Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Singing Forest

Photo/Carol Rosegg

"It's disgusting to use the Holocaust to distract from your own sins," shouts Laszlo (Randy Harrison), upset with his shrink-turned-lover, Oliver (Mark Blum). As it turns out, Oliver's finally being honest about his mother, Loë (Olympia Dukakis), and his billionaire nephew, Jules Ahmad (Louis Cancelmi), so he shouts back "Sometimes life just is preposterous, you know?" These two liberties end up forming the crux of Craig Lucas's latest play, The Singing Forest, a slovenly three-act play that aims to be about the farcical coincidences of serious drama but is instead a seriously inconsequential farcical drama.

In Lucas's defense, everything from the title to the ending is glib (The Singing Forest refers to the image of gays in Nazi Germany screaming as they were strung up from trees), so things are at least consistently inconsistent. And thanks to John McDermott's set of sliding doors, there's a visual reminder of how "God reveals himself in what we like to call coincidences." The play starts with clear segues, as Gray (Jonathan Groff) meets with a therapist, Shar (Rob Campbell), who then turns to his therapist, Oliver, to confess how he yearns for Gray. In turn, Oliver brags about this turn of events to Shar's ex, Laszlo--who happens to work at a Starbucks with Gray's girlfriend, Beth (Susan Pourfar), the same Starbucks in which Loë, Loë's daughter Bertha (Deborah Offner), and Loë's grandson Jules, all show up, albeit in ways in which they remain largely unrecognizable to one another. (Gray, meanwhile, is actually just shrink-shopping for Jules.)

As if that weren't exhausting enough, the scenes soon start overlapping with one another, forming odd parallels and taking on huge leaps. It is not enough, say, that Loë opts to run a sex-hotline as a way of secretively doling out psychiatric advice--she also takes on Gray as a client (he fears he no longer has an identity) and Shar, who falls in love for Loë's masked, older-male voice. Taking things one step further, the play leaps back in time--to Vienna during the rise of the Third Reich--with Loë watching her younger self (Pourfar) once again fail to save her friends, Sigmund Freud (Pierre Epstein) included. If it went anywhere, we could all sit back comfortably and proclaim Lucas to be a genius; instead, Lucas falls in love with his own juggling, which leads to the glibness of performance for performance's sake (and accounts for much of the bloated, near-three-hour production).

On the positive side of things, the cast is also swept up in this tide of performance, and director Mark Wing-Davey makes the most of the ridiculous to stage an amusing showdown in Staten Island. Characters hide in bathrooms, dressers, trunks, and under benches, brandishing guns and breaking down doors, though what this stands for or has to do with the overall theme of Freudian therapy (and the somewhat symbolic and only occasional use of Nazism to that end) is anyone's guess. If it's meant to provide contrast to Loë's past--rape and murder being no laughing matter--it fails. If anything, seeing Loë covered with the blood of a manipulative Nazi when the scene reverts to the present day is just more distracting: it's the mark of a failed illusion. It is, after all, disgusting to use the Holocaust as a distraction.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Tribeca 2009: Day 2

The House of the Devil

Ti West is absolutely the right person to film Cabin Fever 2, given the technical chops and old-school homage he gives to horror with The House of the Devil. Of course, after sitting through the more-than-technically creepy thrills of this film, he could just as easily shoot another entry in this series. While the baby$itting opportunity that collegiate Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) follows to her potential doom is one of those "too good to be true" offers, West's film manages to follow in the footsteps of '80s horror without getting tangled up in cliche: he refines it as a style that simply becomes "true" to that eerie period of ill-lit rooms, creaky old houses, hammily normal villians (in this case, the dead-on Tom Noonan), and, of course, blood rituals and satanism. (C'mon, the fact that it's a lunar eclipse should be a "dead" giveaway.)

If West's love for the period isn't evident enough from the title of the film (let alone the retro title sequence), the uneventful first thirty minutes (for a horror film, at least: nobody dies) should convince you of his scene-building intentions. From the look of a slice of pizza down to the dialogue between Samantha and her steely best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), from the music playing on her phone-book-sized Walkman (The Fixx's "One Thing Leads To Another") to the old-school sock-on-a-doorknob situation she faces back in her dorm room, it all seems real. Even Samantha's nervous mantra--"Keep it together"--plays on our expectations of the kittenish victim, slinking up dark stairwells, investigating strange sounds in the sink, and remarking on odd incongruities.

When the blood finally splatters, therefore, it has more of an effect, not less, and West orchestrates each sequence (especially the climax's use of ear-throbbing music) to get the most out of the shot. This also includes a lot of well-placed foreshadowing: a cigarette-lighter hints at the villain, the television's monster-movie broadcast parlays one old-school thriller for another, and people don't just run past bloody corpses--they slip over them. Of course, saying that House of the Devil is perfect for what it is has the downside of reminding audiences that it is exactly what it is, a niche retro horror flick. Of course, if ominous puns and frantic chase are your style, the film speaks for itself: "I promise to make this as painless for you as possible."


Don't be fooled by the fake commercial for Lunar Industries, a helium-mining operation on the moon that provides Earth with 70% of its power. Duncan Jones's clever one-man sci-fi drama, Moon, gets right to the nitty gritty, as a grizzly Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) suits up in a diry spacesuit and does his daily rounds as the lone on-site technican/astronaut for Lunar Industries. He's two weeks away from completing his three-year contract, his sanity maintained by the occasional messages from his wife and daughter, his work on a miniature model of his hometown, and the happy-faces projected by his robotic "friend," Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey).

Sam's unravelling a little bit, which is why, while recovering from a crash, he doesn't think much of seeing another version of himself. This second Sam, however, can't say the same for him--fresh out of the box, he puts the pieces together rather quickly, and aggressively seeks out the truth behind this three-year contract, suspecting Lunar Industries of some sketchy illegal cloning. Jones's utterly precise camerawork keeps things rolling, emphasizing the emptiness of space and how the odd presence of a second Sam confuses things. Rockwell delivers a great double-performance, too: by remaining low-key, he lends authenticity to his surroundings, and also finds enough of a common ground between the two Sams for there to be interesting friction over their differences, too (as when they play ping-pong).

There's not a lot of action in Moon, and the plot is a bit too simple given the speed at which it slowly unfolds (another twist would've gone a long way). However, by sticking with the ambiance, Jones manages to build a haunting feature film, one that's surprisingly eloquent on the subject of ethics in cloning, and the very idea of existence itself.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tribeca 2009: Day 1

Dazzle (Oogverblindend)

The idea of trying to "measure sorrow" with a "socially engaged" camera makes Cyrus Frisch a rather daring filmmaker. But as Dazzle yields more and more to classical conventions, his filmic poetry--in fact, even the randomness of some shots--starts to feel forced. What starts out as neo-voyeurism with a philosophical twist soon settles into a contrived long-distance romance.

For the first half of the film, we see only what Kira (Georgina Verbaan) sees (and has seen) as she dumps her problems onto the troubled Argentinian doctor (Rutgar Hauer) who has accidentally called her. She's become a social recluse because of the way she sees humanity, and Frisch helps to further distort the slanted, shaky view from her window by toying with digital effects, from grainy B&W to solarized shots, and he provides plenty of black screens to emphasize the free-associative idea of being lost in thought. And there's plenty to think about, for when Kira isn't watching the sun reflect off the canal by her apartment in Amsterdam, she's watching the depravities of the drugged-out homeless, realizing that she cares more for a mouse drowning in coffee than a man slowly going insane in the -15°C night. In fact, she blames them for making her feel terrible: "Why shouldn't I have the right to look the other way?" she asks.

The forced viewpoint of the camera and the stretches of static images compel us to really listen to what she's saying, so when Frisch suddenly abandons this conceit, showing us what Kira looks like, we're able to remove ourselves from such complicated thoughts. In contrast with the overhead, seemingly candid shots of the Amsterdam populace, these scenes also cannot help but seem acted. Things worsen as Kira fights to convince this doctor--whom she actually turns out to know, and love--not to kill himself over the guilt he feels for his unconscious contributions to the military's acts of torture. In the end, it's pedantic, not dazzling.

In The Loop

Few things lend themselves to comedy more readily than politics: for every bit of double-talk--in this case, that war is neither unforeseeable nor foreseeable--there's a double-take waiting to happen. In Armando Iannucci's brilliant satire, In the Loop, he leaves the reactions to the audience, trusting the blank looks of the hapless UK minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) and frothingly profane tirades of the communications chief Malcom Tucker (Peter Capaldi) to do the work. When that's not enough, he throws in Steve Coogan as a manic constituent, and then doubles down on the all-too-plausible idiocy of Toby Wright (Chris Addison), whose political ambitions as Simon's aide lead to leaked intel, romantic entanglements, and last-ditch waffling.

Aaron Sorkin would be proud of all the semantic twists that occur on the road to war with the Middle East, especially as an anti-war faction led by US Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and General Miller (James Gandolfini) face off with the pro-war manipulations of Linton Barwick (the perfectly cast David Rasche), using papers from their aides and politicos in the field as pawns in one wildly comic chess match. In addition to the distanced documentary-style shooting of the action, which keeps things feeling authentic, Iannucci fills each shot with sight gags, from the size-differential between Miller and Barwick to the sad evening Toby and Simon spend watching oceanography in their underwear, or the more overt laughs of Karen stuffing her bleeding mouth full of toilet paper, or Miller calculating the projected death toll on a little girl's talking calculator.

It's this use of contrast that ultimately puts war--and the big and small talk behind it--into perspective, and that hopelessly daft perspective itself that keeps the audience laughing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Artifacts of Consequence

Photo/Jeff Clarke

In the tradition of great plays, there are at least two ways to experience Ashlin Halfnight's terrific and wholly original Artifacts of Consequence. And director Kristjan Thor (as he did with Electric Pear's The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents) invests so much in the circumstances of both experiences--a romantic thriller--that we're constantly affected on multiple levels. Literally so, in fact: the play begins as the audience files in through the side door, becoming this world's privileged "evaluators."

In the first interpretation, "consequence" means importance, and refers to the clash between the romantic notions of Dallas (Jayd McCarty), a preservationist, and the realism of Minna (Rebecca Lingafelter), a survivalist. For Dallas, life isn't worth living without saving the beauty of the outside world--forget the practicality of Converse sneakers: he craves the magic of fiction, like The Crucible--whereas Minna, who maintains the labyrinthine archives of their post-disaster shelter, understands all too well the self-indulgent sacrifices of art. After all, without food (actually, FRPs: food replacement pills), there is no room for beauty.

This is the more chilling second interpretation: Dallas and Minna are the resulting artifacts (i.e., "of consequence") of the world's climactic decline. Despite clinging to routine in their shelter (shown by repeated dialogue), the water levels are still rising, contagions run rampant, and their girl Ari (Sara Buffamanti) will never be permitted to see the "above." Instead, she quotes from movies like Pretty Woman and learns from old issues of Glamour. Things grow more complicated in her small world when a stranger, Theo (Marty Keiser), arrives, giving her an outlet for her newfound sexuality.

Although Jennifer de Fouchier's industrial set makes it look utterly plausible, Artifacts of Consequence is actually a high concept play, and it's Halfnight's dialogue that sells it. Things not only make sense, but do so in surprising, revealing ways: Minna is protective of Ari, but shows it by giving Ari a copy of Deliverance to watch. Ari, who has had little experience with love, pulls moves from Dirty Dancing but also comes up with original nuggets of her own: "You make me want to go bake a meat pie with my heart!" Theo is attracted to Ari, and so he flirts back on her level (a stomach's gurgling has never been so poignant), and yet, fearful of being expelled from this poor-man's Eden, holds himself back. As for Dallas, he's practically beatific when talking about the first edition of Catcher in the Rye, but totally grounded when it comes to strangers.

It's so smooth that it takes us a moment to be taken aback when the actors start to address us, or come into our section to fix a leak. Sweetness is used as a weapon (you'll never look at a Twinkie the same way). Even a trio of blindfolded actors (Tobias Burns, Hanna Cheek, and Amy Newhall) being brought on stage to enact and help evaluate some of the more etherial artifacts cause only the slightest of eye-flutters. By the time you understand how all of this is changing the way we actually perceive and evaluate the world--for instance, a gentle rendition of Oklahoma's "Oh What A Beautiful Morning"--those flutters may have turned to unabashed tears.

It should go without saying that such originality avoids stereotypes, but it's worth repeating, especially for the cast's sake. Without McCarty's bright idealism, Buffamanti's fierce naivity, Keiser's nervy nervousness, or--especially--Lingafelter's desperate strength, the play might be dismissed as clever propaganda. Instead, it has put the "art" in artifacts and removed the "con" from consequence: Artifacts of Consequence is an important play that's a joy to watch.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Homer's Iliad (Book One)

Photo/Richard Termine

Aquila Theater bills their latest adaptation as Homer's Iliad (Book One), but if you just had flashbacks of stuffy classrooms, rest assured--it's not. It's Peter Meineck's Iliad, a seventy minute version of the first book (Homer had 24), and a hodgepodge of styles. Desiree Sanchez's silent, slow-motion movements mix with Stanley Lombardo's straight-talking, modern translation, and a smoke machine is much abused. Anthony Cochrane's score switches from industrial sounds of aircraft to classic chords, and this goes well with Meineck's stripped stage (a few military-grade crates) and dark, war-tattered uniforms. The tone of the piece changes so often, it's hard to say what it is, but here goes: by sticking to the Iliad (instead of making something new, like Banana Bag & Bodice's comically tragic Beowulf), Meineck has brought back the oral tradition in all its uneven glory.

At the play's start, the six-man ensemble somberly interjects narrative as Chryses begs Agamemnon to release his pillaged Trojan daughter, Chryseis; soon after, as Agamemnon and Achilles face off in a contest of petulance, the ensemble is in the midst of the action, announcing Achilles's thoughts even as they hold him back. By the play's end, the actors are cracking up in Olympus, watching Hephaestus trying to cheer up his mother, Hera, who is jealous of the favor Zeus plans to grant Achilles's mother. They also find time to sing (in Greek) a few drinking songs by the besieged gates of Troy. On second thought, it is a bit like being in a classroom, but only in the sense that every student reads the Iliad with a different spin: what Meineck's done is to push all these voices together, hoping to make real characters out of poetic descriptions.

Where he succeeds best is in the comic milieu, presumably because his actors know how to play that far better than some of the more fantastic "drama." Jay Painter begins the show as a bland father, Chryses, reciting lines--but he comes to life as the sarcastic old warrior, Nestor, and even more so as Zeus, punning on how he can "Hera" his wife coming. The ensemble helps to coax things along, too: Nathan Flower makes for a decently aggravated Agamemnon, a trait that gets some laughs when the cast "nominates" him to play Hephaestus. The drama isn't bad, and John Buxton shows more range to Achilles than that warrior is usually afforded, but it's hard to be serious when a Greek chorus is whispering your every move to the audience.

The one major faltering point of Meineck's Iliad--and it's a make-or-break moment--is that its reliance on stagecraft makes it a very transparent and artificial work. There's no sense of transportation; if anything, there's a constant awareness of the work itself. For some, being surprised by a neat trick--a gas-masked god whispering in Agamemnon's dreams--will be enough. Those awaiting a fuller illusion, however, are bound to be disappointed.

[Update (4/21 @ 11:21 AM): There are a lot of errors in the published reviews of this production, which speaks somewhat to how confusing this sort of stylistic interpretation can be if prior context is required. Taking responsibility for myself, I mistakenly called Achilles Apollo; I regret the error, and have corrected it.]

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Knives and Other Sharp Objects

Photo/Ari Mintz

There are a lot of spoiled people in Raul Castillo's sprawling Knives and Other Sharp Objects--that's the "point." Some are poor, like fifteen-year-old Beatrice (Noemi Del Rio), who can't sit still long enough to appreciate the sacrifices of her older sister, Alex (Joselin Reyes). Some are rich, like their cousin Lucy (Ana Nogueira), who has equal parts of her mother Lydia's (Candy Buckley) selfishness and her father Jaime's (Jaime Tirelli) stubborn laziness. And others are just carefree, like their other cousin, Loren (Amanda Perez), who picks up a much older soldier, Harvey (Ed Vassallo), at Hooters, only to later agree to sleep with his friend Perry (Angelo Rosso), lest he ship out to Iraq a virgin. But whereas August: Osage County showed that such displays could be demonstrative of greater issues (class, family, illness), Castillo's the truly spoiled one, giving in to Lucy's belief that "The actions are fine if you don't have to deal with the consequences."

Such is the fate of Alex and Beatrice, who leave Austin, Texas, almost exactly as they entered it, leaving the sudden melodrama of the second act--a marriage proposal, a mysterious and unredeemed crime--far behind them. At best, they've bonded a little, for Beatrice has seen her own shallowness reflected in Lucy, and Alex has seen just how tight she is compared to Loren, but Castillo can't sell a "happy family" built on the image of a broken home. It also doesn't account for the aimless, testosteronal subplots of hardassed men ("What do you want? A lick in the ass?"). Michael Ray Escamilla has to work entirely too hard as a comic and dramatic device--his character Manuel starts out begging Alex for a spare dress (did that disguise even work in Some Like It Hot?) and later begs his cousin, Eddie (David Anzuelo), not to drop him out of a helicopter. (Anzuelo has it rough, too; the only thing fleshed out about his character is that he's also a badass at gay bars.)

Perhaps in three acts, all those threads would lead somewhere sharp, but considering how forgettable Castillo's characters are, Knives and Other Sharp Objects could use some cuts instead. When things are restricted just to the family dynamics, director Felix Solis is able to play up the tension, using the long wooden width of Peter Ksander's set as if it were a chessboard--full of posturing, sure, but enough in advance that you don't see it coming. The cast tends to overact through the melodrama, but these focused moments give way to some nice work--for instance, when Manuel drops in unannounced on the family's private swimming pool, Buckley's Lydia pointedly covers up in a way that puts the embarassment squarely on his shoulders. Elsewhere, while a stolen-bike ride momentarily unites Lucy and Beatrice, Del Rio's confusion as Nogueira matter-of-factly explains the "three licks to a man's heart" tells us a whole lot about both girls's experience.

However, by avoiding specific consequences and sticking only to broad actions, Castillo barely scratches the surface. For all we know, Beatrice really did care more for her comic book collection than for her dying father--that's what happens when you use a butter knife to cut steak.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Angela's Mixtape

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Eisa Davis was born on May 5th, 1971, Karl Marx’s birthday, and you can bet her macrobiotic, anti-capitalist mother never let her forget it. As a baby, she was taken to visit her unjustly imprisoned aunt, Angela Davis. Caught up in rebellion from birth, her identity has been used as a tool, and that brings us to the present, her need to remix her memoir, asking “With the shame of fame, on the blame terrain, how do I live up to my name?” But for all the classic style Eisa brings—illuminated prints of her family warm Clint Ramos’s homey set, or the old-school cassette-playing boombox—Angela’s Mixtape is missing the beat (it’s well below the 100 BPM it needs). Within the play, Eisa recounts how her mother made her perform political monologues from Angela’s autobiography; though she’s grown into a talented actress (with a terrific voice) and performing her own autobiography, it's still just as performed.

Much of this stems from Eisa’s choice to share the stage with other actors: “Mom (Kim Brockington), Grandma (Denise Burse), Auntie (Linda Powell), and Cuz (Ayesha Ngaujah) are here to help me with my lines,” she sings. There’s nothing wrong with getting help to tell a memoir if you use it to spark confrontation (look at Lisa Kron’s Well), but Eisa does the opposite by putting other people front and center and allowing the comedy (oh that bubbly Ngaujah and her lessons on gospel and hip-hop) to be the only mood. What Eisa’s chosen to show us of her childhood at Berkley and college years at Harvard don’t have much for dramatic hardship (her biggest conflict: “Are you mixed?”). By not walking a mile in the oppressed footsteps of her mother and aunt—and because she’s chosen a jumpy narrative structure (a mix)—Angela’s Mixtape often feels secondhand: it’s never really in the moment. (This is the polar opposite of April Yvette Thompson’s solo show, Liberty City.)

This isn’t to say that Angela’s Mixtape isn’t personal, though: her childhood perspective on Reagan’s “liberation” of Grenada is quite different from the government’s anti-Cuba spin, and she does struggle to find herself in school: “I am the saddest, happiest, and most creative I have ever been,” she exclaims at one point. However, when visits with Chuck D and Toni Morrison are condensed to ten-second scenes, it seems more like showing off than actually showing, and though it’s clear that the actress Eisa has changed from her experiences in Africa, you can’t tell from her three-minute trip there in the play. That’s one of the problems with mixtapes—they’ve often got a whole other history built in for the intended listener, and Angela’s Mixtape is meant for her family.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

metaDRAMA: Recaps & Editorial Fears

Not much to recap with Rock Of Ages, since I find myself agreeing with most people, but while reading reviews, I was struck by what seems to be an ominous sign. Andy Propst (who, like me, writes without an editor) calls the drugged-out lead singer of Arsenal "Stacee Jazz" (instead of Stacee Jaxx). Patrick Lee (for TheaterMania, but who I blog with) spells the director's name "Kristin Hanngi" and Matt Windman (for amNewYork) calls her "Kristin Hangii," when the correct spelling is "Kristin Hanggi." There are some other minor underestimations (there's actually over thirty songs sampled in the show, not a mere two dozen, and I don't think they're all "metal rock"), and none of these issues actually affect the readability of the review (well, I really liked Propst and Lee's write-ups), but shouldn't we be concerned? Since I've made more than a few errors myself, I'll use this as an opportunity instead to reiterate, to those who think there's a big difference between critics who are backed up by institutions and bloggers who are out there on their own, well . . .

And just to follow up with yesterday's point about using disclaimers in reviews, NY1's Roma Torre points out that: " 'Rock of Ages' is not for everyone, but I bet a lot of people who wouldn't expect to like this goofy musical will be smitten." Unlike yesterday's specific examples, however, this is a rather generic statement, and as I'm wearing my editorial hat today, I'd want to cut it--the review itself should tell us this. But now I'm just nitpicking and totally ignoring Torre's audience, most of whom will be hearing this, and not reading it. So here's a leading question for future reviews and recaps: does/should a critic's audience matter, or should the show supersede all?

I'll end with this: agree with him or not, Isherwood's a fabulously descriptive writer, even if he does spend a few too many words on himself; you can check out his lengthy rave here.

metaDRAMA: Doin' What We Do (Part Two)

Earlier this week I spoke briefly about Andrew Haydon's post on The Guardian website, but neglected to reference the one he was referring to, Matt Trueman's. (And why does the New York Times's not have anything similarly provoking? Their ArtsBeat is nothing more than a poor, POV-less agglomerate. I'd rather read Vulture for that stuff.) In any case, here are my thoughts on Trueman's article (and for more, you can see Leonard Jacob's response here).

It begins with the question: "Where are all the young critics?" reminding us that while Kenneth Tynan and Michael Billington were 25- and 26-year-old first-string critics in 1952 and 1965, respectively, that sort of elevation would never happen today, because "in contemporary criticism, authority is everything, and it is nothing without both expertise and experience." This is true to an extent, but it's naive to expect that everyone will have the "10,000 hours supposedly required to achieve expertise," a figure that translates, very roughly, to either 5,000 shows (which, at my exaggerated rate of 200 shows a year, would still take me 25 years), or to 2,500 shows (and 12.5 years), if we add in the time spent actually writing the review. (You can shave off 1.5 more years if you include the time spent reading reviews, but that's a poor man's apprenticeship.)

I like numbers, so let me dwell on this point for a bit, especially since, as a blogger unattached to the mainstream media, you will not be getting paid. That's a generous 12.5 years if you can do all of this reviewing while you work a full-time job (or worse, struggle to make ends meet by freelancing). I can write something like this during a lunch break, and I can work on a review after hours, but people desperately seeking the next paycheck are probably not going to have that same luxury. And let me tell you, doing this will make you burn out and, sadly, shortchange certain things. I wouldn't publish my reviews if I didn't think they were up to a minimum level of quality (and apologies to anyone out there whose show I saw and did not write a review of, all three of you). But how frustrating it is, both to me and any readers, to run into a wall of "minimum level," at any point. No wonder some people turn off, and why the field is shrinking. (This phenomenon, I suspect, is even more frustrating to small companies with budget problems, as their first-time audiences probably won't be coming back.)

Just this March, I wrote 19 reviews--roughly 10,000 words--and I'm sure I made some mistakes along the way. I understand now why there are editors and first-string critics who attend shows and do not write about them, though it's a luxury I--without a major publication behind me--do not have, nor particularly want, considering that I'm seeing these shows to write about them and because I want to. It's really just the time that's a factor. If you take last year, when I reviewed 250 shows--125,000 words--it's more or less the equivalent of writing two works of non-fiction . . . in my part time.

So Trueman is right to ask where tomorrow's critics are going to come from. The ones coming out of graduate school are likely to be in debt, which means they'll have to pander to whatever style the newspaper wants--i.e., less critical, more general. (These people are also likelier to be less creative--no offense--as they'll have "book" smarts as opposed to "street" smarts, that irreplaceable understanding, appreciation, and (yes) love of new trends. We have to be careful of the sort of critic we create (something Haydon was getting at), and more so, of the sort of respect we bestow upon "the greats." Does every review of a modern playwright need to refer back to a classical source? It was Taylor Mac ("Who?" asks the graduate student) who begged his audience of potential critics to simply describe, without comparison, what he was doing. (This is not to say that context isn't important, but more that there are layers.)

Part of the answer to this problem is one that some theaters have already addressed by inviting bloggers--often "young critics with new platforms"--to write about their work. Any theater with a blog or a website should, on some level, be looking to do this. MTC, MCC, NYTW, and Playwrights have all experimented with this, and hopefully they'll continue to do this, especially when premiering work that they write about on their own blogs as being "groundbreaking." It trickles down, too: individual directors, playwrights, and even actors have sent out blogger invites. Granted, they're often looking for honest coverage of an unpublicized show in a loft somewhere, but there's no reason why that can't help to grow critics, too.

What's really needed, then, are agglomerates that help theaters figure out which bloggers to contact. If standards and accredatation are needed, all we can really do is create them ourselves, as with Show Showdown (the validation of which I'm sure was helped by being mentioned in the New York Times). Instead of requiring 10,000 hours, perhaps it would require a blog to review 30 shows before adding their feed to the aggregate. And on an even lower tier, group blogs might require even fewer prior standards--say, one sample review--that would allow individuals a platform with which to be seen in the first place. In this way, the wisdom of the masses would help to identify the voices that would represent them--sort of like the way our government is supposed to work--and in this way the mom-and-pop blogger could stand on level ground with the corporate critic (I am exaggerating these terms for emphasis).

Let's get back to the reality of Trueman, who worries that "a total lack of payment reduces young critics to amateur enthusiasts," and it's true. While the above may help to identify qualified people from all backgrounds, it doesn't actually help to support them, and believe me, I'm frustrated that I have so little time to "broaden [my] perspectives by engaging with other art forms and the world beyond." (That's why I'm thrilled by festivals--not just the Fringe, but also the stuff at 59E59 and Under the Radar--as they help me keep my eyes open.) Again, the masses could help: rather than advertise, perhaps we could prevail upon communities to contribute--a dime from every reader, a dollar from every theater? Of course, NY theater coverage is a niche--it can't be transported (like TV, music, movies), so you're unlikely to get the sort of numbers you'd need for that to support a full-time interest.

What that leaves, as Trueman susses out, is subsidization by the same organizations that send grants to emerging artists, on the grounds that critics "are considered paramount to the overall health of the arts." Well, that's the big question at the end of a long ramble, then. Are we?

Rock of Ages

Photo/Joan Marcus

There's more at the heart of Rock of Ages than just the tried-and-true love story of a would-be rocker, Drew aka Wolfgang Von Colt (Constantine Maroulis), and the aspiring actress from the Midwest, Sherrie (Amy Spanger, who despite playing innocent, is still sultrifying). There's also its homage to the soul of rock 'n' roll on the Sunset Strip, represented here by the Whiskey A Go Go stand-in, The Bourbon Room, and its delightfully unhumble narrator, Lonny (Mitchell Jarvis). The show, which started at New World Stages, has now comfortably moved to Broadway, using "We Built This City" to signify the jukebox sampling that builds the 80s soundtrack and also its debts to Broadway theatrics. Like Xanadu, there are a lot of not-so-inside jokes, but Rock of Ages is more accessible, from the song catalogue to the American Idol "star," and, ironically, its insistence on leaping across the fourth-wall to point out the conventions of musical theater (so that it can follow them without alienating younger, jaded theatergoers).

All this self-reference helps Chris D'Arienzo avoid his biggest problem: artificiality. After all, "You've gotta be honest with your audience," says the Bourbon Room's owner, Dennis (Adam Dannheisser). "That lets them understand how you feel." To this, Drew responds by covering Warrant's "Heaven" and yet, because the stage has been set for it, the karaoke-ish performance manages to satisfy (though never to move, unless you count waving the fake lighters handed out at the theater as a way to order drinks from your seat). The contrived use of songs is also rather well handled by the delightfully hammy supporting actors, like James Carpinello's bad boy Stacee Jaxx, who sings "Wanted Dead or Alive" with his crotch as much as his mouth, and Wesley Taylor's repressed German Franz, who finally gets the chance to rebel against his father with "Hit Me Vith Your Best Shot." Ethan Popp's arrangements and Kelly Devine's choreography help, too (making their surnames quite appropriate), especially when solo songs are split into duets or mashed up for duels. ("I Hate Myself For Loving You" works surprisingly well against "Heat of the Moment.")

The 80s have become a genre at least as much as the modern Broadway musical, and Kristin Hanggi's direction helps the show succeed as a tribute instead of a generic knock-off. From the fake billboards sweeping out into the box seats to the tacky projected palm trees that occasionally jut onto Beowulf Boritt's louche bar, Hanggi forcefully embraces all that's good and bad about the show, speeding through awkward riffs from "We're Not Gonna Take It," acknowledging the fans with an introduction to the Venus Club's strippers set to "Anyway You Want It," and drawing out the irony of hard-to-stage songs like "The Final Countdown," which is now used for the evil German construction conglomerate. It's telling that the program doesn't list the songs of this musical: then again, they're not used as songs so much as they are as citations of authenticity.

With it's limited scope, Rock of Ages isn't a show for the ages, but it is one for all ages, and it's certainly the right show for now: after all, we wanna rock (and laugh).

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

metaDRAMA: Recaps & "The Acknowledgment"

One of the things I love about reading Critic-O-Meter is that it's really easy for me to examine my own unconscious biases, let alone to see them. For instance, with Why Torture Is Wrong, I came across as F+, though I suspect that's pretty true in retrospect--good as the director's use of Kristine Nielsen's acting and David Korins's set is, I didn't think there was all that much to salvage. And yet, I threw in what I'll call an "acknowledgment," saying that those who liked David Mamet's November (my hatred for it put me in the minority) would feel at home with Christopher Durang's latest.

As far as I'm concerned, that's the right move to make. After all, I may not like something, but if there's potential merit in it for someone else, I'd like to be able to represent that. I'm going to have a slant on any review, sure, but I don't want to put blinders on a reader. It's refreshing, then, to see that even a critic who enjoyed the play made acknowledged a potential bias. Back Stage's Adam R. Perlman notes that "If Durang's absurdism--more South Park than Ionesco--hasn't previously been to your taste, this play isn't likely to convert you." Not only is that a great description of Durang's absurdism (Newsday's Linda Weiner also has a nice bit about Durang's "unwavering trust in the power of the truly silly"), but it clarifies the sort of humor Perlman is inclined toward.

In any case, I like Variety's David Rooney and his context-providing example (mainly because it agrees with my perspective): "In his best plays, Durang peels back the wacky exteriors to show the sorrowful depths beneath his characters, but no such surgery takes place here." Again, save for a few lame sight gags and sketchy characters, I don't deny that Durang is funny--only that his laughs are exceptional empty these days, more so considering that he's set himself up to tackle a big issue. (Ben Brantley references "graphic" events that occur on-stage . . . I'm not sure what he's referring to, or perhaps he's forgotten Blasted.) But this all fits with my perspective of a critic's job: acknowledge what the playwright is trying to do, and then describe whether or not s/he has succeeded in doing so. The trick, as they say, is also remembering to acknowledge your gut.

Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them

Photo/Joan Marcus

According to John Yoo’s infamous memo, it’s only torture if it causes organ failure. Legally, then, Christopher Durang is off the hook; though he throws everything at the wall in his new play, hoping to fracture a funny bone or two, the audience is likely to survive both acts. Whether they’ll want to is quite another story: Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them is his most “duranged” play. Durang is right to assign Looney Tunes nicknames to the torturers in this play, but he grows so absurd that he struggles to make a point. (Our extremism is just as bad as their extremism?) Given how poorly his jokes promote the plot—instead of dealing with terrorism, he pokes fun at theater; instead of dealing with a bad marriage, he waxes poetic on porn—it’s no surprise that Durang eventually jettisons the whole plot, settling on a deus ex Hooters love story instead.

However, the joke’s really only on people who expected something sharper from such a potent title. Those who enjoyed David Mamet’s November will feel right at home here: from the moment Felicity (Laura Benanti) wakes up in a hotel with Zamir (Amir Arison), telegraphing her shock with a grimace to the audience, things keep going further over the top. It turns out they’re actually married! Zamir, who claims to be Irish, seems more and more like a date-raping terrorist with no patience for the a-word (annulment)! And neither of Felicity’s parents, an arts-loving liberal and a gun-toting conservative, have the slightest attachment to reality!

In the hands of experts like Kristine Nielsen, who plays Felicity’s ditzy, theater-obsessed mother, this is, at worst, hilarious: who knew the face had so many muscles? Other actors, like Richard Poe, who plays Felicity’s opinionated father, can only ham up their lines, trying to project their way out of the one-dimensional box their characters are locked in. The most hastily sketched roles—Voice (David Aaron Baker) and Hildegarde (Audrie Neenan)—aren’t even funny, they’re just embarrassing: at one point, Baker is reduced to speaking in Looney Tune quotes, and Neenan’s panties keep dropping, a desperate plea for laughs. Only John Pankow, who plays the porn-producing Reverend Mike (a “porn-again Christian”), manages the straight-faced grace necessary to get through that mindless minefield.

Though Durang wanders all over the place, he is very well served by director Nicholas Martin’s eye for detail—the “happy” family settled in a breakfast “nook,” enjoying their “Freedom” toast. He also has a miracle of a set, thanks to David Korins; each location is arranged in a circle (of which only one wedge is visible): this not only allows quick transitions but also establishes a much needed sense of place amidst the madness. It does a better job of conveying the theme than the text does, for its surfaces actually hide things, whereas the dialogue only screams them. This is Durang’s usual tact—the father, preparing for torture, says “I hope you understand the seriousness of your situation,” when in fact everything around him undercuts that seriousness, strips it of whatever moral justification the Yoos of this world have given it. It’s just a shame that in this instance, the lack of focus undercuts Durang’s own absurdity.

Hildegard’s panties adequately describe Why Torture Is Wrong: all that stretched-out elastic causes her underwear to keep dropping. When she’s called on it (“They’re down about your ankles like some insane shoe accessory”), she replies, “I’m not doing it on purpose. Just ignore it. You should be looking at my face anyway.” Well, Durang’s not going off on all these riffs on purpose either (which is the problem)—it’s just the manic way he writes. At least the set gives it a pretty face!

Monday, April 06, 2009

metaDRAMA: Doin' What We Do

So . . . how exactly does one become a theater critic, anyway? (Not that this is exactly the best time in the world to do so.) Education only takes you so far, and unless you're independently wealthy, seeing enough shows to gain "experience" can be difficult, too. It's hard to believe that there's much mentoring going on these days, or that there are apprenticeships. There are things like the O'Neill National Critics Institute or internships with, say, American Theater, but most of those require either funding or the Catch-22 requisite of prior experience. And while Mirror Up To Life points out this great article by Andrew Haydon in The Guardian, it's worth noting that the "Young Critic's Scheme" was an overseas-only collaboration between Time Out and BAC. (As to Haydon's question of whether mentoring threatens to stifle originality in the review format, that really depends on the type of teaching being done, as well as on the inky chains of word counts.) MCC has an excellent youth company, but I have yet to find one that seeks to cultivate criticism, too.

Though I've agglomerated with fellow critic-bloggers at Show Showdown, seen the so-called Blog Critics site, and had the opportunity to weigh in at the elegant Critic-O-Meter, I've never really had this discussion--I'm not sure how to approach critics who have been in the game for a long time. (The few that I have met with were kind enough to reach out, which says a lot about them.) This is something I'm now getting far more serious about at Theater Talk's New Theater Corps, and we hope to start organizing workshops for the members (and to find new ways of reaching and recruiting writers) that perhaps provide moderated discussions, the opportunity to shadow professionals, or just to continue providing basic editorial suggestions.

In other words, the answer to this question is: I don't know. I'm glad that people find this site useful, and I'd call myself a critic, but I don't even know what criticism is turning into, so if there are steps to take, I certainly can't share them. What I can say, however, is that if you're blogging and serious about theater--which was, for me, the first step--you should check out Ken Davenport's "Theater Bloggers Social" (h/t Leonard Jacobs). I think top-down discussion (provocative/thoughtful post leading to colorful commentary) is the format in which we're going (just look at media sites, like Hulu, which append reviews/discussions to every streaming show/movie), and I'm looking forward to the chance to meet more people who do what I do--so that I can figure out where I'm going next.


[Reviewed for Show Business Weekly]

The good and bad of the Pearl Theatre’s revival of Tartuffe is clearest when Damis (Sean McNall) leaps from a closet to protect his mother, Elmire (Rachel Botchan), from the lecherous advances of the not-so-pious Tartuffe (Bradford Cover). Hamming it up, he falls out ass backward, though he turns this collapse into a sprightly roll. Sam Fleming’s terrific costuming telegraphs his every move — we can tell from his foppish mane of golden hair and his gaudy garb that he’s going to fail, but that, in failing, he’s going to be hilarious. That he should run out of breath while ranting is both youthful inexperience and passion — in any case, he’s committed. In other words, although Gus Kaikkonen’s rendering of Moliere goes overboard, it never drowns.

It does, however, sag — especially if you’re not familiar with the Pearl’s dedicated troupe of resident actors. Too much of the show is about them: Moliere’s specificity is washed away by boisterously disconnected work. They nail their blocking — the play opens with the sound of an approaching argument — but they don’t think about it. That’s why the energy drops when Mme. Pernelle (Carol Schultz) first steps into Harry Feiner’s tapestry-covered dining room: Nobody’s actually heated enough to follow through without the aid of lines or specific actions. This leads to missed beats, and those brief pauses pockmark Richard Wilbur’s excellent translation of the rhymed couplets.

This disconnect between actions and dialogue (or between actors and motivation) leads most of the cast to compensate the only way they can: by getting bigger and bigger. At one point, Tartuffe turns to the audience and shrugs, as if he can’t believe Orgon’s stupidity either, before taking a maliciously evil bite of an apple; it’s the show’s lowest point, for it strips away the little humanity that Cover’s performance has left it.

Thankfully, Tartuffe is a waterproof show, helped by the floatation devices of the cast’s strong female players (Robin Leslie Brown, Carrie McCrossen, and Botchan) whose directness helps them stay connected. And if in the end we’re laughing more at the flailing about of the actors than at the very funny play itself, we are still, after all, laughing.

metaDRAMA: Too Long For Twitter

Still not using Twitter. But if I were, I'd be mulling over this old unquestioned chestnut:

Minds are like parachutes; both work best when open.
Except that's not true, is it? I mean, a parachute works best at breaking your fall when it's open. But it would be pretty terrible if your parachute were open when trying to board the plane, or trying to jump out of it. In fact, that's the very reason they're closed in the first place. The moral is either (A) sometimes your mind has to be closed (i.e., creativity requires being stubborn to a certain degree) or that (B) being open means not accepting anything at face value: it's not right just because people have been doing or saying it for years.

Either way, you're probably going to get tangled up in a propeller.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage

Beowulf and baggage—two alliteratively perfect things for the audacious company Banana Bag & Bodice to tackle in Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage. There are shades of John Gardner’s revisionist Grendel, but Dave Malloy and Jason Craig’s songplay is a beast of a different sort, focusing neither on Beowulf’s point of view nor Grendel’s but rather on the subjective interpretations of three damnable academics. The result is a clash between the physical reality of Beowulf (Craig) and the gleeful spin of the academics, who justly double as the villains of the epic poem: Grendel (Christopher Kuckenbaker), Grendel’s Mother (Jessica Jelliffe), and the Dragon (Beth Wilmurt). Oh, and the whole thing’s set to Malloy’s nicely hodge-podged music, be it feedback (“Overture”), jungle-like techno (“Beowulf Arrives”), punk (“Body”), a dirge (“Grendel’s Death”), or even Broadway (“Ripped Him Up Good”).

The company’s set design helps to show the various levels of the play: The academics sit in a recessed portion of the stage up front, only their heads visible, while the action occurs on a raised white platform that is surrounded by the band and, upstage, by a wall of fans. But it’s Rod Hipskind’s fluid directing that nails the emotional levels, allowing Grendel’s mother to keen for her son (“I don’t fucking care how fucking men my fucking son murdered/they all fucking deserved what fucking ass pushers in fancy dress”) even as she wears arm floaters to signify that the scene’s taking place underwater. It’s a good balance for Craig’s language, which has a childish directness (e.g., “strong strength” and “sick weird weirdo sicko”) that allows the actors to seriously play with action figures one moment and comically go to slaughter the next.

Juggling all of these different elements requires a lot of energy—at one point, the chorus of warriors (Shaye Troha and Anna Ishida) runs up and down the aisles like cheerleaders, pumping us up. These efforts inevitably ebb, especially after the big numbers—like the armlock-filled dissonance of “The Battle” or the hilarious dioramic depiction of the “Underwater Battle.” Thankfully, it always builds back up, eventually reaching a surprising climax sung in “Olde English” and the elegant elegy “Passing.” Though some of the scenes are overcooked, the variety of styles and spices keep the show fresh, and though some of the interstitial gristle is unwieldy, it only serves to make the meaty action all the juicier.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

What Sounds Cool: April 2009

Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage (3/31 - 4/18) | I've only seen Banana Bag & Bodice's The Fall and Rise of the Rising Fallen, and I didn't like it -- and yet, I can't stop thinking about the punk aesthetic, the warbling lyricism of the text, and the absurd design of the production. To match that, then, with Beowulf . . . unforgettable indeed, and the trailer they've posted (along with pull quotes like "that was fucking awesome") only furthers that.

Homer's ILIAD: Book One (3/31 - 4/25) | Aquila's adaptations are always at least visually pleasing (Prometheus Unbound), and their last show was dramatically adept, too (Catch-22). The Iliad is pretty daunting, but that just makes me all the more excited to see how they're going to manage it, especially given what looks like a contemporary flair.

Rock of Ages (open) | How American, that this 80s jukebox musical should rise from the New World (Stages) to reach Broadway. I'm not normally a fan of mindless entertainment, but sometimes you need to just cut loose, and from all the buzz I've heard, this is the right show for the right time.

Angela's Mixtape (4/6 - 5/2) | I love New Georges's commitment not just to female playwrights but to INTERESTING ones, ones with unique voices, styles, and flair. Their latest production deals with the mixing of memories and music (literally and figuratively). There's a hip-hop rhythm, but it looks like there's a substantial theatrical backbeat, too.

Artifacts of Consequence (4/16 - 5/2) | It's no secret that I think Electric Pear's been doing some of the more creative theater work in this town, so it's a pleasure to see the sort of play that their artistic director, Ashlin Halfnight, has been cooking up. The director, Kristjan Thor, has already proven to be adept with unique material (The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents), as has at least one of the actresses (Hannah Cheek).

Pretty Theft (4/24 - 5/17) | Another company of note is Flux Ensemble, which has been steadily producing new work (or taking on daunting repertory trilogies) for some time now. Their latest play is written by the nervy Adam Syzmkowicz and features the physical Todd D'Amour; the crime here would be not stealing a ticket to check this out.