Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"Reality" on Stage: Nobody Loves You & The Capables

My kingdom for a show that comes through on its potential.  I've inadvertently caught two shows with reality TV based themes in the past week and both were disappointing--but each disappointing in a unique way.


A slight, satirical musical about the world of reality television, Nobody Loves You has a book by Itamar Moses and music and lyrics by Moses and Gaby Alter.  The 90 minute musical is mildly amusing, but at its core, it is a lightweight, rom-com that isn't quite as smart as I hoped it would be.

Jeff's girlfriend (Leslie Kritzer) breaks up with him and heads off to audition for her favorite TV show, Nobody Loves You, a reality TV competition show about finding love.  To win her back Jeff (Bryan Fenkart) sends in an audition tape of his own where he reveals his skepticism for the show itself.  He surprisingly gets cast. His girlfriend doesn't. And yet he stays. Jeff finds himself competing against meathead Dominic (Rory O'Malley), overly aggressive Samantha (Autumn Hurlbert), Bible-thumping virgin Christian (Roe Hartrampf), and sexual free spirit Megan (Lauren Molina) with airhead host Byron (Heath Calvert) and piraña-like producer Nina (again Leslie Kritzer). Behind the scenes is Jenny (Aleque Reid), Nina's put upon Girl Friday, who dreams of making movies that mean something.  Jeff decides to write his dissertation on the reality show and as his negative meta-commentary gains him popularity on the show it also leads him to spend a lot of time in the control booth with Jenny.   Using the conventions of reality TV, the musical sets up characters as opposites who attract, but the show becomes the thing that stands in the way of Jeff and Jenny.

The only outside perspective on the show environment is an über-fan of the show Evan (also O'Malley). Singing the funniest (but most likely to become dated with time) song that is basically his twitter feed with hashtags included. 

Despite the talented cast, I smiled at times but did not laugh.  O'Malley is strong with his triumvirate of unique characters--each distinctive and each with their own comic flair.  Heath Calvert is a hoot as he dials up the shiny, vapidity of his character.  With some good quips and a few zingers, it added up to a pleasant diversion but not much more. It doesn't say anything new about reality TV.  And in essence the reality TV setting is just the MacGuffin for a rom-com and it ends up being a really thin piece overall because of it.  I was expecting a bit more from Moses whose play Completeness was intricate and penetrating.  I found the songs in Nobody Loves You forgettable.  It felt more like a fringe show with a budget.  Rather than feeling contemporary or relevant, it feels like a dated parody with a weak POV.  And that was really a let down when I had such high hopes based on the cast and creative team.

The Capables uses reality TV as the basis to expose a family in crisis--family secrets lead to hoarding behavior which is not ameliorated by the presence of a reality TV crew.  A situation pregnant with human drama but in both writing and direction The Capables fails to deliver.

Jessy Capable (Katie Eisenberg) invites a TV crew of a reality TV show about hoarding to her parents' house to deal with her mother's (Dales Soules) out of control "collecting." A quiet but dutiful daughter Jessy hopes this will help her father (Hugh Sinclair) who's eyesight and health is failing.  A loud mouth director/producer (Charles Browning), a social worker (Jessie Barr), a camera man (Micah Stock) and sound guy (David J. Goldberg) show up and demand TV drama but the family is tight lipped. Desperate for a high ratings episode the crew end up pushing to get a story out of the family but the needed healing does not come from that.

At every turn in The Capables the performers, writer, and director can't quite get a hold on what they are doing.  It's the first play by playwright Jay Stull and it feels like it could use more work.  This show needs a dramaturg stat.  Certain scenes and characters are wholly unnecessary, slowing down the material and not adding anything meaningful to the play.  Director Stefanie Abel Horowitz treats too many scenes with delicate preciousness when the show should be moving at a clip.  Scenes that do not need emotional weight are awkwardly held up on a pedestal and scenes that need levity fall flat.  The drama feels far too manipulated and nothing is given the space to be organic. The humor is left by the wayside or missing its beats.  It just is not funny when it should be.  The subject matter--a family coping with hoarding (a subject close to my heart)--has so much potential but more time is spent in the play on the TV crew, on a useless flashback, and avoiding the emotional story they need to tell.

Of all the characters the only performance I was taken by was Micah Stock as Tommy, the camera man.  He's meant to be a supporting character who takes a shine to Jessy.  But his goofy nature and quiet back story ended up more vibrant and real than the main plot.  His performance sings because he found a rhythm and cadence that was natural, funny, and honest.  I'm putting him on my one to watch list.  Sadly the rest of the cast ended up playing it too loud and broad which was neither funny nor compelling. 

Stull attempts to get into the consequences of a life examined by a reality TV show, where Nobody Loves You just doesn't even bother.  But The Capables does not really take the analysis very far.

But the set design for The Capables is breathtaking.  George Hoffmann and Greg Kozatek build a colorful and OCD-inspired hoard (I see your color coordinated organization, says the girl with the color coordinated closet) where toys, Happy Meal boxes, and American flags become a landscape of emotional paralysis and sadness.  The set was a wonderful expression of creativity and talent and I just wish the play and production overall had been its equal.

I received a complimentary ticket to The Capables. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Cradle Will Rock: A History of the Collective

Sam Gold has this ability to take theater as we know it and peel it back in unusual and unexpected ways enhancing the underlying material and creating something new and vibrant on top of it.  I found his deconstruction of The Cradle Will Rock exhilarating.

Presented as part of the Encores! Off-Broadway summer series, The Cradle Will Rock was a concert staging of the 1937 musical about unions, fat cats, corruption, and redemption.  With the statement "In the Rich Man's House the Only Place to Spit is in his Face," hovering above the actors in letters writ large, the cast, dressed all in formal wear, tell the story of a prostitute, Moll (Anika Noni Rose) who gets hauled into Night Court with the crème de la crème of Steeltown society who have been accidentally arrested by an overzealous police officer (Aiden Gemme).  The town's wealthiest citizen Mr. Mister (Danny Burstein) wanted protests about unionizing quelled but all the well-to-do citizens are members of Mr. Mister's Liberty committee and were on the street to fight against the union crowds.  The dim-witted police officer (here played by a child) didn't quite understand the instructions given him and grabbed up Mr. Mister's allies by mistake.  The Liberty committee includes the president of the university (David Margulies), the town's minister (Matthew Saldivar), the editor of the newspaper (Judy Kuhn), two artists (Martin Moran and Henry Stram) whose patron is Mr. Mister's wife (Rose again), and the town's doctor (Eisa Davis).  Each "up-standing" citizen is shown, in flashback, to have been bought by Mr. Mister's influence and each institution they represent is sullied with corruption.  In contrast to the corruption is the well-meaning, hard-working prostitute who is looked down upon by these society figures and a drunk vagrant (Peter Friedman) who used to be the town's druggist.  The druggist failed to act against Mr. Mister's corruption and lost not only his store but someone close to him.  Fomenting rebellion and unionizing is Larry Foreman (Raúl Esparza) who eventually is hauled into court as well.

Gold plays up the satire and stark symbolism with title cards introducing the scenes, costuming, casting, and then with an incredible finale.  For the finale, stagehands and other union members of the theater, openly wearing their union insignia, take away microphones, remove costumes, and strike sets.   The stage is dismantled and all that is left is the cast singing. 

Suddenly the potency of the message and the relevance of the piece is revealed.  Gold strips away the artifice and reminds us that it is people--un-amplified and in unison--whose voices can change the status quo.  But more than that, the action foregrounds so much about theater--uncovering the unseen hands of many who contribute to the whole.  Gold's choice demonstrates that what we see would not exist were it not for the Foremans of the past.  What could have been a creaky, period protest piece becomes under Gold's direction a continuous strand of history--linking past and present. 

Gold doubled up the casting at times and that seemed to trouble some aficionados of the musical.  I did not think that Gold was trying to subtlety imply parallels with the casting.  In fact, I took it to mean the opposite.  Although Mrs. Mister being played by the same actress as the prostitute and the guy trying to pick up the prostitute was also the University President, I did not think the pairings created links between the characters.  I thought the doubling and sometimes tripling played into theme that this is a show about Everyman.  The names may change but the corrupt faces remain the same.  The smaller ensemble made for a more intimate group and reminded me of the incestuousness of the small town I grew up in. 

The performers here also unlocked some wonderful aspects of their characters.  Anika Noni Rose, as Moll, managed to be both vulnerable and angry: conveying the injustices put upon her character while a flame of revolt flickered beneath the surface.  Martin Moran and Henry Stram did double duty as the children of Mr. Mister--petulant, spoiled, lacking perspective, and utterly self-absorbed--as well as the kowtowing artists who like a vaudeville act clowned around aiming to please their rich patron.  Again I heard rumblings from some about why Junior Mister was made a cross-dresser.  But I found it less about sex or sexuality and more about the complete freedom the rich had to flout social convention and do as they pleased without consequence.  Also for the record Martin Moran, as Sister Mister, was very adept in high heels and after his strong performance here and his fantastic turn in 3 Kinds of Exile I'm mad I did not check out his one man show.  Recent Obie winner Eisa Davis, as Dr. Specialist, stood out as her character is slowly but painfully led into corruption. 

When Raúl Esparza burst onto the stage the stage lights seemed to burn a little brighter and hotter.  If there is one man on this earth who can make handing out leaflets sexy, it is Esparza.  And he does.  When he says "There's a riot. I incited you," you can't help but add, quietly and to yourself, "in my pants."  Because it is true.  He's articulate, charismatic, and practical and you understand quickly why he is such a threat to Mr. Mister. It's smart casting and a treat for Esparza fans to see him in this role even if he is only briefly in the show. 

I've seen a lot of Gold's work in the last few years (Seminar, Look Back in Anger, The Big Meal, Uncle Vanya, Picnic, Fun Home, The Flick) and the ones that impress me the most are the ones that undermine expectation and cut across the grain.  The Cradle Will Rock definitely falls in that category.

Monday, July 15, 2013

After the Beginning. Before the End: London Dates

As promised, Daniel Kitson will be doing some London dates at the Battersea Arts Centre with the new stand-up show, After the Beginning. Before the End.

Tickets are £12 not £10.

He has a new description for the show:
This is the show I've been touring around the UK and various other places for the last few months. I've been calling it "Something like a stand up show" but really I just think it's a show. I don't really subscribe to labels. Apart from ingredients. I'm allergic to nuts. So. Those labels I'm totally on board with.

It's a show born out of a very specific time in my life, when i felt very much like I didn't know what I believed or what I wanted or, in a very real sense - who I was. It also has a couple of new elements that I am increasingly interested in but hadn't used on stage before. I'm more and more interested in trying different things and this show feels to me like a useful and exciting first step - although don't get your hopes up, it's still just me talking - for ages.
Dates are Weds July 24th, Thurs July 25th, no show Friday, Sat July 27th, Sun July 28th, Mon July 29th, Tues July 30th, Weds July 31st, Thurs. Aug. 1.  Show starts at 7.30pm - running time is around 1.40 with no interval.

Tickets go on sale at noon Tuesday July 16th and will be available here -

Ticket buying caveat for scalpers and the like: "We will also be doing a thing where we only release tickets on the night of the show to people with id. This is to try and avoid people selling them on ebay and various websites for upsettingly high prices. If you want to buy them for someone else, just give their name and they will need to pick them up on the night with id."

Friday, July 12, 2013

Daniel Kitson in Manchester: New Theater Piece

As he promised earlier this year, Daniel Kitson will be bringing a new theater piece to the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in September.  It has no title.  It is not yet entirely written. 

But tickets go on sale Monday July 15th.  Expect a scrum.

I don't think this is the same piece that will be coming to St. Ann's Warehouse in New York in November (since that is supposed to be a world premiere).  Have you become a member of St. Ann's yet?  Tickets will go on sale first to members whatever that show turns out to be. 

No word on London dates yet for After the Beginning.Before the End (full review here or shorter New York analysis here) or the possible return of As of 1.52pm.

But if you are seeing any of his shows at Latitude I expect a full report fans.  A FULL REPORT.  I'm eager to hear how the film version of It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later has turned out. 

UPDATE:  The new theater piece for Manchester got a Work-in-Progress debut at Latitude.  It sounds like it was in a very early stage and Kitson read out about a page.  According to The Telegraph it seems to involve a protester up a tree.  

UPDATE UPDATE: This is very exciting news. The show in Manchester is called "Tim Key and Daniel Kitson in a Tree."  It will be about "dissent,commitment, two people and a tree."  I'm so jealous that you all will get to see these two comic legends together in a show. Again I expect updates from all who see it. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

After the Beginning. Before the End: Revisited in New York

NOTE: Not really spoiler-y but a few bits and punchlines are revealed by the review below.

Daniel Kitson took off his glasses to rub his itchy eyes and suddenly I did not recognize him. Although he shaved his head and signature beard last year for his show Where Once Was Wonder, this brief, intimate moment where the master was unmasked, was more jarring for me. Kitson's new show After the Beginning. Before the End is powered by reflections about his own solitude, memory, and attractions, and this literal peek behind the wizard's curtain was the unintentional exercise of some of the shows themes. Not only is Kitson setting out to look at who he is but he is trying to understand who he is refracted through the eyes of others. And sometimes he does not even recognize himself.

Daniel Kitson has brought his philosophically driven stand-up show to New York for one week at the Barrow Street Theatre. After touring around the UK for the last couple of months, the show arrives in New York similar but tighter than the show I saw and reviewed in June. There are a few notable differences between those shows and the New York shows worth mentioning.

Kitson has had to begrudgingly adapt and edit for the American audience--apparently we do not wave to farmers whilst wanking on trains like the folks in the UK do. Who knew? He was perturbed by the paucity of American English. Because of this certain words are Americanized, stories get dropped, and he is forced, with a heavy heart, to explain some of the jokes that did not require explanation for his homegrown audience. Nevertheless, American audiences do seem to warm to it.* He does not want credit for things that he has not earned, so he is also quick to explain away the Buyer & Cellar set he is using before someone spends time trying to analyze the "semiotics" of a background that is not his.

The show seems to me** to be broken into three major parts: Being Alone, Memory, and Self.*** He addresses his thirty-something, affluent life without a relationship or kids. I love his whimsical delusion about the unexplained light left on in his bathroom. He explores the vicissitudes of memory. There is a bit that came up in some shows but not in others about how we polish memories. It's an image that I can't get out of my mind. How perhaps the most untrustworthy memories are those that we return to over and over again, revising them by our constant revisiting. And in the end he delves into questions of self and attraction. There are bookends to the show--bits of similar language, jokes structured in similar ways--but you would be forgiven for not noticing them. It took me four viewings to catch them.

As I discussed in my previous review, the use of sound in this show was unexpected. It is like a specific room tone he is setting, which he occasionally adjusts to suit a shift in the storytelling--a playful circus-like sound for stories of childhood, a thumping sound for tales about sex, a repetitive strings sound for something else I have not yet been able to identify. With more viewings I saw the connection to the narrative, but I still wonder how much it adds to an already dense show.

Moments of exhilarating autonomy, defiance and self-assurance at the beginning seem to fade with additional pondering. As someone who has sent a lot of pictures of his dick to other people, he wonders if maybe he is not as good as he thought with being on his own. His solitary life has its perks but has a pattern begun to emerge? Or is the perspective skewed? Is this merely a moment and not a pattern at all.

Each time I've seen the show, the moment that catches me is when Kitson stops to wonder aloud if he will remember this part of his life as time goes on (one of the shows in the UK did not even have this bit but I think it acts as an important reflection point in the show). He talks about certain events experienced that are best left buried in the recesses of his mind. And in this time where his thoughts are circular and unmoored, his solitude present and structure absent, it seems this is something he hopes to forget.

This all sounds a bit depressing--and of course I am always drawn to the darker aspects of comedy-- but it is not a depressing show. There is much laughter, silliness, and levity. He takes down smug parents with sharp jabs, illustrates sense memory with a tale from his childhood that is gut-busting, recounts a particularly hilarious accidental email he received from a fan, and has made me very self-conscious about all the dresses I have with pockets in them. And you may even find him laughing at himself. He got very distracted by his own laughter at one show and chided himself aloud for it. He then reminded himself that that chiding should be internal.

Oh man deconstruction makes me hot.

If the show was not already sold out, I'd recommend you see it for yourself. He'll be back in New York in November with a new theater show at St. Ann's Warehouse so you might have another chance to experience Daniel Kitson.

* There are still certain bits that I think are hilarious that are not quite landing as well as they did in the UK--fuck you all that callback about the black goose is funny. I wonder if the late hour--the show starts at 10pm in NY and started earlier in the UK--mixed with the deep dive into philosophy, blended with a two hour running time make it more challenging for audiences to follow the complicated callbacks and thematic strands. Or arguably I've seen the show too much and am having a thematically appropriate overthink about this. But still, if you are not laughing at the "ever vigilant" line you are missing out on the best bits. THE BEST BITS.

**He notes that when people email him about his show they almost always get it wrong. So...

***These feel oddly to me like an almost real Sondheim tune, an actual Andrew Lloyd Webber ditty and as-yet-unwritten Pasek and Paul number.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Here Lies Love: Disco Evita

Here Lies Love is a rapid-fire dance biopic of Imelda Marcos with toe-tapping, eclectic tunes by David Byrne (music and lyrics) and Fat Boy Slim (music) and compelling performances. Alex Timbers's immersive production smartly explores audience manipulation through his staging and, at the same time, immersion makes the theme of the piece all that much stronger. 

Imelda (Ruthie Ann Miles) is a poor girl who dreams of a better life with her bestie Estrella (Melody Butiu).  She meets up and comer Ninoy Aquino (Conrad Ricamora) but he passes her over.  Imelda then meets Ferdinand Marcos (Jose Llana).  They become an unstoppable power couple when he becomes President.  Ninoy becomes a Senator and an active gadfly challenging the Marcos regime.   International jetsetters, Imelda and Ferdinand travel the world, spend the money of their people, and begin to crackdown when protest foments. 

Staged in a dance floor format, the audience is physically moved around by Timbers as the performers sing, dance and act on raised platforms around you.  The platforms and performance areas shift with the change in geography or circumstances of the characters. Quick costume changes show the rapid rise of Marcos's power and changing political climate.  All these aspects keep the proceedings moving. It's a frenetic momentum that is welcome in a lot of ways and driven by the heavy dance-beat score.  Little time is wasted on details, but everything you are given--direction, choreography, lyrics, and performance--is sharply focused and highly effective at communicating the themes of the piece.  

The immersive format is expertly structured and ultimately is totalitarian. Don't get me wrong, it is fun (if you don't have a paralyzing anxiety over line dancing like some people).  Actors shout out dance steps to the audience, they tell you to clap, they tell you to jump, and it seems appropriate with the music.   But that's the insidiousness of Timbers's direction. The more you get into the music or the dancing, the more you become complicit in the rise of Marcos.

Imelda's anxieties are present with pills, desperate cries for love, and anger at Ferdinand's affairs. I wish more had been developed between Imelda and Ninoy.  As told here, Ninoy threw her over when they were young for being too tall and yet years later she is the one who gets him released from prison to continue his advocacy against the Marcos regime from America.  But the nature of their relationship is not really explored.  It's a small thing but I wish I understood who they were to each other a bit more.

There is a DJ who guides the audience through the start of the show.  I had hoped the character of the DJ would serve a bit of a Che-like role.  He provides some context at the beginning and then unexpectedly returns at the end. But his role ends up feeling less symbolic and more administrative (those are the fire exits etc...).

This is not a show about black or white answers but about the sensations. Immersion can be both exciting and challenging. As a particularly short audience member it was hard at moments to see.  At other times you are focused on following the instructions of the crew to move appropriately and it broke my theatrical attention. The projections (by Peter Nigrini) often provided welcome added texture and context (names, places, years, locations, headlines and news footage). They help to dial up the historical perspective.  They were helpful Cliffs Notes on Filipino history.  Annie-B Parson's choreography is brilliant.  The choreography articulates the rising tension, supports and drives the narrative, and enhances the emotional qualities of the story.

The lead performers are all fantastic.  Ruthie Ann Miles makes Imelda sympathetic (again a layer of manipulation and complicity that works in a positive way narratively but might make you uncomfortable if you stop dancing long enough to think about it).  Jose Llana is charismatic as Marcos.  When he walks through the audience shaking people's hands, putting his arms around people, they moon over him.

The finale strips off the disco artifice with the fall of the regime.  Nimoy's dramatic return to the Philippines is shocking whether you recall the history of that event or not. I saw the show twice and even though I knew what was coming it still made me feel slightly ill and chilled me to my bones.

Like the harsh light of day at the end of a long night of partying, the audience has to confront their own actions from their night on the dance floor.  Immersion makes this possible.  It's a smart move by Timbers & Co. and it makes this show a must-see.