Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Return of Daniel Kitson's Tree...

Daniel Kitson's two person play Tree will have its London premiere at the Old Vic Theatre in January 2015.  Starring Kitson and comedian Tim Key, the work originally premiered in Manchester in 2013 at the Royal Exchange Theatre.

The show will run from January 5-31.  Shows are Monday to Saturday at 8pm with a Saturday matinee at 11am and no show on Sundays. Tickets are £16, £13 and £9 (all prices include £1 restoration levy) with 100 seats per show at £10 for anyone under 25.

Tickets go on sale to mailing list members and Old Vic members on November 27. General booking opens December 4.  All tickets will require IDs to pick them up. 

I'm mostly curious about the "Q&A" on January 26th.  Who will be asking questions?  Who will be answering questions?

This show left me with many questions when I saw it.  But it's one I wish I had had a second chance at seeing.  Not sure I can make the journey but I highly recommend that you do.

Straight White Men: Anthropology by Young Jean Lee

I thought I had reached a breaking point this year with the voices of straight, white male voices in theater.  But when it's Young Jean Lee doing the curating of those voices I'm willing to tune back in.

Based on conversations she had with straight white men, Lee has put together a play where a father (Austin Pendleton) and his three sons gather for Christmas. Eldest son Matt (James Stanley) is living at home after completing a PhD and drifting in low-level non-profit jobs. Middle son Jake (Gary Wilmes) is a banker, recently divorced, and a self-professed asshole. Youngest son Drew (Pete Simpson) is a professor and author. But when these grown men come home they turn into the children they were before--wrestling, teasing and torturing each other. But one night Matt starts to cry and the men then engage in volleys of support, interest, and disinterest.  But none are particularly equipped to vocalize their emotions without reverting to their own philosophies to try to "solve" the "problem" of Matt.

If you've ever had the uncomfortable experience of being a "problem" a man has tried to solve then you can relate to the way these well-meaning siblings descend on Matt and dive in with abandon--the same way they dig into a homemade pie with forks leaving crumbs and mess in their wake. 

As they casually talk about childhood experiences portraits emerge of these three men as boys-- Matt the social justice crusader who protested the all-white production of Oklahoma in high school, Drew called "Shit Baby" by his brothers after they made him eat his own shit at age 3, and Prick of the Pricks Jake hosting a game of Gay Chicken with his friends until Matt shut it down.  Even their father's role as parent is elucidated when he only just now learns they've called Drew "Shit Baby" for over 20 years.  For all the sensitivity that their mother tried to instill by making them play a board game called "Privilege" (a pasted over Monopoly game to make them more self-aware), any argument that they had a truly progressive childhood seems undone by their standard 1980's era (by my experience) antics. To be fair, a mom can only do so much in one generation.

So despite self-awareness, they still aggressively need to "understand" why Matt is a "failure" and how they can fix that. But even Matt cannot clearly articulate why he cannot quite balance his white privilege with the problems of the world.  Everyone has a theory and belligerently beats Matt up with their theories.  They are living their lives by those theories--so that must be the answer for everyone else.

The greatest takeaway from this production is it carefully (and sympathetically) illustrates the damage that men do...but in this instance the damage is inflicted exclusively on other men.  Matt is cut by his siblings and father's views of success, mental health, tough love, expectations, and disappointment. The agonizing scene where they try to demonstrate to Matt how to interview for a job reminded me of certain teachers I have had who thought the ONE way to teach was by emulation.  As if there is only one way to learn.  As if there is a singular approach to self-expression. 

The actors here are top-notch.  The scenes of their childhood are vivid and the inner children left to run rampant here in their childhood home are very present in this production.  You almost believe as the three brothers wrestle with each other behind the sofa, that young kids will emerge from the scrum.  Stanley is so tall and solid that it's fascinating to watch him seem so diminished by his physically smaller brothers.  Each actor moves with his own energy but authentic to their character.  Wilmes revels in the dickishness of his character but his skill really stands out when he has to get emotional.  His character's emotions are those of a young boy and it is that smart-alecky brat who starts to cry before us. It's a real transformation. 

Lee has the stage crew clear and clean the set between scenes with the lights up.  As I watched the crew do the cleaning, I was wondering if Lee was further infantilizing the men in this house who don't clean up after themselves. Or showing that most care-taking is coming from outside this family unit.

For how smart and well-drawn this play is, it is structured with detachment. Perhaps that is Lee's studious eye toward behavior.  Because as cutting as some of the words and actions were and painful as it was for the characters, I was still watching it from the outside as an observer.  This is not a negative.  It's just how she's subverting our POV to be with her behind the glass wondering at the  animals in this zoo.

Also best performance by a puffin pillow ever on stage. Thank you set designer David Evan Morris for the realistic, middle American living room with tiny, little puffin details.

Asymmetric: Secrets and Lies

"Which, did no one anywhere on the R and D chain bring up how stupid it is to call a drone 'Icarus'?"

Shifting tone between humor and the serious business of international espionage, Mac Rogers's Asymmetric isn't always sure what it wants to be (serious spy thriller, bumbling spy caper, comedy) but zippy dialogue and the exciting challenge of  mounting a spy thriller on stage makes this a good introduction to this ever more ambitious theater company, Gideon Productions.

Photo by  Travis McHale
Josh (Sean Williams) is called upon by his former employer, the CIA, to come out of his forced retirement (and the alcoholic binge that sent him there) and help on a case.  His former mentee, Zach (Seth Shelden) now runs the division Josh created. Josh's task, should he choose to accept it, is to interrogate his ex-wife, legendary operative Sunny Black (Kate Middleton) over state secrets she has sold.  Josh has little time to get the intelligence out of Sunny or else another CIA operative, Ford (Rob Maitner), is going to continue to torture her. 

The play is packed full of interesting characters who have a lot of baggage with each other.  With any story about spies the question is always who is being honest and who is playing who. But oddly the strongest element was the comedy rather than the tension of the cat-and-mouse games being played. The ensemble overall was more confident in the comedy and they made it very funny--particularly Shelden and Maitner.  The play is like a spiritual cousin to Grosse Pointe Blank--where emotion, death, and black comedy are intended to live side-by-side in harmony.  But the actors did not feel as committed to the spy world they were trying to create.

The parts of the story addressing politics, spy culture, and drone warfare come across as a McGuffin in the face of the personal dynamics between ex-husband and ex-wife which would be fine if I had felt the connection between the couple.  I was never convinced Sean Williams believed what he was saying.  It was hard to see the spark of the man that he had been before his professional and personal life fell apart and as he returns to his old life of an interrogator it was imperative that we see some of that old lion come back.  And if we're to get swept up in the chase, the mystery, and the emotion of the play, we needed to be on board with Williams's Josh.  Middleton shifted well between the spy-speak and her love and compassion for her ex.  I liked Shelden's bug-eyed, in-above-his-head-ness and Maitner's glee in his sadistic character.

It's a creative use of space and limited budget to attempt a spy thriller on stage but I wish director Jordana Williams had found a way to dial-up the pressure.  Even though the actors are rattling things off quickly, certain moments of intersection should have resonated more.  In the end the laughs were its strength (and it's a pleasant endeavor) even if we were supposed to leave feeling something more than that.      

Monday, November 17, 2014

The River: A Soggy Tale of Fishes

If you went to see Jez Butterworth's The River on Broadway because I raved about the London production, well then I'm really sorry.  It has been the rare experience for me to see a play, love it, and then see a second production that made me question my love of the show.  The first instance of this was the Signature Theatre's production of Angels in America (I saw the replacement cast) which made me question that play's greatness (I knew it was the production and I walked out because I would not watch a play I loved be mistreated).  The River is only the second time I can recall this happening.  As I watched the Broadway production of The River, directed by the same director as in London, Ian Rickson, I was puzzled over what I was seeing.  Where was the mysterious, deep, and emotionally gripping show I saw in London?  What sort of British Kool-aid had I drunk?

With a little time between viewing and writing, I'm not convinced the play itself is actually bad.  But I know this production does it a great disservice. And it's not just a case of a small play in a small venue being blown up on the Broadway stage and losing some of it's magic.  This production feels entirely devoid of the necessary spark and momentum that the original production had. 

Hugh Jackman plays the Man who has taken his girlfriend (Cush Jumbo) to his fishing cabin for the first time. Wooing her with poetry about fishing and an unexpected "I love you" this new couple dance around each other with the guardedness of the previously wounded. Laura Donnelly plays another girlfriend who comes to the cabin at another time. And the echoes of one woman's visit leave imprints on the other's.  In fact earlier conversations are repeated and relived.  Time is not a strict construct and it's all a bit non-linear in this cabin in the woods.

Rickson tries to find a quiet intimacy in the smallest Broadway house, Circle in the Square. Some coziness of the cabin walls is lost when you are staging things openly in the round. The sound of the rushing river perhaps comes off too loud and sounds more like a tap left running (fine it sounds like peeing and not nature). With this openness much of the claustrophobia of the original production could not be reconstructed and with it some of the tension (and naturally once you know some of the surprises some tension is lost anyway).  But the actors should be able to reclaim some of that tension in how they engage with each other.  In fact the play depends on it.  But I felt nothing.

When I first saw it, Dominic West brought an unexpected, danger to the role of The Man. Jackman is not malevolent.  I know that sounds odd for a man who has off played a creature called Wolverine but he moves with delicateness on stage. Despite his bulging biceps (arm vein porn for those who care) and his tall stature I never feared him as I did West. I spent less time worried about what may have happened to these women (I doubt any one would have suspicions of foul play in this production) and more time spent on what was flying around this man's head and why.

I think the piece suffers for it. Making it more internal without that element of fear/hardness/inner darkness makes his pondering softer.  The stakes seem smaller.  There is no drama.  He comes across as a rake but frankly an entirely innocuous one. One who is easily found out by these women.  West had a more pronounced woundedness and desire. Jackman is pained on the surface (squinchy eyes) but it does not go deep. With West you imagined he was capable of cruelness and love and pain and sorrow. Jackman is far too inscrutable--really he's blank.  So we never know why we are here, why we should care, or what this means to anyone. 

On first viewing I thought this was a man doomed to repeat patterns in his life but here it came across like he could not recall which woman said things to him first and he's transposed the same repeating ideas on multiple women.  And if we are believe that this is him remembering or misremembering or reliving these moments of his life, he needs to project something emotionally for us to grab onto. 

Most of the time it did not feel like he was in the same room with the women. If these are meant to be memories he is conjuring then that makes some sense but the urgency and tension that a corporeal dialogue would bring, falls away.  West, Donnelly, and Miranda Raison used the silence between these characters to carry much of the water of the play.  The unspoken was suffused with meaning.  It felt like a tinderbox and potentially explosive at any moment.  There was so much passion, sadness, and want all in this tiny, tiny cabin. And the structure of people coming and going with conversations left mid-stream added to the tension.

On Broadway, it was soggy and cool.  With each passing scene, prior moments did not connect to later ones.  The actors needed to build the world with their behavior and chemistry but it ended up coming across as quite literal.  The mysticism and otherworldly nature of the play is hardly there. It's not about fish and yet this production doesn't seem to know that.

Basically everyone just get in my time machine and come with me to see The River when it was good.   Here's my original review...don't you want to see THAT play?!