Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Top 10 from Edinburgh Fringe 2014

I have written a real live article.  For a real live magazine.  To supplement the article, they are sharing my Top 10 shows from Edinburgh on the website at American Theatre.  Check it out!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Scenes from a Marriage: Peering through Intimate Windows

As the sound of doors slammed in other rooms and voices were raised in anger I thought about my parents before their divorce. The loud moments behind closed doors where the privacy of their marriage spilled out and was heard by others.  I was reminded of a friend who gave a speech at a wedding once, and said how you can never really know what goes on within someone's relationship or marriage.  There is so much unseen from the outside.  Ivo van Hove's production of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage (with an English adaptation by Emily Mann) cracks open the private world of one couple and we watch it spill out before our prying eyes. 

Scenes from a Marriage is staged in such a way that you are intimately close to this couple in various stages of their marriage and relationship.  Act one consists of three scenes where Johan and Marianne are at different ages and places in their marriage.  Susannah Flood and Alex Hurt are Johan and Marianne at their youngest and their friends think they have the perfect relationship.  Roslyn Ruff and Dallas Roberts play them in the middle years when the stress of children and family commitments seem to weigh on them most.  Tina Benko and Arliss Howard play them twenty years into their marriage when things are truly cracking.

The stage is divided into three spaces for each pair of actors to play out their scenes simultaneously with a shared staging area in the middle.  Each space has a window or two looking out on the staging area and if you are seated in the right place you can also catch a glimpse of another scene taking place in the distance through the window panes.  Characters may encounter each other in the staging area and they react slightly as if a memory or a dream has caught them by surprise. I noticed in particular a strong, albeit brief reaction from Alex Hurt when confronted with Marianne from twenty-years in his future in the staging area.

Fractured and dislocated the distant scenes play out on the periphery and only occasionally catch your eye.  Every once in a while as the scene you are watching quiets, loud voices from the other scenes bleed through and clearly you can hear characters say: "I don't care about any of it, " or "It's about love." These hanging phrases from other parts of the characters' lives suggest either memories of fights taken place in the past or they are the ghosts of Christmas yet to come.  The audience then moves to the next scene and the actors play it again for the newly arrived audience members.*

Sound design and scenic design are critical to pulling off this complicated sonic experience as well as the performers being mindful of the rises and falls of their own scenes. Even if you've already seen a scene happening off in the distance through the windows on stage when a sentence you've already heard gets shouted into the scene you're watching the impact is slightly different.  Most importantly, in each scene in Act one you can hear Johann leave Marianne and that informs and infuses the scene you're seeing with a very specific melancholy.

In Act two the walls that divided these scenes and moments in their life disappear and time bleeds together as all three couples perform together. Partners switch off, dialogue overlaps, dialogue repeats, and sometimes there is a relay style where one actor begins the conversation and another picks up to finish it. It's a tremendous exercise in discipline, performance, and the sensation is that time has lost all meaning and in every fight you have the pieces of your younger self are there.  You can not live in the present without the past creeping in and informing what you are saying and doing.

The actors are not mimicking each other or even trying to create a sense of Face/Off verisimilitude.  It's not the intent.  They are each true to their own interpretation of the characters within the scenes that we've seen.  We are never quite the same person throughout our lives, are we?  We can be more strident when we are young, exhausted when the children have worn us down, resigned after years and years in one relationship.   When all these characters are unleashed upon one another it shows the different parts of ourselves arguing in different ways.  The actors make different choices, engage in different lines readings, and bring a different energy to their interpretation of their character even if they are interacting with a partner of a different age.

But the tidal wave of voices and actors in Act two is still somehow very controlled.  Like a carefully choreographed twirling ballet, the voices spin toward us and away from us and we catch different pieces and different inflections depending on proximity and volume.

I can't say I was overcome emotionally by the production but I was engaged by the performers and the production.  I am guilty of over-intellectualizing my reactions and this production fed into my weakness.  I enjoyed unfolding the origami layers of the production even if I wasn't moved by the marital travails.  I also loved the sonic layering so that time is compressed and we, as the audience, seem to be bouncing around someone's memories, out of order, full of anger, frustration, sadness, and resentment.  But there are no answers.  No clarity really.  Life and relationships are messy. 

I could have done without the last two scenes which left me a bit puzzled.  The tone and narrative shift for those scenes was jarring.  There was an "interpretive dance" sequence to the Windmills of Your Mind and I started to wonder if van Hove was intentionally being obtuse and literal with the music choices (He had already used 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover and Bridge Over Troubled Waters in obvious ways already)--was he trying to say we were spinning in the windmills of the mind of the characters?  Because I already thought we were (well I would not have used that phrase) and the goofy dance sequence did nothing more to emphasize that.  For a production that otherwise felt carefully structured, I was not sure why opted to use overtly sentimental music in such a literal manner.  And the music came and went in other scenes so I did not sense an overall cohesion  or a pattern to his deliberate use of it. 

I wished we could have gone out on the high note of the six-person "ballet" extravaganza.  The voice of Marianne as she delivers her "last"** line to Johan by the three actresses was one of my favorite moments.  It was as close to an emotional catharsis as I got.

* The audience was divided up when picking up their tickets so we were assigned which part of the story we would start with. The audience does not "choose their own adventure."
**It was the last line of the ensemble part of the piece.  If only it had been the last line of the play.

I received a complimentary ticket to the production.

Monday, September 15, 2014

This Is Our Youth: A Postcard of My Past

I learned from Follies the danger in looking back at your past.  It was either Follies or a high school reunion or that time I tried on a dress which totally fit last year and doesn't fit now.

Time marches on.  And there are a few pieces of theater that I have put in my memory vault because they were so important to me at the time--Arcadia, Angels in America, and This Is Our Youth are all in there.  I didn't blog in those days.  I think we had the internet but I was very suspicious of it. So all I have are my memories.  And they are vivid memories.  Certain performances, bits of staging, and emotions are all wrapped up together in my mind.  I saw the original New Group production of This Is Our Youth in the late 90's and can still hear Mark Ruffalo's line readings as Warren when I read the script. I can see his shuffling, sad puppy face as he tries to open himself up and he's wounded. 

So it was natural that I went into the new Broadway production of This Is Our Youth filled with trepidation. It's a play that is important to me in the most personal of ways. 

So what's the hubub about.  The play written by Kenneth Lonergan, is about Dennis (Kieran Culkin) who deals drugs to his rich, privileged UWS high school friends including perennial fuck-up Warren (Michael Cera). One night Warren shows up to Dennis's apartment having stolen a lot of money from his father and looking to squander it in a variety of ways. Warren has the hots for Jessica (Tavi Gevinson) and she happens to stop by Dennis's apartment that evening. And these characters talk, plan, dread, and reflect.  It's not a play about plot. 

For me the play always spoke to the difficulty of finding a connection in the world, being understood, finding love, desperately trying to hold onto those things as they slip through your fingers.  Age is irrelevant in this but perhaps the younger you are the more hope you have that perhaps, this time it will work out.  I got lost in Warren's fragile heart and the indignities of his small and big failures.  And age is critical to the story where you look at these young people so frustrated with the world's expectations focused on them.  The future is looming.   And it feels like everyone is waiting to see what greatness you will achieve, when life itself is just so hard to live every day. 

In the new production, directed by Anna Shapiro, I tried hard to be open to the new "choices" made and aware of my bias.  Ultimately, I found the production mediocre and not living up to the greatness of the play.  And the shallow performances broke my heart. 

There were some really interesting aspects to this production, so let's start with the positives.  Culkin played Dennis as a much more sexually fluid character than I had seen before. I really liked the reinterpretation of an 80's preppy, dead-behind-the-eyes, misogynist being actually just as insecure and neurotic as his pal. But pretending (poorly) that he's not.  Culkin's Dennis had greater true affection for Warren and his bullying of Warren came off as softer somehow.  With this below the surface adoration for Warren, I would have expected Dennis's betrayal of Warren to have hit the mark more acutely. But it did not.  But probably because by that point in the production the audience thought it was a sitcom and was barreling over everything with laughter.

Part of the sitcom energy seemed to be driven simply by Cera's presence.  The audience opted to read everything he did as comic deadpan. I don't think he was trying for that but his well-established film and TV reputation got in the way.  Then again, for me, he wasn't offering much more anyway.  He had about two expressions and I found once he'd established his version of Warren at the get-go he struggled to get to any other place with the character. I was in the second row and he did well up with emotion late in the play.  But you had to strain to see it.  It was not an effective stage performance. 

This is not an easy play to perform and anyone who thinks it is is missing the giant iceberg of subtext in every line.  But these guys seemed to be skating on the surface not plumbing the tremendous depths of the text.  AND THAT IS AN ACTUAL CRIME. 

And as for Gevinson, she was a disaster. On the one hand the idea that Jessica was a goofy, awkward partner well-suited to the strange Warren was an interesting choice.  She had always read as a character slightly out of his reach at the start but comes around as a more suitable partner.  But here Gevinson is playing her as this broad comedienne which might have been fine but she did not have the acting talent/comedic timing to pull it off. With a verbal affectation (see Jessica Hecht and every play she's done in the last 5 years)  I never felt she had any sense of why she was doing what she was doing. 

Cera and Culkin must have been told to play up their characters' frenetic drug-addled energy and each makes different choices to execute that with some angular anxiety. Cera with one hand buried in his pants pocket at all times. Culkin with the constant mussing of his own hair. But neither choice felt organic.  Everything they did seemed telegraphed and actor-y.  Neither actor seemed to truly fuse their stage business with their character.  They were hitting their marks and doing what they were told, but neither seemed 100% to believe who they were. They felt like two pals rough-housing on stage but the depth of emotions the characters have for each other--whether anger, resentment, affection, or fidelity never comes across.

Of the three, I liked Culkin the most but I wonder if it's because he didn't have the heavy emotional lifting the other two had.  Maybe no one could ever live up to Ruffalo's transcendent performance. But Cera didn't even seem to have a range of emotions. And for a role that is nuanced and heart-breaking I was sad to leave the show heartbroken for a myriad of reasons having nothing to do with  the play and all to do with the production.

I really liked some of the choices Anna Shapiro made.  At one point seating Warren in a chair wedged into the most awkward spot in the room said so much about his character.  And when Warren and Jessica were seated at the table and somehow managed to get close to holding hands (from where I was sitting I couldn't see if they actually touched). 

The problem with audience laughter did not feel like it was borne of the direction.  But maybe those with more insight on directing would have a stronger take on that.  It seemed to me that even the actors weren't leaning on comedy to get them through the play (well only occasionally perhaps). 

I love this play.  I can read it and re-read it and feel the painful stings of defeat, loss, and confusion.  I weep for Warren when he's so hurt and cannot express it.  But I left this production dry-eyed.  When the most beautiful and sad of lines gets trampled with audience laughter at a moment where nothing is funny and everything is tragic I started to feel like Broadway audiences didn't deserve this wonderful play.

Grumpily yours,

Mildly Bitter

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Theater of the Men: The Violence Men Do

I've spent a couple of weeks now trying to figure out why one particular work at Edinburgh did not work for me.  And it's my "job" to do that. Well ok it's not my day-to-day job...but if I fancy myself a critic than I have a responsibility to go beyond a knee-jerk reaction to a work and really explore what the artist was trying to do and say and give perspective on how that work either succeeds or fails in my opinion. 

We can't escape ourselves when reviewing and we shouldn't entirely.   Perspective, our own cultural backgrounds, our own experiences can inform how a work is read and hopefully illuminate from time to time how a work can strike one person when it doesn't strike another. 

I'm afraid despite examining my feelings, my reactions, what I saw, and how I mentally investigated this show, I did not succeed in really getting to my core issues with it.  And I think because it hit me in a place that was too close to the bone on first view and I could not get any perspective on it after that.

And maybe because of that I should not write something about it.  But it continues to nag and haunt me and not in a "oh great art makes you think" kind of way.  But in an irritating ex-boyfriend way, where he just keeps liking everything you post on Facebook to remind you that he still exists. 

And the fact that it received a tremendous amount of acclaim, without anyone mentioning what I experienced, has also made me feel like I have to provide a dissent.  And my feelings are my feelings.  Even if it's not criticism. And this is not criticism. 

So here's my dissent. 


As an initial premise, I've never seen Chris Goode's work before.  I had heard his name frequently mentioned by many people I respect so I was excited to see a piece by him at Fringe.  He created an intersecting monologue about men dealing with homophobia, suicide, terrorism, anger, and pedophilia called Men in the Cities.  Using his own voice and those of several men around London he builds this monologue about the violence men do to each other and the world, into a final explosive frenzy.

And I walked away feeling nothing.  I think it turns out I was a bit emotionally frozen after seeing it.  I had never felt so isolated and unwelcome in a theater space before.  It was as if I'd stumbled into some boys' club.  I almost looked for a sign on the outside of the Traverse Theatre that said:  GIRLS KEEP OUT.

And this is a bit laughable to me because it feels like every day of my life I've lived inside a boy's club knowing I wasn't wholly welcome.  I went to film school where women were decidedly the minority.  I worked in a New York law firm where women leave the field year after year so that we have to have momentous "ladies lunches" to celebrate making ANOTHER female partner--in the 100 year history of the firm, at that point there were 6.  

But Goode's piece was a boys' club of a different sort.  As Goode's piece went on, the build up of male confusion, frustration, and predation just flicked a switch for me.  It was not a switch of rage, but of massive disconnection. 

When I left, I had a visceral reaction of "I don't care about your problems, men" which is probably the most misandrist reaction I've ever had to any piece of theater before.  I just wanted to shove my way out of the theater and never have to go back to a place like that again.  I was startled by my own feelings and as you do in Edinburgh I raced to a number of other shows, and filed my feelings away in the "wow that was a poor choice of shows to see" file and moved on.  Except everyone kept asking me, "What did you think of Men in the Cities?"  Finally I had to admit I did not like it. 

And I'm still struggling through my feelings as to why. 

Maybe the issue was I was not invited to the table.

There were moments I should have been able to connect to in this play.  I relate to the struggles between fathers and sons, and the destructive forces of parents' expectations and gendered stereotypes and what violence that can do to children.  I had an uber-masculine father with clear ideas of gender roles and he imparted a very strict regime of what he thought was acceptable male behavior and what was not. And those ideas were outrageous and homophobic and destructive and unacceptable.  Yet for all that experience, the work made me feel like I was being shamed for even being there.  That this was UNKNOWABLE to women.  That this was the secret realm of men.  And that this was using a language or a dialect that was intentionally meant for me not to be able to understand. Each time I attempted to connect, the work seemed determined to push me out again.

Not every play has to be something you connect to.  I've started to feel like we try too hard to argue for universality in giving work validity.  Not every play should in fact be tagged with the label, "oh it's the universal human experience, the character just happens to be gay...black...Asian...a woman."  Sometimes those works should in fact be very specific stories of very specific experiences and to sweep it all under the "universal" rug does a disservice to our culture and to conversation.  And your personal relation to it is not necessarily a measure of that work's worth.  

I want to be taken to places and stories and experiences that are outside my realm.  I heard an openly gay African-American writer-director at a talkback say that gay men are not taught how to handle rejection.  Men aren't taught how to handle rejection and that informed the character he was writing and the violent fantasy the character had dreamed up in revenge having been rejected by another man.  I appreciated hearing that perspective (albeit outside the script of the play) because it did shed light on something outside my personal experience and not something "universal" (putting aside the idea that we all get rejected but how men emotionally process rejection might be something very different and how they process it with each other might be something else entirely).  But in that play, I felt invited to look in on the character as he made these choices.  The writer was anxious to surprise the audience with a world that was not their own.  But the whole endeavor was open.  Men in the Cities never felt that open. 

Maybe the issue was male violence.

Maybe a show about how men are a destructive force in society isn't something I need to be reminded of.  As a woman existing in a patriarchal society, this feels like my everyday life.  We're the victims of male violence.  We're the objects of the male gaze.  We're the ones men expose themselves to in the subway.  We're the ones fondled and touched against our wishes.  Our lives are dictated by men in ways we cannot even fathom sometimes.  And men dictate the behavior of other men.  And we keep fighting to exist, to just use our voices, to protest, complain, disagree, and exist on terms that are equal with men, and in this work it felt as if you don't want me to exist at all.  Am I merely the doll's head you crush, the vixen fox screaming as she's being fucked?  These were the "female" representations offered in the play. What place do I have in this world of yours?  I'm not even human in this story.   

I'm not sure any of the victims of violence got a place in the story. Maybe they all felt like objects to me--even the men who had been hurt, attacked, and violated by other men.   

I wish I had grabbed a copy of the script so I could tell you exactly how the violence, victims, and violent characters were portrayed and at what point and in what way that portrayal was a problem for me, but I did not want to spend another minute in that space, in that world.  I'm seriously lacking in critical "evidence" here and I'm painfully aware of that.  

But I will say, seeing a show about Ted Bundy was 2000% less disturbing and problematic in its approach, subject matter, and perspective. 

After hearing there had been some controversy in London over the musical Dogfight and the work was being labeled with a misogynistic brush (which I wholeheartedly do not believe the underlying work does--though I can't comment on the London production which I have not seen), I found it interesting that a critic went back to see it again to give it another look with that concern in mind.  We should be open to examination our biases and our blindness to things.  And there's a part of me that wishes I could stomach going to see Men in the Cities again to figure out why this felt the way it did to me. But I'll tell you, this show felt like an assault to me and I don't want to relive that.

I don't know what Chris Goode's intent was.  But somehow this show made me feel less than.  It made me feel invisible.   I wondered if it was just me.  But after talking with some other women who disliked the work (with claims of being either really bored because they didn't relate to it or feeling outright misogyny and hatred in the material) I don't think it's just me.  

I did not need to see this show.  And that's the first time I have ever said that.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Short Comedy reviews: Edinburgh Fringe 2014

In an effort to chill-out and enjoy my vacation I did not take notes during the comedy shows.  So my quotes may be more of an approximation.  And as always I'm not a comedy critic.  But after a couple years of this I might have to start admitting that I am.

Josie Long: Cara Josephine

Josie Long can make a show about having her heart broken both moving and hilarious.  From her complaint that all break-ups are unique, like "cunty snowflakes," to her honest assessment of her difficult family (describing her stepfather, "to put it generously he's the opposite of loving"), she explores her struggles with love and how her effervescent personality suffered through some dark times as of late when her last relationship ended.  She still manages to be buoyant, bubbly, and totally appealing as she explains how she mistakenly thought this was the love of her life based on a rash decision made during sex.  She addresses issues with class and politics a bit--hilariously suffocating Nigel Farage of UKIP with marshmallows on a romantic date and refusing to do the Heimlich maneuver "because it's foreign".  Her material about her family struck a chord when she started to worry that her relationship problems were linked to her parents and their poor models for successful relationships.  And I certainly appreciated her perspective on "old people" at Royal Festival Hall.  Solidarity. Her shows are always well-structured, penetrating, and smart.  It's always a pleasure to watch her work.  Even if she made me cry at the end--in a nice way. 

Fun fact:  Later in the week I saw Every Brilliant Thing where there is some audience participation.  Josie was in the audience and got roped into the show as the character's girlfriend. It's a show that was provoking a lot of tears and when it came time for Josie to read her material she was having a hard time getting through it with all her crying.  And frankly her crying caused me to cry more.  So even when it's not her show she can still make you cry.

David O'Doherty:  David O'Doherty Has Checked Everything

David O'Doherty is trying to find happiness and it has not been going well.  He thinks "I should be happier than this."  Thinking he could find happiness through a pizza cutter, a girlfriend, or a North Face coat all proved to be a fool's errand.  In his new show he embarks on a number of quests to find happiness.  He again runs into trouble with mice in his house (I always love his mice stories).  He does one impression--of a man shitting a Toblerone and let's face it I will never look at Toblerone again without thinking of him.  He continues to excel in his blend of wacky songs and structured stories.  Just hope he tours America again because it felt like it had been too long since I had seen him.

Fun fact:  I have no idea what this means, but I wrote down this quote from his show:  "And the secret is falcons."

Bridget Christie: An Ungrateful Woman

Bridget Christie returns to the Fringe with another show about feminism, because sadly feminism did not get sorted in the interim year.  But lucky for us we have her on our side.  She said she used to be a part-time feminist until she had a daughter and until a man farted in the women's studies section of bookstore.  That's when she became a full-time feminist. Christie is on the attack against Page 3, the limited perspectives of women in advertising (wanton or vacuous are our only options), gendered stereotypes, and female genital mutilation.   Incredibly, she spends a good deal of time addressing FGM and still manages to make her jokes funny, her point sharp, and educate us in the same breath.  Her rational breakdown of a Mueller yogurt ad is a thing of beauty.  Fucking hell she's brilliant.  And she too made a snowflake joke (must be a thing in the air this year).  Telling women to relax about their bodies and be comfortable with the fact that every vagina is unique: "Vaginas are like snowflakes made of gammon."

Fun Fact: I saw a very small child with great vigor burst through the heavy door at Summerhall one morning.  She was followed by her dad a few steps behind her.  And it turned out to be Bridget Christie's daughter.  I shouldn't have been surprised that her 3 year-old is so self-possessed.

Sara Pascoe:  Sara Pascoe vs. History

I'd heard from a number of folks I trust that Sara Pascoe was a must see.  I'm not sure what I was expecting but I found the material to be fine but not quite as smart as I had hoped.  Although she is attempting to address feminism and issues of female sexuality, she doesn't quite structure her material to build.  There's commentary and some good jokes but they felt a bit divorced from one another. The very loose thread about history gets tossed out and the beginning and the end but it does feel tacked on.  I mean I appreciate someone trying to address woman and the need for body acceptance, for respecting women's choices, and not demanding some sort of universal concept of what women want.  But honestly I also wish she was a better comedian to deliver that material in a sharper way.  Ultimately it felt more like a loose lecture than a comedy show.

Fun fact:  I tried to see Sara Pascoe last year and missed the show even though I had a ticket.  I tried to see her again this year earlier in the week and they sold the last ticket like a minute before I got there.  So it felt like a lot of build-up only to find the show just "ok."

Alfie Brown: Divorced from Reality (and My Wife)

I got brought along to this show by a friend and from the title I assumed Alfie was going to be an older bloke.  So when a handsome, blue-eyed, long-haired 27 year-old hipster in tight jeans walked out I was a little thrown.  Wanking, women, divorce, unplanned pregnancies, underage sex, mental health, and the n-word were on the menu.  And despite a moribund crowd who seemed to be giving him little (or perhaps its his style is to yell at his audience frequently for not getting it) I thought he handled most of the material well.  For me the underage sex bit, was provocative for provocation's sake.  And his n-word section too felt a little like he was poking the shark because he could.  Not that comedians shouldn't push the envelope--they in fact should.  But if you're going out on that limb it's got to be the tightest material and I still felt it was wobbly in both sections.  But he's a charming stage presence and I'd give him another shot if I came across him again.

Fun Fact: This was my last show of the festival.  It's not a fun fact.  But that's all I've got.