Sunday, June 30, 2013

Be The Death of Me: Stories of Death, Dying and Life

"We all have to deal with this sooner or later."
Epic in scope but grounded in the documentary-style intimacy that makes their investigative theater approach powerful and effective, The Civilians's new work Be The Death of Me, uses immersive theater to weave together a taut fabric of stories about death.  Using the sound of subway train doors opening and closing as the trigger for stories to stop and start, this play, directed by Steve Cosson, reminds us that there are eight million stories in the naked city.  These stories are all around us. You just need a few minutes to lend an ear to one.

Using a former church as the setting, and establishing story stations around multiple levels of the space, the audience starts out by choosing from an array of performers doing short monologues.  Like a scavenger hunt for stories, you race around the building to listen in, and small groups form around each storyteller.  All the stories are timed to start and end approximately around the same moment, with the chime of the subway doors closing as your signal.  The chatter suddenly increases as the voices of actors rise around you.  Seated on thrones, sofas, beds, and chairs, you hear the cacophony of stories being told all over the large room, as you listen to a vampire explain his theories of immortality, a futurist speaking of consciousness transferred to computers, and a woman who communes with spirits.  As some stories end moments before others, the actors fall silent (turning to their cell phone, leaving the spotlight, falling asleep) and a quiet starts to fall again leaving a few lone voices finishing their tales.   Each story dies a little death.  And then as the subway doors chime again, the stories are reborn to a new audience.

This sound bubble grows and shrinks with each turn and you are conscious of the larger purpose of the immersive piece.  You can take away an individualized experience within a communal framework.  As one character in one monologue I heard said, everyone deals with death differently.  And so you tailor a personalized story adventure for yourself. But you feel the presence of others.  You are not alone. 
"It was immense.  It was infinite."
And personal reactions vary.  I noticed one couple clutching each other as they left a story about a love cut short by death, a young boy attending the show with his Dad was startled when the word penis was spoken and he looked to his father for assurance, and I wiped tears away as an EMT talks about the young man she could not save.

The structure of Be The Death of Me then moves from the small to the grand.  The audience is gathered to listen to longer stories together in one central space.  From balconies to far corners of the room, stories rise up: a mother who has lost her baby (Colleen Werthmann), a suicide survivor who tries to explain the pain she has felt (Nina Hellman), a woman who frequently has out of body experiences (Jeanine Serralles), and a man who drowns and returns to life (Daniel Jenkins).  Interspersed between the longer stories are pop-up moments where the actors pull a chair into a spotlight and start speaking.  The quiet hush that accompanied the group story is broken by the loud chatter of many stories being told at the same time.  The audience then gathers close together, cross-legged on the floor like around a campfire story  You catch whatever story is being told closest to you.  You lean in to hear, you catch pieces, you miss others.

The shuffling of chairs and sudden emergence of stories being told just over your shoulder mimics the ebb and flow of city life.  Have you ever found yourself on a subway and among the din of talking and noise, a story starts to emerge.  You hear snippets.  The public and private blend and blur.  You lean in to try to hear.  I once became so riveted and involved in the story a woman was telling about herself that I changed trains with her so I could keep listening.

Of all the stories, my first was the one that stayed with me the most.  The modern-day vampire's philosophy that perhaps we extend life by telling stories about those who have died was most appealing to me.  They cannot really have died if we are re-enacting, sharing, and bringing them back to our thoughts through stories.

"The need to stop hurting.  Not the same as choosing death."
There's no question I am a fan of the work The Civilians do (Let Me Ascertain You: Death, LGBTQ).  I have not had a lot of chances to see much of their long-form work (Mr. Burns).  But Cosson's direction and vision for this show binds together the separate stories into a cohesive whole.  Visually, he uses projections at times but not all of the time.  There are comic projections to punctuate the story of a funeral home worker who takes issue with the "death industry." Jeanine Serralles, with her animated features and maniacal laughter, tells her story to a camera and her visage is projected on the wall as she speaks her monologue--it comes across as ghostly with a slight time delay.  And throughout images of the subway arriving and departing stations create a visual through-line for the piece.  The subway sequences help mark time.  They give the play a feeling of a unified direction and enhance the public/private feeling that the piece has overall.

And in the end, the experience that Be the Death Me most resembles is life coping with death.    Those left behind gather together.  We share in rituals.  We try to understand or make sense of events.  At times we feel nothing, other times we are overcome with emotions.  We listen to stories as part of the ritual of death--they may be religious, familial, or personal stories. We grasp for the narrative and we long for meaning.  The Civilians' show delivers both.

Disclosure:  Before seeing the show, I made a donation to The Civilians to support further development of this project.  I received a complimentary ticket to the show but I also purchased a ticket to attend.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Chimerica: Where Are All The Heroes

"They turned out the lights to scare us and then...I don't know.  Maybe they did not come back on again for me." Zhang Lin

"I want to meet a hero, a genuine, you know, hero."  Joe Schofield
A man stands on a rooftop in China and shouts English into the wind--helping his students to conquer English will strengthen China he says.  It may be true because at this moment America and China, have at long last found common ground--everyone likes to make money and they've found a way to make money from each other.  This symbiotic relationship between American and China was perhaps unthinkable to two men, one American and one Chinese, who more than twenty years earlier experienced the Tienanmen Square massacre.  With the passage of time since those momentous events, we are given the opportunity through Lucy Kirkwood's new play Chimerica to revisit what happened then and what is taking place now in American/Chinese relations.  The result is an epic play addressing the political and the personal and suffused with Kirkwood's trademark biting and funny dialogue.  I struggled with certain aspects of the play, but when it was all said and done I found the pluses far outweighed any minuses here.

Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore) was 18 when he lucked out and took the iconic picture of the man standing in front of the tank during the demonstrations in Tienanmen Square.  In his travels to China he befriended Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong), an English teacher, who has taught him about the Chinese people and their culture.  More than twenty years later Joe, now a seasoned war photographer dissatisfied with the state of journalism and his life, returns to China with journalist Mel (Sean Gilder) to do a story on Chinese factories.  On the flight he meets Englishwoman Tessa (Claudie Blakley) who is on her way to China for the first time to do market research on how to sell products to the Chinese market.  Joe learns from Zhang Lin that the Tank Man may not be dead and Joe sets our to find the man behind the image.  The mystery behind the Tank Man's identity drives Joe to find meaning in his photo and his life.  But Joe cannot really see what is in front of him. Messing around with Tessa, neglecting his friendship with Zhang Lin, and letting his myopia for truth, justice, and heroism get in the way of his job, his journey undoes more than it reveals.  For Zhang Lin, Joe's visit stirs up memories of his past and his long-dead wife (Elizabeth Chan) and for the first time he starts to confront feelings he has long repressed. 

One of the hardest things to do is to get people to see things from a new perspective.  We're so entrenched in our own point of view.   Understanding or connecting to other people may often be the goal, but how often is it the result?  Kirkwood explores the question of shared understanding and perspectives through photography, history, friendships and relationships.  The misunderstandings in the play are sometimes cultural or linguistic, but there are also the disconnections we encounter because our hearts and minds cannot find a way to reach one another.

It feels so rare to encounter a contemporary play that undertakes so much and is largely successful with it.  It is a play about history so the length and depth of the material calls out for a longer treatment.  But Kirkwood doesn't just set up a mystery to solve with the identity of the Tank Man, she also tries to address the ideas behind the Chinese protests and how both Americans and Chinese have changed in the intervening years.  Arguments of democracy, freedom, and justice that once may have dominated the rhetoric are now are all couched in economic terms.  As Zhang Lin says to Joe, "This country owns you.  You don't get to lecture us any more.  I subscribe to this website, for my teaching, it sends me new American slangs and phrases each week. You know what phrase I learnt this week? Fiscal cliff."  Even contemporary protest movements (Occupy Wall Street being the one Kirkwood hones in on) seem to start from an economic justice place.

And Kirkwood brings to life two men who are unhappy.  Both end up on a quest focused on the past which may or may not lead them to a new future.

Despite all this heavy material, Kirkwood's primary strength is that she writes fun and frothy dialogue that belies the emotional and personal stories she is telling.  I found that she achieved this with her prior play NSFW and again in Chimerica.  Her banter is incredible because it is funny, sly, and unassuming.  And at times it can be dark and trenchant.  Nothing quite feels like a lecture or needless exposition here. It's effortless and breezy. You're laughing, then you realize you have a window into the characters in a deeper way than you thought. 

But Kirkwood is less deft when it comes to expressing the Chinese characters and the story between Zhang Lin and his wife Liuli. It seems harder for her to strike a sincere or sentimental tone. Dropping all snark and wit, Zhang Lin's heavily emotional storyline does not feel like it has the same weight as Joe's story.  Zhang Lin (as an adult and young man) and Liuli were less clear and the moments they have together on stage did not carry the same confidence that scenes between Joe and Tessa had (which were largely banter driven), for instance.  The result is that the Joe story line feels stronger (and perhaps because of this I found it took on greater importance in this production--which I'm not sure was the intent). 

Some of this imbalance may have also been a product of  performance as well.  I did not find the actors playing Zhang Lin as an adult (Benedict Wong) and as a young man (Andrew Leung) really got across the heart of what was going on with that character.  Zhang Lin is meant to be introverted, but I did not feel for him in the way that I should have.  Adding to further imbalance, Stephen Campbell Moore and Claudie Blakley had such strong chemistry that their relationship came alive much more (seriously give them a rom-com ASAP folks). Moore was sympathetic and charming that it was a little too easy to forgive him for his character's selfish behavior.  A number of actors played multiple roles to great success including Vera Chok (particularly a stand-out as the stripper Mary Chang), Sarah Lam, and David K.S. Tse.


Now I'm not going to ruin the big reveal at the end of the play. But when it happened I actually found it a little too convenient for my liking.  I felt like earlier surprises in the play had been more meaningful because they shifted my expectations and turned certain themes in the play on their head.  They forced me to reconsider my own assumptions.  But with the finale, I "got" the aspects of the mystery that were answered, but I did not feel the emotional impact of it.

I believe this was the fault of the production and performances.  When I went back to read the play I saw how Kirkwood had laid the groundwork toward that ending and I thought it was more organic than what I saw on stage.  But I never felt that clarity of purpose and coherence in the production.  And perhaps, even the play itself, answers more questions than I wanted answered.  There's so much about the play that exists in the grey--motivations, moral high grounds, rightness and wrongness.  I was attracted to those waffling conversations and preferred them to a very black and white answer offered. 

Director Lyndsey Turner has chosen to stage the play on a rotating set with a cube design (set design by Es Devlin).  Like a Rubik's cube, each rotation changed the make-up of the story.  From Beijing to New York, to Middle America, and into the past.  Photograph contact sheets, scenes of contemporary China, America, and cues as to where we were (New York brownstones) were projected onto the cube and gave the otherwise cold metal cube a narrative purpose.

I guess one could argue that the revolving cube, where different scenes unfolded and shifting through time and space, was working to unlock the mystery contained within it.  But the metaphor is a little stretched and I did not feel the visual necessity of the cube.  Unfortunately I was also in the front row so I did not always have the best vantage point for all the scenes when they were recessed within the cube. 

Certainly the omnipresent photography kept my mind on the issues of truth, memory, and what we see.  As author John Berger has written:
"Every image embodies a way of seeing.  Even a photograph.  For photographs are not, as often assumed, a mechanical record.  Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however, slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights....Yet, although every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or appreciation of an image also depends upon our own way of seeing."
Turner uses a lot of photographic imagery that builds on the questions in Kirkwood's play. And maybe to some degree my intellectualizing the visuals, getting lost in Joe's identity as a photographer, and ruminating on Tessa's efforts to label and categorize the world, led me astray for the finale. Or they were the strongest elements of the production and therefore they dominated my thinking and attention.  Or they are just more in sync with my way of seeing. 

No matter my resistance to the "finale," I found the play stayed with me even weeks later.  Interesting writing, strong characters, and a massive undertaking to make sense of politics and cultural divides.  I'd be curious how an American audience would react to it. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Dirty Great Love Story: Brits Off Broadway

Katie on her boyfriend:  "He's a cock! cock."
Richard on Katie's boyfriend: "Let's abbreviate to 'cock'"
Sometimes you're just a man standing in front of a girl...who's vomiting on your crotch.  Dirty Great Love Story is a rom-com that is unexpectedly equal parts Bridget Jones and Jane Austen-- with unspoken feelings of affection that you struggle to voice and fall-down-drunk moments where boobs pop out of tiny tops.  Dirty Great Love Story is a lo-fi, poetry-based play, directed by Pia Furtado, that played Edinburgh Fringe last year and is closing the 2013 Brits Off-Broadway series.

Richard Marsh (Richard Marsh) is at a stag do (bachelor party) and Katie Bonna (Katie Bonna) is at a hen do (bachelorette party) with mates Westy (Marsh) and CC (Bonna) (respectively).  Stags interfere with hens and Katie and Richard meet, somewhat less than cute.  In a drunk, wild night out at a club they have a one night stand.  Richard wants more but Katie, just out of a relationship, runs off.  They each feel something for the other but their timing is off.  For two years, at barbecues, weddings, births, and christenings, they crash into each other like student drivers, and it's awkward moments and missed opportunities which are hard on them but a delight for the audience. 

The play is largely prose but it also involves rhyming poetry at times.

Katie: "Our wife-to-be drags me from his face, Shaking her ass and flapping her L plates.  She struts, fiercely unlike a bride, To Beyoncé's Single Ladies war cry."
Richard:  "I spend three months hiding in bottles, in box-sets - in beds. New knickers spill secrets on old floors. I carry old pain through new doors."
It's pretty clear from the title that this show was not going to be G-rated.  I suspect the more explicit material was the reason an older man left within the first few scenes and never returned--but those who stayed raved about it after.  Unfortunately I saw it with a particularly quiet matinee crowd and this poetic, contemporary love story involving naked tea making, sex in a tent, and blow jobs deserves to also connect with a younger, livelier crowd.  And with more-than-affordable ticket prices, a winsome cast, and relatable subject matter it should do so! 

Like any good rom-com the pregnant possibilities of the romance will carry the day if the leads are charming enough, the writing buoyant, and the lovers' mishaps arrive in frequent intervals.  Marsh and Bonna are co-writers and stars of the play.  Ultimately it rests on their shoulders to make this work and they successfully bring to bear their inner-screwball comedians.  Marsh is the nerdy (ergh "Not classically handsome") but noble knight who rescues Katie whenever he gets the chance but he also says the stupidest things and uses humor at the most inopportune times. Bonna manages to make Katie's relationship-bumbling endearing and her wackiness and indecision become the foundation for why Richard falls for her. Of course I'm partial to Katie because she makes music festival spreadsheets.  Who doesn't organize their entertainment into a spreadsheet? 

There's no set to speak of save two chairs and two screens.  There are no props. Changes in lighting indicate changes in setting. Everything falls to Bonna and Marsh who juggle not only their main characters but several side characters who are as distinct  as the leads.  With different accents and unique character traits it is easy to keep track of all the characters and who is speaking, and it never gets in the way of the storytelling.  

The play provides the stomach-lurching fear (What if they don't get together?!) and twitterpated hope (They have to get together!) that a good rom-com should.  Katie and Richard make all the mistakes people make: loving unsuitable people, focusing on the wrong things in relationships, not quite seeing what's right in front of them, and struggling to articulate when they do.  Sweet and funny, Dirty Great Love Story is a carefree piece of affordable summer entertainment worth checking out.

There's only a week left!  Get your tickets.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Trash Cuisine: Assaulting the Audience

Belarus Free Theatre followed upon their powerful show Minsk, 2011 with a new work called Trash Cuisine which investigates capital punishment, torture, and government oppression and doing so using food as a metaphor and staging technique.

Smells of strawberries and cream as executioners compare techniques.  The sound of a bird being eaten bones and all.  The smell of soup cooking while political prisoners rot in prison.

About halfway through Trash Cuisine I started to wonder if the concept of food and torture was really working thematically, and then they began a segment on the Rwandan genocide, where they were cooking meat on stage in parallel with a horrific story of a Hutu who killed and cooked his children and tried to feed them to his bed-ridden Tutsi wife.  The performers were narrating and acting out the wife's horror, knowing what her husband was doing without being able to escape.  For the audience, not only did you have to endure this story, it was joined with the smell and sound of meat cooking.  This scene pushed the woman next to me to the brink.  She burst into tears, shielded her face, and desperately tried to escape the scene in her seat in the theater. But there was no where for her to go.

Suddenly it stopped being theater and started to become its own form of torture.  Trash Cuisine oscillates between promulgating powerful images through physical theater and aggressively underlining their political points with the use of sound and smells.  The opening scene is a carefully choreographed movement piece acting out various forms of capital punishment. It’s so beautiful and graceful and fluid; and then you realize they are killing people and this is violence.  Twisting violence into beauty or confusing beauty with violence--it is a subversive way to undermine your expectations.

I was reminded of a line from the television program Rectify, about a man who has spent most of life in prison and after his release is coping with the difficulty of being back in the world: "It is the beauty and not the ugly that hurts the most."  Belarus Free Theatre juxtaposes beauty with pain in such unexpected and heartbreaking ways. 

But this piece was not limited to expressing pain.  The intent in some scenes was to inflict pain. The use of sound and smell was actually an attempt to physically wreak violence upon you through theater.  In one instance, the aggressive pounding of a large ceremonial drum began to hurt my ears and I could feel the drumming throughout my body.  Then there was the high-pitched sound of screeching into a microphone to simulate the time of someone in the electric chair.  Endless.  Agonizing.   But then sweet relief at the sound ending meant someone (who was possibly wrongly accused) was dead.  Not much comfort in that.

Trash Cuisine would not be everyone's cup of tea. 

In the finale I was moved to tears by the images of young men whose lives were taken by their government--suspended bodies on a wall.  But the scene was not over.  The troupe pushed that finale to a whole new place when the entire cast began violently chopping onions.  As the onion fumes reached my eyes they began to burn. My real tears mixed with my onion tears.

This is theater that is actually reaches out from the stage to hit you in the face. Subtle it is not. But it is political theater that remains both elegant and evocative.  Not for the faint of heart but Trash Cuisine is powerful theater than cannot be unseen.

Phoebe in Winter: A New World Order

"There has to be room for change."

Phoebe in Winter is part of the Summerworks festival being offered by Obie award winning theater company Clubbed Thumb. Of course, when I heard Jeanine Serralles was in it my interest was piqued.

Stylized, Brechtian, and a little absurdist, Phoebe in Winter written by Jen Silverman and directed by Mike Donahue runs through this weekend. 

Phoebe (Chinasa Ogbuagu) is a woman from a war torn country whose three brothers have been killed. Brandishing a gun, she adopts, by force, the brothers of Liam (Bobby Moreno), a man she knew during the war, to replace her brothers. Liam's brothers Jeremiah (Christopher Ryan Grant), the violent bully, and Anther (Chris Myers), the peacemaking middle brother were also soldiers like Liam and have returned from the war, only to find Phoebe and the new world order she has implemented.  Da Creedy (Gerry Bamman), their father, and Boggett (Jeanine Serralles), the maid, are made a part of Phoebe's new enslaved family.

Phoebe cannot change her own past so perhaps she can upend the lives of those who have destroyed her peace. She is fully aware of the artificiality of the construct she has created.  She calls the new brothers "inadequate replacements" and secretly agrees with Jeremiah that they will pretend to not know the truth about each other from their days in the war.  But it seems if she can inflict some pain and discomfort on them, she will have gained something back. 

Even accepting Phoebe's bizarre demands, battles continue to be fought. Family squabbles are exacerbated by Phoebe's presence. Long standing tensions have not been quelled by war. Neither swapping identities, nor the passage of time, nor armed conflict can change the denizens of this household. Not really.  And efforts to remake this world in a new image, in a better one, or in a different one are futile, if the people in it remain fixed in their desires and roles.  And you can try and force the world to change but it will not bend to your ways.  It will change of its own accord.

"We can't come home to what we once left."

And so this "family is the microcosm of the world" and alliances, ambition, honesty, and disappointment mark the telling of this tale.  And these issues are not limited to this living room but the greater battlefield of life.   After it was all said and done the play just felt a little slight in its message.  The direction, lighting and sound design managed to build the tension of the bizarre world being created but the funnier bits fell a little flat at times. 

But in happy news, Jeanine Serralles, as usual, stole the show for me.  Like a firecracker or more particularly here an excitable chipmunk, she brings unbelievable energy to her roles.  But her real gift is her creative imagination.  She has a palpable belief in the fictionalized world created around her.  She gives credibility to imagined settings and she manages to imbue the material with weight and meaning when others seem to skate over their lines.  She gets to show off her range here when Boggett decides she wants to play the role of Liam in Phoebe's world.  When she is auditioning for the role of Liam, she is called upon to look at Phoebe "like a man," you get to see Serralles's great physical comedy and the sincerity of her character's attempt to be masculine.  As Liam, she struts, postures, and threatens as if she is one of the siblings and has been all along.  And when she comes to care for Liam, you can see who she was as Boggett, in her gentle touch.  What can I say.  Watching her work is a pleasure and an education.  And I won't shut up about it. It is always worth seeing the shows she is in.

Also notable in the production, Bobby Moreno was thoughtful as the gentle Liam who loves and cries when no one else does.  Christopher Ryan Grant was strong as the explosive, impatient, and vitriolic Jeremiah. 

 I received a complimentary ticket to the production.

Friday, June 14, 2013

3 Kinds of Exile: 3 Types of Storytelling

John Guare's new play 3 Kinds of Exile is actually three short plays exploring the nuanced and practically unfathomable experience of people living in exile. Two of his three subjects are exiled from Poland. The third is a child growing up in England as a result of the kindertransports while his parents are left behind to die in an unnamed country.

As someone who got a little obsessed with life under and after Communism in Eastern Europe after seeing Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll (let's just say I went so far as to see it in Czech), this was material I was keenly interested in.  Exile is a great subject to explore--the sense of home, the loss of identity, the desire to be somewhere else, the impossibility of return, the betwixt and between of those in exile.  But here, Guare plays around with these issues but it never quite feels like he hits the emotional mark.  The unusual and varied storytelling techniques employed here have their moments but ultimately fail to put these truly interesting tales in the best light.

The three pieces are told in entirely different ways. First, in Karel, Martin Moran performs a monologue, telling the story of his friend in the UK who is plagued by an inexplicable rash--a red menace so to speak. Second, in Elżbieta Erased,  John Guare and Omar Sangare act out the story of Elżbieta Czyżewska and her rise and fall as a leading Polish actress, in a format that is part lecture, part-reenactment, part memoir. Third, in Funiage, David Pittu is a second rate Polish composer who finds himself in farcical musical nightmare and is sent to Argentina to sing the praises of Poland to ex-pats living there.

Martin Moran, a veteran of his own one man shows, does a great job carrying Karel.  A fan of theatrical monologues (Daniel Kitson, Mike Daisey, David Crabb), I found the writing and performance compelling.  Nothing more was needed.  Moran knew exactly how to tell that story--making the character come to life, the setting clear, and the emotion strong.  Ultimately, the success of Karel made the other two stories feel so much more disappointing.

Elżbieta  Erased was the story of Elżbieta Czyżewska.  She was one of the leading figures of the Polish stage and screen in the sixties. She met reporter David Halberstam, who was stationed in Poland for the New York Times, and they married. He was a vocal critic of the communist regime in Poland and eventually he was expelled from Poland. Halberstam and Czyżewska moved to New York. Their marriage fell apart and Czyżewska’s career began to falter.  Perhaps a muse to many, her unusual life story never benefited her any. Never fitting in in America, but being resented in Poland for leaving, she was a woman without a country.

I was completely fascinated by the history, the events, and the character of Elżbieta, but even so, I did not love how they went about telling her story. The character and voice of Elżbieta got completely lost--which to some degree was the theme of her life.  Guare and Sangare would narrate, act out scenes between Czyżewska and others, and often swap characters during the segment. Between Sangare’s accent and Guare and Sangare’s acting choices, I felt everything kept obscuring Czyżewska’s story. Not that egos got in the way (John Guare and Omar Sangare lived parts of this story themselves), but in comparison with Moran’s clear and powerful performance, I kept feeling like this story was suffering from the wrong approach.  I wanted to know this woman.  I learned the facts, and I heard the echoes of her emotional plight, but the story and production did not feel cohesive and in the end I was left a bit cold.

Finally, 3 Kinds of Exile closes with Funiage which was a nutty, and perhaps the most Guarian segment--a bizarre musical nightmare starring David Pittu.  I like Pittu and he does his best with the material, but it felt tangentially connected to the other segments.  As exuberant as it was, I never felt connected to the character or his puzzling journey. 

I received a complimentary ticket to the production.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney

Soho Rep is making quite a name for itself on shows that have titles so long I forget what I am talking about half way through talking about them (lest we not forget We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, which I did not get to see and am sad about). Even so, Lucas Hnath's new show, A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, directed by Soho Rep artistic director Sarah Benson, is worth seeking out even if the ultimate product might be somewhat less epic than the title.

Ultimately it is an experimental and deconstructed black comedy about the dictatorship of Walt Disney, using the format of a public reading of an autobiographical screenplay where Disney plays himself. In this way we see his delusional celebration of his own character and legend. Undermining his public persona as the father of family entertainment, we are shown a vision of Disney's cruel and ego-maniacal behind-the-scenes personality. He manipulates and controls all aspects of the reading. From sound to lighting to the lines he expects others to say, everything is taken into account in his screenplay environment. But the drama lies in that we see him telling his own story and critically where the story and his control slip away from him.

As he gets sicker and closer to death his synchronicity with others leaves him. Where we may have heard his brother finishing sentences for him at the beginning, later we see outright dissent and disagreement. Whether Walt can hear that discord is questionable. Disney's attempts to force his will upon others stops working. It's a creative and unusual storytelling approach but the core idea for me felt very thin—more a fascinating and inventive way to create a character portrait but not a fully formed play. The experimentation with language and format and Larry Pine's performance all make it well worth seeing. Thankfully at 75 minutes it doesn't overstay it's welcome.

Larry Pine as Walt Disney and Frank Wood as Roy Disney carry the material showing the evolution of the brothers' relationship from partners to adversaries. Pine's maniacal laughter and trenchant reading of Disney's fans (including Mussolini) make this material darkly comedic. But I felt other moments where comedy may have existed on the page it did not come out in performance or production. Enriching the production was the nice use of sleight of hand to add to Walt's slipping "absolute" control. Illusions were employed to surprise him or deny him the story he wishes to tell.

Amanda Quaid plays Disney's daughter and Brian Sgambati his son-in-law round out the solid cast.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Disgraced: In the Bones

“Not seeing you. Not seeing who you really are. Not until you started to deal with him. And the deftness with which you did that. You made him see the gap. Between what he was assuming about you, and what you really are.”

Ayad Akhtar's blistering play Disgraced explores subtle questions of relationships, race, class, ethnicity, religion, bigotry, and history in the 90 minute drama now playing at the Bush Theatre in London (I missed the show when it played at LCT3 in New York). Akhtar establishes fully formed characters and then crafts a story where they explode.  The destruction is not just friendships and marriages, but the characters' own understanding of who they are.

A successful M&A attorney Amir Kapoor (Hari Dhillon) has turned his back on the Muslim faith in which he was raised. Not only that but he’s changed his name and told his law firm bosses he’s from India whereas his family’s hometown is in present-day Pakistan. When his boss thinks he’s Hindu he makes no effort to correct the misconception. He has married a white woman and an artist Emily (Kirsty Bushell) who becomes interested in incorporating Islamic art motifs into her own paintings. As part of her embrace of all things Muslim, she drags Amir into helping an imam at his nephew's mosque who has been arrested. His association with the imam is mentioned in the New York Times and questions about him begin at the office. During a dinner party with his African-American law firm crony Jory (Sara Powell) and her Jewish art dealer husband Isaac (Nigel Whitmey), rivalries, anger, and resentments spill out and polite and friendly conversation becomes toxic.

Most plays usually only scratch the surface on discussing hot button racial, cultural, and religious issues.  Here, Akhtar succeeds at the much more challenging achievement of exploring the underbelly of dual cultural identities and getting under the skin of the characters to expose the deeply buried thoughts that the characters themselves did not even realize they possessed.

After living in New York for twenty years, I know that no matter how high up the social, financial, or fame ladder you climb, there is someone else inevitably still above you and they will remind you of that whether they intend to or not. The language of exclusion can be incredibly subtle. I recall once being trapped in a work conversation where the two topics were playing tennis with Supreme Court justices and sailing. I thought to myself, as non-tennis playing landlubber I have no way in here.  I can try and pretend to fit in, but it is nothing but pretense.

Akhtar sets his story among the educated and wealthy elite in New York but the four main characters also each can claim outsider status in some way or another. The battle between insiders and outsiders rages on and Akhtar matches up a conversational foursome who think they share certain bonds and over the course of the evening, the disconnection is shown to be far greater than the connection. With great credit to Akhtar, the pairings keep changing. Conversational allies are swapped. Pre-conceived assumptions (by the audience AND the characters) have to be left by the wayside. And it is all in the careful construction of the writing.

Not knowing what is in each of their own hearts is what brings surprises to the play, the audience and the characters. Not realizing how far apart they all were from each other on these issues makes the play a space of discovery for all. And they are not happy discoveries.

I seemed to see a number of works about identity and connection during my London trip (After the Beginning. Before the End, Chimerica) but Disgraced set a high bar for the others that followed.

The cast is very good (with excellent American accents). In particular I thought Bushell played Emily’s naïveté well. And I liked Whitmey’s slippery Isaac. Dhillon did a great job with making Amir imperious but I wished he had been a bit stronger when Amir is humbled. Staged by Nadia Fall in a split stage so the audience is essentially forced to look at each other in this battle, the direction served the play well by keeping the action moving, the alliances murky, and the intimate moments vibrant.

After the Beginning. Before the End: New York Run

As promised, Daniel Kitson will be bringing his new sit-down, stand-up show to New York for a week in July.  The show will run July 7-13 at 10pm at the Barrow Street Theatre.

Tickets are available here but note some shows are already sold out.

Check out the reviews for the show from the tour in England.  And if you don't care about spoilers you can read my spoiler-y review here.

See you at the Barrow Street Theatre!

After the Beginning. Before the End: The Uncertainty of Everything

SPOILER ALERT: If you don't want the show spoiled then you should not read this until after seeing it.

I have shat in the street. I do not shit in the street.— Daniel Kitson paraphrased*

When you share a bit of yourself with others, how you are perceived by them can create a distorted image of who you are? Street-shitter for example. But if our memories of ourselves are inherently untrustworthy, how can you say for sure who you really are?

Like a series of funhouse mirrors bending your reflection as you walk past, Daniel Kitson’s newest sit-down, stand-up show, After the Beginning. Before the End, is a parade of familiar, unfamiliar, slightly pervy, and comical images of his 35-year old self. The show is replete with contradictions, carefully placed structural callbacks, and dick jokes. It's dense, funny, and largely devoid of whimsy.  Kitson manages another dazzling show that's rich in introspection but with just enough devilish contrariness to not take anything too seriously.  

One of the reasons I enjoy Kitson’s work is I like to try and work out what he is doing.  He makes the point in this show that sometimes working things out for yourself is a pleasure unto itself. And this show is no exception. Immediate pleasures abound for the comedy fan or newcomers to Kitson but the underlying structure offers its own value if you enjoy the mental gymnastics.

Sitting at a table with sound equipment on it, Kitson complains about his frustrating tendency to overthink things. He finds himself having such convoluted thought strands that he can no longer distinguish a clear beginning or end to any of his thoughts. In this show, Kitson is cogitating an overarching question about who he is at this point in his life but at each step, each sub-thought about his behavior, his past, his memories, and his feelings are given a rigorous Kitson overthink--he pokes, prods, questions, challenges, reverses himself, reverses his reversal, and wonders if he’s a dickhead, or is that the type of thing a dickhead would think? Or not think.

Into his mental spin-cycle we go, with his sagacious eye for detail, his famous verbal alacrity, and so many fluttering ideas about identity.  Kitson uses himself (or versions of himself) to paint the portrait of a life in-between. Not the picture of adulthood you traditionally imagine, but not quite what he wants either.   As Stephen Sondheim might have written, “How did you get to be here, Mr. Kitson?”

Is this a blip in his life or is this his life? He’s an affluent thirty-something with an excellent pool table (living the dream) but without the “normal” trappings of responsibility (like a relationship or children) and fewer and fewer friends to play pool with (married, moved away, children). He lives without any structure. But in classic Kitson fashion this lifestyle is both an opportunity to celebrate drinking late night coffee because he can do what he likes and it doesn’t matter if he drinks late night coffee because he won’t sleep well anyway because he sleeps alone. Is this freedom or free fall or both?  Is he living an empty life?  If so, should he deal with it with acceptance, defiance, or self-deprecation?  For the audience's sake, Kitson tries all three to great amusement.

Kitson ponders the bigger question of why he has never been in love with someone at the same time they were in love with him. Delving into this inquiry he drifts into an exploration of his sense of self, how ideas of who we are are formed, how others see us, how we try to connect with other people, and how memory, perceptions, feelings, and physical sensations cannot be trusted. He questions everything, which provides a non-stop stream of entertaining incidents to recount to audiences but prevents him from being a relationship. 

This might sound like a highbrow list of concepts or an intense therapy session but fear not Kitson will also tell you about the first dirty dream he can recall having as a child--awkward, hilarious, and vivid.  Ultimately, this is Kitson stand-up even if presented sitting down with formality more associated with his story shows. I heard echoes of his previous stand-up shows (especially as he mulls over issues of communication and connection). And as always he has this way of making a joke, pushing that joke beyond the point you thought it could go, turning it on its head. And with each iteration it gets funnier. Whether he's being reminded by an ex-girlfriend that he once stuck his cock in her car window (he hastens to add, the window was open, he was not being heroic trying to save trapped children or anything) or trying to clear up misconceptions about himself on the internet where he's read that he once played naked Scrabble with a woman to get her into bed (Not true he says, he has too much respect for the game), he's got hilarious stories a plenty. They illustrate his points (dickhead and not dickhead alike). They support his contradictions. They give him an opportunity to talk about his mid-sized penis.**

Opening the show with Talking Heads one night and David Byrne and St. Vincent's album Love This Giant another night, even his musical framework connects to the exploration of the show.  As Hilton Als has written "[David] Byrne's particular brilliance as a songwriter has always drawn on his understanding that some people spend their lives trying to impersonate a 'normal' person without necessarily knowing what that means....That persona that Byrne created in his band Talking Heads, and more recently, on the 2012 album 'Love this Giant', a fruitful collaboration with the musician St. Vincent, constantly poses questions--What is life, love, family, war, food, work?--dressed up in stop-and-start rhythms and stop-and-start intellection."  The same could be said for Kitson here.

Kitson layers the show with a self-operated sound machine to provide an almost constant ambient soundscape.  He also uses a Krapp’s Last Tape-like-loop of his own voice telling a story a friend told him about himself which he does not remember. He intermittently expands the story loop over the course of the show. The haunting moments of the story illustrate questions of memory and how people see each other as he incrementally increases the information given to the audience about the story.  In the expansive structure of the overall show, the recorded story is ballast to cling to. A touchstone moment to return to over and over again to get your bearings when your mind is racing to hold onto something solid.  Or is it?

The story loop adds weight and impact to the overall themes, but I found the ambient sound more problematic.  I usually enjoy the musicality of Kitson's writing and the rhythm of his delivery (which are all there), but in this instance I found myself straining to focus on the work against the added ambient sound.  He controlled the sound effects and they changed at times but not in ways that punctuated the thoughts or themes (or at least I could not identify a connection).  Perhaps it was this friction between voice and sound that he was going for--an uneven surface and aural discord, slippery and untrustworthy, to remind you that nothing is what you first think it is.  But it created for me an unwelcome distance from the words.

And what words. 

After all his overthinking, and his frustration with the difficulty in truly communicating with other people, Kitson seems to conclude there is one true connection—laughter. So perhaps making so many people laugh is a sign of a less than an empty life after all, Mr. Kitson. With the laughter I heard in Cambridge and Cardiff, I'd say, you've got a good thing going.

*Kitson requests that people stop trying to quote him as they get it painfully wrong knowing that mere mortals cannot possibly handle his linguistic density.  He also takes some pride in the fact that he is the victim of his own success on this front. Then, in contradictory fashion, he encourages people to disseminate his aphorism “If it’s snappy, it’s crappy,” with the phrase “spread it, with credit.”

**Paraphrasing Kitson again.  I swear that's his unit of measurement and not mine...but now my memory of the show has started to fade.  I don't think I made it up.