Thursday, January 31, 2013

Daniel Kitson Radio: This is Not a Review

"Flipperty jibits!"

In the wee small hours of the morning, if a man is choking on a chocolate biscuit, does it make a noise?  It does when it is amplified over the airwaves and broadcasting to you live from London, England, somewhere near the Shard, and the man is Daniel Kitson.

"Eff this crumb out of my effing neck."

Kitson has had a complaint from a listener that he swears too much so he put a great effort into not swearing during Week 3 of his still unnamed radio show and the chocolate biscuit got the censored version of Kitson's ire.  Self-censorship only went so far because he ended up joking about tattoos on his lower ball-sack and offering himself, sexually, as a prize for naming the radio show. 

If you have not been listening to Kitson's show on Resonance FM, you have missed some amusing on-air antics.  Much of Week 3 was spent exploring how to use Siri on the iPhone 5 in silly ways (Kitson's nickname for himself via Siri, "Hot Potato"), announcing various "contests" for which there are no actual prizes and, well, choking on the dangerous chocolate biscuit.  I hope Siri also knows how to do the Heimlich maneuver.  Left to his own devices with a Spotify account, a microphone, some faders and a dream, Daniel Kitson's radio broadcasts are a delight. 

Probably the best kind of show for bleary-eyed night-shift employees and insomniacs.  Kitson starts to fade late into the evening and describes his own on-air performance as "mid-form" because he's mumbling.  If he was in bad form he said he'd be crying AND mumbling.  "Kitson Radio" contains traditional Kitson comic contradictions, self-deprecation and technical snafus.  But there's something upbeat about the whole endeavor.  A lightness in his musical choices, his own surprise at how much he's enjoying hearing from folks during the show (he will read emails sent in to him during the live show), and an impish joy throughout.   It's hard not to smile throughout as the host's giddiness is infectious.

Let us not also forget he programmed a great line-up of tunes this week (Paul Simon, Gavin Osborn, Kate Bush, The Lucksmiths, Allo Darlin).  Again Spotify user Amy Blencowe has kindly created the track list from this week's show so if you could not listen live you won't at least miss out on the great music. 

The eclectic tunes, lo-fi style, and shambolic host made it feel more intimate and personal than I would have expected.   Kitson read out quite a few emails sent in during the show (and if you are following #DanielKitson or @fydanielkitson along on twitter, you can watch people explode with excitement as their emails are read).  In an unexpected moment of camaraderie, Kitson had a thought that everyone listening should meet up one night after the show.   But he promptly challenged his own idea.  Arguing that beyond logistical issues (not everyone listening was in United Kingdom), he would probably not enjoy the awkward encounters that would ensue.  But he toyed with the idea long enough to make me wonder, who is this almost warm and fuzzy creature operating the microphone (sometimes from the wrong end) in the Resonance FM studios?  Hot Potato, that's who.  

Tune in for the silliness on Monday nights on Resonance FM at 7pm New York time, midnight in the United Kingdom for the next few weeks. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Eastern European Perspectives: Minsk 2011 and Opus No. 7

This past weekend, I scheduled a double feature of Eastern European perspectives through theater.  First was the Belarus Free Theatre's production of Minsk 2011: A Letter to Kathy Acker playing at the Under the Radar Festival at The Public Theater.  Second, was Opus No. 7 by Dmitry Krymov 's Lab at the Moscow Theatre School of ­Dramatic Art playing at St. Ann's Warehouse.  

The Belarus Free Theatre's production of Minsk 2011:A Letter to Kathy Acker may be overtly political but it succeeds because it is very good theater.  The piece is beautiful and at times harrowing. Even when the subtitles broke down in the middle of the show I saw, I noticed the audience simply leaned in, made eye contact with the actors and kept watching. Nothing broke the power of the images and the voices asking for recognition of their fight.

From scenes of sexual violence and political repression to quiet paeans on what Minsk means to them, this troupe (some members live in exile in England) tells the story of a country they love but a country where acts of theater can be a political crime.  The brisk 90 minute show is largely vignettes on characters and situations representative of how life is lived in Belarus. The power of the work comes from the satirical representations of political oppression through dynamic imagery and creative theatrical devices.

In the opening scene of Minsk 2011 flying the rainbow flag, playing a flute and merely looking at your watch cause people to be tackled and carried off by the police and all trace evidence of revolt swept away.  Opening your mouth and speaking carries with it real palpable risk. A risk this company takes every day.  You cannot separate who this troupe is from the result of their work.  It's not just about what they are saying. Their mere existence is part of the resistance and revolt. Which is not to say that their theatrical skills are irrelevant. What's compelling here is that their performance, imagery, and style was just as strong as their message.

I found myself drawn into a scene about domestic terrorism.  Emotionally gripping and elegant, the cast using movement and three bags of sugar say a great deal about the return to "normal" after a terrorist attack.  This is certainly a theater troupe worth seeking out when they are in town. 

The level of rage and frustration was a lot more palpable in the work of the Belarus Free Theatre than in the Moscow Theatre School of ­Dramatic Art.   Dmitry Krymov's theater troupe leaves a strong visual impression but with a longer lens on history the storytelling is more reserved and the satire takes a more humorous angle at times.  As a director who started out in set design you can appreciate Krymov's interest in using a large scale, unusual space and unexpected set devices.  This troupe used music, clowning, and puppetry in the two act work. Unexpectedly, it contained everything from haunting holocaust images to, uhm, dick jokes.

The first act was about the history of Jesus and Jews.  Staged in a stretched horizontal space performers are literally cut from the backdrop and the narrative of a history of a people explodes like the big bang.  White cardboard, buckets of black paint, video projections, and piles of shoes, silverware and eyeglasses all make for an intriguing and unexpected expression of family history and the history of how some tried to destroy a people.

The second act was about Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.  Staged in the round, a giant Mother Russia puppet controls Shostakovich driving him to play the piano.  She hounds and chases him with a gun, killing others around him in his circle. She clutches him to her breast  until she destroys him. Overlaid on this nightmarish puppet show gone horribly awry are recordings of him addressing the Russian nation. 

Krymov's use of physical clowning was a good reminder that humor can sometimes be the best way to communicate tragedy. 

In both cases, these are theater companies who use strong and unusual visuals to communicate challenging topics with great skill.

The Jammer: A Demented Joyride with Jeanine Serralles

There is no actress working today who can played demented like Jeanine Serralles--and that's really a compliment.  Without vanity or restraint she hurls herself into every role I've seen her play.  The Jammer, written by Rolin Jones (writer of the Friday Night Lights episode "The Son") and directed by Jackson Gay, is no exception.  Serralles finds comedy where others struggle but she can play the balance between laughter and tenderness with expert skill.

The play is set in the world of 1950's roller derby. It's presented with an intentionally cartoonish aesthetic, a lo-fi approach, an absolute lack of political correctness and a touch of the absurd.  A young innocent dreamer, Jack Lovington (Patch Darragh) against the wishes of his priest (Todd Weeks) and his girlfriend, enters the derby world to expand his horizons and skate. On the road he encounters Lindy (Jeanine Serralles), a mental hospital escapee who revs up the crowd with her trash talk, 4 letter words and dirty tricks.  Torn between the girl he left behind and a drunken one night stand with Lindy, this wholesome dreamer has to sort out artifice from reality and figure out who he truly loves.

The tone of the play straddles comedy and sweetness to varying degrees of success. The dialogue and performances could have been snappier in parts.  I found things dragged every time we shifted focus back to the church and Jack's confessor (though the rivalry between the two priests was really funny).  But the goofball hijinks were just right.  Certain gags just made me laugh out loud ("Father Domingo's Bird Extravaganza" for one)  but I felt they were not as constant as I would want from a comedy.  Jackson Gay's playful approach to the derby races on stage worked. She had the cast set the scene whether riding a bus, a roller coaster or making turns around the roller rink--and the physical comedy and rag-tag feel for this worked well in this production.

I loved seeing Civilians performer Dan Domingues again in his duel role of the bespectacled derby player and Father Domingo,the bird man of St Barbara's.  Casting directors take note, he's a very funny guy and I'm not sure why I don't see more of him in shows.  Patch Darragh was affable as the vapid Jack.  But for me the show is all about Serralles.

I've been a fan of Jeanine Serralles since Maple and Vine.  Everything I've seen her do (The Maids, Let Me Ascertain You) has been riveting.   She has a way of finding the truth even in the ridiculous. There's a moment in The Jammer when she's dolled up in trashy lingerie and supposed to be seducing our intrepid hero but she catches sight of his love letter to his girl back home. She reads it and Serralles's body shudders in reaction. All her sexual intentions slip from her face and she is transformed. Softened. Human and vulnerable.  Exposing her soul. And then a moment later she's playing a wacky Lucille Ball bit of physical comedy.  It's the rare actor who can make those transitions work (and I'm not sure they all work in this play but I loved seeing Serralles do it).

If for no other reason see this play for Jeanine Serralles--she's impossible to forget and worth seeking out.

I received a complimentary ticket to this show. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Daniel Kitson: Mr. DJ Put a Record On

Daniel Kitson has been hosting a radio show on Monday nights in the UK.  It streams live on the internet.  He schedules it for off-hours in the UK to yield a target audience of less than 20 but that means it is well-timed for listening in New York.  Should you wish to tune in to Resonance FM it plays at midnight GMT and 7pm Eastern on Mondays for the next six weeks. 

He's done two weeks of shows so far in what is expected to be an eight week run.  A radio listener has kindly cataloged the tracks from the first two weeks on Spotify though obscure things such as Elvis laughing at a back-up singer and cricket commentary about getting a leg over will not likely be there.  And really there is no substitute for listening live.   I know people have been down on tweet-seats as a concept but it has been fun to live-tweet the radio show and encounter various people listening all over the world. 

Known for his love of lyrically ambitious indie pop he's been mixing things up quite a bit in these broadcasts.  Usual suspects and Kitson favorites such as Darren Hanlon, Withered Hand and The Lucksmiths have turned up (you may recall the Hanlon track, All These Things, closing the show It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later and Scottish musician Withered Hand playing as you entered the theater).  He's also been playing a lot of LCD Soundsystem on the radio show which you may remember  was playing before his comedy show Where Once Was Wonder.

But for me the unexpected twist was how much he has played Sondheim tunes.  The first week he played two tracks from the West Side Story film soundtrack including Something's Coming and I Feel Pretty (good old Marni Nixon) and then Buddy's Blues from the recent Broadway production of Follies.  This week he played Officer Krupke from West Side Story as well as Now You Know from the original Broadway cast recording of Merrily We Roll Along.  He encouraged his audience to check out the new production of Merrily at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

In his own words: "That's basically what I'm into: LCD Soundsystem and Stephen Sondheim." He jokingly called everything else "filler." 

Now you know.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Midsummer [a play with songs]: The Distance Between Us

"We--can do anything tonight."

Midsummer is not just a reference to the time of year this play takes place but seems to me also the place some people find themselves in midway through life.  When you are not quite young and not quite old but dreams of youth have fallen off and the next steps in life are less than clear. Without overstretching, this rom-com love note to the city of Edinburgh is a quiet charmer.  Written and directed by David Greig, this co-winner of the Best of Edinburgh award* and Traverse Theatre production, brings to life the story of Helena (Cora Bissett) and Bob (Matthew Pidgeon).  A divorce lawyer and a petty criminal, respectively, who hook up in a bar and begin an unexpected adventure together.   Their lives essentially bump into each others.  As characters in flux, whose lives have fallen a bit--or a lot--off track, they stumble through these misadventures in search of needs, wants, fun, and escape.  The audience is lucky to get to tag along.  And this might be the only case of "Elmo interruptus" you will ever see on stage. 

Interspersed throughout the play are engaging songs (music by Gordon McIntyre) sung by the cast. Described as a "lo-fi" production, the cast doubles as the orchestra playing mostly acoustic guitar.  If they weren't busy enough playing the leads and being the band, Bissett and Pidgeon play all the supporting characters as well (in particular I thought Bissett's portrayal of a teenage boy was spot on with the hunched skulking she employed).  Both Bissett and Pidgeon are winsome and as in any good rom-com you root for them.  These characters show us that life might be messy but sometimes you have to take that mess and run with it.  In lesser hands these characters and their misadventures might have felt a bit sappy or trite, but Greig's writing stays edgy and Bissett and Pidgeon stay true to their characters and quite convincingly fall into each other. 

Building off the "lo-fi" concept, the props and costumes are all on stage already in a space that goes from bar to bedroom to city streets which is mostly gleaned from performance and text.  A cute reveal for a philosophical parking meter makes for a smart production choice.

The play manages to be sweet, funny, and life-affirming as we watch these sad, adrift characters reach for something new, good, and fun.  When you get to that point in your life that you ask "Is this it," this play comes back with a bright, sharp retort.

Celebrating the Traverse Theatre's 50th Anniversary, Midsummer plays a limited run in New York at The Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row through January 26th. 

*Midsummer was actually a 2009 winner of the award but the production could not travel to NY that year.  This year Mies Julie won the award but was already slated to play St. Ann's Warehouse this season so Midsummer was invited back.  

I received a complimentary ticket to this production.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Top 10 for 2012: Thinking and Feeling

Looking back on 2012, the top 10 shows I saw reflect plays and musicals that surprised me, challenged me, and ultimately moved me.  I saw more than 130 shows in New York, Chicago, Kansas City, Washington DC, Edinburgh, London and Havana, Cuba.  I stumbled upon writers I loved (Luke Barnes, Samuel D. Hunter, Will Eno).  I saw some bold direction by new and established directors (Sam Gold, Tam├ís Ascher, Declan Donellan, Mike Nichols).

And as always there were some performers who just made my heart stop.  2012 was a year of off-Broadway shows that I could not stop talking about, when Broadway did not catch my attention. I was drawn to the intellectual and the raw. 

I was happy to finally meet up with some of my favorite tweeters in real life and was grateful for all the encouragement I received from friends and critics in the US and the UK on what I honestly thought would just be my personal musings over here in a quiet, unexamined part of the internet.  Boy was I wrong. 

Thanks for all your support and I hope you enjoy my Top 10 U.S. Shows for 2012:

1) It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later:  Daniel Kitson strikes again.  In what might be his most sophisticated work, Daniel Kitson returned to St. Ann's Warehouse in 2012 with another stellar monologue that changed my life.  Yeah maybe I saw it 8 times in 1 month but maybe it was totally worth it.  It was a tale of unexplored moments in two peoples lives. Kitson describes the funny, profound, and mundane moments with vivid imagery and thoughtful care.  If you missed it, you should just kill yourself now--wait don't then you will miss out on whatever Kitson might do in 2013 and it will be worth living for.  I was sad to see St. Ann's calendar for 2013 did not have another Kitson show on it but I am just being greedy.  2012 was a busy year for Daniel Kitson.  It marked his return to stand-up with a new searing 90 minute work called Where Once Was Wonder.  He debuted two new theater works in the UK.  He took one theater piece to Edinburgh with the most specific title of the year: As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title.  The other, Lucinda Ding and The Monstrous Thing, was performed at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park.  Not sure New York will get to see either of these.  I would have liked to have seen how U.S. audiences would have reacted to As of 1.52pm with Kitson's deconstruction of his stage persona and his complicated Escher-like story structure.  He's currently doing some work-in-progress shows in London so hopefully they'll be some new finished shows to report on for 2013.  The bottom line is if you hear Daniel Kitson is doing comedy, theater, or hell, baking something near you, buy a ticket and just go.  It will be worth seeing it whatever it is. 

2) Uncle Vanya: I saw three Vanyas this year.  From the experimental (Sam Gold and Annie Baker's mumblecore showpiece) to the traditional (Christopher Hampton's fine translation given a bit of a lethargic rendering on the West End) and without a doubt the Sydney Theater Company's production overshadowed them all.  Director, writer and cast found the right balance of comedy and tragedy.  The all-star Australian cast made the most of every moment on stage--Chekhov never felt so vital and alive as it did in this production.  Cate Blanchett again reminding us all that she is one of the finest stage actresses around but she was largely upstaged in my mind by Richard Roxburgh's lovable heart-breaking Vanya.  He made you believe it was possible Yelena could love him, and when she does not, it is hard to watch him pick himself back up again.  Roxburgh might have cried straight through the curtain call and I was right there with him.

3) Goodbar: Who says I don't like musicals!  As I live-tweeted my way through Waterwell's concept album of Looking for Mr. Goodbar I was impressed by the cohesive creative elements of this production: the excellent use of video and projection to add to the narrative and the balls-to-the-wall music that perfectly captured the characters, the situations, and the emotional journey.  Goodbar's score gave pauses, nuance, and emotional ebbs and flows so that when things go really awry you are on the edge of your seat.  The unusual format, the stunning music, and the powerful story added up to one of my favorite musicals of the year and I was still talking about it in December when I had seen it in January.

4) Mr. Burns A Post Electric Play: One of the most intellectually engaging works I saw this year and I had get of New York to see it.  I visited four American regional theaters this year and saw some terrific productions.  But the one that stayed with me the most was this unusual musical at Woolly Mammoth in Washington DC about how we tell stories (directed by Steve Cosson, written by Anne Washburn, with Michael Friedman as composer).  The play introduces us to a world where we must re-write the stories of our past.  And as time moves on, and the source material is gone, our re-tellings and re-renderings drift far away from the original work.  Bringing up centuries of storytelling traditions from The Greeks, to Shakespeare, to campfire stories, to live television performers, Mr. Burns was a sad and beautiful reminder of how much we need stories.  Entertainment is not a luxury but an essential form of how we communicate and relate to each other and no matter what happens we hope it will always be a part of what we do. 

5) Cock: Mike Bartlett may be a prolific playwright in the UK but his first play to open in NY debuted this year. A terrific ensemble made this sexy comedy about how hard relationships are a surprise summer hit with me.  The play was daring, smart, funny, and well-acted.  Cory Michael Smith (also great in Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale), Jason Butler Harner and Amanda Quaid made the crisp dialogue sing.  I would have liked to have seen the original UK cast of Andrew Scott and Ben Whishaw but New York audiences lucked out with the terrific NY cast and now all I want is more Mike Bartlett.

6) Dogfight:  Sometimes adapting a film into a musical can create a delicate, well-rendered, thoughtful and emotional experience that transcends the film.  My skepticism about movie-to-musical adaptations quickly drifted away and I fell for Peter Duchan's sensitive book, Pasek and Paul's beautiful heart-breaking songs, and Lindsey Mendez and Derek Klena bringing vulnerability and tenderness to the story.  Mendez finally gets a leading role worthy of her and I hope it brings her lots more work because she's an underutilized treasure. 

7) Death of A Salesman:  Mike Nichols directed this revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and reminds us all why he will always be one of our greatest directors.   Andrew Garfield was a revelation throwing himself physically into the role of the Biff.  He brings a burning intelligence and raw physical commitment to the stage and it felt slightly like the reincarnation of James Dean (I know some serious hyperbole but Garfield's performance reminded me of the rawness, violence and sensitivity that Dean had in Rebel without a Cause and East of Eden).  The entire ensemble here made me sit up and take notice.  Finn Wittrock was so charismatic as Happy that I flew to Chicago to see him in Sweet Bird of Youth.  Linda Emond was a smarter, savvier Linda than I was expecting (even if her performance in the end left me cold).  Philip Seymour Hoffman managed to stay out of his own way and his unlikable Willy Loman enhanced the tragedy for me.

8)  The Whale:  I saw Samuel D. Hunter's play early in its run before any of the hype.  When I left the play a puddle on the floor it came as quite a surprise to me.  In my weekend of downer Dad plays (somehow I managed to see Fun Home, The Whale and The Heiress all the same weekend), I found the motley crew of characters in The Whale who bring happiness and pain to each other to be rendered so gingerly that sometimes I confused drama with real life.  I loved the way in which writing and honesty could bring lightness and clarity to the characters.  A great ensemble was led by Shuler Hensley who beamed joy and love under a massive fat suit.  
9)  The Piano Lesson: I squeezed this August Wilson revival into the final weekend of the year and I'm glad that I did.  Ruben Santiago Hudson's production captures the musicality and cadences of August Wilson's work perfectly.  A tragic family epic with the same agonizing pathos as Long Day's Journey Into Night or Death of a Salesman.  Here an African-American family in 1930's Pittsburgh continues to live in the shadow of slavery, loss, unspeakable violence, and a desire to move on and move up, but ghosts of the past make that nearly impossible.  Changing geography rarely changes our history--we take ourselves where ever we go.  The Piano Lesson introduced me to actor Brandon J. Dirden and here, as Boy Willie, he's hard to take your eyes off of.

10)  Mies Julie: This Strindberg adaptation by Yael Farber unleashed the buried agonies of apartheid and made the sexual repression, taboos and shame of the original ring true in the South African setting.  Layering contemporary politics on top of this play, Farber manages to balance the personal and the political (sometimes leaning a little too far into the symbolic but...).  In this adaptation, this play had resonance and meaning beyond its roots and made me think about history, racial strife, and the vast amount of healing that many countries need even after racial apartheid is lifted. 

US Special Mentions: Fun Home, The Other Josh Cohen, One Man, Two Guvnors (the original UK production was listed as part of my 2011 wrap-up), Tribes, Gatz, Title and Deed, The Maids, Merrily We Roll Along (Encores!), Sunday in the Park with George (Chicago Shakespeare), 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (Cheek by Jowl), Newsies

UK Special Mentions: The River, Chapel Street, Oh the Humanity, As of 1.52pm GMT, Richard III/Twelfth Night (The Globe), Merrily We Roll Along (Menier).

Performances to remember: Brandon J. Dirden bringing a physicality and musicality to his role as Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson, Scott Shepherd becoming Nick Carraway in Gatz, Jeanine Serralles channeling a near-murder victim in Let Me Ascertain You and finding her inner role-player in The Maids, Andrew Garfield sobbing and snotting his way through Death of a Salesman, Mark Rylance and Sam Barnett reinventing their roles in Richard III and Twelfth Night, Tracy Letts finding an hitherto unknown inner strength in George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Cheyenne Jackson and Ari Graynor being perfectly stupid in The Performers,  Armando Riesco being both man and boy in Water by the Spoonful, Jason Danieley making Sunday sing in Sunday in the Park with George, Finn Wittrock primally screaming in Sweet Bird of Youth, Diane Lane being haggard and radiant simply by being in Sweet Bird of Youth, Denis O'Hare telling stories in An Iliad, Will Chase singing in everything from Rogers and Hammerstein's Pipe Dream to a literal opium pipe dream in Drood, Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline as the oddly perfect star-crossed Romeo and Juliet, Alexandra Socha, Roberta Colindrez, and Sydney Lucas (whose rendering of the baby lesbian torch song Your Keys is maybe my favorite song of any musical this year) breaking hearts in Fun Home, Kate Wetherhead doing everything in The Other Josh Cohen, Jeremy Jordan and Ryan Steele being a stahhs in Newsies, Ria Zmitrowicz revving up for a night on the town in Chapel Street, The entire cast of Oh the Humanity (Northern Stage) hitting the right notes of comedy in Will Eno, Becky Baker and Annaleigh Ashford making a killer duo in Assassins, and most of all Steve Rosen and David Rossmer teaching us all that Neil Life is better than real life in The Other Josh Cohen.