Wednesday, February 28, 2007

CD: Breaks Co-Op, "The Sound Inside"

The Sound Inside is trying to get out, but all that Breaks Co-Op is doing is setting it up for someone else to take. For a series of light and slight tracks, this album has an astonishingly large number of styles and influences from around the world, but the emotion is missing. The message of "The Otherside" is what Michael Franti's been preaching for some time now, and the melody of "Last Night" might as well be a more subdued version of REM's "Everybody Hurts." Tracks like "Duet" merge the ambient sounds of rain with the oriental feel of a harp, and "Question of Freedom" goes way retro with the distorted jazz chic, but both these songs seem like better samples than songs, and they're waiting for someone to step up. The music is strong enough to make this release above-average, but aside from some accomplished acoustic tracks like "A Place for You," the album is more atmospheric (hear the twinkles of a high-pitched keyboard on "Twilight") than engaging.

[First posted to Silent Uproar, 2/17]

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

CD: Wax on Radio, "Exposition"

The start of Exposition, the new album by Wax on Radio, is great. But if you keep listening past the second track, "Time Will Bind Us To The Guilt of Commitment," the point at which Mikey Russell's voices goes from controlled to screeching, then you either really like progressive jam sessions or you've got to take the wax out of your ears. There are obvious parallels to The Mars Volta, but they don't have the instrumental chops or experimental skill of that band, and their subject material is grounded too much in depressingly stark and bare-boned lyrics. The only thing that holds it all together is Harrison Taylor's pinpoint bass; otherwise it's just a lot of distorted nonsense. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times, but adding a minute of crickets chirping to the end of a song ("When in Rome...") isn't music. It's ambient blather. Wax on Radio would do far better to stick with the more acoustically sound rhythms of their first and best track, "Today I Became a Realist."

[First posted to Silent Uproar, 2/15]

Monday, February 26, 2007

PLAY: "The Girl Detective"

It's a very ambitious thing, to adapt a metafictional short story. What works well on the page in parable, or metaphor, or parallel is hard to translate to stage -- harder still when the work is geared so specifically for the page itself. To go through all that effort to convert a difficult story means that you're bringing passion to the project, and I wish I had nothing but cheery things to say for Bridgette Dunlap's efforts to recreate Kelly Link's short story, The Girl Detective. But while the show begins at a brisk and breezy tempo, filled with omniscient narrators whizzing in and out of scenes and bank-robbing tap dancers stealing the show, the longer the play continues, the harder it is to figure out what exactly the point is. In a story, you have the luxury of rereading a section; on stage, the work has an obligation to be clearer to its audience -- at least, it should be, if your goal is to entertain.

Here's the kicker: despite the complicated layers of the show, the story has a lyricism that does carry over well into the theater, and the plot--adapted originally from Grimm's Fairy Tales (story 133 - "The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces") and merged with the idea of Persephone's Underworld by Link--has a mystical beauty to it. The jazz dancing brings Chicago to mind (albeit an amateur version: the actors haven't perfected Whitney Stock's choreography yet), and the secretive journeys across rivers to hidden dance-halls is very Prohibition-era. Even when you're completely at a loss, the catchy lines ("Only heroes and girl detectives go to the Underworld on purpose") and the catchy dances keep you tuned in.

I'm not a fan of the play's resolution, and I find the ambiguity of many of the scenes to be what some might call a "negative choice" in the theater. The work is very intellectual, which means that there aren't clear actions in the scenes, and as a result, the already inexperienced cast ends up speaking most of the lines, rather than acting them. Many deliveries are either too much over the top, or underplayed, and the only person who really shines is Kathryn Ekblad, who plays the Girl Detective. At its heart, the show is a play about a girl looking for her mother; it's very telling that all the bells and whistles fade away when the Girl Detective at last gets the opportunity to rhapsodize about her missing parent. Her counterpart, Guy (solidly but blandly played by Ben Wood), is stuck narrating from afar (a tree, actually), and what he needs is never clear, unless what he's after is indifference.

I respect the director's desire to adapt The Girl Detective, but she doesn't have the budget to be as dreamlike or visual as the piece requires (the opening montage makes the work seem campy, not surreal). Until she finds a way to make the drama more theatrical (and better synchronizes the cast), this show is a mystery that cannot be solved.

[First posted to New Theater Corps, 2/26]

Sunday, February 25, 2007

PLAY: "Journey's End"

Photo: Paul Kolnik

When R.C. Sherriff wrote Journey's End in 1928, he meant for it to be an honest, celebratory depiction of what he and his comrades went through, fighting for Britain in World War I. Regardless of how we much of an anti-war play it comes across as now (and it's impossible not to see the futility of war in this drama, set in an underground bunker over the course of four, terse 1918 days), the fact that Sherriff wrote the play with such open-minded wit makes it that much stronger as a stunning theatrical work. The simple truth of real, fleshed out characters--not the overdone proselytizing of The Vertical Hour or other "modern" pieces of propaganda--camaraderie does more to evoke emotions than intellectual discussions of such important matters.

Films like Saving Private Ryan and the HBO limited series, Band of Brothers, knew this and were the stronger for it, crafting silent scenes that spoke as much as the action. Journey's End, which is live and on a Broadway stage, can't do the same special effects, so instead the play focuses simply on the characters, with the war taking place just a few feet aboveground, an ominous presence brought to life by Gregory Clarke's spectacular sound effects. As for the bunker (designed by Jonathan Fensom), it's a dank, rat-infested mess, barely lit by candles (kudos to Jason Taylor's dim lighting), and the cramped quarters--wooden walls and poles pressing in from all sides--exacerbate the tension of the piece.

I've spent so much time establishing place (before even mentioning the excellent ensemble or the dashing director) because the world itself of this play is as much a character as anyone else, and because things like that too often go overlooked. But they're important to note; one of the reasons Journey's End is such a great play is that the pieces all work together--even the curtain call is gloriously rigged to continue the emotional toll of the show, and I'm glad that a director (David Grindley) finally had the balls to carry the reality of the theater past the threshold of the curtain. Within the show itself, he manages to carry more tension on a bare stage (the characters are all presumed to be fighting in the trenches) than many directors accomplish in their whole careers. One pivotal scene, filled with heartbreaking subtext, involves the fifteen minutes of preparation before what is essentially a suicide mission: the two officers deliberately keep switching the topic in order to clear their minds of their impending deaths (it's no surprise that another officer cracks) and their casual conversation about the English countryside is painfully oblique.

What I like most about the play's execution is that Sherriff's characters avoid the all-too-easy trap of stereotype. Though there are comic characters, like the rotund and mustached Trotter (John Ahlin), they are not just so. In Trotter's case, he is just a man coping with the constant pressure as best he can: "War is bad enough already, but war without pepper--it's bloody awful." In the case of our whiskey-addled protagonist, Captain Stanhope (Hugh Dancy), it takes a bottle to keep the demons at bay, and his wizened, gentle second-in-command, Osborne (Boyd Gaines) to keep him sane (and to tuck him in at night). Our heroes are the characters like Raleigh (Stark Sands), a newly minted officer who is perfect for leading nighttime raids through mortar-ripped holes in the enemy lines on account of his naivety about suicide. In this case, Raleigh also doubles as a connection to Stanhope's former life, which bolsters the awful truth that men must reinvent themselves in war: in order to survive, they must kill who they once were.

Journey's End, whether Sherriff meant it or not, makes for a relevant revival (at last!) on the Broadway stage, and is a far tighter production than last year's Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (perhaps because the play enlists theater veterans rather than television plebes). It's gripping, and utterly immersing: to the usher who recommended I bring a handkerchief: you were right.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


How lightly do you take friendship? BFF looks at the dark side of what it means to be Best Friends Forever, and while the show is a bit predictable in its twists, playwright Anna Ziegler's momentum is exciting. The show jumps back and forth between a once idyllic childhood of poolside chats and slumber parties and the grownup "equivalent" of dates in the park and bedside romance. It's nice to see what gets lost as we get older, even if there is a more sinister tenor to Ziegler's script.

The cast performs well, and each has a moment to shine, but the script is littered with a bunch of somewhat repetitious scenes. Even though takes place without an intermission, it seems like there's still plenty of room to cut; that, or there needs to be more of a change of pace in the scenes themselves. Scenes like the one pictured, where the past bleeds through the set's aquarium windows into the present, are few and far between, and it looks like director Josh Hecht just wasn't given enough raw material to keep vivid. Aside from his one poor budgetary decision to cast a multimedia "scene" against the frames of the set (which gives a cartoonish feel to the straight show), Hecht does an otherwise fantastic job of transporting us through their world.

BFF isn't an epic drama, which you probably guessed from the somewhat mocking title, but it does occasionally come across as being too light for its own good. Yes, the show is set in the real world, and yes, we've all had similar experiences, but I sometimes get the sense that the characters are knowingly parodying their situation instead of living it truthfully. Given the performances, especially that of Laura Heisler, who brings more levels to her clingy and immature character than Sasha Eden's occasionally one-sided stoniness, I have a feeling that the minor flaws rest in the script's tone.

This show won't change your life, but it will entertain you, and if you're in the mood for something light yet serious, BFF packs a lot of relationship woes into 90 minutes.

[First posted to New Theater Corps, 2/23]

Friday, February 23, 2007

PLAY: "The Curse of the Mystic Renaldo The"

Seeing a show like The Curse of the Mystic Renaldo The makes me glad, for the first time, to be a blogger. This is the type of show that I'd rather discuss casually than sit down and ponderously review. It's too experimental a work to pin down to one genre, or to classify neatly for a studious audience: it is a surreal mockery of seriousness that can be as entertaining one moment as it is frustratingly obtuse the next. And it's not for everyone: art rock mixes with vaudeville, and silent film flows giddily into live pantomime. The end result is a show so different from everything else, but so true to itself that it blurs the line between good and just being quirky.

The 3 Legged Dog performing space promises a blend of multimedia and theater, and it's nice to have a group that dedicated to the possibilities of the future. But it's actually the multimedia that holds The Cruse of the Mystic Renaldo The back. Once the scrim collapsed and the live show began, with its eccentric mix of prerecorded footage, I found myself actually enjoying the sheer forcefulness of Aldo Perez's character (and there's no doubt he's a talented comic actor). But at the same time, the constant shifts from scene to scene left me feeling disconnected from the center of the work: we see so many layers to Renaldo The that we never see the character himself, just the template of the sketch that Perez has created.

At one point, Perez throws out the phrase tableau vivant, or "living picture," and that's an apt description of his show. You should know, though, that the artists they've modeled themselves after are the tortured ones, like Van Gogh, and the surrealists (like Escher and Dali) who contribute not only to the convoluted scenes but to Paul DiPietro's brilliant set, a dilapidated miniature world like something from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Perez's cohorts add much to this world too: Richard Ginocchio, who plays Renaldo The's silent valet, has one of the most pained stares in the world (though he can't always keep a straight face), and Jenny Lee Mitchell (who plays the sexy maid), has one of the best ranges that I've seen on the New York stage.

I can't say that this is a great show or not; I squirmed as much from discomfort as in delight. But I was moved by The Curse of the Mystic Renaldo The, and I was impressed by the determination of the actors to maintain such an eccentric facade. Thing is, weird as Renaldo The may be, there are plenty of crazy characters just like him lurking around the cabarets, and if you're going to see a show dedicated to them, you'd better be sure you like their act first.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

PLAY: "Neglect"

Not much has changed since I first covered Neglect last October. What few tweaks there are, are almost all for the better. Playwright Sharyn Rothstein has made her already compact work even tighter by strengthening the parallels between the polite young schemer, Joseph, and the pushy, self-centered matriarch, Rose Anne Hayes. Director Catherine Ward has succeeded in focusing our attention on the "safety" of one's home by cutting away the outer world (in the original production, the hallway was visible), and making the space even smaller. Although the final minutes of Neglect still seem a bit forced, they've increased the stakes by removing a gun (which cheapened Joseph's sincerity and remorse) and revising the fight choreography to more resemble the height of pathos rather than violence bordering on absurdity. In other words, Neglect is as well-worth seeing now as it was last year: it is a brilliant slice of racial relations, social struggle, and the plight of the poor.

The play is a natural tale of depression, but without the bogging politicizing of other social writers; as a result, Neglect seems more immediate and pressing than similar works like Raisin in the Sun. There's only one scene, cramped into a small inner-city slum apartment during a Chicago heatwave, and the show is only an hour long. More than enough time for a talented young playwright like Rothstein to paint a vivid picture: you can even see the sharp edges of the facade melting in the unrelenting heat and pressure of the show. While the characters may start with nothing -- lumps of coal, really -- by the end of the show, they've developed, at least for the audience, into diamonds in the rough.

The greatest asset of Neglect, however, is its talented performers: William Jackson Harper and Geany Masai. Their reprisal is so perfect that it's hard to image any other actors ever playing these parts. Geany Masai is a full-bodied woman and she's got the full-bodied voice to go with it, from the deep commands and questions of a stern woman, to the clucking uh-huhs of a rumormonger and storyteller, all the way to the high-pitched squeals of a delighted little girl (despite her age). She moves with a heaviness I wouldn't wish upon anyone, rocking several times in her seat before getting the momentum to stand, only to shrivel up with suspicion and fear. As for Harper, you can see his mind constantly in action: his role is like that of an urban Hamlet, a gentle intellectual who is forced by circumstance to do something he does not wish to do. It also gives him a real arc, going from a patient, smiling worker to an anxious, scowling thief. His performance is instantly accessible and his choices are neatly motivated and driven completely by his interactions with Masai: the two are completely in sync.

Neglect is impressive not just for its actors, direction, or smart writing, but for the poignancy of the piece. My heart goes out to these characters and their situation, and I think the newly staged end of this play is an absolutely perfect statement of our isolated states of America: togetherness found in loneliness.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

CD: Portastatic, "Who Loves the Sun"

Listening to Portastatic's second film soundtrack, Who Loves the Sun without having seen the film is like reading quantum physics without ever studying English. There's no context, no syntax, no rhyme or reason. There's just a light score from the cello, harp, flute, and [insert appropriately breezy instrument here]. "Seems Like a Long Time Ago" has deep strings, and nothing else; "Older Summers" sounds like it's been produced by a child tinkering at an electric keyboard. The music of "Maggie at the Dock" is fine, but it conjures up nothing. The songs that do evoke images are simply those of generic summer days, and the few interesting tracks, like "Fighting Music" and "Tremolo Chase" are either instrumental knock-offs of Belle and Sebastian or remixes of earlier songs on the band's own album. Honestly; we all love the sun, but who CARES about it?

[First posted to Silent Uproar, 2/16]

Monday, February 19, 2007

FILM: "Volver"

Roughly every two years, Pedro Almodovar rolls out another quirky but classical film about families in distress. What's astonishing is not that his films are all excellent—only in America is that truly a surprise—but that he manages to say so many different things in each picture while using the same relatively minimal shots. Volver, his latest film, is the most straightforward—based on broad dramatic forms rather than an established genre (like the noir of Bad Education)—but that doesn't make it any less beautiful. It actually serves to make it more sublime: whereas Hollywood might stylize the subtext, ala American Beauty (which is fine in its own right), Almodovar has drenched Volver with so much realism that the ordinary beauty is at times hard to take. However, that realism extends towards the story, and in homage to real life, Almodovar leaves so many loose ends that afterward, many of the scenes seem superfluous and the film itself, unfinished: the family may be fine, but what about everyone else?

A murder leads off the film, but it quickly fades out of frame. Surprise: the story is really about Irene (the wistful, childlike Carmen Maura), a ghost (perhaps) who has returned seeking resolution with her daughters, the superstitious Sole (Lola Duedas) and the hardworking realist Raimundo (Penelope Cruz, who deserves all the awards she has been winning for this performance). The trouble is, Almodovar keeps showing us scenes from Raimundo's work in the restaurant instead of those with the mother, or even the corpse that's frozen in cold storage, and it turns out to be just another mundane thing after all. As for Raimundo's rebellious daughter – well, aside from killing her father (to be fair, it was in sexual self-defense), she's very much on the tame side and is probably the least realistic of the characters.

The truth of the matter is that while the events are compelling and tragic, and the acting is strong and textured, the pacing is slow and the focus is too wide. The cultural sequences are very powerful, but once we've seen the community's group mourning or their over-the-top kiss-kiss greetings, it starts being more show than tell. Very little happens through the middle of the film, and while it's true that real life is made up of false starts and stops as we try to muster up the courage to follow through on our plans, it can be just as frustrating to see that on the big screen as to see it in real life. That kind of personal, quiet beauty is what keeps films like these relegated to limited screenings in the art house.

Volver is strongest when it is focused on the immediate and before the individual quirks of the characters have worn off. For instance, when Raimundo is covering up the murder, it is to the lush orchestral score of an early suspense film. However, she does it with the detached grace of a housewife, sopping up the blood with a bed of paper towels and then determinedly swabbing the rest with a mop. Another critical scene involves the early interactions between Irene and her daughter, Sole: though Irene is thought to be dead, she acts like anything but a ghost and even, at one point, gets stuck in the trunk of a car. Sole spends much of the film in a frenzied befuddlement that's delightful to watch; she is trying to be the good girl even though she is obviously terrified of the dead.

Coming back to the point; Volver is very much a character film that offers a sprawling series of stories, only to become frustratingly obtuse when it only follows through on two or three of those yarns. There's nothing to complain about in the cinematography—it's the exact opposite of the storytelling: crisp and tight, without a single loose frame. Perhaps it's the disconnect between how accurate the camera is with how vague the story becomes that is so frustrating, or perhaps its just that Almodovar ends up more interested with the art of his family than with the story. Either way, Volver is a well-made film that just isn't all that exciting to watch.

[First posted to Gather, 2/19]

Sunday, February 18, 2007

PLAY: "Cycle"

(Photo Courtesy/Martine Malle)

Once we get past the premise and the wheels start turning, Cycle is a luscious, enjoyable show. Using the hodgepodge of theatrical devices present in vaudeville, we get a play that staves off depression with everything from one-liners to tap dance, accompaniment on the violin as well as the accordion, not to mention a bevvy of accents, characters, and exuberant performances from a magnificent ensemble cast. (Special notice for the standout performances of Sarah Hund and J.T. Arbogast, two wonderfully delicious hams without a dead moment between them.) Occasionally, the plot seems like a shallow excuse to showcase another scene bursting at the seam with outsized humor, but it's overflowing with good cheer, and as with Jell-o, there's always room for more laughs.

The story revolves around a group of god-like performers who have, as of late, faded into obscurity. They drop their juggling balls, they hit their steps out of sync, and their troupe is forever showing up late for their shows. To change that, their leader, Morris, has gambled their entire existence on one final performance: a last-ditch intervention in the life of Charlotte Shrubsole, a bland and depressed young woman on the verge of ending her life. Their plan is to play a wide variety of characters, each of whom will help lead Charlotte closer toward finding The Secret of Success. It's complicated for the first twenty minutes, but director Craig Carlisle cleans things up by the tme Charlotte first gets on her shiny red bike, and the rest of the 90-minute show leaps from character to character, joke to joke.

In her whirligig day, Charlotte travels the show-business circuit, along with all the usual stereotypes of the field. In vaudeville, the cliche is transformed into a bigger and better joke, and so the self-obssessed agent, the blank mobs of auditioners and producers, the yoga-like singing instructor, a photographer who likes to growl and use handcuffs . . . it's all good fun. For anyone who's ever taken a voice class, the scene with the acting coach may be the only part of the show that's a little too realistic: "Become the chicken--that is, let the chicken become you."

The pantomime never tires, and the actors never seem to flag. Rose Courtney's script finds its way to a bittersweet ending, and while we never learn the one true secret of success, the show is a success on its own fanciful merits.

[First posted to New Theater Corps, 2/17]

Saturday, February 17, 2007

PLAY: "The Coast of Utopia: Salvage"

If you're expecting a climax in Salvage, the final piece in Tom Stoppard's intellectual trilogy The Coast of Utopia, you're going to be disappointed. You shouldn't be. Salvage offers a refined and magnificent conclusion, doing so without the troubling melodrama of Shipwreck and with a sleeker, more straightforward narrative than Voyage. Also, for patrons of the entire series, Salvage offers the most depth to its characters. They've all aged (along with the show) like fine wines: Ethan Hawke's Bakunin now has the scars of torture layered atop his unabashed exuberance, and at last, with the loss of his wife and deaf son, Brian F. O'Byrne's Herzen has lost enough to mourn.

How fitting then that Salvage begins with a twist on the trilogy's traditional opening: this time, Herzen doesn't vanish beneath the waves of a stormy sea. Instead, the sea dumps him in the middle of his nightmare, one in which he is haunted by Russian emigres like Marx, by dreams of his dead friends, and memories of his elusive and exiled past. The man isn't at sea, he is drowning, and this first act is the most fluid and turbulent that director Jack O'Brien (who is all but guaranteed a Tony) has conjured up. Theater is as much about making pictures as it is about telling stories, and the final shot of Act I, with Herzen letting down his guard (a symbolic umbrella) and accepting the purging drops of rain, is a magnificent, many-layered work of theater.

There are no tropes in this work; even the recycled themes (like the major events being relegated to the depths of the background or the varied watercolor hues of the scrim) seem new. Lucid dreams replace the confusion of images like the Ginger Cat, and the rich maturation of set pieces (always minimal, always essential) bring the words to life. Also, without melodramatic clutter, Stoppard's wit in the face of tragedy is easier to see. Furthermore, the pacing is so forceful that it leaves no ambiguity in the hues of revolutionary struggle.

Though the plot is secondary to the ideas being expressed within the show, the theme this time revolves around the establishment of a free Russian press, The Bell. The newspaper is really just a final attempt of aging revolutionaries to remain a part of the fight, but it ends up serving Stoppard as an emblem (ringing loud and clear) of the different approaches to war, from the liberal (peaceful resolution to struggle) to the Decemberist (attempted assassinations) to the next generation (Truth, Liberty, Freedom). The intellectual struggle is less heady here than in the previous installments: to war, or not to war, that is the question.

Along the way, Stoppard continues to introduce us to characters that all deserve their own plays. Billy Crudup might be missing from Salvage, but there are plenty of interesting characters to be found in Count Stanislaw Worcell (Richard Easton), the doddering but passionate voice of the past, Malwida von Meysenburg (Jennifer Ehle), the steely German governess, and once-peripheral but now-central characters like Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton), his second wife, Natasha (Martha Plimpton), and the famed writer Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner). Easton is, as always, a pleasure, and Hamilton and Harner are even more mellifluous now than they were previously. As for Ehle, playing a disciplinarian may prove to be the best move of her career. Aside from showing off her range, stripping her of her all-too-easy dramatics forces her to find a deeper strength, and the controlled chaos that she experiences in the Herzen household is wonderful to see.

My one complaint about Salvage is that portions of the second act serve more as a coda to the trilogy than as a proper send-off to a lovely work. The final scene seems a bit perfunctory, although how else do you end such a laborious work? There are so many good moments to cite from the show, but I'll conclude with my favorite: a stage awash with stars (not just the actors), and Herzen lost in the dark gaps between twinkling lights. Out of the left wing of the audience, Bakunin slowly makes his way to the stage, a ghostly figure offering Herzen a rope with which to stay afloat. He saves the drowning man, even if it is just a dream, and then it is 1855, and the Tzar has died, and Bakunin, our poor, misunderstood hero, is washed away himself by a surge of celebrating emigres. That one scene right there--that one transition--is a play in of itself, and with The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard has given us eight hours of that "one" scene.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

FILM: "The Last King of Scotland"

The Last King of Scotland may be remembered as a political film for the ease in which it portrays the circular violence of Uganda, or it may be remembered as a period piece, blending culture with the grainy colored textures of 70s film. Some may just remember it for the overwhelming presence of Forest Whitaker, who takes on the charismatic butcher, Idi Amin. Whatever the case, The Last King of Scotland is a memorable film, distinctly shot in sharp hues and with shaky angles, and frightening in its unrestrained look at the behind-the-scenes trauma of a war.

It's hard to do a historical thriller (as the well-read will always know what's coming) but director Kevin Macdonald keeps us on our toes by keeping the focus on a foreign doctor, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), even in scenes where Whitaker is all but demanding our utmost attention. This young Scotsman gives a credible mien of naivety when the bodies start piling up, and it also makes the rebel forces out to be the villains (an impressive reminder to make about our otherwise clear-cut definitions of “good” and “bad”). After all, only a criminal would ambush a procession of cars and take shots at Dr. Garrigan—we manage to forget that Idi Amin's sitting right next to him.

In fact, we manage to forget that Idi Amin is a psychopathic killer; at least up until the point that Whitaker reminds us, with a savage reversal, that he is far from the farting, weak-minded clown that he has painted himself to be. He is a jovial bear, yes, but he is also a violent killer too, and when he finally begins to turn on Garrigan—slowly, just enough to make us believe he's having a bad day—we can almost see Amin as a victim too, a prisoner of his own paranoia. Macdonald sustains the illusion by carefully choosing the light in which he casts Amin – for example, the first time we see him, he is in the background, standing posed like a Greek hero, with a tribe of African villagers clustered around his tank in adoration. It's a brief glimpse out of the window as Garrigan enters the country, but even then, we are drawn to the dominating presence of this dictator.

It's easy to create a villain, but to do what Whitaker and Macdonald have done here—to make a villain into a likable character—is miraculous. What's more, they actually turn us against the protagonist, which is hard to do since he's a cherubic, younger version of Ewan McGregor. Films are nothing more than a matter of perspective, and for all the loose shots of the film, it's surprising to realize how utterly in control this director is. By the time the real terrors start—and there are some graphic scenes toward the end of this piece—it's too late to get out of the theater. We're as implicit in what we've seen as Garrigan himself, which I assume is part of the point. We enjoy Whitaker's performance, but that means we also, to some extent, enjoy the character that he's playing. We spend the majority of the film basking in the warm glow of the touristy side of Uganda, all to happy to leave the dank confines of the backward clinic in Uganda that Dr. Gallaghan starts in, which is another strike against us.

There are a few poor choices in the later half of the film: Amin's sudden aggression toward Garrigan is explainable by the fact that he's been cuckolded by the “good” doctor. Though the punishment he comes up with is overly sadistic, even in this moment of intense brutality, it's hard to completely disparage Amin. He is confronting betrayal with the only method he knows of correcting it, and when he realizes that he has gone too far, that he has lost it, he's once more the playful bear again, a puzzled, ill-at-ease soldier, just looking to be loved by the world. But this too is the point; Giles Foden's novel isn't interested in a “black” villain; he wants all the shades of gray in between, too.

I wholeheartedly recommend this film: the relentless pacing, the masterful scenework, and the travelogue footage all blend together to make The Last King of Scotland the first thing I've not panned this year. This is your chance to see character going hand-in-hand with cinema, and one more reminder of how powerful film can be.

[First posted to Gather, 2/13]

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

CD: Weird Al Yankovic, "Straight Outta Lynwood"

Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery; it's also a great way to develop talent at something. While Weird Al Yankovic's lyrics haven't evolved beyond his childish antics (like "Weasel Stomping Day"), his original songs and musical compositions have flourished: "I'll Sue Ya" makes for a passable heavy metal song, "Close But No Cigar" is a catchy dirty jazz piece, and "Don't Download This Song" is a powerful anthem against the RIAA. The best track, "Pancreas" puts the disgusting biological functions of that lovely gland in contrast with the soft rock of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, going at one point into a round with lines like "Flow flow flow pancreatic/juice flow flow/into the duodenum," "Insulin, glucagon, comin' from the islets of Langerhans," and "Lipase, amylase and trypsin/they're gonna help with my digestion." For all the throwaway spoofs like "Canadian Idiot" and "Trapped in the Drive-In" (do we need to make fun of either?), Weird Al has managed to make "Straight Outta Lynwood" a rich and textured album, and I'm not kidding.

There's the R&B of "Confessions Part III" and the amusing rap that is "White & Nerdy," and the traditional polka medley of pop hits manages to poke fun at everything from Velvet Revolver to Kanye West, Gorillaz, and The Black Eyed Peas -- heck, it even makes Weezer's "Beverly Hills" sound like a decent song. Heck, he even channels Taylor Hicks on his spoof "Do I Creep You Out?" The CD also comes with an embedded DVD track filled with a piss-poor karaoke option (better than nothing, though) and an amusing series of music videos contributed by various independent artists, from the Crumb-like influences of John Kricfalusi's "Close But No Cigar" to Bill Plympton's brilliantly sketched "Don't Download This Song."

I was surprised to find such a well-produced album hiding under the layers of parody, but when it comes down to it, you have to really love music to spend so much time ripping off the worst of the worst, and it shows here. You won't find a more eclectic mix of songs recorded by a single artists anywhere else, and whatever you may think of the man's one-liners, his beat's no joke.

[First posted to Silent Uproar, 2/7]

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

PLAY: "6969"

The Internet is a scary place, not just because you can find psychopathic killers who think they're Jesus, nymphomaniac girl geniuses, lonely fourteen-year-old boys, and crazy white gangsters, but because they can find you, too. And just because it's not real doesn't mean it can't reach out and cut you all the same. Jordan Seavey's script, 6969, is all the more frightening because it's based on a true story, and while his condensation of that plot makes it seem less impressive, the show itself is a marvelous adaptation of the frenzy and paranoia of the Internet. Mark, our laptop-savvy hero, is a normal sixteen-year-old boy, but when he goes online and meets John, his entire life changes--John introduces him to Samantha, Lil' Tim finds him through Samantha, Damien dials-up looking for Samantha, and Kathy shows up after accidentally getting an e-mail from Mark meant for John. Sound confusing? Good. You're now caught as much in the web as Mark.

Director Matthew Hopkins has done a brilliant job of staging the elaborate procession of characters: he surrounds Mark with five transparent blue scrims, each of which hangs from chains in the ceiling. The online characters show up behind these scrims, like instant-messenger windows, and call out to him through the static of the Internet, like electronic ghosts. As more characters are introduced, they surround him, and, in the many dream sequences, pass through the barrier between scrims to invade Mark's personal space. This makes for a very vivid and fluid first act, driven by the relentless pacing of Seavey's effortless command of young adult dialog, which in turn is presented by the hyperactive Max Rosenak, who plays John, and also by Boo Killebrew, who plays the delightfully adolescent Samantha. Ryan Purcell, who plays Mark, has the perfect mix of innocence and astonishment, but he's stuck playing the straight man, which makes him the least interesting (though most convincing) of the wild cast.

Where things run into trouble is the second act, which loses the illusory presentation of the first. The show is forced to focus exclusively on Mark and John, which changes both the tone and momentum. It also goes on far too long, swinging between repetition and tedium: once we learn the secret of the first act, we need to skip ahead to the climax of the second, and there isn't much to come back to after the intermission. Instead, we actually lose a lot of the tension and, over time, our sympathy for the characters dwindles.

We go to the theater to dream, not to wake up. Therefore, I think we need to call a code 6969 on the final act of the play 6969: watching the illusion dismantled isn't as entertaining as seeing it set up and sustained.

[First posted to New Theater Corps, 2/11]

Monday, February 12, 2007

PLAY: "Howard Katz"

Howard Katz is a play for sadists: if you want to see how much a man can suffer, how far a man can fall, come on down to Patrick Marber's latest, and by far crudest, work. The show is far from bad, and Alfred Molina plays the lead role with great conviction. But there's never a happy moment for him, only a series of endless regrets, explosive confrontations, awkward renunciations, and painful discoveries. This is a bit like theatrical masturbation on Marber's part, to create a shallow character only to simply punish him for it. At least director Doug Hughes has the decency to rush through it, although it still takes ninety minutes to do so.

There isn't much that's original here, which begs the question of why Howard Katz is worth seeing, aside from the brand names affixed so proudly to it. The portions of the play that could've been developed to add some dimensions -- such as Katz's self-loathing of his Jewish heritage or the toughness his father forced upon him with beatings -- seem to have been culled instead, and for the most part we have to take the playwright's word (literally) for the events of the past. As for what we are left with in the present, they seem to be recycled segments from other plays: Katz's long foreshadowed climax at the Blackjack table doesn't hold an ounce of tension, and the whole thing is so telegraphed, we might as well have just assumed that part as well.

Neil LaBute is another playwright who likes to torture his characters, but at least when he does so, like in The Shape of Things, there's a moral at the end of the tunnel, or a wry sense of turnabout. But Howard Katz doesn't offer anything beyond a catchphrase, and while the play might be an honest depiction of a man at the end of his rope, the choice to start the show long after the man has started to fall . . . it's Death of a Salesman without the tragedy, for Katz never seems to have had it good, nor to have ever deceived himself into thinking as much either. Well, if Marber really loves this play of his, maybe it's Death of a Playwright -- the tragic fall from the brilliance of Closer to the blindness of Howard Katz.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

PLAY: "Nelson"

Partial Comfort Productions strikes again with another show about disturbed but colorful urban characters who are thrust at first into comedic situations, and then, as true life sours the illusion, straight into the nightmare of a hopeless existence. Nelson is an enjoyable bit of theater, but on second look, only Nelson's a character: the two supporting roles are devices meant to rile up and provoke him. Still, for set pieces, Joe (Alexander Alioto) and Charlie (Samuel Ray Gates) give our anti-hero, the slovenly, shy, and sad Nelson (Frank Harts) plenty of provocation, and give the audience ninety minutes of entertainment.

The result is a rough plot that lasers in on a somewhat shallow obsession of Nelson's, but those rough edges are sharp, and the office dynamics are as vibrant as they are inexplicable. It's too easy to make Nelson a whipping boy for Joe's frustration with his middling career as a film agent for unsuccessful actors, but that's exactly what playwright Sam Marks does. He never explains it either: he just presents Joe as a needling obstacle, a sadistic and shallow man. It also makes Joe a character without any wants or needs, and though Alioto jumps through the hoops well enough, it's obvious enough that he's just running in place, and when we realize that a character is never going to change, we stop caring about them.

The same goes for the stagnant friend, Charlie, who plays the stereotypical "angry black man." All that we ever learn about him is that he is a great ego and a feeling of entitlement; we also see that he's talented at self-deception, a man who can justify the murder of twelve-year-old boys simply because he's not the one who killed them directly. Gates tries to give the role some range, but his limited scenes, up to and including the climax, rob him of any real development.

As for Nelson, even though we are blatantly manipulated into feeling sorry for him (even as we are creeped out by the "skeleton" in his closet), we sympathize with his loneliness. The nagging question of the show is whether or not Nelson is simply a pathetic man--oppressed at work, taken advantage of by his friends, and abandoned at night--or if he's a killer himself, or worse. Director Kip Fagan has placed both the office and Nelson's living room in the same space, which keeps the scenes rolling from one to the next, with Nelson always torn between the two, and Harts does an admirable job of rolling with those punches. It's as exciting to see him come out of his shell as it is to see him hide within it once more. Take it as a compliment or not, but he really does have "the air of a serial killer."

Nelson doesn't manage to really surprise us, but it does manage to entertain us, and it represents a slice of life on the off-Broadway stage that a lot of companies don't bother to address. I wish that Marks had developed more of a plot so that the show weren't so wrapped up in shallowness, but at the least, his director has managed to make those shallows filled with some exciting rapids.

[First posted to New Theater Corps, 2/10]

Saturday, February 10, 2007

PLAY: "The Fever"

For a show called The Fever, this is a remarkably quiet work, wrought in anguished subtlety, and narrated from that dream space just before waking. Wallace Shawn's lengthy monologue is a treatise on the widening social gap between the rich and poor, and if it appears at first to be too studious, too much like a polite discussion at a dinner party, then you just need to give this viral work a few more hours to settle in.

Though confined to an armchair and often shrouded in a veil of darkness, Wallace Shawn has a rich presence, a gravely voice that brings the gravest gravity to the tale. He is abetted by director Scott Elliot, who breaks up the pacing of the show by bringing the house lights up allowing Shawn's character, The Traveler, to better address the audience. And it is an address, not to mention a way of preaching to a middle-class choir that is too frightened by the poor to bridge the widening gap between them. It is a personal political piece, a well-crafted lecture that has been sandwiched between dream narratives of a modern and poetic sensibility, and it is the sort of monologue we only wish our teachers had been passionate enough to deliver in college.

Some of the stories and words may slosh together like the red wine in The Traveler's glass, but for ninety minutes, you can't look away. When Shawn first speaks about Marx's definition of commodity fetishism, the words are instantly accessible, the meaning remarkably clear. It suddenly becomes clear that the subtlety of the play is working on an even deeper level: while we are meant to enjoy the performance of Shawn's work, it actually distracts us from the seeds Shawn is planting in our subconscious. His effacing demeanor--"My laugh was like a tight little cough"--and his "physical illness of indifference" are suddenly ours. Although the Traveler addresses the audience, frequently questioning the silent and collective "you," it turns out, by the end of the performance, that we are all the Traveler too.

We are that passive, exploratory person, and that's why the audience is invited to stand on the stage before the performance, to sip champagne with the author/performer, and to examine the very clear boundaries of the set (books and newspapers are neatly sliced to conform to the contours of this living room). We are that quiet, idly looking on man, and we have no-one to blame for the rising tide of injustice, the utter lack of morality, than ourselves. The Fever lives on in us, and while a play might not help the poor, the playgoer certainly can.

[First posted to New Theater Corps, 2/9]

Friday, February 09, 2007

PLAY: "The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath"

Pierre Bonnard (John Shea) and one of his many lovers (Stephanie Janssen).
Photo Credit / Lilly Charles

Issac Horovitz's latest play, The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath is a hither-and-thither period piece overset with scenes of life today. It's no surprise that love is just as complicated now as it was then, and the “dark and shocking secret” that the narrator explains will be revealed isn't much of a surprise either, especially for members of the audience already familiar with the famed artist Pierre Bonnard. As usual, Horovitz creates an uneasy mix of comedy and drama: the result is a passable but wildly uneven play, one made all the more difficult by the jumps through Bonnard's life, both forward and back, and by the metadramatic narration of the two supporting actors, Stephanie Janssen and Michael Bakkensen, who take on the various roles of this show. Though this is not a work of Futurism, the play excuses its self-referrals by means of Bonnard's belief that “We should always feel the presence of the painter, that the painter has been there. It is not simply a question of painting life, but allowing the painting to come alive.” I find myself agreeing more with Bonnard's mistress (well, one of them), Renee Monchaty, who replies: “I understand. I'm not sure I agree, but I do understand.”

Setting aside the weakening conceit of the play, the concept is pretty good. Pierre Bonnard may not have as rich a dramatic history as, say, Vincent Van Gogh, but that also makes his story fresher, more susceptible to Horovitz's transformative touch. The only problem is that Horovitz expands the history so far beyond the drama simply to throw in comedic lines. I don't regret hearing lines like “You'd happily copulate with a rattlesnake if somebody would hold its mouth open” or “He hates his wife and she hates him, but they seem to be quite happily married,” but at the same time, this isn't really what the show aims to be about. This is more akin to putting icing on a cake of bittersweet chocolate; it adds one flavor, but takes away from the whole experience.

The other rough part of the show comes down to the casting: on the whole, Bakkensen does fairly well transitioning from character to character, even if he has to cling to a melange of accents to do so. Janssen, on the other hand, seems to be the same character in every scene. While this offers a plausible explanation for Bonnard's frequent infidelities, it makes it a little hard to distinguish one lover from another, and their needs are often subsumed by the playwright's need to find a way of torturing or enrapturing Bonnard. As for Bonnard, John Shea begins as a very miscast old man, overpowering the lines, but when he starts playing the romantic artist, full of vanity and automatic pickup lines, he starts to soften, giving him just enough room to plunge into something deeper toward the end. Horovitz's directorial choice to underscore many of the scenes with an eerie little tune doesn't seem to help their acting, either; it just emphasizes the fact that there are places where the silence isn't working yet.

The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath is an interesting play, but it's an unfinished play, and just as the show begins with Bonnard sneaking into a museum to revise one of his own paintings, I hope that Mr. Horovitz will consider coming back to this work at some time to pare down and revise some of his excessive and characteristic flourishes so that he can get at the masterpiece underneath it.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

CD: "The Good, The Bad & The Queen"

I have an image of Damon Albarn (frontman of Blur and Britpop super-group The Good, The Bad & The Queen, and the creator of Gorillaz) as a man who is unable to sit still. This image is reinforced by his powerful cockney phrasing, his rabid piano playing, and the wide terrain of music that he manages to cross with the rest of TGTB&TQ on this eponymous debut.

The high production values of the record, courtesy of Dangermouse, make these rich and luxuriously baroque compositions blend in vibrant and rewarding ways, although what ultimately holds the album back short of greatness is Albarn's creativity. With the exception of the hyper-ballad of instruments on the title track, and a few short but memorable acoustic riffs on the first half of the album, the sound isn't very catchy and the lyrics, lost in gloom and doom, fall far flatter than the uplifting musical experiments. For all that, TGTB&TQ have former Clash bassist Paul Simonon propelling tracks like "History Song" through the pipes with reggae influences and a liberal use of dub technique; there's rarely a chance to catch one's center of gravity. As a result, most of the songs (especially the solar sound of "Baby Bunting") wind up floating in zero-G; lovely, but inaccessible.

Here's the catch: this is still a great album, moody and atmospheric (perhaps a little too much), and though there are many sections that come across as premeditated jams, the first six tracks of this album are some wild tunes. Tony Allen, who is supposedly the best drummer in the world, is horribly underused, and Simon Tong, guitarist from The Verve, is caught in backup, which stifles his acoustic talents. The latter part of the album starts to drift in and out of itself, with natural doubles like "Nature Springs" and "Soldier's Song" lulling the audience into an inattentive bliss. Far better to be surprised by the doo-wop that suddenly cuts into "'80s Life" or to enjoy the techno B-sides of a Gorillaz's album in "Northern Whale."

As for Albarn's political lyrics, they enhance the quality of tracks like "Kingdom of Doom" and "Herculean"; their only problem is their infrequency. There aren't any choruses, and no catchy jingles, which is either a parable for life or just another example of Albarn's restlessness. In any case, if you're looking for some slow, experimentally-driven rock (think Radiohead), and if you like any of Albarn's previous work, this is a rich soundscape for you to delve into.

[First posted to Silent Uproar, 2/2]

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

FILM: "The Messengers"

As I sit in the theater, yawning through another lopsidedly terse moment of The Messengers, I find myself saying, “Well, what else do you expect from the writer who proudly brought us Jason X?” Quite a bit more, actually. The film's made through Sam Raimi's Ghost House production company, and it's directed by long-time horror experts, Danny and Oxide Pang, known best for their thrilling film, The Eye. Then again, it's starring Dylan McDermott, a man perpetually miscast (mainly because he can't act), so I guess it's no surprise after all that The Messengers winds up being such a mismanaged and ultimately placid film.

For one, there's nothing original in The Messengers. It may not follow the trend of remaking the latest hot foreign horror flick (though it does import two hot foreign directors), but it makes up for that by pulling liberally from every horror film out there, from the creepy child with the bulging eyes to the white-eyed, pale-skinned, stop-motion animated ghost. The film is set on a farm, which allows for some isolating shots of a possessed house by way of Amityville, and there's plenty of crows floating around ready to reenact a scene from The Birds. Every long corridor is an excuse to have an out-of-focus ghoul creep around in the background, and every scene with the daughter, Jess, gives the Pang Brothers another reason to underscore their haunting music with some good old fashioned creaky floorboards. The actress, Kristen Stewart, does a pretty good job playing a teenager with issues (redundant as that phrase may be), but her character's unrelenting curiosity would serve her better in a film adaptation of Nancy Drew, or as a guest star on Veronica Mars. For god's sake, girl, don't go back into the cellar by yourself.

This is what happens all too frequently to the Hollywoodization of talent. Oxide Pang's last film, Ab-Normal Beauty, was a chilling tale of a photographer whose every picture winds up being of a disaster, and every frame of that picture reveled in the beauty of the image, above all else. Even the inevitable confrontation between her and her sadistic stalker is presented in a lush yet grainy hue. In The Messengers, there isn't much to distinguish one frame from the next, and for all the opportunity to play with the burgeoning harvest of sunflowers surrounding the house, we keep going back to the same dark shots of the same moonlit walls. As a result, there's no atmosphere to the film at all, and the only scares are the infallible “shock” moments, which are more an immediate reaction to a sudden noise than they are to anything genuinely frightening.

Much of this could have been excused if there were at least a suitable ending; after all, The Descent was a film mostly obfuscated by the dark, but at least it held things together. No. The resolution here is one of the worst of any horror film, and it shows why successful and well-crafted horror films like The Ring are so rare. I won't spoil the ending, just in case there's a persistent reader out there who still wants to experience sheer mediocrity for themselves. But let's just say ghosts aren't the only thing haunting this house; and yes, that makes about as much sense as any of the pivotal scenes in the film.

The bottom line is that horror films should never be painted by number, especially when those coats of paint are applied in such haphazard, monotone sheets. This is a badly written film with unsympathetic characters, and it matters little if the cast lives or dies. There's so much horror out there, both real and better-filmed, that you don't need to subject yourself to The Messengers.

[First posted to Gather, 2/6]

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

PLAY: "Real Danger"

The problem plaguing Jeff Hollman's second play, Real Danger, is that it and the actors are striving so hard to be normal that the show winds up being anything but. The forced normality makes for an unbearably silent evening of backward foreshadowing. It's the absence of action in the show that makes it clear we are being set up for something; there's no other direction to go. The end result is a series of negative choices by everyone involved in this production, none of which is helped by the artificial climax--a climax which, I might add, takes the easiest of all possible endings and proudly affixes it to the top of the play, like a broken star atop a sagging Christmas tree.

That's not to say that all the tinsel and ornamentation goes awry, however, or that Hollman doesn't have some things going for Real Danger. There is a beautiful monologue about the differences between men and women, as exhibited by a tribe in the Amazon. Even the deadpan National Geographic delivery by Carol Monda can't stunt writing that lucid. There are also some great moments shared by the two men, Eric Chase and Ryan Duncan: when they begin to talk about soccer, it's as if they've finally managed to give up their game of quiet inaction. But none of this makes Real Danger any less strained: the straight ninety minute scene is just a bland dinner between a war journalist and her straight-laced beau and his ex-best-friend, a lawyer visiting from New York.

By the time we get to the end, we're exhausted by the repetition and the stillness achieved by the actors in this play. The story itself is interesting enough, but as a drama, it lacks suspense (because of the anti-foreshadowing) and winds up without enough material to get through conversation without endless repetition of the successful soccer anecdote. The real dangers are the ones we don't expect. So why does Real Danger make itself so predictable?

Monday, February 05, 2007

BOOK: "What is the What," by Dave Eggers

The story of the What (as told by the elders of Marial Bai, recounted by Valentino Achak Deng, and now fictionalized in What is the What by Dave Eggers) is a morality tale, a test of man's capacity to appreciate what one has been given: to "take pleasure in the bounty before him, rather than trade it for the unknown." However, that unknown, that What, plagues our victimized hero as his own capacity to appreciate life is tested by the violence of the murahaleen against the simple Dinka people, is tested by a terse exodus from Sudan to Ethiopia and then a second flight (prompted by a second slaughter) to Kenya. "I turned to see a boy in the jaws of a crocodile," says Valentino, using a language of savage simplicity, frightening us with how ordinary such deaths are. "The river blossomed red and the boy's face disappeared. -Keep going. Now he's too busy to eat you." As if the horrors of civil war in Sudan are not enough, our tale begins with Valentino being robbed and held hostage in his own apartment -- and this, worst of all insults, after he has been moved to America in a resettlement of the so-called "Lost Boys." Eggers himself is invisible through all of this, wisely allowing Valentino's voice to be the only constant, although you can see Eggers' touch in the narrative, which leaps between Africa and America to parallel the one thing we all need: to be heard.

"It is criminal that all of this has happened, has been allowed to happen.
"In a furious burst, I kick and kick again, flailing my body like a fish run aground. Hear me, Christian neighbors. Hear your brother just above!
"Nothing again. No one is listening. No one is waiting to hear the kicking of a man above. It is unexpected. You have no ears for someone like me."
Genocide and slaughter are button issues that go frequently overlooked, and it would be all too easy to ignore it further, but Eggers presents a heartbreaking work (of staggering genius) here with this novelization. Valentino is such a likable character--warm and innocent--and his struggles so horrifying (made more abhorrent by their calmed narration) that this is a tale one cannot easily shake.
"We had walked for an hour, the wind wild and warm, when we heard an animal sound. This was not the sound of an adult--we heard much of that on the way, moaning and retching--this was a baby, wailing in a low voice. It scared me to hear a baby making such a sound, guttural and choking, something like the dying growl of a cat. We soon found the infant, perhaps six months old, lying next to its mother, who was splayed on the path, dead. The baby tried to breastfeed on its mother for a moment before giving up, crying out, tiny hands as fists."
Nor should one want to shake this tale, for it is not a tale, not really. Even though Dave Eggers has presented this as a fictitious autobiography, there is a real Valentino, and even if the events in this novel have not happened just so, it is easy to believe that they have, could have, or will in the future. For those who are just looking to be entertained, shameless as that might be in the light of such sensitive material, What is the What is an engaging, multifaceted read as well: Book 1 is a cultural investigation, Book 2 pulls upon the common tropes of the war novel (sarcasm, nicknames, &c.), and Book 3 is like Catch-22 in the limbo-like contradictions of the UN-run refugee camp. And through it all run childish or tragic romances (with the Royal Girls of Pinyudo or the wonderfully liberated Tabitha), not to mention great friendships and adventures. These five hundred pages are an immensely transporting read, squeezed full of as many rich textures as a book by Marquez and as much global importance as something by Rushdie. At the same time, this is a book all Eggers' own, a convincing tale that will--in its charming deceptions--serve as a rallying call to the real problems of Africa.

None of this answers what the What is, though the morals of Valentino continue to show as he thrusts his silent and unheard story onto the people he encounters in his everyday life. Much of the novel is presented as a tract against the people who have wronged him and spills out in a series of questions: "Do you have a feeling, Michael, that you will wake up tomorrow? That you will eat tomorrow? That the world will not end tomorrow?" In America, where we take so much for granted, Valentino thrusts his accusations upon our childish concerns of gym memberships and petty needs--almost as if to say, How dare you?
"Tell me, where is your mother, Michael? Have you ever seen her terrified? No child should see this. It is the end of childhood, when you see your mother's face slacken, her eyes dead. When she is defeated by simply seeing the threat approaching. When she does not believe she can save you."
The story grows larger than Valentino, too, aided by the limited omniscience granted by volumes of research material and interviews conducted by Eggers. Valentino is the everyman that allows us to meet characters like Moses--who is enslaved first by Arab raiders and then, after escaping, by the rebel army--and William K., a bright and hopeful boy, filled to the brim with optimistic lies even in the brink of despair, who eventually succumbs to exhaustion. Their testimonials are handled like interviews out of The Paris Review, but the sheer force of the stories overwhelms the simplicity of their presentation--in fact, it is enhanced by the bluntness of it. No dressing is necessary for such unspeakably realistic horrors.

The morality tale of the What has another meaning too, a meaning drenched in faith and hope for something greater than the suffering of this earth; in the end, the What is what you make of it. And What is the What is a brilliant and powerful tale of survival, hope, and tragedy.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

PLAY: "Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind"

In honor of Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, which attempts, every Friday and Saturday night (10:30), to do 30 plays in 60 minutes, I am going to write the following review in five minutes, based on the gestalt of things simmering in my head since my virgin experience with the Neo-Futurists earlier today. Lest this thought experience be akin to one of the few "misses" in TMLMTBGB, let me stress now that this ever-changing evening of "shows" is like one of the good seasons of Saturday Night Live, compressed together, and on crack. Nobody should go around New York calling themselves a theatergoer without seeing this show at least once. That said:

Review of TMLMTBGB: go!

Although this evening was not as crazy with audience participation (willing or unwilling) as I'd read other nights have gotten, one person danced with a giant honeybee that had only a short time to mate in "Supersedure," while another got handed a mix CD in "An awkward, but sweet, sway to show you our love." Some of the pieces are exactly what they sound like, or grosser, as with "Listening to the Deep Throat Soundtrack, A Banana & A Stack of Porn," whereas others are just wildly inventive and creative, as with a Greek chorus made out of paper bags questioning a man's existence in "Greek to Me" and the wonderfully avant-garde "Swift River" that uses the chugging of water to make a statement about Africa. There are abstract poems that build, like "This is the Subway That New York Built," movement pieces like "If We Cannot Laugh for Ourselves, Who Will Laugh for Us?" (which has the same thing done twice, once normally, then again with clown outfits), and my personal favorite, "The 20th Anniversary of my 4th grade dance recital with commentary and tragic ending," which is basically the performer's truthful voice-over of a video of him dancing, which he recreates for our enjoyment onstage tonight. Everything's real and live and it's all presented without pomp--


Saturday, February 03, 2007

PLAY: "Apocalypse Neo"

Including, but not restricted to, scenes from a musical adaptation of Apocalypse Now, the Neo-Futurists' "prime-time production" of Apocalypse Neo uses the possibly impending apocalypse as an excuse to showcase three plays on the end of the world as we know it. Of those three plays, "In which the end of the world..." is a solid hit, using the pretense of a live debate to give way to a comic poignancy as two teams of three set up delightful presentations for their case. "Monkeyland II (anatk 21.10)" is a little too disconnected for anything other than the overarching theme to come across. We get the epic parody of our need to place our faith in things (expressed via a toy monkey tirelessly clapping its cymbals across the "wasteland" of a stage), but it's an unflinching, unassertive thirty minutes of theater. "Revelations of a City of Us" is the least substantial of them all--a series of pop-culture musings that try to support their flimsy premise by pulling people up from the audience--but it succeeds only in terms of stagecraft.

There are many interesting elements of theater presented in the whole of Apocalypse Neo, from a choreographed dance to Muse's "Knights of Cydonia" to a series of exhibits worthy of a fourth-grade science fair that will make you think 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in their simplistically devious humor. There are also some surprisingly emotional performances, as with Erica Livingston, who shares her tax report with us even as she passes around a sympathy card to be filled out for a friend of hers and then tells us that we have to act now, as there may not be much time left.

Given that the Neo-Futurist movement is supposed to deny nothing, and that "In which the end of the world..." was a collaborative effort between Justin Tolley and his cast, there's no telling how much was real of the evening, and how much was just clever writing, but I've got no desire to break the illusion. I only wish that so much of Apocalypse Neo itself didn't go about forcefully reminding us of the long-gone fourth wall: it doesn't do enough with the audience to deserve losing that barrier.

[First posted to New Theater Corps, 2/3]

Friday, February 02, 2007

PLAY: "The Silent Concerto"

This is not a silent concerto; that would require the characters both to shut up for a moment, and to be subtle. In this rough production of Alejandro Morales' The Silent Concerto, everything is plainly spoken and then subjected to a free-form rendition of interpretive theater (at one point, dance as well). From Beckett to Lorca, director Scott Ebersold seems to have drawn from as many visual playwrights as possible in order to imbue Morales' tepid script with some life, but he only emphasizes the faults in the show.

The three "movements" of this play don't move, they repeat, just like our protagonist Naldo's life as a playwright, a man who is stuck in Scene 1. The show uses a circular theme of repeated betrayal and distance to emphasize Naldo's inability to complete anything, and his life becomes a series of experiments that go nowhere. No matter how many times the characters play with stage lamps, perform musical numbers, or indulge in drinking games, the fact remains that nothing is actually happening.

Ebersold's diverse staging (on an deliberately plain set) only emphasizes this: the brief excerpts from other plays only more securely plummet us back into the actual one. Also, because many are fantasy, or melodrama on par with the worst of Noel Coward, we don't see any growth in the characters...though this might be the actors' faults too. Not for a moment do I believe that Naldo (Drew Hirshfield) is attracted to his roommate, Mallory (Susan Louise O'Connor), or his former lover, Benny (Julian Stetkevych). Nor does it help Hirshfield that Stetkevych comes off even worse. Benny may be a hedonistic asshole with a drinking problem, but Stetkevych plays him smug, too: invulnerable, inaccessible, and impotent. It's as if both actors are covering their lack of experience with affectations; they're both comic caricatures. Good for a farce, maybe, but for a meta-drama about stunted creativity and blocked passion, it's a flop.

It also makes things tremendously difficult for Susan Louise O'Connor, who, after struggling for a bit, ultimately winds up going a little off the deep end, too. It's not her fault: she's caught in a love triangle that links her to two emotional amputees, but one wishes that she could at least use her experience for manic characters to raise the bar a little. Her comic lines do, for a moment ("She wasn't picky, a penis bookended by legs"), but she's the "other" woman in this play, and even when she pulls a gun, nothing changes, she gets no reaction.

The worst blow of The Silent Concerto is that it's over two hours long, and that it takes two whole acts for the play to begin. It almost doesn't matter that the show makes even less sense when it does, we've long since lost interest in the plot, and could care less about the characters. As an exercise in masochism--watching what could consistently turn into something good persistently remain bad--The Silent Concerto isn't bad. As a play, it needs to go back to Scene 1.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

FILM: "Seraphim Falls"

Seraphim Falls is a tried and true Western; unfortunately, that just means it's like all the others before it. HBO's Deadwood managed to revitalize the genre by keeping the camera on those emotionally distant gunmen after the big showdown, and more experimental films, like John Hillcoat's The Proposition, were visually giddy love ballads to a dusty yet far-from-dry time. David Von Ancken's film is neither: though it opens with great cinematography, panning from tight, frigid snow-capped mountain passes to the wide golden valleys and sleeping desert plains, the dialog and pacing make it feel more and more like an old-fashioned revival of The Fugitive, complete with long odds, desperate chases, interfering convicts, a relentless pursuer...even a waterfall plummet.

This is fine for Hollywood, I guess, but Von Ancken's got an independent twist on his mind: the third act adds an Indian straight out of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and a couple of mirages so gratuitous, it hardly matters they're played by Anjelica Huston. All this just to portray one of the most classic cinematic ideals: two men chasing each other across a vast landscape, washed so much into the land that you can hardly tell who is the pursuer and who is the pursued. If it weren't so cliche, he might even get away with it.

Worse still is that Von Ancken explains more and more of his film as it goes along. As a survivalist film, with Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) narrowly escaping an ambush by Carver (Liam Neeson), Seraphim Falls is gripping. Brosnan wins us over with his fiery determination to escape, and he gains our sympathy when he first digs a bullet out of his shoulder and then cauterizes the wound with a burning knife. From there, he pulls a lethal MacGyver, improvising traps to whittle down Carver's numbers, all the while staggering through oppressively thick blankets of snow. But after this, the film starts throwing in anecdotal scenes stolen from other Westerns, such as an incident with some missionaries and a slave-gang railroad encampment, and it's not clear if Von Ancken's wants to give a general history of post-Civil War America or if he wants to go with the morals of atonement and revenge he started with.

In the middle of the inevitable showdown, Von Ancken is suddenly overwhelmed with a desire to explain the backstory; what he conjures up is nowhere near as powerful as the audience already believes has transpired between these two opposing soldiers. All this exposition also interrupts the climax, and by the time the action picks up again, the film is riddled with overbearing orchestration, foreshadowing omens, and endless repetition.

Seraphim Falls owes what little success it has to the star talent of Brosnan (his co-star is too busy trying to be an emotionless savage). When the film focuses on his escape and personal atonement for an unknown crime, it shines; every time it dips into the traditional vigilante double-crosses, it goes cold. The ending is both contrived and a departure from the mysterious realism that made it so exciting to begin with; the final product is a joke of a Western, like the movie that Sam Shepard's seminal brothers wind up writing in True West. And really, unless it's Blazing Saddles, who goes to see a Western for laughs?

[First posted to Gather, on 1/31]