gertie and how she has changed everything, including him.  In the other story, Trudy Amelia Livingston is a more solitary figure.  She has spent over twenty years of her life listening to an old recording she found hidden away by her mother and the philosophies and stories of that recording are the sustaining fuel for her existence.  She spends much of her days in a dreary call center dreading her daily routine.

As with many Kitson story shows, these stories explore meaty issues such as possibility, memory, the past, the future, and the qualities of yogurt.  They are peopled with everyday characters who have lived unremarkable lives but through these stories we hear their unspoken secrets, passions, dreams, and follies. There is love and hope and magical thinking.  And few people can tell a love story the way Kitson does.

But on some level the heartfelt storytelling takes a backseat to the recorded format which dominates the performance, distances the audience from the source, and seems to be a stretched metaphor for the themes of the stories.  And it's hard not to look at the complicated structure of laying this story out machine by machine with an octopus tangle of cords and wires and choreography as first and foremost a performance challenge for Kitson.  But I'm not sure how much it serves the thesis.  Even as performance art, it feels like there is a fundamental conflict between idea and execution.  Despite revisiting the piece a few times I have not been able to reconcile the two.  Kitson has articulated much of his intent in the piece but I did not feel the connections he espoused.

[To talk about the artistic choices made I feel I need to talk about the themes in the piece  so you may wish to stop reading if you intend to see the work at a later point in New York or in London]
Kitson addresses the use of machines in the piece and explains that they are the repository for lost stories and if we are lucky, these machines will reveal to us a bit about some lost stories.  Kitson suggests that despite the fact that the past, memories, and fragments of a life are almost impossible to reconstruct, he will attempt to lay them all down, in order through these machines.  If the universe lines up just right it will work.  But he's also saying that there are always bits missed, things lost to the march, fragments forgotten or kept secret and so "knowing" the complete story, knowing even the beginning or the end of a story is nearly impossible.  But maybe sometimes the impossible becomes possible.

Despite his focus on the fragmentary nature of personal narrative, through these machines he proceeds to tell a largely complete narrative story.  The fragmentation is left to the physical execution through the various machines.  We follow the story rather clearly (ok there is some metaphysical speculation with regard to one story but that has little to do with the delivery and more to do with the message).   And as he has become more adept at the choreography of the piece it feels a lot more on the possible than impossible side of the spectrum.

I was not convinced that the piece gained additional meaning by fracturing the sound through 23 different devices.  We are meant to wonder about the lives these machines have led up to this point and after this show ends (I had visions of Wall*E) but references to the secret lives of the machines or lost stories left in machines felt more like a call for found art than the carefully constructed Kitson story we enjoy with the work. 

Something about the reliance on the machines created dissonance for me.  When I first saw the show, I expected (or perhaps hoped) the machines would break down and Kitson would be forced to tell the story live (showing the limited nature of recording, the false sense of preservation, the fragility of analog, and allow for both the recorded and the live) or the break down would lead to the story ending up in true bits and pieces and we'd only reconstruct tiny parts and understand that was all we were to get.  

Of course, I loved to see the tapes spinning in their machines, the levels bouncing, and the uneven quality of tape, machines, and sound.  I'm a child of the analog age and still have disintegrating cassette tapes and reel-to-reel tapes in my apartment (Recently I accidentally vacuumed up the contents of the tape of the Original London Cast Album of Me and My Girl--tragedy) with literally no machines to play them.  But maybe that is why I was hoping for a technological break down.  These pieces of the past are fragile and as we move forward through new technologies the speed at which past objects become obsolete is increasing.  And things are lost because of it.  But things can be gained from listening to the past.  This is likely also part of Kitson's point but it was hard to feel these elements connecting.

Obviously shifting the majority of his storytelling to the recorded format does raise questions of Kitson's role as storyteller.  The absence of Kitson's live voice here is hard to get over if you've ever seen one of his other shows.  There is a vitality to Kitson's storytelling--a warmth and joy even in the face of sadness and without it the piece feels much colder.  However, a number of friends who had not seen Kitson's work before likened the experience to listening to NPR and all felt it was a pleasant and positive outing.** 

As the piece has evolved Kitson's live performance has changed.  He has become more of a character.  He enters the space with a tote bag and it feels as if this tape-oriented endeavor is a job for this character.  Whether he is operator, manager, or architect of this preservation project, one cannot say.  But Kitson gestures and punctuates the recording with his physical reactions--a silent conductor of an orchestra of story and emotion. But he is largely in the dark and you might have to strain to catch the silhouette of him. 

Flickering moments of Kitson's performance reminded me of spoken-word artist Ross Sutherland's project on synchronicity, Stand By for Tape Back-Up.  I caught Sutherland's work at the Forest Fringe festival this year in Edinburgh.  Sutherland recited his poetry to the backdrop of looping 80's videotape including the opening credits of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (seriously amazing).  Through his movement and his words there would be illuminating juxtapositions and synchronous moments with the video.  Similarly here there were brief beats where Kitson and recorded story were in sync--the clink of a spoon, rolling up his sleeves, the assessment of what machines are left before him, an absorption of the enormity of Thomas's project in mirror to Kitson's own, and at times the eating of a yogurt.  But in Sutherland's work the dynamic between tape and live performance was so much more acute.  Granted Sutherland was using the tape to engage in an active dialogue with it.  Kitson feels at great distance from the recording here such that the moments of synchronicity felt more accidental than intentional.  I hope this aspect of the piece continues to grow and develop as a harmony between recording and performance would help the work cohere as a whole. 

But maybe it was Kitson's intent to create some space and independence from the recording.  And maybe some of this disjunction is what he is looking for: putting distance between himself and the audience and distance between himself and his traditional storyteller role.  He's a notorious contrarian after all.

Kitson has been experimenting with form, substance, and approach in the last couple of years. Shrugging off audience expectations and even going so far as to symbolically destroy his work It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later in a new work at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012 called As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title.  In that piece, which was a dizzying rabbit hole of four layers of intersecting stories, he aggressively told his audience to stop demanding he do the same things over and over again.  He mocked his own critical acclaim and complained of his tendency to make shows about loneliness and unexamined lives.  He then had one of his characters wipe the organizational sketch of IARNUIL off a chalk board.  Although typically a solo performer, he surprised audiences in the UK in 2013 with a story show, Tree, which he performed with another comedian, Tim Key.

Analog.ue feels like it is part of this ongoing artistic evolution as Kitson stretches his creative muscles.  But it's the first Kitson show I've seen that did not have a resonant emotional or intellectual hook that drew me in completely.  There were moments of connection but alas they were fleeting.

And no one is sadder than I am at this conclusion.

*Analog.ue is next headed to London for a run at the National Theatre however the story at the core will, according to Kitson, be different for each residency of the work. 

** Kitson does from time to time host random late night radio shows in the UK which stream over the internet.  I will admit that when Thomas starts choking on a digestive whilst recording in his garage I could not help but think of the time Kitson did the same on his own radio show.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

American Patterns: So Percussion and The Violence of Xylophones

So Percussion, Bryce Dessner, and David Lang

In a bill of American experimental compositions performed by percussion quartet So Percussion, Matmos, Bryce Dessner, and David Lang, the Zankel Hall audience was treated to a program called American Patterns last weekend which included a world premiere composition by Bryce Dessner, the debut of instruments invented by Dessner for his composition, David Lang's "the so called laws of nature," and the rhythmic and visual theatrics of a quartet who refuse to be easily categorized. 

Before the show started composers David Lang and Bryce Dessner joined So Percussion on stage to talk about their collaborations.  Lang highlighted his desire to push the limits of the seemingly boundless quartet and his interest in playing to their love of theatricality. Lang celebrated So's view from its earliest days that "the definition of a percussion quartet wasn't big enough to hold them."

Dessner, a well-known member of his own band (The National), emphasized the positive aspects of the personal chemistry of So Percussion as a "band."  The band pointed out they use their own musical language with each other which differs from the language they use with composers and other collaborators. The members of So Percussion talked about their particular interest in "living in the now" and not worrying about posterity with their inventive work.

Once the program began, between the pieces performed and the enthusiasm of So's performance, one could not help but feel the vitality of that "now."

Dessner, for his world premiere composition "Music for Wood and Strings," worked with Buke and Gase artist Aron Sanchez to design instruments called "chord sticks" for this piece.  The chord sticks are something akin to an electronic dulcimer which So plucked, bowed, strummed, and struck with pencils.  The piece utilized an alto, a bass, and two tenor chord sticks alongside a bass drum and wooden blocks. 

From something that looked to be little more than a humble plank of wood with some strings on it came a rich, resonant sound. At moments the chord sticks sounded like guitars, at other times more like bowed strings, and sometimes the sound was just indescribable.   But often the actions (striking for instance) generated a strumming sound. The "mismatch" in aural and visual made for a delightfully twisted experience and thoroughly embraced the evening's experimental perspective.  As someone who processes visually before musically, I was entranced by incongruity of motion and sound.  But it was not just about intellectual experimentation. The thirty minute piece brought a full emotional spectrum as well: moving from strands of melancholy to gusts of wistful to sweeps of joy. Swelling to a vibrating crescendo, the rocking melody seemed hopeful with an eye on the future in its sound, form, and feeling. 

I admit it. I'm addicted to Dessner's experimentation. I've talked before about his guitar improv pieces (which I love) but his formal compositions continue to surprise and move me (check out his recent collaboration with Kronos Quartet: the album called Aheym).  Hopefully "Music for Wood and Strings" will be recorded so a wider audience might get to enjoy it. 
Kronos Performing Dessner's Aheym July 2013

Matmos performed two pieces with So Percussion. First, "so-called remix" used videos and swelling voices in loops to build a burgeoning five minute piece. This was followed by "Carnegie Double Music"--a piece designed to be played together but composed independently. It started with staccato gunfire from mallets on drums and evolved to scraping of pipes on clay pots, with some sort of projections taking place behind the musical action (unfortunately from my seat I could not see the visuals). Dessner joined in the piece bowing a guitar.

The final piece was David Lang's "the so-called laws of nature" or as I ended up dubbing it The Violence of Xylophones.  Written for So Percussion in 2002, the composition was made up of three movements using totally different surfaces and textures.  The piece allowed for the audience to fully appreciate the theatrical flourishes of So and the visual delight of their rhythmic cacophony. Starting with pieces of walnut with gaps between them, the striking of each wooden plank was violent--mostly for my eardrums (the quartet wore ear plugs, alas I did not). But the relief and rests between the strikes made me pay attention to the breaks--it meant I focused on the the spaces in between as much as to the notes.  Eventually the wood lost all meaning and each strike started to sound like the voices of a colony of birds. When the quartet moved on to metal pipes there a lot less space between notes as the metal reverberated after each hit. In the final movement (which I had seen in part at So Percussion's benefit this year*) the surface utilized was primarily flower pots.  After so much big music filling the hall, the quiet delicacy of the sustained bell-like ringing of the flower pots was refreshing and made for a wonderful conclusion to the evening.

*For purposes of FTC disclosure:  I purchased my ticket to the Zankel Hall concert.  However, I made a donation to benefit the group So Percussion and attended a benefit concert they hosted in September 2013. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

All that Fall: A Long Way Home

Photo by Carol Rosegg
Am I then invisible, Miss Fitt? Is this creteonne so becoming to me that I merge into the masonry? That is right, Miss Fitt, look closely and you will finally distinguish a once female shape.
Eileen Atkins can readily dismiss people, places, or things with just a cockeyed look. We are lucky enough to get to see her face in this staged adaptation of Samuel Beckett's 1957 radio play All that Fall. Radio alone would not have done her performance justice. Joining her in this production is esteemed actor Michael Gambon. But it is Atkins who steals the show scene after scene.

Mrs. Rooney (Atkins) is on her way into town. Old and creaky, she is walking as best she can to meet the train. She comes across her neighbors and other townspeople. With each encounter we get a taste of her acidic temperament and sharp wit.
Mr. Tyler: What sky! What light! Ah in spite of all of it it is a blessed thing to be alive in such weather, and out of hospital.
Mrs. Rooney: Alive?
Mr. Tyler: Well half alive shall we say?
Mrs. Rooney: Speak for yourself, Mr. Tyler. I am not half alive nor anything approaching it.
She has a complaint and an observation to make at every turn.  A lifetime of woes are carried on her shoulders and with each step she seems to be fighting for her existence as her body betrays her.  But her mind, flitting between the past and the present, remains sharp.  She meets her blind husband (Gambon) at the train station and they make their way back home.  Cantankerous on her own, together they make for a spiky pair.  The train was late. No one says why at the station but there's been something ominous in the air all along.

Photo by Carol Rosegg
With radio microphones hanging from the ceiling, amplified sound effects, and acted out performances, the production, directed by Trevor Nunn, is a hybrid of radio and stage work.  Scripts in hand but dressed in costumes, in some ways I wished they had fully embraced the old-fashioned radio style and shown the sound effects live on stage a la Gatz or The Select. We got Mrs Rooney climbing in and out of a car prop on stage--to great comic effect. But everyone else was left to mime their objects and actions--riding a bicycle, whipping a horse, and watching a train go by.  And the sound effects, because they seem intended for radio, came across on stage as heavy handed and not the usual atmospheric soundscape you'd expect in theater. 

Atkins mines Beckett's droll script for every caustic laugh.  When Mrs Rooney asks after the daughter of one of the locals and he gestures southward and says "they removed everything, you know, the of tricks," I may have barked out laughter.  Oh Samuel Beckett I'm totes adopting that euphemism to replace lady bits. 

It's an absolute pleasure to see Atkins and worth the ticket for her performance of Beckett's biting prose.  Because of the small house at 59E59, you can be very close to enjoy every sigh and smirk. I would not miss it. 

As for the rest of the cast, Gambon managed fine but instead of pathos he tended to play bigger than was necessary in such close quarters.  His bellowing may have been a case of the character doth protesting too much. But it did not help shepherd in the darker tone shift which largely arrives with his character three quarters of the way through the 75 minute play.  No matter, the journey is still a worthwhile endeavor.

I received a complimentary ticket to this production.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Fun Home: How Did It Happen

"I feel...."
"I want..."
"Your swagger and your bearing and the just right clothes you're wearing. Your short hair and your dungarees and your lace-up boots and your keys. Your ring of keys....I know you."

From the moment I first heard the song Ring of Keys during the workshop of Fun Home, I knew this show was special.  Each phrase of the song was the lilting hesitation of a child trying to understand her identity--her sexual identity--but in the only terms she knows.  We feel her experience her first moment of belonging gently and beautifully and from a child's perspective.  Now that the workshop has born a full-production at The Public Theater, with music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics and book by Lisa Kron, and directed by Sam Gold (The Flick, The Cradle Will Rock, Uncle Vanya, Look Back in Anger, The Big Meal), Fun Home continues to reach down deep into a well of challenging subject matter and complicated emotions and emerges as a clear and powerful achievement in musical theater.

Alison Bechdel, cartoonist, wrote a graphic memoir of her childhood and the discovery that her father, like her, was gay.  This revelation comes out shortly after she does and right before her father kills himself.  The graphic memoir has morphed into this unusual but compelling musical told from the perspective of adult Alison (Beth Malone).  The story goes back in time to revisit her memories of her father Bruce (Michael Cerveris), her mother Helen (Judy Kuhn) and herself as a child (Small Alison is performed by Sydney Lucas) and in college (Middle Alison is performed by Alexandra Socha).  We see the double life her father leads, her mother pretending she doesn't notice, and the children left to make sense of all of this.  We watch as Alison goes away to college and begins to start her life--an honest and open one--only to have that life be interrupted by her father's death.  As Alison takes us on this journey she is sketching and writing what will become her memoir.

Fun Home is historic as it is the rare musical to depict lesbians without making them the butt of jokes or marginalize their sexuality.  But moreover, the musical balances this unique story never told in musical theater with the universal story of adults coming to terms with their childhoods, understanding their parents, sifting lies from truth, and finding peace even if they cannot find answers.  Anyone can relate to the material who has ever struggled with their identity, felt an outsider or misunderstood, or has wrestled with the challenge of unpacking memory.  What sets the work apart is that we see these difficult adult questions expressed through these younger characters.  And isn't that just like life.  We may want to pretend that childhood is all play and learning, but often children bear the weight of the adult crises around them.  There is no one in this story who does not have their share of pain and it is fascinating to see a musical give voice to this across all age groups.  

And this incredible young cast makes this work.  Sydney Lucas's performance is both deceptively natural and incredibly intelligent.  You can see her "think" through the emotions and words of Ring of Keys, as a child would, as she is trying to understand what she is feeling.  A fight between Small Alison and her father over wearing a dress to party is a struggle over Alison being seen as she wants to be seen and her father doing his utmost to cover that up for his own reasons.  In protest to her father's tyranny, she then is mimicking machismo as she pretends to pick up a French damsel in distress in her fantasy number whilst calling her self Al (with the -ison begrudgingly mumbled afterwards).  Everything about her character and her performance is organic and earnest.  I've been talking about her since I first saw the workshop and called her Ring of Keys number a show-stopping baby lesbian torch song.

Alexandra Socha physically personifies Medium Alison as she stumbles upon her own sexuality as she might trip over a crack in the sidewalk.  Suddenly, she is off-balance and her world is topsy-turvy but she catches herself and sees everything anew.  That evolution of character and performance is a delight.  Socha sings I'm Changing My Major to Joan after having sex with her new girlfriend (Roberta Colindrez) for the first time.  The song is about connecting, belonging, and being truthful and it is the most darling of songs not only for its delicious excitement and tantalizing glee over new love but for Socha's tremendous physical embodiment of those emotions--nervous energy, explosive feelings, beaming joy, and unexpected calm. 

And as moving as the songs are in music and lyrics, both Lucas* and Socha manage to elevate them with their vibrant performances. 

Judy Kuhn has the unenviable task of playing the mother who is mostly detached and is sidelined by Alison's own memories.  But when Kuhn finally lets loose in both song and narrative, she is cutting and makes the most of her time on stage. 

Malone's character has probably changed the most from workshop to production.  It's hard to integrate a narrator into this story.  In the workshop she was staged off in her corner, in her art studio, with this story of her family happening nearby.  Now Gold has found a way to physically move her into the family home.  She has less to say and do but watching Malone stand on the sidelines she is still projecting a performance into the space.  It is subtle but she is present.  And this deserves mention.  She is all these people--these memories--and her pushing away or being pulled in is palpable.  This story comes from her but even she cannot control what she remembers.  Gold has managed to find a way to have her step into the action and sing a song for all the Alisons--a lifetime of pain, sadness, and wanting all spilling out.  Have your tissues at the ready for this one.

Despite this heady and emotional material, the musical provides as many moments of laughter as tears.  With a distinct flavor of coming of age in the 1970's, there are wild Partridge Family style numbers (replete with glittering costumes and synchronized dancing) and perhaps the most adorable mock commercial for a funeral home you will ever see, performed by the Bechdel children.  Griffin Birney and Noah Hinsdale play Alison's brothers and I may have snort laughed through their dance number with the can of Lemon Pledge (my mother obsessively made us use Lemon Pledge as children as well!). Because even if life is not what it seems and problems are happening around them they are children after all.  So a bit of play reminds us of that too.   

There are still a few things that don't work.  The sequence of cartoon vignettes that are meant to all pile up on the stage all at once still don't quite work visually.  Lines are drawn around the action but it is hard to "see" the cartoon Gold is going for.  But it is a small nit.  I do miss some of Alison's drawings that were used in the workshop but I understand why they eliminated them.  Gold has sharpened the piece over time.  And made choices to get us from scene to scene more organically.  It may be a memory play, and so time and space are malleable.  Without an intermission he keeps the through-line taut and the emotions elevated.  The story moves quickly and the inevitable conclusion that is coming for Alison bears down upon the audience as much as it does her. Gold never lets us off the hook either.  I've been a fan of a number of his shows (Ok I admit it.  I've seen everything he's directed in the last two years save The Realistic Joneses at Yale) and he again shows here that he works best when he's torn down a few walls and bent space for the benefit of story.

I'm not sure I have ever seen a musical before where each song is so clear in what it is trying to say and yet nothing about this story is simple.  Nothing about these characters is straightforward.  Each song has so much concentrated richness of story and emotion to be unpacked.  And somehow the performances, direction, music, and lyrics guide the audience with confidence through this maze.   I wish I had this kind of clarity over my own life.

This story may be shattering and draining at times, but it still feels life-affirming. It was hard to give a standing ovation with my lap covered in tissues and tears streaming down my face, but I did.

*Truth be told I saw Lucas squeal when she saw Sam Gold in the lobby of The Public before the show and give him a giant hug.  His hotness, her cuteness, and their affection for each other was too much for me to handle.   My ovaries then exploded. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Julius Caesar: Veni, Vidi, Bitteri

"Speak. Strike. Redress."--Brutus

"Speak. Strike. Redress. Focus. Focus. Focus."--Mildly Bitter

Phyllida Lloyd's all female production of Julius Caesar could have been a really fascinating interpretation of Shakespeare but ended up lost in the circus of its own concepts.  This Donmar Warehouse production, directed by Lloyd, is set within a women's prison.  It would seem that the inmates are both living the world of Julius Caesar and performing it under the careful watch of the prison guards.  They are also occasionally playing rock 'n roll music and filming their endeavor with video cameras. Presumably this is a low security prison.

Julius Caesar (Frances Barber) is the beloved leader of perhaps the prison gang...or maybe Rome.  With her adoring Marc Antony (Cush Jumbo) to cuddle and kiss as she likes and also rule Rome with (?).  But lurking in the shadows to Caesar's all consuming power, in prison...or Rome, is Cassius (Jenny Jules) and Brutus (Harriet Walter) who conspire to bring down Caesar so that they can be "free"...or something.  

Really I have no idea what the plot of this play was.  I mean there is a plot to kill Caesar and--spoiler alert--they do, but the integration of this story into the prison setting created layers of confusion.    There were rare moments the "script" strayed from Shakespeare but largely they performed in the Bard's language.  But between performance and production, the meaning of Shakespeare got lost. 

I loved the idea of the female cast in a show that is traditionally intended to be mostly male.  The questions of power, freedom, aggression, and filial love get shaken up by this choice.  The intimacy that is created between the characters and Lloyd's choice to explore that intimacy was one of the most successful aspects of the production.  Gender gets pushed to the forefront and makes us confront our own preconceived notions of it.  It sheds light on the roles we play--husbands and wives, friends and lovers and brothers in arms.  Watching conspirators, touch each other gently and speak in hushed tones when you'd expect bluster, aggression, and vitriol upended expectations. The push and pull between warring men and the women who fear for them and foresee disaster became a much more compelling dynamic when all the roles are performed by women.  Traditionally patriarchal and matriarchal voices get a totally different gloss. 

But all this fascinating work around gender kept getting lost in the myriad of other devices being employed.  I longed for Tim Gunn to walk in, give it a withering stare, and say you've got to eliminate something Phyllida. "Make it work."  The sudden rock 'n roll jam sessions might have been a stand-in for war but you lost me completely with the video cameras, squelchy projections, and the creeping child on the tricycle.  I kept grasping for some coherence as to how we started in the prison and then drifted away from that concept...only to return to it again.  The themes of freedom, liberation, and aggression could be shoehorned into a prison setting but I did not feel those individual prisoners connecting to those themes.  Never knowing who these women prisoners were proved fatal to the production. I struggled to understand if these women were moved to perform Julius Caesar in prison OR if these women were living out Julius Caesar in prison OR if this was just a production of Julius Caesar performed by women.  In the end it felt that Lloyd chose to employ each of these perspectives at different times in the play.

But if you are going to do all three of those stories there has to be reason for the shift and clarity for the audience as to what compels that change in perspective.  Instead, the oscillating interpretations failed to tell Shakespeare's story or the story of these women in prison. I kept thinking of Macbeth starring Alan Cumming.  This too is another production where people are speaking Shakespeare's words but we know they are more than Shakespeare's characters.  As such we need to know who these people are so Shakespeare's words have meaning to us since obviously they have some meaning to that character (or do they?).  It need not be laid out in a didactic manner for the audience but I think the director needs to know who is speaking and why and all aspects of the production need to feed into that goal.

I never felt a firm hand on the tiller here.  The constant herky-jerky movements between different concepts led to a great deal of mental and conceptual whiplash--Caesar kisses Marc Antony. Are they prison lovers? But Caesar has a wife. Is this a prison wife?  A real wife? I'm so confuuuuuuuused. As much as there were strong moments where each of these directorial ideas connected with the source material none of them were a constant.  The moments of conceptual dissonance were far more loud and resonant. I mean, I can love me some dissonance but this was unintentional--a loud metallic scraping sound as concept and text crashed into each other and dragged along fighting for primacy. 
Harriet Walter has an emotional moment at the end of the play. I think Lloyd thought by this point she had established Walter's character beyond the "role" of Brutus and this expression of emotion was an extension of that.  But neither Lloyd nor Walter had given us any insight into that character at all.  And let's just not talk about the choice they've made at the end for Caesar. It received a loud and pronounced eyeroll from me.

Walter opted for a very strange accent and diction for her Brutus.  She has such a commanding voice and I'm not sure why she chose to dull it in the way she did.  Jenny Jules as Cassius chose wild gesticulation to punctuate every line spoken.  It was unbearable and elucidated nothing about the character. 

All in all I went into this production excited to see this lauded cast and I left, frustrated, angry, and disappointed.  I think my ire at this production came from the fact that this had so much potential and that was just squandered. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Winslow Boy: A Fine Old Rumpus

"Facts are a brutal thing."

I foolishly feared The Winslow Boy might be a stale period drama, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover a spry and vibrant production of the classic Terrance Rattigan play. Thanks to a fantastic cast and dynamic direction from Lindsay Posner, this production brings the thrill of a courtroom drama without ever stepping into a courtroom.

At age 13, Ronnie Winslow (Spencer Davis Milford) is expelled from Naval College for stealing and forging a five shilling postal order.  As someone in service to the crown he is not entitled to have his day in court. He is his father's favorite and fears coming home to tell his father.  But when his father (Roger Rees) learns of the ordeal he immediately takes up Ronnie's cause to get his name cleared.  Ronnie's older brother Dickie (Zachary Booth) is more interested in learning the latest Ragtime dance steps than focusing on his studies at Oxford and thinks the entire affair with Ronnie is silly. But his suffragette sister Catherine joins her father and his crusade despite her military fiancé's (Chandler Williams) concerns.  The middle class family hires the most expensive and renown barrister, Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola) to take their case and it consumes their lives as it becomes a bigger and bigger public event.

From Naval College to the House of Commons, the questions of this young boy's actions become politicized.  To bring the action in court required the Crown in essence to consent to be sued since the acts of the Naval College were acts of the government.  As England moves toward war, and the prime minister at the time took a position of wait and see with foreign powers, this family symbolizes an aggressive and vocal effort to see right be done in the world--albeit on the most personal of levels.  The triviality of battle of the five shilling note divides the nation at the time of the play. It's easily dismissed by many as much ado about nothing. But isn't that the easiest way to see our freedoms and liberties eroded. Tiny step by tiny step.  Convictions are held steadfast as money drains away including Charlotte's dowry and Dickie's Oxford tuition. The sacrifices pile up.  Perhaps as a nod toward the impending war this bloodless battle is fought through politics and law but there are no question many casualties.

In a meditation on right, justice, honesty, faith, and perseverance, Rattigan's 1946 play becomes a fight for individual liberty. An interesting topic today where the debate over individual liberty rages on--meaning to some a right to bear arms and to others a right to control one's reproduction or marry whoever you want.  The Winslow Boy might bear the marks of another time--from the William Morris wallpaper to the meager sum at issue in the theft--but somehow Posner and company makes this production feel like it is part of a vital and ongoing conversation today. 

The cast is truly superb.  Charlotte Parry and Roger Rees are a dynamic duo as father and daughter.  Rees throws his entire body into the role of Arthur Winslow--showing the emotional and physical toll the case takes on him.  Parry makes this role an interesting companion piece to her moving Eliza Dolittle in Pygmalion (She was also fantastic in Look Back in Anger).  Catherine, like Eliza, is a woman whose life is controlled by the men around her but she still speaks her mind, finds a voice, and straddles this moment in history where she wants more for the future but doesn't know if what she dreams of will ever be realized.  Parry brings intelligence and heart to the role.  I'd recommend the play alone on her sensitive portrayal. 

In supporting roles, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays Ronnie's mother, a woman of her era, baffled and bewildered by her husband's decision but powerless to do anything except his bidding. Mastrantonio balances a certain scripted dippiness with warmth. Michael Cumpsty is the family solicitor long in love with Catherine. Standing like an awkward stalk of asparagus--lumpy and irregular--he can only be who he is while suffering through the most awkward of congratulations to Catherine on her engagement.  Alessandro Nivola makes a surprising turn as the imperious barrister who seems to be all about the spotlight but has hidden depth.

Despite a long running time, legal jargon, and some Edwardian arcana, the play is riveting. I found myself drawn into the desperation of father and daughter as they pursued this endeavor together. Their need to see this through becomes the audience's desire as well. And despite the sacrifices, sadness, losses, and defeats it is a worthwhile dramatic journey for all involved.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Snow Geese: Overstuffed and Undercooked

Modern play recipe for disaster:  Start with one needy but beguiling woman coddled and cared for by the men around her, make sure you separate the woman from her husband (death is a good option) so she is left floundering in a soup of helplessness and woe, then mix in a precious child who is so charming that's all anyone tells you is how charming he is, and then gently fold in a son who does everything for everyone and no one notices him.  Add a splash of ethnic color with a German Uncle, and a Ukrainian maid, a soupçon of World War I panic, and a heavy dose of money troubles.  Set it in the country to bake.  In no time at all you'll have a Chekhovian soufflé that will be sure to fail because you're not Chekhov. 

Welcome to Sharr White's (The Other Place) new play, The Snow Geese, directed by Daniel Sullivan.  A saggy, half-baked mess which boasts a stellar cast who are sadly left struggling to breathe life into a thin script. 

Golden boy Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit) has returned to his family's shooting cottage two months after his fathers death. His mother Elizabeth (Mary Louise Parker) is struggling to hold things together. On the eve of being set off to war as part of a tony regiment of the wealthiest scions of New York, Duncan's whole life has been society parties and aggressive social climbing. Whereas his younger brother, the oft neglected Arnold (Brian Cross), is in need of Duncan's help. Turns out Arnold has combed through the family books and has figured out that the family is broke.  But no one will listen to Arnold.  Also under the same roof are the boys' Aunt Clarissa (Victoria Clark) and Uncle Max (Danny Burstein). Max,  still saddled with a German accent after 30 years in America, has been unable to practice medicine after the war broke out. They've brought along their maid Viktorya (Jessica Love) who was an aristocrat in Europe but was driven from her homeland by the war.

It's a house full of people who are stuck--lost in grief, religion, or self-absorption.  Now Chekhov made a career out of giving people like this a voice. The vain, the moneyed, the climbers, and the put-upon.  And he had a knack for finding the poetry in their inertia.  All White brings to this play is a family and the inertia.  Everything is done in broad strokes so nothing feels authentic emotionally or dramatically.

The 1917 setting is constantly spoken of but most of the play feels anachronistic--spiritually and linguistically.  Perhaps his intent was not to create an accurate portrait of 1917 life, but the costumes and setting suggest this was supposed to be close to the mark and not an attempt at Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson revisionism.  I never felt the characters expressed or grasped the fear or anxiety of the world at war even though that war had come to their doorsteps and they talked about it a lot.  But the worst crime of the play is that the characters end up shallow portraits and not flesh and blood humans.

Despite the length and a lot of talking, the characters remain symbols or ideas.  Although the above the title draw is Mary Louise Parker, most of the drama comes from the tension between the two sons.  Of course there are many plays where the rivalry of brothers, the beloved and the forgotten, can provide for powerful drama and emotional catharsis.  I was a sobbing, snot covered mess after seeing Arthur Miller's The Price.  But in The Snow Geese, neither performer quite finds the heart of his character or an emotional hook for the audience--though I largely blame the script for setting up the idea of a conflict between the brothers but failing to make it the least bit engaging.  It was like watching a writing exercise where someone was trying to purge their emotional problems but feared going too deep or getting to close to the material.  So it's the idea of a struggle without any energy behind it. 

One of things I have enjoyed in the Chekhov plays I have seen is how he takes longing--whether for fame, riches, escape, love, or freedom--and let's it grow, then fester or abscess.  The audience gets to see the characters want, and then sees that desire fall through the characters' fingers or exist just beyond their reach.  Sometimes it is a mirage and the drama is in watching the character find out for himself.

Here, White takes each character's desire and puts a fine point on it.  They say what they want.  They say it again.  They say it a lot.  It probably won't happen because they are delusional.  But you never FEEL them wanting anything...because they have said it.  Over and over again.  There is no where to go. Nothing to grow into.  Someone forgot the subtext. 

It's hard not to make the Chekhov comparison because it feels like White himself is striving so hard for that kind of emotional family epic with the back-drop of a changing world impinging on the family's sense of self.  I'm a fan of plays that try for something nobly even if they fall short and fail.  But here, the play did not feel like it was trying at all.  Like White had taken Chekhov down to his literal bones and thought all he had to do was plug his words into that basic framework and voilà.  I was enraged at how poor it was both on its own merit or in comparison to other dramas and for making a cast of terrific actors jump through such lumbering and imprecise hoops. 

As I sat their fuming over the utter waste of Parker, Clark and Burstein, I found myself appreciating Chekhov all the more.  Of course when Chekhov is done badly it can be like watching paint dry.  But when done right, the modernity of it--the self-awareness, avoidance of self-knowledge, the desires to move outside of class and station, the connection to the natural world, the agonizing anxieties of money and desire at conflict with one another--is breathtaking. 

The Snow Geese unfortunately may have thrown many of those things into the mixing bowl, but it still ended up a flavorless porridge. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Mr. Burns Revisited: We Shed as We Pick Up

Remember life before the internet.  When you had to remember things.  You had to tell people about things they had not seen.  Once an episode of television aired that was it.  It was over.  Movies before VCRs were simply things you had to see or you missed.  What survived of the movie was our memory of it and maybe you remembered things wrong.* 

It has become so easy today to just turn to your computer or your smartphone and settle the argument about what year Say Anything came out?  What did Bette Davis actually sound like? Should we watch all the episodes of the West Wing right now?  When did I last hear from you?**  In an instant our queries can be answered  and our desires can be met.  Immediate relief from any anxiety or wanting.  

In some respects, The Civilians' production of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play is the theatrical hypothesis of what if that on-demand culture we are so comfortable with ceased to exist.  What would we do?  How would we cope?  What would we remember?  What would be forgotten?  Ultimately, it is about how we would put the world back together again and remake the things that help us communicate and connect.  How would "humanity" survive and it imagines what that would look like.

Written by Anne Washburn and directed by Steve Cosson, I saw Mr. Burns last year in D.C. and loved it.  But in revisiting it, I was struck by the deeper resonance the piece had for me and the intellectual satisfaction I got from this play.   Like time-lapse photography, Mr Burns speeds up the evolution of language, expression, entertainment, and communication, and we are given a unique perspective that allows us to trace that evolution.  Life is a literal pastiche of the things that have come before. 

In Act I,  a group of strangers have gathered around a campfire.  Mid-story we arrive to hear the group trying to remember an episode of The Simpsons.  Matt (Matthew Maher) is leading the charge as others weigh in on the bits they recall.  A memory of a musical tune.  A recollection of a shot sequence.  A fair impression of Kelsey Grammer doing Sideshow Bob.  They are trying to remember the Cape Feare episode, which is an homage to the film Cape Fear and the remake of that film but references Gilbert and Sullivan, Night of the Hunter and other bits of popular culture.  

When a new stranger appears, Gibson (Gibson Frazier), the seriousness of the situation becomes more apparent.  There has been some sort of nuclear meltdown and plague that has felled many.  With nothing more than what they can carry and what they can forage, these are some of the survivors.  And their new ritual begins.  Querying Gibson as the newest arrival, each person asks about family members or friends and hopes he will find their name in his book.  They each return the favor.  Each person looks to their handwritten books where they have written down the people they have come into contact with.  Each has their own catalog of survivors--returning to a world of pen and paper and information is passed person to person. 

These survivors are in need of distraction from the anxiety of not knowing what has happened, who is left, or what will become of them.  Everything in their lives is uncertainty.  Sitting around recalling an episode of The Simpsons provides something concrete and certain.

Act II pushes the story ahead seven years and from the confusion of the unknown, the campfire strangers have stuck together and have acquired some newcomers.  They have become a performance troupe.  These troupes (there are many rival performing companies) recreate episodes of television (including several of The Simpsons) and commercials for a live audience. The purpose of this performance is more than entertainment.  The survivors are trying to recreate flavors, sensations, and memories for things that no longer exist--the smell of bath salts, the taste of wine.  They are committed to keeping alive that connection to the world that is gone now.  In a post-apocalyptic world, reminding each other of a collective humanity is a necessity.   The forgetting would be fatal.  What has transpired in the past seven years is unclear but the threat now comes from other people.  These performances are a response to the desperation and uncertainty in this new world order.

Act III pushes the story another 80 years into the future from there and we are watching a musical-operatic version of the recreation of Cape Feare with music by Michael Friedman.  Like a sophisticated visual and aural game of "telephone," some of the bits of Cape Feare that the original survivors remembered live on a generation or two into the future.  But like a game of telephone, passing information human to human over decades is imperfect and the final result is far afield from the original.  These future performers use familiar fragments of the past--lines, catch-phrases, bits of music--but they are re-contextualized.  As viewers from the present, peering through a strange looking-glass to an unfamiliar future, we can hear strands of You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch being sung but in this discombobulated world of tomorrow it is about Mr. Burns instead.  Now Cape Feare has become a celebratory allegory for survival.  

From the moment you enter the theater, and covers of famous songs are playing, the world that Washburn, Cosson, and Friedman have created is about taking the quotidian and the popular and re-rendering it so you look at the world differently.  The Simpsons, as a base language and vocabulary for the story, makes a lot of sense.  First, it is accessible and you've probably absorbed enough knowledge about The Simpsons simply through cultural osmosis.  Second, in the world of Mr. Burns which has suffered a nuclear meltdown, here is a piece of the pop culture past that often referenced nuclear energy and would likely have had more resonance as time moved on.  Third, The Simpsons has always been a sponge for bits of popular culture and so it is itself already a place where references to other works get repurposed and therefore adds another meta layer to an already meta concept.

The play relies on essentially the same source material in three totally different contexts.  Like theatrical archaeologists, we know what the objects are, but our understanding of their use, their purpose, and their meaning evolves as we understand the cultures they are borne out of.

The glorious part of this show is that despite everything--being at the precipice of the end of civilization--storytelling survives.  Whether around a campfire to stave off fear and dread, or in a ramshackle warehouse to provide emotional solace and comfort to a world that is starting to forget itself, or on a "stage" framed by a television screen celebrating the endurance of humanity that doubted its own survival, the act of performing live for an audience continues.  That audience's wants and needs evolve.  The work evolves with them.  But the act of storytelling remains a necessary and critical part of our humanity.

I was reminded of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. As Thomasina Coverly worries about the lost plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus destroyed in the Great Library of Alexandria, her tutor comforts her.
"You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe...We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.  The procession is very long and life is very short.  We die on the march.  But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.  The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language."

And so here Washburn and Cosson take the pieces lost on the march and re-write the plays of Sophocles...or well...Matt Groening and Co.   Those behind pick up the pieces and though the language may have changed, the objects are not lost.  But seeing how the meaning of those objects changes through times is the illuminating brilliance of the play.  It is a text made up of pop cultural items we know and take for granted and we watch as those things we "know" are woven into an entirely new unfamiliar tapestry. 

Originally I found Act III the hardest to reconcile and after this second viewing suddenly the entire work fit together for me.  When I first saw the play in D.C., I got really attached to the Act I and II characters and the movement away from them in Act III was really jarring for me.  Because I was wrapped up in the emotional state of the characters, I failed to recognize some of the structural and thematic work at play until my second viewing.  In addition, lost in the New York production was some of the levity of the original in D.C.  I felt the balance between comedy and drama was more acute there.  Here, it started a bit heavier and Act III's Wagnerian excess felt more like the emotional catharsis it was always meant to be.  I wish there could have been more of a balance of comedy and still delivering a powerful release at the end.  Act III was not just a society performing it's survival tale and telling a story.  It was a celebrating its origin myth and calling everyone to honor and remember it--the new Independence Day (movie or event, take your pick)--and this time I really felt that.

Through theater, Washburn, Cosson, and Friedman, give us a chance to piece together for ourselves the strands of music, language, communication, and connection that make us human and give us meaning.  I feel like shows that ask the audience to step up and pay attention in this way are a rare delight.

*I am always reminded of an interview with Martin Scorsese talking about films he remembered when he was a film student.  His recollection of the films that inspired him were just that--a recollection rendered through his memory.  When he went to make his own movies all he could rely on were the memories of the films that came before because they were not accessible for him to view again.  Whereas my generation of film student could, for better or worse,  just run out to a video store and rewatch movies we wanted to.  Memory had little to do with it.  And I think in some ways direct referencing is a lot less interesting than being influenced and inspired by films filtered through your personal perspective. The excitement comes from how you reinterpret, repurpose, recontextualize, and change what it was that inspired you.  Shot-for-shot remakes are such a waste of imagination.

**The experimental work, I Wish I Was Lonely, asked fascinating questions about how this instant connection could be harming us emotionally. I've had this show on my mind since I saw it in August and I feel like I keep bringing it up to anyone who will listen.  It probes our feelings of connection in  unexpected ways.  It may pop up on tour in the UK so keep an eye out for it.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Ciara and Grounded: Powerful Women on Stage

The Edinburgh Fringe offered a number of solo shows with strong and dynamic female characters.   In two shows at the Traverse Theatre, Ciara by David Harrower and Grounded by George Brant, the women are being used by the world around them.  They believe in people and institutions which ultimately betray them.

Presented in very different ways with totally unique styles, there was something to these unexpected women that made me think of the plays as in dynamic conversation with each other.  These women were self-possessed and unique.  One a gallery owner with a love of art who understands the seamy criminal underworld in the most personal way.  The other a female air force pilot who becomes a mother and has to juggle two very different ways of life.  They are both pulled in opposing directions by the two aspects of their lives and for a while they walk the tightrope.  But in the end, neither's balance is good enough to stay upright forever.  


"Show them you seek nothing."

Poised in a ballgown, glass of champagne in hand, seated in what looks like a warehouse with a filthy mattress on the floor, Blythe Duff is a BAMF in David Harrower's play Ciara.  She is the daughter and wife of a Glasgow crime lord. Knowledgeable about the family business she is tough but elegant. Perceptive and smart—too smart—she sees and understands more than she should and with that knowledge there is pain.

A portrait of Glasgow, fathers and daughters, men and women, Harrower's play oscillates between the realities of today and memories of the past. Ciara tells up her story which weaves in issues of tradition, honor, power, and loss with bitter sarcasm and a broken heart. The play itself is a colorful monologue that flits through time. A good tale but at times the jokes went over my head as the play pokes fun at Glasgow and local Scottish personalities and places.  Nevertheless Duff is riveting.

After seeing her in Good with People earlier this year I was excited to see her in another collaboration with Harrower. She spins a yarn, shows her strength and her vulnerabilities, and pulls herself back together in front of our eyes as quickly as she fell apart. Duff’s a fantastic actress and she elevates the material into something special.



“It would be a different book if Odysseus came home from the war every day.”

Like a caged bird, The Pilot (Lucy Ellinson) stands in a cube made of scrims. When she looks up at what would be the sky, her eyes sparkle. When she talks about flying in “the blue” she becomes animated and electric. She is an American hot-shot air force pilot but when she learns she is pregnant she becomes “grounded—the pilot’s nightmare.” For a time motherhood is a distraction but she eagerly returns to service when she can, only to discover that air force pilots are no longer flying bomb dropping missions in F-16s. Instead they are manning drone planes. She will go to work every day in Las Vegas and with a joystick and computer screen control the plane and bombs to be dropped thousands of miles away.

This is the world of George Brant's monologue, Grounded, directed by Christopher Haydon.  

Instead of the blue, she spends her 12-hour shifts staring at “the gray”—a view of the ground from the camera on her drone plane. Suddenly, “the threat of death has been removed from our lives.” She can go home every night to her 3-year-old daughter and her husband. But as she would struggle to adjust when she would occasionally go home after overseas deployments, the daily readjustment from war to home is that same process happening every day.

Ellinson is as much a fly guy as Tom Cruise in Top Gun. All hopped up on fast planes and aggression, there is nowhere to blow off steam in the “chair force” drone trailers. And slowly the daily shift from war to home life takes its toll on her. Through lighting and projections on the floor, we shift between her home and her drone life.   Ellinson’s voice changes when she speaks to her daughter—surprising herself that she “sounds like a Mom.” But the longer this goes on the harder she finds it to turn off drone life.  As she becomes more fixated on her drone's computer screen, we get pulled along with her.  She is killing "bad guys" who are burying roadside IEDs, fiercely trying to protect her guys, scouring the gray blobs for anything useful. 

As she talks non-stop about what she is seeing, all I could think of is Tetris brain.  After playing Tetris for too long, you start to see Tetris everywhere.  And so does the Pilot.  The gray begins to bleed from the computer screen to her home life. As the audience, we too begin to get pulled into this tiny cube of dulled color and obsessive thoughts.

Ellinson embraces the physical strut of her military character and yet we never forget she is a woman. I’m not sure I’ve seen a character like this on stage before.  I saw Ellinson in Oh the Humanity last year at the Fringe and this role is totally different. With a range from drama to comedy, she continues to be a fascinating stage presence.

Ultimately I thought the play went on just a tiny bit too long but the growing intensity of the material and Ellinson’s performance made it another strong entry at the Traverse Theatre this year.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Nirbhaya: The Show That Made Me Angry for the Wrong Reasons

Nirbhaya is a "play" presented by women of India, full of anger and purpose, who are driven to tell their own stories of abuse and molestation because they will not remain silent any longer after the horrific incident of Jyoti Singh Pandey, who was gang raped on a New Delhi bus.  In a country where people keep silent too often, and abuse of children and women is rampant, it becomes a revolutionary act to speak of the horrors these women have personally suffered. 

Certainly it is an important subject matter.  But I'm finding it hard to talk about Nirbhaya as a piece of theater. I saw the work at the Edinburgh Fringe in August and my seething rage over it has not subsided in the last month.  I keep complaining about it to anyone who will listen (I'm running out of friends) so I have finally put words to "paper" to try and sort out what about this work did not work for me.

In the first instance, I went in to this play with the wrong context and the play did not correct my misapprehension.  I had no idea these performers were sharing their own personal tales.  It's a critical fact that would have been helpful to know especially since it would seem the main purpose of the work is to bear witness to these women speaking out.  The act of bravery and "theater" here is that these women, who personally stayed silent for a long time, are not staying silent any more.   And rather than have actors perform verbatim monologues or "act" out stories of other peoples' lives, these women are giving voice to their own personal stories.

I walked in assuming this was a piece of dramatic theater (possibly based on true incidents) and the way in which it was presented--with many theatrical flourishes did nothing to contextualize the material correctly.  A simple program handed out to the audience before the show would have done the trick or mention of this in the Edinburgh Fringe program also could have accomplished this. 

Beyond program notes, the theatrical presentation itself was misleading.  Bits of physical theater, dance, smoke, and dramatic lighting start to take away from the main message.  Dressing this piece up as "drama" made me quite angry.  Mainly because the dramatic aspects were the weakest parts.  Rather than supporting the monologues or stories, the dramatic gloss just distracted from the women's' voices.   

I think the piece would have been stronger had these women been able to just present their stories plainly, without unnecessary flair.  Using their names would have made it more personal.*  Ultimately the repetition of abuse started to feel less personal.  Perhaps the idea was that this is so commonplace and therefore the stories are meant to be more representative of the fate of many women in India (and elsewhere).  But I would have appreciated the personal being left in the personal narratives.

While the woman who was burned by kerosene by her husband spoke about her separation from her son and tears streamed down her scarred face, I felt that this piece of theater veered off dramatically into the exploitative.  Having the one male actor "act" as her son as she recounted the pain of the separation from her son was gratuitous.  There is no doubt survivors can gain strength from sharing their personal pain in certain venues.  But there is bearing witness and there is re-traumatizing.  I did not find this moment powerful.  I found it particularly cruel.  The scene may stay with me but not for the reasons I suspect director Yael Farber intended.  I mostly wanted to tell Farber to fuck off and let the crying woman leave the stage. 

After Yael Farber's terrific production of Mies Julie last year I had high hopes for a visually compelling and emotionally engaging production.  Ultimately Nirbhaya disappointed.  It did not communicate its important message with the right context and the theatrical methods employed cut against the key message.  Much like Roadkill (an important piece about human trafficking and sex trafficking) the personal narratives got lost in literal smoke and mirrors and somehow the goal of the work got lost in the artifice of the play.

*Without a program I have no way to identify performers by name or by "character" and thus I am left weakly describing them by their assaults or physical appearance. Again, a failure of the piece to communicate that these women are people not merely symbols.

Tree: The Crossroads

“People live all sorts of lives.”—Daniel Kitson

From a man in a tree looking down at the world as it passes him by, to a man on a romantic mission with nachos in tow, Daniel Kitson’s new play Tree is about relationships, commitment, honesty, fantasy, and heroism. What marks this play as a departure for monologuist Kitson is the fact that it’s a two-hander. Co-starring with Kitson is comedian and actor Tim Key. Kitson and Key act as comedic and dramatic foils to one another.

The production was staged in the round at Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester for several weeks in September is not expected to tour.* It’s too bad as it was a wonderful opportunity to watch two comic giants do battle with each other on a very unusual field.

Like many Kitson stories (at least those of late), hidden in his storytelling are a trail of bread crumbs for a theme which might turn your head upon the reveal. Tree requires a certain amount of focus and commitment on the part of the audience as the story unfolds with quiet simplicity, and you might think this is much ado about nothing, yet there is a sneaky undercurrent at play.

Tim* is late for a picnic with Sarah. He arrives under the shade of a tree flustered and swearing. He finds he is being watched by Daniel, who is sitting up the tree. And thus begins our story—well, two stories really. Daniel wants to hear about Sarah and this unexpected picnic under his tree. Tim wants to find out, “Why you up a tree, mate?”

Tim sheepishly tells a story of romantic heroism, 10 years in the making. Daniel offers up his tale of living in “this tree” and being a somewhat accidental tree hero which “was a message…for a while.”

Affection develops between these two men despite Tim’s initial resistance to Daniel’s story (which Daniel admits might sound far-fetched in parts). Daniel’s character mentions his love of “beginnings” and like a child with a new toy seems positively giddy to hear what Tim’s story about Sarah is.  They find a shared love of megaphones, foxes, and a need for meaning in their lives. There is a burgeoning mutual admiration. But perhaps it is something more—an understanding of each other that runs a bit deeper than the banter that comes about because “we’ve got some time to fill.”

And yet almost as quickly as Tim and Daniel connect, their relationship unravels. Tim challenges Daniel's life in the tree, arguing that life on the ground is where it is at--"Down is good. This is the stuff."  But Tim may have his own reasons for attacking Daniel's commitment.  Daniel makes an allusion to the fact that all relationships (whether with people or our principles) have consequences—as you choose one person, you reject others. 

And so Kitson explores the commitments we make in life, the meaning we search for, and the potential conflicts between those two endeavors. To do so he pushes the bounds of truth and fiction and the way in which stories are told.  If you saw Kitson's 2012 theatrical piece, As of 1.52pm, there will be familiar reverberations as Kitson continues to explore characters who go to extremes in their principles and what they endure because of their principled stand.

Tree is resplendent with quiet details, lovingly etched out. Kitson’s trademark vivid descriptions abound with the redhead in a yellow hat, shopping bags of haloumi cheese, and the exuberant joy of an expectant mother offering a feel of her baby’s kick.  I had forgotten how much I missed Kitson's storytelling voice after a year of seeing his stand-up. That voice has a distinctive cadence whether it is coming out of Kitson or Key's mouth. It takes me back to memories of my childhood and sitting rapt with attention at the feet of the local librarian during "story hour" eager to find out how the story ends.  For some reason Tree jogged these memories more than other Kitson story shows.  

Key is, as always, a delight with his mock frustration and outrage but he was surprising as the romantic hero. His small moments of romantic defeat were surprisingly touching. He brought a vulnerability that was new to me (having only seen his show Masterslut and his recent WIP where he seemed to play up his goofy and exaggerated "Lothario" qualities).

Flitting about the tree like an excitable, ADHD monkey, I wondered what to make of Daniel’s stage business as he remained largely obstructed by the leaves on the tree. But despite his physical concealment, he managed to project beyond his leafy cover his character’s beaming, heart-swelling joy and casual disappointment which masked a heavy heart.

But what did it all mean? So far I have pondered at least four possible interpretations of the play…some of which I want to be true and others I fear might be true. In one scenario, it could be quite a bitter pill to swallow.  Others offer more hope.  Perhaps Tree is a mirror (forgive the tired metaphor but it remains apt) and the meaning of the play changes depending on who is looking in the mirror. Or like Schrodinger’s cat, is Tree telling us the cat** is both alive and dead?  Are all the possible scenarios true even if they are paradoxical?  

At one point Daniel says, “You believe what you want, mate.”

And maybe I needed to believe "the cat" is alive. I wanted the mystery, the magic, and we write the stories of our expectations in our mind regardless of what the artists intend. Or maybe I am listening to too much Mike Daisey this week. I just want to believe.

* In a later email to his mailing list Kitson said they are trying to find a way to tour the piece. 
**No literal cats here. All metaphorical cats.