Sunday, December 31, 2017

Top 10 of 2017 (US and UK edition)

Since I did not end up going to Edinburgh this year I did not have enough shows in the UK to make a separate top 10 list.  So I'm combining US and UK shows this year because it's my list and I'm in charge.  It was a quieter year for me without Edinburgh so a reasonable 171 shows in 2017 from New York, London, Boulder, CO, Pittsfield, MA, Princeton, NJ, and Washington, DC.  

1. Hamlet: I missed my flight and really wondered whether it was worth fighting to get on a plane to see yet another Hamlet in London.  It turned out the hellacious planes-trains-automobiles journey I had to see Robert Icke's Hamlet was well-worth it and one of the most instructive Hamlets I have ever seen in my life. I had seen Andrew Scott on stage before and not been particularly blown away.  But here he was Hamlet without artifice or performance.  He walked on stage as Hamlet and found a way to make the text contemporary, casual, and organic.  Icke's use of meta-textual scenes to fill in some character gaps made for a more fluid and psychologically complete Hamlet. There was nothing more I could have asked for from this Hamlet except a chance to have seen it multiple times. 

2. SpongeBob SquarePants: Perhaps the reward to surviving 2017 is the ever-loving joy provided by SpongeBob SquarePants the musical. Dumb, silly, smart, and big-hearted this musical shows us the dark power of the mob and demonstrates that resistance, however small or personal, requires courage and conviction.  SpongeBob embraces fluid gender expression, alternative lifestyles (squirrels living under the sea), and following your dreams even in the face of skepticism. It’s this optimism in contrast to our dark days that is the musical’s greatest strength. Director Tina Landau finds dynamic and creative ways to tell her story. The visual language of the musical, the casual queerness of its approach, and the smart way she does more with less (even within a big budget, blow-out production) make this a musical that needs to be both felt and seen.

3. Richard III: Thomas Ostermeier’s Richard III is full of congealed blood running in rivulets through sand, a mouth stuffed with mashed potatoes then smeared across a face as a mask, and on some nights, perhaps, some live urination. But the collective gunk and grime of the production, is nothing compared to the white-hot comet playing Richard, who streaks across the stage, sometimes naked, Lars Eidinger. A full throttle performance, he paces the aisles in search of co-conspirators, supporters, or simply audience members too stunned to look away. He feeds not only on our glances but demands our participation. We shout along with him like the world’s most murderous emcee. In our shock, enthusiasm, and demented glee, he brings forth a Richard we want to fuck, marry, and kill. It’s a hard balance to strike—a charisma so powerful we lean in and a level of violence and horror we cannot look away. For once you might understand how Lady Anne, in the midst of grief over the murder of her husband, could be successfully wooed by the man who killed him. She spits at him and kisses him and in this production, you’re entirely in sync with her repulsion/attraction.

4. Torch Song: Up until this show, somehow I had missed the Michael Urie boat.  So I’m glad I finally caught up with everyone else. Urie's performance in Torch Song was big and small in equal measure and in gentle rhythm with the play itself. His character, Arnold, is after all, a drag queen with the heart and presence of a performer. He has a tendency to live big. But he’s also a man who just wants a love he can depend on. So there’s the quiet, self-reflective side of Arnold to tend to as well. Urie is both hilarious and dramatic, reticent and wounded. Even if the play represents a very specific moment in time in gay culture, it was nice to see it revived now. The setting may be a time capsule of sorts but the emotional core of the work—the perpetual search for love and respect on your terms—remains relevant.

5. The Glass Menagerie: Sam Gold can thrill and disappoint in equal measure. His dramaturgy can be generously described as loose. But his Glass Menagerie has evolved since I saw his original production in Dutch two years ago.  In the Broadway production he cast an actress with a disability in the role of Laura. There is a heightened interdependence between the family members. Rather than the overwrought, melodramatic, and clingy Amanda Wingfield, here we see a family who desperately needs Tom, financially and physically.  That said, the women are not the fragile creatures Tom thinks of them as. Tom may shatter but Laura does not. Gold finds an agency in Laura that is rare in most Menageries.  

6. Villa: Guillermo Calderon’s Chilean drama asks what should happen to the site of General Pinochet’s Villa Grimaldi—the center of rape, torture, and trauma for many. But he’s also asking us to think about how we recognize the past, how we move forward, and how we remember. As the country goes through a process of public expurgation of sexual assaults, rape, and harassment, I return over and over to this play where three women consider what this site of trauma means to them and what it would mean to preserve it, destroy it, or something in between. For every person impacted, there is a different opinion. Calderon wants us to think around each scenario. There is no one experience. There is no universal truth. So we must see the variation. We must talk about the variation. We cannot settle on a simplistic answer. The answer is the conversation. This play could be revived every year—its Chilean setting is incredibly specific but its meaning is evergreen.

7. Angels in America: Despite not loving all aspects of Marianne Elliott's production of Angels in America, it is on this list because of the performances which were so distinct from the original Broadway cast's.  It is always a gift to see a work you think you know in a new light.  I had never quite seen Joe's frustrating neediness, or Louis's fragility in the way I saw them here.  Any idea that Louis and Joe could be together,gets totally obliterated in this production. I also appreciated being able to see the public and private personas of Prior.  His quiet, less performative side made for some touching early aspects of the Prior-Louis relationship. I'm looking forward to revisiting it when it comes to Broadway in the spring.

8. Anatomy of a Suicide:  Not all plays by women are structured around the female gaze, but Alice Birch's play was remarkable in both it's approach and Katie Mitchell's production for doing just that. The way in which characters were stripped down to their underwear and rebuilt over and over showed us the way our public presenting personas are constructed.  The overlapping text, imagery, and undivided space represented the mixture of memory and shared family history but that structure also allowed for the emotional truth to emerge in a non-traditional way.  Rather than being told the story, the narrative felt like it emerged from a chrysalis.  By bucking the traditional thrusting male narrative of linearity, the circular, throbbing agony of these women's lives was felt more readily.  Maybe akin to birth, these lives spilled forth in all their messy, painful, confusing truth.   I sat in stunned silence when it ended.

9. School Girls: Or, the African Mean Girls Play: One thing I’ve come to relish, the more theater I see, is a narrative I’ve never seen before. Jocelyn Bioh’s play may follow a formula that is reminiscent of a teen movie, but it really pushes into a new space because it addresses a mixture of African-American and African experiences. Set in the 1980’s a private girls school, the gossipy controlling mean girl Paulina is not all evil. In fact, each character has a story that informs the nature of her behavior. And these are not stories we always see on stage.  Funny, smart, and a female-centric exploration of colorism, the patriarchy, and how we do damage to each other, Bioh's play made for an exciting first play and I'm eager to see what else she writes.

10. Oh, What a Sweet Land: In a small Brooklyn apartment, an actor chops onions. As the smell carries my eyes begin to water. My eyes are nearly swollen shut with the assault of these onions. They are not just part of the food the character is preparing--a connection to her Syrian background--but they are act of violence itself.  There is no escaping the Syrian refugee struggle in this room and the fact that the production reaches out and hits you in the tear ducts is only one layer of how the play works its powerful effects on the audience. 

Honorable Mentions

These were also some wonderful discoveries, experiences, and moments from 2017 theater:

The invitation to belong at My Lingerie Play; the feral performances and grotty set of Yen; the collective shouts of young people in Riot Antigone; the subversive play under the play in Penelope Skinner's Linda; the political nuance of Home/Sick; Allison Janney in Six Degrees of Separation; the sonic booms of 1984 the play; the very much now of Fulfillment Center; the totally unnecessary dildos on shelves in Measure for Measure and Cara Ricketts in that production; Gideon Glick breaking hearts in Samuel D. Hunter's Clarkston; the fact that it was better than you thought it might be Bandstand; Erin Markey’s outfit in Assassins; Annie Dorsen's slumber-party of internet voices in The Great Outdoors; That one Princeton student in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's Gurls who is like the next Kate McKinnon; the set change in Time and The Conways; the hats in Glassheart; about 10 minutes at the end of Illyria when you can practically smell the rain and the possibilities; Robbie Fairchild dancing his limbs off in Brigadoon; that moment I started to hallucinate in Daniel Fish's Don't Look Back; those confrontations in Jitney; the murder basement of Blankland; the all-encompassing universe of Once on this Island’s production; Oscar Isaac’s thighs that were not situationally sexy in Hamlet and yet they were there; the undercurrent of sexism in The Antipodes; Sam Gold's graveyard scene in Hamlet; Susan Pourfar in Mary Jane; the KPOP battle of the bands (Team Oracle 4-eva); Denise Gough in People, Places & Things. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Piece of Work: A Text of Hamlet Remixed

Preserving performance is a challenge. How do you document multi-faceted work that involves sound, light, text, bodies, and music? Video may take images of it but rarely captures it. For Annie Dorsen’s algorithmic performance work, there’s an additional layer--including her computer partners in action. Recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse, Dorsen’s performance text for her 2013 Hamlet inspired show A Piece of Work tries to preserve some semblance of this unusual show, algorithms and all.

Algorithmic theater is where a text is run through algorithms using various rules created by the artist. A unique, different show is generated each time by the computer applying the rules. The computer, in essence, becomes a co-creator. Watching one of these shows you begin to think about labor, collaboration, and creation differently when the computer generates different performances every time.

Dorsen explains in the introduction of A Piece of Work how she developed the show and the rules she applied in utilizing the text of Hamlet. The text was fed through what is called a Markov chain--a primary algorithmic principle. The computer does not "learn" from each run. Each production is entirely new in that moment.

In an effort to give it coherence, Dorsen and her team also programmed in some semantic and theatrical rules. The computer was instructed to pull from specific parts of the play and not the text as a whole. So for instance one act uses the soliloquies only as its source material. Another act uses 4% of each scene in the play as it is written and then is cut off. They can program to have the computer choose complete sentences or stage directions.

In addition, they found a way to program emotional weight into it. Using coding, they gave words emotional scores which fed into the lighting and music design. Lighting colors would receive different coding to connect to different emotions and so words would trigger those changes.

In this five act work, an actor was used only in Act 3 where the performer was fed their lines via an earpiece. Otherwise, Dorsen used computer-generated character voices to "perform" the text in the remaining four acts. The computer determined the lighting, sound, and music and generated projections of the text for the audience to see.

Reading the text you need some of this structural context to appreciate what the performance might have looked or felt like. Some of the explanations of the rules could have been a little more detailed but generally you get the idea of the “rules” imposed.

In one section, Dorsen provides two different examples of the same section of the show and how it was rendered differently by the computer on two different nights so you can appreciate the variation and nature of the changing performance.

This may sound incredibly technical but the reality is that the one Dorsen show I've seen, Yesterday/Tomorrow,was anything but dull. In that piece there was a trio of singers who sang the song Yesterday and the computer found a way to incrementally, musically and linguistically, turn it bit by bit into the song Tomorrow. From that, Dorsen convinced me of the value, joy, and creativity in algorithmic theater.

Though I could not truly recreate A Piece of Work in my living room I found reciting the text out loud (rather than just reading it) gave me a feel for the structure and reconstruction of Shakespeare's poetry. The rise and fall of the verse somehow survives the algorithmic blender. There is a new meaning even if there is a faint echo of the rhythms of the original. Particularly the soliloquies section in Act 3, the movement of the language is halting and repetitive and yet the desperation of Hamlet remains present. Confusion, grief, and anguish bubble up through phrases such as:

My uncle
Within a month
The salt of
Wicked speed
I must hold
Host of heaven
Poor ghost
My brain
To my word
A rogue and
Rogue and peasant
In a fiction
A fiction
In a dream
A basic knowledge of the play allows you to appreciate the words floating on a blank page and still sense the underlying story of Hamlet.

Because it's so canonical (and because I had seen four productions of Hamlet this summer) reading A Piece of Work gave me the unusual pleasure of experiencing Hamlet from a totally new angle. Recognizable and yet surprising.  It makes new poetry out of old.

For the final act, the computer re-sequenced things on a letter by letter basis and then it was programmed to give 50 stage directions to end the show. As with the progression of the play, in that final act where tragedy after tragedy befalls character after character, in A Piece of Work language itself breaks down completely. But the re-ordered stage directions still manage to communicate a duel and a series of deaths in a finale.

Certainly no printed text could replace such a complicated production, especially one, that is by its very nature, changing every night. But the text does offer a new window on Hamlet (as I imagine the production itself did) and for those who missed the performance (like me) this is the next best thing.

A complimentary copy of the text was provided to me to review. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Angels In America: Home Again

Andrew Garfield in Angels in America (Photo: Helen Maybanks)
Sometimes a show is a time capsule to another part of your life. I saw Tony Kushner’s Angels in America on Broadway just after I moved to New York. I was 17. 

For a sheltered suburban teenager, I knew about AIDS from the news and reading movie magazines which contained yearly tallies of the disease’s decimation of the arts community. I visited my mother in the hospital in 1988 and remember the rooms where nurses would cover themselves completely before entering.  Despite no personal connection to the epidemic, I asked everyone in my graduating class to wear a red ribbon for our graduation day—a strangely small, public act of defiance in a relatively conservative high school.

When I saw Angels where gay men have sex, are affectionate with one another, or demand their recognition on stage, it was a big deal (for context, Chicago was considered too risqué for my high school to put on).  To my eyes it was radical and rebellious in ways I had not been aware of before. With its form breaking, openly political agenda, and sweeping scope, it also became a landmark piece of theater at an impressionable age.  I never stage-door shows, but I stage-doored to get Tony Kushner’s autograph which remains the one playbill autograph I have. 

Revisiting Angels in London 24 years later is a mindfuck. What has gone on in the points between the first time I heard the words “More life,” and this week—it is a lifetime of changes for me and for the world.  But there is so much that that wide-eyed 17-year old did not know was coming.  In the play and in life. 

I am grateful for the chance to see the play again, done in a manner it deserves (side-eye to that awful Off-Broadway production I will not speak of again).  Having a second chance in life to fall in love with these characters as they struggle, hurt, and break my heart, feels like a tremendous gift. 

Weaving together a narrative of Reaganite politics, Mormon religion, gay rights, race, love, disease, history, and survival, the play speaks to America in all it’s disappointing failures and yet the American addiction to hope in the face of those failures.  Yet my seven plus hours at the National Theatre also created a certain sense of dislocation as this ultra-American story unfolded in a London theatre.  Laughter at its American-ness with distance was a luxury this American could not afford.  As we live under the regime of a “Roy boy” in the White House, my understanding of the American experiment and our historical failures has never been so raw and close to the surface before. 

The play may focus on a particular time in American culture, conversation, and politics and some might find the story being told as reflecting a past that is no longer familiar.  It may be easy to forget this recent history.  But when I saw the play in 1993 the word “gay” was still a common pejorative on school playgrounds.  There was still a fear around AIDS.  The play’s radicalness may have dulled in the passage of time.  But it’s messages remain relevant. 

In some ways, this journey to London was a homecoming.  A reunion with my past self, a reckoning with the present, and a communion with a still broken America.

Even with distance, line readings from the Broadway cast still ring in my head. But as the familiar met the unfamiliar in London I found my mind at peace with the performance changes. In these new hands, the work is less funny and strangely more real. For a show with many surreal moments the timbre of these performances is grounded. While the performances bring new richness, the production is a frustrating battleground of dissonant choices and visual frippery. 

Ivo van Hove's edited production of Angels showed that the play can be stripped down and still deliver emotional satisfaction. Marianne Elliott opts to punctuate the production with bold brushes of lighting, punches of music and sound, a patchwork of neon, linoleum, turntables, and frames in the scenic design by Ian MacNeil. 

However, the visuals of the production fail to color our experience of the play—bringing no additional storytelling or emotional guidance.  Of course, with the cracking of the characters (and the world) the theatre space breaks apart.  The claustrophobia of the characters may evolve and grow into the broader, freer space.  But the materials used which may be riffing on the 1980's, are too literal. The layering of these dull surfaces and neon frames provide little meaning. 
Design by Ian MacNeil (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

As the characters lose their center, and the play moves beyond its earthly confines, the visual landscape of this production fails to move with it.  Though Prior’s bed untethered from the world, floats loose in the snow of Harper’s hallucination, this is only one ethereal moment.  We needed more visual poetry to honor the textual poetry of the play.


One place where Elliott added such a visual flourish was in the character of the Angel. Though the character is performed by Amanda Lawrence, she is also manipulated and moved by puppeteers.  With her larger than life wings controlled by a team of movement specialists, she is like a frightened bird trapped inside a house.  She darts with dangerous movement, unpredictable flutters, and ominous overtones.  

But these puppet performers gain additional tasks as the play wends on.  Looking like the daemons from His Dark Materials, they double as stagehands who move the furniture on and off stage. As they gallop in and out in a very interpretive dance meets street dancing way, they often feel like less of a choice and more a practical solution once Elliott had dumped the revolves and needs to move scenery in and out quickly. But wrapping someone in dark spandex does not make them invisible. And their presence/non-presence is mostly distracting.
James McArdle, Andrew Garfield, and a terrible wall (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Elliott relies on a score by Adrian Sutton which reverberates like heralds with loud, brassy horns but it’s ugly, heavy-handed, and brash.  Imagine trumpets burping out something like Sprach Zarathustra.  The play may shout at times, but the music unfortunately screams on top of that—portentous rather than prophetic.

But the cast mostly overcomes these frustrating aspects of the production.  The energetic and excitable Joe Mantello as Louis Ironson on Broadway becomes a more hesitant and measured Louis with James McArdle in London. His worry is less neurotic and more agonizing. His battle for his own sense of self-understanding is halting and contradictory and not as convinced of his own assuredness as Mantello. 

Andrew Garfield’s wispy frame and tremulous gestures match the modulated voice he adopts for Prior. Frequently high-pitched and performative (particularly in the intentionally high camp moments), his Prior cannot butch up his persona as Louis does at times. As a former drag performer, Prior revels in a more feminine aesthetic anyway. Garfield therefore cranes his neck and preens. He often moves as if the cabaret spotlight is still on him. He likes being looked at but then remembers he is ill and that conflict of defiance and self-confidence crashes into his newfound debilitation. Garfield shows Prior physically wrestling with being alive while at the same time dying. He manifests that physical struggle through elongated limbs and a fierce ever-present resoluteness. There is no shrinking of his being even if his body is betraying him. 
Denise Gough, Andrew Garfield (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

When in the privacy of his home with Louis, Garfield plays Prior as softer, quieter, and less performative. The public and private Prior has never been so clear as it is here (and something we did not see from Stephen Spinella who originated the role on Broadway). Even in an intimate moment with Harper, Garfield’s Prior belies no pretense. They are quietly simpatico.

Harper is a complicated role and Denise Gough plays her with a cool minimalism. She's not high-strung or loud.  For a pill-popping, agoraphobic she's oddly chilled and muted. Harper is not funny or frantic.  This Harper is in essence already dead playing a ghost in her own life. This changes the energy and place of Harper in the play’s narrative.

In the original Broadway production, Marsha Gay Harden as Harper and Stephen Spinella as Prior, felt like bookends.  Frenetic and high-energy in similar ways.  For these two strangers, we saw the parallels of their lives—and when they cross into each other’s dreams/hallucinations this is strengthened. But here, Elliott plays them in contrast to each other particularly in Millennium.  For as much as Harper is dead, Prior is very much alive.  This change still works with the text but as a consequence, Harper becomes less a presence in the play.  The clarity her character can bring as she cuts through the bullshit of the men around her, has less of an edge with Gough’s softer delivery.

Russel Tovey and James McArdle (Photo: Helen Maybanks)
Russell Tovey plays Joe Pitt with more disgust and contempt for Harper. Yet as Tovey’s pleading, desperate neediness as Joe becomes more and more untethered, it increases in complexity—the unsuitability of his coupling with Louis is apparent from the start but they proceed in this romp in an “ideological leather bar” until Joe is undone and Louis finds his way back home. 

Nathan Lane’s Roy Cohn is not colorful or comical. Lane plays him very much as a man and not a symbol. He's contained but still vicious.  Where Broadway’s Ron Liebman may have leaned on a certain oily, snake charm, Lane hardly bothers with the pretense.  He might faux apologize but in almost every moment you sense his personal agenda above all else.   

Seeing the play now as an adult, I was struck most by Kushner choosing Prior--this proudly effeminate character--to bear the brunt of the physical torture and mythical adventure. It forces us to look at our ideas of strength, masculinity, and epic heroes, particularly as Prior is framed against McArdle’s Louis who is broad-chested, rugged, and a conventionally handsome man. Louis is also weak, cowardly, and ambivalent. And yet I understand his self-preservation, fears, limits, and cowardice more now than I ever did at 17. 

I see the whiteness of the play now.  Any work that intends to wrestle with America, American democracy, and our system of law and justice must inevitably deal with whiteness.  Our “freedom” was built on the oppression of others. We have spent hardly any time at all reckoning with that. 
The play’s focus on migration and freedom is the province of white people.  Belize keeps reminding us that his movement was not his choice and he has to keep calling out the characters for their willful blindness to whiteness.
Andrew Garfield and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

But is Belize’s voice enough?  Not if this was a work written today. It does however consider the oppression inherent in race, religious, gender, sexual orientation.  The intersections of these are only glanced at.  But having seen revivals of other work from the 90’s recently I was struck by Angels doing more at a time when most plays were doing nothing at all on these fronts.

But we have to keep asking the question of all revivals.  Why now?  What part of the past are we able to converse with here.  Kushner’s play remains an important text and perhaps can be a helpful reminder of how much that was radical has become mainstream.  But we need to not stop demanding such radicalism.  

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Memory and Memorial: Come from Away and Villa

Photo: Play Co.
Guillermo Calderón's play Villa is about three women asked to resolve the impossible--how should they treat the remains of General Pinochet's demolished Villa Grimaldi, a notorious site of torture and rape in Chile. Should it be reconstructed?  Should a museum be built?  Should they do nothing and allow the gardens and reclaimed space by survivors remain?

Midway through the play I started to think of about the urban planning event I went to after 9/11 to talk about what New Yorkers wanted to do about the World Trade Center site.  I cannot remember who ran it or why it even happened.
It was a pie-in-the-sky kind of discussion (with a big budget--I recall digital buzzer thingys that we would indicate our votes with) because it made room for the possibility that the towers would not be rebuilt. Or maybe that is just my memory of it.

I was certainly of the mind that "absence" could be effective memorial.  Not rebuilding would keep the landscape in a way that would reflect how we had all been permanently changed.  I had no interest in sitting in a proposed park space or eating my lunch on a memorial bench.  At that time the idea that life should go on in that space seemed abhorrent to me. These were dark days and I was in somber thought over how I wished to remember.

Even the idea of remembrance was something I struggled with.  I recall a character in the Headlong production of Decade, a piece looking back at 9/11 ten years later, talking about not needing to "remember," because frankly no one would let her forget what had happened. Did a character say that?  Or was that just my memory of it?  Did that represent my feeling at the time, 10 years on.  

In the years since I have traveled to all sorts of memorials.  Auschwitz-Birkenau (oddly enough on 9/11/2008), the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, the Holocaust Museum in Berlin, the site of Hitler's bunker, the House of Terror in Budapest, the Holocaust memorials in Budapest, and the Peace Museum and Peace Park in Hiroshima.

How we memorialize has been something that has struck me as I've gone to these places.  It speaks to culture, the events at issue, and I imagine there was no "one" way that people thought any of these sites should be treated.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, an exhibition hall that survived the blast and was left as a shell, was debated.  Should it be torn down since it was a horrific reminder of the suffering?  Should it be preserved since it remained standing and represents strength and resolve?  They chose to keep it.

The Peace Museum and Peace Park in Hiroshima take so many different approaches.  There is no ignorance of the fact that Japan was at war but it does focus on civilian casualties and particularly the children killed or made ill by radioactivity.  There are abstract sculptures and personal testimony exhibits.  There are pieces of bodies and no shirking from the horror. There are dedicated monuments to different groups, including Koreans forced-laborers who fought for years to get their memorial and the memorial placed within the Peace Park.

The curated museum in Auschwitz felt all wrong to me and the abandoned, crumbling buildings of Birkenau II made memorial sense to me.  I wept in the open field where a marker said people had been killed.  I understood better in the open spaces than I could in the codified exhibits. 

Calderon's smart, funny, and dark play helpfully points out that trauma lives in all of us differently. We process our grief and pain through laughter, art, images, or abstraction.  There are contradictions that cannot be reconciled because there are people who will want to remember and people who will want to forget their personal pain and loss.  No one thing can serve all. 

And so my trepidation with the 9/11 adjacent musical Come from Away became a manifestation of that.  It is based on real people and true stories but it is not my story.  It is not how I wish to remember or memorialize the day.  And the warmth generated by some Canadians taking care of strangers felt oddly like it was negating the care and generosity of New Yorkers to their own at the same time.  (For even more disconnect I was flying to Canada on that day and let's just say no one was particularly nice to me in Canada). 

Yes the pain of 9/11 was felt beyond New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.  Everyone has a 9/11 story.  As I've traveled the world, many people voluntarily tell me theirs when they hear I am from New York.  I've struggled for a long time with who's story it is to tell and the weird possessiveness I sense when anyone tries to tell theirs.

In telling some stories, I tend to sense the absence of others.

My father was a firefighter and he and I had a very difficult relationship.  But we were never closer than right after 9/11.  For once we talked about his work and I needed to know what had happened to all those firefighters.

We attended the funerals of firefighters together in the immediate aftermath.  When one firefighter dies in the line of duty, it is a loss to the community of all firefighters.  So it is not uncommon that fire departments from many different places will come together to publicly mourn a firefighter who has been killed.  I was scheduled to meet my father in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral with his squad.

In a sea of faces and uniforms looking identical (a lot of white men with a particular mustache that my father favored his whole life) I worried that I would never find him. With the panic of a child lost at the mall, every man around me looked like my father.

My 9/11 memories are colored by the days after as much as the day of. 

In listening to the women in Villa debate different memorials I found myself wanting to vote with them.  I liked the do nothing or the empty field.  I like giving people space to have their own experience of memorial.  Without curation, guidance, or manipulation, I want my feelings to exist and be valid in the form they take.  

I cannot know the pain of the person sitting next to me.  Or how these spaces make them feel.  But I like to think we can each find our place when we have the choice. 

The Ferryman: Everything and Nothing

(Photo: Johan Persson)
Can a play be both rich and slight?  Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman makes me believe so. 

Set in Armagh, Northern Ireland in 1981, it is inevitable that The Ferryman will revolve around the Troubles.  But in many ways, Northern Ireland is simply the device Butterworth uses to tell a different story he's interested in.

The Troubles are the framework he lays over a domestic situation to create dramatic tension. Butterworth otherwise does not seem particularly invested in the politics. He just likes the drama. Sadly, so do we.  It’s both an effective trick and devious one.  He’s poached the Irish cultural references for his purposes but it’s a shallow reading of them.  Yet, we might not notice amidst the theatrical poetry, tragedy, and sweeping romance of the play.  

Paddy Considine plays the patriarch of the Carney clan, Quinn Carney.  A farmer with a past, he’s got 7 kids and a houseful of relatives under his care.  Everyone is gathering, including some cousins from the city, to help with the harvest.  But Quinn’s brother Seamus’s body has been found after being missing for 10 years and this sets off a series of events that will change the family.  Bodies should stay buried and there are those who are unhappy this one has been found.

Seamus’s widow Caitlin Carney (Laura Donnelly) tries to keep her son Oisin (Rob Malone) in the dark about the discovery of his father’s body until they get through the long day of the harvest.  But secrets are hard to keep.

Butterworth lets the story unfold slowly and cagily at first. He holds our attention with quotidian activities, abundant personalities, and old family stories—crochety elderly relatives sharing tales of the past, their involvement in the Easter Rising, and their long dedication to the principles of the IRA. But there is a reason the Carneys are off in the countryside, far from the tensions of Derry.

As the machinations of the Butterworth’s plot kick in, like any tragedy, so much feels inevitable.  But Butterworth plays with pacing and storytelling devices, all of which keep us on our toes.

To make the play come together in the finale, Butterworth has had to strain to get this massive cast and slew of characters to take the steps he needs them to take to get the ending he wants.  At the same time, he tips his hand quite a bit.  It’s like he cannot help himself.  The play is suffuse with literary references which are oddly on the nose but he’s too in love with the language and poetry to worry about the obviousness.  In addition, he owes a hefty debt of gratitude to Of Mice and Men and Brian Friel.

We are intoxicated by the luxurious cast, colorful chatter, delightful yarns, and robust setting. Butterworth starts out slow and careful and only as we near the end does he escalate the speed to a whiplash-inducing finale. But once the drunken high of the play wears off, it does not have the sustaining strength and structure of Jerusalem.  In the cold light of day, the political ideologies certain characters are meant to stand for, seem flimsy and half-sketched upon reflection. The Ferryman also does not boast such a once in a lifetime portrayal as Mark Rylance in Jerusalem either.

Certainly, playwrights can write outside their personal experience but there is a hollowness to this play.  There's something muddy and non-specific that hangs on the work--flitting from conflict to conflict we are easily distracted away from the problem.  It's skillful sleight-of-hand where only in the aftermath you suddenly realize you did not get much information and just accepted the cultural tensions without demanding the connective tissue that makes up these disputes. So is that evidence of a highly talented playwright or a deficient one?

It’s still hard to really complain about The Ferryman. Large cast, epic plays are rare in this day and age.  The sheer scale of the production stuns.  At some point you think there cannot be more people on the stage, and more arrive.  Director Sam Mendes confronts the old adage, never work children (a real live baby!) or animals, by putting both on this crowded stage too.

Laura Donnelly’s complex performance is transfixing.  Caitlin lives a lifetime of highs and lows in the three plus hours we spend with her on stage.  She plumbs the depths of personal despair and the recognition of true happiness, with every emotion in between.  Donnelly brings a beautiful clarity to her character and achieves a great deal through unspoken moments.  It's worth seeing the play for her alone.  Considine feels less up to the task. This is his stage debut and despite a long career in film, he does not communicate emotionally across the stage space with enough force. He’s the critical linchpin to much of the play’s plot and he does not bear that responsibility well.

Even with the long running time, we do not mind how much time we’re spending with these characters and I might have even welcomed a six-hour version where some of these cultural issues could have been fleshed out. Jez Butterworth, I ain't mad at ya.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

My Personal Fake Obie Awards

We ended up not doing this piece for Exeunt...but I had these fake Obie awards that I wanted to give out for work in 2016 so I thought I would share.

Best Play About Economic Anxiety

Dominque Morisseau's play Skeleton Crew, which came to the New York stage first, somehow lost out in the working-class, economic crisis attention to Lynn Nottage's Sweat. But for my money Skeleton Crew was the better play. Set around the changing Detroit auto industry and its union workers, Morisseau introduces us to characters in the plant's break room and challenges us to look beyond labels. She weaves the political backdrop into the play but it never overpowers the human drama. Addressing questions of crime, love, family, homelessness, class, race, and labor she made us care about these people. These lives lived in front of a wall of union lockers and the changing conditions of labor in America were made poignant in Ruben Santiago-Hudson's stellar production. Thankfully Morisseau has several new plays coming to town in 2017 and 2018 so there will be more opportunities to celebrate her work in the coming year.

Actress Who Every Playwright Should Write a Role For Award

Shannon DeVido ended up with a Samuel D. Hunter part written specifically for her in the Theater Breaking Through Barriers production of The Healing. The actress and comedian also stole the show in the workshop production of Mike Lew's Teenage Dick. If the world was more just, many playwrights would be vying to write parts for her. Her sharp sarcasm and comedic timing are certainly the first aspect of her performances that you notice. But she showed with The Healing that confronted with a complicated character who's narrative is not clear cut or morally pure, she's got the acting chops to communicate those nuances as well. DeVido uses a wheelchair and though two actresses who use wheelchairs have appeared on Broadway in the past couple of years, I can only hope talents like DeVido can find more opportunities on or off-Broadway--whether the characters are written specifically for them or directors cast actors with disabilities in roles not written for performers with a disability.

Director Who Is Doing All the Work Award

Rachel Chavkin had two successful shows Off-Broadway this year (and she's finally making her Broadway debut with Natasha, Pierre as well) and I'm wondering why we have not declared 2016 the year of Rachel Chavkin. With the commercial off-Broadway run of Small Mouth Sounds (now touring around the US) and Hadestown at New York Theatre Workshop, she chooses and directs unusual and challenging pieces. Chavkin used an immersive and non-traditional framing to make both pieces work. In one she made you feel like you were upstate at a silent retreat or in the other slowly descending into the depths of hell...but like an Appalachian-styled hell. Chavkin also continues to work with The TEAM and her collaborations in the UK in 2016 included Anything That Gives Off Light with the National Theatre of Scotland--an epic musical and physical piece that addressed cultural identity, dislocation, and an understanding of a sense of self, with the band The Bengsons and a pile of dirt. I loved it.

Watch Out For Martyna Majok Award

When I saw Martyna Majok's play Ironbound at Rattlestick I was shushed by an audience member for laughing. Stunned by this moment of audience policing I was not sure what to do. But moments after it happened a woman passed me a note from down the end of my row, it turned out it was Majok herself. Her note read "Laugh as loudly as you want. You are awesome!" In many ways, her play is a reflection of her note. She writes complicated, awesome women, who are very funny. Though they may be faced with many challenges, losses, and sadness, it is her dark humor in these characters that keeps her play buoyant and meaningful. This is only the beginning of Majok's career but from Ironbound and her play-in- development, Queens, I'm confident she'll be making us laugh for a good long while. She's writing fascinating working-class, immigrant female characters who are demanding their space on stage.

Lighting A Show Without a Lighting Grid Award

Jane Cox deserves a special award for lighting Sam Gold's production of Othello when Andrew Lieberman's set design eliminated the space for a lighting grid. Cox came up with a series of creative solutions to create environmental light--from light up ice cubes to a cell phone screen to portable military lighting units. She solved the complicated problems the director and designer created, and made her choices feel organic to the production.

Best Livestock

I have been whining for months about how there's a lot more fowl and livestock on stage in the UK than in New York. But since I can make up an award like the Obies I'm giving one to the opera De Materie which had an entire sequence which involved nothing but remote control zeppelins and a flock of sheep. I bought the ticket literally for the sheep alone but the zeppelins were an added bonus. If there were more sheep in opera, I'd probably see more opera.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Joan of Arc: Get Into the Fire, It's Probably Better than this Musical

Joan of Arc: Into the Fire (Photo: Tammy Shell)
When your show involves two virgin checks on your leading lady, you may want to rethink everything you did to get yourself there. E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.

I'm speaking to you Alex Timbers and David Byrne with respect to your new show Joan of Arc: Into the Fire.  You are both talented artists and your previous collaboration, Here Lies Love, was a favorite of mine but this musical is a massive misfire and we need to talk about it.

I could complain about the scuba fabric costumes, the nonsensical flashlights on stage, or the songs sounding like Here Lies Love rejects with lyrics that don't go anywhere.  But the real tragedy for me is this could have been a kickass, feminist musical with a strong leading female character but you ended up going about it the worst possible way. You made a musical with no perspective that oddly feels like a Catholic Church sponsored event. This production fails to be either empowering or revelatory. Worse, one might argue you utterly failed to give Joan of Arc a voice in her own musical.

Into the Fire follows the same old routine of women being punished by authority without any counterbalance. Violence against women by the church. Violence against women by the state. But what about the woman herself? Despite Joan singing a large number of songs the musical does not actually crack into Joan's personality in any way.

By fixating on Joan's religiosity, she fails to be independent or individuated.  Any personal passion she might have is supplanted with that of her religion's passion.  She has no agency of her own. She acts on the will of God. The terms of her voice/power/existence are defined by religious faith. Though there may be tension between her view of that religion and the church's, rehashing the Reformation in 2017 seems like a strange way to spend your musical theater energy.

Focusing on Joan's canonization fails to bring a spark either. In the Catholic church, you can saint the ladies but they can only intercede with the dudes (Father, Son) and the ghost (the Holy) on your behalf.  Saints have zero power of their own. The Catholic Church: not the best place to look for 21st century feminism, team.

If you're not interested in feminism in 2017 why are you making a Joan of Arc musical?  Even trying to see your point of view Tim-Byrne (Byrne-bers?), are we meant to be outraged by these virgin checks and hence their inclusion? They are cheap and lazy ways to use violence against women to create faux-rage without having to do the work of unpacking the real harm at issue or god forbid frame anything with a female gaze.

As women watching this violation (note: it’s off-stage but it’s explained to us it’s happening--spoiler, her hymen passes the test twice) we are not furious for the act but annoyed that you’d think this is shocking to us. There is still a culture of purity and control when it comes to female sexuality today. But we already know that. We live it every day.  Tell us something we don’t know.  Rather than point out the "problem" you just discovered exists, you perpetuate it.

In case you think this is just how things were in 1431 and you had to hymen check to tell the story faithfully and accurately, that is bullshit.  I'm here to tell you there's a great queer musical retelling of Joan of Arc called JOAN by Lucy J. Skilbeck that stars LoUis CYfer (Lucy Jane Parkinson) who is an award-winning drag king.  It NEVER once required a speculum on stage.
JOAN (Photo: Field & McGlynn)

Honestly, Tim-Byrne (and anyone else reading) if you find yourself making a musical with a speculum in your hand, just stop.

What makes Skilbeck's JOAN so powerful is that her Joan reframes the story to our time and makes us think about history and the present together.  Joan's call to action is borne from the death of her mother by the English invaders, a love of country, and a sense of duty with only a small helping of religious fervor. She acts with her own agency and not as that of a religious puppet.

Each song in JOAN is sung by men who wish Joan to be different from what she is--Joan's father, the King of France, and the English prosecutor (all roles are also played by Parkinson in drag). We experience the tension between these voices of family, state, and law in conflict with Joan's own wishes which she speaks directly to us about.  There is no question who this Joan is or why she is relevant to us today.  She wears a Tank Girl t-shirt with a partially shaved head and dreadlocks. She relishes wearing men's clothes as she leads the army. A brief attempt to wear women's clothes sits on her so awkwardly, as does a conventional heterosexual coupling. There is an altogether too familiar mismatch between how she presents herself to the world and how the world expects her to be.  In the end, this Joan chooses to be true to herself which means society wants to destroy her.

This is not a historic problem from 1431. This is happening today all across America where transgender people are harassed, beaten, and killed for being trans or LGBTQIA couples shunned, harmed, or denied equal rights and protections. We are fighting for gender equity and against a gender binary and often these fights are with our own government, our families, and friends. There's a lot in the story of Joan of Arc that could be relevant to our conversations today but your Into the Fire chooses not to participate in that dialogue at all.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Top 10 of 2016: UK edition

Due to job woes I was not able to get over to the UK much this year.  So list is a Top 10 of Edinburgh.

1. Joan

2. Lucy McCormick's Triple Threat

3. Us/Them

4. Letters to Windsor House

5. Zoe Coombs Marr:Trigger Warning

6. Anything that Gives Off Light

7. Christeene: Trigger

8. Weird Seance

9. Richard III

10. Hold My Hand and We're Halfway There