Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner: The Political Present

"I have to run."

Roy Williams's modern update of Alan Sillitoe's famous short story finds England has not changed much in 50 some odd years but his contemporary re-telling, set around the London riots with a multi-racial cast makes a strong argument that this story needs to be heard again today.

Colin Smith (Sheldon Best) has dropped out of school, cannot find a job, and ends up stealing a cashbox from a Greggs shop and gets caught and sent to juvenile detention facility.  Once there he is encouraged by one of the authorities at the facility, Stevens (Todd Weeks) to participate in a running competition which would pit him against boys from a local prep school.  As Colin trains, running free in the woods at the facility, we see flashes of the home he came from with a mother (Zainab Jah) more interested in shopping than her son, the influence of his socialist father (Malik Yoba) now deceased, the trouble he and his best mate Jase (Joshua E. Nelson) got into, and his burgeoning relationship with Kenisha (Jasmine Cephas Jones).  Through his solitary running training, we hear what it is that is going on inside his mind. 

In watching this play, directed by Leah C. Gardiner, I was struck by its quintessential Britishness (with references to council estates, Greggs, Carphone Warehouse, and bawdy Jamaican street slang which I have inadvertently learned from British TV show The Thick of It) .  But perhaps it is that cultural distance that gives the American audience the needed perspective to look at race and class and the disenfranchised young men who this story gives voice to.  It seems like we never hear these stories--giving equal weight to class and race and economics and family and politics.  Or maybe when they are told in America, they are like Fruitvale Station where the dramatic stakes are life and death and guns.  Here the stakes are quieter but no less important.  It is about the choices we have and don't have, agency, and self-worth.    

Williams frames this story around contemporary British social issues--massive unemployment, the UK riots which spread quickly through social media and led to looting and mayhem, and the power structure of the nation.  What Williams (and Sillitoe before him) does is give purpose, power, and agency back to the Colin Smiths of the world.  We are given insight into a young man who is trying to carve a place in the world for himself and on his own terms.

Smith is made a pawn in other men's plans with Stevens fixated on taking down the private school boys as a proxy for the elite in power. But as Colin starts to make clear, that fight is not necessarily his fight.  He's as unseen by the David Cameron-s of the world as he is by the Stevens-es of the world.  This play foregrounds the social and political issues yet maintains a focus on the personal.  Because everything is framed through Colin's eyes we cannot help but see the contradictions, the injustice, and the struggles he has in a world that hardly recognizes his existence.  Rather than just complain about political and social institutions we see the trickle down effects of their impact on these young men.  The state is nevertheless indicted but without heavy-handed rhetoric. The play is not flashy or loud.  But it is in the solitary quiet of a man's mind that this play gives us the rare opportunity to hear voices so often drowned out.

Best spends much of the play running with projections that follow him as he moves through the woods. It's a highly athletic role and the fact that he never seems breathless during his monologues is impressive.  Of the supporting cast, Jasmine Cephas Jones stands out in the small role of Kenisha and Todd Weeks shines in the appropriately contradictory role of supporter and oppressor, Stevens.

As much as I have a love-hate relationship with projections, here they are used to strong effect to both imprison and free Colin and the caged surfaces that surrounds him are never wholly forgotten.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Top 10 US Shows 2013

It's been a long theater year for me.  Not sure how I managed to see over 170 concerts, shows, and readings but I did. And I'm not proud.  Mostly horrified.  I've started a new job and I expect my theater-going will be a little more reasonable in 2014.  Anyway that's the new year's resolution I am making.

In years past I have highlighted a couple special mentions for work that I saw in the UK. This year I saw 54 shows in the UK so I am making a separate Top 10 for the UK this year. 

Here are my picks for the best of the US and listen to me talk about some of them on the Maxamoo Theater Podcast:

1.  The Flick:  I loved this play more than some people love their own children.  I feel fiercely protective of it and will defend its merits to the death.  Luxuriating in space, silence, and heartbreak Annie Baker's human and epic play The Flick was expertly directed by Sam Gold and wonderfully performed by Matt Maher, Louisa Krause and Aaron Clifton Moten.

2.  Fun Home:  Sometimes a musical (not by Stephen Sondheim) comes along that tears your beating heart from your chest and this is just that musical.  Stuffed to the rafters with emotion and insight, this musical by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron with direction by again Sam Gold takes unlikely source material--a graphic memoir--and makes it work on stage.  Challenging in both form and substance, the songs are beacons of emotional clarity.  And man can those ladies sing songs that will make you weep.  A stellar cast and a crisp production made this memorable.

3. A Lot of Sorrow: Some might argue this is not theater.  But I argue this more than six-hour piece of durational performance art was theater to me.  There was a stage, performers, music, lights, an audience, and it was live.  Sure it was a band playing the same song over and over again for more than six hours but that's what made it great. It taught me to listen to music.  It showed me how repetition is not always repetitive.  And six hours spent in one song it turns out can be a transcendent experience.

3. Here Lies Love: What another musical?  Mildly Bitter are you ok?  How did this happen?  Well my blog, I don't know what to tell you except deal with it.  Alex Timbers, who's work I've always been a little tepid on, took an immersive approach to this concept album musical about Imelda Marcos and it was not only a brilliant choice, it enriched the source material.  The audience's participation to the rise of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos translates into complicity by immersion.  The horrors of what they did also end up on the audience's shoulders.  The upbeat dance tracks provided by David Byrne and Fat Boy Slim are transposed into a musical theater language and suddenly everything fits. 

4.  Be the Death of Me:  2013 does feel like the year of immersive theater but I feel like I need to remind people of a piece of immersive theater that didn't have the sexy allure of vokda or masks.  The Civilians created a massive installation of theater and you were allowed to pick which theater "stations" you wanted for the first half and then the audience was brought together for a shared experience in the second half.  The uniting theme was death.  And the strong acting ensemble, unusual structure, and heartbreaking stories just grabbed me and never let me go.

5.  Twelfth Night:  When I saw this production in London last year I enjoyed it but with a change in casting when it came to Broadway (god bless you Sam Barnett) this show suddenly blossomed for me.   Mark Rylance, Samuel Barnett, Liam Brennan, Paul Chahidi and team made for one of the funniest and enjoyable Shakespeare's of my life.  

6.  The Winslow Boy: Nothing about this show made me think I was going to like it but somewhere in between the British legal ephemera and William Morris wallpaper, I just found myself absorbed by this intellectually and emotionally stimulating Terrance Rattigan play that felt more modern and relevant than I expected.  Sometimes it turns out the small battles are full of dramatic import and those in our hearts and minds more fierce than those on a battlefield.

7.  Minsk 2011:  My first introduction to the Belarus Free Theatre was this searing ensemble piece about terrorism, repression, dictatorships, and freedom.  They managed to make political theater both highly educational and intrinsically theatrical--which is not an easy feat.  I love the way this troupe communicates through movement and visuals and I will always make the effort to see them whenever I can because they are telling stories no one wants to hear but everyone needs to hear.

8.  Choir Boy:  Tarrell Alvin McCraney's play snuck up on me.  I went without knowing much about it and left feeling it had been one of the more original plays of 2013.  As it began I thought I knew where it was going and gave a bit of eyeroll, but it defied all my expectations in the best possible ways.  Exploring homophobia, religion, spirituality, honor, and the history of slave spirituals, this play with music dealt with heavy topics but it never felt heavy-handed.  And that unto itself is a major achievement.  I hope to see much more from this playwright in the future.   

9.  Much Ado About Nothing:  Arin Arbus's production of a WWII era Much Ado was an eye-opener.  Even though this Shakespeare was staged indoors, you felt a connection to nature and space that is hard to pull off without the Delacorte Theater and the beauty of Central Park--but she did.  Airy and light, serious and weighty, somehow she balanced all those aspects of the text perfectly.  Jonathan Cake's Benedick has probably ruined me for all others. He stole this production out from under the rest of the cast but I'm not complaining. 

10. Talley's Folly: Perhaps I am getting softer with age but there was something to this romantic play about a couple trying to connect and their tentative relationship in post-War America that kept me on the edge of my seat.  Terrific performances from Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson and a darker undertone kept this romance from drifting into the maudlin.

Ones that almost made the top 10: The Assembled Parties, Dirty Great Love Story, The Tutors, The Cradle Will Rock, We're Gonna Die, Good Person of Szechwan.  

Special mentions go to Jeanine Serralles being delightfully deranged in The Jammer, Charlotte Parry for being great in everything from Pygmalion on the West Coast to The Winslow Boy on the East Coast--please cast her in The Real Thing, the New York Philharmonic playing The Carousel Waltz, Santo Loquasto's set that says everything in The Assembled Parties and the great cast which managed to make this flawed play move me, the mystique of Rob Drummond's Bullet Catch, Elaine Stritch saying goodbye to the Carlyle and giving no fucks, the exquisite When I Grow Up from Matilda, Adam Guettel inviting Stephen Pasquale to sing at 54 Below and Pasquale burning down the house, the delightful backstage ballet comedy of On Your Toes, the off-stage and on-stage romance of Colin Donnell & Patti Murin in Love's Labour's Lost, the wackiness of Comedy of Errors even in the rain at Shakespeare in the Park, Young Jean Lee's comforting stories and songs of death in We're Going to Die, the triumph of the Greene Space's program of August Wilson's Century Cycle, The Public Theater's commitment to the public and the non-pros who filled the summer stage in Lear deBessonet's production of The Tempest which with Todd Almond's songs made me actually like The Tempest for the first time ever, Eileen Atkins bringing the best of Beckett in All that Fall, the TEAM's unexpected and overlong and messy but meaningful RooseElvis, Erica Lipez's heart-breaking show The Tutors which brought me back to the bad decisions of my twenties with stand-out performances from Keith Nobbs and Matt Dellapina, Nico Muhly's WTF extravaganza of Two Boys at the Met, Taylor Mac's genius in Good Person of Szechwan and The Last Two People on Earth, and Billy Crudup's saddest clown ever in Waiting for Godot.

Top 10 UK shows 2013

After seeing 54 shows in London, Manchester, Cambridge, Cardiff, and Edinburgh I decided to make a Top 10 list mainly to bring attention to some theatrical works I really loved and hope travel to the US.   I saw some of the most well-reviewed productions (Chimerica, The Events, Merrily We Roll Along, Othello, Grounded, The Scottsboro Boys) coming out of the UK.  But those are not the ones that have stayed with me months later. 

I liked that production of Merrily but I included it in my 2012 list when I saw it at the Menier Chocolate Factory so it was not eligible for this year's list.  Months later I'm still sorting through my negative feelings about The Scottsboro Boys (excellent production of a problematic piece--I'm still not ready to talk about it).  I never bothered to write a review about The Events which I found to be an interesting idea but a disjointed production (the volunteer choir in the production I saw was distracting and constantly threw me out of the show with their incessant smiling).  Othello was very good but it never won me over like the Crucible's production of a couple of years ago (which had it's problems but fuck I don't know I just loved it). 

This Top 10 list is about the shows I think we need in the world and those that I want to see again because I think there is much we could learn from them.  My list is decidedly odd-ball which really suits me. 

1.  The Seagull: I fell for this Blanche McIntyre directed, John Donnelly adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull hard.  And maybe like all good romances you don't see it coming.  I could hardly sit still in my seat because I felt so electrified by the production.  Modern and contemporary and yet still utterly Chekhov.  I'm still thinking about the rubber bands.   PLEASE COME TO NEW YORK. 

2.  Purge:  Presented as part of the Forest Fringe series at the Edinburgh Fringe, Brian Lobel's performance art piece Purge has stayed with me months after seeing it.  I bring it up on dates, in work conversations, and with anyone who will listen.  Interactive, personal, and yet epic.  Bringing social media into theater in a way that makes complete sense and was totally original.     PLEASE COME TO NEW YORK. 

3.  Stand-by For Tape Backup:  Another piece from the Forest Fringe, this was my first Ross Sutherland piece and I hope it is not my last. Smart, funny, overwhelming, and totally entrancing.  I wish I'd had a chance to see this spoken-word, video collage performance piece twice because there was so much to unpack.  PLEASE COME TO NEW YORK. 

4.  Brand New Ancients:  The theater gods have been kind and this show is coming to New York for a short run at St. Ann's Warehouse.  Blending spoken-word, hip-hop, live music, storytelling and myth, Kate Tempest's unusual but beautiful theatrical work needs to be seen to be believed.  This one will stay with you for a long time. 

5.  Quietly:  Owen McCafferty's play about questions of reconciliation and immigration in Northern Ireland was one of the few plays at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to move me to tears.  The explosive tension in the play made for hand-wringing but the gutting emotional undertow was what pulled me in.  I am hoping this Abbey Theatre production tours to America.  It is too good for New York audiences to miss.  

6.  Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model:  Edinburgh Fringe had some kickass ladies writing and performing this season but this piece about feminism, the world we create for girls and the future we control for the next generation of women by Bryonny Kimmings took a darkly magical, loopy, and personal journey to that destination.  Kimmings performed alongside her niece Taylor and you could not help but feel you shouldered responsibility for the future at the end of this piece.  And that's not a bad thing at all. 

7.  I Wish I Was Lonely: Another Forest Fringe piece (note a pattern).  A lights-up, audience interaction show, where Chris Thorpe and Hannah Jane Walker ask the important question: in a world of constant connection, have we stopped letting ourselves feel things?  Staring into the eyes of a stranger never felt so necessary and this show made me terribly self-conscious of my own efforts to connect, disconnect, and communicate.  

8.  The Amen Corner:  Rufus Norris is to become the new Artistic Director at the National Theatre in London but his production of James Baldwin's play The Amen Corner was my introduction to his directing work.  Strange to see an utterly American play about African-American characters in New York touching on religion, religious music, and jazz performed in London.  But this epic play was given a rich revival with Marianne Jean-Baptiste as the star.  If we'd stop reviving A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway for like a minute, maybe we could have an American production of this powerful play.  'Cause London has thrown down the gauntlet people with this terrific production.

9.  Tree: Daniel Fucking Kitson had to go and write another mind-twisty story and then had to go and cast Tim Key in it to perform alongside him.  And I had to fly to London, take a Megabus to Manchester (in the rain), to see it.  And it was worth the journey and all I want to do is see it a second time because, as usual, things are not what they seemed and I want to know where the legerdemain began.  And I can't see it again so I'm left festering about this and putting it on my Top 10 list in the hopes that it somehow comes back in a time and place where I can see it. 

10.  Long Live the Little Knife: Speaking of con artists, David Leddy's "did they or didn't they" show about two con artists and theater as con was just an ever-loving delight.  Dark and biting and colorful and fresh.  When I started to wonder if there was anything good at the Edinburgh Fringe, this was the show that shocked me back into excitement.  Much like an adrenaline shot to the heart, this play about art, artifice, and authenticity wasted no time in jolting the audience to attention and I never wanted to look away. 

Honorable mentions to:  Chimerica for its massive scale, thoughtful ideas, and stunning production even if it kind of sold out for sentimentality in the end, The Cripple of Inishmaan for letting Daniel Radcliffe con us all in a wonderful way, The Bush Theatre's production of Disgraced for putting the audience smack-dab in the middle of an explosive dinner party and never letting up, The Pajama Game for the beautiful staging and making union talk seem sexy, The Drowned Man for bringing to life the sordid and the sexy and make Peeping Tom prurience an artform, Bridget Christie for her reasonable talk that is somehow comedy because the world around it has become unreasonable, Claudia O'Doherty's wackadoo Pioneer for being loud and proud, Ben Moor for being quiet and delicate with Each of Us when Edinburgh seemed to lack quiet, Blythe Duff for continuing to be riveting in everything she does, Lucy Ellinson for being authentically militaristic and American and motherly in Grounded, Fleabag for being dirty and dark, The Pride's tarnished mirror for being a lovely metaphor, Kyle Soller and John Heffernan for committing to that Edward II  heart and soul and sinew when ye gads it was not quite worthy of them, the National Theatre for staging Strange Interlude because who the hell does that, Trash Cuisine for making the woman next to me end up in convulsions 'cause theater that powerful cannot be contained, Daniel Mays for bringing such energy to Mojo, and Ben Whishaw for just being.