Saturday, March 31, 2007

PLAY: "The Secret Agenda of Trees"

Struggling semi-white-trash single-mom families are nothing new to the theatrical canon, nor should they be: they make for great drama. Drunk one-night stands with strange, domineering men that turn into lengthy, tainted-love relationships: those are no surprise neither. But The Secret Agenda of Trees handles the two with such a succulent grasp of language that Colin McKenna's play rises above its stereotypes and major dramatic cliches (like a drug overdose and rather restrained recovery). It also has one final trick up its sleeve: a gifted daughter who styles herself after Rosemary Clooney and lives in a fantasy world, but who also nurses her own addiction to a wannabe Salvatorian-gangbanger named Carlos (Gio Perez is, unfortunately, the one character in the play who doesn't surpass the stereotype). That's original, or at least Sarah Lord's brilliant portrayal of her is, flushed as it is between monologuing dream narratives and fearless real-world experiments. Make no mistake, Veronica is the heart of this piece, and she pumps with such ferocious strength that there's more than enough blood to circulate even through the limper, less defined vessels of the show.

PLAY: "Doublethink"

As a study in human behavior alone, Doublethink (a creation of the U.K. troupe Rotozaza) is worth seeing. Two performers, neither of whom are privvy to the script or each other, are placed on opposite sides of a large space at PS 122; an ominously large, sanitarium-white curtain divides them. For the first thirty minutes, the audience, cleverly positioned as a "mirror" for the two guests, gets to inspect their fully flawed (and therefore natural) performance, as they do their best to follow a series of prerecorded directions (operated by the endlessly clever and flaw-less Neil Bennun and Silvia Mercuriali). Some of these are reminiscent of an actor's Alexander technique warmup, some simply allow us to see the commonplace under the spotlight; the illumination of how the mind processes information is engrossing. In the still, dimly lit moments of the opening, Steve Cuiffo and Theo Kogan would screw up simple instructions in their concentrated efforts not to mess up: it was the most human thing I'd ever seen on stage.

What's most impressive is how Ant Hampton, who directs the project, has managed to sustain this energy through the entire show. There are a lot of technically minute instructions, and a lot of ways for things to go wrong (though one gets the feeling that, like a Reeses peanut-butter cup, there's no one right way to do Doublethink), and as the show evolves into a complex avant-garde work of strangling lightbulbs, frenzied physical pantomime, and vodka-flinging antics, we're actually drawn in further: not because we understand it any better, but because our two actor surrogates don't understand it any more. They have instructions whispered to them, or scrawled out on cards, but they're as much in the dark as we are.

I wouldn't dare to guess at the meaning of Doublethink, but whereas other shows that rely on hapless guest performers often come across as gimmicks (like last year's An Oak Tree), this show's double-blind opening and quickening crescendos were too slick to be glib, and too human to see forced. Trust, communication, and committment were put to the test on Friday, and it turns out that's what makes us human most of all.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

PLAY: "Serendib"

What is it about "science" that makes people think they have to dress it up in drama for it to be interesting? Sometimes, it's enough to just marvel in the natural magic of life itself. Thankfully, David Zellnik's new play, Serendib, does the first while simultaneously mocking it, and excels in the latter by using Emily DeCola's marvelous puppetry. The plot is a well-executed (albeit unsurprising) parallel between a rivalry between two scientists over the girl they both love, and two alpha-male monkeys, and the mate they both desire. The expositional undercurrent involves the disputed genetic and emotional similarities between the two species and it is handled deftly by the nonchalant interjections of a documentary team that has come to film their research.

The entire affair is slickly and efficiently presented by Carlos Armesto, on a verdant revolving jungle set (designed by Ryan Elliot Kravetz). There is great theatricality in the duality between these half-human half-monkey puppet hybrids: and there is great athleticism too, verbal and physical, in the way two actors can maintain a human conversation even as their monkey alter-egos screw each others brains out. (Yes, more graphic than Avenue Q.) DeCola's design is full-bodied, wrapping the monkey around the actor's arm like a second skin, and the performers live truthfully within those circumstances, swinging from actor to actor as much as the monkeys themselves. However, while credit is due to the cast, their acting is almost more natural when they portray the monkeys: they owe an ironic debt to the puppets for cutting their strings. (Two exceptions: James Rana subtly provides comic relief through an otherwise subdued part, and PJ Sosko lives up to the ebullient requirements of his cocky character.)

Serendib is also blessed with a remarkably strong script. It's not surprising, the way in which the love triangle between the attractive researcher Anna and her two rivaling bosses (a German, Fichke, and a Russian, Ramsov) correlates to the alpha-male war between Noc and Jasantha over the lovely Shivani. But the language is often poetic, and even when David Zellnik uses the device of translating the monkey language (thus taking sides in the intellectual debate over whether monkeys have personalities and/or experience happiness), it still touches us. According to the playwright, we "all eat at the same banquet of fears and desires": after experiencing Serendib (on the first night of previews, no less), I have to agree.

Serendib is a variant for Sri Lanka, where the play is set, but it also doubles as a near homophone for serendipity, which is what those theatergoers lucky enough to stumble across this performance at Ensemble Studio Theatre will experience. Carlos Armesto has managed a rather intimate illusion; it would be a shame to miss it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

BLOG: metaDRAMA

I'm either aesthetic or obsessive-compulsive, but I don't like my commentary to mix with my criticism, so in light of my reawakened blogging, I've relaunched my sister site, metaDRAMA, which will be my means of posting about, commenting on, and hopefully discussing theater with all of you. Feel free to check out my first post, 032607, as I springboard off the topics raised at the SPF Blogger Salon night to raise my own theories on the necessity of blogs and where I consider my own work to be situated.

Monday, March 26, 2007

FILM: "The Wind That Shakes the Barley"

Is there a worse thing than countryman killing countryman? Yes: brother killing brother. Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a period piece about the creation of the IRA, encompasses all that and goes one step further with his brutally sincere and unflinching camera: he makes us understand the dire necessity that calls for such reckless killing.

In many ways, this is the first film I've seen that justifies terrorism, and Paul Laverty's script deserves recognition for its moral balancing act. Loach supports Laverty by shooting the film with subtle grays, taking long shots of fog-swept marches, and setting up delicate ambushes on the barley-covered roads, and showing us the beauty of Irish culture only in the context or aftermath of bloody British savagery (the film's title song is delivered at a funeral). The Wind That Shakes the Barley may cheat occasionally by only showing the worst of one side, but it doesn't exactly show us the best of the Irish either: the organized killings often look like scenes from gangster flicks, complete with hidden weapons and swift vengeance. But no matter how you frame some of these shots, they're bound to provoke gut responses: it hurts to watch a thuggish group of policemen deliberately beat a man to death in front of his mother (especially when the crime is insignificant).

It's no great stretch to see Damien turn away from his medical aspirations in the light of such things, and to join in with the men he grew up with (especially when one's his brother, Teddy). After some solemn training, it's a pleasure to watch them turn the tables on the police; when their violence lands them in jail, we pray for them to escape (that they are tortured is further provocation); when they escape and kill the traitor, it's a necessity, not a crime.

If only The Wind That Shakes the Barley were one-dimensional; if only it weren't such a struggle for Damien to fire his gun; if only we didn't have to watch the wind taken out of his barley-like frame as the curses of the traitor's family run through his mind. But Loach is too savvy a director for such agenda-driven comfort: while the film's escalation seems logical and necessary, each step forward feels as if it's been ripped from the someone's heart. We don't want to see Damien splinter away from Teddy, but we agree with both of them, and that's what makes the onset of Irish-against-Irish revolution so tragic.

As Damien, Cillian Murphy is perfect. His fragile features (as in Red Eye) make him far more innocent than he is even as his cold blue eyes give him steely resolve. Padraic Delaney, who plays his brother, is more of a brute: gruff, huge, and unflinching. But just as Murphy plays against type to exploit our emotions, so does Delaney. He doesn't sag with the repercussion of his actions, he implodes, which is the very essence of heartbreaking cinema.

These quiet moments are The Wind That Shakes the Barley: the silence shared between brothers who will not back down from their beliefs, or the unspoken rage of our heroic rebels as they helplessly watch their innocent cousins pay the price for their actions. A grandmother, whose house has just been burnt down, refusing to leave the land she was born on: her tottering body filled with a grim determination to stay in the chicken coop, even if that means cleaning out the corpses already stored there.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a brutally sincere film filled with haunting images and the sorrowful inevitability of the past. The methodical pacing illustrates why neither side can back down (without seeming like a history lesson) and the raw emotions of these actors ripple through the scenes like the light wind through that even lighter barley.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

PLAY: "volume of smoke"


As the reverend's wife puts it so well in Clay McLeod Chapman's volume of smoke, "Tragedy is nothing new ... You just wait until the next generation comes. The same will happen to them, soon enough. And the next. And the next." But while the idea itself may be unfortunately universal, the powerful expression of it, the mournful exclamation ... these have a uniqueness of sorrow all their own. This powerful play most resembles The Laramie Project in its mostly monologued presentation, but the setting (Richmond, 1811) gives it a resonant elocution and dignified declamation that is both theatrically fresh and emotionally current. Although I have not read the book from which this was adapted (John F. Watson's "Calamity at Richmond, Being a Narrative of the Affecting Circumstances Attending the Awful Conflagration of the Theatre"), the theatrical presentation lends not only an irony to the narrative, but a stark immediacy, and a relevance that links the entire audience in remembrance of seventy otherwise unremembered souls.

Clay McLeod Chapman is a dark playwright, and his lines simmer with a bitter sarcasm as this brilliant six person ensemble (3M, 3F) slowly reconstruct the fire, from the blame cast between the stagehand, property man, and carpenter to the personal stories of the actors, orchestra members, audience, and children. Some of the characters have survived and retell the story as vagrant survivors, drifting across the stage like living ghosts, but some of the characters are actually dead, and speak scornfully to the present actors who recreate the past. The lines are squeamishly beautiful, honestly sad, and filled with ash-blackened imagery (like Tim McMath's excellent set).

For instance, a musician remarks upon the way the fire burnt the instruments in such a way that "it sounded as if the fire itself were playing the music now." Rather than the expected flight, characters are transfixed in the heat of the moment, like one who runs back inside to find her daughter: "I had to turn around and force my way through the burning doors, past all the people piling up around the exit. It was like turning the tides, like some salmon working its way upstream." Or the tragically mischievous child whose spanking is interrupted only by his sudden trampling: "What it must've felt like to step on some little boy's bony frame, the snap of his ribs resonating through their shoe. What that softness must've felt like from under their foot, realizing they'd just trampled over me. If they even realized it at all."

Hand-in-hand with such exquisite text (to use John Patrick Shanley's slivering meaning) is Chapman's longtime collaborator, Isaac Butler. Butler, who also produced the show (along with Anne Love), has made it into a passion project, and all of the individual pieces of the evening are flawlessly executed, from the darkly underscored remixes of classical Richmond sounds by Erik Sanko to Sydney Maresca's dulled yet frilled costuming of the men and women of the cast. The set creeps in shadow whether the lights emanate from a single, ghostly lightbulb or from the various spotlights.

Just as Butler has gathered such excellence in the technical, he has realized the physical, too. The set is the detritus of the theatre: barrels lie gutted, chairs are there to be flung around at will (at times to echo the sounds of bodies thudding to the ground from the balcony), ladders serve as steps to heaven or, when collapsed, as the gates to hell, and chests sit around, the magic of possibility blackened out of them by fire. The actors double as props as well, highlighted occasionally for pantomiming example or as a necessary scene partner, and the overall effect is that of an eerie waltz between past and present.

On their own, the actors excel as well, each carrying a variety of roles, from Abe Goldfarb's preening ham to his counterpoint in Molly Wright Stuart's emotional "The Bleeding Nun." There are wistful memories from Brian Silliman and meticulous recounts from Daryl Lathon, disgruntled rage from Ronica V. Reddick and emotionless seething from Katie Dietz: excellent work on all fronts and by all accounts.

At just over seventy minutes, volume of smoke is a swift tale, but it manages to entangle the passion of theater with the emotion of life with a real verve and poignancy. There are observations not only on the strange beauty of fire, but comparisons between the godforsaken theater and the god-blessed Church (different only in scope, they are both stages), not to mention the recreation of a rhyming play-within-a-play. Chapman uses verbal devices, like a mathematical tallying of all the bones lost to the blaze, and Butler meets him with a theatrical blocking of the action that grows from a slow, crepitant static to a shifting, sorrowful height. It's a great partnership, and it makes for some great theater.

volume of smoke is an excellent contemporary play that has received a thrilling treatment by Isaac Butler, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys the theater.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

BOOK: "Adverbs," by Daniel Handler

On the book jacket, Dave Eggers calls Daniel Handler "an American Nabokov," Michael Chabon calls him a "literary conjurer," and Daniel Handler calls himself "an internationally acclaimed storyteller at the height of his astonishing power." At least Mr. Handler is joking around: the sad truth is that Adverbs, his new collection of short stories (which goes under the guise of a novel because some of the characters are perhaps similar, or perhaps just share names, or ostensibly are united under the grand theme of love), is more postmodern than classic, and the one magic trick used is used so frequently that we figure out the illusion within the first four adverb titled chapters. If that's not enough, the story "Truly," which walks the same line as the David Foster Wallace short "Octet" in that it enforces the clever authorial voice as he explains (as himself, sans character), exactly what he's doing: "In an earlier draft, instead of this essay, all of the characters in Adverbs--even the Chinese woman--gathered together for a party and decided to play a game," or "Some say that it's God who performs such miracles, but not in this book. (God appears only once, as the older sister in 'Briefly,' drinking snitched rum in the good glasses and flirting with the boy someone else wants.)"

Daniel Handler is a quirky writer, as evidenced by his bestselling (unfortunate) series under the pen name Lemony Snicket. He's got a penchant for dialog, and he's bold and brazen about it too: "'It's a common story,' Allison says, hoping she is still as soft-spoken as she thinks of herself. 'My husband ejaculated inside my vagina.'" But he's also gone without much of a plot, relying instead on the overarching and repetitious themes, along with the gimmicky recycling of irrelevant facts, such as a description of magpies as "attractive, aggressive, and artful," the recording of a L Street song with the verse "Yes yes yes, oh baby, yes," and a lot of pattering nonsense phrases that make up our apparently vacuous thoughts: for example, "money money money money money blah blah blah money."

The value of Adverbs is that it happens to be very funny. The downside is that it's a postmodern comedy, so it isn't just light, it's unbearably light, and the dialog is so contentiously normal that it starts to seem anything but. The characters were already blurring into each other, what with their shared memories and experiences, and their often identical names. But they sound the same too. Whether one particular story is in third person or first person, it's all Handler's clever voice, and while it works early on in the novel, it runs thin. The story "Obviously" tells the story of an unspoken teenage crush, and the way in which we use movies to perceive the world in a new, more Kickass light; it even uses an essay that Joe, the narrator, has recently written on chivalry and Gawain, as a counterbalance to all the snarky romanticism of today. But a similar story, "Symbolically," which is cast in a more adult light, doesn't have the same reach as the earlier stories, nor does it have the sweet brevity of "Briefly," a rush of a story that resembles a mash-up of the aforementioned David Foster Wallace and the brilliant postmodern satirist George Saunders.

What Adverbs is missing is depth; after reading seventeen similarly themed shorts, I feel as if I've just been splashing around in the kiddie pool, and if there's something to be taken away from this book, I must've missed it in the absurd situation comedy of "Collectively," where everybody in a neighborhood keeps barging in on a man with whom they are infatuated with, or the awkward romance of "Immediately," in which a man breaks up with his girlfriend and then falls obsessively in love with the cab driver who saves him. If it weren't for the constant appeal of Handler's first sentences, I wouldn't have been cajoled into reading as much as I did; I blame also the closing sentences, which are just cryptic enough to make you feel as if you've learned something: "Grant me this, this brief murdered moment, and then I will bury it sadly and go on with my game."

Maybe this novel is what love is like, tender yet tenacious, clever yet confusing, rapturous yet repugnant . . . but such a passive series of assumptions is Handler's game, not mine. If adverbs are really, as Handler claims, where things happen, then he's chosen the wrong ones. Frivolously is an adverb too, and much as I admire the epigraph about the Marx Brothers, this is too much thrown-together slapstick.

Friday, March 23, 2007

PLAY: "OEDIrx"

OEDIrx is a rock concert, an online version of American Idol (performed live), and a trippy multimedia show all rolled into one. It's also a more-or-less faithful adaptation of Oedipus Rex, only instead of a pestilence ruling the land, it's the government's team of dedicated hackers, erasing members of the clandestine and rebellious group, The Best, and instead of a wise and prediction-fearing king, there is their Organically Enhanced Digital Inference, OEDI ("Eddy"). Eamonn Farrell is an insane man to think up such an eccentric adaptation, one that fuses punk rock with burlesque dancing (not too far a stretch) and stilt-walking emcees with online nerds. The show is enthusiastic and energetic with all that crazy power, and the combination of digitally enhanced projections of the show along with the real dancing, singing, and acting is proof that insanity is such a relative word.

Farrell also steps on board for the direction, and this is where OEDIrx gets hard to judge. Andrea Davey has carefully choreographed the production, but the hectic combination of film and movement, and the use of superimposed characters over live feeds (the way in which characters speak with OEDI, say) seems more random than planned. However, this chaos is in tune with the dystopia of the near-future the production takes place in, and there's something to be said for allowing a show's unique momentum to make the visuals anew each night. The only problem I have is that the timelapsed footage runs out of synch with the audio, and for the big rock numbers (each of the four characters has one, plus a group number and a surprise solo), it's occasionally hard to make out the vocals over the slamming sound. But just as the plot rises from the chaos of the insiderish first fifteen minutes, the emotional themes and performances bolster the coherence to the text.

The plot revolves around the secret society of The Best, an online network whose mission, summed up in five words or less, is to "make music, fight government, superlatively." To protect the security of its members, recruits are given the opportunity to move up through the ranks from the lowest level, Gate 1, to the highest, Gate 7. Those at the top filter live performance feeds down through their profiles in order to increase their own Icon status, but also to accumulate Hype for the network. As rebellion often goes, these performances are punk songs (written by Jim Iseman III and Masi Asare), the style of which changes to suit the four leads: Anne (Janelle M. Lannan), the technochic with the full-body voice; Amy (Mikey McCue), the sultry diva of the group; Melissa (Liz Davito), the polite powerhouse; and Ethan (Eirik Gislason), the sensitive shouter.

If punk isn't exactly to your liking, and the idea of seeing visually creative (but digital) images doesn't impress you, there's also a solid background of character development created by the joint investigation of these characters by Hilda (Jessica Weinstein) and OEDI (Nick Jaeger), one who is a boisterous, Indian-sounding, mustached lurker, and the other of whom is a sardonic computer program that likes to engage in facial puppetry.

The combination of all these elements makes OEDIrx one of the most curious things you can see on the New York circuit: a bold, boundary pushing work that is as joyously far from Broadway as it gets (while still being theater). Don't let the chaos fool you: this is professional theater, and I hope to see Anonymous Ensemble top The Oedi Cycle with whatever they take on next.

[First posted to New Theater Corps, 3/22]

Thursday, March 22, 2007

PLAY: "Talk Radio"

The last thing Barry Champlain, the bombastic and narcissistic host of Night Talk says before signing off in a drunken stupor is "I guess we deserve one another." This, after a lull of dead air and a long string of senseless calls about pet peeves and pet crushes, is a statement that is just as true as it was when Eric Bogosian wrote Talk Radio in 1987. America, wake up and smell the cup of coffee that you've been percolating for the last twenty years: Talk Radio is a piping-hot cup of condemnation and belligerent protestation, and it's a fun, raucous play that is only slightly less racy now in the light of Stern shockjocks. America, for all the political problems that you have answered with polite parody and humorous book tours, for all the growing homeless on the street -- you deserve this play, just like it deserves its apathetic audience.

This review isn't exactly a rave for the new revival of Talk Radio. We deserve it not only for the star-stud entertainment of Liev Schrieber (which is compelling and good), but also because the play has grown tame on the looming Broadway stage, turning what was a violent attack on culture into an audience friendly meditation on society. (Bogosian will be at The Public with a new rant this year: that may very well be the real performance of the season.) Schrieber is great, no doubt, but he's also pleasant and tame: his eruptions seem choreographed, and his rage isn't always abuzz. For the first seventy minutes of this hundred-minute marathon, he coasts through the glib mannerisms of a man who is both the God of the control booth and the everyman looking for God in the static sky. (He's about as sincere as Sid Greenberg, the money market consultant who fills the earlier time slot.) So while the lines are pat, and the delivery is slick, the words don't stick and there's the sense of fun over form. Not that anything's wrong with that. We deserve it. Right?

Everything is just a little too clean. Schrieber's wearing a hoodie and some stubble, but his hair is closely trimmed; the set, which places the on-air studio in the front and the backstage through a giant glass window behind him, shines in a crescendoing spotlight or throbs with a startling fluorescent beam. At one point, Barry kicks some Chinese food against the wall and it just slides off the non-stick window and it isn't long before an obsessive-compulsive co-worker cleans it up with a just a few careful sweeps of paper. Where's the danger?

Broadway has the opportunity to scare us. There's no intermission, and the play features a brilliant bomb threat and a lot of crude, frightening ideas. But Broadway keeps letting us off the hook: director Robert Falls uses lighting cues to break from the real-time presentation to allow for some testimonial asides from Barry's coworkers that really should be cut. Not only do these monologues free us from the mire of Barry's world, but they plunge us into the monochromatic characters, characters for which Michael Laurence, Stephanie March, and Peter Hermann add almost nothing to.

The segments focusing on Schrieber's communion with the callers (some very talented vocals from an ensemble that includes Barbara Rosenblat and Adam Sietz) step in the right direction; the ones with real danger (what Oliver Stone captured so well in the 1987 film) are leaps forward. By the end of the play, when Champlain is a wreck, Talk Radio is thrilling, because anything can happen. But at the beginning, too much is played for laughs, and very little separates the play from regular late night radio talk shows (except, perhaps, for how perfectly everybody is flawed).

I have little doubt that people attending Talk Radio will be entertained by the entertaining dialog and vivid, tragic collapse of its star. But I don't think Talk Radio is meant to be a fluffy performance piece, and a film should never be edgier than its live counterpoint. So America: what's on your mind? You ready to raise hell, or do you just want to hear about it?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

PLAY: "Dream of a Common Language"

One of the advantages a play has over a short story is that it has more room to develop slowly. So long as it hooks you before intermission, theater gets the benefit of the doubt. Dream of A Common Language has some serious flaws under Karen Sommers' direction, and the cast is a little shaky. Fortunately, a very attractive garden set (impressionist watercolors of a forest, surrounded by more realistic rock walls and ivy), a few strong roles (Suzanne Barbetta, for one), and the flowing dialog of playwright Heather McDonald manage to keep us around for the firmer second act.

But how well does Dream of a Common Language address the theme of 3Graces' new season, "second class citizens." The women of this show did not have the equality they desire in the artistic community, but they seem to live heartily even if it is sometimes heavy heartily. For those having trouble sympathizing with a rich but artistically repressed woman in 1873, read the following epigraph: "Acceptance on someone else's terms is worse than rejection." Dreams is more a thematic play than a dramatic play, and it's interesting to weigh the mission statement of the company with the natural interplay of history and intrigue throughout the show.

Dolores, a traveling gypsy who has flitted from any man who would ask her to stay to any man who would ask to her to leave, certainly seems content playing the housekeeper and eating her Hundreds and Thousands candies. Pola, a migratory artist, travels by bicycle, seeing the sites and experiencing the adventures of the world, and while she regrets the opportunities she was barred from, she lives a better life--makes a better living, in fact--than the miserable leads. And misery is certainly a relative thing: Victor and Clovis may have grown into a loveless marriage, fostered by a feminine son, the husband's unconscious chauvinism, and the wife's teetering sanity, but they're both trying. Clovis, in a pique from the lack of acceptance in a male dominated world, has burnt her paintings and given up on her beloved craft: but at the same time, her rejected painting was anonymously submitted; it wasn't reviewed poorly out of spite.

These characters serve well to make the various points of the play; the show even comes full circle to address the marital and sexual issues presented early on (and lost during the liberating Soprano's dinner party that serves as a lengthy catharsis and return to innocence). Where Dream of a Common Language disappoints are the various imbalances in direction. The choice to interrupt the realism (or underscored it) with a cellist and keyboardist playing through floating windows is a major problem, as are the obviously recorded offstage voices of other painters. Awareness of illusion distances us from the craft: focusing on the limits results in a loss of the piece's central beauty.

Despite the aesthetic distractions and some uneven accent work (along with some uneven acting), I found Dream of a Common Language to be an original and unforced display of art in the nineteenth century, and it certainly made me consider some of my fundamental beliefs of what constitutes equality. There's not enough action to make me rave, but the still beauty of nature leaves a lot for me to think about.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

CD: Albert Hammond Jr., "Yours To Keep"

Albert Hammond, Jr. isn't leaving The Strokes, but with the strength of his solo debut, Yours to Keep, that door is now officially open for him. This album is crisp and clean, a one-man army that bounces from the Beach Boys ("Cartoon Music For Superheroes") to Interpol ("Everyone Gets a Star"), from acoustic age ("Blue Skies") to plucky youth ("Call an Ambulance"). He can whistle to the banjo in pure delight or slow down the Beatles on "Well...All Right"; he can also ooze out a pulpy syrup of a song ("Scared"). With a wide range of powerful hooks and clear lyrics to sustain the music. Hammond is all over the place, rising from the deep to the falsetto of "Hard to Live in the City" and flipping playfully on the electric guitar of "Holiday." This is an excellent album that varies in music, but never in quality.

[First posted to Silent Uproar, 3/19]

Monday, March 19, 2007

FILM: "The Host"

Monster flicks are, by nature, improbable. But at least the dexterous, tail-snapping mutant amphibian of Korean horror film The Host is the only thing that's improbable. Joon-ho Bong directs with a firm hand, doing his best to make the monster an ordinary creature: when it first appears--a dark cloud underwater--people throw food and beer to it, laughing and cheering at their good sport. A few moments later, under the bright and sunny sky, it runs alongside the banks of the River Han, swallowing bright and sunny people whole, and for all that it's a mutant creature, it seems perfectly plausible for it to do so. That's what makes The Host so wildly successful: it's as easy to laugh at as to cringe at.

The heroes, the adorably flawed Park family, are bumbling idiots. Gang-du, a narcoleptic, not only loses his daughter while fleeing the rampaging beast, but grabs the wrong girl. When his sister, Nam-Joo, and brother, Nam-Il try to help him rescue his daughter from the creature's underground lair, they only multiply their failings. Even their father, Hie-bong, isn't good at much more than criticizing their feeble attempts. Were this a serious horror film, they'd be dead long before the monsters even showed up. Instead, Joon-ho prolongs the quiet, awkward moments of these anti-heroes: after the first attack, when they still believe Hyun-seo to be dead, they mourn her with crocodile tears and wild flailing. It's a grotesque display of humor, but in the light of such ridiculous people, who's to say a wiry green blob can't use its tail to swing from beam to beam as it swallows people like so many flies?

Nor is the film simply about a mirthful mutant or a foolish family. It's about a guileless government too, mired in inaction and fear. After an impromptu decision to quarantine the area because the believe the monster to be a virus carrier (or "the host"), they come up with the notion of destroying all life in the area with a biological response known as Agent Yellow. They do more damage to the Park family, who they believe to be infected, than they do to the beast, and despite protests from the entire Korean populace, go ahead with their insane plots. In the midst of all the chaos, Joon-ho lingers on a shot of some U.S. military men in the middle of a cookout: it's no different from a similar shot of a dazed and confused Gang-du grilling some squid earlier in the film.

The Host isn't all that terrifying, actually, unless you consider how worrisome and accurate its social satire is. Eccentric experiments, a mendacious military, fumbling families, and humble heroes . . . this is a genre-defying film: a monster movie that dares to be more than scary.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

PLAY: "Men of Steel"

"You'll never get rid of us, we're like a bad smell that won't go away. And that smell, Menace, that smell is America!" Ah, cheesy lines like that remind me of what made me fall in love with comics in the first place. Over the years, the stories have gotten darker, and the narratives more interesting, but it all comes down to betrayal and courage, iced over with a healthy gloss of bad puns and even worse quips. Qui Nguyen knows what makes the comic-book world tick: his new play, Men of Steel, is both homage and parody at the same time, and it's a wonderful romp. Atop the surprisingly effective writing, his production company (Vampire Cowboy Theatre) is good with fight choreography, so there's over-the-top action to go with the over-the-top acting.

All in all, it's a fun night of theater: the first act introduces the fall from grace of three different heroes, split up into chapters and paced like the television show Heroes, and the second act unites them all in one final battle for redemption. There's betrayal, there's excitement -- there's even a bit of noir in "Chapter One: Maelstrom," a tragedy amid all the laughs in "Chapter Three: The Tragic Story of Bryant," and a stop-motion-animated showdown using Lego characters and some of the most hysterical voice-overs outside of Adult Swim.

Robert Ross Parker does an excellent job with the direction of this show, using video montages to cover up the set changes, and stagecraft to cut from moment to moment within each piece. Chapter One has Maelstrom literally pivoting from one encounter into his role as narrator, (a fast-paced way to introduce a saga), and Chapter Three reduces the action to a small neon-lit box. Some scenes overlap on stage, others remind us of the lingering evil off in the corner: it raises the stakes beyond the singular panel and onto the entire page. Chapter Two is the slow point of Men of Steel, but that has to do as much with the writing and acting as anything else: it is monotonous and loud, and hurls past with little to do but laugh at the Lucha Libre costumes of two wannabes. It's okay: there are enough jokes to keep the pace up, and because of the triple-casting of most characters, Paco Tolson is able to shine as The Mole, and Noshir Dalal as Daddy, rather than getting locked into their mediocre performances there as Damon and Lukas.

Give in to your superhero complex and check out Men of Steel; it has a few weaknesses (like any true hero) here and there, but on the whole, it's a mighty fine new play. Is Maelstrom (in Batman mode) a hero, or just a crazed vigilante? Is Captain Justice a murdering supervillain or a man with superpowers? Find out right now in this week's performances of Men of Steel!

[First posted to New Theater Corps, 3/18]

Saturday, March 17, 2007

PLAY: "Magpie"

Magpie wants to be a cross between West Side Story and The Fantasticks, but it's too small to be epic and too realistic to be dreamy. Funny though: Magpie's greatest success is in the Act II opening: an epic parody of an opera that takes place in Maggie's dreams. This breezy musical won't be revolutionizing the musical theater, but its multicultural beats are a nice change of pace. It's as cute as it is distracting, and as light as it is unfinished. I dig the digs (a corrugated black metal cityscape that folds in and out like a storybook), but I dislike the mikes on all the cast members.

Magpie is on the right path: now it just needs enough focus to find a place for that work which the jaded male lead, Tino (a layman for the young theatergoing public) so casually dismisses as irrelevant to his life. Hip as the gritty bike messengers pretend to be, or hip-hop as they get while singing "Another Day" or step-dancing up in someone's face, they're still useless to the plot. It needs more songs like "Crazy Girl, Loquita" and "Give Her Back Her Music," and less songs like "No One Had a Clue in Santiago" and "Trust Your Heart." There's nothing better than lovesick duets or strained ballads; there's nothing worse than solos for side-characters that add nothing to the book. It could also use a few technical touch-ups with light cues and the audible static from an over-miked cast.

Magpie's strength shows every time the focus sticks to the star-crossed lovers (they--Jessica Fields and Ronny Mercedes--are also the best singers); wander around too much and it becomes clear that despite being a modern Romeo and Juliet (if Romeo took Ritalin and Juliet was medicated for seizures and mental instability), Steven M. Jacobson's script is far from Shakespeare. If the Amas Musical Theatre company must meander, let them dabble more in producing a more diverse, layered soundtrack: Act I is a rich blend of modern and classic, but Act II goes over to the old time sound of simple rhymes and simpler beats.

Ah, let them eat cake. Or in this case, let them eat pie. I came out of Magpie without a song in my head, but with a big smile on my face because of how cheery the entire show is. If Amas is willing to keep workshopping this show, it has the potential to be an urban Light in the Piazza.

[First published to New Theater Corps, 3/17]

Friday, March 16, 2007

PLAY: "The Director"

The dark and subterranean space of Downstairs @ The Flea does wonders for Barbara Cassidy's new show, The Director. It's a perfect match for the multimedia work that lights up the black recesses of the cavernous hall, and the length of the room gives depth to the many different characters (well represented by The Flea's resident performers, The Bats) who echo through the chamber. This show isn't disturbing because of the lecherous (and pedophiliac) director it is named for (who we never meet); rather, it is effective because of the innocent reactions many of the actors have when discussing him. At times, the cast manages to put a gentle face on this man (a challenging task), and thankfully The Director's director, Jessica Davis-Irons clashes with their words by using contradictory video that shows the sinister and the cynical for what they are.

It's a good thing that The Director is an hour-long one-act, though. The first ten minutes make some sloppy mistakes that leave us impatient. A man sits in a corner and watches TV as the audience files in--oh, how blandly futurist--then the show plays a five-minute long taped monologue set in the flickering darkness--how abstractly avant-garde--before finally getting to the meat of the work. Luckily, after these initial set pieces, the show develops as an actual drama, introducing us to characters like Sadie (the excellent Lauren Shannon), and Milton (a wonderfully human Catherine Gowl). If anything, once we establish the strained friendship between these two, we almost hate to see the show end so soon.

But the director and writer have a mission, and they don't waste time about it. It isn't long before we meet Sadie's abusive ex-boyfriend, Snake (Donal Brophy, a Clive Owens double), and not long after that we skip through dream sequences filled with creepy androgynous modeling puppets. The show takes on symbolism so fluidly with the grounding scene-work and the bolstering monologues that the sudden stop to this ride catches you by surprise. The Director is full of surprises, the biggest one of which is its capacity to actually turn a tired story into a brilliant, new theatrical work.

[First posted to New Theater Corps, 3/16]

Thursday, March 15, 2007

BOOK: "The Book of Lost Things," by John Connolly

The Book of Lost Things is a decent book, but it's also misleading, disappointing, and not something I'd recommend. The premise is promising: a twelve-year-old boy flees the troubles of his English family during the middle of World War I, into a world he has read about in his beloved fairy tales. But once David arrives, the narrative shifts away from reality and becomes a tried-and-true fantasy that is not only unoriginal (the dark fantasy of Fables, the mocking satire of Jasper Fforde's The Big Over Easy) but falling far short of how bloody the original Grimm stories were. With the old world left behind, there are no parallels or lessons to pull from the text, only the implausibilities of the fantasy genre, replete with cliched comings-of-age, heroic quests, and nefarious villains. Author John Connolly has opted for a lesser version of The Adventures of Nemo in Slumberland rather than pursuing the same goal as the chilling Pan's Labyrinth. The Book of Lost Things isn't even filled with lost things, just old things, and perhaps the time you've lost reading it. It is disappointing that a book masquerading as old moral fables has such little to say.

Of all the elements John Connolly introduces in the engaging first sixty pages, little remains of his World War I era, and even less of the problems he sought to escape in the first place. The emphasis shifts toward the machinations of the Crooked Man, who seeks to use David in an unknown (but surely sinister) plot that involves the dying King of the realm and a rising army of half-man half-wolf creatures known as Loups. Along the way, there are a series of trials that David must overcome, most of which are bland retellings of other stories (like the fortress surrounded by thorns), riddles (the truth-telling troll, and the lying troll), and plots (the defense of a village against a spider-monster). Connolly skews toward what is perceived to be darker: David's allies keep getting killed, he is befriended by a homosexual knight (for the 1917 world, problematic), the seven dwarfs (communists) are oppressed by an obese and bossy Snow White, and the whole kingdom seems to be chasing him. But none of this is really surprising, nor are the consequences truly dire: the original fables were always darker than their Disney adaptations; at best, this is a return to form.

I'm critical of this novel not only because it has mistakenly received praise in the media, but because Connolly is a decent writer. The story is a page turner, and a quick read: had it simply been a fantasy, I'd appreciate it more. (This is akin to the animosity awarded to other lying books, like A Million Little Pieces.) However, the novel also seems rushed, with the first half far better constructed than the rest. Crisp descriptions rule the day initially; they are overrun by a plethora of action sequences later on.

"The dwelling was built of logs hewn from the forest...but that was where any resemblance to a normal cottage ended. Its silhouette against the night sky was like that of a hedgehog, for it was covered in spikes of wood and metal, where sharpened sticks and rods of iron had been inserted between, or through, the logs. As they drew closer, David could also make out pieces of glass and sharp stone in the walls and even on the roof, so that it shone in the moonlight as though sprinkled with diamonds."
That's a great juxtaposition of the cozy with the militant, and it shows how the pleasant past has been overwritten with a fierce future. And then to paint the war back up as a hedgehog or as diamonds? That shows real skill, intelligence, and choice in language. The same goes for Connolly's cleverness in recasting the first few fairy tales:
"Oh," said David. "But that's not the story I heard."
"Story!" The dwarf snorted. "You'll be talking about 'happily ever after' next. Do we look happy? There's no happily ever after for us. Miserably ever after, more like."
"We should have left her for the bears," said Brother Number Five, glumly. "They know how to do a good killing, do the bears."
"Goldilocks," said Brother Number One, nodding approvingly. "Classic that, just classic." . . .
"You mean . . . they killed her?" asked David.
"They ate her," said Brother Number One. "With porridge. That's what 'ran away and was never seen again' means in these parts. It means 'eaten.'"
"Um, and what about 'happily ever after'?" asked David, a little uncertainly. "What does that mean?"
"Eaten quickly," said Brother Number One.
While I can understand the need to douse the levity of early sequences like this with the serious plight David finds himself in, this is the book I was suckered into reading, this is the tone I enjoyed. The military formality, the preciseness of the rest of the novel . . . that makes for a poor fantasy, and an even worse story.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

PLAY: "Be" by Mayumana

OK, so maybe New Yorkers are a little jaded. But to open up a new dance/music/performance piece less than a mile from both Stomp and Blue Man Group, you really need to have a spectacle on your hands if you expect to stay. No-one's going to dispute the talent of Mayumana company (especially that of Boaz Berman and Aka Jean Claude Thiemele), but their latest work, Be, may be in trouble trying to find the right audience.

There are clever scenes involving flippers and guitars, and there's a marvelous piece involving glow-in-the-dark balls that soar in fast succession from invisible hands to invisible hands, like meteors being juggled to percussive music in the sky (a little night music indeed). There are some great feats involving the blisteringly swift percussive ability of co-creator Berman's patty cake maneuvers. And one moment, involving some glistening water and the sound created by a glass dunking and surfacing in rapid success, is a testament to the creativity, persistence, and passion of artists out there who refuse to let the world be mundane. There's even a beatboxing/drum number that relies on audience on participation to supply a few beats (it's harder than it looks). All of these things will appeal to the mindset of younger audiences, and it will excite their imagination, too.

There are a bunch of filler scenes too, ambling numbers that have slight punchlines, like one involving an tennis match with an invisible ball that the actors provide the sound effect for. And cool as the snaky and sinuous movements of expert drummers may be, when there is a lack of variation between the numbers -- that is, the only difference being the object used as the drum -- it ceases to fascinate, and simply bewilders. There's also a perhaps too great an emphasis on borrowed staging: Be needs to exist as a wholly original work, but a neon didgeridoo calls up Blue Man, some dumpster drumming revives Stomp, and one scene with a clunky, long-necked walk of some costumed aliens reminds us of the late Slava's Snowshow.

I suspect the real problem for Be will be in the rest of its content: stimulating as the aforementioned may be to younger crowds, the play also has a wide variety of erotic dancing, including a scene straight out of the party monster scene (white fur coat and underwear, nothing else), and one of the mundane objects called upon for sound is a giant bong. What's worse is that the scenes, while interesting to watch, have no cohesion with the rest of the show. Each segment lives independent of the others, and fascinating as it may be to leap from tribal song to primal dances to modern percussion to futuristic movement, the show is really just a hodgepodge of Mayumana's ideas.

The talent isn't a question: just watch the synchronized opening scene, which involves lots of minute movements to the ticking of a clock. The content, unfortunately, is; without a running theme or gimmick, Be is out of focus and quickly forgotten, and without the charm and personality of its New York rivals. Cirque du Solei changed their marketing to do burlesque work in Vegas, and De La Guarda delivered on specialized thrills for an older New York crowd. Be exists this moment, but unfortunately, I don't see it lasting for long.

[First published to New Theater Corps, 3/13]

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

PLAY: "Defender of the Faith"

Is there any creature more hated than the rat? In Stuart Carolan’s play, Defender of the Faith, the dynamics of a stereotypical Northern Irish family (bullying father, destructive son, crazy mother) are glossed over to make room for a short thriller about trust in the IRA. Thankfully, the first two-thirds of the 90-minute play eschew the pretension of genre and naturally depict the terse lives of a family of cow-herders. An enemy informer is suspected of hiding among them, and when a sinister IRA investigator arrives on the scene, his violent interrogations slowly chip away at the family’s loyalty to one another.

Ciarán O’Reilly is well suited for realism: he keeps his actors busy with the physical chores and labors of life first, while their lines come next. A few of the actors still have trouble with the accent, but barring that, the scenes are excellently paced. Slip-ups are never as conspicuous in an ensemble piece, and any slack is more than compensated for by David Lansbury and Peter Rogan, who play the tout-hunter and the suspected tout. Lansbury plays his Bible-quoting, villainous investigator with such humanity that we often forget he’s been sent to the farm to make an example of someone.

Meanwhile, Rogan’s portrayal of Barney, an elderly farmhand with a strong moral compass and 20 years of loyalty, makes him a fixed source of strength. The inevitable struggle between father and son (Anto Nolan and Luke Kirby) is staged well, and the role-reversal shows the range of both actors. Nolan’s role as the rotund, priggish father is probably the play’s most clichéd, but he carries it off with a certain solemnity, acknowledging the character’s deep-seated self-deprecation. Kirby’s motivations are the least defined of the play, and his portrayal is often overtaken by the character’s frustration, but even this role fits with the overall feel of the show. Defender of the Faith is a natural slice of life, succinctly executed with a crisp story. Though there’s some stumbling at the end of the show, everything fits into the messy web of life itself.

[First posted to Show Business Weekly, 3/12]

Monday, March 12, 2007

FILM: "300"

FILM

300 is the latest in a series of a new genre that I call "animated realism." Breakthroughs in film-making and special effects now allow not only for comic books to be feasibly adapted, but for their visual flairs and nuances as well. Not just films like Sin City (which Frank Miller also wrote and stylized) but works like Kung-Fu Hustle, which crosses Looney Tunes with gritty martial arts and traditional fables to produce a new and vigorously thrilling work. Of the three I've just named, 300 is the least daring, but it compensates by being lushly thrilling. Rather than creeping through the shadows of a noir's meticulous pacing or developing likeable characters, director Zack Snyder sprints through the backstory of a Spartan warrior's training (you think Batman had it tough?) to introduce the film's main set piece: the siege of Thermopylae, and the defense against unstoppable Xerxes by brave King Leonides and his 300 men at the Hot Gates.

When the first wave of soldiers clang against the Spartan's shields, you feel the tremors not just through the amplified vibrations of a movie theater, but through the palpable excitement of the people around you. Gerald Butler isn't a name brand: he's proof against the burden of celebrity. With a steely face and a jagged, Hammurabian beard, he roars through his lines just as he rips through his enemies, and there's never a moment where he loses credibility. Even when making jokes to boost his men's morale (or to bolster his own resolve), we never cease taking this deadly man seriously. That's a mistake we leave to the endless reserves of eye-candy that rip up against his soldiers.

From ninja warriors donning silver ogre masks to actual ogres, towering above the crowd and hurling axes through the air, this film succeeds by hurling the exotic at our heroes. A typical war movie is grounded in realism: 300 is encouraged to cheat. There are "wizards" who hurl gunpowder bombs, there are giant jewel-armored elephants, but there are mystical virgins, too.

The violence reaches a crescendo of eroticism, from the effete Xerxes to the bare "armor" of the cinematically "enhanced" soldiers. One of the film's most intriguing moments comes when a hunchbacked Spartan, discarded because of his inability to fight in tandem with the other units, is seduced by a harem of beautiful women: it is a mix of beauty and the beast, like something out of a Conan the Barbarian comic book, and it is an arousing orgy of sights for the big screen.

When we stop remarking on how original 300 is, there are of course some inevitable gripes. The action scenes are as well-oiled as the actors, but the scenes back in Sparta between Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and the treacherous senator Theron (Dominic West, an unctuous mental counterpoint to the men), don't pack quite the same punch. Without the big sound effects or adrenaline-charged shots, the artistic pallor of the film makes the drama shallower than it should be. It also detracts from the pacing: attractive as Ms. Headey is, we came to see a slaughter: we left our ear for banter at the door.

300 isn't a tremendous leap forward for films (that credit belongs to Gladiator), but it is a remarkable advancement for comics. And, with the box-office success of 300, it might make a bold statement to bring the glory of art-heavy films back to the cinema: to make the filming as important as the film.

[First posted to Film Monthly, 3/13]


THEORY

There are already plenty of reviews posted in favor of 300, Zack Snyder's highly stylized adaptation of an already highly stylized graphic novel by Frank Miller about the Spartan defense of Thermopylae. I liked the film too, so I won't take up entirely too much of your valuable time with a lengthy discourse as to why carefully choreographed carnage goes over so well (300 had the third-highest grossing "R" rated film opening). What I want to discuss is why Hollywood is so agog over this tremendous success. The answer, in a nutshell, is simple. Audiences crave something new, something exotic: A Scanner Darkly was trippy to watch, but it was a slow and paranoid thriller; Renaissance, which was an action film, was too white-washed of a style to keep people fascinated; and District B-13 and Kung-Fu Hustle both had modest performances because they redefined martial arts (the former with gritty realism, the latter with playful antics). Sin City was the last film to really shake up the genre, and 300 pulled in that same audience, just as The Matrix Reloaded, mired in hype and expectations, had no difficulty dominating the weekend crowds. (It's also been a while since a successful Gladiator-type film, another piece of cinema that relied heavily on saturation and hue to enhance the rather basic struggle of men against other men.)

Too much theory is a bad thing; so let's skip ahead to the facts. It doesn't take name-brand actors to sell a film: it takes good actors. Gerard Butler bulked up more for this than Christian Bale lost for The Machinist, and whether his abs are computer-animated, lasciviously oiled and tanned, or otherwise, none of this distracts from the core of emotion that Butler has cultivated within his steel-tempered King Leonides. Likewise, the political rivalry between a senator, Theron (Dominic West, on hiatus from The Wire), and Queen Gorgo (a ravishing Lena Headey) makes for a compelling sideplot and/or parallel between the so-called "deciders" and the actual "doers." But let's not read too much into the message: Zack Snyder's film is best when it's spraying artful and artifical plumes of blood across the screen, raging in tune to heavy metal background, and dazzling us with the bizarre miracles of a special effects team. This isn't as competent or well-paced a film as those in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but neither is it as lengthy or burdened with hyperbole.

Beyond the stunning performance at the box office, 300 deserves notice for being a good movie, too: it has elevated the art of framing and storytelling beyond the simple wide and close lenses of traditional action. Establishing shots in this film grip you; they are filled with action (like a dangerous scaling of a black mountain, or a shipwrecked coast). I enjoyed Batman Begins, but I found the action to be chaotic and hard to follow: 300, although occasionally cheating with its use of "bullet time," finds a pace that allows us not only to follow each move, but to predict them as well.

Why did 300 blow the box-office predictors away, long after all the moot hype for Snakes on a Plane? Because the film is a hip way of giving the audience exactly what it wants: gratuitious yet glorious death. King Leonides is a man full of flaws, but he is bold and brazen, and by all accounts a hero. At one point, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), the god-king who has brought a horde's horde into battle at the Hot Gates, stands beside Leonides--his gold earrings glittering his cheeks like beautiful scars, the eyeshadow of his glare curled up in bitter amusement--and demands only that the Spartan kneel before him. Leonides turns, to face this girlish giant, and utters back a neat quip (of which jibes the film is full) that pardons his reluctance to kneel: "I would, but you see I've pulled a muscle massacring your men." Not only does he kill monstrous ogres and ninja-like men with silver-ogre masks, but he makes jokes too. How cool is that?

[First posted to Gather, 3/11]

Sunday, March 11, 2007

PLAY: "Tall Grass"

The promotional poster for Tall Grass features a lawn gnome holding a cute, miniature ax. No gnomes are actually used, discussed, or harmed in the making of Brian Harris's slipshod collection of dark comedies, and that ax, replete with a Photoshopped gleam from the sun, cuts deeper than anything found in any of these three one-acts. This choice of mascot--lawn gnomes have long been suspected of the sinister sides lurking beneath their cute porcelain facades--is unfortunately the only good choice made in the production. Nick Corley's direction is as jumbled and vague as Cameron Anderson's set design (he suspends a couch five feet off the ground--which, to be fair, is about how high your disbelief needs to hang), and the acting isn't just over-the-top, it's over-the-Big-Top: we're talking a three-ring circus.

Forgive the snarkiness, but there's nothing worse than sitting through a bad dark comedy. In the case of Tall Grass, it happens three times: after watching characters die in absurd last-minute plot twists in "The Business Proposal," they get back on their feet, change costumes (fully), change scripts (barely), change character (hardly), and repeat. "The Gerbil" isn't interested in characters--everything the delusional, impotent homeowner says to the incompetent silver thief is a lie--and thankfully the play ends before the plot holes have a chance to really accumulate. At least the final scene, "Tall Grass," gives Edward O'Blenis and Marla Schaffel a rather convincing do-over as a suspicious elderly couple--and I mean that in both senses. Not only don't they trust the outside world (they are shut-ins), but their existence in a Brian Harris play makes them suspicious as well. The comedy of Tall Grass is not the reveal that this elderly couple is actually a serial-killing pair of cannibals, subsiding on a diet of salesmen and con artists, but that there was a production company somewhere that thought this was a clever concept.

I am rarely this unkind, but I felt it necessary to be unhelpfully critical to this piece: audiences will not laugh at the pedantic lines ("The cod is very...cod-like...and the lemon sauce is very...lemon-y"), and they will not appreciate the shallow obviousness of Tall Grass; they might as well laugh at my comments. How ironic that Brian Harris was a stock analyst: this collection of dark comedies isn't a poor-man's Christopher Durang, it's a bankrupted man's.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

CD: The Broken West, "I Can't Go On, I'll Go On"

The Broken West's debut album, I Can't Go On, I'll Go On, is a sign of artists being trapped by culture. The opening of "Baby on My Arm" is pulled from Coldplay's "Yellow" (the whole track has a creeping ambiance that eventually engulfs the guitar) and "Hale Sunset" is filled with dub. The first half, including the bland "So It Goes" and the catchier "On The Bubble," is full of throwaway power-pop "hits" stuck in a tambourine-heavy past (grainy production values on "Down in the Valley" further age the track). Tracks like "Shiftee" and "Big City" show nice range and color; like the Beckett play they've ripped their title from, maybe they'll find a way to survive mediocrity.

[First posted to Silent Uproar, 3/5]

Friday, March 09, 2007

CD: The Curtains, "Calamity"

Chris Cohen grew up singing as much as he did playing; thank goodness for it. His three-piece band, The Curtains, benefits from the quiet precociousness of his early dabbling; their new album, Calamity is delightfully experimental lo-fi. A less-than-whiny falsetto and a syncopated chorus dress up the playfulness of the songs; the guitar can throttle notes on "Green Water," it can pluck notes like chicken feathers on "Wysteria," and it can also indulge in rockabilly-lite on the instrumental "Brunswick Stew." On some tracks, like "World's Most Dangerous Woman," Cohen can even pass as a small-scale Sufjan Stevens. "Calamity" molds a disastrous series of notes into the melody, and while some people will inevitably ask what Chris is doing, the answer is clear. He's making music; the hell with rules.

[First posted to Silent Uproar, 3/6]

Thursday, March 08, 2007

PLAY: "Los Angeles"

Photo/Joan Marcus

Julian Sheppard, in the program notes of his new play Los Angeles, asks: "In the end, in L.A., is there really anything more than sex, drugs, and swimming pools?" Although there is plenty of that in his somewhat flimsy series of vignettes, there are a few moments in the overall production (well directed by Adam Rapp) where there's the sensation of striking something more fathomable than nihilism.

The show opens with an innocent but already damaged Audrey being led by her boyfriend, from the Midwest to L.A. The subsequent scenes, always jumping an unidentified period of time forward in Audrey's downward spiral of a life, take her from party to party and man to man (to woman). Despite the cliched encounters (a drug dealer, a married man, a high-powered agent, a model/actress), Sheppard's writing is fairly clever. It also offers a neat turnabout: the majority of people Audrey encounters actually want to help her, and the first few scenes end on upbeats -- the tragedy is that after the scene change, things are always worse than they were before. The intimate space under The Flea abets the character acting; the scenes are already familiar to the audience, but the close proximity of it makes us feel like the bystander at a really hot party where someone is being slowly stabbed to death for our amusement.

Audrey spends most of the play in a "comfortable fuckedupness," -- perhaps too much for us to care about the pain she keeps trying to drown out -- but the play itself, with the moody lighting of neon-stripped bars and dim, coffin-sized apartments, shows the squalor for what it is. The transitions between scenes are handled by Amelia Zirin-Brown's lovely voice (Life is a cabaret, my friends) and Audrey is shuffled from set piece to set piece like a prop herself (which, to be fair, is what she becomes). The inevitable overdose scene is handled well, with a chorus of spectral scene-partners; the only off-kilter choice is the tenth scene, which serves more as a confusing "lost episode" than an epilogue. (Other choices, like coloring all the drinks and money blue, are odd, not distracting.)

Over the course of the play, Katherine Waterson, who plays Audrey, is given plenty of time to shine, and there are a few scenes where she bravely succeeds at seeming like a stranger to her own body. The problem with a play like Los Angeles is that Audrey does not change, and each scene is just more of the same. The cast, made up of The Bats (The Flea's young repertory company), has the same dilemma, each being called upon to play a caricature that only a few of them manage to deepen (Ben Beckley and Emily Hyberger) or fully inhabit (Tanya Fischer).

A play like Los Angeles doesn't need to be written -- it's enough in our pop culture already -- but it has been, and it's enjoyable even if it's not brilliant. I hope Julian Sheppard will focus on actually developing a story in his next play, rather than just telling it; it's really the only thing holding his writing back.

[First posted to New Theater Corps, 3/7]

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

PLAY: "it is said the men are over in The Steel Tower"

"How can you be a good performer?" asks Jonouchi, an AWOL soldier, of Sasakura, one of four frightened, mediocre vaudeville actors who have fled a relief show to hide from War in a giant steel tower. "Just take a deep breath and say whatever comes to mind," he replies. This philosophy is the heart and undercurrent of it is said the men are over in The Steel Tower, a play by the prolific Japanese playwright Hideo Tsuchida, now in production at TBG Theatre.

Something has been lost in translation; Tsuchida's parallel about trivial bickering in the light of an overshadowing war is clear enough, but the endless, repetitive chatter used to get there isn't entertaining (especially when it goes on for almost two hours straight). Given an American adaptation (Matthew Paul Olmos) of an English translation (M. Cody Poulton), not to mention director Ronit Muszkatblit's interpretation of the final text, how much of the original still exists? Coupled with the lethargic blocking of the action and the unusually low energy of the performers: Not enough.

The play succeeds in frustrating the audience, but that only allows us to sympathize with how the characters in this play feel stuck. One of the "shticks" performed involves a pantomime of how different types of people walk up and down stairs; that subtlety is called out as markedly unfunny in the play, but it's the same device the play uses. The common, ordinary dialogue (which sounds improvised, even with a script in front of me) leaves profundity to the subtext; unfortunately, this cast allows for only the mundanity of the text. The ensemble is so locked into the passive-aggressive that their range is limited, and the few scenes that would show us another side are set at night, on a dark stage lit by flailing flashlights.

There are some good sequences: at one point the act of creation is compared to giving birth (to triplets), and later on, the joke is carried on when one of the troupe offers to help the rehearsal process along by being a Lamaze coach. Running jokes, even those about overused metaphors, are a window into seeing the history of this troupe, pre-war, and the rare moments when we see the characters vulnerable (Christopher Loar, as Jonouchi, has a sweet innocence) give heart to an otherwise dispassionate, Seinfeld-ish play.

it is said the men are over in The Steel Tower tries to mix subtext and symbolism, but you can't hide allegory in a message that is already hidden. This adaptation is simply too subtle for its own good: the play we wind up seeing is the opposite of the play we want to watch.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

PLAY: "Bill W. and Dr. Bob"

Photo/T. Charles Erickson

Considering that Bill W. and Dr. Bob is a play about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, perhaps it's a good thing that the script, staging, and acting is so dry. Unfortunately, I am not a theatrical teetotaler -- I want my drama to get me drunk. For theatergoers who don't mind sipping from a lukewarm can of Pabst, Bill W. and Dr. Bob is a solidly flat night of history.

In just under two hours, the play speaks on alcoholism as a disease; unites the uncontrollably temperamental Bill Wilson (Robert Krakovski) with his childishly belligerent brother-in-arms, Dr. Bob Smith (Patrick Husted); and dramatizes their formation of and recruitment for AA. Playwrights Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey keep things light when they should be serious by overdosing on the self-deprecating humor, and when it's time to be serious, the actors belittle their too-scripted lines with hammed performances. Marc Carver manages to elevate his role (he plays all the unnamed men in the show) with some masterful character acting, but the overall pacing of this show can't be fixed with funny accents.

When Bill W. first meets Dr. Bob, he gives the Reader's Digest version of his first drink. Bill W. and Dr. Bob is very much a Reader's Digest version of a play. The edges have been softened, and characters don't hit rock bottom so much as skate softly across a slight depression. Because they haven't plummeted, their epiphanies are forced, and their performances remain more-or-less even, on account of having nowhere to go. The word "textbook" is a decent descriptor: director Rick Lombardo's superfluous additions of an onstage pianist (for "mood music") and needlessly shifting wooden panels are very by-the-book.

There are good moments in Bill W. and Dr. Bob, particularly when showing the power of brotherhood and simple communication to overcome even the strongest of liquid demons. But this good work is drowned out by a not-so-hidden agenda: the lionization of two people who, in all fairness, were more impressive when anonymous.

Monday, March 05, 2007

PLAY: "Dying City"

Photo: Sara Krulwich

The biggest problem with Dying City is that Sara Krulwich's lovely photo on the left captures more of the essence of the play than Christopher Shinn's forced passivity. It also means that Dying City, even at an intermissionless 90 minutes, is too long. The text that pads out the show is good, natural writing -- even charming at first -- but the heart of things between Peter and Kelly is all that really matters. The only thing worthwhile about Kelly's life as a therapist is the humorous nickname they give one of her clients ("Fucked Her So Hard She"). The only noteworthy thing about Peter's boyfriends is that he cheats on them; the only solid fact about him is that he's tried to suppress his childhood memories of his father, a Vietnam veteran. The contrived introduction of Peter's twin brother, Craig (whose scenes are set in a differently lit 2004, as opposed to the play's present of 2005), would be fine if Pablo Schrieber (who plays both roles) added a different sheen to each, or if Shinn didn't spend so much of the present recounting moments already written into the flashbacks.

There's also a problem with the gimmicky staging: James Macdonald did a wonderful job with A Number because he left things alone. He seems bored with Dying City, and it shows in his wobbly, imperceptibly rotating wooden plank of a stage. Granted, the Mitzi E. Newhouse theater is in the round, but having the perspectives in constant flux draws attention away from the action and cheapens the audience's attempt to get a grip on a play that's already elusive in theme. The earth is already subtly spinning; must the stage do the same?

Subtlety and subtext are often mistaken for the acts of a brilliant playwright, but they are more generally the signs of an absent conflict. From the moment Peter buzzes Kelly out of the blue-- Kelly, who is in the middle of moving--it's obvious that she doesn't want him there. And yet she continues to let him bully his way into the detritus of her emotional past with Craig; her emotional outburst at the end is as well-deserved as it is absurd. A therapist who can't communicate? That's worth exploring far more than a soldier who mistreats women, or an actor who doesn't know how to live his own life.

Shinn knows how to write, but Dying City feels like he's groping in the dark for a light. In the play, the title is immediately referring to Iraq, but that's too distant a theme in the play. John Stewart plays on TV in the background, and although Craig and Kelly argue about the war, they're not really arguing about the war. We're left to infer that the city dying is our own, the one gripped by isolation and loneliness, and an inability to communicate. Well, at least the play succeeds at doing just that.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

FILM: "Reno 911!: Miami"

In the age of Cops, it's perhaps not as necessary to make fun of the police as it once was with Police Squad!, but if there's going to be a film about bumbling procedurals, I'm glad it's Reno 911!. Adapted from the Comedy Central series of the same name (you don't need to see one to enjoy the other), Reno 911!: Miami transplants the mock documentary to the big screen -- and to the bigger city of Miami, as the Reno cops are invited to attend a convention for police officers. (A paraphrased example of the film's humor: "We're going to Miami!" "But why did they invite us?" "Why? Well, I'll tell you. They invited us because... well, they invited everybody." "Right, yes! We'll take it.")

On TV, Reno 911! is mostly improvised, so the dialogue is naturally authentic. It's not clear how much of the film was written by the credited Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon, and Kerri Kenney (all of who also star), but after four seasons on air, this group flows well together, and the chemistry makes for some great laughs. The film also allows for some great cameos, with small-screen comedians like Chris Tallman and Michael Ian Black right alongside bigger names like Danny DeVito and Paul Rudd.

Like Borat, the humor of the show is that although the stars are communicating directly with the audience through the cameraman, they seem happily oblivious of how idiotic they are. This allows them to make their comedy stereotypes into blank slates that provide a near-constant stream of laughs, from the cowardly alpha-male S. Jones (Cedric Yarbrough) to the sassy, big-bootied black cop Raineesha (Niecy Nash) and her white wanna-be cohort, the pathetic Trudy Wiegel (Kerri Kenney). The freshest dose of humor is provided, however, by their leader, Jim Dangle (Thomas Lennon), who is well aware of how pathetic they are, and of how pathetic he is to need them as his only friends.

My admiration for Reno 911!: Miami stems from how well-directed and ambitious the film's sequences are. There are eruptions of blood to make Sam Raimi jealous, there are slow-car chase scenes that (because of the documentary film style) parody even parodies of car chases, and, in the best scene of all, a long pan of one wild night in the International Inn. Set to classical music, the film presents a wide array of comic gold as it moves from room to room on the two-floor building, ultimately climaxing with a zoomed out shot of what all of the officers ultimately wind up doing. This choreographed scene could stand on its own as a brilliant film; as is, it is sometimes dumbed down a little bit by the inept spoofing of Scarface.

Like Borat, much of the humor in Reno 911!: Miami involves wincing, and I won't repeat the best jokes here, because they are profane and because they deserve to keep their surprises. Just understand that there isn't anything in this film beyond the laughter: television characters don't grow any wiser on the big screen, especially when the comedy depends on their stupidity, and nothing ultimately changes. Why that would be a problem for anyone, I don't know: sometimes it's nice to just laugh.