Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Teen 'Zine Chronicles: Churlish Meg Makes Me Cry In A Good Way

Limited edition Churlish Meg original
Somewhere between Bedford-Nostrand and Flushing Avenue I'm crying. It's the G train so literally no one cares. A girl cries on the G train every twenty minutes. Because they only come ever twenty minutes and where else can we do our crying but in the public-private space of the G train.  And I'm sure the skeptical Hispanic guy across the way from me is wondering what about this pamphlet with a jizzing dick on the cover is making me cry.

@ChurlishMeg's 'zine arrived today.  She made a limited number of copies and I rushed to request one.  I have the only one in America!  I've been anxiously waiting all evening to read it. I've just left an epically long comedy show with some good bits and some dull bits. My ass is sore from sitting on concrete for hours and I'm thinking about Richard Pryor, comic delivery, and what the Melbourne Comedy Festival is actually like.  And my train comes promptly.  For the G train this is a Christmas miracle.  Once I am seated, I crack into the 'zine.

Seriously made me cry it's so good
By the Anselm Kiefer section I'm crying.

They are tears of joy. Because I want to feel one tenth of the enthusiasm that Meg feels.  The pages of the 'zine are buzzing and I'm not sure how the paper can hold all this energy without bursting into flames.  She's celebrating art exhibits, and travel, and theater, and all the things that were good this year.  And not in some mamby-pamby facebook algorithm way.  She's got quizzes to tell you what Young Vic production you are most like and a crossword puzzle.  And it's all handwritten and cut out and it's incredible. 

Everything about this 'zine makes me want to dance in the train.  I want to daaaaaaaaaance. 

And they are tears of sadness because I wonder if I ever will feel anything remotely like this joy and wonder at the world around me.  Ever.  And I think of my acting teacher at college who tells me in a thick Hungarian accent I have walls that need to be torn down.  I've been working on those walls for a while. But if you know Italians, we're fucking great bricklayers. We make a solid wall.  But I'm working on it. 

And I pull it together mostly and smile through the quiz section. I'm almost through when I have a flash of anger.  She pens an ode of worship to Chris Goode. Men in the Cities.  That's a wound I don't want to reopen.  Let that go. 

I'm reminded that we are all different people and there is no monolithic audience.  And thank god.  I want to be the weirdo who laughs at the line no one else does--sometimes.  And I want to be the person who gets the shouty, karaoke show that alienates everyone else.  I want to know that I am not alone...and sometimes I'm comforted to be alone with someone else's work. 

It's the joy and the challenge of theater and art.  How do ever find a way to communicate to each other when we are all so different?  Our experiences are vast and varying and it's a miracle we can ever really understand each other.  But that's the reason I do this.  To find even a remote connection to someone else.  For them to see what I see for just a second even if they don't agree with it. 

And Meg's 'zine is making my head spin with things I wish I had seen, things I did see and am seeing in a new light, and longing for a hookup with a boy in Berlin.  Well I'm human. 

For Meg, Anselm Kiefer made her think of Anselm Kiefer in everything.  He made me think about banned art, Exhibit B, the Death of Klinghoffer, fighting your parents, challenging the narrative, and the fact that nothing stays buried forever (yeah still working on that essay).  And Pomona is exactly the show for Meg.  And I can appreciate why.  And it won't make my Top 10.  But I too love the ode to jizz. 

And I start to think we all have a 'zine in our hearts. There was a time I sat around my pink-pink, froufrou bedroom (Let's face it, I never had an edge) cutting up theater flyers and making a collage of everything that was wonderful about London and theater.  It was 1991 and I'm pretty sure the collage included Blood Brothers (even though I hadn't seen it) and Cats (now and forever) and Me and My Girl (which I did see and loved and danced around my room to).  And I'm grateful to Meg for reminding me of a time when things came on paper.  And we cut them up as part of our worship.  And it was good.

Now I'm wondering what my 2014 theater collage would include--a giant Kitson head surrounded by Christmas trees and hearts natch, the 10 opening pages of An Octoroon and an altar built to worship Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a queso fountain in honor of Rude Mechs, Young Jean Lee's pre-show music for Straight White Men and the puffin pillow, and maybe a Sheldon Best action figure.  What would be on yours?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Top 10 of 2014: UK Edition

I enjoyed another year of  UK theater-going.  I saw almost 50 shows out of the country.  From what I saw, these were my favorites:

1.  A View From the Bridge (Young Vic): Ivo van Hove can sure pack a wallop.  I mean he gets some help from Arthur Miller but in the end this production is very much about van Hove's choices and the strong cast seeing those moments through to completion.  I'm not sure you could do better than Mark Strong as Eddie. Maybe the greatest coup de theatre I've ever seen.  I've already said too much.  Just go.  I've already got my tickets to see it again when it transfers to the West End.

2.  Assassins (Menier Chocolate Factory): I didn't even think I liked this Sondheim musical and Jamie Lloyd's production showed me why I was wrong to doubt it.  A strong cast across the board but Lloyd's choices make more of this material than meets the eye.  We all knew Aaron Tveit could sing but he's pretty damn good at being dastardly as well.  Jamie Parker brings a sweet darkness as well.  Andy Nyman is a Guiteau for the ages.  Lloyd makes each assassin have a purpose in the larger sweep of things and I think he brings a cohesion to the musical it could otherwise be lacking.  If it wasn't totally sold out I'd see it again.

3.   A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts (Lyric Hammersmith/Northern Stage):  So good I saw it twice.  Joyful, challenging, and breaks down the way you look at performance and performers.  I felt like I got to see the building blocks of acting and drama as this structured but evolving work played out. Was the perfect ending to my trip to Edinburgh.

4.  Hug (Forest Fringe):  One of my most anticipated shows of EdFringe 2014.  I was pretty much getting on a plane to be blindfolded and hugged for theater.  And it was everything.  Some people cried. I ended up feeling rapturous joy.  I had a good hugger.  I heard not all huggers were created equal.

5.   Lippy (Dead Centre/Traverse Theatre):  Although this later came to New York (Abrons Art Center) I first saw it at Edinburgh and was totally blown away by the form and structure of this devised piece by Irish theater troupe Dead Centre.  Through humor and the most unlikely storytelling approach they address a dark and difficult subject.  But they do it with beauty, haunting images, and a dense soundscape that leaves an indelible mark.  I'm keeping an eye out for these guys for the future. 

6.  Hurtling (Forest Fringe): Greg Wohead offered up some very diverse pieces at Forest Fringe and I really liked the Ted Bundy project (if you can 'like' such a disturbing and unsettling thing).  But Hurtling was something entirely different.  One-on-one theater for the timid.  Staging plein air theater in your mind.  It was something that needs to be experienced and I'm grateful for having climbed the hill to have done it.

7.  King Charles III (Almeida Theatre):  Sort of like if Shakespeare had written his own version of The Avengers but without some stupid tesseract thingy.  Mike Bartlett's wicked smart play brings together characters we think we know in a modern context and through his trickery we discover their resemblance to famous characters of Shakespeare. The monarchy hasn't changed all that much has it.  The troubles may look new but the indecision of Hamlet, the blindness of Lear, the arrogance of Lady Macbeth, and the ambivalence of Prince Hal all have modern counterparts. I'm making it sound less cool than it actually was.  It was a funny play about the modern monarchy and the struggles between duty and self and it was damn good drama.  Oliver Chris  and Lydia Wilson were particularly surprising to me here, having seen both of them play wildly different characters before.  I thought they found the spirit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge without being parodies of them. 

8.  Spine (Soho/Underbelly):  Rosie Wyatt makes Clara Brennan's multi-generational monologue on libraries, protest, and the future sing.  She's the downtrodden troublesome youth and the patient, fading elderly woman who takes her in.  And she'll break your heart.  I was a sobbing mess at the end.

9.  Lungs (Paines Plough Roundabout): I know I was the last person on earth to see Lungs.  WE STILL HAVE NOT HAD A PRODUCTION IN NEW YORK.  But I was glad to see it in the Roundabout touring space.  Intimate and well-acted by Sian Reese-Williams and Abdul Salis, I got to fully appreciate how George Perrin's direction makes this thoughtful, funny, sad play come alive.

10. 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (Globe Theatre): I have a perverse affection for this play.  Drenched in misogyny, incest, and tragedy, somehow I still feel like there are lessons here to be learned about how we treat women today. Thought it shows misogyny through the most extreme lens, it doesn't actually feel all that far off on some level. This candlelight production makes the most of the new Sam Wanamaker space at the Globe.  The intimacy of the space and the intimacy of the subject matter make the nudity, buckets of blood, and intensity of the drama all the more in your face.

Special Mentions: Every Brilliant Thing would not be as brilliant without star Jonny Donahoe and I lucked out by having Josie Long be the audience member who got really involved in the show; Josie Long for making me cry once in Every Brilliant Thing and again in her own show Cara Josephine; Chris Thorpe and Rachel Chavkin exploring the challenging and uncomfortable world of modern Nazism in Confirmation; the weird gutter, comic book world of Pomona and the broken people living within it; the Donmar Warehouse for actually reviving my fave musical City of Angels and putting Hadley Fraser and Rosalie Craig in it; Christeene and the Christeene Machine making me glad I went into the basement of filth to worship at her altar; Sam Crane in 1984--I didn't know what was going on but I couldn't take my eyes off of him; Andrew Scott maybe have been the frenetic star in Birdland (and he was good at it) but Alex Price was the heart of that show for me and oddly his door slam meant more to me than Carrie Cracknell's coup de theatre here; the magical children's book world of HUFF; and Daniel Kitson making me believe in Christmas magic again.

The Few: All That is Unspoken

"I'm really terrible at being a person."

Samuel Hunter again manages to find that painful spot in your heart where longing, grief, love, and disappointment lie and reveals it ever so gently through his characters in his new play The Few.

Many years ago, Bryan (Michael Laurence), Jim, and Q.Z. (Tasha Lawrence) started a newspaper for truckers filled with poetry and articles about life on the road.  Bryan and Jim had spent years driving trucks and wanted to create a meeting place and periodical to help connect these disconnected souls. Lifelong friends, Q.Z. and Bryan fell apart after Jim's death, with Bryan skipping town. But four years later, Bryan comes back to find Q.Z. has changed the format of the newspaper so that it is now mostly trucker dating listings and now she has a helper Matthew (Gideon Glick). Bryan won't say why he's come back now but much has changed in four years he was gone.

Hunter seems to specialize in characters who are in pain but he's found very different ways to illustrate that pain. In The Whale, Charlie drowned himself in food. Here, Bryan seems awash in silence. Unable to articulate what he's feeling, Michael Laurence as Bryan spends much of the play reacting to things.  As we learn, truckers lead a solitary life and Bryan explains they start to wonder if they even exist. Spending days not talking to anyone, avoiding talking to people, and drifting in their minds.   Bryan is the perfect embodiment of this. His days of writing and poetry behind him he's lost his words and his way.

Coming back to where all these feelings first started and the site of his creation, he must not only confront Q.Z. but also the dreams of his youth now buried under a more commercial enterprise made up of endless lovelorn requests.

Hunter weaves this taut 90 minute tale with questions of aspirations, disappointments, existence, survival, and hope. Like in The Whale, Tasha Lawrence is again given a sharp tongued and tough character to chew over. Gideon Glick's nervous and fluttering Matthew swallows his words, worries about everything, but wants so much--it's like his mouth can not keep up with his heart--and it's a lovely performance.   I thought Laurence struggled a bit with his drunk scene, not quite nailing the particular nuance of anger, disarray and disregard, but when he sits still and tries to communicate everything by being silent and small there's a lot going on.  In a performance wholly different from his recent (excellent) turn in Appropriate

It is a particularly quiet play--with the unspoken taking up the most space on stage.  I happen to love Hunter's broken characters from A Bright New Boise, The Whale, and The Few.   Their stumbling through life, their mistakes, and their humanity make for the most beautiful watercolor dramas.  Muted edges but full of life. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Invisible Hand: The Butterfly Effect

"What's sacred to you?"

Ayad Akhtar's new play is a sly devil.  From its opening moments in a windowless cement block cell, you may think this is a play about torture or jihadists or the precarious tinderbox of Pakistan today.  But surprisingly the play takes its setting and set-up in an unexpected direction. Focusing instead on the role money plays in modern politics, terrorism, and the politics of capitalism.

Nick Bright (Justin Kirk) is a Citibank banker working in Pakistan.  He was mistakenly kidnapped by men who answer to a powerful imam (Dariush Kashani).  He's being held for ransom. Nick tries to bargain his way to safety. He argues that he can make the ransom funds they are seeking if he's allowed access to some capital to trade on.  The imam instructs hot-head Bashir (Usman Ally) to learn the business of trading and banking from Nick to benefit their cause. Bashir has a chip on his shoulder but eventually sees Nick has skills.  They talk politics, ideals, and money. Soon they both learn how those things intersect.

On one level this play felt like a spiritual cousin to J.T. Rogers powerful play Blood and Gifts that ran back in 2011. That play was focused on how the US and British governments and their covert operations functioned in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980's.  Here Akhtar seems to be taking the conversation to its next natural chapter-- how private interests, specifically banks, profit off of destabilized countries around the world and how our interests have evolved in that region. 

But what makes Akhtar's play really work is that he takes these big ideas and then converts them into these incredibly nuanced and human characters. A banker who you can't totally hate because he's a hostage and a man cut off from his family. And a hostage-taker who's got these principles and ideals for helping people. We know enough about both men and the lives that came before this moment that we cannot easily dismiss them.  I found this impressive with Akhtar's Disgraced as well. With fulsome characters, even when they spout hate and vitriol, it's harder to sweep them under the rug of "evil."  Instead, we must wrestle with our feelings about them--the good, the bad, and the ugly.  These characters are also not fixed mouth-pieces for one cause or another.

Nick and Bashir grow to like each other and it is in that friendship, understanding, or intellectual respect that it becomes harder to handle the difficult situation they are both in. They also change because of their relationship.  Akhtar shows us the butterfly effect on two levels--first on this global-political world stage, but second the small influences we have over each other and how personal interactions can change the way we see the world. Kirk and Ally embody these characters well.  But for me Ally is the big discovery here.  He conveys fear, anger, affection, and righteousness in equal measure and it's hard to watch his character's journey and what feels like the few steps from thought to action.  

Also the play and these themes benefit greatly from Riccardo Hernandez's set and the transformation of that set.  

Top 10 of 2014: US edition

Year-end self-reflection is a bitch. Looking over my theatrical year I saw a lot of high-profile works that did not quite live up to their potential and discovered some new artists I had not known about before who are now new favorites.  But the big takeaway from my list is about audiences and theater and how those two things crash into each other. 

Every year it is a surprise what shows have stayed with me for months...and what shows I cannot even remember when I look at the titles.  I saw about 200 shows (which includes concerts, comedy, theater) with about 50 in the UK.  As usual I will make a separate UK list. I am mad at myself for not blogging about certain shows when I saw them and they were more fresh in my mind.  But as I mentioned on the Maxamoo podcast, I ain't got no time for theater regrets.

Here's what made me think, feel, and laugh in 2014. 

1. An Octoroon (Soho Rep):  Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's play An Octoroon was so good it hurt.  Tearing apart time, space, race, performance, and America all the while being funny, smart, and relentless.  It bent theater on its head and we don't have enough plays doing this.  Branden Jacobs-Jenkins had two very different plays staged this year in New York (Appropriate--a third, War, was staged in New Haven which I did not see) and both were worthy of notice.  Appropriate may have looked like a wacky family livingroom dramedy but it was a play about family, history, and race through a very unexpected lens.  I have to remind myself over and over again that Jacobs-Jenkins is only 29.  He's only just begun.  And if you missed An Octoroon you'll have another chance to see it.  It's making a return engagement at Theater for an New Audience in February 2015.

2. Stop Hitting Yourself (LCT3):  This was another form bending play put on this year in New York.  By Austin theater troupe Rude Mechs, Stop Hitting Yourself never seemed to set the critics on fire.  But I was mouth agape the entire time, wondering where this bent fairy tale was going to go and dazzled by how this company got there.  Looking at capitalism, charity, artifice, and intimacy, Kirk Lynn's play devised with this company, broke the fourth wall and tried to grab hold of the audience.  Perhaps not the best setting--LCT3--for this kind of rule breaking because the audience I was with did not seem wholly on board. But all the better reason to do it.  We need some shaking up as audiences.  I wish I had had more chances to see this play.  They are a talented ensemble that lives too far away from me.  We need more Rude Mechs in New York!

3. Love and Information (New York Theatre Workshop):  So this was my first Caryl Churchill play.  I know.  For shame.  But I loved the filmic nature of this smash-cut-vignette-upon-vignette show that showed you only need a moment to create drama on stage.  A technical achievement for a staging and a strong cast that made the most of those brief seconds on stage.  A wholly enveloping theater experience that for me felt more like an installation or durational performance than traditional proscenium work.  Sneaky and fascinating. 

4.  Scenes from a Marriage (New York Theatre Workshop):  I was very late to the Ivo van Hove party but after seeing A View from the Bridge, Scenes from a Marriage, and his adaptation of Angels in America this year, I'm all in.  Staged like an immersive divorce, Scenes from a Marriage at New York Theatre Workshop was an aural and intellectual gauntlet.  From the dramatic transformation of the theater space between acts to the relentless cast giving every ounce of themselves on stage in tripartite repetition, it was a marathon for all involved.  But almost every moment (save the silly dance cue) was worth it.  Exciting, engaging, and unlike anything I had seen before.  Seeing three tremendously different productions from van Hove I saw him tearing apart texts in totally different ways, it was a good year to start paying attention to him and learning how far theater will stretch.

5. Gym Party (Forest Fringe/Abrons Arts Center):  When Forest Fringe came to New York I knew nothing about the Made in China performers (Christopher Brett Baily, Jess Latowicki, Ira Brand).  By the time they left, we were obsessed.  An interactive competition show that forced the audience to take sides and then be left with the cruel consequences of choice, I had to see it multiple times. Here was yet another show reaching out into the audience to get people to see and feel theater differently.  It was great to have a mini-Forest Fringe festival in New York and I wished Christopher Brett Bailey had been able to perform This is How We Die in its entirety.  We only got an excerpt and it was not enough.

6.  Disgraced (Lyceum Theatre/Broadway):  In some ways I liked the Bush Theatre's production of this play a little better.  But it's such an important play to be on Broadway that my complaints about this production (Gretchen Mol fails to give her character the depth she needs to keep the balance of power in the play) are minor in comparison to the revolutionary act of having a show about race, religion, perception, and power being on the Great White Way these days.  I think the play uses well-written and fulsome characters to explore complicated ideas, unpleasant thoughts, and prejudice in ways we never talk about.  But putting this conversation into a Broadway house and forcing an audience not often asked to look at itself with any level of criticism frames this play and production in a new way.  Where this is happening is just as important as what it is saying.  And I'm grateful for brave producers to be putting this on and for Ayad Akhtar to have written this play.

7.  The Death of Klinghoffer (Metropolitan Opera):  Well I guess this is the political section of my Top 10.  What the effing fuck do I know about opera?  LITERALLY NOTHING.  But when you try and tell me something is anti-Semitic and get it shut down before it even opens I'm definitely going to want to check it out.  And I'm glad I did.  What an incredible production and what a monumental piece of art. I'm just so glad this opera exists and that we are trying to wrestle with this incredibly difficult ideas and feelings.  We need more of this in the world and not less.  Like Disgraced it feels slightly like it's a work bringing a conversation to people that those people aren't sure they are ready to have.  And sometimes audiences need a push.  This is a beautiful and moving push. 

8. Straight White Men (Public Theater): This play starts out with some kickass music (available in a playlist here thanks to @MissLizRichards).  I do enjoy hearing someone shout the word PUSSY loudly as audience members stick their fingers in their ears.  But Young Jean Lee's play about straight, white men is a much quieter slow burn than that music sets up. A careful and detailed look at the damage men do even through love and understanding.  Lee gets at the heart of privilege--and how internalized it is. It's an incredibly nuanced approach to a complicated topic and she continues to show how important her perspective on art is.

9.  The Few (Rattlestick Theater):  Samuel D. Hunter's The Few cemented for me the importance of Hunter's voice in new American theater.  He has a way with making plays about broken people that feels genuine and insightful.  His quiet plays remind me that sometimes that is what we need theater for.  Not everything has to be wham-bam-thank-you ma'am action packed drama as our television shows and movies seem to call for.  Sitting together in the dark, in a room so quiet you can hear the ticking of the clock and thinking about the damage we do to each other as humans is just as relevant and necessary. Maybe even more so.  Between The Few and Pocatello this year alone, Hunter continues to turn over themes of family, love, loss, and forgiveness, and watching his characters struggle with these makes me feel less alone on this earth.

10. A Doll's House (Young Vic/BAM): In a year of rotating British designed sets (this, Machinal, A Streetcar Named Desire), this import from England got me obsessed with the spaces in between things. It's a vital and exciting revival of Ibsen's classic play directed by Carrie Cracknell and adapted by Simon Stephens.  And indeed Ian MacNeil's set rotates showing Nora's life spinning out of control. But instead of the moment where "spoiler alert" Nora walks out on her family I keep coming back to her confrontation with Krogstad.  A scene of sadness and desperation staged in a back hallway that somehow said more to me about the characters than the final door slam.   Cracknell and Stephens have teased out a contemporary humanity from a work that can often feel out-dated.  Nora is not the only person trapped.  We are all trapped by various circumstances and how we manage our survival in this morass of life is the measure of things.

Special Mentions:  Sheldon Best being the future of theater in Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The Box, and Brownsville Song (b-side for Tray)--MAKE HIM A STAR; Steven Pasquale and Kelli O'Hara burning down the sexy house with their voices in Bridges of Madison County; Sam Gold for bringing awkward weirdness to direction on Broadway in The Realistic Joneses and The Real Thing even when it doesn't always work he just keeps keeping on; The Debate Society's Jacuzzi for letting me "get" the Debate Society finally;  Billy Magnussen is not just a pretty face and six pack, though he is those things as well, but in Sex with Strangers it's his acting in the face of his easily dismissible pretty boy trappings that makes the performance; Christopher Oram's incredible set for Macbeth at the Park Avenue Armory that made me think I was in Scotalnd; Gabriel Ebert and Nick Westrate and the ladies of Casa Valentina for exploring femininity through masculine bodies;  Nathan Lane and Megan Mullaly perfectly matched in the Carnegie Hall one night only Guys & Dolls production; Kirk Lynn for Stop Hitting Yourself and Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra which wasn't what I thought it was going to be; Aedín Cosgrove's incredible lighting design for Pan Pan Theatre's Embers which bent space;  You Can't Take It With You for delivering the warm and fuzzy goods from days of yore with color blind-ish casting and a strong hand on the comedy tiller; Heidi Schreck for looking at mental illness in a new way in Grand Concourse, Basetrack LIVE for putting stories about soldiers and their wives on stage; Bryce Dessner and Richard Reed Parry for curating an incredible array of songs for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and making me understand Black Mountain College; The Amoralists for the wackadoo Enter at Forest Lawn; Cherry Jones for her indomitable presence in We Were Young and Unafraid.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Forest Fringe in New York Reflections

When the Forest Fringe microfestival descended on New York in October something was missing.  It was not just the amazing cheese soup I ate at the Drill Hall cafe at this year's Forest Fringe in Edinburgh (though I lamented its absence SEVERAL times over the weekend).  What I missed most was the hustle and bustle of a centralized space.  Even when filled with screaming children engaged in some sort of art project (I swear there was also an adult human dressed like a panda this year) I felt like all of Forest Fringe Edinburgh could be seen from my vantage point in the cafe--artists greeting one another, readying shows, grabbing food with friends.  The Drill Hall makes the festival feel a little warmer, smaller, and friendlier. 

At Abrons Art Center, the Forest Fringe happenings were more spread out through the large complex and despite having a festival pass for the weekend, I felt as if I was loitering as I waited on benches around the space for the next show to start.  I also got trapped in a “garden” at Abrons which had a sign outside it encouraging people to go in.  I still wonder if this was a rogue piece of performance art.  How soon will the audience panic when they discover they cannot get out of the garden?  3.5 seconds.

But garden-based entrapment aside, I was happy to have Forest Fringe in my backyard. It was a pleasure to finally see artists I had missed in Edinburgh. Like any festival sometimes the juxtaposition of work impacts the viewing.  For instance, seeing Brian Lobel’s Purge followed by Made in China’s Gym Party created a wholly difference feeling than when I saw Purge after I Wish I Was Lonely in Edinburgh in 2013. 

Purge is Lobel's solo show inspired by the discovery that his late, ex-boyfriend Grant had unfriended him on Friendster.  He created a performance where he spent one minute making a case for each of his Facebook friendships and an audience voted on whether to keep or delete those friends.  Purge is a reflection on those audience votes and the aftermath.

Seeing Purge again was no less moving for me.  Lobel's smart structure framed around his burgeoning relationship with Grant and his warm nature shines through time and again.  But for some reason audience voting in Purge in New York felt harsher than it had in Edinburgh.  There seemed to be a greater ease in voting to delete people.  Having also seen Gym Party, which focuses on the dark power of group consensus, I wondered if that had tinted my impression.

Gym Party is a lesson in group dynamics, competition, and our tolerance for personal pain in the face of entertainment.  Gym Party was so addicting I saw it twice.  Three performers, Christopher Brett Bailey, Jess Latowicki, and Ira Brand, stand before the audience as a group--friends, colleagues, and competitors. Dressed in identical gym clothes, wearing colorful wigs, they will compete against each other and eventually for the votes of the audience.

Initially they engage in a series of measurable feats.  Who can dance the Macarena the longest with a book on their head? Who can squeeze the most marshmallows into their mouth?  It's all in good, silly fun, isn't it? Later the games become more insidious. We vote on immeasurable traits like who had the best upbringing or who is least likely to have cheated on a partner. Our complicity in the act of condemnation comes far too readily. We don't have a choice--or do we? We are told we are not allowed to abstain. The games move ahead through consensus.  We make selections based on nothing--a feeling, a whim, bias, an imperfect sense of balance (I parsed my votes out equally among the contestants in my own irrational game of fairness). When someone wins, someone else loses. What we learn is that the two who lose must endure “penalization”—a form of corporal or emotional punishment.  At the start it is easy to get swept up in the goofiness and the joy, but there is a cost for the audience's enjoyment and that cost is exacted on the cast.  We have to bear witness to the results of our votes.

Throughout the show the cast describes certain preteen adventures.  They remind us that our awkward preteen years are a time when sharp lines are drawn--you're in the group or you're out.  The power of the collective crowd at that time is merciless.  It’s the same in adulthood, we just mask it better.  How much of adulthood is competition with colleagues and friends? Who's the best parent?  Who has the biggest house? Who is least likely to have cheated on their partner?  We still anoint winners and losers. Gym Party reminds us how easy it is to be a part of the pack and how hard it can be to stand alone.

The Death of Klinghoffer: I Have No Words

With breathing tableaux and an emotionally wrought story, this John Adams-Alice Goodman opera delivers a punch to the gut. I'm not sure I've experienced a more chilling theatrical experience...and to think protests nearly stopped this from happening.

It is a fictionalized account of a real terrorist act.  The Achille Lauro cruise ship is hijacked by terrorists. A group of the survivors led by the Captain reflect on what happened in flashback. The Captain (Paolo Szot) tries to keep calm on board as the hijackers, Mamoud (Aubrey Allicock), Rambo (Ryan Speedo Green), and Omar (Jesse Kovarsky) threaten and menace the passengers. New Yorker Leon Klinghoffer (Alan Opie) is on the cruise with his wife (Michaela Martens). He's wheelchair bound due to a stroke. He speaks out against the hijackers. Calling them out on their list for blood over any political motives. Klinghoffer is eventually shot and the hijackers dump his body and wheelchair overboard.

As the opera is staged choruses of exiled Palestinians and exiled Jews express their struggles. The Palestinians end up protesting and demonstrating in their exile as the Jews peaceably enjoy their resettlement.  Notably the cast of Palestinians become the Jews with a quick on stage costume change.

And yes the hijackers speak of their love of music and birds and what has led them to kill. Does this humanize them? Yes. But when the opera is near its finish and the murderous hijackers make their way through the audience if you are not absolutely frozen with terror then you've missed the point.

The protests were successful in eliminating the cinema projection of this show which would have extended its reach beyond New York audiences at the Metropolitan Opera.  The show has been accused of anti-Semitism from the time of its original US premiere.  The daughters of Leon Klinghoffer were given space in the playbill to priest the show as well. They argue "It rationalizes, romanticizes, and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father...Terrorism cannot be rationalized. It cannot be understood. It can never be tolerated as a vehicle for political expression or grievance."  

Talking about terrorism doesn't justify it. Depicting it in its horror and seeing that these men who commit these atrocities come from somewhere and think this is the response to their suffering does not somehow eliminate the horror. It makes it more real. As good art should.  It seems to me we need to talk more about the complex realities of the world and stop dismissively labeling things "evil."  To call something "evil" undermines the human behind the act--it pushes it into fairy tale somehow.  And the true horror is that these are acts of men against other men and they continue to happen over and over again.  We can never hope to stop them if we don't even see them. 

I'm no opera fan (I think this was the fifth opera I'd seen) but the incredibly rich staging--with beautiful projections of water, desert, and stone, taking us from Israel to the sea made this world of stark contrasts come alive even more.  The physical choreography employed by Arthur Pita to illustrate one hijacker's desire for martyrdom and in another scene the growth of Israel (well maybe that's not what it was but that was my interpretation of the nearly naked man trees) was mesmerizing.

The opera is not without its "uh what now" moments--did we really need the dippy dancer? But the chorale moments are so epic and overwhelming that when the libretto lost me for a moment I easily fell back into it a few beats later.

Tom Morris has staged the murder of Klinghoffer twice---from two angles and even if you know what is coming it is gut-wrenching to wait for it with the burning sun in our eyes. And the final moment with the hijackers as they leave stage through the audience thrusts the horror into our laps. There is no detached escape here.  Everyone is left feeling the tragedy.  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Pocatello: Unlimited Delusions and Breadsticks

"We're not a family that talks."

Samuel D. Hunter has become the poet laureate playwright of the washed-up and emotionally crippled. His past Idaho plays (A Brand New Boise, The Whale, The Few) have all featured people on the lowest rungs of life, barely hanging on, dealing with fractured families and broken hearts. These plays stand on their own, ruminating on similar themes but each with a unique point of view.  His newest play, Pocatello, joins this group as another chapter in the ups and mostly downs of life in Idaho.

Eddie (T.R. Knight) is a quiet, gay man trying to hold together his Olive Garden-style chain restaurant as everything in his small town gets worse and worse. His brother Nick (Brian Hutchison) and sister-in-law Kelly (Crystal Finn) are in town for a visit. A tense dinner with their mother (Brenda Wehle) at the restaurant suggests this family spends very little time together and the more Eddie tries to hold them together the more they seem to push away from him. In parallel his co-worker Troy (Danny Wolohan) is married to Tammy (Jessica Dickey) who is an alcoholic and their teen daughter, Becky (Leah Karpel) is acting out and angry about everything in the world. Becky can only see the "bad." Eddie can only focus on the "good." But neither is truly seeing the world as it is. Becky is constantly demanding a kind of hyper-honesty and Eddie is in a permanent delusion. Eddie hires Becky to work at the restaurant when she's suspended from school. As someone who doesn't really hear what other adults are saying to him he seems to connect to this trouble teen the most.

After discussing the show with some of the Maxamoo folks there was a general complaint that this was a play about whiny losers. None of the characters had one positive thing about them which made it hard to root for anyone. Whether that is or is not true, I didn't find that mattered to me.

Eddie's desperation to stay in Pocatello and stop things from changing comes from a deeply rooted and traumatic place. Having experienced a tragedy earlier in his life Eddie seems trapped in childish thinking. It was as if his emotional development ended at that point and his magical thinking life began. And yet we can see the adult inside knowing he's deluding himself--and T.R. Knight's performance really gets to the heart of this. That's the drama. When will the inner child and exterior adult finally meet and confront each other. Who will survive this interaction?  I think some people were anticipating a larger explosion but I'm not sure what makes a bigger bang than a popped delusion.

Life doesn't always turn out the way you expect. And many among us have held onto a relationship/job/way of life that is long past its expiration date. Watching someone else do so is agonizing. Everyone tries to get Eddie to see what's wrong with his choices and his life. And he does everything he can not to look.  I can see how this might be frustrating to experience as an audience member but I didn't hate Eddie or get frustrated with him myself.  I think that has a lot to do with who I am. I once spent an entire engagement party with my eyes closed because I was mad about having to go. No I was not 35. I was 5. But that kind of fierce single-mindedness in this character to not open his eyes felt familiar to me. It's not pretty, or reasonable, or healthy. But it was all too real.  I felt for this character who was trying so hard to hold onto the lie that was keeping him afloat.  And he was not so different from everyone else around him.  The unhealthy coping mechanisms of most of the restaurant employees and patrons is cause for alarm if you are in charge of mental health issues in Pocatello but for a theater audience there's a lot of pain being avoided and anesthetized in these characters and watching them wrestle with it certainly got to me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Beautiful Day in November etc...: Casting Announced

Sure everyone is all focused on Jeremy Jordan being cast in the Parade concert today or still recovering from yesterday's Encores' Off-Broadway series....But I'm pretty excited about this casting for a play whose title is so long you'd think Tony Kushner wrote it.  Kate Benson's play, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN NOVEMBER ON THE BANKS OF THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT LAKES opens January 15th at City Center Stage 2, produced by The Women's Project and New Georges and directed by Lee Sunday Evans.  

New Georges is remounting it's well-received production (from Dixon Place in April 2014) with a few additions to the cast including...Ben Williams who I like to think of as the really hot sound guy from Gatz who never gets naked in any of the Elevator Repair Shows. Since April of 2012 I've been asking for more Ben Williams. So hooray!   
The returning original cast includes Jessica Almasy (founding member of The Team), Christian Felix, Kristine Haruna Lee (War Lesbian, Dixon Place), Nina Hellman (Obie Award for Trouble in Paradise, Hourglass Group), Brooke Ishibashi (Good Person of Szechwan, The Public; Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G, Vampire Cowboys), Mia Katigbak (2014 Obie Award for Awake and Sing!, NAATCO; Scenes from a Marriage, NYTW), and Heather Alicia Simms (Born Bad, Soho Rep; The Brother/Sister Plays, The Public). Joining the cast anew are Gerry Bamman (Merchant of Venice on Broadway) and Hubert Point-Du Jour (The Model Apartment, Primary Stages; A Map of Virtue, 13P). 

Mia Katigbak gave that incredible speech at the Obie's this year and I've been keeping an eye out for her in other things.  Most recently I saw her in 16 Words or Less

So definitely lots of reasons to check out this new play.  Check out ticket information here.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Events: Casting Announced

Having seen David Greig's play about faith and violence in Edinburgh in 2013 I was curious how they would cast the play when it was scheduled to play New York Theatre Workshop.  Ramin Gray is directing the two-person play which also involves local community choirs and a musical director taking part in each show. 

Neve McIntosh will star as Claire .  She's a Scottish actress best known to me as Madame Vastra from the Doctor Who series and I saw her perform this role in Edinburgh.  Clifford Samuel, a British actor, will reprise his role of The Boy.  He played the part at the Young Vic and as the work has toured.

The play has been almost universally acclaimed but it was not something that affected me when I saw it.  And I know, heart of stone and all, but I found the structure and form of the play made it really hard for me to invest in the characters and the issues being addressed by the play.  I wasn't the only American who saw it and did not get why it was getting rave reviews.  I really wonder if we process our thoughts about violence, religion, and terror in slightly different ways....or maybe I'm just not the right person for this show or maybe I was festival'd out that day.

But don't let me talk you out of seeing it.  We don't really see a lot of plays dealing with this subject and the way in which it is dealt with here. I an eager to see the American reaction to this work when it opens in New York in February.  Tickets are on sale now.

City of Angels: Some Thoughts

Bearing in mind I saw the first preview of City of Angels and could still smell the paint on the set, I can't really "review" it. Things may change between when I as the show and it is open to review.  But because I had been waiting 20 years to see a professional production again I thought there was some merit in talking about the work as I saw it and the production of this Cy Coleman-David Zippel-Larry Gelbart musical being revived at the Donmar Warehouse in London.

For those unfamiliar with the story, a New York writer Stine (Hadley Fraser) goes to Hollywood, like so many before him, to turn his hard-boiled detective character from his novels, Stone (Tam Mutu) into a movie. He butts heads with studio chief Buddy (Peter Polycarpou) and Stine's wife Gabby (Rosalie Craig) an author in her own right, goes back to New York for work. Left on his own he strays and has an affair with Buddy's secretary Donna (Rebecca Trehearn). And as he writes, his screenplay unfolds before the audience in black and white. We see him editing (the characters talk and move backwards) and incorporating people from his real technicolor life into the movie.  A jerk movie studio chief (also Polycarpou). A sexy and loyal secretary Oolie (also Trehearn) etc. In the movie within the musical Stone is hired to find Mallory (Samantha Barks), the missing stepdaughter of gold digging Alaura Kingsley (Catherine Kelly).  Stone takes the job but it turns out more might be going on than meets the eye.  Think something akin to a postmodern, wholly self-aware, comedic version of The Big Sleep with music.

Josie Rourke's production uses projections, lighting, and costumes to set up the black and white world of the movie against the color world of Stine. Typewritten text is projected, letter by letter, as Stine writes. The Donmar is a small space and many directors build up to utilize the space there. Stine often exists on the higher plane which is defined by endless piles of scripts or manuscripts and his typewriter--it's breathtaking.  The lower level allows for sliding doors to reveal Stone's office, Buddy's office, or various bedrooms. This ends up being used to greatest effect during the big Act one closing number, You're Nothing Without Me, where Stine and Stone fight and the color and B/W projections are used as a weapon by each to corner of trap the other. It's an inventive moment but the projections were otherwise a little dull.

First let's focus on the positives. Rosalie Craig's It Needs Work is a showstopper. She hits all the cynical and sass marks just right. She just strikes the right tone throughout the whole show when others don't always get there. Hadley Fraser's Funny also feels right on the mark. The bitterness and frustration bubbling over and he has the voice to carry it. I just wish he had more to sing.  I continue to be impressed by him--he's got the voice and the acting chops and he's a true pleasure to watch.  He and Mutu do an incredibly athletic rendition of You're Nothing Without Me and I could just listen to that number on repeat for hours. In fact I probably have.

Rebecca Trehearn could stand to smile less and play the cynicism of her characters more. She's got the voice and the look, I just think a little bit of happy dialed down to disappointment is called for for her character.  I think she is almost there, she just needs a few tweaks to her performance and then she'll hit the bullseye.  Tam Mutu clearly got this role because of his butt chin and the fact that if Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster had a baby it would be his face.  But I didn't love him. He just kind of played everything the same. Sure, he's a movie private detective and there's not a ton of depth there but he just felt kind of wooden. 

There were some troubling aspects of the production. First Rourke's 4-person ensemble, which carries the group song and dance numbers, is entirely made up of people of color. The performers double in several roles including backup singers to a crooner, household staff, and a police officer. I get that it's a period piece but it felt like a really distinct choice. I'm happy to see a diverse cast when they could have just white washed the whole show (it should also be said Marc Elliott who plays the Hispanic characters Munoz and Pancho who is part of the main cast is part-Indian) but there was something a little weird about the diversity focused on the unnamed ensemble--especially when there is an entire song in the musical about white privilege and Mexicans being kept down in the LAPD. The musical itself feels slightly more self-aware than the production did.  Giving Rourke the benefit of the doubt maybe it was used to identify the issues of the segregated world of Hollywood but something just felt off about it.  Maybe it wouldn't have been as troubling if they also didn't use Day of the Dead masks during the Latin dance number.  It's disappointing to see this kind of cultural appropriation.   

So the bottom line is this musical is just as fun, smart, and acerbic as I remember. But this production has some great things and some truly questionable choices.   Bottom line--we need a U.S. production stat.

The Elephant Man: A Museum Display

I wish I had just bought dinner at a table next to Alessandro Nivola rather than payed a small fortune to see this play.  At least in that instance I'd have had a really nice meal and probably enjoyed overhearing enough of Nivola to make it dinner and a show.  Sadly, the Scott Ellis revival of the Bernard Pomerance play currently playing on Broadway is a lifeless body propped up on display.  I place blame at Ellis's feet.

After a life of freak-shows and abuse, John Merrick (Bradley Cooper) is rescued by Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola) and given a home at London Hospital.  With time and tutelage he becomes a voracious reader and Treves discovers a social butterfly behind Merrick's deformed features.  With the assistance of stage star Mrs. Kendal (Patricia Clarkson) he is introduced to many people in high society including royalty. But he remains cut off from the world in other ways. As certain doors open to him we see the limits of his access. His health begins to suffer but it is Treves who starts to wonder if he's made a mistake by trying to give Merrick a "normal"life.

I will say up front that everyone did their homework here. Bradley Cooper contorted himself. Patricia Clarkson fluttered.  Alessandro Nivola suffered admirably. But the entire endeavor felt like everyone was sitting for a painting and not acting in a play.  Pose. Speak. Exeunt. There was something so utterly turgid in the goings on. Sure it's a period piece and there are corsets and stiff-upper lip Brits but God almighty did there also need to be rods up everyone's asses. Like porcelain dolls on display this production came across like a waxworks museum but not a full-blooded play. And there are some worthwhile emotions to be mined here. Of all the performers Nivola is the only one who managed to express them. 

Putting aside the terrible British accents and a set entirely consisting of curtains, I could not recall what made this play so electric when I saw it 20 years ago--oh yeah I do, it was Billy Crudup. He managed to craft a fully-developed character and make himself vulnerable. Cooper does not embarrass himself here but I kept waiting for something more than a blank look on his face.  He was so focused on his contortions and his accent (which was very good through a contorted mouth so A++ on that) that I didn't feel like much else was happening.  At intermission enough people were raving about his blue eyes that I guess it didn't matter to anyone else. They had all come to fawn and felt it money well spent to see their "favorite" actor act.   I'm no fangirl for Mr. Cooper but I was excited to see an actor who I had heard had done a great job try out this challenging role. And he carries the physical challenges of the role admirably. But it just felt empty.  He remained a cypher. And the mechanics alone are not why one shows up for this show.  The emotional core really needs to be there.

I was unexpectedly disappointed in Patricia Clarkson. I have loved her in so many movies but here she just seemed out of her element. Her accent came and went and her most critical scene, where she makes herself most vulnerable to Merrick, neither of them seemed to really express the true devastation of it. It was all whimper and no bang.

Nivola however continues to turn in strong roles without a lot of fanfare. Coming after The Winslow Boy last season I hope he decides to keep doing theater. His argument with Merrick in the aftermath of Mrs. Kendal's departure really got under the skin of his character and he got to show a lot of layers.  He's feeling everything when no one else around him is.  It starts to feel like a weird episode of the Twilight Zone where everyone else is a robot and he's just figured out he's the only human.   I was grateful to have him.But one man cannot carry this show alone. 

Maybe this minimalism and curtain-based theatricality worked on the small stage in Williamstown but here I just felt the large swaths of emptiness. Then again after seeing this production I started to think this play, as performed, did not have enough to sustain itself even for two hours. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

A Show for Christmas: Critical Discussion

I've been shit about cross-posting my writing from other places on the internet.  But had a discussion with John Murphy about Daniel Kitson's new storytelling show A Show for Christmas over at Exeunt Magazine.  You should check it out. But it has spoilers.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Assassins: Sunday in the Park with Booth

As the swirling cast tore off pieces of the balladeer's clothes and transformed him, I thought Jamie Lloyd's production of Assassins had its claws in me.  It was most unexpected since when I saw a concert production of the show in 2012, I found the material a little boring and tedious.  I know, how are assassins boring? Well they were...it started to all feel a little repetitive. But there's no question that Jamie Lloyd's minimalist but smart production seems to highlight the conceptual connections between songs and book and everything feels relevant and necessary.   From the sad clown, tattooed, carnival barker Proprietor to the assassins whose suffering feels very real and only an arm's length away from the audience I was hooked.

I suddenly realized as the musical came to an end and the characters shout "Connect," that Assassins is Sunday in the Park with George with more death and less dots.  Alienated men and women who are desperate to connect, and they pick up a gun, not a paint brush.  It's Six Assassins in Search of a Spiritual Peg.  It's weird and wrong and absolutely right.  I don't think I will see a better production. 

The Menier is a notoriously small and shallow space to stage musicals.  Lloyd uses a traverse style staging which increases the intimacy.  You enter the "fun house" through the mouth of a clown.  Pieces of a broken down circus are all around--a bumper car unmoored from its ride, a Ferris wheel car, a giant clown head.  Bare lightbulbs hang across the ceiling and the words HIT or MISS are lit up in bulbs.  Most of the cast is pre-set and whether they are assassin or onlookers with their popcorn they are almost all onstage all of the time.  Nothing happens without an audience.

Lloyd envelopes the audience with this story.  Characters move up the aisles in the audience, hang about at the fringes of the room, and stare directly at the audience.  In a small room when a gun is pointed at you, or many guns, it is terrifying. 

The voice of the show seems to shift from The Proprietor to John Wilkes Booth to The Balladeer.  But rather than that feeling random or unwarranted, here it felt more like an intentional baton pass of power and authority.

Simon Lipkin is monumental as the Proprietor.  With his tattooed arms, Dark Knight Joker make-up, and a patina of malevolence, it's hard to take your eyes off him.  His brute force and rumbling presence is unavoidable.  Sometimes the Proprietor is a stand-in for the Presidents and at other times he is the dark force encouraging the assassinations. Sometimes he is even, at his most terrifying, the jolt of electricity from the electric chair.

He is contrasted with Aaron Tveit's John Wilkes Booth who starts us off with the first American presidential assassination and becomes the guiding force over all that follows him.  Tveit is the stage opposite of Lipkin, with his his slight frame and boyish good looks.  His Booth is not so much imperious (as Michael Cerveris was) but he is a vain, handsome actor who needs only open his mouth with his honeyed words to have an audience gather, beguiling everyone as he speaks.  His wry smile and sexy confidence makes assassination look easy.  Between Lipkin and Tveit, they end up the ying and yang of temptation and validation.  Strong arming or inveigling, either way they will convince would-be assassins to pull the trigger.

The Balladeer starts off strumming a banjo and with joviality engaging in folk songs about these assassins.  He is the one giving their internal struggles a voice.  But when he is "revealed" as Oswald suddenly it all makes sense.  Lloyd stages the transformation as if these voices of assassins past and future seem to come from his mind or come upon him like a plague.  All this time he has just been another voice in Oswald's troubled mind.  Jamie Parker manages this evolution from lighthearted song-smith to beleaguered Oswald admirably.  His big bicep, broad-chested Oswald is a solid, blue-collar guy besieged by ideas, sadness, frustration, anger, impotence, and despair.  He is at the end of his rope. Parker brings great sympathy to Oswald which leads to ever more troubling issues for the audience.

The work is constantly testing the audience.  To cheer for any of these hapless (and sometimes nearly loveable) characters is to drift into a moral gray area as we know they are all assassins.  Lloyd teases out such strong performances that you must struggle with these feelings constantly because as performed some of these people seem quite reasonable, quite within reach.  They are humans pushed one step too far.  And we are there to witness that step. 

Dramaturgically everything is built around Lee Harvey Oswald.  And as if this entire world--past and future, dreamed and real, has sprung from his mind he cracks open the horror for the audience in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.  When he has succeeded, Lloyd stages a scene of unexpected, over-the-top rapture on stage, but then after it is over, during Something Just Broke, the entire color palette changes--all the bright warm light drifts into blue.  The tone shifts.  And for a show where the audience is in a moral quandary most of the time, he makes a distinct choice about how we are to feel from that point on. It's sickening and agonizing.  Any warmth that you may have felt for the assassins is reframed and you remember the destruction and loss they caused. When the focus shifts from the grieving nation back to the assassins, they suddenly feel more frightening, menacing, and remote. Many have argued against this song, added into the show in later productions, but I thought the way Lloyd staged it, he made it work.

This entire cast was incredibly strong--and what a rare thing that is.  There was not a single weak link amongst them.  Their singing was perfectly fine but they really elevated the material with their nuanced and engaging performances.  Despite big moments of high drama, this production is successful because it works on both a big and small scale.  The tender scene between Emma Goldman (Melle Stewart) and Czolgosz (David Roberts) is beautiful and touching.  Casting a young woman as Goldman makes their exchange even more poignant.  Her wistfulness at not having time for romance felt slightly sadder than I had seen before and their kiss seemed like a real kiss.  Goldman and Czolgosz appear as if they almost could connect if the timing were right.  But she was off to save the world and he was off to kill a President.  David Roberts brought an approachability and relate-able loneliness to Czolgosz.  He's not always an assassin I remember but Roberts made him unforgettable here. I even found his glass bottle scene to be riveting. 

Andy Nyman's Guiteau is a jolly, sad pleasure. As a show about mentally ill characters I thought Nyman in particular handled his character's struggles well.  You see things plaguing him and him responding by gently clawing at his scalp as he tries to soothe it away, all the while beaming.  Between his exuberance and his breakdown, the sparkle in his eyes is complex.  As it should be.  His character brings such a release to the audience but with that humor comes the darkness of his illness.   He kind of erases the field for all other Guiteaus.  He's magical. 

Lloyd has John Hinkley (Harry Morrison) and Squeaky Fromme (Carly Bawden) sing to their beloveds through photos held by the Proprietor.  As a song I've always had a warm spot in my heart for Unworthy of Your Love even though the more I listen to it the more it sounds like Sondheim doing Schwartz (and considering my feelings about Stephen Schwartz and I need to think about my life, Pippin).  Here, it came across appropriately creepy.  But I'll probably never get over Alexander Gemignani's heartbreaking rendition of it.  

Catherine Tate did a fine job with Sarah Jane Moore.  Mike McShane was a downtrodden and agonized Byck.  Stewart Clarke was an unexpectedly handsome and magnetic Zangara (The awkward moment you think, this Zangara could get it).

And I have to mention the incredible sound design by Gregory Clarke.  One moment of sound, with more contemporary implications evident, made me shiver.   I'm glad to have seen it at the Menier (it's now entirely sold out).  It's a terrific production but it works wonders in this space in the way Lloyd has envisioned it.  If it has a life beyond in a proscenium house, I worry the core of its electric intensity will be lost.  But trapped in that room, with a feeling of no escape, it had me shaking from the intensity of what I had witnessed.  And after a week of theater that kind of left me cold this was a hot-blooded production which did not let me stay on the sidelines.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014


I'm leaving London today. I feel like I've been away forever.  The world has been in an uproar and I haven't even had a TV to see it unfold.  And when things are happen at home, and I am away it always feels like a scene happening through frosted glass. 

Anyway, I was not away forever.  But others may disagree.  It was 17 days on the road. 2 countries, 2 continents, 3 airport lounges, 2 travel articles, 1 theater interview, 1 concert by an American band in England, endless walking sidewalks in airports, great friends, new neighborhoods, interesting theater, boring theater, theater in Turkish, American theater in England, American MUSICAL theater in England, one American celebrity, one British celebrity, a hostile cat, a confusing washing machine, a lot of converting Celsius to Fahrenheit, a lot of drizzle, 1 lost umbrella (RIP squirrel umbrella), 1 new umbrella (winter foxes), several wrong turns and fervent prayers to the transit gods, 1 episode of choosing the slow train over the fast train, a conversation with a Tanzanian lady named Florida on a train who was drinking a Carling out of a paper bag, 1 ride on a Night Bus, hearing the chimes of last call and wondering how anyone goes out in London, discovering a BAR inside a LIBRARY and realizing you can literally drink anywhere in England (just not late into the evening), 2 emergency peanut butter sandwiches, simits, biscuits, cookies, cake (mostly for dinner), 10,000 cups of tea, a lot of walking to find a poster tube, and a great appreciation for world travel (but also an appreciation of my home).

Glad to have this shared this trip with so many people.  Now to run for my flight before I miss it!


Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Return of Daniel Kitson's Tree...

Daniel Kitson's two person play Tree will have its London premiere at the Old Vic Theatre in January 2015.  Starring Kitson and comedian Tim Key, the work originally premiered in Manchester in 2013 at the Royal Exchange Theatre.

The show will run from January 5-31.  Shows are Monday to Saturday at 8pm with a Saturday matinee at 11am and no show on Sundays. Tickets are £16, £13 and £9 (all prices include £1 restoration levy) with 100 seats per show at £10 for anyone under 25.

Tickets go on sale to mailing list members and Old Vic members on November 27. General booking opens December 4.  All tickets will require IDs to pick them up. 

I'm mostly curious about the "Q&A" on January 26th.  Who will be asking questions?  Who will be answering questions?

This show left me with many questions when I saw it.  But it's one I wish I had had a second chance at seeing.  Not sure I can make the journey but I highly recommend that you do.

Straight White Men: Anthropology by Young Jean Lee

I thought I had reached a breaking point this year with the voices of straight, white male voices in theater.  But when it's Young Jean Lee doing the curating of those voices I'm willing to tune back in.

Based on conversations she had with straight white men, Lee has put together a play where a father (Austin Pendleton) and his three sons gather for Christmas. Eldest son Matt (James Stanley) is living at home after completing a PhD and drifting in low-level non-profit jobs. Middle son Jake (Gary Wilmes) is a banker, recently divorced, and a self-professed asshole. Youngest son Drew (Pete Simpson) is a professor and author. But when these grown men come home they turn into the children they were before--wrestling, teasing and torturing each other. But one night Matt starts to cry and the men then engage in volleys of support, interest, and disinterest.  But none are particularly equipped to vocalize their emotions without reverting to their own philosophies to try to "solve" the "problem" of Matt.

If you've ever had the uncomfortable experience of being a "problem" a man has tried to solve then you can relate to the way these well-meaning siblings descend on Matt and dive in with abandon--the same way they dig into a homemade pie with forks leaving crumbs and mess in their wake. 

As they casually talk about childhood experiences portraits emerge of these three men as boys-- Matt the social justice crusader who protested the all-white production of Oklahoma in high school, Drew called "Shit Baby" by his brothers after they made him eat his own shit at age 3, and Prick of the Pricks Jake hosting a game of Gay Chicken with his friends until Matt shut it down.  Even their father's role as parent is elucidated when he only just now learns they've called Drew "Shit Baby" for over 20 years.  For all the sensitivity that their mother tried to instill by making them play a board game called "Privilege" (a pasted over Monopoly game to make them more self-aware), any argument that they had a truly progressive childhood seems undone by their standard 1980's era (by my experience) antics. To be fair, a mom can only do so much in one generation.

So despite self-awareness, they still aggressively need to "understand" why Matt is a "failure" and how they can fix that. But even Matt cannot clearly articulate why he cannot quite balance his white privilege with the problems of the world.  Everyone has a theory and belligerently beats Matt up with their theories.  They are living their lives by those theories--so that must be the answer for everyone else.

The greatest takeaway from this production is it carefully (and sympathetically) illustrates the damage that men do...but in this instance the damage is inflicted exclusively on other men.  Matt is cut by his siblings and father's views of success, mental health, tough love, expectations, and disappointment. The agonizing scene where they try to demonstrate to Matt how to interview for a job reminded me of certain teachers I have had who thought the ONE way to teach was by emulation.  As if there is only one way to learn.  As if there is a singular approach to self-expression. 

The actors here are top-notch.  The scenes of their childhood are vivid and the inner children left to run rampant here in their childhood home are very present in this production.  You almost believe as the three brothers wrestle with each other behind the sofa, that young kids will emerge from the scrum.  Stanley is so tall and solid that it's fascinating to watch him seem so diminished by his physically smaller brothers.  Each actor moves with his own energy but authentic to their character.  Wilmes revels in the dickishness of his character but his skill really stands out when he has to get emotional.  His character's emotions are those of a young boy and it is that smart-alecky brat who starts to cry before us. It's a real transformation. 

Lee has the stage crew clear and clean the set between scenes with the lights up.  As I watched the crew do the cleaning, I was wondering if Lee was further infantilizing the men in this house who don't clean up after themselves. Or showing that most care-taking is coming from outside this family unit.

For how smart and well-drawn this play is, it is structured with detachment. Perhaps that is Lee's studious eye toward behavior.  Because as cutting as some of the words and actions were and painful as it was for the characters, I was still watching it from the outside as an observer.  This is not a negative.  It's just how she's subverting our POV to be with her behind the glass wondering at the  animals in this zoo.

Also best performance by a puffin pillow ever on stage. Thank you set designer David Evan Morris for the realistic, middle American living room with tiny, little puffin details.

Asymmetric: Secrets and Lies

"Which, did no one anywhere on the R and D chain bring up how stupid it is to call a drone 'Icarus'?"

Shifting tone between humor and the serious business of international espionage, Mac Rogers's Asymmetric isn't always sure what it wants to be (serious spy thriller, bumbling spy caper, comedy) but zippy dialogue and the exciting challenge of  mounting a spy thriller on stage makes this a good introduction to this ever more ambitious theater company, Gideon Productions.

Photo by  Travis McHale
Josh (Sean Williams) is called upon by his former employer, the CIA, to come out of his forced retirement (and the alcoholic binge that sent him there) and help on a case.  His former mentee, Zach (Seth Shelden) now runs the division Josh created. Josh's task, should he choose to accept it, is to interrogate his ex-wife, legendary operative Sunny Black (Kate Middleton) over state secrets she has sold.  Josh has little time to get the intelligence out of Sunny or else another CIA operative, Ford (Rob Maitner), is going to continue to torture her. 

The play is packed full of interesting characters who have a lot of baggage with each other.  With any story about spies the question is always who is being honest and who is playing who. But oddly the strongest element was the comedy rather than the tension of the cat-and-mouse games being played. The ensemble overall was more confident in the comedy and they made it very funny--particularly Shelden and Maitner.  The play is like a spiritual cousin to Grosse Pointe Blank--where emotion, death, and black comedy are intended to live side-by-side in harmony.  But the actors did not feel as committed to the spy world they were trying to create.

The parts of the story addressing politics, spy culture, and drone warfare come across as a McGuffin in the face of the personal dynamics between ex-husband and ex-wife which would be fine if I had felt the connection between the couple.  I was never convinced Sean Williams believed what he was saying.  It was hard to see the spark of the man that he had been before his professional and personal life fell apart and as he returns to his old life of an interrogator it was imperative that we see some of that old lion come back.  And if we're to get swept up in the chase, the mystery, and the emotion of the play, we needed to be on board with Williams's Josh.  Middleton shifted well between the spy-speak and her love and compassion for her ex.  I liked Shelden's bug-eyed, in-above-his-head-ness and Maitner's glee in his sadistic character.

It's a creative use of space and limited budget to attempt a spy thriller on stage but I wish director Jordana Williams had found a way to dial-up the pressure.  Even though the actors are rattling things off quickly, certain moments of intersection should have resonated more.  In the end the laughs were its strength (and it's a pleasant endeavor) even if we were supposed to leave feeling something more than that.      

Monday, November 17, 2014

The River: A Soggy Tale of Fishes

If you went to see Jez Butterworth's The River on Broadway because I raved about the London production, well then I'm really sorry.  It has been the rare experience for me to see a play, love it, and then see a second production that made me question my love of the show.  The first instance of this was the Signature Theatre's production of Angels in America (I saw the replacement cast) which made me question that play's greatness (I knew it was the production and I walked out because I would not watch a play I loved be mistreated).  The River is only the second time I can recall this happening.  As I watched the Broadway production of The River, directed by the same director as in London, Ian Rickson, I was puzzled over what I was seeing.  Where was the mysterious, deep, and emotionally gripping show I saw in London?  What sort of British Kool-aid had I drunk?

With a little time between viewing and writing, I'm not convinced the play itself is actually bad.  But I know this production does it a great disservice. And it's not just a case of a small play in a small venue being blown up on the Broadway stage and losing some of it's magic.  This production feels entirely devoid of the necessary spark and momentum that the original production had. 

Hugh Jackman plays the Man who has taken his girlfriend (Cush Jumbo) to his fishing cabin for the first time. Wooing her with poetry about fishing and an unexpected "I love you" this new couple dance around each other with the guardedness of the previously wounded. Laura Donnelly plays another girlfriend who comes to the cabin at another time. And the echoes of one woman's visit leave imprints on the other's.  In fact earlier conversations are repeated and relived.  Time is not a strict construct and it's all a bit non-linear in this cabin in the woods.

Rickson tries to find a quiet intimacy in the smallest Broadway house, Circle in the Square. Some coziness of the cabin walls is lost when you are staging things openly in the round. The sound of the rushing river perhaps comes off too loud and sounds more like a tap left running (fine it sounds like peeing and not nature). With this openness much of the claustrophobia of the original production could not be reconstructed and with it some of the tension (and naturally once you know some of the surprises some tension is lost anyway).  But the actors should be able to reclaim some of that tension in how they engage with each other.  In fact the play depends on it.  But I felt nothing.

When I first saw it, Dominic West brought an unexpected, danger to the role of The Man. Jackman is not malevolent.  I know that sounds odd for a man who has off played a creature called Wolverine but he moves with delicateness on stage. Despite his bulging biceps (arm vein porn for those who care) and his tall stature I never feared him as I did West. I spent less time worried about what may have happened to these women (I doubt any one would have suspicions of foul play in this production) and more time spent on what was flying around this man's head and why.

I think the piece suffers for it. Making it more internal without that element of fear/hardness/inner darkness makes his pondering softer.  The stakes seem smaller.  There is no drama.  He comes across as a rake but frankly an entirely innocuous one. One who is easily found out by these women.  West had a more pronounced woundedness and desire. Jackman is pained on the surface (squinchy eyes) but it does not go deep. With West you imagined he was capable of cruelness and love and pain and sorrow. Jackman is far too inscrutable--really he's blank.  So we never know why we are here, why we should care, or what this means to anyone. 

On first viewing I thought this was a man doomed to repeat patterns in his life but here it came across like he could not recall which woman said things to him first and he's transposed the same repeating ideas on multiple women.  And if we are believe that this is him remembering or misremembering or reliving these moments of his life, he needs to project something emotionally for us to grab onto. 

Most of the time it did not feel like he was in the same room with the women. If these are meant to be memories he is conjuring then that makes some sense but the urgency and tension that a corporeal dialogue would bring, falls away.  West, Donnelly, and Miranda Raison used the silence between these characters to carry much of the water of the play.  The unspoken was suffused with meaning.  It felt like a tinderbox and potentially explosive at any moment.  There was so much passion, sadness, and want all in this tiny, tiny cabin. And the structure of people coming and going with conversations left mid-stream added to the tension.

On Broadway, it was soggy and cool.  With each passing scene, prior moments did not connect to later ones.  The actors needed to build the world with their behavior and chemistry but it ended up coming across as quite literal.  The mysticism and otherworldly nature of the play is hardly there. It's not about fish and yet this production doesn't seem to know that.

Basically everyone just get in my time machine and come with me to see The River when it was good.   Here's my original review...don't you want to see THAT play?!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Real Thing: Love in a Moment

Can you understand a love story from five seconds of stage time?  Sam Gold's new production of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing is majorly flawed but the final moment of the show made me well up with tears, delivering a wallop of emotion from an otherwise cold to the touch production.* 

Stoppard's play on love, fidelity, and artifice is brought to life by a literal soundtrack of pop songs.  Playwright Henry is obsessed with words, meaning, and often a cool detachment when it comes to emotion but it's sugary pop songs of the 1950's and 60's that tell us what he feels in his heart. Henry (Ewan McGregor) writes a play which stars his wife Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon) and his friend Max (Josh Hamilton) who is married to actress Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal).  In short order it's clear that Annie and Henry have fallen for each other and the two marriages split apart.  Henry and Annie marry and struggle through their own relationship.  Throughout the entire play there are many music cues and discussions of music within the play.   

But beyond the requirements of the script, Sam Gold foregrounds music in an unexpected way.  Not only does music lead in and out of scenes or end up the topic of conversation, but Gold has the cast sing through scene changes and transitions.  Is this the soundtrack of Henry's mind?  Are these the voices in his head? And in these transitions, Gold stages moments between characters.  They see each other and contribute to the breaking down of one scene and setting of the next.  This is an incestuous bunch of characters and this collaboration and theater troupe mentality reminds us of the artifice of the play we are watching and not just the plays within the play that we see that take place within the universe of The Real Thing.  These are not actors who are known for their musical theater chops (well Ewan McGregor did star in Guys and Dolls).  The singing is not polished but it brings a frailty and humanity out in their performances.  Stoppard can be so intellectual and hold audiences at arm's length.  There's something in the singing that collapses that a bit.

With a play about the stories we tell ourselves, the layering of a play within a play, there's one more layer of the artifice using the musical pop song love as an expression of the character's feelings in those moments.  There's something wonderfully immature and carefree about this soundtrack. It is idealized love as it should be without the over intellectualization of Henry/Stoppard. And Henry who is always so detached and analytical is made more romantic in this pop album world.  But this production does not actually break through to real emotion for me except in that final beat.

In a departure from the original play, the final music cue (which has changed during the preview period) has gone from I'm a Believer to God Only Knows. In this final moment, Henry fields a call from Max who is getting remarried.  Henry and Annie are meant to be reflecting on how much they need each other despite ongoing infidelities and their fundamental differences.  Henry kisses Annie goodnight and a song is playing on the radio.  It's God Only Knows.  As Max is talking on the line, Henry stops and starts to sing along with the song.  "God only knows what I'd be without you."   McGregor shows desperation, sadness, and gratitude in this line.  He means it.  It's the only "true" emotion I saw Henry express and of course he's cribbing his emotions from The Beach Boys. And maybe I felt it so much more because I had felt so little all along. 

Gold seems to be taking one of the most accessible Stoppard plays and subverting it ever so slightly. Perhaps it should not be rewarded that he's making it less accessible but I liked the singing--bringing a harmony to a play about discord.  And I liked the visual layering of glass and windows, reflections, and silhouettes. It was visually dynamic but did not necessarily serve the emotional center of the play which I felt was lacking. 

I wish Ewan McGregor had been able to get under Henry's veneer. It's easy to play along with the badinage and Stoppard wit and not stop to feel anything. McGregor didn't quite have the gravity when it was called for. His frequent smiles made him a more jovial character than I expected. He ended up more happily smug than distant or arrogant.  The scene with his daughter should have felt more weight than it did.  Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the guilt-free Annie at the start with total aplomb.  But as her character gets more frustrated and her attention strays I wished her performance had varied.  Everything felt too chilled out and even-keeled for her character.  The conflict between Henry and Annie fizzles because neither actor can seem to touch the fear, anger, loss, or frustration with enough gravitas to give their fights real stakes. On the other hand, I thought Cynthia Nixon handled her character's shift from angry/frustrated wife to softer ex-wife well.  And Ronan Raftery as Billy makes an impression through his few scenes.

I thought the combination of a playwright I often love (with a few exceptions) and a director I often
love (with a few exceptions) would prove to be Broadway dynamite.  But for me the one burning candle of passion in the final moment of the play was the only spark I saw.

*I saw a preview and perhaps before the show was frozen for critical review. I paid for my ticket.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Lippy: Unspoken and Unknown

I am a sucker for deconstruction and Lippy by Irish theater company Dead Centre does deconstruction very well.  Avoiding obvious entry points to a story about a suicide pact they instead engage in a visual and aural storytelling that plays with form and by doing so cracks open the story to take us to new and exciting places. The overall impact is incredibly powerful.  I first saw the work in Edinburgh (it made my Top 10) and was so glad to have another chance to see it in New York.

The piece can be divided into three parts.  First there is a mock talkback for a show we have not seen but lip reading is discussed and demonstrated.  A fatuous moderator played with panache by co-creator Bush Moukarzel interviews an actor.  The actor (Daniel Reardon) tells a story of a police case he was involved in where he read the lips of women on CCTV footage who later entered into a suicide pact. Three sisters and an aunt starved themselves to death (Joanna Banks, Gina Moxley, Catriona Ni Mhurchu, Liv O'Donoghue).  Gruesome and inexplicable in part 2 the actor inserts himself into the house where the women died and time spins backward and forward as we sees them ready themselves to die while the lip reader struggles to understand. In part 3 playwright Mark O'Halloran has crafted a monologue spoken by one of the sisters. Projected in a close up shot of only her mouth shape and context drift away and we are left staring into her mouth--grotesque and distorted.

Despite the surface incongruity of the three parts (and frankly a good deal of humor in part one) they are held together by a powerful soundscape by Adam Welsh, giving us a world where things are not what they seem. People may appear to be speaking but then their voices are distorted. Or it may appear live and then suddenly it is a recording. Looping, distortion, and feedback sculpt the landscape of the play and give it an unexpected emotional depth.

Like the Francis Ford Coppola movie The Conversation we come to understand that we can never quite know everything, even when things are recorded.  No matter how hard we try or lean in and listen, much will be left incomplete.  By illustrating and imagining but not explaining Dead Centre gives these women their privacy whilst still exploring their story.  Relying on movement, sound, and not words, we too can only grapple with potential ideas and not answers.  By focusing on the lip reader and the limits of his ability to interpret the scenes nothing is gospel. It's speculation. He is thwarted at every turn by the women: straining to hear or interference drowning out their words. What the truth is may not be known.

Clarity or answers are never promised. But this company achieves creative cohesion thanks to smart direction (by Ben Kidd and Moukarzel), the unifying themes, the dynamic sound work, and the strong visual tableaux. Maybe the mouth monologue (Beckett homage noted) goes on a bit too long (sometimes so does Beckett) but the stunning and haunting visuals of part 2 may be some of the most inventive and thoughtful stage images I've ever seen and when the lights go up on part 2 (even knowing what was coming) I was filled with an overwhelming sense of anxiety and horror.  It's a punch to the gut (and perhaps to the eardrums) but not easily forgotten. 

Dead Centre (made up of Kidd, Moukarzel, Welsh) is a young company and I look forward to what they come up with next.