Friday, May 31, 2013

Pippin: High Flying, Adored

It's no secret that Diane Paulus's production of Pippin relies heavily on circus for its style, theme and ensemble of performers.  If you like death-defying feats, incredible stunts, and shiny things, this will please you because you are a normal person who likes things.  If you are me, you might find the audience excitement at all things circus a little grating because you long for something deeper.

Pippin is a strange musical.  The Leading Player (Patina Miller) is the ringleader of this band of roustabouts who are off to tell you the story of Charlemagne's son Pippin (Matthew James Thomas).  Pippin, man or actor or both, is struggling to find his place in this world.  Should he be a soldier like his father (Terrence Mann).  Should he abandon his serious pretensions and live a little as suggested by his grandmother Berthe (Andrea Martin).  Will he outwit his devious stepmother Fastrada (Charlotte D'Amboise) who hopes to see her son (Erik Altemus) on the throne.  Or will the pastoral life with Catherine (Rachel Bay Jones) be his choice.

Here, Paulus creates a wonderful world of performance where the roustabout players in a circus tent set the back-drop for the fourth-wall breaking to "put on a show" for us, the audience.  But when the "actors" begin to revolt and the artifice breaks down the musical moves into darker territory.   I like this self-referential breakdown but I find that productions don't usually leave a bread crumb trail in Act I about what is to come in Act II or set up that Act II issue at all so it feels abrupt and disjointed.  Paulus's approach gives more reason and context to the storytelling gambit but who Pippin is, what he's looking for, or what his struggle is is wholly absent making the "breakdown" later even more disconnected.  I fear this is a combination of Matthew James Thomas's light performance and Paulus's direction.   

Maybe the book doesn't leave much room to connect Act I and Act II. I've seen two professional productions of Pippin in the last year and each seemed to handle different aspects of the musical well and fall down in others.  How do you solve a problem like Pippin?  No seriously.  How do you?  I'm still wondering.  

In Kansas City, Eric Rosen's production struggled with the players aspect--using punk rock as the aesthetic and inspiration for much of the orchestration.  But the serious moments there, where Pippin struggles in his quest for identity were stronger, clearer, and more poignant--I will never forget the powerful battle scene and how shell-shocked Pippin comes to his grandmother truly hurting and needing comfort.  Also despite the overabundance of sexy in the Paulus production, Rosen's use of actors playing musical instruments made for the sexiest of rendition of With You, where the seduction is played out via string instruments.

Adding to the overall über-stylized approach in the Paulus production was the use of Fosse-inspired choreography (with some recreations as well).  As exciting as it was to see it for its technical form and pizazz, I was surprised how the Fosse dance language made me feel like the production was less fresh--hearkening backwards where so much of the production felt new.  But even if Andrea Martin sings the bejesus out of her showstopping number and Patina Miller feels like the second coming of Ben Vereen, I was more annoyed than entertained.  With every leap, spin, and circus achievement the audience excitedly claps and cheers.  But there's something needy about the circus tricks that bugged me (and the audience's Pavlovian response).  And this is my problem.  Not yours.  Why must it demand constant approval like a fucking toddler.  Ugh.  We see you.  You can bend yourself into a pretzel.  Now go do something meaningful.  Connect your actions, movement, interpretation to the work.  Right, it's still Pippin--so I might be looking for depth where there is none.  But you know, I found there were deeper moments in the KC Rep production and I actually really liked them (even if that production was still uneven).  So I believe it is possible to find depth in Pippin, but here I don't think Paulus was looking for it. 

And that might be fine.  Not everything on stage asks that we use our brain.  And sometimes I can give over to the fun.  IT'S TRUE!  Rare but true.   One Man, Two Guvnors and Newsies are some shows that leap to mind that might not have been fathoms deep but I managed to enjoy them nevertheless.  But for some reason the begging and mugging of the Pippin circus tricks was just too much for me.   I was off to see Philip Glass after Pippin so it could just be I'm enjoying spending time in my head these days.  I think it is safe to say that this is strong production, with crowd-pleasing moments, and just not one for me. C'est la vie.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Laura Benanti: Adorkable Me

"You guys that's the dumbest thing I've ever done. <beat> No it's not."--Laura Benanti

Laura Benanti's recent cabaret show, “In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention," at 54 Below is an ever-loving delight.  She manages to be not only a beguiling hostess and a killer soprano, but the small setting gives you the opportunity to appreciate her skills as an actress.  Between sharing "little known facts" about the 54 Below building ("Everything in this room is made entirely of cocaine,") and telling stories of her childhood ("I was a 45 year old gay man in a nine-year-old's body,") Benanti knows how to charm an audience.  She's flirty, kooky, and fun.  You kinda want to be her best friend.

"Thank you <beat> smattering of people."--Laura Benanti

Of course, she can also sing and she covers a range of songs including some classic numbers (On the Street Where You Live, I'm Old-Fashioned), some new musical numbers (Unusual Way, several Todd Almond compositions), and a large helping of popular music (Joni Mitchell, a mash-up of Ellie Goulding & Lana Del Rey, a medley of pop songs).  But her intros and even her interpretation of these songs is playful.  Cabaret can be soooo serious, and she has her moments of traditional cabaret, but she dials up the goofy factor as well and it really serves the show.  She makes it as enjoyable as the music.  Her show last year at the American Songbook series was great but she was aiming to fill a concert hall there.  Here, the intimate 54 Below setting made her mix of serious song-stylings and cabaret banter work even better. 
Finding a strong balance between light and dark, I was reminded how great an actress she is.  Yes, she's got a great voice.  No question.  But in the close quarters of 54 Below I was able to really see her mine her songs for character and depth.  Whether it was the dark and moody story-song Mr. Tanner by Harry Chapin or the comic, hyperactive Model Behavior from Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown, Benanti shines at both.  America, can we find a vehicle for her to do this all the time?! 

Also, I really want her to have the opportunity to use the phrase "slutty kittens" again.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Philip Glass and Friends: The Avocado of Adulthood

Tim Fain and his magic violin.
As Tim Fain's bow feverishly raced across his violin strings whilst playing Philip Glass's Chaconne, my eyes welled up and I was overcome with emotion.  I felt as if someone had grabbed me by the throat and life was leaving my body--in a completely wonderful way.  If you have to go, may it be by the beauty and power of Philip Glass as performed by Tim Fain.  In a benefit for the Henry Miller Library, Philip Glass hosted an evening of music with friends last night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. 

An eclectic audience gathered to hear an even more eclectic array of performers including Glass, Fain, Nico Muhly, Nadia Sirota,  Real Estate, Sondre Lerche, and Bryce Dessner (Van Dyke Parks was originally scheduled to play but had to pull out at the last minute due to a sprained hand).  

This is less a review and more a confession.   This was my first time seeing or hearing Philip Glass (I know--for shame).  I definitely fell asleep once during Koyaanisqatsi but I'm thinking that does not count.  I'm wondering if, like many things in adulthood, you only acquire the taste for Glass once your palate has matured--you know like a taste for avocado or The New Yorker (I feel I've finally earned the hearty laugh at something droll and I pretty much want avocado on everything.). Or maybe this was more of a personal challenge.

For years I have struggled to "listen" to music.  Music has always been so foreign to me.  I've learned the language of photography, painting, sculpture, drama and cinema but felt out of sync with dance and music.  Perhaps this is because the sum total of my own musical skills is the complete inability to clap on the beat.  Then suddenly this year (ok fine, last month), I let go with music.  I stopped trying to find the narrative and I stopped trying to "understand" it all.  I've given myself permission to understand what I can and feel what there is to feel.   And I'm glad I did because this evening proved to be well worth experiencing.

Philip Glass opened the evening with Étude #1 and Étude #10. As Glass sat as his piano and played, I got swept up in the beautiful melodies of his pieces.  My mind went to Mondrian and urban landscapes full of hustle and bustle. I heard rainfall and dancing in the rain.

Real Estate
With no emotional break or moment to catch our collective breaths, following Glass, the indie band Real Estate played three songs. I'm afraid I did not really hear much of what they played because I was still lost in the Glass pieces. 

Tim Fain came out after and played the rigorous but evocative Chaconne. As he finished I wrote in my notebook, "I'm a broken person" and then I spent five minutes trying to find tissues to wipe away my tears.  So that happened.

Sondre Lerche
Sondre Lerche, a Norwegian singer-songwriter, followed Fain.  With amusing self-awareness, Lerche entered the stage after Fain and exclaimed "Did you see that! Did you hear that!"  Wondering aloud how he ended up on this bill, Lerche played a couple of songs, including one by Van Dyke Parks.  His last song he introduced by saying it was one he wrote when he was very young and then let out a very pregnant sigh which made us all giggle.  Ah youth. But his rockabilly sound was unexpectedly richer than his self-effacing manner might suggest.  Definitely going to check out more of his music.

Next up was Nico Muhly.  He invited several artists to play along with him.  Tim Fain returned to play Drones and Violins alongside Muhly.   Nadia Sirota and Bryce Dessner joined Muhly to play Violas and Drones. 

Tim Fain and Nico Muhly

Bryce Dessner
I was partial to the Violas piece but I am biased.  Dessner bowed his guitar during Violas and Drones.  Turns out this is the way to my heart--bow a guitar well.  Melting.

Dessner's solo piece was an improv.  In the spirit of Philip Glass, he was going to do a guitar solo without touching the guitar strings--an attempt to say much with so little.  He held the guitar upside down and tapped it on the ground, controlling the sounds emanating from the guitar with his hands and pedals.  He would nudge it with his knee.  Tap and knock on it with his hands.  Layering sounds upon sounds to build a piece of music.  Swaying the guitar away from himself. Thumping it on the ground to gain more sound. 

It's a mesmerizing performance and sound in its own right but much like his role in A Lot of Sorrow watching him create in the moment feels like an incredible treasure. I know The National is kicking off a tour shortly so Dessner might not be performing a lot of his own compositions for a while but I'm keen to see that next. Mark your calendars, as he has a performance with So Percussion at Carnegie Hall in November.

Glass and Fain returned to play a piece that Glass composed for the 90th Anniversary of the ACLU called Pendulum.

The grand finale was a piece that all the acts performed in.  Glass said it was challenge to find something they all could participate in.  They played The Chase from the opera Orphée. The echoing calls between the violin and viola and the guitars were an absolute delight. Watching these talented artists all build something together made my heart sing. 

Glass did an encore called Closing.

It's always gratifying to get out of your comfort zone and "discover" something new.  Because the line-up was a mix of singer-songwriters and new classical music talents it made for a smörgåsbord of sounds and emotions.  I left beaming regardless of the rainy night upon us.  And maybe I'm listening to a lot of Philip Glass and Tim Fain today.  Not a bad You Tube rabbit hole to fall down.

Finale: Fain, Sirota, Dessner

Finale: Fain and Sirota

Finale: Lerche, Fain and Sirota

Real Estate and Dessner

Bows from Philip Glass and Friends

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Daniel Kitson: Untitled Show in NY This Fall


Daniel Kitson mentioned in one of his mailing list emails that it was likely he was bringing a show to New York this fall.  I assumed it was going to be a theater piece at St. Ann's Warehouse.  St. Ann's announced their season today and lo and behold they have confirmed that they "will present the world premiere of an as-yet-untitled new work by Daniel Kitson."

The show will run from November 26 22 through December 21.

December is now my favorite month.

Many other goodies in the St. Ann's line-up for next season including the Donmar Warehouse's Julius Caesar and the Tricycle Theater's Red Velvet (which I hope Adrian Lester will star in again).  I recommend becoming a member of St. Ann's Warehouse.  

Monday, May 13, 2013

Nikolai & The Others: Finding Home in Exile

"Everyone needs help."

Richard Nelson's new play is a who's who of Russian émigré artists in America in the 1940's, but lost in the jumble of too many characters, too much eating, and too much backbiting, is the delicate tale of an artist who has given up his art and made a career of helping out his Russian friends with the American government at time when proving your loyalty to America was de riguer.

Set in the woods of Westport, CT in 1948, Igor Stravinsky (John Glover) and George Balanchine (Michael Cerveris) are working on their new collaboration, a ballet of Orpheus and Eurydice.  Joining them are old Russian friends, spouses, and confidants.  Included among these is Nikolai Nabokov (Stephen Kunken), a composer who has gone to work for Voice of America, his ex-wife Natasha (Kathyrn Erbe), her new fiancé Aleksi (Anthony Cochrane),  actor Vladimir Sokoloff (John Procaccino) and his wife Lisa (Betsy Aidem), Stravinsky's wife Vera (Blair Brown) and Vera's ex-husband Sergey Sudeikin (Alvin Epstein).  Many have gathered to see the ailing Sudeikin, one of the first to come from Russia to America and a set designer they had all admired.  An unexpected guest, Chip Bohlen (Gareth Saxe), a State department official and former member of the Moscow Bureau brings tension to the proceedings. 

The play is not sure where to keep its focus.  There is a great deal about Stravinsky and Balanchine's collaboration including staged ballet scenes from Orpheus.  There is Vera coping with seeing her ailing and penurious ex-husband as her current husband enjoys success. There are the hangers-on, all female, who fawn and care for Balanchine--protecting him, insulating him, taking care of his dirty work for him.  And at the center of it all is Nikolai--Nicky to his friends. Nicky has somehow become the pawn of the American government.  Smoothing over immigration issues, counseling them as to how to best positions themselves with the government, and getting them the things they need. Oh great artists! Helpless and needy and not to be caught up in the details. 

I found the play tiresome in the endless introductions and inter-relationships between the figures.  As much as the overlapping dialogue and massive cast is supposed to set up a certain spirit to the piece, I found the dialogue was not sharp enough to give those scenes shape.  Like February House, this show suffered under the weight of its own efforts to connect many characters to historical material.  Too many personalities fail to make this soufflé rise.  But there was something to Kunken (who I loved in The Columnist) and his dynamic with his ex-wife that was worth exploring.  Kunken and Erbe brought heat to the cold play.  Little of it came out in the first act, but the second act dialed up the reasons for being there.  The Russians putting on their best accommodating faces for the government official.  The roles they are all playing in America and the their struggles to be able to feel at home.  And an artist who has given up and cannot get himself back on track.  That kernel was fascinating, and watching Nicky struggle with his sidelined talent in the face of greatness all around him was powerful.  But it came late in the play and continued to get sidelined by other "plots."

Something about this play felt like Nelson struck gold with the material--so much potential and a rich time period full of themes of trust, betrayal, identity and home--but his approach, his point of entry into the story felt wrong.  Part of me wished we never saw the great artists in this play.  They took up too much room with their names alone and did not really add to the story that was interesting to me.  Orpheus in many ways is really a MacGuffin.  Yes, it is an inspirational jumping off point for Nicky and a fun thing to stage (in Cromer's hands there is lovely mirroring with shadows) but I think I would have enjoyed a play that took place behind the scenes.  Just Nicky, Natasha, Vladimir and some of the hangers-on.  Kunken, Erbe, Procaccino and Aidem all offered unique and specific characters and I wanted more of them.  So much time was spent on Sudeikin and Vera, Balanchine and his peccadilloes, Stravinsky and his needs--they proved to be the least interesting of the ensemble.  I wanted to know more about the real people who lived in the shadows of these great men and fought for a foothold in the unsteady world they existed in.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Daniel Kitson: After the Beginning . Before the End Collection of Reviews

Daniel Kitson's new show "After the Beginning . Before the End" has begun to tour.  As I have done in the past with other shows (Where Once Was Wonder, As of 1.52pm GMT) I will try to keep track of reviews here and will indicate "spoilers" where necessary.

Memoir and Memory

Counting down the days until I see it myself.

WIP Review (Sydney)

The reviewer says this is a not a review of the show when it was a WIP, noting the "hilarious, impressive way [Kitson] delivers these uniquely disturbing, yet utterly human, thoughts."  The non-reviewer says one of the major themes of the work is "memory."


A Leeds-based reviewer describes the new show as "a strange surprise."  Saying, "Genre-wise, it’s incredibly slippery" as this show seems to fall between the edges of stand-up and storytelling. "What actually happens is that Daniel Kitson thinks at us for two hours."  The reviewer notes Kitson's usual "poetic nonchalance in his delivery" and his "whimsical philosophy" but because of the background music and Kitson's format he said it had "a dreamy quality."

A Liverpool reviewer talks about the show's introspective pose and its exercise in "overthinking life." Remarking that Kitson is "an exceptional performer and captivates the audience with ease."  Calling it a "uniquely personal story" that forces the audience to consider their own.

The Independent says the "new show is a reflection on reality, memory and our sense of self."  And though that does not lead to non-stop laughs, the reviewer finds Kitson "a supremely charismatic host, an astute social commentator and a master craftsman of elaborate sentences that unfold neatly like origami."  Ultimately, "it's the pathos and the humanity at the heart of his musings that stay with you."

The Times gave the show three stars but complains the show is "too long for its own good."  Clive Davis says the show "offers a meditation on how memory bewitches us all, weaving layers of misunderstanding and myth around the most banal experiences."  He argues fans will enjoy it but those who are neutral towards Kitson might feel "less indulgent." 

 The Arts Desk gave the show four stars.  The reviewer was new to Kitson but appears to have been won over. "He tangles fearlessly with an extensive vocabulary, using lateral wit to conjure narratives in which he portrays himself as a commitment-phobic, faintly pervy, rich recluse who doesn’t know how to fill his empty days."  The reviewer describes the theme of the piece "[Kitson's] and humankind’s delusions regarding memory" and again notes this is not really stand-up but an "offbeat lecture."

The Argus says "It’s very rare that being emasculated is an enjoyable experience. Watching Daniel Kitson provides one of those moments."  Noting this show falls between storytelling and stand-up, it runs "with a loose theme about memory and imagination, [and] it is best described as scripted stream of consciousness."

The Nottingham Post notes that Kitson is a "Self-confessed habitual self-Googler" and the critic is conscious that what he writes might be judged by Kitson himself, but nevertheless "after watching his almost two-hour monologue on the nature of the self, subjectivity, memory, perception and reality, I have nothing bad to say."

The Guardian weighs in on the new show giving it 4 stars.  Noting the philosophical musings in this show push Kitson further from the traditional stand-up fray but "it's a while since Kitson has resembled a normal standup." Finding that Kitson sets himself apart from others because his work comes from the heart--"unsentimental honesty."  "The phrasemaking, the ridiculous overthinking, the absence of cliche, the hypnotic intensity – this is gripping stuff."

Gigglebeats (in a maybe little spoiler-y review)  reports on the show which is "[s]omewhere between stand-up and storytelling" and notes Kitson's "almost-hypnotic" rhythm in the script.  Kitson is playing "the luckless protagonist in his latest tragedy."  But the reviewer says "one thing is certain; this is one of Kitson’s best shows yet."

The British Theatre Guide says Kitson "is a charismatic eccentric performer" and discusses how subjective memory is in this show about memory and perceptions.  "This was Kitson at his sharpest, perceptive, questioning best."

My Review is full of spoilers (or I think they are).  Check it out if you have already seen the show or are not likely to.

Funny Fecker  has a few spoiler-y moments in their review but says "Kitson is like tantric sex, it may be too much for some, but for the majority it’s a long period of heightened, sustained pleasure."  Finding Kitson was "hypnotic" and the feeling they left with was serenity.  "[A]lthough you may not leave with a selection of new pub jokes to tell, you may, like me, leave a changed person."

Chortle says "This is not a philosophy lecture, however much it may prompt contemplation." Calling Kitson "disarmingly honest about what he examines" and the themes of the work are "all explored with typical literate erudition." It's not all roses however, the critic says this "introspection can get a bit intellectually gloopy – dragging back the funnies in favour of pondering which could benefit from an edit" and found the "hypnotically lilting rhythms he plays beneath his monologue adds nothing." Also "there is not the underlying joy or optimism of Kitson’s earlier, simpler shows, just doubt."

Culture Vulture says the new show "finds Kitson in reflective mood."  "Kitson evokes feelings of both sympathy and disdain in equal measure."  "[N]o real conclusions to be drawn from the narrative of the show and I guess that’s the point."When trying to categorize Kitson, the reviewer says "he’s thought provoking but most of all funny and above all else that is what comedy should be isn’t it?"

Culture Vulture's reviewer revisits the show and finds on second viewing the show is "centered more on notions of truth and thought than loneliness."  "Kitson evokes feelings of both sympathy and disdain in equal measure."  The overarching narrative offers "no real conclusions to be drawn."  But the reviewer says "I guess that’s the point. As he says, our life is the story we tell our self and the past is how we remember it whether that is rightly or wrongly."

Student newspaper The Boar says "To watch Kitson is laughter, amazement and empathy all at once."  Celebrating Kitson's underground status and desire to remain there, "his comedy remains pure to himself, untarnished by commercial pressure."  The reviewer notes "he has a magnificent, perhaps unprecedented ability to transfix the audience in pure awe and admiration."

The Kirkintilloch Herald says "‘After the Beginning. Before the End’ adds yet another facet to [Kitson's] flawless back catalogue."  Describing the show, the reviewer says "Heavyweight ruminations on Lockean memory theory run alongside fiercely-personal vignettes from Kitson’s own life."

Blogger Mabel Slattery (@Slatteroo) says this show "is a beautiful expression of what makes people who they are."  Calling the show "funny and powerful" and noting Kitson "simultaneously takes you in and keeps his distance."  Also a lovely postscript about the terror of speaking to the man himself.

The Yorkshire Post laments "it is difficult to watch Kitson is because you can’t help feeling that this is as good as it can feel he has reached a zenith and amazing as it is to see him at the top of his game, there is a sadness that there’s nowhere left to go."  Calling the show "meandering" and "poetic" and makes you want to relive over and over again "the set’s sheer brilliance and beauty."

Dominic Cavendish writes in the Telegraph about Kitson as compared to Derren Brown, giving both five stars.  Cavendish says "Although their acts are worlds removed, each is performing a Svengali-like magic – providing a running commentary on what’s happening, deconstructing what they’re up to, but in ways that deepen the mystery and enchantment rather than lessening it."

The Sabotage Times calls Kitson's newest show "unconventional, accessible and vital as ever."

Reviewer Scott Barnett seeing Kitson for the first time says "Kitson skewers social conventions and clichés with his sometimes-silly yet poignant linguistic acrobatics verging on the poetic."  The space at Battersea Arts Centre felt a bit like they were worshiping at the church of Kitson to which Barnett concludes "Daniel Kitson has gained a new member of the flock, amen."


Blogger Keith R Higgons says "Kitson is equal parts anthropologist, misanthrope, narcissist and all comedic genius."  Struggling to label the show, Higgons concludes it's "perfect collision of stand up, monologue and spoken word."  "Kitson’s careful examination and explanation of his material and thought process is as nuanced as it is hysterical."

I reviewed the show in comparison to the version I saw in the UK.

Woman Around Town Marti Sichel called the show "a highlight of the summer season thus far."  Noting Kitson can insult his audience but not a bit of animosity is felt because he is amusing in his delivery and is so quick to turn the lens back on himself.   Kitson is among the performers "who are so good at what they do that you can't help but sit back in awe of them."
a highlight of the summer season thus far.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The National: A Lot of Sorrow

"I don't wanna get over you."--The National

Listening to The National play the song Sorrow for six hours gives you an uncanny feeling--and it's not just the ringing in your ears, the dizzying dehydration headache and the numbness in your feet.  I felt overwhelmed by the remarkable and epic musical, theatrical and emotional performance of the band. And I just want to keep talking about it to anyone who will listen.

This "durational performance" was the creation of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson and is titled A Lot of Sorrow.  It was performed for one day at MoMA's PS1 in the V/W Dome.  Inside a white dome, filled with stage smoke, the band The National would play its song Sorrow non-stop for six hours.  "[T]he idea behind A Lot of Sorrow is devoid of irony, yet full of humor and emotion. It is another quest to find the comic in the tragic and vice versa."  Like a large photo image made up of tiny photos of something else, Kjartansson has sculpted a new piece of art out of a series of performances of the same song.  

My friend and I arrived promptly for the noon show (because we are those girls) and stayed for the entire performance which ended well past six.  And for those many hours we could not unplug.  An inexplicable tension was building throughout.  Each movement of the piece was keeping our attention.  Each turn of the song cycle seemed to reveal a new facet to the song.  We became invested in the piece.  As our limbs ached and as our commitment to the work grew, we wondered how it would end and what would we feel when it was over.

This was a six hour plus marathon for the band.  The artist delivered snacks to the band throughout.  I enjoyed watching lead singer Matt Berninger fill his suit jacket pockets with grapes.  He smiled impishly as he tossed grapes into his mouth as he sang.  I sincerely worried as he hydrated himself after every song cycle--would he get a bathroom break?

Even great men have to pee.  The remarkable absence of Matt Berninger.
At 2:45 he left the stage and I wrote in my notebook, "He leaves the stage. One hopes for a pee." 

Snacks for the band which Berninger shared with audience.
Upon returning to the stage Berninger remarked that he "had to go." 

I realized that we'd been going for almost three hours and unlike a regular concert there had been no banter between songs.  No asides to the audience.  It had been just Sorrow in a myriad of permutations.  Berninger would mostly sing with his eyes closed and when not he'd look off into the middle distance with his bright blue eyes. The absence of audience interaction was jarring on some level.  It felt artificially imposed by the construct of this being an art installation calling for a constant loop of music.  But that too was part of the experience. Your expectations for a "concert" were undermined at every turn.  And the venue was intimate.  So it felt strange to have a conversational wall between performers and audience.

But as the day went on Berninger did manage to sneak in a few asides to the audience (including late in the show chiding the audience when they were clapping too fast).   He also made sure the audience got snacks and as the band started drinking wine and beer more regularly during the show, Berninger handed the front row of the audience bottles of wine as well.  

Ragnar Kjartansson handing out napkins to the audience.
This was a marathon for us too.  I had brought one granola bar for an emergency.  That was consumed at hour three.  By hour four I could not feel my feet.  By hour five I had to dance or my legs would have given out.   But by hour six I was singing along, I was dancing, I was screaming (and still no feeling in my feet). 

But there was no question once we started in on this experience, we could not stop.

The song, Sorrow, on its own, is beautiful.  It has a cushion-y velvet sound which I discovered you could burrow deeper and deeper into.  And unlike a frozen album track, the live performance lent itself to being sculpted.  With each cycle of the song, I realized how much difference there could be within the same song. 

I had started out listening closely trying to track and hear the variations in the sound of the song.  If the drummer took a break, the song's rhythm was driven by the guitars.  If the guitarist was quiet, suddenly the trumpet and trombone could be heard.  How the song was orchestrated was constantly changing and this seemed to be driven by the band, in the moment, as they listened to each other.  There were quieter cycles were the vocals dominated and louder cycles were the guitars were clangy and aggressive.  With each turn, an expectation grew.  How would they surprise us this time? 

There came a point, about 4 hours into the show, that I realized the guitarists in the band were identical twins (Bryce Dessner, Aaron Dessner).  Now I say this because I'm not usually an observational idiot but I was so caught up in listening to the work I honestly did not notice until then. 

If my sources are correct, I was standing closer to Bryce Dessner.  This was fortuitous because it gave me the perfect vantage point to observe his deftness with the guitars.  For a while he was bowing on his guitar.  He would sometimes use a metal slide and an electronic pick (I think--Dear Bryce, you were mutherfucking incredible but I do not know anything about the tools of a guitarist so sorry if I have misidentified your techniques etc).  He would literally drop a guitar at certain intervals and massage a sound out of it.  Or burp it like a baby.  I HAVE NO IDEA BUT IT WAS UNLIKE ANYTHING I HAVE EVER SEEN.

He seemed to be conducting a lot of the changing soundscapes and his contribution to the variations cannot be understated.  When the energy was flagging, his guitar picked everyone up.

Not supposed to be a picture of his crotch. More about his finger work. Ok this one is just bad no matter what I say.
Unexpectedly, the pivot point, where the song cycle would end and then begin again, had a breathtaking tension built into it.  Against all reason, your expectation is for a new track to start, but the same song returns every time.  The tikka-tikka-tikka of the drummer was often the signal.  But when the drummer stepped away you suddenly noticed the absence of the drum or cymbals at the pivot point.  The pivot seemed sometimes like a call to arms, jubilantly bringing everyone back into the song, or at other times it was a nagging parent bringing everyone back to their work and ending their break-time. 

By the third hour there had been so many variations.  Every turn of the song was different.  Every loop the band made was unique.  I could not keep up.  I had thought going in I would tune in and tune out and wander around listening only sometimes but something about the way the song was performed, as it kept wrapping itself around itself I was transfixed.  Like a cocoon it was building on itself and growing into something totally new.   Had I not experienced it for myself I would not have thought it possible.  I was enraptured by the new work that was forming.  By the repetition that was not repetitive.   I had to let go of trying to understand every cycle.  I had to just let the sounds wash over me and step back and enjoy it.  The work stopped being about the individual song or an individual cycle.  It was about the evolution of the overall piece, the discoveries I would make as I kept listening, the expectations met and the expectations thwarted.  I did not want it to end.

Boredom was never an issue.  Blood clots and fainting were an issue, but I was riveted from beginning to end.  And if I had been able to sit down I would have stayed forever. 

Late in the show
Being in such an aural bubble, I found my ability to focus sharpen.  I was aware of the transcendent and the mundane and they all were woven together. 

Here were some notations I made to myself as the show progressed:

2:00 He starts to sit
2:20 The bow makes a reappearance
2:49 Trumpet suddenly gets his moment!
2:53 Glasses come off, sweat wiped away.
3:18 Drummer out for full cycle
3:32 Sugar cubes? [Snack delivery]

4:52 Audience clapping incorporated
5:02 He gives wine to us
5:50 His voice gives out--the audience fills in

As the time inched closer to six, the audience's excitement grew.  For the first hour of the performance, the audience did not clap at all--maybe it was the museum setting.  But as the show had progressed the audience shed its reservations and the applause escalated from the end of each song cycle, to BOTH the end of the song and even more enthusiastically at the start of the next one.  It became more and more exuberant as we reached the end.

At 10 minutes to six (with about 25 minutes to go) Berninger's voice started to give out.  He looked pained.  It made me gasp and my eyes started to well up.  We were so close to the finish.  I could not tell if he was in physical pain but suddenly the song sounded more grave than it had before.  His voice was barely able to warble the words.  Bryce Dessner reached out to the audience and beckoned us to sing along.  We all sang the song together through every cycle until the end. 

The role of the audience had blurred.   By this time, after six hours together, we were not mere observers.  We were the energy reserve helping to get this boat into port.  And frankly I would have done whatever was asked of me. 

Second to last cycle through Sorrow. Wine well earned.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Aaron Tveit: Young Broadway Star Returns to New York

Last seen on a New York stage in Catch Me if You Can, Aaron Tveit (Les Misérables) set off an internet scrum when he announced a series of concert dates at 54 Below in the month of May.  An intimate venue, a handsome young star, and squeeing girls everywhere (and probably a few of their Moms) broke the internet to get tickets.  The shows sold out as soon as tickets were released. 

Last night was the first night in the concert series and Tveit did not disappoint his fans. Structuring the show around the trajectory of his career, from one of his high school musical theater shows (West Side Story) to the roles he made famous on Broadway, he offered his audience many of the songs they were eager to hear and a few unexpected twists.  He wanted this to be a show full of songs that had personal meaning to him and showed his love of music. 

He performed songs that he is oft associated with like I'm Alive (Next to Normal) and Goodbye (Catch Me If You Can).  He sang a number of musical theater classics including If I Loved You (Carousel) and My Romance (Rodgers & Hart, Jumbo), as well as more recent musical theater works like Hero and Leander (Myths and Hymns) and Run Away With Me (The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown).  But a self proclaimed "pop music fan" he mixed in Bruno Mars's When I Was Your Man, Bob Dylan's Make You Feel My Love, and Joni Mitchell's A Case of You.

The song that brought down the house was Taylor Swift's We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.  Complete with eye rolls and finger wagging, he got in touch with his most petulant inner teenage girl to hilarious effect.  After singing Sondheim and Guettel, he did point out in the middle of the Swift song to the audience that "These are the real lyrics by the way" which got a big laugh.  The audience happily joined in in singing along with the chorus.

Many friends and family were in attendance at the first concert and the show, for a while, felt very respectful and formal--and there's nothing wrong with that.  Tveit has played some serious young men on stage and the numbers from those shows reflect it.  But the irreverent spirit of the Taylor Swift number and Tveit screwing up the lyrics to another number seemed to loosen him up, played well to the crowd, and upped the entertainment ante. 

Speaking of his mentor and idol, Norbert Leo Butz, he decided to perform, as an homage to Butz, I Could Be In Love With You, a song cut from The Last Five Years which Butz has performed (including at 54 Below).  About three-quarters of the way through the song, Tveit blanked on the lyrics and stopped the number and said, "Now you can tell Norbert I totally fucked it up." He ran over to his musical director for lyrical assistance and finished out the song.  It's a bit of a neurotic and comedic song and he handled it well.  It showed his performance range and made me wonder how he would be in lighter fare (I never caught him in Hairspray).

I'm very much a newcomer to his work but you cannot come away from this show without thinking he's a consummate musical theater professional with a gorgeous voice. For me I was partial to Run Away With Me, What You'd Call a Dream, and My Romance.  But if trapped on a desert island with any of the songs from last night I'm pretty sure I'd die on that island happy.  I'm looking forward to the album he will be recording from these 54 Below shows. 

And for those who respond more to the visual than the aural, he looked pretty damn fine in his light gray three piece suit with his one hair curl that would fall out of place and land on his forehead against his wishes.

For the completists among you, here was the set list from the May 3rd show:

I'm Alive -- Next to Normal
Something's Coming -- West Side Story
If I Loved You -- Carousel
Make You Feel My Love -- Bob Dylan
When I Was Your Man -- Bruno Mars
What You'd Call a Dream -- Diamonds
One Song Glory-- Rent
There's a World -- Next to Normal
Hero and Leander -- Myths and Hymns
I Could Be in Love With Someone Like You -- Song cut from The Last Five Years
Run Away With Me -- The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown
She's Always a Woman -- Billy Joel
A Case of You -- Joni Mitchell
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together -- Taylor Swift
Goodbye -- Catch Me if You Can
My Romance -- Rogers & Hart, Jumbo

Friday, May 3, 2013

Bull: Odd Man Out

A picador and a matador walk into an office, each pokes, prods, excites, incites, and stabs the bull but who will prevail.  Is there any nobility in that fight?

L-R: Eleanor Matsuura, Sam Troughton, and Adam James in BULL, part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg
British playwright Mike Bartlett has created another arena style play, as a companion piece to his play from last season Cock, where the characters come out charging in Bull.

Rather than exploring the world of sexuality and relationships as he did in Cock, in Bull, Bartlett is delving into the cutthroat corporate world where survival of the fittest is a daily battle.  Thomas (Sam Troughton), Tony (Adam James), and Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura) are scheduled to meet with their boss (Neil Stuke). The company is downsizing and one of them will be let go today.  Every one is on pins and needles about who will survive the layoffs but Isobel and Tony turn their pins and needles on Thomas. Is this harmless banter?  Teasing, taunting, or bullying?  Is this about their jobs or something deeper.

"He's always playing with you and you never stand up to him.  Be a man, have some fucking balls, then someone might find you attractive. At last. Thomas. You might suddenly become a bit just even a bit, impressive.  They might keep you on."--Isobel

L-R: Eleanor Matsuura and Sam Troughton in BULL, part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg
Set in a glass and metal enclosure with the whir of fluorescent lights above and a water cooler in the corner, this is a generic office.  But there is nothing generic in the probing questions Isobel and Tony ask Thomas.  "Where were you born?" "What did your father do?" "Do you have a girlfriend?" "Do you have a history of mental illness in your family?" In between these personal inquiries, Isobel and Tony needle Thomas about his physical stature, his suit, his attitude, and his lack of camaraderie with the team.

"Stop staring at the floor, stop shuffling around like an autistic penguin. Don't pick your teeth. Don't hunch."--Isobel

Thomas had a short fuse. He cannot disengage. He tries every possible defense.  He ignores them, argues with them, insults them, and plays along.  With each tactic, he seems to fail.  He never has the answer they are looking for.  Like children who keep changing the rules as they play, Thomas has neither the aptitude nor the stomach for this game. 

They keep poking him deeper and deeper.  There are no minor flesh wounds, but dolorous blows after dolorous blows.  Are they gaslighting him or is he paranoid and overreacting?  Troughton is fantastic as the put upon Thomas. As Isabelle and Tony, push him and retract, tease him then apologize, lie and then reveal truths, Troughton expresses moments of genuine trust and then flare-ups of angry doubt. He tries to be cagey but they are relentless.  He lets his guard down and they seize the opportunity to pounce.  Much of this is through Troughton's performance.

Matsuura was not as ferocious as I was expecting, especially as the story progresses.  Her performance seemed at times too reserved.  James was delightful as the ridiculous Tony.  Conciliatory at times and aggressive at others.  Demented and balanced all at the same time.  

Directed by Clare Lizzimore, the actors move around the stage often cornering Thomas.  He must squeeze away from them and find refuge in the open space.  A more elaborate staged fight scene did not work as well as say the sexless sex scene in Cock (after thinking about it I wished it was more stylized and less literal--something about it was clumsy.  But the haunting finale was unexpected and serves well the underlying premise of the piece.  

The design elements work to support the play (Soutra Gilmour, designer, Peter Mumford, lighting designer).  The audience sits on raised platforms on either side of the theater with many in the audience standing around the edge of the enclosure.  This emphasizes the boxing ring/bull ring nature of the play and you cannot escape the feeling that you are party to this vicious game by being "patrons" in attendance at the sporting arena.

If you are looking for a work as funny, rich, and complex as Cock, you will be disappointed.  But this is a sharp, fast one act that offers very good performances, a smart production, and something to ruminate on. 

I received a complimentary ticket to the production.