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.