Friday, July 18, 2014

When We Were Young and Unafraid: Feminism in the 1970's

When We Were Young and Unafraid is a multifaceted look at feminism through the prism of different philosophies and generations converging in the early 1970's in the Pacific Northwest.  Despite a fascinating subject and time period, somehow the unconventional and truly unique characters in this play, written by Sarah Treem and directed by Pam MacKinnon, end up taking the backseat to the more predictable main stories.

Agnes (Cherry Jones) runs an "Underground Railroad"of sorts for battered women. A former nurse she shelters women in her B&B on an isolated island outside of Seattle. Sometimes her daughter, 16 year-old Penny (Morgan Saylor) must give up her room to the lost women. This week Mary Anne (Zoe Kazan) arrives with a smashed up face and a shaking hand, having left her husband John. Staying at the B&B is Paul (Patch Darragh) an oddball music teacher who can't stand the hippies taking over San Francisco.  In all this chaos, there is also the unexpected arrival of Hannah (Cherise Booth), a militant feminist looking for a lesbian enclave she's heard is somewhere on the island.

I have not seen characters like theradical feminist seeking refuge in a place called Womynland and the enigmatic leader of the shelter on stage before and those were the characters I most wanted to know about.  But the teen and her coming of age story and the abused woman struggling to take her next step carry much of the drama.  Even in those primary tales, we don't get substantially under the skin of any of the characters.  Mary Anne is the woman in a cycle of violence who's trying to understand her own desires. Penny is the young, feminist acolyte struggling to reconcile her dream of equality in a world that exists far from that ideal.  The characters are very specific but somehow the plot falls into some well-worn traps.

Nevertheless, the strong cast is doing some really interesting work.  Zoe Kazan provides a great deal of dynamism to the wavering Mary Anne.  Cherry Jones is this incredible oak tree of a character, giving Agnes unromantic and pragmatic clarity.  And she's surrounded by all these women full of passions, whether it is Hannah and her politics or Penny and her teen desires.  Patch Darragh as the milquetoast Paul, manages to be both lovable goof and minor league asshole in a world of major league ones.  Darragh teases out the savior and the creep in his character in delicate motions.

After all the gender-bending that's been on stage this season, the focus on a group of women, their sexual identities, and their various societal roles is refreshing. But for me, in some ways the most interesting part of the story, started to get good, just as it was ending.  I longed for a window into Agnes's character throughout and, in the end, seeing the chips in her strong veneer makes the journey worthwhile.  It's an intriguing world to spend some time in.

I received a complementary ticket to attend this show.

Play/Date: Immersion in NYC Dating

"I want to lick your asshole."

I hear someone say this over my shoulder but I'm comfortably ensconced on an banquette. I could get up and find out what that scene is about, but instead I hold my ground and pass up the chance to hear more from the "licking" scene.  This is not just another night out in a NYC bar but a theater performance, called Play/Date, happening inside a NYC bar.  As choose-your-own-adventure theater goes, it's often a battle of FoMo (fear of missing out) and you win some and lose some. Play/Date is a new immersive production which takes over Fat Baby, a bar on the Lower East Side, four nights a week and offers up 17 stories on dating in New York.

Production photo
Unlike the sprawling Sleep No More, Play/Date's immersion offers a more intimate setting, with the staging occurring in three spaces within the bar.  But many stories are packed inside--tales of hook-ups, break-ups, and meet-ups.  Different writers have contributed to this piece including
Greg Kotis (Urinetown), Clay McLeod Chapman, and Chad Beckim.  The show was conceived by Blake McCarty and is directed and designed by Michael Counts. 

As observational theater goes it's a bit ADD. At one point in the show, sitting in one spot I could see and hear snippets of 4 different scenes. Puppets seemed to be having sex (I couldn't hear them I could only see them flailing about) while I watched an intense game of flirting between friends.

The drinks menu doubles as your theater program, giving some general direction as to where and what scenes will be taking place on the three levels--providing only titles and authors for each scene.  Unlike a larger more complex narrative, the actors changed characters when they changed scenes, save a few unique situations.  So if you miss one scene you do not miss out on a bigger arc.  One woman, leaving more and more voicemails with escalating intensity over the course of the evening, is reoccurring.

Production photo
As this is connected with 3-Legged Dog they have integrated technology into the presentation. Some characters are texting, Skyping, and Tindering as they sit there on their phones and their activities are
gorgeously recreated and projected behind them.

In a particularly memorable scene (Azul by Jacqueline Guillen) a woman mournfully sings to her long-distance boyfriend over FaceTime.  You can also follow "characters" from the show over Instagram and Facebook before and during the show.

There's a little circus barking from the " bartender" and "waitstaff" who give occasional context and set-ups for scenes. But largely you wander on your own.  You see actors wearing headsets and you stop and listen.  Audience members may get referenced in scenes but I didn't see anything as scary as audience participation.

Sitting next to me at one point were a group of women (audience members) who seemed to have liquored up before the show and they were singing along to the bar music in the end.  In some ways their loud antics were appropriate in this setting. Being loud, obnoxious, or checking Facebook on your cell phone starts to blend in in the bar setting and doesn't quite come across as inappropriate "theater" behavior in this space. And though this is immersive it is not meant to be interactive.

I stumbled upon quite a few first date scenes which after the third one started to feel repetitive. There's only so much of other people's awkward that I can take.  I much preferred mixing that with already established relationships.  A stand-out in the evening was Secrets of a Healthy Relationship by Jamie Roach which was both hilariously written and well-acted.  I was glad to end the evening on that particular scene.

I attended the show a bit early in the run so I hope some technical kinks get worked out as they perform it a bit more. I strained to hear some scenes and the volume and overlap of other scenes made it hard to hear as well. The scenes aren't so precious that to miss a line or two it's confusing but hey I like playwrights and I assume they want you to hear all the lines.

It boils down to a fun experiment.  I've been a fan of a number of immersive works. But ultimately either the atmosphere, dramaturgy, writing, or storytelling has to carry the experience.  I needed a nudge more on the narrative side to make the Play/Date experience a cut above.  But it was about 700% less awkward than most dates I've been on so order up a drink and enjoy the struggles of your fellow New Yorkers as they just try to find love, sex, or fun in this city of 8 millions stories.

PLAY/DATE is at Fat Baby  (112 Rivington Street, between Essex and Ludlow Streets, on the Lower East Side) Sundays-Wednesdays.

I received a complementary ticket to attend this show.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Daniel Kitson's Edinburgh Shows 2014

For those not on the Daniel Kitson mailing list (what's wrong with you people), Kitson has announced some "shows" for Edinburgh 2014.  Yes just a couple of weeks before it starts and making it difficult for those of us who might need some lead time to reserve hotels, plane tickets, or time off work.  I'm not complaining.  No, I am.  But it's fine.  My life is already sort of a mess this summer so this is all keeping with a theme.

But if you are bound for Edinburgh, here's the most important show you can't get tickets to, to add to your schedules:

Edinburgh 2014 at The Stand

August 3-12 at Midnight (as always, not Fridays and Saturdays)
A Variety of Things In A Room. – Daniel Kitson and Gavin Osborn.
Songs by Gavin, short stories, letters, maybe some film from Daniel.

August 13-24  (not Fridays and Saturdays)
Fuckstorm 3001 – Daniel Kitson , Alun Cochrane and Andy Zaltzman.
"Three men showing off and shouting over each other for around 90 minutes."
Rules for tickets to the shows at The Stand are very specific and aimed at keeping out the touts. 

For each show, 100 tickets will be sold in advance AND 40 tickets will be sold on the day of the show IN PERSON at the Stand at noon.  Limited to 4 tickets per person and NO PHYSICAL TICKETS so you have to show ID against a list with your name on it.  So only buy them if you are using them. 

Tickets on sale on July 9th at noon (I assume that's whatever the UK summer time zone is...I'm not looking it up.  You're an adult, use the internet.). [Revised link though I'm skeptical about it.]

London Previews at The Hob

Various dates in July.  Tickets are on sale Monday July 7th at noon.

Not sure if you've bought membership to The Stand you can get earlier access or what.  But you should be on their mailing list as they are making some info available tomorrow (Monday July 7).  This info could be the same info you've just received or new info.  Anyone's guess.

Happy Fringe Everyone!

P.S. You should also see Will Eno's great play Title and Deed playing at the Fringe this year. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Feminism, Power, and Mike Daisey

Mike Daisey called his new monologue, Yes All Women.  The internet exploded.  So he changed the title to Yes This Man.  Rather than get caught up in the semantics, I just wanted to hear someone talk about feminism.  I don't feel like more people talking about feminism is a bad thing.  Yes, even if it's men who are speaking about it.  Because we have a problem here, World.  We don't talk about power structures, oppression, privilege, and misogyny much at all.  It occasionally bubbles up when there are "newsworthy" events and the media decides to weigh in: like the kidnapping of young girls or the murder of women by a mentally unstable young man but it is never a sustained conversation.  And no action ever follows those events.  Much like after each school shooting, nothing changes in our gun control laws.     

What was remarkable about #YesAllWomen, was that it took the conversation beyond the media-curated discourse to the everyday sexism that all women face and rarely talk about publicly.  Everyday sexism is so pervasive that I don't even have a word for that feeling of walking down the street with keys in my hands poised as a weapon in case that guy coming out of the subway with me follows me.  But we've likely all done that and felt that anxiety. 

The backlash, which sprung up through #NotAllMen, showed how destabilizing and threatening the conversation could be if taken to that most basic level.  Men can reject the dramatic sexism/misogyny readily--I wouldn't kill or kidnap women!  But that they also reject the daily sexism is where the conversation becomes explosive.  Denying their role in the institution, the power structure, and the world they benefit from controlling, allows them to get away with something even greater--it creates this sinister feeling of invalidation and erasure.

Gaslighting women's experience of everyday sexism IS the reason we should be talking about this. 

With that as the background, Mike Daisey has a new monologue about his own sexism and power.  It's an evolving work and will be re-staged in July in a different form.  But rather than looking at feminism on a bigger scale he takes his story to the evolution of his relationship with gender, sexual identity, sex, marriage, and women.  He owns his own privilege in this conversation (openly declaring his intent to "mansplain" for the evening).  I expected it to take on a grander scale with the brouhaha but in reality it is a smaller scale piece about Daisey himself.

I have not seen a lot of Daisey's work save the controversial  The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and listened to a few episodes of the All the Faces of the Moon.  I think Scott Brown's terrific review comes from the most educated place on how this fits into Daisey's work as a whole.  But it's not a secret--Daisey often talks about Daisey.  Love it or hate it.

In this instance, it is key to his structure and device--making it personal is what makes it worthwhile.  On its own merit (I know 6 paragraphs in--but there's a lot of context to unpack), the work feels very much like a work in progress.  Daisey is known for working from an outline rather than a strict script.  But the oscillation between his discourse with a dissident feminist and the evolution of his relationship with his wife in their marriage doesn't necessarily have the strong payoff you want in a piece of storytelling because the through-line is muddled.  Yes This Man had its moments of power and its moments of pause but it has a way to go. That said I'd like to see the July version because there's something worth talking about there, it is just making it's way a bit circuitously.

The connective tissue that gets us from Daisey's college years to now involves stories of where he "kissed a boy" but refused to let himself really explore that part of himself, living with his girlfriend (who becomes his wife), episodes of Star Trek, episodes of his sex life, and discussions with the dissident who he describes as "more butch than I am."

I'm guessing that he's speaking of Camille Paglia but she remains unnamed in the show which feels a little churlish.  By not naming her it keeps the focus on the conversation about Daisey rather than her. That's not necessarily a problem but I think there could be much more done to integrate her presence in the story if she's to have a voice/role/impact on the conversation.  I wasn't always clear what she was doing in the story and in the end she ended up as more of a sounding board for Daisey rather than a character in her own right. 

The sex stories felt less about gender or power than they should have in this context.  Maybe because Daisey seems more interested in this section in explaining that sex with fat people is better than sex with "small" people (or as he concedes they may see themselves, "normal"-sized).  It's part of his train of thought on his big personality, his capacity for large-scale outrage, and his glee at rolling around in his own shamelessness.  It's a funny sidetrack but it felt off in tone and focus.  Despite the fact that we do end up in the midst of some of the most intimate moments of his marriage, and we hear about him exploring his sexuality and talking about his wife's sexuality, the lead up feels oddly less intimate.* 

The parts that kicked my brain into gear where when Daisey did explore his own capacity for sexism and his power.  I mean that's the problem with privilege and bias.  When you possess it, it's hard to see it.  Like an animal chasing it's tail, you may catch glimpses of it as you turn around quickly but it's not in your line of vision most of the time.  Daisey seems to sincerely be trying to get to the bottom of why misogyny is both so prevalent and yet so undisturbed in its place in our society.  He says it--the people in power don't want to give up that power.  He describes it as a war that has been going on for so long we forget it is going on.  Where my ears perked up was when he talked about the fact that when one takes responsibility, it requires you to take action.  It's what made #NotAllMen so insidious.  The rejection of responsibility absolved everyone of taking that action. And nothing will change if men disclaim responsibility.  And I mean all men. 

Daisey takes responsibility for his actions--well because it was brought to his attention and his wife would not continue on, on the same path.  Jean-Michele, Daisey's wife, is also his longtime director and collaborator.  The stunning revelation for both Daisey and the audience is that he realizes he spent years "using" his wife and when she finally confronts him about where their dynamic has ended up, she talks of it in terms of her erasure.  His overbearing presence in their relationship and her life has somehow distorted her sense of self.   She could not be who she was with him taking up that space.  They now live apart--married, but enjoying dating each other.  

Oddly I came away thinking that Daisey was again using his wife--her story--to achieve his own.  And I say it without malice.   It may be the storyteller's job to take from others to build the story but as much as Daisey was present in this story, it also felt like he was not opening up enough.  More about his wife was revealed and even though he talked about himself quite a bit it didn't feel like the sharing was on an equal plane.  But then again maybe there is nothing quite like that sexist erasure that women experience, for men.  Perhaps nothing he could share could have the same impact as that.  Or maybe that is why the conversation often gets shutdown because we leap to the "you'll never understand my pain" place. 

I'm open to hearing more of the conversation.   

*He tweeted after that he felt like the room was not "safe" and this held him back.  I wonder if this is the part he was holding back on. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

16 Words or Less: Love, Loss, and What Kind of Flowers to Buy

"I'm trying to do some good in the world."

An absurdist look at bereavement, loss, and love, Peggy Stafford's play 16 Words or Less, tries to find humor in a world of dead relatives, cancer, and lonely people.

Crystal (Crystal Finn) works at the My Fair Lilac flower shop answering the phone all day long and editing her customers' emotional note card thoughts to 16 words or less.  She's conciliatory with everyone no matter how outrageous their demands.  Jonathan (Neal Huff) calls to buy flowers for his mother (Caitlin O'Connell) on the occasion of Jonathan's father's death even though they were no longer married.  Karen-Carly (Jessica Rothe) is a bubbly teen who wants to send flowers to her Bubi (Mia Katigbak) who just lost her cat to cancer. Over the course of the play the characters all transform--and I don't mean in a subtle, "growing as people" way over time.   They instantly become different absurd caricatures--Karen Carly develops a meth addiction, her Bubi has a baby, Jonathan becomes obsessed with the poetry of Rumi.

As anyone who has suffered loss knows, letting go is hard. Even if you know you must accept change it does not make it any easier. Crystal has had her share of loss and through writing these note cards for her customers she seems to find a connection.  But it doesn't stop the world or people around her from changing.  Crystal's go-with-the-flow attitude only gets her so far and she starts to wonder if perhaps limits are a good thing.

I've always struggled with absurdism on stage, whether Guare, Durang, or otherwise. I never find it strikes my funny bone.  I get that the humor is meant to lighten difficult topics but I'm such a character junkie.  I often find the characters in farce or absurd comedies to be so broadly drawn that I lose interest quickly.

Here, director Portia Krieger keeps the tone deadpan and relatively even across all episodes no matter how many kooky or crazy the ups and downs--save where things get out of control between Crystal and the intense Nick at Cancer Care (Clayton Dean Smith) who wants her hair for children with cancer.  In that moment, Crystal manages to act in her own self-interest and resists Nick's attack.  Though she is not unscathed.

The cast does the best with the material, but it never quite reached a level of wackadoo insanity to make the comedy work.  And it never delved too deep into anyone's issues to make emotional contact. 

This is the last piece in Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks series for 2014. Supporting new American writers they have given this play a beautiful production. I loved Daniel Zimmerman's smart and flexible set.  A standout in the cast for me was recent Obie award winner Mia Katigbak as Bubi who managed to craft a fully drawn character out of a mere sketch of a Jewish grandmother.  Cutting through the absurdity, I felt for her. 

The audience was warmer to this play than I was and I recommend you just go with the flow and ride the absurd wave to find some laughs and have a think about how loss can make you do crazy things.

I received a complimentary ticket to attend this production.