Monday, February 24, 2014

British Invasion: March 2014

In this month's report on British artists in New York, we've got writers, directors, and productions coming to town.  For your British flavor this month, think a strong cup of tea.

As before my measurement of excitement for these British works are ranked on a Kitson scale of 1 (no excitement) to 10 (all the excitement). 

Cabaret (Mar. 21-Aug. 31):  It's déjà vu all over again for this Sam Mendes/Rob Ashford production which first came to Broadway in 1998 but was a production first born at the Donmar Warehouse in 1993 with Mendes at the helm and Alan Cumming as the Emcee.  Performances start at Studio 54 this month. I'm seeing this but having seen it back in 1998, I'm at about 4 Kitsons.

Red Velvet (Mar. 25-Apr. 20): I've been anxiously anticipating this production which comes to New York from two sell-out runs at the Tricycle Theater in London. Starring Adrian Lester and written by his wife Lolita Chakrabarti, this play about a historic figure Ira Aldridge, a leading African-American actor who makes his West End debut in Othello, comes to St. Ann's Warehouse. With the positive notices this has received and Adrian Lester's long absence from the New York stage I am at 7 Kitsons for this show.

Stockholm (Mar. 5-29):  British playwright Bryony Lavery (Frozen) wrote this show in 2007.  It received positive notice by Ben Brantley last year in a production in Hudson, NY.  Now it is making its premiere in New York City through the One Year Lease Theater Company at 59E59 Theaters.  A ripped-from-the-headlines story about a couple who dance around love and danger.  A company I am not familiar with but an interesting premise and writer, so I'd say 5 Kitsons.

Beauty and the Beast (Mar. 13-30): From the artistic director of the British theater company Improbable, and starring well-known British, disabled actor Mat Fraser and his wife, American burlesque performer Julie Atlas Muz, comes a sexually explicit exploration of Beauty and the Beast, tackling sex and disability head-on.  This work was originally presented in New York in 2009 and since then the stars brought on board Phelim MacDermott to move the burlesque material into the theater space.  What the what?  I'm on a bit of theater hiatus this month...but hope some folks check this out.  6 Kitsons of curiosity.

Continuing from last month's report or ongoing:

A Doll's House (through Mar. 16) at BAM. It's a must see.  Gorgeous direction, compelling performances, and the door slam heard 'round the world continues to incite conversation and discussion afterwards.  7 Kitsons.  Worth your time especially if you've never seen this play before.

Love and Information (through Apr. 6):  Now extended this excellent Caryl Churchill play pushes the limits of how much your mind can hold when 100 characters and 50+ scenes flash before your eyes.  But it all adds up to a very exciting experience.   My review. 8 Kitsons.  Fast and furious and impressive. 

Antony and Cleopatra (through Mar. 23): A Royal Shakespeare Company co-production adapted and directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney.  4 mildly interested Kitsons.

Analog.ue Review Wrap-Up

As I have done with other Daniel Kitson shows, here is a rundown of the reviews out for his show Analog.ue.  He promised a different recorded story for New York and London so bear that in mind as you look at the reviews. From what I can tell the core story in New York seems to be used in London (so watch out for spoilers in NY reviews) but the framework for the piece is very different. 


Jason Zinoman in the New York Times describes Kitson's recorded performance "an unexpected feat."

Henry Stewart in L Magazine calls Analog.ue a"beautiful and conceptually brilliant show."

John Del Signore in Gothamist calls it a "palpably physical performance."

Jacob Gallagher-Ross of the Village Voice says the show embodies "memory's selective recall."

Zachary Stewart in Theatermania says, "It's easy to engage with Analog.ue on an intellectual level, far harder to do so on an emotional or physical one."

Michael Glitz in the Huffington Post calls it "more art piece than live theater."

Elisabeth Vincentelli in the New York Post calls it "not entirely compelling."

My slightly disappointed review is here where I say "the heartfelt storytelling takes a backseat to the recorded format which dominates the performance, distances the audience from the source."


Stewart Pringle provides an interesting analysis of Analog.ue in the context of Kitson's other recent work. He calls it Kitson's "most personal show since 66a Church Road, filled with slides of Kitson’s home and his childhood and his friends, his own life constantly getting in the way of the story he is apparently trying to unwind."

Alice Jones of The Independent says "this is surely [Kitson's] callback to Krapp’s Last Tape" and "Kitson is right at home spinning his odd little tales of loneliness and love."

Steve Bennett of Chortle says "the story is told in a unique and intriguing way" but "the staging is what defines Analog.ue, it is also its partial undoing."

Bruce Dessau in the Evening Standard  says Analogu.ue "confirms Kitson is the real deal. Or make that the reel deal."

Andrzej Lukowski in Time Out says "It is a work about performance: questioning what it is, why people do it, what an audience want. It is also a work about loneliness, with the silent Kitson’s evasion of audience rapport serving to heighten the melancholy."

Sarah Hemming of the Financial Times says "the crux of this curious, touching piece is the question of what remains of a lived life when it has ended and of the relationship between experience and story. The recorded voice is key to that exploration. It’s a funny, melancholic, oddball show."

Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph says "there are clear echoes of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. But in his wit and lyrical wisdom Kitson is his own man and this a work of wonder."

Sharon Lougher in the Metro writes  "For a show about stories, it’s missed the real, human art of storytelling."

Paul Fleckney in the Guardian says  "For me it's his least enjoyable show to date, an indulgence too far, where the story suffers at the hands of the concept. But the impulse behind it – to abandon the comfort zone and just try something – will surely bear fruit."

Friday, February 21, 2014

Love and Information: A Barrage of Communication

"Is it better to know things or not know things?"

Caryl Churchill's 100 characters, in a series of vignettes, attempt to show that intense, human drama can be had with as little as two people, one line, and a stage. The series of scenes ricochet through the audience's mind as Churchill and director James Macdonald offer up questions of secrets, knowledge, memories, language, meaning, and the unspoken, all culminating in a barrage of human experience. 

Because of the brevity of the scenes the connective tissue of the play are the themes.  Characters come and go, sometimes without a word.  But the sustaining notes are the ideas that secrets can divide people or bring them together. That try as we might communication can be nearly impossible or the greatest form of connection. 

The large cast must in a blink of an eye create a character and set a scene. Surprisingly this works over and over again. A costume or small piece of set dressing plus Churchill's minimal dialogue manages to give enough for us to get our footing in short order. Thematically the arcs are a little harder to keep up with. The play is divided into seven sections with many scenes in each section. I tried to keep track of patterns but just as I found a connection between two, a third would stymie me.  The flood of information was overwhelming.  But this seems largely the point.  So much is being communicated in this play and like life, it's not always easy to see the patterns. 

Scenes range from fangirls melting down over not knowing the favorite smell of their object of affection to a family sitting down to watch a wedding video and remembering moments not on the tape. Old lovers are reunited but they remember totally different aspects of their days together. A man who can feel no pain wants to understand what pain "is".  A couple of Elvis impersonators talk about Israel. With each scene we get glimpses into how information is communicated, how we struggle with what we know, what we don't know, what we long to know and how information changes us and our relationships.

As riveting as moments were, I also found myself exhausted about 90 minutes into this two hour intermission-less show.  It's not that the drama was not compelling. It was.  And the fact that each scene was communicated so efficiently and directly with minimal tools made the feat even more impressive.  And the scenarios did not feel repetitive.  But I think my brain stopped processing.  The structure and frequency of new scenes and new information creates a constant level of heightened stimulation.  At some point the rush I was getting from the moments of jolting drama started to lose its effectiveness.  All my circuits were overwhelmed--and I had not even realized it was happening.

So I let the information wash over me--the encounters,  the quick changes, and the torrent of intense moments.  The cast, writing, scenic work, and direction build so much out of what in other hands might seem like the bare bones of a skeleton.  But there's a sly density in the minimalism. Much like a piece of durational theater, the payoff in Love and Information is not just in the individually sculpted moments, but also the sensation and experience created by the play as a whole. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

British Invasion: February 2014

As someone who keeps a regular eye on UK theater, I thought I might try and keep track of UK artists doing work in New York.  I have rated them by my Anglophile excitement level--the unit of measurement is a Kitson, for obvious reasons.

We'll see if I keep up with these reports on a regular basis but here's a glance at February works with a British flavor. 
The flavor of the month is blackcurrant.

A Doll's House (Feb. 21-Mar. 16):  Starring Hattie Morahan, adapted by Simon Stephens (Curious Incident, MorningHarper Regan,), and directed by Carrie Cracknell this Young Vic production was well-received in London and will have a run in New York at BAM.  Critics called it an "innovative" and "spirited" production.  And the acclaim for this production was so high they had two revivals of it in London already.  Cracknell is doing interesting work right now with the recent production of Nick Payne's (Constellations, If There Is I Haven't Found it Yet) play Blurred Lines about sexism and misogyny.  Stephens is one of the UK's most prolific contemporary playwrights working in both West End productions and experimental ones and we don't get to see a lot of his work in New York (thought Curious Incident is supposed to be Broadway bound).  I'm jumping out of my skin for this one.  Definitely 9 Kitsons of excitement here. 

Love and Information: This Caryl Churchill play is directed by James Macdonald (King Lear, Cock) and comes to New York from the Royal Court.  It is playing at the New York Theater Workshop.   I've never seen any Churchill (for shame).  This play involves a large cast playing 100 characters and it is all about communication, privacy, technology, and our changing world.  My interest is piqued.  6 Kitsons.

Machinal (now through Mar. 2):  The creative team behind last year's hit Chimerica, director Lyndsey Turner and designer Es Devlin are working their magic at the Roundabout with this fantastic production of Sophie Treadwell's famous play starring another British import, Rebecca Hall.  Already well-received by New York critics this show is unusual, dark, educational, and of a style and approach not often seen.  Worth checking it out. Having seen it already I'd give it 5 Kitsons of excitement.

Antony and Cleopatra (Feb. 18-Mar. 23): A Royal Shakespeare Company co-production adapted and directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney, this production premiered in the UK and comes to The Public Theater with stage beefcake and Brit Jonathan Cake.  It received mixed reviews when it played in the UK but McCraney's Choir Boy was one of my faves in 2013 so still curious about this production set in Haiti.  Only about 4 Kitsons because I'm a little skeptical considering the bad press. 

If you listen to me on the Maxamoo podcast then you've already heard me talk about these but you can hear me rant and rave about other theater there as well. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Tyson v Ali: When Men Step Into the Ring

With dancing images of two fighters spliced together with delicate care, the central concept of Director Reid Farrington's Tyson v. Ali seems more fitting a museum installation than theater, but with some development there could be a lot of value in this one hour play theorizing a prizefight between Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. 

Four actors make their way around the "stage" which is a boxing ring. They alternate in their performances of Tyson and Ali and one man plays the referee (Roger Casey, Femi Olagoke, Dennis A. Allen II, Jonathan Swain, Dave Shelley). Brief monologues to the audience are interspersed with actual spars in the ring. Projections onto movable screens allow for the live-action fights to have historical footage on top of them.  We see Ali and Tyson triumph over other adversaries in the ring and then trash-talk from the sidelines.  Even though we hear from the fighters--one with the cadence of a poetic preacher, the other the bullied child--the live action and theatrical flourishes seem episodic, and uneven.  And though that may be the intent--a pastiche of the past and things that never were--the thesis gets lost in the cacophony.  With so much actual boxing I longed for context about what kind of fighters they were inside the ring as well as out.  I don't know enough about their fighting styles to know who was who in the ring. 

Although scripted by Frank Boudreaux I wished the piece had had a dramaturg--someone to shape the text.   There is a breathtaking  moment where the fighters trace their fights through previous boxers back in time.  Like the "begets" of the Bible it gives a historical context to these two men and how they got here, punch by punch.  But it arrives three-quarters of the way through the play and I longed for that connection more throughout.

Farrington seems primarily interested in the visuals and the ultimate image that Farrington splices together of historic footage between Ali and Tyson is beautiful as it dances on the screen.  But the film elements were so strong they over-shadowed the theatrical live-action for me.

The men are not quite symbols but they are not quite fleshed out either. It's an athletic performance for all and grueling without question. But even that is not used to an effect.

There are moments of interesting things happening but a stronger thesis and connective tissue throughout the work could have elevated the material tremendously.  But it was a fascinating piece at this year's winter theater festival and worth seeing if it makes another appearance. 

Listen to me talk about this piece and others on the Maxamoo podcast. 

Stop Hitting Yourself: Anything but Cheese

Stop Hitting Yourself is a world premiere offering from the Austin, TX based devised theater troupe Rude Mechs (Rude Mechanicals).  With tap-dancing, torch songs, and a queso fountain, the controlled anarchy of the piece about greed, charity, individualism, and the future of mankind, is a whacked-out delight. 

The story involves a Wildman (Thomas Graves) who is brought to the glittering Queen's Palace by a Socialite (Lana Lesley) to compete for the granting of one wish. He wants to ask that humans take care of nature, because, as he sees it, we would all benefit. But after training for the competition and enjoying the comforts of life in the palace and the attentions of the socialite he starts to doubt his vision of the world.  The Socialite's husband (E. Jason Liebrecht) brings a rival candidate to the competition.  It's a Prince (Joey Hood), who claims a royal lineage which was lost and he wants reinstated.  They become voices of selflessness and selfishness tested by their own commitment to their ideals and this is a battle to the death. 

Told in a Sunset Boulevard-style flashback, with the air of a fast-talking, musically-f1avored 1930's movie, this bent fairytale uses oscillations between excess and stark directness to communicate the themes and keep the audience's rapt attention.  Breaking the fourth wall at times, the cast makes confessions of things they think and do.  There is a game introduced early on that later becomes a strobe effect/staging device --the audience keeps its eyes closed for a few beats and then opens them as the action has shifted. It feels at first like a way to engage the audience and break down some theater formality (which it does) but making it part of the finale of the show adds to the overall structural intelligence that the piece offers. 

For all the sparkle of gold walls, floors, furniture, and mischegoss, this work is deceptively deep. Even if things felt incongruous or over-the-top, they weren't really.  Everything underlying the piece fed into the themes of the work. Written by Kirk Lynn (who later this season brings a new play, Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra, to Playwrights Horizons) and directed by Shawn Sides, Stop Hitting Yourself brings to the forefront how artifice can reveal the truth, detachment can generate intimacy, and want can be both a force for good and destruction. 

It's a strong ensemble but I was instantly charmed by Graves as the Wildman with his Kevin Kline-esque delivery--droll and yet sincere.  Graves's makes the stakes of the Queen's "game" feel very real and his despair as he struggles with his desires is elegant and understated.  That a performance could be so powerfully quiet in a show that has a lot luster and flair means this company is balancing the theatricality with the substance.  And frankly I was surprised when not many critics embraced the piece.  It's their loss because I felt reinvigorated by Rude Mechs.  Here's a great example of how devised theater can shake up the quotidian and offer alternative approaches to story.  Hope they come back soon.

Listen to me talk about this and other shows on the Maxamoo podcast.