Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Adventure Quest

Photo/Kimberly Craven

Not to let the grue out of the box, but Adventure Quest, a gleefully insane MS-COMEDY parody of Infogrames/Sierra-era video games is a post-modern hit. It's a complex, next-generation action-romance, hiding out in 8-bit form. It could fit on an eight-inch floppy, but the ideas are ten feet tall and firm. Even if you've never played a work of "interactive fiction" before (modern, freeware examples found here), Richard Lovejoy's homage is so endearingly specific and Adam Swiderski's direction is so well .EXEcuted that you won't need a walkthrough to get the most of these performances.

The basic premise of text-based adventure games, and hence of Adventure Quest, is that a hero must navigate a series of logically abstruse tasks, armed with only a maddeningly limited supply of vocabulary words and an even shorter supply of acceptable syntax. The hysterical difference here is that Hero (Kent Meister) is the victim of such rules, not the audience, and so we are free to delight in the schadenfreude of watching Hero try to figure out his purpose in life as he moves from "screen" to "scene."

Complicit in the illusion is the crack technical team from Sneaky Snake Productions: Jamie Melani Marshall provides intentionally crude 2D backdrops, Chris Chappell contributes quality MIDI music, and Marc Borders and Jim Hammer deck the characters in the lively, easily identifiable character costumes of the time. This leaves the ensemble free to bring each scene to life, "animating" the foreground with their meticulously blocked actions, which, as in the games that they so enthusiastically imitate, must be looped.

All this, of course, is just grand homage--a show of technical chops and understanding. What takes Adventure Quest to the next level is how accessibly specific it gets. Because the Hero is self-aware, we're able to laugh along as he meta-games the more ridiculous puzzles, attempting to combine and use parts of his inventory on everything he comes across, often to comic effect. Not only is a "Fishbroomrope" something that you might have actually made in, say, Quest for Glory, but the idea of picking up your own "Crippling Depression" is a nice twist on the way Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had you remove your own "Logic" in order to make "No Tea." These references are specific, but Hero's emotions are broad, which is what keeps everyone laughing. After dying, the computer voice (Alley Scott) dispenses nonsense wisdom (like "That will teach you to walk into a room"), leading our Hero to reboot in a state of panic, frustratedly attempting actions like "Waggle cock at guard," though he knows the computer will only tell him "You can't do that."

The show doesn't just mock the repetitious, counterintuitive gameplay, fun as it is to watch Danny Bowes answer the same question the same way, or to see Timothy McCown Reynold's excellent physical control as he pesters the Hero to "buy a curse of a death." (Even novices probably understand how that ends up.) No, there's a love story here, too: Hero falls for Peasant Girl (Sarah Malinda Engelke), and she's wild about him too--though her character's scripting only allows her to express it in the terms "Thank you for rescuing me" as she continues to sweep the same four places in her home.

Thankfully, once Adventure Quest has well and made its point, it starts to break the rules. ("All the better to make you laugh, my dear!") For a game so grounded on repetition, it constantly surprises the audience with twists and turns, especially as Peasant Girl begins to play her own game. In fairness, the play is so clever that the endgame can't help feeling rushed and exhausted, but at least the cast plays it to the hilt.

C:\>run to_see_AdventureQuest.exe

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Photo/Carl Skutsch

A werewolf, pirate, clown, skeleton, and fairy princess walk into a Dunkin' Donuts. (Well, two of them are in wheelchairs, and one's on crutches). Not only have you not heard this one before, but it quickly becomes apparent--around the time that Shelly loosens her lockjaw grip on a Blow Pop to quietly announce "[My dad] said he was sorry that guy raped me"--that under the cute costumes and the clever banter, Kristin Newbom's Telethon isn't kidding around. It's a Clubbed Thumb production (the final third of their 2009 Summerworks series), so it is of course "funny, strange, and provocative," but under Ken Rus Schmoll's savagely direct staging, you'll want to check your preconcieved notions at the door.

Newbom quickly sets the stage: Scott (Greg Keller) and Ann (Christina Kirk) sort their earnings, as their crippled wards, Jerry (Andrew Weems) and Shelly (Birgit Huppuch) grab one another's goats. Their compadre Gary (Debargo Sanyal) would contribute, but he's got a muscular paralysis (ala Hawkings), and so contents himself to contribute arm-shakes of attentive agreement and the occasional reminder: "Aaahm hammaseccccuaahhl." The same sad rhythm holds true for the increasingly piatiable scenes, set during Christmas (manger costumes) and Easter (in rabbit regalia), and the actors deliver such consistent performances that it takes a long time to notice how increasingly bare their circumstances are.

What works so effectively is that while we fall in love with these characters--each needy in their own right--the five of them are unable to love one another. Ann and Scott perhaps lust for one another, but the former is too chilled by her creditors to think of much beyond her job and her child, and the latter is crippled himself by panic attacks. Jerry and Shelly pick at one another, but only as the best of not-really-enemies can--Jerry lashes out not from any real anger, but rather from a lack of memory, and Shelly's too blissfully aware of her own victimization to get beyond it, which is why she's right to say she doesn't "get good milage" from being damaged goods. This makes the way they try to one-up each other--to participate, or simply function--all the more tragic. And then there's Gary, who understands love, but has to spend an entire scene pecking out his explanation for it on the computer: "[Love] always seems to arrive, in one form or another, humble or exalted."

Telethon is humblingly beautiful--a tragedy dressed up in a comic's rags. It shines all the more if you consider that this rag-tag group to be a stand-in for anyone in America who is downtrodden and easily dismissed. It's a harsh enough indictment to count charity entirely in crinkled dollar bills--but it's damning to realize the way in which we've franchised it . . . at the disenfranchised cost of compassion and love.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Photo/Ryan Jensen

It's an almost impossible task to theatrically represent the dangers of Internet life in a way that does not diminish either them, or the play itself. Using a tabbed, ADD-riddled narrative leaves us with nothing to connect to, as does filling that show with anonymous relationships and emotionless, overshared information. Thankfully, Waterwell's musical approach to material gives them an edge (honed through years of collaboration), in the sense that even a wild miss would be wildly entertaining. #9, their latest production, is entertaining, but the challenge they're up against is such that it isn't for long. "We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us," reads Marshall McLuhan's warning for the Digital Age, and that's what's happened here: Waterwell spends the first forty minutes establishing their own world and then gets tangled in it for the last hour. (At least it sounds good.)

At first, Hanna (Hanna Cheek), is a bartender/actor who is reluctantly coming to terms with having an online presence--"Even Zelda Fitzgerald has one." But as her phone continues to call itself, she fractures into an other-self that sings in the electronic lounge known as Echoland, a device that would be cooler--as would the trick mirror that inspires it--if it actually went somewhere. In the flush of finding out that he's going to be a dad, Matt (Matt Dellapina) gives Waterwell an opportunity to showcase their range, as each new website he clicks through sings in a different style. However, his story seems to hit a broken link after he gets in touch with his 3D baby self, just as things get too fragmented for David (David Ryan Smith) after his father dies--David plays himself acting as his father and then actually as his father. The one story that follows through completely is Kevin's (Kevin Townley): after some online dating, he decides to find his lost love from fifteen years ago. It's unclear why McLuhan shows up in his bed and ends up in Echoland, but at least he rocks out while he's there.

Today, most people cope with the Internet by dealing with very small sections at a time, refusing to stray far from the safety of bookmarks, aggregates, and trusted links. Tom Ridgely is a great director, but he's too bold of an explorer in this instance. Alex Koch's video design is neat, but the text that pops up all over is unreadable, and effects like Hanna's digital shadow are occasionally lost amidst the flickering. Nick Benacerraf's built a terrific three-tiered set, but Ridgely moves so fast that he often forgets to use the upper level. Previous shows like Marco Million$ and The/King/Operetta worked so well because they kept the focus on a central plot or a central character--in #9, everything just keeps branching out. In that regard, the music benefits: the show would make a terrific revue. The final song, "Did You Mean," pitches elements from all the previous scenes at the audience--but would just as effectively rebuke the distractions of the Interweb even without context. In that light, it may be time for Waterwell to clear out their cache and run the defragger.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Marathon 2009: Series B

Photo/Zack Brown

It's not entirely clear who Ensemble Studio Theatre is hustling, but if you saw Marathon 2009: Series A and weren't impressed, that's because they saved the best for Series B. These five plays aren't just comparatively better, either--they're the strongest short plays to premiere this year. They all play it comparatively safe, but each piece finds a nice riff on a different theatrical style, from the mania of "Little Duck" to the comic nihilism of "Sundance," from the deep-seated sorrow of America's war wounds in "Daughter" to the uncomfortable family relationships in "Blood From a Stoner" or just the sweet, day-by-day humor of "Carol & Jill."

How good? Christopher Durang might want to start taking tips from Billy Aronson, after seeing the office politics of "Little Duck" in action. What starts simply enough--Holly (Jane Pfitsch) seducing her boss, Robert (Paul Bartholomew), to get a chance to work with her idols on developing a children's book into an animated series--quickly leaps to absurdism. The star artist, RJ (Steven Boyer), doesn't like the direction Dr. Jill (Julie Leedes) gives him, nor does Anne (Geneva Carr), a socially awkward genius of a writer who can't take criticism and can't hug a person without grabbing their breasts. By the show's climax, duck puppets are being used in an unsanitary fashion, feet are being fetishized, and if they weren't working on a children's show, there'd probably be an orgy center stage.

How strong? Cassandra Medley's "Daughter" kept tears in my eyes, leaping around in time just enough to constantly remind us--and Alma (Gayle Samuels), who is literally haunted by Petronia Paley's direction--of the human price of war. To that end, Kaliswa Brewster makes for a perfect poster child--she's beautiful and funny as Monique, and it hurts to see her face swaddled in bandages one moment, beaming the next as she celebrates her engagement, and then dark as her mother announces to her congregation--despite her friends Louise and Viola (Lynne Matthew and Natalie Carter) trying to hold her back--that her daughter has committed suicide.

How sweet? The two best friends of Leslie Ayvazian's "Carol & Jill" (played by Ayvazian and Janet Zarish) are so natural that even their casual remarks are explosively funny--and that's before Carol starts talking about how she's tired of "the responsibility of the erection." It's not so much about whether or not these two would ever give up their husbands to be lesbians so much as it is about the awkward cluelessness they have when trying to figure out who would be the butch one: "There are roles, right?" Director Daniella Topol is at her best when working with richly backstoried characters, so she's at her best here, drawing out every little half-smile, and squeezing every ounce of meaning from a body that frowns as it turns away in disappointment.

Even the weaker pieces of the night, M. Z. Ribalow's "Sundance" and Jeanne Dorsey's "Blood From a Stoner," have their own unique strengths. At times, the former comes across as a Western version of "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," as Wild Bill Hickock (Richmond Hoxie) and Jesse James (David Deblinger) discourse on the merits of their particular brands of violence, all while a cowardly barkeep (Ean Sheehy) tries to philosophize his way through the day. It's played to the hilt, which makes all the difference--especially in comparison to Dorsey's play. There, the father (David Margulies) can't sell his miserly mix of love and resentment, his daughter (Patricia Randell) seems to have no reason to stick around beyond being snide, and the waiter (Thomas Lyons) can't qualify all of his exposition. And yet it still works--it's just that this moral-heavy play isn't for everyone.

Of course, not every play has to be for everyone--in fact, in a one-act play festival, they generally won't. The fact that so much of Marathon 2009 Series B was satisfying to this one critic speaks volumes to the overall quality of the evening. It's a cliched line, but it works in this instance: run and see this year's Marathon.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Suspicious Package: Rx

Have you ever wanted to be a mad scientist? (Or a sassy secretary, nerdy computer whiz, controlling general, and so on?) Now, thanks to the interactive camp and Twilight Zone plot of Gyda Arber's Suspicious Package: Rx, you can. Like last year's original noir, this brand-new installment turns the audience into actors, as each participant follows the cues of their trusty, synced Zune Media Player. It's there that the professionals appear, guiding you on a personal journey via prerecorded flashback scenes and character-developing internal monologues. If all the world's a stage, then Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg, makes as good a set as any. And for those of you with stage fright--and there's no need for that here, having fun among your peers--there's a drink at the end of the tunnel.

Slowly being exposed to the plot--in media res, so to speak--is part of the fun, so there's little to mention here. (Additionally, I played the part of the Doctor, so I can't speak for the moments where the other five plots go in a different direction.) Suffice to say that a company has developed a drug that "cures" depression (after some zombifying versions) and that this leads to some corporate espionage and citizen journalism. One recommendation: turn your headphones up, even if you don't think you'll need it--ambient noise on a busy afternoon can be rough.

Logistically, Rx is a smoother trip than last year's adventure: though you'll go into some "seedy" locations, you won't have to cross any streets to do so. Moreover, by increasing the "cast" to six people, there's a wider variety of scenes--and experiences--should you choose to return as a different character. The whole thing's neatly put together, and if it looks like you might miss a cue, the omnipresent director will set you back on track. One small issue: long-legged participants may find themselves arriving early, waiting for the next scene. This is really just a matter of wrapping the Suspicious Package--it doesn't need more backstory (though the actors are fun to watch, even in miniature), but it could use more scene-setting musical interludes.

That's a small quibble about how time is spent in the show, and it's made only because Rx leaves one greedy for more pill-popping action. It's well worth spending your own time on this terrific adventure.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Glee Club

Ben (Stephen Speights) is a very special sort of conductor, the sort of musical perfectionist who demands perfection from his glee club of Romeo, Vermont, by way of beratement: "Sing pig fuckers. Sing for your lives." It's the sort of method that you know is doomed, especially since his star, Hank (Tom Staggs), has so inconsiderately decided to stop drinking, which would be fine if his non-alcoholic self could sing. It's the sort of slow motion accident you can't turn away from, which leads one to realize that it's actually Matthew Freeman, the writer of Glee Club, who is pretty damn special: his comedy is pitch perfect.

The secret lies in the blend of voices and assortment of character, and Freeman's skill comes from his ability to define each role with a single line--and yet, to not reduce them to a dimensionless sketch. Paul (Gary Shrader) isn't just the unblinking baritone who talks like a serial killer ("Scrotum's tougher than it looks: use a drill")--he's the man with nothing else to live for. Greg (Carter Jackson) defines himself by the cancer that's he's dying from (though it's been in remission for fifteen years), but his character isn't just a self-centered complainer. Fred (Bruce Barton), the suck-up who sings with the group "but also with myself," says that he'd do everything the same way--and yet the regret of realizing that he cannot change is what allows his character to do just that. Even Nick (David DelGrosso), who always has an insult on his tongue, and his polar opposite, Stan (Matthew Trumbull), who likes to placate people, are more than the sum of those parts. Mark (Robert Buckwalter) is the only one who gets short schrift, but that just means he makes the most of his off-stage divorce, channeling it into the song.

You can tell that director Kyle Ancowitz put a lot of time into deepening these shallow motivations, and so nobody comes across as malicious when they plot to spike Hank's coffee. They just value glee more than morality, and this contrast really pays off as the play grows more and more exaggerated. Speights steals the show time and again--which should be impossible with a cast this strong--each time growing more apoplectic than the last: "If this hate was a woman, I would fuck it: that's how passionately I feel for this hate." These are perfect words for a "song about smiling"--and ultimately, accurate ones, too. The collective voice of the show never cracks, but there's no way you leave the Brick theater without cracking a smile.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

metaDRAMA: Thanks, Rob: On the Quest for the Ideal Theater

I haven't had a chance to crack open my copy of the American Theatre Reader yet (mayhap I'll blog about it, an essay a day, in July), but I'm glad their new employee, Rob Weinert-Kendt was motivated by a recent comment about the book to crack out this oldie-but-a-goodie about criticism from Fintan O'Toole.

He talks about a few paragraphs on his site, and posts the whole thing here.

I'd like, especially in response to my earlier posts on this, excerpt a different piece:

Critics are for... refusing to take things on their own terms. They are for testing the claims that artists make for their work and that their press agents make on their behalf. They are, above all, for making connections--not just the obvious connection between artist and audience, but also the more angular, more arguable connections between art and society.
This is actually one step further than I'd gone in my response to the wise Chris Caggiano, but it's a logical one. After all, if we have to accept that an artist's own terms are correct, then we really can't fault *any* of the choices s/he makes, because they can always be argued back to the author's purpose, a defense mechanism I myself am guilty of:

"You didn't get it? Oh. That's OK. I didn't want you to get it."

Where possible, I'm still going to praise the things that do work--for instance, actors from the anonymous mash-up of Bigger Than i, or some of the clever ways in which the "Interweb" has been musically arranged in Waterwell's latest play, #9 (which opens tonight). But I can't lie. If the show doesn't work for me, I have to acknowledge that, and do my best to figure out why. Is it, for instance, the over-reliance on multimedia that is killing young companies? (Projecting stuff onto a screen does not magically make your show better. And if you don't connect it to the center of your play, it's not really multimedia. It's just a play that's interrupted by video.) Or is it that terms like "I just wanted to entertain people" or "I really wanted to do something in the style of..." drive me absolutely crazy, because they show an utter lack of "self" in the theater, the one thing you sort of absolutely need?

Hopefully, if you're a regular reader of this site, you read each review as steps in a personal journey to find an ideal form of theater, or a flawless company. And regular readers will benefit most, in the long run, because they'll hopefully be taking that journey along with me, learning where their tastes match mine and where (and hopefully why) they diverge. Theater changes and develops because artists eventually refuse to operate under the limitations of the past. Why should a critic do anything less?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Marathon 2009: Series A

Photo/Zack Brown

Unlike the short story (as opposed to the novel), there are few advantages to a short one-act play. However, Ensemble Studio Theater has been producing festivals of them for so long--this is the 31st year--that they know what to look for: relevant and timely subjects, or wildly experimental styles. It's unfortunate, then, that so few of the shows in Series A of this year's Marathon fail to go the extra mile. The worst, Christine Farrell's "For the Love of God, St. Teresa," gets winded before it even begins. A nun (Farrell) tries to keep her sluttish pupil (Lucy DeVito) from descending? For the love of god indeed--there isn't a single original thought or believable moment in this entirely telegraphed play.

Thankfully, Farrell's the only one who gets tripped up on Playwrighting 101. The other writers may be weighed down by their heavy-handedness, but at least they move well. Kia Corthon's "Trickle," for instance, is a collection of rotating two-person scenes, in which the poorer character becomes the richer character in the next scene. However, there's no shift in perspective when Christina (Shirine Babb) finds herself firing the caterer (Tatiana Suarez-Pico) at the request of her boss (Geneva Carr). And Angelique (Nikki E. Walker), the nanny at the bottom of the chain, is far too smart for us to sympathize with--especially since there's no one beneath her to mask her own proseltyzing ("Poverty is what trickles down").

The limberer pieces are the ones that don't get hung up on big ideas, but on small moments. Tommy Smith's "PTSD" doesn't deal so much with Riles (Haskell King) coping with his time in Iraq so much as it does with the responses from his widowed father (Jay Patterson), who has taken to sleeping in the living room as he can't afford to fix the heat in the other rooms; his crazy sister (Stephanie Janssen), who glibly remarks that she should be fine now that they've shocked her; and his ex-girlfriend (Julie Fitzpatrick), who invites herself over to announce, taking off her shirt, "I'm not seeing anyone right now." The climax is a quiet breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh off the hot plate, with an extra serving of regret.

Garret M. Brown's "Americana" is also hung up on the small moments, but in this case, as a means of staving off bad news by dwelling in the happier past. The time is 1959, but the characters speak like Our Town's Stage Manager, with full awareness of their future. It's the best time in the life of 13-year-old Gary (Miles Bergner), because his dad (Michael Cullen) has bought him the 26-volume Americana encylopedia, marking one of the rare occasions that he was not totally drunk or suspicious of his son being a little too "artistic." Brown doesn't do much with the mother (Ann Talman) or the salesman (Chris Ceraso), but director Linsay Firman uses them to establish a happier time, before the characters start blurting out apologies for the upcoming years.

Finally, there's the love-it-and-hate-it "Face Cream," by Maggie Bofill. It's a remarkably stupid tale of a woman (Paula Pizzi) who is obsessed with wrinkle prevention, and the attempts of her husband (Bruce MacVittie) to comfort her. Of course, it never takes itself seriously, and that's where it wildly, energetically, entertainingly succeeds: Bofill's got some zingers ("The penis is between my legs, not wedged into the understanding part of my brain!") and a true understanding of woman logic--like when you secretly love the cat-calls from construction workers because it shows that there's something worth demeaning. That the show is able to transition from being a scream-off to a tight tango set to "Roxanne" only shows how limber it is. It's the sort of play we secretly love, if for no reason other than that parts of it are worth hating.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Bigger Than i

Photo/David Cumming

A giant multimedia eye looks around, exploring its own socket. At last, it speaks: "You're not going to judge me?" Right on cue, Matt Greenbaum steps to a spotlight center stage, and makes the first of the evening's confessions, culled from the "found" contributions of people as anonymous as the owner of that nervous, introductory eye. If the goal of the "Second Annual Devised Project" of the Counting Squares Arts Collective, Bigger Than i, was to unite us, ala PostSecret, around a community of anonymous secrets, it has failed. Some secrets are just more interesting than others. The same can be said of certain members of the cast, but in that respect--pure performance--some of these "I's" are big enough to warrant watching.

First of all, there's Ryan Nicholoff, utterly at ease on stage, whether he's a man whore, callously recounting his lengthy list of conquests ("This bitch was looking for a handout, but all I was handing out was dick"), or a sympathetic dishwasher, just trying to get through the day. Then there's Edward Davis, who learns what it's like to kiss his best friend and co-theater blogger for the first time on an Internet dare, and who we later find struggling to come to realize the sexual fantasy he has of the white master and black slave. There's Dena Kology, too, who manages to avoid being the token woman--by playing a male construction worker being trained in the profession of cat-calling.

The question is whether these disjointed, incomplete stories--decently acted, but narratively unfulfilling--are big enough to satisfy you. Michael Barringer and Kantarama Gahigiri have thrown in some neat video collages (in which, at high-speed, secrets are expressed in an artistic way--often with glitter), but that creativity lends itself more to a gallery exhibition than to a theater. There's plenty of video testimonial, but it's flatly projected onto a single screen, and--especially in comparison with Nick Sprysenski's more overt staging--sort of alienating. The show calls for more theatricality, as when Greenbaum fights with his mind (played by three actors) for control of an emotional letter he's trying to write his lost love. There's not much there, so it really needs finessing, as when two actors breaks the fourth wall of a confessional to help pantomime the man's guilt.

More often than not, Sprysenski manages to charm these scenes through. But when he misses, as with the short and aimless role-play of Daddy and Little Girl, it becomes all the more apparent just how much of a stretch Bigger Than i is taking. There's something there, but in this case, it's not big enough for I.

Monday, June 08, 2009

metaDRAMA: More "Big Stuff"

The comments continue to roll in, here and elsewhere, regarding the etiquette of critiquing and of critiquing critics. I'm most in line with Helen Shaw, of TONY, but I'm also struck dumb by an angry comment at Parabasis:

You know what critics? Your job is not to tell your readers if it's your thing and judge it based on your own feelings. Shocking I know. You are to approach a work on its own terms. If the writers' goal was to write a sitcom-level homage to G&S with songs chock full o' family fun, AND on those terms, you succeed and people in Boston are actually enjoying it (people in Boston showing joy?!? who knew that was possible!) then your review should reflect that.
Now, I admit that there's a nugget of truth there, and I wrote about this subject back in 2007, when I was trying to define the rules of criticism (for myself). John Updike, speaking for book reviews, said:
Try to understand what the author wishes to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt . . . if the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?
And I guess that's where the angry reader at Parabasis is coming from. However, that's taking a rather shallow reading of the situation, and of the goal of a critic. If I set out to write a play that offends the audience, and I successfully offend the audience, should I be praised? Perhaps, if you handle it like Peter Handke, and do something more than the sum of your intentions. But if I achieve that goal by writing the word "Fuck" for ten pages, and then scream and spit at audience members in "performance" of this play, should I still be lauded? (The "perhaps" here is another story, for masochists only.) No matter what you do, the critic must absolutely bring their own sensibilities to the forefront--to demand a "better" theater.

In fairness--and here's your compromise--the critic should be talented enough a writer to describe what the play was like (that is, what the author intended) and to explain why they didn't like it. Not to dismiss it, but to engage with it, to ask the big questions that, for better or worse, the play may have failed to ask. Note: this means that I'm still against bias. But let's clarify what bias is. Bias is the inability to explain why you don't like something, mainly because you can't give it a chance. If that's the case--i.e., you hate G&S--then you probably shouldn't volunteer or assign yourself to critique the show.

Again, Kennedy showed no bias, and she her review of the show covered the bases by describing what happened in it. And that's good for the theater--after all, if I describe a show as being a literal assault of "fuck" for ten minutes, that may actually convince someone to see it. They trust their own tastes more than mine, so as long as they can still sample the work--even if it's colored by my own experience--then it's a job well done. After all, I'm not trying to convince people not to go to the theater, even with a bad review. (Well, okay, maybe once or twice.) I'm just trying to make sure people know what they're getting in to. And you know what? That's a place I don't mind being in.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

metaDRAMA: Didn't Watch the TONY Awards

It's not really a boycott so much as a lack of enthusiasm for it, but I didn't watch the Tony Awards, which probably explains why the telecast keeps losing viewers. I mean, I'm their ideal audience--someone who sees over two hundred shows a year--and even I don't want to watch. Granted, I'm more of a fan of off-Broadway work; in fact, most of the Broadway shows I saw this year originated off-Broadway (Next to Normal, which I regret, and Reasons To Be Pretty, which came a long way). In any case, this was all I really needed to see:

It's an entertainingly glib fete to the Tony Awards, and I don't fault Neil Patrick Harris for having fun with it. But there is something sad about his closing line: "Go see a Broadway play." At the bottom of everything, that's my problem with the Tony awards: it's not about seeing a play, or even about celebrating theater. It's about seeing a BROADWAY play, which is a celebration (as this little encapsulation of the broadcast proves) of glitz and glamor far more than of anything substantial and real. I might tune in if I thought the committee would award risks, as opposed to legacy. (Was Angela Lansbury's performance that good? Am I just too young to get Liza Minelli?)

Well, I hate to play the humbug, so let me just revise things ever so slightly. Congratulations, have a wonderful evening, and go see a PLAY.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Into the Hazard

Photo/Lisa Dozier

Jessica Bauman's adaptation Into the Hazard might as easily have been titled "Once More Unto the Breech." That's because, despite the multimedia dress-up, it's just an abridged adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V, pentameter and all. The good news is, Bauman's show is "suffering" from a surfeit of riches. All the bells and whistles meant to contemporize the tale of a young and untried king being thrust into war are ultimately unnecessary--but they look pretty cool.

For instance, it may not add much to have King Henry address a camera instead of the audience when he marshalls his troops via an "address to the nation," but Austin Switser's excellent video design sure makes the faux programming from the History Channel and FOX News look believable. It doesn't really matter that Emily Pepper dresses the cast in suits, but it's a nice touch that after the intermission--as the war starts--everyone's wearing fatigues. (When's the last time you saw a "noble" or a "king" actually risk their life?) Finally, there's absolutely no need to reduce the cast to only six actors--except that they're all so good, and it's nice to see such range. The one visual image that Bauman uses to enhance the text is entirely nontechnical--an ever-growing mound of combat boots, plopped center-stage, helps us to see the casualities. In this case, going overboard doesn't hurt the underlying play--it's as if Bauman is as blessed as the English troops, to throw all those ideas into the fray and wind up with only a few scratches.

This polish is owed to the cast's buffering. From the slightly overboard antics of Trevor Vaughn's roguish Pistol, whose confidence is all lip-licks and wide-eyed winks, to the broad brogue of Luis Moreno's Fluellan, whose sturdiness snaps into focus thanks to a leek, this is one of the most energized tellings of what is often portrayed as one of Shakespeare's slow history plays. And if these dings sparkle, watch the outstanding actors shine. As Exeter, David McCann is the stern solemn advisor to Henry--but as the squeaky, complaintive Nym, he is irrepressibly goofy. Furthermore, his portrayal of a captured French soldier begging to be ransomed is full of raw emotion.

Many of these compliments are also due to Scott Whitehurst: not only does he nail the postures and accents of characters as diverse as the French King and the Archbishop of Canturbury, but he makes their more technical speeches a joy. And you should see him play a looser role--like that of the violent Bardolph or the disgruntled soldier, Williams! Even Nick Dillenburg has an opporunity to double-up, matching his solid portrayal of Henry with that of the shady Dauphin. As for Erin Moon--she's unfortunately underused in this play of mostly men, but not underappreciated for the life she gives to Katharine, who is forced to wed Henry in one abbreviated scene, and the Governor of Harfleur, who resignedly surrenders to Henry's wrath.

Given all this, the haphazard moments--screens from a military FPS, a goofy vlog, and a weird French sitcom--are easily overlook'd. With a president--er, director--like this, we're happy to go Into the Hazard.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

DR.C (or How I Learned To Act in Eight Steps)

Photo/Candida K. Nichols

Simultaneously self-indulgent and wholly giving, Theater Mitu's "new-form" experiment, DR.C (or How I Learned To Act in Eight Steps) is an admirable beast. It is almost certainly, however, not for the innocent bystander. For almost two intermissionless hours, the cast of eight follows a procedure designed by director/creator Ruben Polendo to dissect and evaluate the worth of acting, one that turns the philosophies of Aristotle, Appia, Stanislavski, Artaud, Brecht, Grotowski, Brook, and Bogart, into a living palimpsest. It's remarkable, but problems pile up right from the start.

For one, Polendo's framing device roboticizes the actors, explaining that they've been programmed with--of all things--the physical text of the 1918 silent film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. However, it's been so processed that even fans of the film will find the actors to be unrecognizable, especially given the high-tech atmosphere of 3LD. The actors spend the first four steps "growing" out of their percussive, jagged movements (on Amy Charlotte Rubin's grid-like set), and never reach the clear fluidity of the film. The same goes for Candida K. Nichols's costuming, for while the wool-ish suits appear to be from the right era, the avant-garde accouterments (collapsible-wire hoods, flotation devices) are clearly not. Ellen Reid's live score (performed alongside Jef Evans, Dan Murphy, and William Thomason) helps somewhat, but less so considering that the actors, playing themselves, are also assigned parts ("Acting," Critic #2," "The Audience," "The Poet") in name only.

Now, you can chalk the insufferable opening "steps" up to Adolphe Appia, whose core philosophy is summed up as "If we wish to be happy together, we must first of all suffer together." Or to Konstantin Stanislavski, from whom they've gathered that "The actor like an infant must learn from the beginning to look, to walk, to talk." But that, like the entire play, is just so much talk. One can just as easily rebut that this a failure of Brecht's Epic Theater (Step Five): even if we judge not by being satisfied but by being transformed, Polendo must face up to the fact that his audiences are more likely to be informed than transformed. On second thought, blame it on Appia after all, for Polendo's brutally deliberate physicalization is nothing more than an intellectualization of the body, making the body "nothing but the bearer and representative of a literary text," or in this case, eight fragmented texts.

But let's get away from the philosophy (all of which is, incidentally, sung): the execution is impeccable and unforgettable. After the first hour, it has become literally impressive, particularly as Polendo's actors escape the straitjacketing of the basic movements. Artaud's Theater of Cruelty is filled with actors screaming into microphones, the lights are turned out, and the actors run around with flashlights stuck up their armadillo-like hoods. Brecht's belief that "a theater that cannot be laughed in is a theater to be laughed at" leads Polendo to project random "facts" onto the stage as the actors clown their way through a mess of elevated wires, inflating parts of their costumes, and--for the first moment--allowing the audience a glimmer of life and humanity beneath their one-hundred-and-ten-percent professional veneers.

It's here that Polendo hits another wall. His presentation is at odds with Grotowski's Theater of the Poor--which emphasizes that theater is just an actor and an audience--and his attempts to resolve that dip so far into unwelcome minimalism that the show begins, as the actors strip off their outer layers for the plain whites of the Initiated, to go New Age. By the time the show begins to explore Peter Brooks, the music has taken on an Indian beat, the actors have pulled out chimes, and--now occasionally speaking in unison--chant that "Theater is life!" It's the sort of so-serious gospel that one expects to see at the Living Theater (no disrespect meant to Polendo or Judith Malina); it's the sort of inward, alienating (not in Brecht's style) performance that can only preach to the choir and, at best, stun the innocent bystander.

And yet, it's impossible to dismiss such devotion and dedication to craft, and harder still for a theater critic to objectively judge the value, importance, or even entertainment of such a singular work. Polendo and his admirable company--Justin Nestor, Matthew Carlson, Aysan Celik, Adam Chochran, Nathan Elam, Laura Stinger, Emily Davis, and Marc LeVasseur--are grappling with the existential big ideas of theater. Theater Mitu can rest on that note, having at least satisfied Peter Brooks: "To play needs much work. But when we experience the work as play, then it is not work any more."

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

metaDRAMA: Mr. Big Stuff (a k a Who Do You Think You Are?)

Well, if you've read the comments section for Isaac's post about the Huntington's Michael Maso's request to have his audience rebut critic Louise Kennedy's review of Pirates!, then I guess I'm in deep trouble. I reviewed Brian Dykstra's A Play on Words a few weeks ago, coming up as one of the few outliers on Critic-O-Meter (I'd argue that Jenny Sandman's review is a bit lower than B+, but who gives a hang?). And, unlike Louise Kennedy--I didn't acknowledge that the audience "hooted and hollered." (Including my father, and he tends not to like comedy.) Instead, I argued for what I felt strongly in my gut--that the show was filled with cheap, unearned laughs, untethered to character or plot. From what I've read in the comments to Kennedy's review, that would mean that--although I didn't laugh--I must have some ulterior motive.

In fact, an anonymous responder over at Critic-O-Meter said as much about my review:

It didn't read like a review to me just an angry person venting for some reason. When I was at the play it seemed like everyone was having a great time laughing and laughing. It was so much fun being in the theatre that night that it is hard to imagine someone feeling so hostile about it. I can understand some people liking something and others not. That's cool.
And you know what, I appreciate his/her honesty (I said as much there, too). When you really like something, it's hard to understand someone not liking it. It can make you imagine anger or hostility--or bring it out in your own responses, which is what I suspect happened to the readers egged on by Maso to respond. For better or worse, America has changed to a sort of communication-by-melee, in which the loudest voice "wins," and so you can't simply respond with an opinion--you need to attack with one. And it's in that light that I read this anonymous comment (from the Huntington Theater Blog):
To have a critic form an opinion of a show while attending without the general public is one thing. But, to attend it with them and come away with total disregard for the audience's positive response to talent and performance brings to mind two words...'brain dead'.
First off, I'm not exactly sure when exactly it is that this reader things a critic attends a show "without the general public." But nitpicking aside--and back to the main point, and title of this article--a critic should ignore the audience. If a critic's job is only to reflect the audience's opinion, then there is no point for criticism. In fact, there's no need for that critic to get any experience, because they can simply stand outside the theater, with their ear to the ground, and collect pull-quotes of their own--from the audience. Let's not pretend that criticism is anything other than what it has always and should always be: an opinion. Hopefully that voice is educated, hopefully it's not lazy, hopefully it's not asleep at the wheel. But let me correct this anonymous commenter: to attend a show, have a gut response, and then to totally disregard that in favor of the audience's response . . . that would be brain death.

The audience has an easy go of it: they get to see the show and either enjoy it, or not, and can then decide whether or not they want to continue thinking about it. The critic has to see the show, be receptive to having an honest response, and then actually figure out (often with a word count) how to explain why they felt that way. That, by the way, is not an ulterior motive. That's transparency (which, coincidentally, is something that David Cote is talking about w/r/t Terry Teachout). I didn't like A Play on Words for a specific reason: I found it to be fast-food theater--perhaps occasionally tasty in the short run, but long-term, unhealthy to the theater because it lowers the standards of playwrighting. So I got Michael Pollan on it, and tried to explain why it was a bad play. That's my job. Your job--especially if you don't agree--should be to try to convince me, with the same transparency, why it's good.

And that's why I need to jump back to one final thing Anonymous said (my Anonymous, the one who replied to A Play on Words). He said, "I just didn't realize that he was actually a reviewer," as if the value of my review was somehow weighted by whether or not I was an "official" reviewer or simply an "unofficial" blogger. As if the words themselves somehow magicked themselves to mean something different, depending on the circumstance. Folks, there is no difference. Any one of those people who replied to Kennedy's review could've been a critic. The only difference is that they didn't try to validate their opinion, or shore up their stance. They offered oceanic dissent--which is to say, the wave of their opinion rolled in and then, unanchored to anything real, washed back out again.

Those of you who have read this far--you know that I'm aching for conversation, that I'm open to dialogue, about each and every single one of the shows that I've reviewed. At pretty much any time. I have strong opinions because I have strong feelings about these shows, and I'll continue to write and fight for those opinions (and for those shows). Let's agree to disagree. Just let your disagreements be honest.

Rant over.

Chuck Palahniuk, "Pygmy"

Chuck Palahniuk is an expert machinist, always coming up with creative new frames on which to mass-produce his same-old same-old anarchistic depravity. The problem is, after the first few rhythmic chapters of any Palahniuk novel, the formula quickly oxidizes, turning brittle and emotionlessly redundant. He's a cold, harsh writer, which is what draws masochistic and sadistic readers to worship at his cult. Perhaps it's just because, having skipped Rant and Snuff, I've recharged my capacity for Palahniantics, but Pygmy, his latest, manages to wiggle enough amid its precisely plotted and patterned sections to at least entertain.

The secret of Pygmy is that its untitled character, who refers to himself as "operative me," isn't entirely indoctrinated. Sure, he's come to the United States (along with many other agents from his totalitarian state) so that he can destroy it, using his foreign exchange cover to initiate "Operation Havoc." True, every chapter of the novel (a "dispatch") is meticulously reported in his broken, prepositionless English, complete with a repeating quote (one per dispatch) from his idols: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and company. And yes, Palahniuk goes so overboard in burying his voice in bad grammar that he grinds every unique observation of Pygmy's down into a redundant, miserable powder: by the tenth time a door "heals" itself, or his "weapon" becomes "turgid" in his pants, it's just irritating. (Also, Palahniuk's voice *IS* still ominpresent via Pygmy's host family.) Palahniuk doesn't go as far as Burgess's Clockwork Orange, nor does his character's broken communication reveal as much as Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

What saves the narrative is the almost imperceptible frisson of Pygmy's not utter hatred of America, which allows him to make some poignant critiques of our culture. For instance, his recollections (from age 4 and up) are of training in moves like the "Striking Cobra Quick Kill," so when enrolled in an American school, a spelling bee is described as "Participate combat among student public education institution [redacted]. Forced battle to list English alphabet letters which compromise typical vocabulary word." The foreign-exchange students are so dedicated that the match continues for hours, making not only the American students restless--but the teachers, as well: "For official record, no impossible shouting death threat originated from renowned instructor."

As the novel progresses, Pygmy becomes more human and America grows less so, for it is shown to care so little for the things that actually matter. Pygmy's "host pig dog brother" sees love as pawing at "fun bags," but it is Pygmy who actually begins to fall for his "host sister, stealth cat." When one of Pygmy's classmates goes Columbine, he's the one who saves the helpless students (though he plans to use a neurotoxin on them later). Whereas the American girls flirt as casually as they abort, his fellow agent, Magda, is the one who comes to treasure motherhood. Coupled with his "host chicken" mother's Tupperware parties for sex toys and the amount of roofies fed to his "vast cow" father (by his own family!), it's hard to condemn Pygmy's choices. Palahniuk swings hard at religion, too, noting the similarities between Wal-Mart ("retail product distribution center") and church ("religion propaganda distribution outlet"); in this world, both even have the same elderly greeter, Mrs. Lilly, "esteemed madam soon rotting corpse."

It's no shock that Palahniuk's epigraph is Hitler's statement, "He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future." The shock is in realizing that it's not just Pygmy who has been indoctrinated, but rather all youths, who are constantly assailed by big business, big churches, "frenzied journalist attracted stench of human tragedy," and the social laws of school. Palahniuk seems to care a lot more for making cruder points, and cracking sicker jokes, but then again, he just understands his audience. And if there's the chance that some of them will shake off their wool and realize that, then Pygmy's worth reading.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Night Sky

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Aphasia is a writer's worst nightmare: to be able to think, to understand, to know exactly what you want to say--and yet have no way to express it . . . it's an awful, debilitating, largely overlooked condition. By featuring it at the center of her latest play, Night Sky, Susan Yankowitz does a great service to the National Aphasia Association by demonstrating, time and time again, that aphasia is "not an impairment of intellect," and an even greater service to Jordan Baker (and vice versa), who plays--with boundless emotion--the central role of Anna, a brilliant and beloved astronomer whose ability to communicate is abruptly paralyzed. However, aphasia still ends up being Yankowitz's worst nightmare; despite her attempts to find a parallel in the dark matter of the sky, she talks her subject to death, latches on to an unoriginal foundation, and struggles with some really hackneyed moments. In other words, Baker's a blinding star, and without her Night Sky is rather barren.

The first sign of the shallow family drama is that as the voices start bubbling around Anna--her operatic boyfriend/second husband Daniel (Jim Stanek), her tattoo-wanting teenager daughter Jennifer (Lauren Ashley Carter), and her self-centered colleague, Bill (Tuck Milligan)--the audience actually roots for the onset of the aphasia. Daniella Topol's a talented director, but just as Anna is given the Sisyphean task of pairing the sign and signifier together, so too is Topol forced to communicate an idea that's far deeper than the genre writing on display. Her solution--to focus on large, obfuscating slabs of muddied rock as a visual aid--distracts more than it helps, and in any case, it can't eclipse Yankowitz's well-intentioned excesses.

On the whole, these flaws are rather excusable, because the scenes are competent. They're just happen to muddy the show as a whole. For instance, Dan Domingues is a talented character actor, but not one of his characters--including a fellow aphasic patient, vaguely used to parallel Anna--is necessary to the play, let alone defined enough to aid it. Maria-Christina Oliveras doesn't try as hard as Domingues, but why should she? She's just playing a speech therapist, not a compassionate human being. Friendly as Milligan is when giving connect-the-dot lectures to the audience (do you understand how a lesson on Schrodinger's cat is meant to reflect Anna's condition?), it's not until Anna castigates him for not visiting the hospital that his role takes on meaning (albeit still a slight one).

Astronomers don't just use telescopes for their magnifying properties: they use them to help focus. However, while Yankowitz is too spread out to even write plausible scenes back at Anna's home--she and Daniel have the same fight at least four times--Jordan Baker is plenty invested in her role. Because she doesn't have language, she doesn't face the same problems as her co-writers, or even her playwright. She's forced to earn her words with raw emotion--and she does, time and time again. She's the sun of this play, and everything revolves around her.

Monday, June 01, 2009

metaDRAMA: Translation

Those who know me know that I don't particularly like the idea of adaptations or, as I call it, refranchising. (You can also call it "playcycling.") Sure, I understand that a film adds a visual element to text-only, and I did write my senior thesis on the juxtaposition/use of text (book), text/image (comic), and image (film). And I get that turning theater into film exposes great performances (or gets "bigger" names) to a larger audience. But something in that doesn't add up: the creativity of a novel rarely carries through to a film (which I more and more watch passively, i.e., while doing something else). And certainly the intimacy of theater never carries through to any other media: that arresting moment where you're in sync is never as a real as when it's really there--for you--in that moment, never to be seen again.

Of course, I have my doubt. Such great doubts. (After all, I liked Chicago.) So it's nice to see a Digital Short (albeit an MTV Movie Award Digital Short) address--in a very roundabout way--the way I felt about seeing Doubt on DVD recently. All that fluff that Shanely added for the film was actually distracting from the whole point that we create things out of our imaginations and must wrestle them to the ground. So let's take a moment to recognize that as a video game, Doubt would be even more ridiculous.