Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Top 10 of 2015: UK/International Edition

It’s no secret I love plays.  But it certainly comes out more when you see what shows I prioritize when I travel.  I did see some musicals but I didn't like them.  This Top 10 list reflects a play heavy schedule but a play with music squeezed itself in there.  

I saw 95 shows abroad but this heavily favors what I saw in Edinburgh at the Fringe.  I missed some of the high profile shows in the UK showing up on other Top 10 lists (bad timing).  I’ve expanded my list beyond the UK this year to “International” because I saw work in Berlin and Amsterdam as well which was important to include.   

1. I Heart Catherine Pistachio (Edinburgh Fringe): I still don’t know what this was and it was absolutely the best thing I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe.  Was it performance art?  A play told through movement? Just a play? I don’t think labels matter in this instance.  Appalling, morally bankrupt, and truly grotesque (in the best possible way), this show used movement and mockery to tell a fucked-up story that felt like a very adult version of Roald Dahl.  Dark, funny, and unbelievable, it was so hard to watch yet you could not look away.  Somehow in telling a story that showed off the worst of humanity, it forced you to look at your own.  And it was very very very funny.

2. Iphigenia in Splott (Edinburgh Fringe):  Walking out of this show I kind of get a sense of what it was like to see Look Back in Anger in 1956.  Searing rage on stage that wildly stabs at society and, in particular here, at the government for how bad things have gotten in the UK today.  Using class and gender to illustrate this point and making us see our own complicity as we try to dismiss this girl in front of us who does not want our pity and does not want our compassion, and yet demands it. 

3. Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons (Edinburgh Fringe):  An idea play that transcends ideas.  It manages to be sly and obvious at the same time--not hiding its intent and yet creeping into you mind and imagination such that it will stay with you long after you see it.  Who are we if we limit speech?  Not the kind of speech but the amount.  How much of what we say makes us who we are?  And does limiting who we are change how we govern and care. That’s a lot to manage in a two-hander, student work that also takes place sometimes in a cat cemetery.  Hope this show tours to the US because I think the lessons in it are valid regardless of geography. 

4. This Will End Badly (Edinburgh Fringe):  Rob Hayes’s play may have been about men in crisis but it did not at the same time engage in female erasure so AMEN FOR THAT.*  He explores mental illness, toxic masculinity, and the struggle for three men to communicate and express themselves.  I’ve since read his other plays—Awkward Conversations with Animals I’ve Fucked and Step 9 (of 12)—and he seems to be playing with male characters who are lost and searching in different ways.  And he does so with a dark humor and love of language so that even as things get more challenging there’s a beauty to that darkness. I’m on board. (I received a complimentary ticket).

5. Medea (Gate Theatre): There was a lot of Greek theater in London this year and I missed most of it. But I’m glad Jane Howard suggested I check out this production based on an Australian adaptation of Medea. Writers Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks have concocted a clever twist on an old classic. Told from the perspective of Medea’s sons and with a contemporary setting, we get insight on developing masculinity, brothers, parenting, and marriage through the eyes of children. But their harried mother who has locked her boys in their room and who comes in looking forlorn is not just your average overworked, tired mom at the end of her rope. Her name is Medea and we know how this story ends and that's where all the drama comes from--sadly, anxiously waiting for the boys to catch up with us. It’s a gamble to put all your theater eggs in the hands of children and yet this Belvoir/Gate Theatre production managed to pull it off. They were not cloying and their sense of childish abandon quietly plays out against the tragic ending we all know is coming.

6. Women’s Hour (Edinburgh Fringe):  Feminist protest theater about the media images of women.  Sign me up.  Somewhere between performance art and a variety show, these women brought a joyful noise to a serious and tough subject.  Smart and cutting.

7. The Glass Menagerie (Toneelgroep Amsterdam): Yeah I went to Amsterdam to see Sam Gold’s production of The Glass Menagerie, a play I don’t actually like.  What of it?  You know what.  It was worth it.  Taking the histrionics down a notch and just focusing on the intimacy of a struggling family, Gold and the talented Toneelgroep ensemble made the memory play magic happen but kept the drama grounded.  No fanciful bullshit.  All hard truths.  

8. Polyphony (Edinburgh Fringe):  Daniel Kitson was back to Edinburgh with a new show which relied on pre-recorded segments.  Thankfully this time he was an active participant in the story about a man putting on a play.  Whether this was a show about Kitson battling his own creative demons or another pleading exploration of his curmudgeonly persona or fiction layered on truth in ways we’ll never know, it was both a return to form (intricately structured layered narrative) and incremental movement away from what he's done before.  He keeps pushing at the edges of storytelling and it's always in the border regions that his structural work excites.  

9. Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour (Edinburgh Fringe):  In some ways this is the most mainstream show on my list.  It is written by Billy Elliot scribe Lee Hall and at times it can feel like a ELO jukebox musical (yeah, what?), but it’s about young women, living life on their terms, full of sexual agency, in a world that really is inhospitable to them.  It’s an all-girl ensemble (and an all-female band when I saw the production) and it’s a coming-of-age story we’ve seen many times before but so rarely from an exclusively female perspective.  And they all kick-ass.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

10.  Kill My Darlings: The Streets of Berladelphia (Volksbuhne/Berlin):  I had to include this show more for my experience of it than for what happened on stage.  I can't actually tell you what the show was about.  I saw it in German without super-titles.  But I learned that seeing work outside my native language could be really liberating.  With dancers descending from the rafters on wires, a rainstorm on stage, audience members being invited to the stage to slip-and-slide in the rain puddles, and a helpless octopus I was shaken and moved by it.  

Honorable mentions: Simon Godwin again wrangling difficult material into something riveting with Man and Superman, Sebastian Nubling's literal car crash Ring Cycle epic, The Beauty of Revenge, the Berliner Ensemble's criss-cross-dressing Twelfth Night and the handsome face of Sabin Tambrea,  Jamie Lloyd putting James McAvoy on a unicycle in his underwear in The Ruling Class, Mark Rylance being Mark Rylance in Farinelli, the joyful silliness of Dracula: Mr. Swallow the Musical, the secret life of YouMeBumBumTrain, the thumping-heartbeats of The Body, the ridiculous and delightful Harlequinade, Sonia Jalaly's extreme exuberance in Happy Birthday Without You which made me laugh until I was crying, the delicate magic of This Is Not a Magic Show, the unexpected rawness of The Solid Life of Sugar Water, the smart and intrepid ensemble in 1972: The Future of Sex, the raw howls of Luke Wright and What I Learned From Johnny Bevan, Sleepwalk Ensemble's haunting Actress, the vivid teen bedroom dreams of Late Night Love, the intense discomfort of Tonight I'm Going to Be the New Me, the creative cacophony of Jess Thom's Backstage in Biscuitland.  

*For the record I’m actually really interested in someone exploring masculinity and its destructive forces on society because I really believe that feminism is about equality and that men suffer from the inequities of society.  Destigmatizing femininity, celebrating the spectrum of masculinity, and allowing men to see themselves outside the confining boxes of contemporary society is something that we’d all benefit from.  But for some reason in 2014 I saw some “boo-hoo” masculinity shows that in my estimation did not go far enough in excavating this.  Making work by men for men with no regard to women and in fact marginalizing women in the process did not, for me, do anything but engage in the kind of erasure I feel like we already experience.  

Monday, December 28, 2015

Top 10 of 2015: U.S. Edition

Another year of broken promises to myself.  An effort to see less theater this year resulted in me seeing 60 more shows over last year.  New personal record: 265 shows. Eeeek. Stop the madness, Nicole.  I also reached my lifetime 1000th show this fall.  

Due to theater calendars and Broadway transfers, I saw a number of shows last year which came back this year.  I did not include them in my 2015 Top 10 because they have previously appeared in my lists. Just so you don't think I forgot them, these shows would have appeared on my Top 10 this year if I had not seen them before:  An Octoroon, The Flick, Fun Home, King Charles III, A View from the Bridge.

Here's my Top 10 for 2015 for the US (the UK edition is pending).

1. YOUARENOWHERE (PS122/COIL): I had never attended PS122's COIL festival before. I picked this show randomly out of the catalog on the basis of a reference to "missed connections" in the description. It turned out to be a life-changing piece of theater and I instantly became a devotee of the artist who created the show, Andrew Schneider (my interview with him is here).   Nothing in theater surprises me anymore and this show managed to do so a lot—which is why it’s number one. We did a podcast about it where I broke down crying. But much of its power comes from the fact that I walked in knowing nothing about it. So I won't say anymore. Don't miss it when it comes back to New York and to London in 2016. (I received a complimentary ticket).

2. Hamilton (The Public/Broadway): Yes. Lin-Manuel Miranda's new musical is as good as everyone says it is. In fact, it might even be a bit better. This hip-hop musical about the founding fathers pushes at all the boundaries of what we know musicals to be through its casting, musical references, and visual language. It's cute how I worried that it would not find an audience on Broadway because of the hard-to-market subject matter (a rap battle about the banking system, whaaaaaaaat). It's so fricking popular I probably will never get a chance to see it again. But it benefits from multiple views (I saw it three times but I'll never be satisfied) because of the rich text and intersecting concepts. Sure the cast recording is out there and every kid, adult, and senior from New York to Tasmania is singing along with it, but it's a whole other thing to witness the work of Tommy Kail's direction, Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography, Howell Binkley's lighting design, and the performances of the incredible cast. Their voices may be captured on the cast recording but the work they are doing on stage is a lot more subtle and nuanced. It needs to be seen. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Daveed Diggs and lost my shit. And for those of us who saw Renee Elise Goldsberry kill it in IGMATATIOTR seeing her get to take a major part in a major musical is a worthwhile payoff.  Most of all, you need to see the staging of Satisfied. Theater perfection. Book now for 2017.

3. Small Mouth Sounds (Ars Nova): Bess Wohl's play performed mostly in silence by a talented cast really pushed at the idea of what a play can accomplish. Without much dialogue, we understood these fully developed characters and emotionally engaged. Director Rachel Chavkin guided these performances and the simple story perfectly. It also reminds me of why sometimes work should be seen in a small intimate setting. Some theater is best up-close and personal and this play's semi-immersive setting made you feel like you'd gone upstate to a retreat yourself. The characters made their own discoveries and so had I. (I received a complimentary ticket).

4. John (Signature Theatre):  Annie Baker writes another one of her conventional-unconventional plays. With an evocative setting and the intense focus on a romantic relationship, Baker moves in a new direction. But her ability to take something small and personal and suffuse it with sweeping meaning remains. Taking big swings at nostalgia, childhood, religion, spirituality, mental illness, and abuse, her four characters manage to meaningfully wrestle with these big ideas in ways that are unique to them. Her work makes me glad to be alive right now. And the creative team behind this show (Mimi Lien's detailed set, Bray Poor's layered sound design, Sam Gold's astute direction) only added to the strength of the show.

5. Nice Girl (Labyrinth Theatre): Melissa Ross's play about a woman who lives at home with her mother and dreams of another life was heart-breaking. As the play teased out the quiet defeats in an unspectacular life and hope in the face of disappointment, Diane Davis made every moment on stage as the drifting Josephine count. Nick Cordero and Liv Rooth completed this solid ensemble and created rich characters full of good qualities and bad. Everything about this play made me ache and feel. That’s a great night at the theater.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

6. Oklahoma! (Fisher Center/Bard):  Daniel Fish's stripped-down, immersive Oklahoma made a creeky, traditional show feel vibrant and new.  His unconventional approach to the ending turned the question of American expansion on its head and emphasized the political elements of the musical which had always been there but I’d never noticed them before.  With a cast and staging that dial-ed up the sex appeal, I can only hope this show returns for another engagement.  More people need to see this if for no other reason than to see what can be done with older material.  This makes a great case for the need for smart, innovative revivals.   

7. 10 out of 12 (Soho Rep): Anne Washburn’s play about a play in tech may not have been as epic as Mr. Burns but it again pushed at theater form in an exciting and joyful way. With a complicated soundscape (designed by Bray Poor), the audience wore headphones and the “theater” played out on stage for our eyes and off stage in our ears. Getting at the heart of collaboration and the ephemera of art, Washburn’s play and Les Waters’s production made the labor of creation anything but laborious. Wonderful performances and a unique experience.

8. Guards at the Taj (Atlantic Theater): When we started to talk about this show on the year-end podcast I got really emotional. Rajiv Joseph's play about two friends who see the world in different ways was a surprising mix of history and humanity. And yes an unexpected bit of staging may have turned a lot of heads. But the bond between the two friends is what I come back to when I think about the show--the intensity of their love for each other and the depth of anguish when they act in contravention of that relationship. Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed made it all just click. Amy Morton's staging was not too shabby either.

9. Futurity (Soho Rep/Ars Nova): I was little burned out on theater when I finally got to see Futurity (hence no review at the time) but beyond my personal mental haze I knew I was watching something special. It was strange, moving, and far from a traditional musical and yet the scale and style of the production fit the homemade feel to the show. Cesar Alvarez and Sammy Tunis improvised chats between scenes made the intense story about the Civil War, protest, and progress go down easier. Those charming moments gave balance and perspective to the darker parts of the story. And it was weird in the best possible way. With a lovely score, idiosyncratic style, and surprises galore, this musical makes me hopeful for the future of musicals.

10. Theater For One: I'm Not the Stranger You Think I Am (In a box):  5 minutes of Will Eno’s play Late Days in the Era of Good Feelings was better than most full-length shows I saw this year. This collection of one-on-one theater shorts was a fun, intimate theater experience.  But Eno's short used the format to its greatest advantage and with his usual dark humor I wanted to stay in that theater booth forever, lost in his language and imagination.  This may be someone’s idea of hell but certainly my idea of heaven.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

For the many performances, shows, productions, and moments in 2015, these are some Honorable Mentions:  Attacking class issues with heart-breaking accuracy, Stephen Karam's The Humans reminds us all of the distance between our former suburban lives and trying to carve out a New York existence, Kenneth Collins and Temporary Distortion making durational work rock and roll with My Voice Has an Echo in It,  Marcus Youssef and James Long showing how debate in theater can be smart, funny, and dynamic in Winners and Losers, Taylor Mac’s queering of history and music history in his massive song cycle A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne making vampires on stage truly frightening in Let the Right One In, John Cameron Mitchell’s second coming as Hedwig showing us all why he was our favorite in the first place, The Civilians joyous exploration of the porn industry in Pretty Filthy, Patti Murin’s delectable turn in Lady Be Good, Robert Falls smart and elegant staging of The Iceman Cometh, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig showing the ugliness of progress in The World of Extreme Happiness, Larissa FastHorse making incendiary theater with a reading of her play What Would Crazy Horse Do, Justin Guarini proving his rightful place in musical theater in Paint Your Wagon and Company, Fun Home getting even better on Broadway and making us all cry over and over again, Sufjan Stevens agonizing grief while touring his new album about the death of his mother, Richard Eyre’s fast and furious production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, the corroded glass wall in Ghosts (designed by Tim Hatley) being a great fucking metaphor and gorgeous piece of stagecraft, that moment Ken Watanabe as The King reaches for Kelli O’Hara’s Anna to dance and the temperature in the room went up several degrees, Emily Schwend’s excavation of mansplaining and female rage in The Other Thing, Donna Lynne Champlin being incredible in the difficult to swallow Bruce Norris play The Qualms, that scene, you know the one, in Cuddles, which was a whole other level of horror in a show about a vampire, Abby Rosebrock’s hilarious and sad Singles in Agriculture, some shows I can’t talk about that I saw at the O’Neill Center as works-in-progress that give me hope for the future of theater, Karen Pittman’s swagger in King Liz, Erin Markey’s wackadoo walking tour Daddy Warbucks Please Adopt Me, the remarkable Cymbeline in the Park that made sense, that one little girl with a bow on her head who was so full of verve in Public Works production of The Odyssey, Deaf West’s Spring Awakening which almost made me like a musical I really dislike and a cast of Broadway newbies who I hope get cast in more musicals, James Macdonald’s riveting production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine (even if the seating was agonizing), the Eclipsed ensemble, Paul Soileau’s naked performance lecture on creating and inhabiting his stage personas,  Chris Gethard’s Career Suicide, an honest and difficult stand-up storytelling show about suicide and depression.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Lazarus: Waiting for Lift-Off

Watching artists you love make a show that fails to achieve lift-off can be rough.  You know they have the talent and vision, but after two hours of waiting for it to appear you realize its not coming. It's the Great Pumpkin, Ivo van Hove! Sadly Lazarus is the turgid musical stage collaboration from director Ivo van Hove, playwright Enda Walsh, and musician David Bowie.  It should have been a dream-team but they never manage to make this oddball musical about an alien trapped between worlds work.  Like an incongruous series of music videos the visual and musical language of the show seems to oscillate between obtuse literalness or complete abstraction but neither generates excitement, emotional engagement, or dramaturgical meaning.

Based upon the book of The Man Who Fell to Earth (with the book of the musical written by Walsh and Bowie) Mr. Newton (Michael C. Hall) is an alien trapped on earth wishing he could return to his family in the stars. He spends his days drowning his sorrows in gin, Lucky Charms, and twinkies. He is haunted by the image of the woman he was once in love with, Mary-Lou. He's hired an assistant Elly (Cristin Milioti) who finally finds purpose in her life by serving Newton. Mr. Newton starts to see visions of a young girl (Sophia Anne Caruso) who is sent to "help" him.  But Valentine (Michael Esper), a menacing baddie, is in search of Newton for unknown nefarious reasons.

Even with this other-worldly premise the constant references to earthbound places in the lyrics grate against the story being told. As is often the case with music not written for the stage if the lyrics are not moving the story ahead, giving insight into characters, or establishing the world of the musical then one starts to wonder what are they even doing there. Here the songs unevenly conjure mood or get illustrated with on-the-nose precision. Mention a place in Berlin and see that place in the projections.

The music itself is equally unruly.  Music director, orchestrator and arranger Henry Hay attempts to take some iconic rock songs and turn them into musical theater tunes.  Bowie's famously iconoclastic work is inherently difficult to whip into a cohesive music style. Certainly some numbers on their own end up being interesting  standalone interpretations (a guttural Changes from Milioti and a quiet, gentle Heroes from Hall) but it does not eliminate the head-scratching going on in this show.  Oddly enough, van Hove's Bowie inflected Angels in America felt like a better Bowie musical than this because the music there enhanced emotion already generated by the powerful play.

Only once was there any emotional resonance in Lazarus. As the strange relationship develops between Mr. Newton and the young girl, they have a moment of connection which gives Lazarus a moment of authentic heartache.  Van Hove stages this scene using an overhead camera which zooms in on Hall who is splayed out on the floor as he has his reaction.  It essentially works as good cinema playing in close-up.

But for a "theater-y" theater director this production is incredibly flat when it comes to visuals.  Van Hove is know for his stripped down interpretations of classic plays, but he feels stylistically adrift in this new work.  There's a simple palette at play (Newton and his team all in beige, Valentine and his team all in black) with dynamic projections that play out on the surface of the set or create visual layers as they are projected behind the band who are positioned on stage behind plate-glass windows on the set.  But its rare that the visuals add emotional vitality to the production.

One of the most successful elements of van Hove's low-key style has been that the emotion of the underlying writing or performances gets elevated in the simplicity of the staging.  Or in a minimalist environment slight changes amplify the emotional impact of the work.  Here the staging feels empty and no matter what anyone says or sings the pool feels shallow throughout.

Unfortunately this shallow plot leads to some uncomfortable misogyny. The entire story line with Elly veers from the awkward to the maudlin to the highly questionable. Like a sex doll, poor Cristin Milioti positions herself around the stage with pelvis thrust forward waiting for something.  She's manipulated by unseen forces and it all comes down to her throwing herself at Newton.   Her ongoing tension with her husband is poorly executed and confusing.  For a time she walks around in a lace body stocking for no narrative reason.  Her unearned meltdown is some sort of manic window-dressing but without anything behind it.  Frankly that felt like a metaphor for the whole disappointing endeavor.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

10 Out of 12: The Drama of Theater

Anne Washburn loves her meta-narratives and with 10 Out of 12 we watch a play about tech-ing a play. Although this is for all intents and purposes a "backstage" drama that is at times wickedly funny, it seems a distant cousin to wacky behind-the-scenes farces such as Moon Over Buffalo or Kiss Me Kate. Washburn intentionally pushes our focus from an exclusive "actor" driven world and encompasses the whole backstage world.

As Washburn took us meticulously through the way in which words and storytelling evolve over time in Mr. Burns, here (with maybe less precision than Mr. Burns) we descend into the world of theater-making with egos in costume, unsung heroes solving every emergency, and the utter messiness of artistic creation.  It is a foreign culture, with a language we don't know and rules we don't understand. Yet, we are immediately submerged in this world.

The entire audience wears headsets so you could literally tune into the action happening on another frequency. The voices in your head are backstage technicians calling light cues, sound cues, making adjustments, and doing their jobs.  The technicians and crew get ample stage time--some live  and some as disembodied voices.

We experience the mystical rhythm to the calling of light cues--both mechanical and poetic all at the same time.  The director tries to explain what he wants out of the lighting design.  He speaks in abstract images and words which the lighting designer must translate into physical execution. Never has it been clearer what a lighting designer does and what an unenviable task it is to be given an imprecise "artistic vision" and attempt to give the director what he wants (when in this instance it's clear he doesn't know what he wants).

We have the same opportunity with the sound designer who is meant to bring an aural jaguar into a scene, yet push it to the background, even as the director suggests he probably will cut it all together anyway. Thankless heroes, every one.

Because of the tech purview, there are fascinating moments of the impotence of the director and the power of the stage manager (she turns off the monitors so no one backstage can hear the outburst that's about to go down in the front of the house).  The playwright of the play being tech-ed in 10 Out of 12 is not present and a litany of complaints are lobbed in her direction in her absence.  Tech is not about the writer.

In the first act the actors are largely pushed to the background while the technical work becomes the foregrounded cacophony. It's inevitable that we drift back to the world of actors at some point--not for nothing, they are a reliable source of "drama." They are also the one aspect of the stage experience that we, the theater audience, have familiarity with. Through the first act we watch as the actors are bored. They play games and misbehave. The drama that they create is not the scripted kind. The outbursts are from the people behind the characters.

The absurd play within the play offers ample opportunity to make fun of "serious" theater.  But the work being done here is so strong, "serious" theater can handle the ribbing.  An ensemble of talented actors shows us what it is like to be actors.

I loved the headsets and sonic/theatrical layering. I enjoyed not knowing what was going on exactly in this theatrical world and then discovering it all as we went along with it. When the technicians are gossiping or commenting on what we are seeing on stage, the intimacy of the headset makes you feel a part of the crew.  Headphone theater has this particular power.  I felt that as well with Greg Wohead's show Hurtling where he is whispering in your ear through headphones.  It's a great opportunity to provide a semi-immersive feeling even if your audience is still safely ensconced in their seats.

10 Out of 12 somehow manages to both embrace and debunk the romanticism of theater and theater-making.  With all the hostility, impatience, and fried nerves, we see the grueling process to make things look effortless.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Glass Menagerie: The Ugly Truth

Photo by Sanne Peper
As mother and son wrap their hands around each other’s hands, there is kindness, understanding, frustration, control, and acquiescence.  Sam Gold’s minimalist production of The Glass Menagerie with the Toneelgroep Amsterdam company focuses on touch and the intimacy between the family members of this American classic.  Although this is a “memory play” and Gold’s moments of magical staging emphasize Tom Wingfield’s imagined recollections, it is the tactile that leaves a lingering impression.  Never have the concerns of the Wingfields felt so grounded and corporeal amidst the theatrical space of memory.*   

Amanda Wingfield (Chris Nietvelt) is not the larger-than-life Southern belle living in a reverie of the past in this production.  She is, instead, a mother desperate to sort out what will become of her disabled daughter, Laura (Hélène Devos).  Laura is in physical agony and wears a painful brace on her leg to move herself around.  She comforts herself with her phonograph and a collection of glass animals. Amanda sets about to have her son Tom (Eelco Smits) help her solve the problem of Laura.  Amanda wears Tom down over time and he agrees to invite one of his coworkers to dinner, Jim O'Conner (Harm Duco Schut), so he can introduce him to Laura.  There is real affection between Amanda and Tom, but with each brush of her hand and touch, Amanda is pushing Tom further and further away. 

All that we see comes from Tom and so these impressions are his interpretation of events.  As Tom sets the stage for the story he (via Gold’s direction) positions Jim, “the gentleman caller,” in a balcony overlooking the stage and Jim observes Tom’s story until he is called for—popping open a can of soda at one moment and sucking on candies while he waits to enter the scenario.  But he’s always there waiting.    

Gold extends the main stage with a rectangular thrust into the audience and sets the main action beyond the proscenium on a plywood surface (scenic design is by Andrew Lieberman).  We can see the far recesses of the empty proscenium stage behind the action.  Tom starts the music and sets the scene as is often the case but the first jarring moment comes from Amanda’s entrance.  She enters the theater carrying the adult Laura hoisted over her shoulder.  Amanda climbs a set of steps and places Laura on the kitchen table.  Suddenly, Laura’s dependence feels more acute.  Amanda’s attendant care becomes very real.  When Amanda then launches in to her panic over Laura’s future, her abandonment of her typing class, and her lack of prospects, this is not frivolous.  This is not about appearances or wealth.  This is a practical concern.  What will become of Laura. 

Even Amanda’s memories of her youth and her dreamy days at Blue Mountain are delivered by Nievelt in a matter of fact way.  She never gets big or flowery.  And her chipper story of the past dies in her mouth with a bite of dessert when she mentions the husband who has abandoned them.  There’s not much reverie after that. 

Often The Glass Menagerie can make Amanda feel like a relentless fury who is endlessly nagging Tom until he has no choice but to abandon the family as his father did.  But the dynamic here is played quite differently.  After Tom and Amanda have their first big fight, Tom tries to make amends.  He sits on Amanda’s lap and apologizes for walking out during their argument. In turn, she sits on his lap to convince him to help with Laura.  She won’t relent and her presence is physical as well as verbal.  It is not an external attack (as maybe Cherry Jones played it most recently on Broadway where her strong physical presence was matched by Zach Quinto’s), but instead Nievelt makes this a closely whispered plea as she clings to Smits physically for ballast. 

For Tom, this drifting away from the family feels more like the tide pulling at him than a tidal wave.  Nievelt plays Amanda's nearly constant torrent of words like death by little duck bites, as the tiny wounds and growing discomfort pile up.  But Nievelt's steely performance is so controlled that the escalation feels ominous as it increases in desperation.  Smits, for his part, as Tom, also comes across as measured.  His affection for mother and sister are real, which makes the leaving of them the more tragic.  Though he may be telling the story post hoc, with resignation over what he has done,  during the telling of it Smits plays Tom as wholly enmeshed in the family and we watch as he tears himself from them. 

Gold also focuses on Laura’s physical struggles here.  Beside the various moments she is carried by her mother and brother, we watch as she winces in pain as she tries to swing herself from the stage steps back up to the stage on her own. Her mother and her brother rub her aching limbs to try and ease her severe discomfort.  When the brace is removed, a large red welt remains etched into her leg.  This is not a young woman who will be launching herself out into the world on her own any time soon.

The whole play comes to a head when Jim arrives. Amanda launches into hostess mode and she and the garrulous Jim explode into conversation.  Tom and Jim had been seated on the stage’s edge talking when they were interrupted by Amanda.  Tom is then left seated comically on the ground wedged between the feet of his mother and Jim's as they gab away.  They hardly notice he’s there.  He’s done his part—delivered a gentleman caller and feels he has no other purpose here.  

Gold throughout indicates Tom’s point of view and control of the story throughout.  Tom walks over to a neon sign from the dance hall and turns it on so that the dance hall music from next door starts to drift into their home (sound design by Bray Poor). Tom (via Gold’s direction) reconfigures the entire stage to allow Laura to have a brief magical and romantic moment alone with Jim,  physically far from Amanda and Tom’s interference.  Scenes like these feel theatrical, symbolic, and mannered to match Williams’s language and “memory play” intentions.  But that theatrical style is set against the way in which Gold plays out the grueling reality of Laura’s situation.  No matter what colorful stagecraft is employed to help Tom tell his story, he knows (and we know) none of this magic will last.  This production makes the ugly truth just as present. 

*Note I attended the Dutch language production without English subtitles and from other reviews I glean there was some adaption of the script for this production which I could not comment on. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Goldberg: An Unexpected Thrill


In a massive room full of people seated in hammock chairs wearing noise-canceling headphones, you could still hear coughing.  I gave up counting the coughs after 40 but a healthy reminder of the vexing problem of shared artistic experiences.  

Marina Abramović’s new work, Goldberg, involves a partnership with pianist Igor Levit and lighting designer Urs Schönebaum.  Staged in the drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory, the audience is intended to find their own personal silence at the start.  Then at the sound of a gong place the noise-cancelling headphones on.  The second gong signifies the moment to take off the headphones and Levit plays Bach's Goldberg Variations in full.

Before we placed the headphones on, rather than engage in “silence” most people just chatted with their friends. Some woman loudly exclaiming something about some Skarsgård to her friend.  I shut my eyes and tried some yoga breathing.   Every time I enter the Drill Hall I feel something church-like about it.  With this soaring ceiling and massive frame, I'm always driven to quiet.  But alas, I'm the only one. 

After the gong sounded, the headphones were a welcome respite.  Intentional conversation died away.  I could nearly feel my heartbeat in my ears.  I was tingling. Like an astronaut waiting for the blastoff.  Muscles tensing and relaxing.   Suddenly I could feel cold air and smell perfumes. My nostrils ached with stimulus.

Many people took this as a time to close their eyes. But I found I didn’t need to blink away the now muffled crowd anymore.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw something move. Should I turn my head? I peeked. The piano originally installed at the far end of the drill hall was slowly sliding towards us on a long black runway.  Levit was on board. He was glancing into the crowd which was now largely ignoring him. I nearly waved.  

He looked like this man adrift on a boat looking for some connection. His fingers were visible below the keyboard.  Moving but not playing anything yet.

With the ring of the second gong, we took off our headphones and a line of light lit the perimeter of the nearly endless room. The only other light was a thin streak of illumination over the keyboard.
The piano rotated on a slow turntable and so depending on the piano’s position you could see Levit playing at times or not.

When I couldn't see his hands and only watch his shifting and swaying body in silhouette it was if music was emerging from a moving void of darkness--like an inky black swirl generating this disembodied sound.  It was kind of magical in its own way.  

But when I could view his hands, I was overcome with emotion.  Whether the musical movements were jubilant or somber, his hands no longer seemed connected to a human. Flesh morphing and moving with speeds that were incomprehensible. Like rabbits bouncing and skating across the keyboard, his fingers seemed to barely touch the Steinway piano.  At this pace and in the dim light, all shapes started to bend.

There were moments when my mind wandered, as I expect durational work encourages. But when I'd tune back in and focus on the music I'd cry again.  The feat of Levit’s playing overwhelmed me.

Near the end, Levit took a long pause between movements.  For a moment there was true silence in the room. A holding of collective breath, questioning whether this was the end. 

Besides that long beat of stillness, it seemed as if the audience otherwise was aflutter all the time.  Rustling fabric. Shifting bodies. Constantly adjusting. Self-awareness to the max.

And after his pause, he started to play again. With that the audience returned to their fidgeting.  

When Levit finished, he shook his hands. He clutched the piano bench beneath him before he could stand for his bow. Could he even feel the bench in those hands?   He wiped bleariness from his eyes and looked wrung out. He was human after all.