Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Broadway Up Close: Time Capsule to Old Time New York

Confession: I love walking tours.  Even in cities I know well, sometimes I just like to learn something new, get a new perspective on an old place, or meet other like-minded individuals.  I've done everything from a Third Man walking tour of Vienna, to a tour of secret ceremonies of London where the Duke of Edinburgh was participating, to the kooky interpretations of New York history by famed New York tour guide Speed Levich.  But I've never done a tour of Broadway theater history until this week.

Broadway Up Close offers tours of the theater district that cover history, architecture, ghosts, and lore.  For the first time in my life,  I spent some time looking up on 42nd Street and not just elbowing my way through the crowd.  With guides who work onstage and backstage at Broadway theaters, not only did we get a historic perspective but the inside scoop on what they've seen and experienced in their own careers. Punctuating the tour with personal anecdotes on top of historic context we got a glimpse into the working life of performers and crew members who manage to make theater magic happen in the tiny wings of theaters built largely in the early 20th century. 

Taking the "Act One" tour, we covered the history of the New Amsterdam from Ziegfeld to Disney, lost theaters like the Victoria and the Hippodrome, the famous stars and shows that made Broadway world renown and heard all about the ghosts that haunt the Belasco Theatre.  With an iPad of photo images to help us visualize, we got a peek into the world of the rooftop theater spaces along 42nd Street that existed at the beginning of the 20th century, the history of animal performers that tread the Broadway boards along side the likes of Harry Houdini and Jimmy Durante, and the unusual vaudeville acts and stars that have been long forgotten.

And I loved every minute of it.  It's so easy to forget that before television, cinema, and the theat-uh of today, people would pay to see a woman dressed like a milkmaid on a rooftop with a cow and that was theater. I was reminded of the great quote in All About Eve when Bill Sampson, big time Broadway director heads out to Hollywood to make a movie:

"The Theatuh, the Theatuh - what book of rules says the Theater exists only within some ugly buildings crowded into one square mile of New York City? Or London, Paris or Vienna? Listen, junior. And learn. Want to know what the Theater is? A flea circus. Also opera. Also rodeos, carnivals, ballets, Indian tribal dances, Punch and Judy, a one-man band - all Theater. Wherever there's magic and make-believe and an audience - there's Theater. Donald Duck, Ibsen, and The Lone Ranger, Sarah Bernhardt, Poodles Hanneford, Lunt and Fontanne, Betty Grable, Rex and Wild, and Eleanora Duse. You don't understand them all, you don't like them all, why should you? The Theater's for everybody - you included, but not exclusively - so don't approve or disapprove. It may not be your Theater, but it's Theater of somebody, somewhere."
And talking about the ghosts of vaudeville, I thought about the world of theater from that time--when the local dingy one-screen movie theater in my hometown used to be an "opera" house and touring vaudeville acts would perform there before it became a movie theater where I saw Return of the Jedi from the balcony, before they tore it down and it became a bank. The history of Broadway is not far from the history of my hometown cinema in that way--from large theaters meant for spectacle to rundown movie theaters to revival by investors such as Bank of America and Disney--build, tear down, rebuild, rinse, repeat.  But the best thing about this tour is that you're encouraged to look beyond the the McDonald's marquee and the Roxy ads to envision the past and find continuity with the present.     

Broadway Up Close does not have a set schedule of tours so you should email to find out when tours are taking place and set up a time that might best accommodate your itinerary.  The tours last about an hour and forty-five minutes.  They are $30 per person.  They take place largely outdoors (we did have a stop into the Empire movie theater for air conditioning and a peek at that interior) but throughout the tour, Theresa, our guide showed us pictures of some of the theater interiors so we could see more than just the street view. Plus it is kind of incredible to look at a photo of a building from 1899 and then look up and see not much has changed (although I assume they did not have furry Elmos crowding their front stoops back then).

With this tour visitors and locals alike can learn about the history of American theater as experienced by the many buildings still standing in our midst and imagine the grandeur of those we have lost.  If you love theater history and especially the changing face of New York history, this is a great tour to check out.

I received a complementary invitation to attend the tour.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Blink: See and Be Seen

L-R: Lizzie Watts and Thomas Pickles in BLINK,  Photo Ludovic Des Cognets
When loneliness causes you to believe you are starting to vanish can a stranger's gaze save you?

Blink is an unexpectedly intense story of loss and connection, dressed in the soft gauze of a romance. Without giving away the unusual charm of this play by Phil Porter, this story may feel like it is following a Hollywood quirky rom-com playbook, but it's not. The play has a unique, beat and pulse.

Sophie (Lizzy Watts) is living in London with her father when he passes away.  Jonah (Thomas Pickles) is living on a "a farm. Or self-sufficient religious commune to be specific," when his mother dies. Their journeys happen in coincidental parallels but their romance unfurls in the most unexpected way.


As things start to go downhill for Sophie, in a moment of desperation, she sends out a symbolic flare into the universe and Jonah heeds the call. Sophie mails a baby monitor to Jonah with a small video screen on it.  They've never met.  He doesn't even know who she is or where she lives.  But he turns on the monitor and Sophie's turned on the camera.  Jonah becomes transfixed by her and her quotidian existence. And an intimacy is created through this one-way mirror. Sophie needs to be seen. And Jonah sees her.  He watches and feels connected to her. But the startling aspect is how one-sided it is. She cannot see him.  Though they both are gaining something they need, they don't need the same things.

I found myself thinking about the play for days after.  As unusual as the plot device is, I found it not so strange. It made me think about social media and how we put pieces of ourselves out into the world and we're not always looking for that person to boomerang back to us.

I do a weekly podcast (you should listen). Total strangers listen which I still find odd.  They know things about me through the podcast. They hear me whispering in their ear as they ride the subway or walk down the street.  And after a lifetime of feeling invisible, a little visibility feels good. But if they showed up on my doorstep I'd be freaked out.  Much like fans and the object of their affections, performer may expose them-self through their art but a mutual bond is not formed. The fan may perceive an attachment--a connection, and it is a real connection--but it's not happening for both parties.

We open our lives to people in some ways and not others.  I think of social media as "living out loud" sometimes. But even if it's real it's a small part of who I am.  There are volumes left unspoken.  In many ways it is a false sense of intimacy.  And in others it is exactly the hand reaching through the screen to reassure you that you still exist.

Here in Blink, Sophie staves off her invisibility by sending the monitor.  Jonah fills his days with her and finally has a purpose. The subversive nature of Blink is that despite this inherently unbalanced connection, there is a romance here. A coupling.  But it is borne out of anxiety, sadness, and loneliness.

Recently I saw Thomas Pickles in his fascinating one-man show, Dead Party Animals at the Hope Theatre in London, which he wrote and starred in. With a tendency to be childlike and oddball in equal measure in Blink, he embodies the curiosity and strangeness of Jonah. Lizzy Watts, it seemed to me, had the harder job of convincing you that she's of the world and yet has started to fall outside the lines of it.  Without drifting into quirkiness for quirky sake, she delivers on that.  Joe Murphy's (Incognito) direction gives an inventive flair to the material but again keeps everything on the right side of twee.

I think it is easy to dismiss Blink if you aren't paying attention.  It's not flashy.  With a woozy 3-D forest set (by Hannah Clark) that at times made me feel like I was walking through the looking-glass (no complaint it works to throw you off balance and appropriately make you distrust what you see) and DIY touches (music on a tape deck, a green carpet that doubles as indoors and outdoors), it's awfully quiet. But in that quiet is the sound of fear, despair, loneliness, and grief.  And that's where the beating heart of this wonderful little play lies.

I received complementary tickets to this production.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Chalk Farm: A Mother's Love

Photo by Carol Rosegg

"The world means something else to them."

Since even the days of Romeo and Juliet, parents and teens never seem to see eye-to-eye but in Kieran Hurley and AJ Taudevin's play Chalk Farm the struggles to communicate and connect between a single mother and her son are exacerbated by circumstances of the 2011 London riots.  An unexpected story about the lengths a mother will go to to take care of her child and a window into the class wars still at issue today in the UK. 

Single mom Maggie (Julia Taudevin) packs a lunch and babies Jamie (Thomas Dennis) who at 14 would rather be out with his mates at a rundown playground than home with his mom in their high rise estate (housing project) overlooking the area of London called Chalk Farm. When the London riots kick off, Jamie promises Maggie that he's safely ensconced in his mate's flat. But he lies. Out on the street he feels the electricity of the mob and joins in the looting and destruction--what his friend Junior keeps calling "history."  He thinks of his mother when he's out there but only to grab her something nice, not once dwelling on the consequences of his actions.

In the aftermath of the riots (which started after police shot an unarmed black man, Mark Duggan), many theories were raised as to what caused the looting, vandalism, and violence that spread to many cities in the U.K.  Hurley and Taudevin make the political much more personal here in Chalk Farm.  They look to Jamie and Maggie in this microcosm of London to illustrate how the riots, the blame, the struggles, and the class issues raised, impacted the city. 

I first caught Chalk Farm at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013. But a terrible venue made it hard for me to get a good grip on the show which is a two-hander with a substantial dependence on sound, projections, and music to build the show's overall tone and style.  I'm glad I gave it another chance but in the end the delicate and careful writing still seems to get lost for me behind projections and sound design.

The play is most successful in addressing the struggles of parenting--parenting alone and in the face of societal judgment. Maggie is confronted with people making assumptions about the rioters.  Her rage at her neighbors for unknowingly casting aspersions on her and her son--"Scum of the earth. Pig. Chav"--sets her seething.  And then for a moment we see where some of the rage on the streets comes from.  Taudevin finds a roar inside Maggie which until that moment we had not seen.  It's a beautiful performance that captures her sadness, tiredness, and rage all with equal skill.

Although the riots are a catalyst to this story but they remain visually remote in the production.  I think for those who lived through them there is no need to splash images of what happened--everyone has an image or personal experience to reference.  Despite the heavy use of technology in the show to show locations and set a tone (it was quite effective for the use of CCTV cameras which are so prevalent in the UK but a foreign concept to us) the projections did not give the riots context I was craving.  There were two moments where the projections delivered something beyond the text, but for the most part they felt superfluous and maybe even sometimes got in the way of the quiet drama offered by the cast. 

I received complimentary tickets to this production.