Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 - The Best

Best Plays of 2008
As a bias alert, I direct you to the breakdown of the 251 shows seen in 2008. Not surprisingly, this list reflects my off-off-Broadway habits, as well as my attraction to magical realism, aesthetic direction, and refreshingly new directions. Don't be fooled by the presence of two revivals, two musicals, and a monologue: each play on this list had a unique voice, a striking presentation, and a hypodermic of adrenaline-laced honesty.

Women Beware Women - Red Bull doesn't just revive plays, it resurrects them, mounting top-notch productions that highlight the language and showcase the style, not just reminding us that it's cool to kick it old-school, but that it's where we learned to kick it in the first place.

9. Bride - Lone Wolf Tribe embraced their otherworldly vision so fully that they were able to embed social commentary in a comic nightmare, get away with straightfaced puppetry, and keep the audience perpetually surprised and delighted.

8. crooked - Catherine Treishmann captured the excited magic of storytelling in this original exploration of teen angst; by refusing to conform to stereotypes, her work fleshed out characters in the most heartwrenching ways, for the deeper they are, they harder they fall.

Rainbow Kiss - Simon Farquhar's debut play was shockingly realistic, from the visceral axe-through-a-door staging to the desperate, craving dialogue, and the unflinching tragedy of depression, shown here without tricks or metaphors: just a raw and bloody mess of a life.

6. Aliens With Extraordinary Skills - Saviana Stanescu uses a light-hearted fantasy as a means of creating empathy for the awfully dark reality illegal immigrants work in--but never comes across as preachy; the ability to be charming and convincing is no easy feat.

5. How Theater Failed America - Mike Daisey is a wonderfully talented monologist, one of those richly voiced and charismatic people who fill the nuance of each syllable with a passion so palpable that what they say hardly matters--except that in this case, the words were every bit as important as the performance, and Daisey's usual collection of anecdotal humor was flooded with a hard-earned honesty well worth listening to.

4. Passing Strange - Though there are some gimmicky moments and a few flat pieces in the second act, those things are all part of "The Real" that Stew found so hard to communicate--breaking the standard conventions of theater, particularly Broadway, as he did so; what stands out is the way the hairs on my arm stood up as his music crackled through the theater, and the way he reclaimed "Art" as something well-worth striving for.

3. Blasted - Sarah Kane's play has never been about the eye-gouging, baby-cannibalism, anal rape, and other horrifying shocks of this Beckett-busting work; by realistically, unflinchingly directing this work, Sarah Benson has succeeded in jarring the text far enough off the page that it can be seen as the painfully alive, utterly human, and angrily demanding work that it is, shocking, ultimately, only in that it is no longer as shocking on the surface as in 1995 (although it is just as emotionally scarring as ever).

Fabrik - All of the characters in Wakka Wakka's production are puppets, but like Maus and Cabaret, this only allows the ensemble to shed the pretense and melodrama that often accompanies plays about the Holocaust; puppetry, when it is as specific and deliberate as used here, can show us facets of our own humanity that we are too blind (or stubborn) to notice--we get so caught up in the magic of these miniatures that their deaths are somehow more affecting: we were no longer prepared for or protected from it.

1. Hostage Song - This aptly-described "downtown supergroup" (Clay MacLeod Chapman, Kyle Jarrow, and Oliver Butler) earned that name with this transcendental indie rock musical about a pair of two doomed hostages, their loved ones, and the beautiful dreams they once had--and still cling to, Everymen for the current human condition. In an intimate black-box theater, blindfolds freed them (and us) to think outside the box, reminding us of life's horrors while at the same time meshing them with the simplest, most fragile pleasures. Not only did I go back to see this show, but if they should ever need an investor for an encore, I'm there.

Best Performance
Sahr Ngaujah
in Fela! - Because the mark of a talented actor is in catching the audience's attention--and holding it--even when the play around you sags. Because he had to be pitch perfect not only in his imitation of the Afrobeat inventor, but in his singing, dancing, and instrumentals. Beyond all that, because he sold a song about shit.

Best Playwright
Clay MacLeod Chapman - Because he writes because he has to: The Pumpkin Pie Show has been going on for ten years, with new, twisted material jumping in all the time (not to mention his collaborative spirit with The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays). Because his sense of language is so keen that the images of Hostage Song are still with me, as are the tears. Because he is a performer, too, and understands the value of words and the rhythm of dialogue, but moreover, because he understands what it takes to make even the weirdest stuff seem real.

Thomas Bradshaw - Because between Southern Promises and Dawn, Bradshaw proved that his shock value had shades of nuance, and reminded us that comedy doesn't always make us laugh, just as tragedy doesn't always make us cry. Because Bradshaw questions big ideas without presuming to know the answers, and because he refuses to give us easy releases, even though he stays far away from complicated presentations.

Best "New" Theater

As Ratatouille puts it, the role of a critic is to defend and promote that which is new: that's why this is the most important category for 2008. These were not the best shows, but they were the most promising, with their efforts to transform theater.

1. Suspicious Package - Because this took the ideas in Rotozaza's Etiquette and the long-running theatrical walking tour of Accomplice one step further, turning the audience into actors, the city into a stage, and the music/video player into a historical device.

2. Small Metal Objects - Because this site-specific work transformed our perception of "anonymity" and allowed us, for a moment, to tune into a carefully choreographed conversation taking place amidst the everyday hustle and bustle of the city.

3. Democracy in America - Because someone paid $15 dollars to insert a conversation about a toy dinosaur and $5 to add a rim job and because Annie Dorsen had the craft and technique to not just combine these two, but to craft the gimmick of a show democratically "bought" by the audience into an entertaining whole.

Best Off-Broadway Theater
Women's Project: Because seasons with shows as different as Sand, crooked, and Aliens with Extraordinary Skills are rarely any good, and this one is. Because they're committed to the community (now that they've bought their space), their company (they run labs for playwrights, directors, and producers), and the theater (they produced their second annual site-specific work at the World Financial Center, for free). Because they were good last season, too.

Honorable Mention - Vineyard Theater has an eclectic, quirky edge to their productions, and everything there is always a professionally mounted surprise.

Best Off-Off-Broadway Theater
Electric Pear - Because their name only captures half their weirdness--what's most exciting about this company, now in residence at the hip new Wild Project, is that you never know what's coming next. Because in this last year, they've done site-specific works like The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays, edgy theater like The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents, engaging experiments like Synthesia 2008 and their upcoming radio play, and even revivals (like 2.5 Minute Ride) that shouldn't work but somehow do.

Honorable Mention - The Flea can be hit or miss, but its dedication to the unpaid Bats ensemble of young actors (new plays, written for them by A. R. Gurney, Itamar Moses, and Adam Rapp) and to the neighborhood scene is without question. Did I mention their cheap tickets?

Best Use of Theater Space
3LD Arts and Technology Space - Because although their shows are often below average, the technological possibilities and expensive derring-do on display are a bold sandbox for other companies to take note of: Fire Island changed our perception of theater space, operating in three-dimensions (amongst the actors) and using holographic and digital screens to continue the story, and even more traditional staging, like The Only Tribe, pushed boundaries by projecting a slew of images against the live actors.

Honorable Mention - Ohio Theater, which is sadly shuttering sometime soon, had a tall, wide, flexible space that encouraged unconventional uses, and festivals that welcomed artists of all sorts--the best use of space is also the constant use of space, something that PS122 and the newly renovated HERE will now need to deliver on.

Best Company
By breaking down the normal walls between playwright, director, and actor, the ensemble shows the most promise of creating new theater, emboldened by a collective spirit that aggressively looks for "the Real."

1. Nature Theater of Oklahoma: Poetics (a ballet brut) - Because this highly energetic group has taken the craziest part of last year's No Dice and stretched it (without losing the fullness) into a sustained dance/meditation on human nature, the wordless underbelly that unites us all.

2. Radiohole: ANGER/NATION - Because they gave me beer and then blew my mind. Because they juxtaposed puritanical anarchy with hedonistic order. Because the coda to their show uncomfortably refused to conform to our expectations. Because it is still possible to have an edgy experience at the theater, even if you spend most of your time seeing downtown theater.

3. Jollyship the Whiz-Bang: Jollyship the Whiz-Bang - Because there's a moment in which lecherous, drunken puppets performing rock music on a pirate adventure transcends mere comedy and, like an energetic ad-libbing force of nature, restores our faith in the sort of community that can dream this up . . . and produce it.

Honorable Mention: The Debate Society is still doing great work with their melancholy magic and Cape Disappointment was no disappointment; The TEAM left a mark with their inventively giddy Particularly in the Heartland. Both groups benefit from a cinematic styles that lavishes attention on the minute, thanks to well-oiled casts and their visionary directors.

Best Adaptation
Revivals are a dime a dozen, but adaptations are curious beasts, for the original must first be wrestled to the floor, then, with a sculptor's skill and precision, chiseled into something at least as revealing and beautiful.

1. Gregory Wolfe: Bound in a Nutshell - Because turning Shakespeare's longest play, Hamlet, into a modernized 90-minute version requires real focus--and in this case, in which scenes and characters are conflated and jumbled far more than anything Baz Luhrmann (or last year's Macbeth: A Walking Shadow) did, real imagination, too.

2. Elevator Repair Service: The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928) - Because this company embraces what could otherwise be flaws, adapting non-traditional forms of storytelling and going balls-out to create emotions where words fail.

3. Jon Levin: There Will Come Soft Rains - Because presentation matters, and the aesthetics that Levin found for each of the three sci-fi stories in this Fringe production managed to draw something heartbreaking out of the works: the mad scientist seems human in puppet form, the robotic house is cleverly described through modern dance, and the trouble with time travel is highlighted by holographic replay.

Honorable Mention: Aquila Theater's Catch-22, which pared down the plot into a minimalist production that emphasized the irony of insanity rather than the melodrama of the plot.

Best "Non" Theater

Of All The People in the World (USA) - Because expressing statistics in three-dimensional form--particularly grains of rice--is gut-punchingly effective. What is easy to ignore on paper is far harder to ignore when meticulously assembled in front of your eyes, and even the most colorful bar graphs stand to learn a lot from the activeness of "performance" art.

Most Anticipated Play
Water (or the secret life of objects) - There's no telling when Sheila Callaghan will finish her six-hour opus, a series of vignettes that share the symbolic life-giving water of its title. Callaghan's having a busy year, with two top-notch productions of her work in NYC alone, but one can only hope that all the workshops (excerpts are at HERE's Culturemart again in '09) are helping her find her "flow."
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles - Much like a fluttering bird, Stephen Earnhart's Haruki Murakami-approved adaptation has been making brief appearances at 3LD and various arts conferences. Should this play ever settle down (difficult, I know, for a dream), the blend of puppetry and technology should be able to capture the unique mysteries of the novel: either way, it's a highly ambitious project--interdisciplinary and international--that, at this point, will at least be an informative failure, if not a stunning experience.

2009 Wishes
  • To see Sarah Benson do a Howard Barker play at SoHo Rep--Potomac Theater Company does great work, but Benson can get him the attention he deserves.
  • To see the auteur Jay Schieb take his berserk blend of technology and passion to 3LD, where he is most likely to be able to fully express himself.
  • To see Red Bull's 2003 production of Pericles (with Daniel Breaker), or to revisit their 2005 run of The Revenger's Tragedy (with Matthew Rauch and Michael Urie). When a company is consistently good, you don't want to wait a year between productions, and if Richard Foreman is putting out DVDs, why not Red Bull?

Friday, December 26, 2008

2008 - The Data

Next week, I'll roll out my "Best of 2008" list, but I thought it would be interesting to compile some data, aggregating myself as a critic (especially since I'm occasionally excerpted on Critic-O-Meter). This is your chance to get a better idea for my preferences, and to check out my archives, which I have spent the last week comparatively grading and sorting for your convenience (and, hopefully, interactivity). So, from the 2008 Archives:

Unmissable (Six Star) Shows Seen: 13
Excellent (Five Star) Shows Seen: 29
Recommended (Four Star) Shows Seen: 40
Decent (Three Star) Shows Seen: 60
Flawed (Two Star) Shows Seen: 58
Awful (One Star) Shows Seen: 27
Unredeemable (Zero Star) Shows Seen: 12
Workshops/Unreviewed Shows Seen: 12
Total Plays Seen In 2008: 251

This data is more or less consistent with what I've said about my own criticism: I'm looking to defend the downtown scene, but not at the cost of my integrity. That is, I'm looking to find decent things to say (and I succeed 57% of the time), but even failing that, there's still usually something positive about the show. For those reading between the lines, the shows that hit the low end or high end of the scale are pretty serious (and evenly distributed, with fives balancing ones and sixes balancing zeroes); I don't throw raves or bashes around.

However, take these statistics with a grain of common sense: although I saw a great number of shows, I didn't pick them at random. Think of reading blurbs as you would of counting cards: you can go with your gut, or you can give yourself an edge. Of course, you still need to take risks, or you'll never be surprised by anything, and that's where reviews and word of mouth can help. This is why, in the film Ratatouille, the critic's anagnorisis is that his duty is not to bash, but to find the "new" and to defend and promote it; this is why I tend to avoid revivals and busy myself with premieres (and, in turn, why I've seen so little Broadway this year).

Should you think that things are skewed because I mostly walk downtown (two of every three shows I see are off-off), note that it still breaks up evenly:

Number of Broadway shows seen (from six-star to zero and the total): 1, 2, 1, 4, 2, 2, 0 = 11
Number of Off-Broadway shows seen: 6, 9, 9, 16, 13, 6, 3 = 61
Number of Off-Off Broadway* shows seen: 6, 18, 30, 40, 43, 19, 9 = 165
(N.B. Off-Off-Broadway refers to theaters with under 100 seats and to anything performed for a limited-run festival, like Under the Radar or the Fringe, regardless of venue.)

When you factor in the average cost of tickets for these venues, you're better off checking out the off-off-Broadway scene (particularly during festivals), especially if you're looking for six-star performances (the only Broadway one to make the cut was Passing Strange, which started off-Broadway). Some people would swear by Gypsy and South Pacific this season, and having not seen them, I can't argue with their beauty, but--I won't lie to you--I'm looking for something more substantial in my diet, no matter how well-prepared.

But that's where my curiosity takes me--if any of you are interested in a specific breakdown of the data, just let me know. We can all learn from our habits; what are yours?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

metaDRAMA: Interactive Fiction

Jeremy Freese's Violet, which won (and can be downloaded at) the 14th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition, begins with a simple task: write 1,000 words or your girlfriend leaves you. However, try to write (type "write"), and the story unfolds: you are distracted by the Internet. Unplug the Ethernet cable ("unplug cable") and you'll just end up plugging it back in. Unless you hide it somewhere, that is. Look around, and the world expands: there's a desk with a computer (which you are sitting at), a bookcase, a cabinet, and a stool. Because there are no graphics to give visual cues, the game forces you to engage in examining things ("look at [noun]"), which in turn makes your brain far more active than it will ever be pressing button sequences in Prince of Persia, honing reflexes in Gears of War 2, or exploiting systems in Persona 4.

The text-based adventure game isn't modern--Infocom's popular Zork series was an '80s thing--but it is postmodern. Each graphic upgrade (and it came quickly, with Sierra's Quest for Glory in the mid-80s, and LucasArts's recontextualization in the '90s) actually stripped the player of choices, limiting him to a standardized pallet and pre-approved list of verbs (i.e., actions). It's a pleasure, then, to spend a few hours with new classics like Violet, and a pleasant bit of exercise for my brain. If Pynchon, Bolano, Wallace, or Vollman had ever made a video game (Violet even has built-in footnotes, called "asides"), it would play like this.

How this ties into theater and criticism is that media has developed so rapidly--invasively and subversively--that the way we use our minds has shifted. We don't tune in, we zone out. What's essential, then, is that we remain active in our entertainments, that we think beyond the frame. Taken seriously, blogging can help with this, giving large audiences an outlet in which to extend the watching of a film like Slumdog Millionaire. One of the reasons I write so many reviews is that it's an interactive way to process experiences that are less vivid than those of the real world. My hope for the new year, once we all sleep off those holiday hangovers, is that this site can become more interactive: that is, that readers will use the review to re-engage with the play, just as I use my writing to involve myself in what I've seen. Happy holidays everyone, especially Chris Dahlen of the Onion A.V. Club, who managed to highlight this important freeware.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Women Beware Women

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Despite--or perhaps because of--the lack of punctuation in Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women, Jesse Berger's latest production is an explosively clear rendition of a classic Jacobean love story (with shades of a dramatic version of Moliere's School for Wives). No surprise that his company is called Red Bull--like the drink, you can apparently mix them with any drama and the results will be eye-opening, dizzying, and thrilling.

In previous productions, this troupe has been defined by what they're not. (Shakespeare is, after all, so last year.) They are done a great service, then, by Women Beware Women, which is a full-bodied play on its own, one in which "vengeance [meets] vengeance like a chess match." Though there are echoes of, say Sir Andrew Aguecheek in the naive Ward (Alex Morf), who is being pushed into courtship by his jovial companion, Sordido (Jeff Biehl), the target of his "affection," Isabella (Liv Rooth) is more than just saucy--she's involved with her uncle, Hippolito (Al Espinosa), thanks to her aunt Livia's (Kathryn Meisle) machinations. Though it's expected that the more Leantio (Jacob Fishel) tries to hide his beautiful new wife, Bianca (Jennfier Ikeda), away from the outside world, the likelier he is to lose her, it's rare that he is undone by his lord, the Duke (Geraint Wyn Davies) and rarer still that the duke's brother, the Cardinal (Jonathan Fried), has the morality to condemn that union. The language is hot-blooded yet clever, and even the most archetypal characters--like Isabella's father, a scalding judge named Fabritio (Everett Quinton), or Leantio's clucking Mother (Roberta Maxwell)--have large reversals.

Women Beware Women is a high point not just for classics, but for Red Bull (there's even a credit for Paul Rubin's aerial effects). The dark and deep basement of 45 Bleecker was appropriate for The Revenger's Tragedy, and the slick, modern Peter Jay Sharp Theater fit their rendering of Edward II, but it's the tall, wide, and old Theater at St. Clement's that frees them up. (There's even a balcony scene or two for good measure.) Bustling scenes draw out the range and talent of the company and Berger's direction: a banquet layers the broad physical comedy of Ward's attempts to glimpse his bride-to-be with the tense subtext of Isabella's newfound confidence in Hippolito. It then uses depth to foreground Leantio's jealous asides while giving the floor to Livia's appetites in the background, her eyes fixed on him as her voice drops an octave: "This makes me madder to enjoy him now." Mere description can hardly capture all the nuances of the scene and the setting (look how the darkening of a balcony foreshadows--literally--an approaching sordidness).

Fans of modern musicals will not feel out of place with this classic, straight tragedy for each line sings, and the themes of empowerment, jealousy, and bold action are more than crystal clear. "He that lives loveless, every day's his doom," says Hippolito; how fortunate are we, then, to live in a moment (and with a play) so filled with bloody, bloody love.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Light Lunch

Photo/Richard Termine

A. R. Gurney isn't a subtle playwright, so he'll have to appreciate this bluntness: A Light Lunch is an awful play. Gurney has made the twofold mistake of thinking that (1) references to exposition excuse its constant use and (2) that being unapologetically glib about it is funny. (Based on his recent performance as a playwright, "thinking" might also be considered a mistake for Gurney.) The plot is a discussion of plot, the drama is a discourse on drama, and acting is the action: in other words, it's all derivative, it's all secondhand, there is nothing new to see here, go home.

Beth (Beth Hoyt) is trying to purchase A. R. Gurney's latest play--supposedly a final nail in Bush's coffin--from Gurney's young agent, Gary (Tom Lipinski). For monotony breaking comic relief, their nosy actor/waiter, Viola (Havilah Brewster), breaks down the dramatic structure of their lunch. They'll have a conflict because "the theater thrives on conflict"; that talking they're doing, "we call it exposition." It's doubtful that there were ever actual characters to begin with, but exchanges like these ensure that no shred of humanity survives: "That's exactly why I've been delaying my entrance...I could tell by your blocking that your scene was taking a different turn." "Our plot is thickening, Viola." Things get better only because they cannot get any worse: John Russo is at least smug enough as Viola's theater-professor boyfriend, Marshall, to maximize his role as "deus ex machina" and to relish explaining, in a spin on The Bridge Over the River Kwai, why the Bush of Gurney's play must go through an "anagnorisis."

Good old Marshall warns us not to call theater "interesting": "It's the kiss of death...'interesting' describes only an intellectual experience. Plays should always invoke an emotional response." But A Light Lunch isn't substantial enough to fail at being "interesting": the hands-off content is far too tacky and talky and hammy and harmless to do anything. These may be lean times, but just as audiences deserved more than Bush these last eight years, he deserves more than A Light Lunch for a last meal.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Light Posts

It's turned into a light holiday season in terms of theater-going, so I've been kicking back and working on my list of the best theater in 2008 and trying to finish up some delayed deadlines. (Go see Women Beware Women. Avoid A Light Lunch.) I've also been catching up on the films and television shows I'd missed this year (most of which I don't regret missing). Mediocrity is apparently in fashion these days, with The Wrestler and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead coming highly recommended to me, but both being rather bland. Heck, the most addictive (but far from best) thing I stumbled onto was the utterly unexpected, a reality show called Solitary. I was delighted by the charm of Wall*E (though not as much as by the close-to-my-heart Ratatouille), and pleasantly surprised to find that the fight choreography and darkness of The Dark Knight was actually more effective this time around. (I wish I could say I'd made as much headway into my reading list--I'm just accumulating late fines at the library now, and I'm about to start Infinite Jest again.)

But you know what, there were plenty of things to be excited for this year (Mad Men really is that good), and anybody who says that anything is "dead" is as full of hyperbole as those critics who spout that a specific show is "the best thing you'll ever see." Lest we forget how awful things can really be, here's some Engrish for your entertainment.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Photo/Alex Koch

If you buy the meta-shtick of Joe Iconis’s ReWrite (he is writing a musical to deadline, and so writes about himself, and the one who got away) then you have to accept that Joe is writing music for selfish reasons: for his friends and for the warm glow of the afterparty. If you don’t buy the three one-acts structure, loosely connected by a melody and a character, then the show is an after-school special about confidence (“Nelson Rocks!”), a musical twist on Durang-style loneliness (“Miss Marzipan”), and a self-aware but fatuous look at musicals—[title of show] without the honesty (“The Process”).

ReWrite feels like a generous rough draft of a musical—the characters are unfinished clichés and the songs are cheaply supported by Iconis’s piano and various instruments from Arvi Sreenivasan. Melodies start but then trail off, unresolved, much like a certain one-verse song from the show about a monkey. As for the book, which pokes slight fun at Lin-Manuel’s In the Heights, there’s a lesson and a reminder here about glass houses and bricks. The one thing ReWrite has going for it is that it’s so mundane.

Then again, that’s what Joe is after, and that’s why one man’s problem with this play is another man’s guilty pleasure. In “The Process,” Badia Farha plays The Girl Behind the Counter as a stereotypically sassy black woman (“Where yo’ balls at?” she sings), but she also scores a valid and endearing point by helping him find his “heart balls.” Likewise, Lorinda Lisitza plays Miss Marzipan so psycho-pathetically that it’s hard to believe that her accidental kidnap victim (A. J. Shively) would fall for her, and yet when she sings about marzipan, or he sings about eggs benedict, it seems ordinary enough. Finally, Nick Blaemire’s nerdy Nelson is stale from the moment he first enters with his Evil Dead shirt and thick glasses and inability to ask Jenny Vecharelli (Lauren Marcus) to the prom, but he perseveres through the same old same old until we like him.

Still, the end result is charmingly underwhelming. As a character in his own play, The Writer (Jason Williams) succeeds at having an emotional breakthrough. Audiences may recognize that, and may even hum along to his spry riffs, but the actual writer, Joe Iconis, is the only person likely to benefit from this extended bit of musical therapy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

metaDRAMA: Funny Games (2008)

I've always been a little startled by writers like Stephen King; as The Blood Brothers pointed out in an adaptation earlier this year, fiction can be inspirational. (Just look at A Million Little Pieces--people may be loathe to admit it, and try to hide in memoir, but fiction can be life-changing.) The problem is that with King, sometimes violent and graphic works inspire the wrong sort of people. There would still, obviously, be violence without the endless games and movies and books (just look at the Middle Ages), but is there something more sinister that we're feeding into with all of our self-satisfied torture porn? A new play at the Flea earlier this year, The Footage, questioned how media itself could actually implicate us in the crimes it described, and while I don't condone blissful ignorance, I think we do need educational awareness. Instead, shows like 24 dull our perceptions, and the constant shouting of television pundits numbs us to the point where we don't question their actions. Naomi Klein wrote The Shock Doctrine, describing the way in which we can be made to accept things when our bodies shut down--haven't the latest crop of horror films done exactly that? We take pleasure in the formulaic (even Scream, the best of the last bunch, fell prey to its own admonishments), because it allows us to simply go along for the ride.

In this circuitous fashion, I arrive at Michael Haneke's frame-by-frame adaptation of his 1998 film, Funny Games. Haneke is open about his disgust for the way we've stopped thinking about films; when he saw American audiences backlash at his masterful Cache (2005) simply because it did not resolve in the classic Hollywood fashion (think of Insomnia's ending, or even of Irreversible's backwards resolution), perhaps he figured it was time to make his message more direct. To do so, he cast Naomi Watts, a ridiculously endearing actress, as Ann, and set her up with Tim Roth, as George, in a loving, happy marriage, with a loving happy son (Devon Gearhart): in other words, American Values, up on the chopping block.

In true form, it begins politely enough, with two young men, played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet innocently intruding on Ann's home, and then slowly growing more and more violent through the use of childish games. (For instance, Pitt's character, Paul, leads Ann to the dog he has killed by giving her "warmer" and "colder" directions.) As he does with his cold filmmaking, he then refuses to give these villians any motivation (Haneke is perhaps the only filmmaker who could faithfully adapt A Clockwork Orange): "Why are you doing this?" asks George, his leg broken. "Why not?" responses Paul. He goes so far as to have Paul make up stories for his partner, Peter, and then to actually turn to the camera, asking us how we feel about the game: "Oh, you're on their side," he says, casually making a bet that by 9:00 the next day, George's family will be dead. Later, he'll be far more direct: "Don't you want to see a plausible ending?" In other words, one of these two groups of people must be dead--they can't simply walk away.

Unfortunately for Ann, Paul and Peter aren't real characters, and Funny Games isn't a real film (the suffering is generated purely for our own shallow empathetic needs). When Ann appears to have turned the tables, Paul rather cheesily "rewinds" the film, thwarting our satisfaction, but also reminding us of how often devices precisely like this are used by "the good guys." The film even refuses to deliver on the graphic horror: the worst bits happen between scenes, or off to one side, while Haneke remains focused on what truly interests him: the reaction shot. Perhaps his next film will use the abundance of digital media to project our own faces up on the screen as video subtitles to accompany the horrors. So far as a face goes, though, Haneke was right to hold out for this cast, particularly Watts: through their humanizing eyes, it is not so easy to sit back and enjoy the gore.

Of course, we don't like to have the mirror reflected back on us, any more than we like people to question our hedonistic pursuits. Our anonymity entitles us to a certain measure of savagery, and if some people cross the line, fine, so long as they don't do it in my backyard, or my house. I can understand audiences not liking this film, but I can't understand the critical response (42% on Metacritic, and A. O. Scott of the New York Times gave it a 0%). How could anybody think that this message--with Saw VI and Hostel III on the way--is outdated? Sure, Disturbia is a lot more palpable (much like Arlington Road's paranoia): there are clear-cut justifications there, and we're not being lectured to through the pretense of film. But what they miss is that all the media out there are now subject to endless amounts of pretense: Haneke has no choice but to lash back in the very medium--nay, in the very genre--that he abhors. He does his best to handle it, by building unbelievable tension out of the long stretches of the unknown, and by turning the old tropes of horror films (the foreshadowed knife, the symbolic golf ball) on their heads.

I spoke earlier this week about the importance of truth to art: here is a film that lies constantly, from the characters up, and yet retains all of its integrity by being true to its message, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. As I've said before, there's nothing wrong with pure entertainment, but when we sacrifice thought for comfort (the rise of chick lit and beach novels), these games stop being quite so funny. The tagline for Funny Games (2008) puts it best, repeating the catch-phrase of its villain: "You must admit, you brought this on yourself."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes

Photo/Jim Baldassare

There’s a deep canon of literature on Sherlock Holmes, practically as much about his rigid study of signs and phenomenology as there is about Jacques Derrida, Doyle’s deconstructionist antithesis. Given that, Brad Krumholz’s play, The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes, should feel most welcome, for it slams these dualities together, but the nihilism comes across in the staging and the logic comes across in the plot, and both are more confusing than satisfying.

The reason for this is elementary: Holmes’s famous method is that when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains—however improbable—must be the answer. But while the boundaries of a short story (which this began as) may have allowed Krumholz to frame his scene, adapting it for the stage has made it all but impossible to eliminate anything. In fact, NACL (North American Cultural Laboratory) embraces everything, from the amorphous casting of Tannis Kowalchuk as Dr. John Watson (who switches sexes frequently) to the physical contortions of actors-as-sets and, as is the norm for the avant-garde these days, a fourth-wall-breaking band. (“You can’t kill me!” cries out one character. “I’m the bass player! We’ve got to play another song.”)

For a while, the plot serves as a solid foundation, with Holmes (a haunted, lithe Brett Keyser) racing Jacqueline Derrida (Sarah Dey Hirshan) to find Dr. Jeremy Nietzsche’s murderer. There are also some happy distractions in the form of Liz Eckert’s comic timing in a variety of roles. But though Kevin Freud bites the dust, the sight-gags and gawky symbolism don’t let up, and the reedy rock lyrics, hard to make out over the music, interrupt the plot more than advance it. At the start of the show, Watson asks if we’ve ever found that a “person you thought you knew was, in fact, only just an aspect, the outer manifestation of a deep, inner complexity?” Sadly, The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes never manifests more than the silly outer aspect.

Monday, December 08, 2008

metaDRAMA: "TheTruth About Santa," The Truth About Theater

Photo/Colin D. Young

O, have no worries dear singing elves Jim-Jim (Jeff Gurner) and Jo-Jo (Clay Adams), and by extension, writer/actor Greg Kotis of Urinetown fame: we most certainly do not find this "apocalyptic" Christmas tale to be boring, stale, or slow. But despite the positively berserk direction from John Clancy, we--or at least I--find it difficult to formally "review" The Truth About Santa. That's because somewhere in my stocking of a heart, there's a lump of coal shrieking out a warning about the high-school staging, the over-the-top acting, and the not-always-justified mania. This is, for all effects, a Christmas tale meant in heart for children but only graphically appropriate for adults, and while I laughed, it wasn't whole-heartedly, and it certainly came with some reservation at the pageant play amateurishness of it all. It's one thing to send up a style, it's another to indulge it and get lost within.

And yet, here's why you must see The Truth About Santa. It is one of the most sincere screwball comedies to hit the stage in some time, thanks in part to the endearing Trachtenburg effect: Greg Kotis has brought his family and friends together to put up this show, and things that are wholly indulgent now seem cheery and delightful. Greg plays an alcoholic named George who finds that his wife, Mary (Ayun Halliday) has been cheating on him with Santa (Bill Coelius), and that his kids, Freya and Luke (India and Milo Kotis) aren't really his. This is his real family, so the lack of "professional" training is endearing here (although it might not fly in a formal review). As for Coelius, he's a long-time Kotis "Krew" member, from Eat the Taste to Pig Farm, if not further. Mrs. Claus is played by Lusia Strus, who worked with Kotis on Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind in Chicago.

Which brought me to my metadramatic musings and problematic review's solution ('tis the season, after all): what is the value of sincerity in art? That is, what won't I let a show get away with when it does it with an honest smile and a wink? (Do not mistake this for Palin-level pandering.) In this case, the screaming exposition and exaggerated lines are adorable, and it allows Kotis to skewer Christmas myths (particularly about Christ's birth and the pagan rites of solstice that far preceded our commercial holiday) without skewering himself. The elfen songs that would grow cloying and gratuitious under normal circumstances I was able to take just for what they were, especially when sixth-grade India Kotis took the lead.

The more I see theater, especially working as a critic, the harder it is to take things at face value, and in recent months, I've started to give out harsh reviews, on shows like As We Speak and now Three Sisters, something I wanted to avoid, as what this industry needs are people speaking for the positive moments too, not just highlighting the bad. But in those cases, I felt justified, for they had lost the essence of theater which lies beneath the debate of "Entertainment versus Meaning": that is, they were no longer true in any form. Even pap like Boeing Boeing was cultured in truth first, truth heavily layered in distortion and comedy. How glad I am, then, to see that The Truth About Santa is able to justify its faults with a healthy dose of Colbert's so-called "truthiness." With all the shows closing on Broadway, perhaps Santa will bring this message of good cheer to all the producers out there--good little boys and girls all--and help us preserve truth in the theater as we march toward a brand new year, a year in which, with a new president and the blinders taken down from our dangerous form of capitalism, we can wake up from our comfortable but reckless hibernation and be proud once more.

UPDATE: For some reason, this article has been linked to by the NetRightNation. Color me confused, and perhaps a little offended. While there are many things for which I have conservative leanings, I'm an Independent who feels strongly about the importance of theater and the arts, and all the education and social improvements tied into that. Do you guys realize that this just perpetuates the belief that conservatives don't read so much as go with their gut, a gut which in this case has somehow eaten (but not digested) this blog? Or, if as I hope you've actually come for the dialogue, then welcome. Let's talk about the importance of truth.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Three Sisters

To clarify, while Jesse Edward Rosbrow has "adapted" Chekhov's Three Sisters for Theatre of the Expendable, this review will refer to it by its gimmicky slogan--3 Sisters 6 Actors 12 Dollars. With the naturalism destroyed, the subtext discarded, and (at best) two passable actors cobbled out of the mass, it would be criminal to link this to Chekhov. One problem is most obvious in the crowded first act, in which actor Clinton Lowe mentions "There are thirteen of us at the table!" and the casual observer has no way of telling if Lowe is speaking as Kulygin, Masha's husband, or Solyony, rival to Irina's loveless dalliance with Tusenbach. (I won't bore you with the plot any more than the show does, which is to say, you'd better be familiar with these characters before seeing the show.)

Using the word "adaptation" implies that something has changed to better deal with circumstances, but putting on the show with six actors shows nothing, except for arrogance and foolhardiness. Instead, 3 Sisters 6 Actors 12 Dollars is a mutation--or, after three hours all told (including fumbled light cues, technical problems, and overlong intermissions), an abomination. The strongest bits of this play are, not surprisingly, the monologues, although these too are undercut by poor acting and poorer direction: as Olga tells her sister Irina that "people don't marry for love, they marry because they're supposed to," Morgan Anne Zipf rises from the background (where she plays Masha) and exits stage left, only to silently but distractingly re-enter as Natasha, Andrey's wife, long enough to exit stage right . . . just in time to come back as Masha again. These elements of farce have no place in Chekhov's weighty naturalism.

But Rosbrow is apparently blind to a great many things. Not only does he choose to retain some of the trivial moments of the script, but he blocks the intimate space in a way in which the actors not only turn away from the audience, but obscure their castmates, too. Act II takes place in the evening, but what starts out as an admirable attempt by Wilburn Bonnell to mimic candle and moonlight ends up turning into forty minutes of shadowacting. (This is appropriate only in the sense that the cast looks to be sparring in preparation for a show rather than actually acting it.) In Act IV (years pass between acts), Vershinin says "Life is growing brighter and easier every day," which is one of Chekhov's bitter comedies, for he is leaving Masha, with whom he's been having an affair. 3 Sisters 6 Actors 12 Dollars could not have been more cruelly ironic had they tried.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Out Cry

Photo/Czerton Lim

While performing Two-Person Play, the play within Tennessee William's metadramatic cry for help, Out Cry, the "audience" walks out, leaving Felice (Eduardo Machado) and his sister, Clare (Mia Katigbak) alone, lost in their own world. That’s no surprise: after all, Felice reveals early on that their company has left them: “Your sister and you are—insane!” reads the charming letter. What is surprising is that nobody walks out on NAATCO’s revival of this troubled play. As it happens, the second act is much better: having dispensed with the circumstances, it brushes the madness of “artists [who] put so much into their work that they’ve got little left over for acting like other people.” It is not enough, however, to excuse Machado’s atonal line readings, Thom Semsa’s listless, restless, and senseless blocking, or the constant textual stumbling.

Like many aging writers (think Shakespeare’s “greatest-hits” plays), Williams is pulling together a variety of unfinished themes—the mania that is inevitably absent from Night of the Iguana, the loneliness of The Glass Menagerie. And there are moments in Out Cry that are so poetic that they conjure up dreams of Summer and Smoke. But Felice, upon seeing his sister regress to a childish fascination with soap-bubbles, points out that “they break,” and Machado, in an inappropriately Kowalski moment, swats the bubbles down, channeling an anger that he doesn’t actually feel. In other words, even well-scripted moments on the page, of which there are not many, end up dying by the time they float onto the stage.

The play dreads the unalterable circumstances of life, and Czerton Lim has built an impressively bleak stage—all giant chained pipes and unfinished staircases—to capture a life gone wrong. (“The setting isn’t Morocco,” says Felice, “the cushions just arrived without the sofa!”) But while Williams’s doomed siblings may be in dire straits (and they are far worse off than any of Beckett’s idle characters), there were plenty of things Sesma might have done to make Out Cry more presentable. Instead, he focuses on the technical, playing with light cues to show their inner world, and misses opportunities to draw out a physical difference between the cold tension of the real world and the warm memories of their fantasy, or to delve into the psychological trap of the actor, who must pretend nightly to be mad…without actually becoming so. Sadly, there isn’t an ounce of madness to be found here—it is the actor’s other nightmare, of being trapped in (and being the cause of) a bad play.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Only Tribe

Photo/Sheree Hovsepian

How does such a simple concept get so conceited? There hardly seems the room for so much stuffiness given the plain stage, gray one-piece outfits, and white minimalist masks (each with a pixilated Katamari Damacy-like cut-out that gives it a “personality”). But sure enough, there’s a trademark in The Only Tribe’s logo. The “simple” stage actually houses 3LD’s Eyeliner technology, which lets Reid Farrington clutter it with commercial images and dancing holograms. Roland Gebhardt’s masked modernity is well-matched by Peter Kyle’s geometric choreography, and they move nicely to Stephen Barber’s chic electronica, but all this conjures is a high-brow Alexander movement class. Perhaps most damning is that Rebecca Bannor-Addae is credited as a writer for this silent piece: you can read her “story” at www.theonlytribe.com, but why bother? You’ll feel even more foolish knowing that Kidao is the name of that omnipresent star and that Lummo is the eldest member of their tribe.

Assuming one manages to surrender to the often redundant (and certainly reductive) actions of these eight dancers, The Only Tribe interprets Bannor-Addae’s mythology. The tall-rectangle masks move about in a hypnotic, synchronous anonymity, every crick of their neck accented by the length of their windmill-blade faces. As they move angularly around the stage, they are supplanted by triangular masks, which writhe like snakes in the garden, their looseness overlapping with the projected images of the old stale Tribe. Then come the weird hybrids of the two—diagonal masks and wide horizontal masks—each with their own appropriate rhythms and movements, all of which (to be fair) the cast nails with mathematical precision and grace.

At this point, images of our own culture begin to pierce the pure anonymity of the Tribe. As the dancers sweep their large masks across the room, images of the Mona Lisa, Disney, Ronald McDonald, and the Statue of Liberty can be seen across their “faces.” In a clever bit of movement, a line of horizontal masks strafe the stage, a stock-ticker flying across their bodies. The evening culminates by taxing the Eyeliner system to layer all the “tribes” over one another, and then to add the detritus of our commercialism: out of that visual din rise a bunch of square masks (televisions, perhaps). However, a few pretty moments and a solid back-beat can’t mask The Only Tribe’s flaw: after all, what is pretension but the meaningless grasp for importance?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

metaDRAMA: Art, What Is It Good For?

The December 2008 Harper's has an excellent article from Suki Kim ("A Really Big Show") that talks about the New York Philharmonic's trip to Pyongyang, North Korea (or what she nails as a "fantasia"). The piece questions the morality of traveling to a country like North Korea and focuses on the unease of an oboist's sixteen course meal with people starving outside, but when it comes to actually addressing these issues, the Philharmonic is as repressive with its answers as North Korea is with its citizens ("If you want to talk to our people, we will select ones for you"). What comes across is Lorin Maazel's (the maestro's) bold statement that "Artists . . . have a broader role to play in the public arena. But it must be totally apolitical, nonpartisan, and free of issue-specific agendas. It is a role of the highest possible order." It's a hypocritical statement, especially given that as he sees it, the role is to make bank: twenty-five wealthy patrons accompany the orchestra, at $50,000 a pop, and Suki wisely closes her article with the publicist, Erik Latzky, announcing that "the DVD of the concert would soon be available for $24.99." I agree more with Suki's first-hand account, which doesn't pretend that the music moved the audience to tears (regardless of what CNN and The New York Times may have reported): as she puts it, it was "just a concert." 

I don't think art should be used as a political tool, nor should it risk diluting its purpose for capitalist gains, and the Philharmonic seems to have inadvertently done both. In the theater today, we are unfortunately doing both more than ever. This is not to say that a play can't transcend politics (Betrayed, at the Culture Project) or rise above the money it rode into town on (Avenue Q), but all too often, especially among small independent companies, there's a rush to produce plays that are "relevant" (Two Doors, or the awful As We Speak) or pap that might be digestible enough to move to a larger location. I don't presume to know what the purpose of "art" should be, nor do I wish to imply (contra observations from Isaac Butler at Parabasis) that art needs to do more than simply entertain. But as much as the success of Blasted warms my heart, I get worried on a global scale when reading about the "bigger picture" that seems to be behind artistic development (indeed, as Bush would say [and hopefully not sing] "What is it good for?"), and the directions we seem to be heading.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Cape Disappointment

Photo/Ryan Jensen

“Detroit!” exclaims Paul Thureen, perching uncomfortably beside Hannah Bos in an imaginary but wholly claustrophobic hot-air balloon. “When you’re here, you’re in Detroit!” That line alone, a microcosm of failure in advertisement, captures the mood of The Debate Society’s latest play, Cape Disappointment. When accompanied by the aesthetic perfection of Mike Riggs’s slowly dimming lights, Sydney Maresca’s uncomfortably old-school outfits, the sagging stalks surrounding Karl Allen’s parking-lot set, and the quiet night from Nathan Leigh’s pitch-perfect sound design, that mood only intensifies. Under the steady, familiar direction of Oliver Butler—where the smiles are just wide enough to start to strain—the scene grows even crisper, until the whole thing coalesces into a processed, drive-in movie Schaudenfraude. (Even the popcorn provided is a little cold, a little salty, a little stale.)

These old tricks are good ones for TDS to be up to. At their best--or even here, at their mixed--they have a theatrical craft and eye for storytelling illusion rarely found on stage. However, Cape Disappointment tries to be bigger and better than previous outings, and this is where it stalls. Michael Cyril Creighton and Pamela Payton-Wright are excellent additions to the cast, and both confidently leap into the mundane patter necessary for this atmospheric production. But the transitions are far from seamless: if the play is meant to mimic the unspoken horrors of the ‘50s, then the projector keeps dying, and charm comes across as low-speed nostalgia.

Ironically, this parallels the plays, for these small disappointments are our awkward pleasures, especially when flawed stretches give way to genius moments. At the bottom of the heap is a tale of two linoleum salesmen (Bos and Creighton), who are waylaid on their journey by an old hen (Payton-Wright) and her creepy daughter, weeping over road-kill. The play splices this with the story of a brother and sister (Creighton and Bos) who, after a harrowing experience in the dark woods, find a subtler terror lurking in their aunt’s dementia. But rising out of that is a Lolita-like story— “The Pedophile and the Little Girl” (Thureen and Bos)—that is ruthlessly efficient with its beauty, culminating with a heartbreaking scene that gives weight to the horrors of age.

The promise and decline of Detroit—or at least its advertising—is an apt metaphor. Built piecemeal from unrealized movie dreams, Cape Disappointment works roughly from one moment to the next, a searing collection of red-hot moments: flashlights falling on wooden branches, a girl using a rope to make her lame foot dance, two not-quite lovers gazing silently at the drive-in, and this thought, “They stopped at a llama farm. It was closed.” Cape Disappointment: When you’re here, you’re here.

Friday, November 28, 2008


Photo/Joan Marcus

Taken at face value, Dawn, like many of Thomas Bradshaw’s plays, is hard to digest: aside from shocking us with gratuitously long scenes of debasement, be it alcoholic or both pedophilic and incestuous, what is the play about? It must be about something: after all, religion is thrown around, as is morality. But at the end of the day, or from the beginning of Dawn, isn’t this grasping for meaning exactly what it’s all about? Bradshaw, assisted here by Jim Simpson’s exaggeratedly comic and set-less transparency, defies expectations so as to make the audience question their own ingrained assumptions.

At face value, Hampton (Gerry Bamman) is a sad clown with a violent streak. Why should anyone empathize with a man who greets his wife, Susan (Irene Walsh), in a drunken stupor, urinates in their bed, and grows violent when called on it? And yet, after watching Hampton spend five minutes hiding liquor around the bare stage (under the radiator, in a gallon jug of water, beside the audience), his desperation grows endearing. Even Bamman is exceedingly likeable, one of those upright father figures from a family sitcom, caught here after-hours. It’s all a play against type, with Bradshaw manipulating the arguments—as when his son, Steven (Drew Hildebrand), convinces him to go to AA, or when his daughter, Laura (Kate Benson), unleashes her bottled-up fury at him—so that Hampton is always likeable, so that, despite almost killing his first wife, Nancy (Laura Esterman), we can’t pass judgment on him.

As Hampton begins to atone for his sins, Bradshaw moves on to a more difficult subject, and sets about dismantling our expectations of Steven, who we are meant to like. As it turns out, however, he lusts for his 14-year-old niece, Crissy (Jenny Seastone Stern): the laundry he does so charitably for Laura is really just an excuse for him to masturbate with a pair of Crissy’s panties over his face, and another down his pants. Does it lessen the blow at all to find that Crissy has already been earning cash by streaming amateur porn? Or that Steven may actually be in love with Crissy, and vice-versa?

It’s no accident that Hampton chants the same prayer at the start and end of the play—“Teach us the eternal rituals of suffering!” All the things that happen in Dawn happen in the same world, with our morality becoming quicksilver in the scorching light of Bradshaw’s drama. That Hampton refuses to turn his son in could just as easily be the thing that finally reunites his family as it is the thing that ultimately destroys it. It is not about judging these characters so much as it is about understanding them, and in that depth, knowing that we are all connected, as much in our sorrows as in our joys.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Magical Realism: "The Fall"

Though it's perhaps not apparent from the short story that I posted last week, the majority of "art" that I love falls under the veil of what some would call "magical realism." This would explain my love of aesthetics in the theater, the illusions which transform something artificial into something real, or which take fantastical elements and use them to illustrate something truthful about life. My favorite creators are those who balance genre and the highbrow: for example, Gene Wolf or Neal Stephenson writing science fiction, or the classically defined magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Then, of course, there are film directors like Danny Boyle (most evident in Millions, and from what I hear, Slumdog Millionaire) and Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth). As is evident from this rambling paragraph, I'm not entirely sure how I'd limn the idea of "magical realism," but what I will be doing over the next few months is to try and highlight some clear and must-see examples, starting with Tarsem Singh's The Fall.

The story begins simply enough, in a "once upon a time" version of 1920's Los Angeles, where a young, inquisitive girl with a broken arm stumbles across a lonely, talkative paraplegic. But as the title credits hint, with their slow motion footage of men in action, hauling a drowning horse out of the river, there are other layers at work.

In this case, the modest opening is really just a Princess Bride frame in which the crippled and heartbroken Roy tells young Alexandria about the epic quest of the Blue Bandit to avenge his brother's murder. Then again, the comic tones start to shift as it becomes clearer that, like in del Toro's Spanish films, the real world is bleeding into the land of make-believe: Roy is stringing Alexandria along in the hopes that she can deliver him enough morphine to end his suffering. As Roy's world collapses, his vivid imagination (shot in an exquisitely fantasia that surpasses Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) grows darker and darker, with Alexandria entering his world, in tears, to question why his assembled band of heroes are all being killed.

It's all rather remarkably done, and Tarsem makes a point of laboring over the shots--especially those of the "exotic" Middle Eastern architecture--to make sure we get our fill of the fantastic before moving on to the necessarily bloody bits. In these moments, The Fall lives up to its name, paralleling not just the physical maladies of its real-world characters, but the mental effects of depression. It is in this double-edged storytelling, where the fantasy becomes a tool to illustrate reality, that the movie merits being called "magical realism," and also why it is so effective. It has co-opted a beloved genre, that of the adventure film, and mirrored it back on those who would use it. This is most apparent toward the final, anti-climactic (yet correct) scenes, which show clips of the early silent films of 1920, projected onto a wall for a room full of sick patients who need the slapstick, who justify the illusion.

I don't remember much of Tarsem's 2000 film, The Cell, except that it tackled a similar idea in a far tackier and more restrained fashion: a psychologist enters a serial killer's mind. But by making a film about the power of films themselves--the need, in other words, for stories--Tarsem frees himself from the cell and makes a touching film in which the exposed beauty never feels manipulative.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Farragut North

[First published to Show Business Weekly, 11/25/08]

Photo/Jacqueline Mia Foster

Stephen (John Gallagher, Jr.) is a successful, 25-year-old press secretary who somehow still has morals as he prepares to lead his client to victory in Iowa’s Democratic primary. But he’s flush with optimism, so you know Beau Willimon is going to knock him down in Farragut North. After all, “You don’t get in this game if you’re a pessimist” and “You don’t win unless you’re a realist.”

Keeping to the bland backrooms (designer David Korins favors generic furniture), Willimon writes like a down-tempo Aaron Sorkin, focusing on the Machiavellian fall of his tragic hero. To his credit, Gallagher plays the part naturally: cocky and benevolent at first, then nervous and needy, and finally frightened and violent. He’s got reason to be frightened, too: by taking a meeting with the opposite side’s political manager, Tom (Isiah Whitlock, Jr., who is every bit as smarmy here as he was on The Wire), he compromises his integrity, forcing the question: Did he ever actually have any? Reconsider the way Stevie is introduced: He manipulates Ida, a New York Times reporter, into taking an old opponent’s casual use of the word “putzhead” and declaiming it as a poll-dropping anti-Semitic attack.

The other question — one that director Doug Hughes is well-prepared for — is one of trust and loyalty. Stevie confesses the meeting to his boss, Paul (Chris Noth), and this puts his job on the line. Did his ambitious and shy 20-year-old assistant, Ben (Dan Bittner), leak it? Or was it his 19-year-old intern, Molly (the endearing Olivia Thirlby), whom he slept with last night? These confrontations transform Stevie into a petty monster, but he’s not really changing — his personality is just growing more apparent, leading to the conclusion that politics is just the next logical step for make-up artists.

Between scenes, Joshua White projects election footage and resonant words against the blue backdrop, an over-the-top yet subtle reminder about surfaces. Willimon’s great success here is in his own ability to tell a crazy and somewhat predictable story, and yet slip in a lot of biting criticism not just of politics, but of people in general.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy With a (Somewhat) Happy Ending

Photo/Jim Baldassare

The smartest thing about recasting a familiar tale in ancient Greek terms is that it takes the need for surprise off the table. After all, like any classic tragedy, we already know what happened to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who tabled her Athena-inspired ambitions for 18 Arkansan years for the sake of an Aphrodite-sent Bill Clinton. We’ve seen her classic flaw come to the forefront not just in her uncompromising health care push in ’94 or Lewinski-blind devotion in the ’98 impeachment, but most recently in her cold ’08 campaign. It’s a relief, then, to see Wendy Weiner’s Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy With a (Somewhat) Happy Ending dispense with those circumstances and proceed with the comedy. After all, as many myths acknowledge, it’s not about the doing of the task itself so much as the lesson learned (or in this case, the laughs earned).

Of course, Greek mythology is a double-edged sword: it is by all means a gimmick, Chorus and all, and director Julie Kramer is constantly struggling to keep the jokes clever without coming across as slight. This is somewhat accomplished by allowing things to be campy: Lauren Helpern’s set is a flimsy mock-up of marble stadium steps, with two symmetric dresser-type shrines to Aphrodite and Athena. This also allows for some looser, SNL-like impersonations of Kenneth Starr and Monica Lewinsky, not to mention Mia Barron’s Hillary and Darren Pettie’s Bill. With seriousness sacrificed on the altar, Hillary manages to give audiences exactly what they expect: a mock history lesson.

This is where Weiner’s cleverness pays off: Bill is cast as Achilles—you can guess which part of his body his mother failed to dip into the sacred springs. The path to the underworld is, of course, in Newt Gingrich’s cellar. When on trial for perjury, Bill opens a McPandora’s Box that gets him waffling on what the meaning of “is” is. And Bill’s saxophone doubles as Orpheus’s lyre, just when all hope appears to be lost. And that’s just the farfetched part: it’s not such a stretch to imagine Athena as Hillary’s campaign manager, given the potential fallibility of gods and pollsters alike. Weiner has also liberally cribbed from existing speeches to cast the same old lines in a whole new light: after Gennifer Flowers, Hillary is able to say “I’m not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette” because—at her request—Athena has just used ravens (off-duty from Prometheus, one assumes) to peck out half her heart.

There’s also a deeper humanity to the show, thanks to Barron’s portrayal of Hillary, from a little girl, crushed at the prospect of never being able to be an astronaut, to a hyperactive debate champion in high school, a studious speaker at her Wellesley college graduation, a love-struck post-graduate, a patronizing politician introducing health care legislation, all the way to the Hillary we know and love and hate today. Bill is a real tool (literally, he’s Aphrodite’s pawn, and Pettie has fun with those faults, given that the show isn’t about him) and Hillary is far from an accurate biography of the New York senator, but that this comic modernization of a rather considerable mythos manages to be heartfelt at all is a gift from the gods.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Photo/Richard Termine

"I can't marry you," says Luciana, a prostitute in Rome, "because you're crazy. You're crazy," she continues, "because you want to marry me." This is just one of the many roundabouts in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, a brilliant anti-war novel that uses a comic tone to expose the paradoxes of fighting for peace, the logical need for war in a capitalist society, and the conflict between the individual and the country. Given those unfortunately timeless themes, it’s no surprise to see Aquila Theatre mounting a new adaptation of the book, nor is it surprising to see them attempting to stage a book which, like Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, wildly leaps from location to location, time to time. (Heller attempted this play in 1971; Mike Nichols made a film version in 1970.) Considering how much has to be cut, how much needs to be contained, the only question is whether or not Aquila is crazy enough to pull it off.

Yes, emphatically so. Director Peter Meinecke might as well be wearing a straightjacket, for he channels the best sort of madness: one which, as paradoxically as anything in Heller’s world, makes perfect sense. Stock black-and-white military footage establishes scenery that is pure propaganda; the minimalist sets (hospital beds, a life raft, a wire-frame bomber cabin) turn war into a low-budget illusion. And then there are the theatrical opposites, stylized scenes that jar our expectations, from over-the-top drama to violent romances and sublimely staged bombing missions. Save for a few overlong set changes, carefully choreographed by Desiree Sanchez, the pace of the play matches Heller’s breakneck prose. Finally, as if things weren’t mad enough, each of the six ensemble members is triple-cast (at least), which makes characters that are already flamboyantly contradictory seem even more two-faced, and gives substance to the paranoia of the central character, Yossarian (John Lavelle).

Lavelle’s measured yet manic portrayal of Yossarian is the heart of the production, both a microcosm and reflection of everything that happens around him. Lavelle resembles the Ron Livingstone of Office Space and Band of Brothers, which is to say that he is both a restless schlub and a hardened soldier. Moreover, he’s got the acting chops to oscillate bravely between the two at the drop of a hat--or more specifically, the change of a light cue. For Catch-22 to work, Yossarian must be both sane and insane, a feat that Lavelle achieves by fully pursuing clear actions—actions which just happen to change in the blink of an eye.

Lavelle’s sense of balance becomes clear whenever he leaves the stage, for the scenes that focus purely on themes—like Colonel Cathcart (David Bishins) and his sycophantic Lt. Col. Korn (Craig Wroe), who are happy to sacrifice men to further their careers—come across as preachy parodies. The weakest moments focus on Milo Minderbinder (Chip Brookes), who takes his capitalist syndicate to the furthest extreme when he contracts with the Germans and uses military supplies to strafe his own camp. Milo, with his safari-like hat and wide-eyed glasses, is meant to mock our values by showing their true costs, but alone, he's a stock character, and stock—in plays as in soup—is meant to enhance the other ingredients, not stand out on its own.

Of course, there's plenty of room in Catch-22 for actors to show off their range, and Mark Alhadeff and Christina Pumariega seize the opportunity. Alhadeff switches from a quiet, bumbling Chaplain to playing Wintergreen, a sleazy slouch who revels in the suffering he dispenses through the mail, whereas Pumariega plays every grown woman in the show, from prostitutes to nurses to grieving mothers, always capturing both the comic highs and the mournful lows. The flavors occasionally fail to mix (Richard Sheridan Willis is outstanding as Doc Daneeka, trying to convince the military he’s not dead, but lost as the bland Major Major Major), but a production this ambitious calls for an adventurous chef like Meinecke.

Here’s a catch: if you’ve read this far, you’re the audience this play is looking for. If you haven’t read this far, then you’ll never read these words. In which case, you’ve read this far, so go on, get a little crazy.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Story: "The Disinventor"

It's been a slow week for me, as I've taken a much needed vacation (a little early), and spent some time working on my own writing for a fiction class I've been taken [sic]. But as I feel guilty about not posting something in quite some time, here's a first draft of a story I've been toying with; enjoy.


A metal shaft: one foot long, three inches in diameter. Two spider-like legs: thin silver, fleshed onto opposite sides of the shaft’s tip. A black arc of canvas: ripped jagged like a dead parachute. Still visible: half the familiar off-white of a corporate logo. This is what Alex brings to school for show and tell, a sharp, broken umbrella; this is why you’re stuck in the sweaty traffic of a frustrated Tuesday, honking toward Briar Peaks Elementary. Principal Thorpe calls it a weapon—right to your face—, shows you the pointy edges, like metal thorns, and says it’s “scabrous and scandalous,” as if the gold-framed doctorate above his desk were in dispute, not Alex’s latest disinvention. “Stop it,” you say, looking Alex full in his nut-brown eyes, grabbing his feet as they arc out, before he can thud them restlessly into the padded legs of that foamy chair. “I’m sorry,” you lie, expertly, turning back to Thorpe, but as you let go of your son’s harmless feet, you feel a clutch down by your seven-months-dry liver.

[Read On]

“It’s nothing to worry about,” says the principal, reading your mind. “Not really.” His sternly crossed arms turn into a weird self-hug as he continues. “Given the circumstances, that is, the lack of intent, not to mention Alex’s performance—“ Science fair, computer lab, math team, you think, muting him as you scan the trophies in the office. “—most concerned with, Mrs. Calvito.”

“Ms.,” you say, and when Thorpe shuffles some papers and raises an eyebrow, “Mary,” you add, “just Mary.” Ms., like mother like daughter, even though you make breakfast every day, cut the crusts off, twist the bag tightly, throw in grapes or apple sauce instead of chocolate. “I’m sorry,” you say, unclenching your fist and smoothing it against your pantsuit—yes, the black one, the one that doesn’t stain so easily. “You were saying?”

“When creativity manifests in this fashion…” he starts, patting Alex on the shoulder—you feel that internal tug again—, “Well, Alex, why don’t you explain it?”

“S’not a weapon,” he says. “It is not scabrous. It’s an unbrella. I made it.”

“Billy’s probably getting stitches right now.”

“Billy’s an idiot,” Alex says. “You can hurt yourself with just about anything. Poke yourself with a pencil. Bludgeon someone with a ruler. Gouge with a compass. You could choke on an eraser.”

“What you want to call it,” says the principal, “isn’t really the point.”

It’s one-thirty, and your boss can’t stand the Zurich team. “What exactly is the point?”

“I’m not accusing you of anything,” he says, “and I’m certainly not blaming your son for anything. But Alex,” he says, looking at you with at least one eye, “I think you need to ask yourself why you want to be so different.”

“You like it when I build things.”

“Of course, you’re very creative.”

“I built this, too.”

“No,” he says, brandishing the umbrella, demonstrating the snapped hinges, passing a hand through the empty spaces. “You broke this.”

“It was one thing, and now it’s another. That’s what it means to make something. Everything is part of something else.”

“But it doesn’t do anything.”

“Sure it does. If everything did what it was supposed to do already, then we wouldn’t have to make anything. Disinventing stuff is what gives us something to do.”

Your boss understands the situation, of course; as he sips the coffee you bring him at three, he pretends that it explains the unanswered messages on your phone, including the one about the Hoffmann account. “No,” you say, making a new quilt out of the square boxes on his digital calendar, then “No,” again, this time into the phone, pressing the hold button, and then looking back up. “This is where I need to be right now.”

In the next cubicle over, Alex catches up on Minesweeper, and you watch him shift-click through a blank slate of tiles. Streams of numbers drip across the screen, and then he hits a bright red X. There’s a smiley face at the top, and when he clicks it, the tiles are fresh and empty again. Again and again, he finds his way through the booby-traps; each move, even the good ones, mar the face of that perfect surface. Click, click, boom, and again.

The phone beeps—the client on hold—and you break from that dream back into the distracting world.

“Yes,” you say. “Calvito, that’s right. Mrs. His wife.” You push the pad back underneath the glass, and the buzzer swings the first set of doors open. Charles is in the next room, a familiar face, and you spread your arms wide as he walks over. The wand whispers along your bare arms, then zips down your right side and ends at your feet: like magic, it announces that you are harmless, even though nothing’s changed. “You’re getting better at this, Mrs. Calvito,” Charles says, sliding keys along his chain until he reaches the one that opens the lock. Yes, by now you can leave the Kleenex in the car with all the loose change; next time, maybe you’ll pull off the wedding ring, too.

“So we’re still married,” says Paul, waiting at the end of the hallway. There must be a dozen doors between the two of you, but they’re all open, so what’s the point? It brings that old joke to mind: When is a door not a door?

“Paperwork,” you laugh.

“Right,” he says, limping a little, either from the meds or the shrapnel. “I still can’t believe they pay you to file things.”

“It’s all gone electronic, anyway.”

“Not in my job.”

“Not yet.”

Why does that awkward silence always feel like the moment when you first fell in love? The rest of the world fades away, and you dry swallow and regurgitate something to say: “And how are things?”

“Fine.” He shrugs. “I mean, they call the people around here orderlies. That’s their whole job.”

“I meant—“

“We made small talk on the march, you know? Otherwise it would just be them shooting us and us shooting them. So what’s Alex done?”

This is how it was when you first met, at a costume ball, of all things. You knew he was the handsomest man there because his mask was so ugly, a Cyrano-looking thing, with whorls of mismatched colors. And he just marched right over, lifted you up, mauve frills and all, and set you down on the dance floor. You’d taken off your shoes because they pinched, but he never stepped on your feet, and later, when you slow-danced, you stood on his feet and let him move for the both of you.

“No, no,” you say, louder than the clutch in your gut. “He’s fine. He’s ten. He’s fine.” An orderly bumps into you, apologetically, pushing a cart of small paper cups and smaller pills. You watch him recede down the hall, as if that will keep Paul’s eyes from piercing you, and note how much is actually going on around you. In that single moment, how many houses of cards collapse and get rebuilt?

“I don’t understand why you’re in here,” you say.

“Because you can remember the good days,” he says, doing a sort of broken slow dance beside you. “And I can’t forget the bad ones.”

Alex hasn’t disinvented the house in your absence, so there’s one small miracle of television’s dimming glow. A few of the G.I. Joes are out of the packing crate, their plastic bodies splayed bloodlessly, heads buried, ostrich-like, in the beige carpet. Like their father. You pick them up and slam the desk drawer shut behind them; funny, but also a little sad: you can’t even remember their names.


“Yes, honey?”

“What did you think of my unbrella?”

“Well, I don’t think it was a weapon,” you say, slicking the hair back out of his sleepy eyes.

“You wouldn’t think a gun was a weapon either, if you were just seeing it for the first time.”

“Look,” you say, “I’m sorry that you’ve seen those things.”

“Why? They’d still be there.”

That was when you knew he’d be smart: four months old and you couldn’t fool him with a game of up-close hide-and-seek. Cover your eyes and he still knew you were there. Later, you had a name for it, “object permanence,” but that didn’t change things for Alex. And he was so trusting: when he was older, Paul would set him up on the bathroom sink and stand behind him, then tell him to fall back—Paul’d pretend that he suddenly had to leave to get the phone, but Alex knew that nothing would stop his father from catching him. It had taken nine years to fool him, and shame on you for doing so.

“So,” he says, “you didn’t like it.”

“No,” you say. “But I think I just didn’t understand it.”

“When you’ve got an umbrella, you can just pretend it’s not raining. But an unbrella’s realer, because you know that it is. And you know that it’s only water.”

Solo agua, as Paul’s buddies would say, clustered around the grill with their beers so that they could keep the fire going, even in the rain. “You can get through anything,” Alex says, echoing long-gone Paul, “as long as you don’t let anything get through you.”

“I love you,” you say, tucking him into bed. “Nothing’s realer than that.”

“I know,” he says. “You can’t disinvent love.”

Couldn’t you? You drank every day, waiting for him to come home, watching and hating the television for telling you things you didn’t want to know. Words like IED, or jihad, and yes, they were there whether you knew about them or not, but your husband didn’t have to be there: this nation’s guard, not that one’s. And the TV—as if they had invented HD for this—didn’t need to show it, didn’t need to tease out clips to make a 24 hour news cycle.

No, the love was still there, but the man, the man was not. Just when you’d stopped drinking—him home, home for good—you woke to the muzzle of your husband’s gun: cold, not wet. His trembling eyes behind it, not unlike the ones you’d find on a dog. You’d felt that pistol lick your skin, heard him bark out orders, but it wasn’t until you’d seen Alex in the doorframe, lit up like an angel by the nightlight in the hall, that you’d reacted. That you’d realized you—this country, this world—were an inventor, too.