[Note: War Horse releases in theaters on 12/25. It's the perfect holiday film, notwithstanding the graphic war-scenes, so you might consider buying your tickets now, especially if you liked the stage version, which this one-ups in just about every way possible.]
I felt as if I was one of the few people to find the Lincoln Center production of War Horse to be overhyped: never able to forget that I was watching elegant and impressive puppets, even at the moments of greatest drama, the constant thought racing through my mind was, "This would make a mighty impressive movie." I feel vindicated now, having caught a screening of Steven Spielberg's adaptation of War Horse: there's a scope in the war scenes (comparable to those of Saving Private Ryan, although there's nary a splotch of blood in this PG-13 family film) and a tenderness in the close-up focus on the reflection of a little girl in a horse's eye that the play cannot achieve.
At the same time, however, the novel (which was originally in the first-person perspective of the horse) is less well-adapted by screenwriters Richard Curtis and Lee Hall than by playwright Nick Stafford. For one, Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse, Joey, now seem more star-crossed than ever: the film opens with lush, long shots of the green Devon landscape (which will later be contrasted with the tight, muddy grey ones of a war-torn France), as Albert watches the miracle of life: Joey's birth. When Albert's father, Ted (Peter Mullan), picks him up at auction, however, it's because his landlord (David Thewlis) is bidding for him, a rivalry that makes far less sense than the play's choice to make this his successful brother, the one who chose not to fight in the Boer War that has turned Ted into such a bitter drunk, love of his wife Rose (Emily Watson) aside. Likewise, when Joey's sold off to the British military at the start of World War I, it's not as much of a betrayal from father to son as it is a necessity of repaying a mortgage.
These changes make the opening "act" less tight, just as the scenes in France sometimes wander too aimlessly over the bizarre chances in which both Joey and his "friend," the black stallion Charcoal (inexplicably renamed from Topthorn in the book and play), dodge disaster time and again. It's nice to see the variety of people affected by war -- the dashing British commanders who are out-thought by their "crude" German rivals, the German brothers who desert in order to fulfill an oath to their family, the fragile French girl and her doting grandfather who are glad to have a moment of brightness in their occupied life -- but this isn't the film for it. The focus is best left on Albert, Joey, and the horrendous things that happen around them: Spielberg is too happy to trot about the scenery, though he's best at a brisker pace.
Just look at those "brisk" and agonizingly terrific final forty minutes. They're full of holiday miracles and tear-jerking presents in which Joey drags artillery, faces down a tank, and deals with barbed wire, while Albert -- who, in a smart although obvious edit from the screenwriters, has enlisted since we last saw him four years ago -- finds himself facing the other end of that artillery, the dangerous trenches, and the deadly gas warfare. It's more visceral than the theatrical production, and the stakes are higher, and yet the emotions are the same, which speaks well to the humanizing effects from the play's Handspring Puppet Company. Still, it's Spielberg's production that wins out: some horrors are impossible to imagine, and the realism of the film's war scenes -- fields scattered with the corpses of horses and their riders, bones shattering under the stress of such constant toil -- makes it unnecessary to imagine, only difficult to watch.
I don't imagine it will be possible to overhype this production of War Horse, a shoo-in for Academy nominations in all categories except those for acting (and that's no offense to Irvine, Mullan, the excellent Watson, and spot-on villain Thewlis, but this isn't really about them). Striking both visually and emotionally, and with only a few issues with pacing along the way, it's a great achievement (especially for an adaptation) for Spielberg, whose inclusive scope even manages to find a comic place for a belligerent duck.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
[Note: War Horse releases in theaters on 12/25. It's the perfect holiday film, notwithstanding the graphic war-scenes, so you might consider buying your tickets now, especially if you liked the stage version, which this one-ups in just about every way possible.]
Thursday, December 08, 2011
The musical is full of winning contrasts, particularly in the musical's tendency for unlikely duets that are sung by rivals, often across great distances, and yet about similar themes. Outlaw Clyde (Jeremy Jordan) and heroic cop Ted (Louis Hobson) both pine for Bonnie (Laura Osnes), and so they sing "You Can Do Better Than Him." Blanche (a terrifically wry and religious Melissa Van Der Schyff), is set up to be Bonnie's opposite -- in an early comic number, "You're Goin' Back to Jail," she convinces her husband (and Clyde's brother) Buck (Claybourne Elder) to turn himself in, whereas Bonnie ends up breaking Clyde out -- and yet both she and Bonnie sing from the heart that "You Love Who You Love." There's no shortage of tortuous solos, either, with Clyde, sexually abused in prison and abandoned by the carefree guards, turning to murder in the wailing song "Raise A Little Hell": if that's his only option ("I sure won't get to heaven"), and it sure seems to be, then why not? ("Freedom's something I gotta steal" is his mantra.)
These contrasts are further enhanced by Jeff Calhoun's wonderful direction, which handles some rather graphic and gritty violence -- these were murderers, after all, whether they intended to be or not -- in imaginative ways. At the moment of greatest chaos, a bloody shoot-out, the action literally freezes, with Clyde turning to his younger self (Talon Ackerman) to warn him about the way things'll be, before brutally jumping back into the fray as he murders a sheriff. Watch, too, the echoes in the reprisals: "God's Arms Are Always Open" plays with a baptism the first time around, and with a burial the second, both staged in similar ways; although "Picture Show" is still sung by the young versions of our "heroes" when it repeats, it manages to carry the weight of their grown-up reality; and "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" is a killer number both times -- at first, it's just Osnos singing through tears, but then she's joined by Jordan as the two ride off to their final destination, a sweet moment between lovers who can at least know that they've had some good time together.
Now, the play does have some flaws: the writing is all-around a little too literal for Calhoun's visual flair, Bonnie's prided poetry, and Clyde's basic skills with the guitar. The music is so heavy on up-beat pop/country that it sometimes doesn't match the mood, as in "Too Late To Turn Back Now." And some of the work just feels slight: "How 'Bout a Dance" is flirty and nothing more, and "When I Drive" is an unnecessary reminder of how boyish the Barrow brothers are. I sometimes wished the musical were a little more wild -- that the slap Bonnie and Clyde give one another didn't seem so staged, that the live projections on the wall weren't so on-the-nose about the "accuracy" of the musical. At the same time, however, I found myself wanting their ride to continue, hoping that they'd find some way to pull through: perhaps Bonnie & Clyde, in these days of the 99%, will.
Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Nostalgia can be a crippling thing, which sends people who are afraid of the future hurdling back into the safety and comfort of the past. But it's served the young and talented Jordan Harrison well, for he writes of times that he never knew, pulling lessons out of the '60s (Doris to Darlene), '40's (Amazons and Their Men), and '20s (Act a Lady) to help inform the present, to give a context to where we are. Even Futura, which was set in a dystopic future, centered around those brave few souls who remembered the days of paper. His latest, Maple and Vine, walks that same ground, as an unhappy Katha (Marin Ireland) convinces her husband, Ryu (Peter Kim), to move to the SDO (Society of Dynamic Obsolescence), a gated community in which every day re-enacts the values, attitudes, and lifestyles of 1955 America. If the slow food movement is about limiting one's ecological footprint, then this is slow mood movement, which aims to give one freedom in the bustling world by limiting their choices and reverting to a simpler time.
Of course, the 50's weren't a simpler time: they were simply more repressed. This works for Dean (Trent Dawson), a gay man who gets off on his guilt, the sort to sharply fill out a suit, patter glibly, and rendezvous with his boyfriend, Roger (Pedro Pascal), for some rough and secret sex. It's an interesting dynamic, the idea that the freedom to be gay might actually be difficult for a select few, and it allows Harrison to fully explore the dimensions of his '50s paradise, particularly in the "mixed marriage" of Katha and Ryu (only a decade after the internment camps and reparations) and the character of Ellen (Jeanine Serralles), whose prim attitude wasn't serving her in the real world, but who is built manipulate with the hidden powers of her apron strings and talent for gossip. Harrison suggests that there's a place, a role, or a character for all of us -- just not necessarily in a global culture as all-inclusive as today's. After all, if everything is permitted, is anything true?
Anne Kauffman, who has handled realist, surrealist, and surreal realist plays (The Thugs, God's Ear, Sixty Miles to Silver Lake), is a perfect fit for Harrison's material: she's visually distinct enough for the short scenes, quick cuts, and montages, and knows exactly how to stage dream sequences, in which Katha's new paradise is haunted by echoes from her old publishing job. If there's a flaw, it's that Alexander Dodge's scenic design doesn't better distinguish between the present and past -- sets from both times are wheeled about (or elevated in) in little dioramic frames (good for cubicles, bad for the "freedom" of the '50s), and a steel-rimmed modernity hangs both above the set (a triangle that represents the roof) and in a long staircase off the stage-right wing.
In terms of decor and tone, however, Maple and Vine does a fabulous job, and there's genuine growth from the hesitant and skeptical views of this society (a major faux pas comes not from aggressively playing charades, but from accidentally pouring Grey Goose) to the actual happiness shown within. Katha, depressed over the miscarriage of her child, finds herself embracing pregnancy again, and even goes so far as to suggest (at the local "authenticity meetings") that her neighbors actually be a little less accepting (and more suspicious) of her and her foreign husband. A little controlled adversity can help a relationship grow; you'd also be surprised at the fulfillment Ryu, a plastic surgeon, gets in his new job as a box maker.
I can't speak to life in the '50s, but given how many electronic distractions there are, Harrison makes a valid argument toward people being more present in the past. It's a clear and potent argument, thanks to the extremely present cast -- some of whom get rather close to those of us in the aisles. There are some real standouts, too, like Ireland (who plays instability better than anyone else), Serralles (steely, but not inflexibly or unemotionally so), and Pascal, who flickers not only between tough-guy floor manager and tortured gay lover but also doubles as Katha's comically Queer Eye-like coworker in the "modern" world. Maple and Vine illustrates a "simpler" time without sacrificing complexity, reminds us that we're all "playing" characters of some sort or another, and succeeds in proving that less can absolutely be more.
Tuesday, December 06, 2011
I had the recent opportunity to speak with a director regarding the clash between the poor critical reception of the show and what appeared to be much warmer responses from the audience. I understood the director's frustration -- that's why I started blogging, freelancing, and aggregating for StageGrade: so as to help widen a discussion about theater that is often dominated, sometimes unfortunately so, by the so-called 1% (it's actually far, far, less) of critics who get paid on a regular basis to weigh in on the merits of a show.
Like this director, I actively disagree with some of the major critics out there, particularly when I feel they've misinterpreted a show (like Milk Like Sugar) because they come from a different background and don't "get" or aren't able to "engage" with the work, or when they fill up an allotted number of words speaking about things tangential to the production, like the book or film that preceded it, the previous work of the actors or playwright, etc. (Not that this information is necessarily bad; I just feel it shouldn't dominate and skew the conversation.) However, unlike this perhaps righteously wounded director, I also think that criticism is important, and that this director's dream of direct-response, in which audiences might reductively give each show a "thumbs-up" or "thumbs-down" that would help to inform other paying theatergoers -- in other words, People Just Like Them (the 99%, to continue that popular metaphor) -- what the real story was. I'm assuming here that the implication is that critics often get things wrong, and that even when they praise a show that the audience isn't investing in (like Journey's End, the early closing of which pains me to this day), they should shut up and let the market do its dirty work.
The biggest problem with this, for the record, is that people in a theater are not Just Like Them -- particularly on Broadway. For a 40-seat theater that produces risque work, it might help to know how the immediate audience felt: they know what they're getting into. But the larger the house, the more varied the audience, and the more difficult it is to quantify the results of stripping their thoughts into an American Idol-style vote (and it should be noted that American Idol was originally watched, in part, for its critics -- particularly the foul-mouthed ones). "Thumbs up" and "thumbs down" doesn't actually tell you what people liked about the show, so as to help you with the next production you work on, nor does it help to recognize actors (which might help them to get work in the future), and might lead to bad plays being produced more frequently, as there'd be no way to direct that "thumbs up" at the star, or the director, or the costumes, etc. On the flip side, a good play that's poorly mounted in its debut, or which finds the wrong audience might be doomed forever. Now, I'm not saying that a critic is going to be more accurate -- but they're going to be more descriptive, and that critic is going to have a body of work behind them that allows the various producers, directors, and audiences to decide how much of their review seems trustworthy.
Another problem is that this would lead even faster to the proliferation of "easy" shows, "light" entertainment in the theater, and work that's more "simply" marketed. There's already a ton of tourist-friendly pap flung up on the boards each year ("holiday" shows, I'm looking at you), and critics are already largely ignored when it comes to certain mega-spectacles (Spider-Man); while it may be more profitable, would it be healthier for the theater if everybody suddenly shied away from the harder sells, knowing that they'd no longer be able to lure people in on the merits of the work? (Ironically, this director spoke about how nobody working on a show was in it for the money, while simultaneously pushing for a way to make more money.) In the same sense that sports can be heightened by an understanding and appreciation of rivalries, histories, and statistics, so too can theater be strengthened by a fuller, livelier debate of the ideas expressed within.
The final, largest problem, is that simply looking at percentages of likes and dislikes doesn't help you to find the sort of show you're interested in. Do you buy a ticket to a show simply because it's 100% rated? No more than you buy things on Amazon simply because they're closest to five-stars: you go because something about the production speaks to you. Hopefully, in a good review (and there are some stinkers out there, I'm guilty of some myself) the critic's description helps to describe it to you, or can be purposed to work like the Netflix algorithm, in which how closely you agree with past reviews helps to recommend new shows. Direct democracy doesn't seem to have been all that great for California -- do we really want that in theaters? (Also, not to be skeptical or anything, but such a system would no doubt feature a lot of ballot stuffing, right? Assuming you could even get apathetic audiences to talk back?)
Ultimately, I was glad for this discussion with the director, however seriously intended it was (raw emotions and hard alcohol sometimes lead to faulty conclusions). I'm not the hugest fan of the system we have, but I'm convinced that doing away with it entirely is not the right solution. To me, the real trick would be in getting audiences to more actively speak out in dialogue with the critics, and making sure that there's a way to aggregate those thoughts right along with the reviews. (Again, I'm biased here, but StageGrade is the only thing that even comes close to doing this.) One voice is too tyrannical, every voice is too anarchic. I've written before about the wisdom of crowds, but it's a wisdom that comes only through moderation. Let's find the best way to talk about theater; after all, as you can see, my own voice alone is more a rant than a solution.
Monday, December 05, 2011
If you're a profound optimist like Pischik (Ken Cheeseman), the sort of man who rests so easy in the knowledge that everything will somehow work itself out that he's practically a narcoleptic, you'll likely find Classic Stage Company's latest revival of The Cherry Orchard to be, in his uninformed words, "Amazing, amazing." Look at the pretty, star-studded cast! Hear the clean, accessible translation of John Christopher Jones! There's little room, however, for optimism in Chekhov, and while Pischik manages to stumble into a quiet sort of success, Andrei Belgrader (who similarly under-directed Endgame several years ago at BAM, also with John Turturro and Alvin Epstein) simply stumbles, time and time again.
For a drama that's so much about the characters -- the plot revolves around a single action, the upcoming sale of the family's debt-ridden estate -- Belgrader largely ignores them, leaving them to their own devices, and in the case of Turturro, their own bad habits. Instead, he puts up a showy veil around the three-sided stage; has Santo Loquasto wash out the circular set in eye-straining white that belies the manor's former opulence (and looks particularly bad in the "outdoor" second act); and, in an act of token minimalism, leaves only the furniture directly mentioned in the script -- a dresser here, a trunk and a mirror there. These scenic choices clash thematically with the object-centered theme of the play, but for real evidence that Belgrader doesn't really know what he's doing, one need only watch as Charlotta (Roberta Maxwell) cheerily breaks the fourth wall, chatting up and dancing with members of the audience -- and not just in the third act's party scene, which features a variety of divertissments intended to heighten the tension felt by Ranevskaya (Dianne Wiest), as she awaits the results of the auction of her family home -- but during the relatively private second act, too.
The production's clumsier than Epikhodov, which is ironic, since the cast is by and large the one good thing here. I suspect it's largely to do with the experience of these stage and screen veterans, who know how to infuse their characters with more than the seemingly scant directions of Belgrader. In the particular example of Epikhodov, Michael Urie comes in already having mastered pratfalls, so he's able to concentrate on the otherwise undeveloped nuances of his scenes with the self-defined "fragile flower" Dunyasha (Elisabeth Waterston), and his new bad-boy rival, the boorish footman Yasha (Slate Holmgren). The same can be said, however, of Josh Hamliton, who makes the "perpetual student" Trofimov feel like more than Chekhov's intellectual interjection, particularly in the half-witted romantic effect he has on Ranevskaya's naive daughter, Anya (Katherine Waterston).
This is clearest most of all, however, with Ms. Wiest, who plays more than a variation on her usual type. At the play's opening, she is giddier and younger than anyone else, spinning through her old nursery with the sort of delusion that comes from a bad case of nostalgia; by the middle of the play, her mercurial nature comes across more as an informed fatalism -- the sort of woman who knows her charity and lack of money-sense is destructive, but cannot stop; and by the end, she's stooped over with the age and weight of her poor decisions. It's the polar opposite of the over-the-top incredulity that John Turturro brings to the other central role, that of Lopakhin, the hard-working former servant who has now earned enough so as to purchase the very cherry orchard where his parents were once slaves. In some sense, this is fine: Lopakhin is not a subtle man. On the other, Turturro reduces him -- particularly during his big third-act monologue -- to a man of all-business, with the conflicting notes of humility, relief, sorrow wrapped up entirely by one of his booming, over-the-top rants. At the start of the show, Turturro notes that "I've got money, but if you look at me, I'm still a peasant," but hints of the secret shame he feels at this -- one of the key reasons for Trofimov to be in this play, as a means of cultured contrast -- are never visible.
This is, again, where Belgrader's direction -- or lack thereof -- shows; he's too content to let the actors do their thing, with little regard for how those elements all fit together. He may be blessed with talented actors like Daniel Davis, but he doesn't go the extra mile with them: he settles for Davis's wistful and nuanced portrayal of Ranevskaya's brother, Gaev, without pushing for the sublime horror that can be shown by this semi-senile character. The same can be said for Fiers: here's a servant so old and stalwart that he is literally forgotten about at the end of the play, but while Alvin Epstein plays him well, he's used mainly for comic relief, which makes his final lines sit poorly with the rest of the production.
Ultimately, this Cherry Orchard suffers from the same abundance of riches as the orchard within the show: bright and once-majestic, these talents ultimately go to pot, mismanaged as they are.
Monday, November 28, 2011
The great thing about site-specific theater is that even when the play's awful, you're at least somewhere new. Thankfully, Alex Goldberg's It Is Done isn't awful -- just mediocre -- and it's in the basement of The Mean Fiddler, a cheery, old-fashioned bar, so you can pass the time with a few drinks. Passing the time is also the theme of Goldberg's ninety-minute play, in which Matt Kalman plays a horny bartender whose godforsaken watering hole is visited by two strangers, Ruby (Catia Ojeda) and Jonas (Ean Sheehy), and their two dark secrets. Or at least that's the theme of the stronger and funnier first half, in which the characters flirt with and/or disgust one another; once the ice melts (it soon gets very hot, in case the play's foreshadowing isn't clear), the play gets stuck on a single, mildly entertaining note, which largely revolves around (1) how much fun Ojeda seems to be having and (2) how infectiously close the audience is to her as she prowls around the bar.
The plotting renders its own points moot; when one character asks why certain unnatural things are happening, the reply is that "It's more fun this way," along with the disclaimer, "Well, for me." It's a one-sided cry for help, and although there are a few neat visual tricks worked out between director Tom Wojtunik and production designer Tim McMath (the paintings, the door, and the jukebox all have their moments), the dramatic balance of power never changes. It Is Done has no shortage of quips (e.g., if rotary phones are classic, so's syphilis), but writing like that's bottom-shelf theater. If we begin as flies on the wall, eavesdropping on a fresh first date, by the end we're closer to the sort of flies that buzz around a long-dead corpse.
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
The Sugar House is impeccably directed by Daniella Topol, who neatly showcases the various ways we cope and communicate, splattering tweets across Clint Ramos's two-dimensional, compressed house of a set, while wisely stepping back from interfering with the simple guitar songs written by Ching and Larkin. Topol also wisely elides over some of the more fanciful elements of the show, turning Baba from a villainous witch into a overconfident analyst, one who just happens to drug her patients, creepily stroke them (as if they were pets she were teaching to perform tricks), and occasionally lock up in isolation. It's met by an able cast, too, particularly Ahn, who never gets lost in the complexities of time-skipping script, that presents her as a rebellious arsonist one moment and an overcompensating street tough, a lighthearted sister, a mourning daughter, a betrayed and wounded girl, or a smugly Stepfordian penitent the next. In a play that lightly addresses cultural identity, moderately examines familial identity, and stresses personal identity, this is a more impressive feat than words can do justice.
Speaking of words, Ching's language is a delight, defying standard forms of expression in favor of finding words that are inexplicably right. For instance, in one of the group therapy sessions established by Baba, Greta explains that she's feeling "puce" about the fire: "It's a hot, ugly, uncomfortable color." Later, when Miles is helping Greta to survive Baba's crushing rules of conformity, he explains that "Normal is a coat you can put on or take off": in other words, we don't have to be defined or constrained by any single brushstroke. At the same time, Ching balances her poetry with simply put phrases that just as effectively capture the mood: "It's an awful thing to not have a place," says Miles, helping Greta to find her angered brother. Best of all, her characters are far from the moral saints of fairy tales: Greta isn't always deserving of sympathy, and Doc and Opal have their own moments of selfishness and resentment; the story, then, is in how they overcome themselves just to earn a shot at living happily ever after.
Monday, November 14, 2011
Friday, November 11, 2011
Comics, particularly the long-running ones, often suffer from a sort of disassociative identity disorder, in that they've been worked on by so many writers and artists that they no longer belong to any one person; instead, they become a pop-cultural part of our collective consciousness: from issue to issue, they are whatever we need them to be. August Schulenburg's latest offering, Dream Walker, initially suffers from and ultimately benefits from this porous definition. What starts out as an cheesy "superhero" comic, with overdrawn Liefeld-like limbs and exclamatory, Stan Lee-style plotting, becomes, over the course of ninety minutes, something more suggestive and alluring, a Sandman-esque anthology looking at the nature of hope, imagination, and love.
The basic concept is that Richie (Collin Smith), an idle, idealistic, and id-filled would-be-writer, awakes one day to find that he can enter other people's dreams, connecting through some sort of mystical sleepwalking switchboard ('nuff said). His fastidious and tightly strung brother, Gary (Matthew Archambault), is dismissive of the idea, which causes him to come across as a bit of an asshole to the girl he's just started to date, Dawn (Jennifer Somers Kipley). What ensues is a clash between the peevishly practical and impishly impractical, for Richie, hoping to influence Dawn's dreams to make her love Gary again, accidentally makes Dawn fall for him. It's a little ironic, and a sign of character plotting that still need to be worked out, that the problematic part of the previous sentence is the breakup between Gary and Dawn, which occurs without warning, and is caused by an infidelity that Gary can't adequately explain. (Something to do with how his sense of unworthiness causes him to sabotage relationships, which is not what you'd expect of a swim-team champion and literal life-saver.)
It's at this point that the dreams shift from being gimmicks to being a part of the play. The early sequences, like "Dream Walker vs. The Big Bad Brother Boss" are simple stories meant to hint at Richie's powers, with a distant narrator explaining the pantomimed action. Latter dreams -- like the one in which Richie tries to talk to his brother, only to get unforgivingly killed by him, time and again -- are still funny (see the references to Mortal Kombat and Clue), but they're also deepening our understanding of the characters. This is also where Schulenburg gets looser with his imagery, getting all figurative and allegorical with his writing -- a good thing, since he's perhaps a stronger writer when not being so literal.
Dream Walker has quite a few kinks -- many on the technical side, which is to be expected of a new production company -- and would most likely benefit from a more visual direction that emphasizes the differences (and similarities) between reality and dream. (Consider the effects well-used by Ruhl, Callaghan, and Schwartz, to name a few at-times magical playwrights.) Still, save for a few blocking issues, Mariella Duke does a fine job of presenting the play, just as Smith (who seems to be channeling a little bit of Charlie Day's energies) does an outstanding job as the dreamer, loose enough to allow for just about anything, but grounded enough in clear wants and needs such that the play doesn't fly apart. So far as dreams go, can one ask for anything more?
Wednesday, November 09, 2011
The first in a series of unresearched, immediate responses to things I've read in American Theater and/or other arts-related magazines.
From the November '11 American Theater:
"To director Michelle Rougier, the decision [for city officials in Carrollton, GA] to shut down [a community theater production] The Rocky Horror Show is tantamount to censorship. "The city approved this show, and all the publicity that was done said that it was R-rated."
Edit: remove the word "tantamount." It's censorship, plain and simple. The only reason to pull city funding from a community show would be if the company had deceived the city about the content of the play. As for the choice to revoke the use of the venue given that it is "inappropriate for the center," I'm just confused. Time and again, Republicans insist that money has the right to speak, and government should not be involved, so in a red-head state like George, why, if the company can afford to rent the hall, can't they?
I'm reminded of my own experience doing a community show back at Stuyvesant High School in '00, in which our production of Israel Horovitz's Line had been approved by an inattentive faculty adviser who had apparently not read the script. Three days before opening -- when we started putting up fliers that clearly stated the content of the show -- we were told that the show was now being shut down. No apology was offered, no alternative venue was suggested, and our attempts to get waivers from parents signalling their approval for the show, or for their children to see it, was denied. For those of you unfamiliar with Line, the most risque thing that actually happens is dance-as-metaphor-for-fucking, and while the show certainly has some suggestive lines and actions, the idea that the community needs to be protected from something nobody is forcing them to see is literally disturbing to me. For the record, the show the school was producing? The Crucible, which as we all know has absolutely nothing to do with sex.
From the October '11 American Theater:
"True criticism that is expansive and acknowledges work on its own terms, not a narrow idea of performance.... The reviewer was applying her idea of what theatre should be with no regard to the artist's intentions.... We have to stop surveying these works as if creating theatre is like making a good bar of soap, in which the value of the work is based on the number of audience members that like it."
Powerful thoughts from Marissa Chibas, an actor and theatre instructor in California. With her latter point about the craft of theater, I don't disagree in the slightest: the value of the work belongs within the work itself, and those attached to it. But I do find it a little disingenuous to say that critics must engage the work on its own level: we each approach theater in our own way, and to say that there is a specific way that art is meant to be experienced is to imply that there is only one right way to view a Picasso, only one correct reading of a short story, one valid emotion to be provoked by a piece of music.
From my own critical perspective, I do attempt to understand the playwright's goals (or director's, in the case of a revival), and where I have biases against a certain type of theater, I try to acknowledge them. (There's a reason you rarely see me covering one-man shows, high camp, burlesque, or Greek dramas.) But once I've addressed what I believe is being attempted, I've every right to talk about how that worked (or didn't) on my terms, with the vocabulary and experience that I've got. If you trust the audience to take your performance on its own terms, you've got to be able to trust the audience to be able to read a review on their own terms, that they'll understand that my dislike of something is not necessarily going to be theirs.
This is why I argue for the consistency and longevity of critics: the more you read from a single voice, the more you understand what their view is -- and the easier it becomes for you to determine where your view diverges from theirs. That can be helpful, too, and I'd argue that it's more "true" than a criticism that never clashes with the artist's goals.
Ideally, the tight compression of the six months that lead to the sister scandalously living under the same roof as Rivard (the fellow nuns come down with consumption), are meant to speed by so rapidly that we think nothing of the eroding "propriety," save for a few concerns voiced by Rivard's housekeeper, the converted and penitent Mrs. Shandig (Heather E. Cunningham). Instead, the scenes contemplatively crawl, with idle pauses and overly-reasoned dialogues drained of all passion. With the exception of the climax, even the more argumentative scenes feel scaled back. (This may be due in part to the awkward L-shaped seating of the Richmond Shepard space, or the acoustics that occasionally make the more whisper-y actors inaudible.) Of note, the Act I finale, in which Rivard cuts himself to prove that he does bleed, goes from an abrupt and shocking act to a deliberate and precise cut. The script suggests that Rivard smear blood on Sister Rita; the actual staging, like most of the show, is relatively bloodless.
This awkwardness extends to the courtroom scenes. Nat Cassidy, as the Prosecutor, attempts to build up some steam in his interrogations: an impossible task, for his scenes are always cut off. (The show suffers from a marked lack of momentum.) The low budget and frustrating lighting don't help either, in that shifts between past and present require scenic adjustments, and one's eye is all too frequently drawn to witnesses who are frozen in place as the scene attempts to "shift." The script facilitates some transitions better than others, like that of Louise (Becky Byers), a Crucible-like child who takes the stand to get even; others, like Rivard's rival, the Monsignor Nicholson (Jim Boerlin), are in the background so long they practically qualify as sets.
At its repetitious heart -- Stitt has a habit of recycling lines for "emphasis" -- the scenes between Rivard and Rita are quite good. Mullen in particular grows into the role, alternating as he does between the different sorts of strength -- personal and religious -- that have brought him so much trouble, and which have so confused the impressionable Rita. He's fortunate, too, to be paired against Lollar, who makes him work harder; his confrontations in the courthouse are far feebler (and less rehearsed with the fight choreographer).
Retro Productions has made a name for themselves focusing on revivals; hopefully this, their sixth-season premiere, is but a stumble.
Tuesday, November 08, 2011
Askins's script is filled with big moments, and only just grounded by the presence of Pastor Greg (Scott Sowers), who, despite pathetically longing for Margery, remains levelheaded in the chaos that ensues once the class begins to suspect that Jason's hand -- Tyrone -- is possessed by the devil. But while the large moments are excellently held down by Boyer, a talented physical comic actor who gets opportunities to show off both Jim Carrey-esque battles with himself and Evil Dead 2-like levels of blood-soaked camp, the little moments get lost in the chaos. For instance, it's clear how shitty Timothy's life is, the way that he struggles to express himself to Margery through violence, winding up in a semi-masochistic relationship with her once she decides that she's done being "nice," and Moreno does a fine job as the angsty, hormonal teen, but it feels somewhat empty, as if there's nothing more to his character than this one moment of realized passion: where's the fallout? Likewise, while it's clear that Jessica has an unusual crush on Jason, her attempt to "save" Jason from Tyrone by using her own (sexually active) puppet, Jolene, is so hilarious that the sincerity beneath it is often lost.
Goodness shines through -- Hand to God is definitely worth seeing, especially if you liked Avenue Q -- but the play gets as confused as it suggests humans are, lost along the way to so-called "righteousness." But in fairness to the moral, "bad" and "good" are arbitrarily assigned terms. All you really need to know is that Hand to God is a shockingly fun way to spend two hours.
Monday, November 07, 2011
As is often the issue with daredevils, the writing is exceedingly thin, strong enough to last only as long as the stuntperson remains in the air. Annie needs conflict, but finds none -- not from her fragile sister, Jane (Theresa McCarthy), who casts her out and largely disappears, nor from her manager, Mr. Frank Russell (Andrew Samonsky), who is meant to be the voice of reason, if for no other reason than to protect his own liabilities. Samonsky does a fine job trying to sell us on his huckster-with-a-heart character, but his struggles show the issues with LaChiusa's script: we only ever get the huckster moments. Though he asks Annie for forgiveness, we remember him only as the rogue who drunkenly attempts to make money off of Annie by using a Taylor impersonator in "Million Dolla' Momma." Even Testa faces similar struggles: the scene in which she accuses a dismissive Carrie Nation of greed ("You comfort yourself saying you're not a whore/neither am I/but we need more/more green to get by") is quite out of character, and works only because Testa's given plenty of other opportunities. Meanwhile, the ensemble suffers the worst of it, for while they sing prettily enough (save for a few odd disharmonies whenever the orchestra drops out), their characters are flat cut-outs, like DC Anderson's shouty "new manager," Tally Sessions's "Man with his Hand Wrapped in a Handkerchief" (the McKinley shooter), and Stanley Bahorek's portrayal of Mike (no relation) Taylor, a soldier who shows up to reassure a by-this-point delusional Annie that her act did give some, like him, courage and inspiration.
The structure of Queen of the Mist and Annie's life sloppily parallel each other so often that LaChiusa must have done so intentionally, if not ill-advisedly: after all, why would you want to make a musical that has no idea what it wants to do with itself? Director Jack Cummings III works well with what he's given -- a narrow swath of gymnasium flooring between two risers filled with audience members, a misty scrim that hides the orchestra, and an old piano that sweeps between the two sides of the stage -- but this is ultimately a show without a big idea, with a lackluster musical theme, and either a problematic first or second act: your call.
Saturday, November 05, 2011
Jack (Curran Connor, acting and looking like an unfunny Adam Scott) is the bummed-out dude who kicks things off, dropping in on his old friend Vincent (Duane Cooper) -- not to hang out, but to complain about the latest and most final loss of the supposed love-of-his-life, Laura. Gallo states that the two have been friends since the ninth grade (both are now in their late twenties), largely because this isn't obvious from the chemistry between the two actors, who remain distanced from one another, even when crammed into a car. Cooper in particular seems uncomfortable with all the stereotypes Vincent is forced to fulfill as the man-child whose idea of friendship involves heavy ribbing, and who insists on dispensing relationship advice despite his inability to do anything but sleep with married women. (Think of the relationship between Barney and Ted on How I Met Your Mother, only, again, without the humor.) For instance: Jack is performing a one-man memory play as he sorts through his "ex-box" (a shoebox filled with memories from his time with Laura), when he stumbles across some nude photos of other women; Vincent confesses that he's been whacking off to these pictures and calls it his "holding fee." How . . . clever.
In any event, when Jack announces his intent to drive down from New Jersey to Texas to reunite with Laura, even though she's made it clear that she's marrying someone else, Vincent invokes an old rule from their childhood: the titular "two-man kidnapping rule," which allows any two members of the group to force a third member to do what they want, if it's in that third member's best interest. (You're free to debate whose best interest this play is in; the beloved New Ohio Theater seems determined to draw in a younger audience, regardless of the cost.) To do so, Vincent enlists the help of Seth (Andy Lutz, an exceptional cross between the manic Jesse Tyler Ferguson and dour Raul Esparza), and the three drive off to Bar Anticipation, to hook up with Match.com women. Never mind that the kidnapping rule seems a bit arbitrary when they allow the fourth member of their group, the soon-to-be-married Robbie, to beg off; Gallo is writing under a curtain of convenience, which is why Seth soon announces that he's also gotten engaged. It's one more thing for the wallowing romantic Jack and relationship-defiant Vincent to clash over. (This being a comedy about bros in their early adulthood, fists will be thrown at some point.)
Gallo has a few original moments of specificity in his play -- the term "mood dick," which deals with a specific sort of pee-shy person, or a sweet memory evoked by the image of the Pillsbury Doughboy -- but the vast majority of Two-Man Kidnapping Rule seems as if it's been snatched out of other contemporary comedies, largely sitcoms, which know better than to draw such shallow matters out over two hours. There are no stakes in the play, the catharsis is largely off-stage, and the resolutions are abrupt and unearned. Even were the show perfectly cast, it would drag: there are too many artificial situations for it to do otherwise. (Consider the arrival of a second Laura, who we never even meet; the sudden need to hit up a road-side ATM; and Jack's poor driving skills, which cause them to nearly hit a truck . . . twice!)
The most realistic portion of Two-Man Kidnapping Rule is the way director Robin A. Paterson has staged the driving that takes up half the play. Craig Lenti's sound design is dead-on, as is the pantomime from the actors that accompanies the turn signals, mirror-checking, and operation of windows and doors. Those moments seem completely natural, as if they've been ingrained in these people for years on end -- it's a shame that the decades-old friendship that is the centerpiece of the show isn't nearly as smooth.
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Given the company's pedigree, however, it's a shame that so much seems merely passable. Sports are so often mocked that a lot of targets seem especially low-hanging: "Hey, baseball's pretty boring, right?" or "You realize, if you take this innocuous broadcaster's comments out of context, it totally sounds homosexual." (The company does itself no favors in quoting from the great Yogi Berra, who would give his right arm to be ambidextrous.) In turn, this brings down the more original moments: an actual "fantasy" league, replete with Klingons and Jedi, or a conflated breakdown of cliches and mixed metaphors from films and coaches. A team is only a strong as its weakest link, so its safe to say that some segments should have been benched: unresolved bits on boxing and Australia come to mind, as does the twenty-minute climax, the "Olympish Tricotakaidathlon," which offers nothing you haven't already seen in the previous eighty minutes.
As for the audience-participation, the less said, the better. There's a reason fans aren't allowed on the field during the actual game, and that's because they pale in comparison to a well-oiled unit like Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor (who have been writing and directing together since 1992) and their fellow thespiathlete, Matt Rippy, who joined the company in 1996. It's their enthusiasm that carries even the silliest scenes (and wackiest wigs), and it's their faux naivety -- particularly Rippy's -- that allows the audience to laugh with them. And while it's not the greatest sign that even the seemingly ad-libbed moments of Sports [abridged] are scripted -- the group shouldn't need self-deprecating recoveries for failed jokes -- it's at least reassuring that the RSC is determined to make you (and the family) laugh at all costs. Bad sports cliche or not, they've got heart.
Saturday, October 22, 2011
Several times now, I've had last minute things come up that conspire to keep me from covering this year's annual dose of The Pumpkin Pie Show, the creepily poetic show from Clay McLeod Chapman that turns real-life horror stories (the supernatural need not necessarily apply; the world is frightening enough) into potent monologues. This year's showcase, "Lovey Dovey" features performances both from Pumpkin regulars Chapman and partner-in-crime Hanna Cheek as well as live music from Kyle Jarrow's band, Sky-Pony. It's both the treat and the trick I'm getting this Halloween, and you can catch it this final weekend (Thursday - Saturday) at UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between 1st and A).
Posted by Aaron Riccio at 12:20 PM
Thursday, September 15, 2011
As we've seen over the last few years, greed may not actually be all that good for the economy, but when it comes to the theater, the bubble on Wall Street dramas hasn't even come close to bursting. Sharyn Rothstein's The Invested won't be the play that pops it, but neither is it a play that particularly pops. While there are some sure-fire zingers, most delivered by Bill Enoch (Thomas Hildreth), the shady new CEO of "MetroBank" (see if you can figure out which institution this represents), Ron Canada's presentation and Rothstein's plotting is fairly tame, yoked to a sexism-related subplot that never makes it off the back-burner.
Some key research seems to be missing, which leads the play to rely so heavily on the emotional reactions of the passed-over, would-be-CEO Catherine Murdock (Christina Haag) that it never adequately explains what this fund has actually done, nor what its massive downgrade and the subsequent internecine conflict between Bill and Catherine means. We're told that investments are "iffy," just as board member Jane Griffin (the fabulous Judith Hawking) only ever tells us that she's fighting for Catherine. As for stakes, long-time client Sid Simon (Bill Cwikowski, turning a stereotype into a down-to-earth hoot) puts such a human face on them that Murdock is driven (by her heart and the scale model of the Code of Hammurabi on her desk) to reimburse Sid's losses out of the bank's own pocket. That problem solved, the play spends the rest of its time worrying only about Murdock's job, and frankly, that's an uninteresting one, given her multimillion-dollar status.
What one looks for in a bank is akin to what one looks for in a show: a strong identity, a great deal of focus, and a high return on investment (time, money, etc.). What The Invested delivers is a potent premise; a wandering plot that lingers on Catherine's adorably naive new assistant, Madeline (Turna Mete, who is likeable enough to merit her own play), and her improbable involvement with the married, annoying, office clown Henry (Michael Daniel Anderson); and an only somewhat fulfilling return. (This return stems almost entirely from the dialogue, not the characters: "If my panties got damp every time I met a snake charmer, I'd have died of thirst by now." "Sexism is dead, the only -ism left is capital, and you're fucking with it.") Strip out the assistants, focus on the alliance of women between Catherine and Jane, turn Bill into a more understandable villain, and you'd have a one-act powerhouse: the relationships are there, our interest is piqued. (Rothstein's Neglect is still one of the better two-person plays I've seen -- perhaps her scope is too large here.)
Instead of being this year's Microcrisis (a fiercely satirical piece about the next big bubble), The Invested is merely a safe way to spend two hours -- you'll laugh, a little -- which is ironic given the show's own tag-line: "The bigger the risk, the bigger the return."
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
The Lapsburgh Layover isn't quite a site-specific work (though there is some charmingly light audience interaction), but Lisi Stoessel's set, which festoons itself throughout the entire space, not just the dinner-theater stage, helps to make it feel like one -- the atmospheric effect is similar to that employed by The Mad Ones. The piece is also well-directed by Oliver Butler, whose hyper-visual work and layered work with the Debate Society has helped him both to provide context for the joke-heavy script and to smoothly handle the play-within-a-play, "Detective Mickey and the Case of What Happened at Club Regard," with which Oleg Tolsten (Dave Johnson), Zelda Tre'Force (Leah Walton), Olaf Nystabakk (Justin Jain), and Jebozya Gilsty (Bradley K. Wren) are attempting (successfully) to entertain the waiting passengers (you).
Simply nailing the noir-spoof "Detective Mickey" would be enough for most companies ("Make it a double," goes one line, answered with: "The usual? The usual?"). After all, they're already dealing with a ridiculously sinister man-woman villain, Carmen, and a unique battle between hypnotists, to say nothing of the many deaths of Nystabakk's characters -- a bartender drowned in a drink, a Big Fancy Mayor who is blown to pieces (and then used as a meat-puppet). But the Berserkers go several steps further: their Lapsburghian characters have their own rivalries -- mainly between Gilsty, who believes himself to be professional, and Tolsten, who is "just" a farmer, but who gets the lead role on account of Tre'Force's attraction to him -- and these keep interrupting the scenes. At the same time, there's also a mysterious rumbling echoing throughout the theater (M. L. Dogg should be proud of his sound design), which occasionally forces scenes to be abridged or otherwise ad-libbed. There's so much -- and that's really the only flaw: it's so unrelentingly funny that it never transcends to meet its unexpected ending; so packed full of funny moments that there's little room to expand on the individual character quirks. (Given their high-strung comedy, they do manage to convey panic in a credible fashion.)
Still, if it's a question of whether you'll enjoy yourself in Lapsburgh, the answer is most certainly "yes." Both the actors and their characters are eager to please, particularly the hard-working Jain, whose "PowerPoint" presentation of the Lapsburghian attractions is the highlight of the evening. (The whole thing is done with transparency slides.) Additionally, the intimacy of the setting -- much of the play takes place in the aisles -- provides extra laughs, for "Detective Mickey" is done with an extremely cheap budget, so you may wind up watching a character "die" (flailing about to the clacking sound effects of "bullets") in the seat next to you.
Plausible, no; hilarious, yes. The Lapsburgh Layover feels like a vacation in ToonTown.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
They don't make musicals like Follies any more. In fact, even in the unassailable repertoire of Stephen Sondheim, there is hardly anything like it. I mean, a musical about two married couples returning to the theater of their youth on the verge of its destruction, and reflecting on the ghosts -- literally depicted -- of their past regrets? A musical which spends a large part of the second act lost in a fantasia called "Loveland" that's filled with the dancing vaudevillian embodiments of their follies? (Imagine if Book of Mormon's "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" went on for another five songs.) Yes, the show's unbalanced in tone and a bit redundant in message, as if Sondheim distrusted his own clarion instincts, and yes, it might be better if some of the regretful numbers didn't seem quite so extraneous and revue-like ("Ah, Paris!" and "One More Kiss" leap to mind). But if ever a show could justify its own youthful, exuberant mistakes, wouldn't it be Follies? And in the hands of Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, and Danny Burstein, wouldn't this be a pretty good rendition?
Enough with the questions: doubt tends to lead to regret, and there's none of that here, for Follies is a memorable musical well worth seeing (especially if you haven't), an honest-to-god adult musical: yes, there are affairs and loveless marriages, but they aren't rashly dissolved -- there's weight behind every syllable of every year that Phyllis (the astounding Maxwell) saw squandered with her husband, Ben (Ron Raines): "Could I Leave You?" she spit-sing-snarls in her bring-down-the-house number; it's both tragically simple and hopelessly complex. The same goes for the relationship between flighty Sally (Peters, divinely mousey in the role), who loved Ben, and the aptly named Buddy (Burstein), for whom she settled. Buddy, the perfect gentleman, is at odds with himself, for while he's found the perfect woman -- Margie, who we never meet -- he's married to "The Right Girl," with whom he's still helplessly in love.
It's on the strength of these emotions, these regretted and re-examined relationships, that we're willing to follow the cast into their own minds, scenically represented by Derek McLane's feathery, Georgia O'Keefe series of prosceniums. And it's on the strength of songs like the pattering "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" that we're willing to stay there, even if this Buddy song's rehashing the Margie/Sally relationship woes he's just been raging over. The only problematic song is "Losing My Mind," a terrific slow-burn that Eric Schaeffer unfortunately stages almost identically to the earlier, equally fiery, "I'm Still Here." Everywhere else, the show manages to distinguish its nuances and layers -- note the bright colors Gregg Barnes gives the older women and the duller shades in which the ghosts are clad, or the way in which Natasha Katz's lighting only ever touches the present-day characters. It's a shame for the staging to falter, especially with Warren Carlyle proving himself an able choreographer in both the solid "Who's That Woman" and the slinky "The Story of Lucy and Jesse."
The same lack of distinctness goes for the subplots: Jayne Houdyshell is perhaps too noticeable as Hattie, the solid singer of "Broadway Baby"; when her vignette's done, you keep waiting for her to step back into the foreground. And while it's a shame that Emily (Susan Watson) appears to be going senile, you'd be forgiven for missing that -- there are but two lines that refer to it, and her cute duet "Rain on the Roof" all but washes her central tragedy away. It's not clear that any director would be more able to navigate these shakier bits, but they might at least speed through them: it sometimes feels as if Schaeffer himself is lost in the dilapidated scenery. Then again, it's Sondheim: who can blame him for wallowing? Follies: in which things can be so wrong, that they wind up right once more . . . and that's the greatest tragedy of them all.
Monday, September 12, 2011
Perhaps most surprising is the general clarity -- and hopelessness, presented here with humor -- that remains even in drastically abridged versions of O'Neill. The seven plays range from 1913 to 1917, covering everything from what appears to be a low-class gangster drama ("The Web") to the last shreds of humanity found on a shark-surrounded lifeboat ("Thirst") and the secret affairs of the upper-class ("Servitude"). These changes of pace are much appreciated, since the majority of the show is presented in Our Town minimalism, with the performance space blocked off in white tape so as to leave the wings (and idle actors) onstage, their entrances now as much a part of the show as in, say, those from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And yet, it's the uniform nature of the show, of the wardrobe -- grays, browns, suspenders -- that allows the uniquely flawed, peccably perfect language to stand out. Consider the half-whisper -- "Whis...," calls one actor -- or a "sigh . . . that is kind of like a moan." If there's an imbalance, it is a slight one, noticed only occasionally in the difference between the way a veteran Neo-Futurist like Cara Francis or Erica Livingston "throws herself into a chair" and the way Danny Burnam, Brendan Donaldson, and Connor Kalista do. [Update: As noted in the comments below, Kalista is actually one of the more senior Neo-Futurists; the error is mine, although I maintain that there's a difference in abandon between the men and women of this cast, one that in no way detracts from the enjoyment of the show.]
The text may be Eugene O'Neill's, but Christopher Loar has boldly liberated these "directions," like so much found art: chiseled out of one era and cast anew. And while the final five minutes are particularly clever, in the way in which they elevates both a simple stage effect and an absurd punchline, you could just as easily say that of any part of the show -- the chaos of an accordion in "Bound East for Cardiff" or the triplicate effect Loar uses to echo the very basic elements of "Before Breakfast." So with that in mind, here are your stage directions: take the F train to Second Avenue, walk to Fourth Street, and check out The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
There are plenty of theater companies out there that produce plays about women who have lost their fathers: grief is a popular topic. But there are few that are willing to risk pursuing such a story from a different angle -- through, say, a whale-sized metaphor -- and it's a genuine pleasure to see Dreamscape Theatre (as they did for The Burning Cities Project) and artistic director Brad Raimondo behind the wheel of Claire Kiechel's Whale Song, or: Learning to Live with Mobyphobia. Maya (Hollis Witherspoon) reacts to the possible suicide of her father, James (Gavin Starr Kendall), by summoning a whale into the Hudson River; unable to confront it, she spends her days teaching her first-grade students all about the etymology of "orca" and the inevitability of death, and her nights sheltered in her apartment, listening to an increasingly surreal reporter (Rosie Sowa) who begins to address her directly.
The script's a bit unpolished, particularly with the inclusion of Shep, the "motherfucking" drummer (Jordan Douglas Smith), though that's to be expected, given that Maya hires him as a literal distraction. Maya's boyfriend, Mark (Ryan Feyk), also needs to be less of a pushover -- similar to the way Maya's sister, Sarah (Siri Hellerman), is the voice of reason; Witherspoon's a solid actress, but she's forced to self-generate much her angst. That said, Kiechel nails the ending, as we learn exactly why Maya hates whales so much -- it involves another death in the family -- and why she's so obsessed with stories and significance. In addition, Raimondo's direction is spot on, from the way Maya's thoughts are manifested in shipping boxes that gradually overflow throughout her apartment to the staging of the news segments, which is done behind Maya, so that it looks as if we are seeing her thoughts, rather than what's actually on TV. Credit's also due to Sam Kusnetz's sound design: given that the theme of the play is about finding meaning where you look for it, it helps to have some genuine whale songs echoing through the La MaMa space.
At one point, however long ago, you were a kid, and when you were, you probably spent some time playing with toys, making up intricate stories with which the various characters might interact. (If you were never a child, pick up Toy Story and see what you missed out on.) That's very much the sort of theater that Yael Rasooly's interested in making, a semi-solipsistic art that she calls "paper and object theater," a large part of which involves her manipulation of photographs, cut-out paper figures, pop-up books, and various other "flat" puppetry, all while providing the sort of exaggerated voice-over that was all the rage in black-and-white "classic" dramas. The paper-thin plot's beside the point -- Ms. Dolores is a stressed-out, solitary secretary who pines for her boss, even as he obliviously asks her to transcribe love letters to other women -- but it justifies Rasooly's flights of fantasy: creative homages to both over-the-top romances and, as her paranoia invades, Hitchcock. (In terms of inventiveness, it's a bit like a one-woman version of The 39 Steps.) Boiled down to its most simple elements, Paper Cut is a bit one-dimensional, but when she folds together a series of fast-paced accents and title cards to simulate a whirlwind honeymoon, or when she gamely attempt to sing through a bundle of quick-cut love songs (needle skips and all), one can only marvel at her theatrical origami.
Monday, August 22, 2011
"Live in Living Color" boasts the opening number of Catch Me If You Can: The Broadway Musical, with Frank Abagnale, Jr., on the verge of being arrested at the Miami International Airport, convincing Agent Carl Hanratty of the FBI to let him tell his story to the audience. And yet, the show is dulled from the get-go by a by-the-numbers Sinatraesthetic style of playing it cool, which plays very much against the showier strengths of choreographer Jerry Mitchell (La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray) and the inventiveness of Jack O'Brien (The Coast of Utopia). The two are hard-pressed to do much of anything with David Rockwell's sliding bandstand of a set taking up most of the stage, and even playwright Terrence McNally seems limited, though it's hard to blame the source material, which Spielberg managed to make sparkle. The first sign of life doesn't come until halfway through the first act, with Hanratty's spastic (and Tony-winning, for Norbert Leo Butz) "Don't Break the Rules," which says a lot about the dangers of mounting a show that does nothing but follow the rules.
Catch Me If You Can is perfectly inoffensive: with neither the shock of The Book of Mormon nor the "awe" of Spider-man, there's nothing here you can't see elsewhere. Or perhaps it is offensive, in that it wastes the talents of Kerry Butler, who, as Frank's girlfriend, has but two songs in the second act, one of which ("Fly, Fly Away") gives Butz's heart-wrenching solo, "The Man Inside the Clues," a run for its money. Both actors play characters from the inside-out, an asthmatic cough and wobble in his step there, a fluttery prayer and resolute stomp from her there. Problematically, it's the total opposite of how Aaron Tveit and Tom Wopat (Abignales Jr. and Sr.) play their roles, which is entirely with a rocky, unflinching surface that puts all the work on their voice -- beautiful tenor and solid baritone, but as emotionally flat as the rest of the show. (To be fair, Tveit may be held back by the show: he nails his final song, "Good-Bye," in which reality catches up with his character -- the first time he's ever really tested.)
Perhaps the biggest flaw of the show is the structure, which insists on reminding the audience that it's a musical. When The Drowsy Chaperone breaks the fourth wall, it's to welcome you to a world of imagination; when Catch Me If You Can does, it's because it can't find any other way to frame the narrative. At least the former knew that it was an homage to classic archetypes and melodies; it's unclear what the latter thinks its doing when three members of the chorus sing a quick ditty while dressed up as Frank's trusty scissors, India ink, and glue. It's one thing to paint neon targets on the backs of some dancers so as to morph scenery into a song; it's another to trot out dancing girls in wreathes for "Christmas Is My Favorite Time of Year," or are not supposed to be taking any of this seriously?
They say that all criminals secretly long to be caught, so perhaps that's why Catch Me If You Can keeps daring the audience to notice how cheap and tacky it is. (Or is the two-dimensional "plane" that swings down in the background supposed to make Frank's forged Pan Am license seem more authentic by comparison?) If that's the case, consider this show a success . . . in that enough people have caught on to its mediocrity: the show closes September 4th.
Sunday, August 07, 2011
Who is Charlotte Gaffney, and why is she trying to get me to work as an analyst for Bydder Financial? You pause for a moment, scratching your head, pouring over your e-mails, and then you remember: some time ago, you signed up for an interactive theater experience called Red Cloud Rising, which purports to be a friendlier, safer, communal version of that Michael Douglas film The Game: might this be it? So it is that you dress comfortably for your "job interview," heading down to the Financial District to meet the other potential inductees. Across a conference table from them (in my case: a reporter, Samantha; two friends, Wendy and Zahra; and an Australian tourist, Cristian), Ms. Gaffney gives you a little background on your new, potential employer -- which you'll want to pay close attention to, given that there's no director nor lighting cue to keep you focused -- before sending you on a "team-building" exercise designed to test your qualifications.
This is no mere scavenger hunt that has you searching graveyards, park benches, and laundromats, however: before long, you'll encounter a conspiracy theorist, Rene, who seeks to recruit you to another organization, Red Cloud, that wants to reveal the "truth" about bottom-line oriented corporations, the sort who manage to sell a country its own natural resources, or which makes its products with ever more cut-rate ingredients. No, under the watchful eye of creator Gyda Arber (who has been running the "You Are the Star" multimedia noir adventures that go by the Suspicious Package moniker), you'll spend the day receiving cryptic text messages and suspicious (and sometimes hard to hear) phone calls that provide you with just enough information to get you to the next location (or "scene").
As a work of pure theater, it's perhaps too diffracted -- there's a lot of walking and talking amongst yourselves, and there are a few technical difficulties that sometimes lead to confusion -- but so far as entertainment goes, it succeeds as an actual team-building event. It's a technologically updated version of Accomplice: New York, another theatrical walking-tour experience. The largest difference between them is that Red Cloud Rising is the more ambitiously plotted (and affordable), whereas Accomplice is slightly more engaging (and filling); both are well worth doing, though not on the same day. The real asset to Red Cloud Rising, however, and this speaks to Ms. Arber's experience as a director, is in the way it will transform the way in which you view its slice of the city -- which is ostensibly what theater's meant to do in the first place. This sort of site-specific engagement, which encourages Internet-based world-building outside of the show (which is already out of the theater), speaks to a very bright future of theater.
Tuesday, August 02, 2011
The "gimmick" -- though one hesitates to call it that, justified and critical as it is to the story -- is that after a Tron-like accident at a life-changing game-design conference, Ray (Stephen Heskett), finds himself trapped within his own game, and it's up to the audience to guide him to the exit . . . before the chip implanted in his head causes his brain to explode. But this isn't simple problem-solving: Ray's goal was to design a truly interactive work of fiction, in which you could ask the computer to do anything, without ever being limited by the phrase "I don't know what you mean" or "I can't do that."
The result, then, allows six volunteers to fool around with Ray's life as much as they'd like. For example, the evening I attended the show, the audience had spent nearly thirty minutes encouraging Ray to perform with greater than usual charisma, providing him with basic psychoanalysis, and referring to him as "Storm King," before finally figuring out how to open the locked door. Did they then instruct him to walk through said door? No, they did not. Instead, they threw object after object through the open door, much to Ray's increasingly snarky (and incredibly well ad-libbed) disapproval. (Most impressive is the way Heskett spent much of this scene with a blanket wrapped around his fist and a purse clutched in one arm -- because the audience had never countermanded their instructions for him to do so in the first place.) Such was the genius of the show, for while it had a clear structure -- and a literal countdown clock -- it refused to be bound simply to the scripted scenarios: it might point, push, and eventually prod the players in the right direction, but it wouldn't force anything to occur. Whatever happened, happened: Will Wright would be proud; there are even alternate endings (four in all) depending on the audience's progress (and morality).
The show skews toward comedy (as most semi-improvisational shows do), and in a nod to the necessities of plot, each of the three interactive scenes (represented as "puzzle rooms" from which our hero is attempting to escape) provides the audience with less and less freedom. (Ray begins in an open room, spends some time on a closed boat, and is then chained to a table.) And yet, the creativity of these three writers, and the confidence of their director, Paige Blansfield, is such that you'd never notice it in the moment: the two hours of Brain Explode! (there are some untimed scenes) fly by faster than a marathon session of, say, Plants vs. Zombies. The difference here, of course, is that Brain Explode! does more than distract you as it introduces new elements of "gameplay" (theaterplay?): it aims to teach us, through Ray, about ourselves: Jesse Wilson shows up as all the male figures in Ray's life (distant father, deceased brother, former best friend) and Megan Melnyk plays Ray's hyperactive mother and steadfast yet steely girlfriend. (To say nothing of the puppets and robots designed by Jim Hammer and Marc Borders.) Winning involves more than solving puzzles; it requires empathy.