Monday, May 26, 2014

A View from the Bridge: The Silence that Haunts

“He’s stealing from me.”

As Ivo van Hove’s production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge came to a close my mouth fell open agape. Concluding with a stunning coup de théâtre, I sat breathless and still. This minimalist production releases the seething opera of emotion in Miller’s florid prose.  Van Hove makes the minimalist and stylized approach seem like a natural extension of the material.  Now I cannot imagine a naturalistic telling* of the story.

We are in the secretive and insular world of Sicilian dockworkers in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Eddie (Mark Strong) struggles and fights to provide for his family which includes his wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker) and her niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox). When he agrees to have his wife’s illegal Italian cousins Rodolpho (Luke Norris) and Marco (Emun Elliot) hide out with them and help find them work on the docks, he does so out of this obligation to family. But the cousins become catalyst for change in the household. Catie is 17 and yearning to be part of the world. Beatrice cannot wait for her niece to go so she can get her husband back, and Eddie cannot bear to think of all his hard work, love, and affection drifting out the door with Catie falling into the arms of another man.

Eddie becomes another one of Miller’s flawed protagonists. Blinded by his obsession for Catie, he deludes himself into thinking everything he’s doing is out of honor, family, and a blood oath obligation to provide for this girl. But nothing about the way he holds her, or the way she sits in his lap, makes this a comfortable familial scene.

The actors are all barefoot as they move around a glass enclosure initially shrouded in black. As the black monolith which frames the 3-sided stage ascends, the sweaty dockworkers are cleaning themselves in a shower. This is a show of the tactile and the sensory. An uncle’s affection for his niece is shown through every stroke of her naked legs, as she wraps herself around him, clinging to him with every muscle in her body.  For every look and touch Eddie showers on her, his wife stands aside, untouched, unnoticed. The Italian-American lawyer who narrates the story as the Greek chorus**, often walks the perimeter of the space, until he too is pulled into it.  There is either intense closeness or an abyss of distance for all the characters.

It is easy to get lost in the terrific direction, but it would not work without the actors finding the right balance as well. Strong is a powerhouse here.  His pleas to the lawyer that Rodolpho is "not right" are agonizingly uncomfortable.  His constant reassurances to Beatrice that he's doing this for family are (intentionally) painfully unconvincing.  Strong is this terrifying physical presence and yet putty in Catie's hands too.  That he can find the range, between aggressive machismo and weak pawn to his own desires, makes his performance all the more believable and terrifying.  He's not likeable--he can't be--but you feel the pull of his magnetism and that unto itself adds another layer to the production's every increasing anxiety. 

A steady underscoring of sound or music is constantly heard somewhere in the ether. This shadowy world is full of distrust, paranoia, government interference, struggle, and violence.  Van Hove illustrates this with a persistent and ominous drum beat—whether the thumping of a tell-tale heart, an indomitable libido, or the lighthouse warning for the dangerous rocks ahead, there is no escaping. It is inevitable.

Even in the smallest details, the change in Catie's costuming for instance (from color to black and white), van Hove uses every piece of information at his fingertips to coax out the story quietly, since the meat of the story itself is raw and rough on on its own.  Taking all that energy, heat, and volume, van Hove and his creative team turns it down to a terrifying low rumble for the audience to absorb almost through osmosis. 

Van Hove manages to wring so much out of so little. As the family tensions reach their apex, he stages an entire scene with extenuated pauses. No one is making eye contact. Everyone is staged alone with space between them. And the explosive conversation drags on and on as each line is given extra weight. The anxiety builds in the audience as we wait for every line, every response, every pause, and every step closer to the family's explosion.
At two hours with no intermission the audience is placed in a pressure cooker and we endure the building tension as the characters do. But when all hell breaks loose and tragedy must befall this family, the carnage that is done onstage is beautiful, visceral, physical, abusive, and breathtaking. When death has a smell you cannot escape, you know you’re in the hands of a particularly skilled director.  This production shows that a minimalist approach can crack open the soul of a play and in a time when excess on stage seems to rule the day, it reminds us that the greatest struggles can be perfectly illustrated with so little. 

*I never saw the most recent Broadway production of A View From the Bridge. And frankly now that I have seen this I'm glad I came to it totally fresh.

**I'm still thinking about about how Miller has framed these characters and whether the "othering" I felt came from the play, the production, or simply the odd circumstance of seeing an American immigrant story in a theater in London.  I'm not sure.  But the framework of having the Italian-American lawyer "explain" the cultural nuances of the family's behavior made me feel like it was in the text. And in some ways I wasn't troubled by the "othering," (maybe that itself is a problem) except to the extent that it allows the audience to find some distance from the material as this just being about crazy I-talians being hotblooded and violent.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Violet: An Unusual Bus Ride

It's safe to say, Violet brings the high spirits of the Lord to the American Airlines theater, I just find myself immune to its power. The inventive musical pastiche with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley cuts against all my preferred musical inclinations with an emphasis on blues, gospel, and bluegrass. What can I say, I'm a New England folk girl. But Leigh Silverman's production is a stunner and if you like any of those musical forms and/or Sutton Foster it won't disappoint on those fronts.

Violet (Sutton Foster) was disfigured by her father's axe (Alexander Gemignani) by accident as a child and has had to live with a face most people find hard to look at. She sets out to be healed by a televangelist (Ben Davis) and made pretty. On her bus journey from North Carolina to Oklahoma she meets two servicemen, Monty (Colin Donnell) who is white and Flick (Joshua Henry) who is black. This is 1964, the South,and America is on the brink of war--both abroad and at home.  Through flashbacks and her trip to Oklahoma we learn of Violet's past and the visions that she carries with her in her head.

I struggled with this work when I first saw it last summer at Encores!  There was something that bothered me about a woman's journey which was fixated on her looks. Of course there is more to Violet's pain and more that needs to be healed but on the surface this obsession with her appearance carries much of the story. The deeper layer, where Violet wants to understand her father and the accident, wants to be looked at and feel less alone somehow gets muddled. It's there, it just keeps taking a backseat to the vanity overlay. 

There are also frustrating contradictions in Violet's character--at times she's whip smart, sassy, and sarcastic, at other times she comes off as foolish and dreamy.  In a 105 minute, intermission-less show it might be hard to smooth the angles between those aspects of her character.  If you have a warm spot in your heart for the music and cast I imagine these things would not stand out.  But as someone who was wrestling with the material to begin with I continued to get distracted.

That said this is an A+ cast. Colin Donnell was a new addition to the cast (Van Hughes played the role at Encores!).  And he's a charmer--walking the delicate line between romantic interest and asshole.   After his turn as Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along I've seen him make a somewhat unlikeable character palatable and he does it again here.  His struggles to embrace Violet and reject Violet are all there flashing across his face.  I wasn't sure if it was him taking his shirt off or getting into Violet's bed that caused audible shock in the audience. LEGITIMATELY.  Josh Henry burns down the house with the bluesy song Let It Sing. Henry too is irresistible--trying to make his feelings known to Violet but dealing with racism in the process.  Sutton does what Sutton does--she smiles, she sings, and everything melts around her. It's like musical theater kryptonite. You can't resist it, so don't.  In addition, Ben Davis as the televangelist makes the most of his few scenes as the slick preacher and Alexander Gemignani is utterly beguiling when Violet confronts the ghost of her father.  I forgot until that moment how much I had loved his work in Assassins and that scene--with its emotional wallop brought that all back to me.

David Zinn's vintage 1960's bus station and minimalist set gave the flexibility to move through time and Leigh Silverman kept the haunting memories of Violet's past ever present through the direction. 

This musical is truly unique.  I hate to be so negative on something that was trying to be so many things.  Jeanine Tesori's score is fascinating as each musical form represents different characters, places, and times, but I just wish it was an experiment in things I enjoyed more.  Just not one for me, but I know I'm truly in the minority here.  

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Obie Awards 2014

It was a lovely night for celebrating the robust and exciting world of Off-Broadway theater.   The Obies are a raucous downtown event and Monday night's event was no exception.

From Estelle Parsons taking jabs at the Obies whilst receiving a lifetime achievement award from them to speeches that could not be halted no matter how many staff members tried to signal to the speaker to stop.  Sydney Lucas was the youngest Obie award winner for her work in Fun Home and she also performed my favorite tune from the show Ring of Keys.  She gave a hilarious speech which I'm glad the Village Voice captured.  Mia Katigbak also gave a moving speech about Asian American representation in theater and how we need to raise our voices about diversity in theater. 

Happily many shows I was passionate about received awards.  But the best thing about the Obies is finding out about shows, performers, and theater companies I had never heard of before and knowing who I needed to check out next.  Definitely going to look into the Harlem9 and the National Asian American Theatre Co.

Congratulations to the winners:

sustained excellence of performance
Appropriate (Signature)
The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence (Playwrights Horizons)
Fetch Clay, Make Man (NYTW)
Sunset Baby (Labyrinth) / Fetch Clay, Make Man (NYTW)
Awake and Sing (NAATCO)
Fun Home (Public Theater)
An Octoroon (SoHo Rep)
A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney (SoHo Rep)
The Open House (Signature)
Musical Theater
LISA KRON (author), JEANINE TESORI (composer), and SAM GOLD (director)
Fun Home (Public Theater)
Love and Information (NYTW)
The Open House (Signature)
Appropriate (Signature)
(projections), Arguendo (Elevator Repair Service @ Public Theater)
(fight direction and choreography) Kung Fu (Signature)
(lighting design), The Correspondent (Rattlestick)
Sustained excellence of lighting design
Special Citations
This Was the End (Chocolate Factory)
The World Is Round (Ripe Time @ BAM Fisher)
The Hill Town Plays
The Ross Wetzsteon Award

Best New American Play
Appropriate (Signature) and An Octoroon (SoHo Rep)
Lifetime Achievement

Monday, May 19, 2014

An Octoroon: Burning Down the House

"I'm going to say this right now so we can get it over with: I don't know what a real slave sounded like. And neither do you."--Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' stage directions for An Octoroon

Taking a Molotov cocktail to blow up melodrama, playwright confessionals, racial stereotypes, black box theater, and comedy, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' brilliant play, An Octoroon, deconstructs nearly everything in its path. And it is a disturbing and hilarious pleasure from start to finish.

BJJ (Chris Myers) is a "quote black playwright unquote" with "low grade depression" whose therapist suggests he adapt Dion Boucicault's play The Octoroon but it falls apart when all the white actors quit and he finds himself considering playing all the parts himself. Dion (Danny Wolohan) makes an appearance and the two playwrights go head to head in a "fuck you"-a-thon until both become players in the adaptation, with BJJ becoming the white plantation owner's nephew and Dion becoming Native American Wahnotee.

Set on a plantation, Terrebonne, George (Myers in white face) is to take over the plantation after his Uncle has passed away but the fate of the plantation is unknown with the evil overseer of the plantation M'Closky (also Myers) looking to get his hands on it. George is torn between his forbidden love for his Uncle's bastard child, Zoe (Amber Gray), an octoroon, and his chance to save the plantation by marrying a rich, local landowner's daughter, Dora (Zoë Winters). The house slaves Minnie (Jocelyn Bioh) and Dido (Marsha Stephanie Blake) offer up their thoughts on these shenanigans and provide much of the comic relief from the melodrama of the "white people." Rounding out the controversial racial politics, are the elderly slave Pete (Ben Horner in black face), young slave boy Paul (also Horner in black face), and Wahnotee the Native American man who is Paul's protector (Wolohan in red face).

But this is not a play about the plot, really. It's about how Jacobs-Jenkins and director Sarah Benson have played with the form. The melodrama tropes and problematic depictions of race get a thorough going over. Shifting the context ever so slightly, through anachronistic language and delivery, the complex racial casting, and the framing device of the contemporary playwright literally wrestling with a playwright of the past, we see everything with a knowing eye. Jacobs-Jenkins and Benson together knock down the walls of the theater (literally) to foreground the artifice and call attention to the form.

I don't want to take away from Jacobs-Jenkins' achievement here by spending too much time comparing it to another work but I could not help but feel An Octoroon achieved so many things that I struggled with in The Scottsboro Boys. Both pieces are using traditionally problematic performance forms to comment on them--for Scottsboro Boys it was a minstrel show, for An Octoroon it’s a race-centric melodrama set in the antebellum South. But Scottsboro does not step far outside its own form to give perspective on it.  For me, as the audience we were trapped in a musical with performers putting on a minstrel show. The Scottsboro Boys made me feel like I was perpetuating stereotypes and made an unwilling co-conspirator in a complicated game of racial oppression because there wasn't sufficient distance for me from the original form.

How you go about using "period" racist performance language becomes critical to how the work will be contextualized. There is no question from the start that An Octoroon is being unwound as it is being put on display. Jacobs-Jenkins doubles-down on racial casting calling for a white actor in red face, a black actor in white face, a Native American or Indian actor in black face. Already the offensive racial stereotypes--noble savage and Stepin Fetchit-esque characters are turned on their heads from the get go. The black actors performing as slaves are given a modern patois and attitude, upending expectations and at times demonstrating true agency. They end up the most grounded characters when the white characters are meant to be more traditional melodrama figures.

Jacobs-Jenkins rightly deconstructs the show structurally at various points--with a giant Brer Rabbit, upbeat/pleasant interstitial music, a modern "sensation" moment, and with the direct address from BJJ. Keeping a contemporary perspective on an archaic form, I felt I could be both part of the problems (white privilege, yo) and free to explore the problems with some critical distance.

But despite all this creative alchemy, the play ends up being entertaining, smart, funny, and biting. The entire cast rises to the complicated occasion and with particular verve from Myers, Bioh, and Blake.  It’s everything a post-modern rendering of a 19th century plantation melodrama should be--seeing its oppressive history, confronting it directly, and making sure we cannot turn our heads away to pretend there are not still problems.

Bravo BJJ.

Secret Theatre: Show 5


"...Made up of these three words that I must say to you. I just called to say I. <silence>."

Like a high voltage wire humming, the Lyric Hammermith's Secret Theatre Show 5 gives off a buzzing energy that builds to a crescendo of tension and anxiety. Or at least it did for me.

It's the kind of show where the theater experience will be highly individualized--I found myself tearing up as others were laughing. Clutching friends in laughter at times, and shaking with anxiety at others. I can see people walking out complaining that it is utter shit and others walking out thinking it's the best thing they've seen this year.

Although the piece is only about 70 minutes, it reminded me of certain durational works--such that the repetition, mirroring, endurance, and experience was most striking as a whole rather than analyzed in its individual parts. And that's a very good thing.

Devised by the company with dramaturg Joel Horwood(I Heart Peterborough) and directed by Sean Holmes (Morning), Secret Theatre: Show 5 is part of a series of works launched in September 2013. As the Lyric building undergoes some construction, a company of actors, writers, and designers have been putting on established and new works without telling anyone what the shows are: hence the “secret” in Secret Theatre. With affordable tickets (all tickets 15 pounds) and some shows taking place in a smaller rehearsal space and not the main auditorium, Secret Theatre has stirred up quite a lot of excitement.

It makes sense that this company which has done four shows together, can now embark on this devised adventure, which relies on camaraderie, co-dependence, intimacy, and support from the cast to get through each performance. Show 5 is scheduled to go to Edinburgh so this London run is something of a workshop.*

Titled A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts, the work is best seen as experimental performance. There is structure and an arc to the show, but check your need for a strict narrative at the door. A different leading player is chosen every evening (randomly from a hat by an audience member) and therefore it lends itself to multiple visits.  We had Estonian actor Sergo Vares as the lead. When his name was picked, one in my party said, quite loudly, "YES! He's well fit." There may have also been a fist pump. And the director had a hearty laugh over her enthusiasm (frankly I find the director so intensely handsome he's hard to look at it). But it was an accurate assessment of the "Sergo situation."**

As the performers engage in the series of exercises--some endurance tests, physical feats, personal quizzes, emotional confessions, wrestling matches--you acutely feel the burden placed on the leading player. Often you feel his (or her) isolation or the extreme output that the work calls for.  Notably this is a diverse acting company of all shapes and sizes and I imagine each actor when called up would make for a unique experience as each would have their own strengths and weaknesses in the gauntlet of impossible acts they undergo.  There were moments that made me think of Austin-based performance troupe Rude Mechs and you know that's a huge compliment.

As an audience member, I found it was also a mental marathon of sorts. It started out quite simply and I spent a bit of time trying to get my bearings, and then all of a sudden certain vignettes struck me deeply. At times this was driven by empathy--watching Katherine Pearce have to put on Sergo's spandex leggings made me want to die over my own feelings of squeezing into a pair of Spanx--and at times out of sympathy--wanting to rescue the leading player from the nonstop onslaught. And this is not to say that at times the interactions are not funny, they are (watching Sergo fumble trying to put a girl's hair in a bun still makes me giggle). But the stealth emotion underlying the work was revealing.   When Sergo began to sing I Just Called to Say I Love You, and then held back the "love" I was startled by how much anxiety it created for me.  The unmet expectation, the absence of a complete sentiment, and his performance as he sang it unnerved me.

The show dealt with connection, powerlessness, withholding, and vulnerability in unexpected ways and there's something to be said for letting go of a narrative to just let the building blocks of dramatic connection come through loud and clear. Stripping away the work to its barest elements you could see how performance works. 

This is a show that breathes life and dances down the street to the beat of its own drummer. An excellent kick-off for my week in London.

* There is apparently a press embargo because of this. However, the artists have been retweeting praise for the show so if you want a blackout you really should abide by your own rules. Since I paid for my ticket and I feel like this piece has a lot going for it I wanted to review it. Please note the final work in Edinburgh may be quite different from what I saw so you may want to take this review with whatever grain of salt it requires.

** As a writer for The Craptacular I would be remiss in failing to mention the fact that Sergo ended up in his underpants revealing much of the "situation" and he sports mesmerizing, hypnotic abs.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival: Kitson Loose in Boston

Eugene Mirman has taken his comedy festival on the road with the second annual event in Boston.  Joining him were many of his comedian friends who have appeared at the New York festival including Kristen Schaal, H. Jon Benjamin, John Hodgman, and Daniel Kitson.  Obviously I was there to see Kitson as he kicked off his American tour with Mirman

I stopped by the festival for a two-show Saturday night extravaganza at the Berklee Performance Center.  The first line-up, Pretty Good Friends, featured Janelle James, Nick Thune, Hodgman, and Kitson with musical guests Neko Case and Eric Bachmann.  The second show of the evening Comedians Who Have Been On The Daily Show And Also Comedians Who Have Not, involved Schaal, Hodgman, Wyatt Cenac, and Bridget Everett.

The earlier crowd needed some warming up but it did not come from the automated Australian-tinged voice at the venue that creepily directed us to the exits--like we might need them sooner than we thought.  But it was officially Eugene Mirman Day, according to a very official certificate from the Mayor of Boston, and mirth ensued.

James' low energy style was tough to start out with but as the crowded warmed up she employed some sly and hilarious pull-back-and-reveals proving that you must pay close attention to her set which involved stories of auditions, dating, and racial stereotypes.  Hodgman was an unexpected guest at Pretty Good Friends and he did a bit of storytelling.  His meandering tale involved the unfriendly shores of Maine, the class issues inherent in a New England childhood, and the uneasy place he finds himself as a person who is on TV dealing with parenting and social circles. 

I had never seen Thune before, but found his easygoing, irresponsible pot-smoking hipster parent-to-be an unexpected twist on thirty-something comic tropes.  Somehow he managed to tell a story about his pregnant wife, his foolish choices, and their dog that avoided the well-trodden (and frustratingly common) “nagging wife” schtick and shifted the focus to his man-child ways.  He became the joke, and she came off as the saint who puts up with him.  

Although the setting was Boston, it was hard to avoid the many Brooklyn connections of many of the comics.  I wondered how the local crowd would fully appreciate a Park Slope Co-op joke or a Park Slope Whole Foods joke.  But glad Mirman had an excellent Provincetown/Boston accent joke to remind us we were not in Gowanus anymore.  

As the one true foreigner to Boston’s ways, Kitson came out with more observational work about his couple of days in Boston. He ended up mining quite a bit of humor out of Boston bridges after asking the audience about their favorite bridges and getting a lesson in Boston bridge nicknames (Salt and Pepper being a bridge and not a condiment suggestion thrown out at the wrong time).  As he said, “In the absence of material, do a quick bridge based survey.”  He started out by redirecting the lighting and when that was done he explained that his was “less a performance and more a jolly hostage situation.”  He noticed a “small child” in the audience and had a brief conversation with Henry, age 13, mostly focused on Henry’s knowledge of swears.  Henry rattled off the ones he knew, to which Kitson countered “Have you heard cunt?”  When amusing himself over the fact that the “squares” in Boston were not in fact square, he encouraged Henry to use that material back in school as he would be showered in blowjobs.  Ever the contrarian, he was not going to pull back on his material at this “all ages” show.  He turned the “time” light toward the audience and instructed the audience to give him a standing ovation when his time was up.  Sadly, the ever obedient Bostonians did as they were told and Kitson rushed off stage as everyone came to their feet. Eugene teasingly suggested we check out Kitson’s album “Accurate Descriptions of My Day.”*

In the second show, the packed audience sounded a little more ready and raring to go at the start. Cenac's set started out with a piece of business over the lighting.  It was hard to tell if it was planned or not, but there was something about the conclusion of that set that made me think it was entirely intentional and a bit of subversive performance art.**  His more "traditional" comedy set touched on Americans and their disdain for soccer, racism in sports, and millionaires and got stronger as it went on.  Schaal had an entire set of unicorn jokes that make me think they will be her new "ghost poop" routine--I continue to not "get" her comedy.  Hodgman performed again but this time he brought out his Ayn Rand routine which he performed at the Under the Radar Festival. I found his political satire mostly boring and unfunny.

The final performer was Bridget Everett.  Having seen her at the last New York Mirman festival, I knew what was coming, but I was able to enjoy her performance a lot more this time.  In the style of a hard-partying, boundry-less rock singer, her character takes Kitson's "jolly hostage situation" to a new level.  With nudity, audience participation, and amusing threats ("'Cause I've got real soft'll see"), she takes comic performance to an unexpected place.  She's well-known in cabaret circles, but her balls-out, relentless musical performance works very well as a closing act in a comedy festival.  She creates comic tension with the audience because this is the type of performance where anything could happen, and usually does.  She holds back nothing it seems.  We lucked out that she found a willing audience member to play along with her routine who fully embraced his role.  She's the kind of performer that you'll want to see more than once because she's first and foremost a great singer, but it is her "dangerous" comic persona that is just as startling as it is entertaining.  But for the faint of heart, I advise you to buy a seat far from the aisle or else you will feel that real, soft skin for yourself.

*If only that was a real thing

**I could be totally wrong but if I'm right I'm impressed with the risk taking in that gambit.