Saturday, February 28, 2009

La Casa de los Espiritus (The House of the Spirits)

Photo/Michael Palma

I have to break my usual third-person narrative here--and in fact, step back from reviewing the new show at Repertorio Espanol--to get a few personally problematic things out of the way. Repertorio Espanol provides a valuable service to the community, but for an English-only speaker like myself, their productions present somewhat of a problem. While it's true that headsets are provided, their live translations are perfunctory at best and fairly distracting in practice--it's hard enough to invest in a theatrical illusion, harder still when your hear it whispering in your ear. (There's a reason operas use supertitles: you want to hear the language.) Given this technical issue, there are many things I can't, in fairness, review.

However, as I said earlier, Repertorio Espanol provides a service, and it's one worth noting, especially to those who speak Spanish. After all, where else can you see a new Caridad Svich play? And though it's just an adaptation of Isabel Allende's debut 1982 novel, director Jose Zayas directs it with a modernist's touch, using projections and layered blocking to show multiple perspectives--and to keep the protagonist Alba on stage throughout, though she isn't actually born until Segundo Acto. From what I understood, it didn't seem as if Svich was playing to her strengths--everything seemed a bit too ordinary--and Zayas's work seems to have been toned down for the Repertorio's audience. (The sort of rape scene that flew at PS122's Southern Promises might be out of place here, but it's the sort of physical energy needed for this play.)

It doesn't help that La Casa de los Espiritus spans such a long period of time--three generations. At two and a half hours, there seem to be gaps in the plot, as with the physical relationship between patriarchal Esteban Trueba and his prostitute and the cultural implications of the era (for instance, explaining why Alba is abducted and tortured). Worse, though the novel is described as a feminist One Hundred Years of Solitude, none of the magical realism has made it through, though both Zayas and Svich are capable of dreaming up fantasies and giving them flesh. Again, I'm reluctant to speak with authority here, but if you only speak English, you might be better off with the novel.

Friday, February 27, 2009


Photo/Dixie Sheridan

Joyce Carol Oates is a technically proficient writer, which is to say that she writes a lot, and that she writes well. This is not to say, however, that her stories are particularly good. A similar issue hits Bill Connington's theatrical adaptation of her 1995 novella, Zombie. Connington is a skillful actor, consistent in his approach, and the source material--a first-person diary--translates well to monologue form. However, the tale of lonely old Quentin P., who lives in his dead grandmother's basement and becomes a sexual serial killer, is a little too up close and impersonal. At times, it is easier to appreciate the carefully measured artifice of it all--director Thomas Caruso does a terrific job--than to get behind the actual performance.

The play begins immediately, as the lights flicker black for a moment, only to suddenly reveal the mild-mannered Quentin, sitting across from a tall but child-faced mannequin, playing chess by himself. He speaks factually, without looking at us, which fits his self-description: "I make no eye contact with anybody. Eye contact has been my downfall." That makes his occasional glances at us all the more creepy: sly winks to an implicit audience, secret smiles at a delicious memory, and an emphasis of how trivial this all is--to him. Because the actions are so deliberate--for instance, the way Quentin uses a white king and a black pawn to demonstrate his final crime--things remain largely cerebral, relying too heavily on the sparse atmosphere of a one-table set.

Furthermore, because Connington's performance is so forcibly restrained, his sudden bursts of anger come across as premeditated, or intellectually deployed. He comes across more as a mimic of, say, Hopkins's Hannibal, or of the real-life Dahmer (from which Zombie was loosely inspired) than of a man of mixed emotions. Which is, again, not to say that any of this is bad--in fact, such control leads to moments of brilliance, where the clockwork recedes into the background and we see only the maddening face of a man who fears rejection so much that he performs self-researched "transorbital" lobotomies on his victims (an icepick through the eye) in order to make them his willing slaves. He wishes not only to hear them say "Fuck me in the ass master until I bleed blue guts," but also for them to share pizza and cuddle in bed with him. His tragic flaw is that he's a romantic, something best shown by the varying degrees of force he uses when interacting with the mannequin.

It's hard to say whether or not the hour-long Zombie provides enough meat to the audience, or if the performance is too focused to be enjoyable. It will, however, certainly satisfy those who share an affinity for a zombie's favorite treat--the thing most on display here is the brain.

What Sounds Cool: March 2009

Nerve (3/5 - 6/18) - One of the neat tricks of a repertory company is that the strength of one member suggests equal strengths from the others. Jason Howard (currently appearing in Universal Robots) makes me want to see his company's "dark, metaphysical thriller," as does the location (Brooklyn's Lyceum), not to mention their "recession" special: $10 tickets (in March) with the code "Nervy" here:

Red-Haired Thomas
(3/7 - 3/28) - I caught a glimpse of this intriguing show in its '08 ICE Factory run (on account of director Oliver Butler, of The Debate Society), but I stuck around for Robert Lyons' intriguing script, which jumped through time to deal with identity, capitalism, terrorism, and other topically irrelevant issues.

Rambo Solo (3/19 - 4/12) - Every time I hear a description of a Nature Theater of Oklahoma show, I'm generally dismissive--a silent, comic dance piece? a six-hour recitation of transcripts? Dismissive, that is, until I see the shows, which are always transcendent. This time Zachary Oberzan delivers a one-man rendition of Rambo: First Blood, a piece that, albeit obsessed, is certain to out-Stallone Stallone.

Rods and Cables
(3/20 - 4/11) - The small, intimate fashion of cabaret seems, at first, to be at odds with the extravagant spectacle of 3LD's high-tech multimedia spaces. Until you think about all the "vulgar" stuff they've done there, from Renaldo The to Chuck Mee. That this is a first-time work by designer Allison Keating just means that there will be fewer boundaries and more cartoons. (Rods and cables, yes, strings attached, no.)

Housebreaking (3/24 - 4/4) - Part of Cherry Lane Theater's Mentor Project, so you can be forgiven for not recognizing the name Jakob Holder. However, he's paired up with mentor Charles L. Mee, and his director is the very talented Daniella Topol. He's also got an original plot, involving a restless man who decides to "reform" a homeless man by bringing him into his family. These things, for the record, tend not to end well--at least for dramatic purposes.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Synesthesia 2009

Every so often, words fail, and that's why theater will always have the edge, especially the tent-pole-widening version that Electric Pear's all about. (Why stop at three dimensions, or a fourth wall, when theater can reach all five senses?) In the 2009 edition of the annual Synesthesia festival, an original thought crosses ten genres as each artist's interpretation is reinterpreted--a mix of Telephone and Exquisite Corpse. A fortune cookie's wisdom is quite trite, but it quickly becomes personal when Aja Monet channels the "soul food" images it brings to her mind into a spoken-word poem. Nine performers and eighty minutes later, those emotions lead back to food for thought--literally--, thanks to the chocolate-making Mast Brothers.

Along the way, however, art flies all over the place--and that's part of the fun. In a clever bit of direction from ringmasters Ilana Manaster and Gregory Stuart Edwards, each piece is preceded by a taped introduction, in which we see the performer's gut reaction to the previous "step" before we see their creative reaction. Not only does this help smooth over scene changes, it also invests us in the process, like good DVD commentary. (Piehole, a group of puppeteers, have some choice words.) Above all, it never ceases to impress just how creative this bunch is: it's one thing to observe an artist's technique. It's quite another to make it your own--especially in only two weeks. (For some reason, the quickfire challenges on Top Chef come to mind.)

Given the diverse nature of the show, it's pointless to single out specific moments--from Harry Hancock's ornate painting to Kevin Colden's black-and-white comic to Juliana Trivers's violin and keyboard composition, everyone's bound to have different favorites. Jessica Delfino's Sarah Silvermanesque musical comedy is pretty quotable though: "Guys I date don't mind [my awkwardness], because they know I'm less likely to carry a baby to term." So is a joke from Kara Lee Corthron's New Georges-sponsored short: "What do you get when you cross a lesbian and a dinosaur? Lickalottapuss." And lest you think that only comedy is universal, wait until you see Dan Sharnoff's avant-garde film and Ed Rice's gymnastic dance (with limes).

Aside from the killer concept, Synesthesia is also a unifying work of theater--it's built from a community of passionate artists, but in no way excludes the casual theatergoer. Republicans are welcome to continue thinking that art cannot stimulate the economy (though the packed house begs to disagree), but no-one will ever be able to say that art doesn't stimulate the senses.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fire Throws

Photo/Richard Finkelstein

In 2007, Rachel Dickstein said, of her company Ripe Time’s dance-theater adaptations (Betrothed and Innocents), that she wanted to tell the story in a “more total way.” Fine, but the lesson learned by this otherwise excellent revisionist Antigone story, Fire Throws, is that sometimes less is more.

Dickstein starts on the right foot: the haunting image of a girl in a long, flowing red dress, repeating slow, yogic movements. Behind her, in the shadows, is her mirror image. The two move as one to the sound of breathing and the hum of meditation; projected words veil them both in a sense of inevitability. “Underground” hints at the trapezoidal green that limns the first girl; “ambition” reverberates in the red cloth and the second girl’s poise. These are two Antigones—the 2,400-year-old figurative legend “Who Is” (Erica Berg) and the actual girl—the stubborn, short-sighted martyr—“Who Was” (Laura Butler). This one device brings new insight—hindsight is always 20/20—to a very old plot while also enhancing the tragedy.

The play continues swift-footedly, too: whether it’s the influence of Baris Tunggal warrior movement or not, the image of blood-red silk slashing smoothly through the air is effective. It’s also an intriguing balance for the actions of King Creon (John Campion), who sentences Antigone to death for burying her brother in defiance of him. Just as the dancers move percussively but still trail fluid lines behind them, Creon’s fluid attempts to quell anarchy are what end up causing his lovesick son Haemon (Jorge Rubio) to die, and his wife, Eurydice (Paula McGonagle), to commit suicide. Autumn leaves move like scythes around these doomed characters; silk tethers wrap around their arms and bind them, only to slacken and lead to their collapse.

The one element that isn’t working is the unaffecting videography. Maya Ciarrocchi’s work is fine, but it doesn’t compliment or enhance what’s already there. Sure, twin projections—zoomed in on Creon’s mouth—can show us how the words of law imprison Antigone long before she is actually entombed. But they also distract from what’s present on the stage: Campion, releasing himself to anger so that he can throttle back his tears. The dancers provide enough visual stimulation already—it’s somewhat telling that the best moments (a gymnastic rope suspension, a sly defense of Antigone by Haemon) do without these secondary images.

Dickstein must know this—after all, her writing, choreography, and directing speaks to the economy of theater. If presence is not the point, why bother introducing a second Antigone? If immediacy is overvalued, why bother to perform Jewlia Eisenberg’s music live? This isn’t saying that the shadows that the fire throws on the wall behind her aren’t a cool effect—it’s just a note that Fire Throws can be more than just an effect.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Bald Soprano

Photo/James Hunting

Ionesco's first play, The Bald Soprano, is a dapper banana foam hat. One Year Lease gives it an exceptional staging, thanks to their tight-knit ensemble work and preparation, the sort of green envious tribalism that more theater companies ought to consider when reviving a classic. Such precise direction--from Ianthe Demos--and controlled acting keep things polite in the face of absurdity: a rather marvelous reflection of society, if you think about tiddlywink Dickens.

The show begins on James Hunting's curtained clockface of a stage; the clock strikes seventeen as Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Nick Flint and Sarah-Jane Casey) entertain themselves with casual facts (the sort that Mr. Smith is right to cluck his tongue at). In the news, Bobby Watsons multiply into a whole clan of identically named characters, and three days of the week are Tuesday, Thursday, and Tuesday. All this talk gets the two hot and bothered; sadly for them, the Maid (Gregory Waller) enters dramatically to announce that their unexpected guests have arrived. As for these guests, Mr. and Mrs. Martin (Jim Kane and Christina Bennett Lind), neither recognizes the other, and it is only after logically tracing back their steps through a serious of "bizarre coincidences" that they realize they are married. Here's the kicker, announces the playwright by way of the Maid (who also calls herself Sherlock Holmes, that master of observation): they're actually not the people they think they are, for "in spite of the extraordinary coincidences which seem to be definitive proofs," their children's red and white eyes are actually reversed.

On that note, Ionesco establishes the fallacy of logic: it succeeds only when we know everything but in fact, we never can. And if there will always be one more hair to split, Demos and company might well call themselves master barbers. Demos's physical choices enhance Ionesco's choices: a chair is set on its side, but being polite, Mrs. Martin sits in it anyway, awkwardly falling backward until she settles facing the ceiling. Farcical moments are enhanced by the act of sitting three to a chair, or by the sight of mild-mannered English citizens suddenly grasping their seats as if they were lion-tamers. There are some nice subtle touches, too; wide-eyed looks from Lind, a casual lewdness to Kane and his creeping hand, not to mention the odd chemistry between upright Flint and girlish Casey. Through it all, we are schooled in the idea of "given circumstances": after all, if we learn from experience, then may we not conclude, as a sagacious Mrs. Smith does after answering the door three times to find no-one there, that "when the doorbell rings, there is never anybody there"?

Ionesco's play isn't perfect: the introduction of the Fire Chief (no matter how straightfacedly played by Danny Bernardy) just brings on more of the same. Everyone's hyperpolite treatment of him leads to his sticking around to bore them--and us--with his stories, simply so that Ionesco can re-enforce a point about the existence of truth. Facts on their own, as the Chief wanders away from the plot in order to digress on the actual lineages of everyone he's talking about, do little good. And yet, thanks to One Year Lease, we're willing to extend the conceit, watching as Demos's little nuances come full circle in this rather circular (and circuitous) play.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Soul Samurai

Photos/Jim Baldassare

Qui Nguyen's latest play is badassss, tagging on two extra s's for Soul Samurai--though they could just as easily be demonstrative of the blaxploitation or symbolic of the very sexy asses involved. And while Nguyen samples from various genres (he accurately cites Kill Bill and Shaft, though there's also a bit of The Warriors's laughable panache), he's only imitating his own examples. All the staples of classic Vampire Cowboys Theatre are here: the introductory video ("Ninja, please!"), the montage (flag-twirling works well for transitions), and the hypertrophied wit ("Being able to kill is cash and yo' ass is broke"). Their hero grows unstoppable when she learns to no longer fear death; Nguyen and his director, Robert Ross Parker (who has to justify all that manic energy), have become bulletproof by throwing all their inhibitions away. (Cue the star-crossed stop-motion tale of an apple samurai girl and an orange ninja boy; there are puppets and pantomimes, too.)

It'd be accurate to say that Soul Samurai is played to the hilt except that this group is working with a pure blade--nothing slows this show down. After an introduction from G.I. Joe action figures Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow, the lights rise on a grindhouse-looking slum, all graffiti and metal shutters. Boss 2K (Sheldon Best) is in the middle of getting the best of Cert (Paco Tolson) when the hero, Dewdrop (Maureen Sebastian) shows up: "I'm the surprise, bitch." One dispatched villain later, and we're cutting to a week ago, as Dewdrop faces off with the pimped out Shogun of Manhattan, Grandmaster Mack (Jon Hoche); ten minutes later, we're tripping back to the real origin story, as Dewdrop's lover, Sally December (a white and sassy afroed Bonnie Sherman), gets killed by 2K and his gang of Longtooths (that'd be vampires). An interlude, "The Completely Uninteresting Tale of Marcus Moon," features a squeaky clean, nervous, and high-pitched Marcus (Best), who explains (as a masked Hoche pantomimes his actions) how he became such a completely interesting killer.

Something's always being flipped, which keeps Nguyen's fight choreography feeling fresh. One minute our heroes are wandering through the pitch-black subway tunnels, the next they're ragging on preachers (think Jon Tuturro in The Big Lebowski meets the Preacher comics); one flashback spoofs Mr. Miyagi as Master Leroy Green (Best) trains Dewdrop, another riffs on Avenue Q as political activist Sally December turns her back on a comically portrayed Puppet Earth (Hoche). Not only is it dazzlingly creative, but it's also never confusing: Sarah Laux and Jessica Wegener's sick costumes make it easy to distinguish bad guys from good guys, and Nick Francone's set and lighting make for clear, quick transitions from location to location (projections provide the details).

And then, of course, there's the acting: Tolson, who has always been the most successfully geeked out Vampire Cowboy (as the incompetent supervillain The Mole, or as the arrogant robot LC-4), gets to play an overconfident b-boy--who now actually has the skills to back his shit up when he says "My name's Cert--as in Death Cert . . . ificate." He's matched by the up-and-coming Best, who not only changes his voice, but actually carries himself differently from role to role. Everybody has their moment: for Hoche, it's the level of expression in his eyes while playing the Masked Marcus; for Sebastian and Sherman, it's their sustained attitude--they're not just posing when they say they're going to "kill you hard, slow, and sexy-like."

At last, Vampire Cowboys Theatre has found the right balance of action and adventure, creativity and control. Soul Samurai isn't just their best show, it's one of the best shows in the city, and until you see it, you'd better just shut yo' mouth.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Book of Lambert

Photo/Joe Bly

Given that Leslie Lee is an OBIE-winning playwright whose First Breeze of Summer was just very well received at Signature, let's just call this passion project of his a Wesley Willis moment. Not to be dismissive, but there's a reason this play hasn't been produced in its thirty-year life.

As for other reasons: the narrative device of a memory play crouched in realism doesn't work. Even if the five strangers who live on dilapidated mattresses on an abandoned mid-station subway platform were simply figments of Lambert's (Clinton Faulkner) imagination, created to deal with his identity issues after losing his beloved Virginia (Heather Massie), The Book of Lambert would still have a long way to go. But as is, or at least, as directed by Cyndy A. Marion, it's all actually happening this way, from Bonnie (Joresa Blount), the pregnant woman, to the sex-starved Priscilla (Sadrina Johnson), who can orgasm from train vibrations alone, thanks to Jesus. There really is an old blind man, Otto (Arthur French), who remarries his needy wife, Zinth (Gloria Sauve), every day. Worst of all, Clancy (Howard L. Wieder), who calls himself a member of the "obstacles squad," and goes about ticketing objects and people that disturb beautiful vistas, has memories of his own. Given that, it matters very little to one's sanity that he only seems to recall his love for Miss Wambaugh (Omrae Smith) when he is shot, or when he shoots other people.

It wouldn't be so terrible, either, if these characters just existed to provide a physical context for his memories of Virginia, a rebellious young girl who wants to experience black "culture" from the inside out, appropriating Lambert's slang while entirely missing the point. Instead, each one of them takes a turn staring out at the audience, explaining themselves with a wide-eyed hunger that makes no sense from moment to moment. For some reason, Priscilla starts singing an old kid's song and then, for some other reason, wonders aloud why she did so. Says the wise Lambert: "Because it's in there. And once it's in there, it's always going to be in there, waiting its turn."

Of course, just because it's all in there doesn't mean that it all needs to come out--in fact, what most gets in Lambert's way are the implausible moments and ridiculous characters, all the laborous distractions of a younger playwright desperately trying to find a way to deal with racial issues on the page. Instead of looking to salvage the voice of a younger self, Lee would do best to simply start a new book, not a hasty revision of an old, dusty chapter.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

metaDRAMA: Twitter

And now, for no-one's enjoyment: here are some posts that would have gone on Twitter if in fact I were to use Twitter. (Which, thankfully, I do not.)

Taking a large swallowable vitamin is like playing basketball in your mouth.

[on Pride and Predator]
Love will happen between deaths. Moments of non-death that pass for character development. Which is, I guess, what development is.

Caryl Churchill will be the first to twitter a play. Drunk Enough to Say I Love You to Seven Jewish Children hint at a pattern of fast writing and short drama.

Of course there's a Twatter. Some things are just too obvious.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pent-up: a revenge dance

Even with a script, it's hard to tell what's going on in Pent-up: a revenge dance. What's clearer is how talented writer/performer Okwui Okpokwasili is, especially as she throws herself--literally--into this physically and mentally fragmented play. She goes from 0 to 60 in seconds: from standing still, images reflected across her back, to suddenly attacking the air, "dancing" to Nina Simone's "Liza Jane." What comes across most is the connection between mother (Okpokwasili) and daughter (Gloria Huwiler), which is perhaps appropriate for a show with "dance" in the title.

In any case, by remaining closed off, the duo (aided by director Peter Born) show how our actions create and close distances. For instance, one of the dances has the mother pulling the daughter along in a back-and-forth rhythm, speeding up as they call-and-repeat through a list of Igbo words. Elsewhere, the daughter refers to herself as the mother, and by the play's close, the two are bunched together, singing. There's a circular balance to all of this, too, between the repetition of a story about a "little freak girl" who can't stop touching her clit and the mother's fiery and redundant warnings to her village ("You see because people! You are shitting where you are drinking!").

It's as interesting as it is frustrating that these characters don't bother explaining themselves; they are made up of things--like a faith in lottery tickets, yes--but how do those things work on them? However, when Okpokwasili pull herself up and speaks the lines, she has command of the stage; likewise, when Huwiler begins to sing in her fine, unbroken voice, the idea of revenge seems a distant memory.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Love/Stories (or, But You Will Get Used To It)

Photo/Joan Marcus

The danger of writing, after that first initial flash, is that what you create will never be as close to that vision of perfection. Itamar Moses, no stranger to meta-drama and post-modern conventions (in which art comments on itself), must have had one hell of an initial flash, because his collection of one-acts is still pretty brilliant. In Love/Stories (or, But You Will Get Used To It), Moses works through the worries of a post-modern age by, appropriately enough, getting post-post-modern on them.

He begins, simply enough, with a prerecorded introduction, then enters into a "modern" play and a playful monologue before getting into the post-post-modern play-within-a-commentary-within-a-play. After some final thoughts on love as theater and theater as love, he ends with the depressingly sincere "Better never to begin." It's all exceptionally handled by the five-man ensemble of Bats (the repertory actors of The Flea), whose youth allows them to grasp the circuitous and often broken logic of the characters, and Michelle Tattenbaum, whose previous direction of Moses's work has taught her to let the words speak for themselves. (Joe Chapman's lighting non-intrusively juggles the various levels of "post.")

Moses's self-reference allows him to get away with a lot: for instance, the plot of "Chemistry Read," in which a writer tries to avoid casting the guy who stole the girl he wrote the play for, is justified by being demonstrably shallow. "Temping" uses the author's hyperrealistic ramblings--we've all heard halves of telephone conversations like this before--to heighten an otherwise banal breakup. And it's all uphill from there.

The centerpiece, "Authorial Intent," breaks a metaphor up three ways. Theatrically, B warns of overlearning--that is, knowing so much that your enjoyment is no longer pure--and A responds by breaking up with him: the man she's allowed to move in is no longer man she loves ("the you who doesn't live here"). Post-post-modernly, A and B speak only in literal subtext: "DEVICE: Costume Change i.e. 'B returns without his jacket and tie.' OBJECTIVE: Permission To Tell Lengthy Story TACTIC: Insistence Upon Lack of Desire to Tell Lengthy Story." "Realistically," the show has now ended, and the actors, Laurel (Holland) and Michael (Micalizzi), question their policy of not dating actors, wondering if there's perhaps some truth they can share after all--a measure of real knowledge that will transform them without destroying what they feel.

The second half of the title (or, But You Will Get Used To It) comes from "Szinhaz," as a Soviet director equates the strict suffering of his craft with the love he feels for his translator, finding that his consuming love can only adequately be expressed by stripping everything away into a silence. It's a silence that continues into "Untitled Short Play," as the evening's narrator (a bravura performance by John Russo), launches into a series of scene-delaying clarifications, mirroring the author's worry, indecision, and frustration at the unknowability of it all: " on earth could some lame scene where two people just talk to each other get more than thimble-deep into anything that remotely resembles anything that even comes within a country mile of an approximation of the barest outline of the feelings that gave rise to the need to write this..."

He has, of course, answered his own question--if it were ever really a question--with Love/Stories. (Or, But You Will Regret Not Seeing This If You Don't Go Now.)

metaDRAMA: What To Write?

Having already dealt before with the question of what to review, here's something else to consider: once you've decided to review something, what exactly do you write? As in, how much information do you give, especially if you're constrained by a word count, that most insidious and snake-like of things? And, even if you're not, how do you process and reprocess what you've written--filtering away your darlings, so to speak--in an effort to convey a clear "something" to the reader?

I thought that since Itamar Moses's new collection of one-acts, Love/Stories (or, But You Will Get Used To It) gets so self-referential, why don't I do so as well? The actual review is posted here, but what follows is most of the stuff that I cut. What's informative is that what I removed is mostly plot and references to actors (that didn't actually talk about their performance and were therefore simply perfunctory). I also ended up cutting a lot of my own embellishments, a habit which I happily admit to. There's a time and place for everything--to compensate, I added more quotes from the actual script. After all, it's his voice I want you to hear, not mine.

Also cut, to a large extent, were instances of name-dropping: I think it was Taylor Mac, in the opening to The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac, who pleaded with critics to avoid comparing one work of art to another, and instead to simply speak of the work on its own merits and existential qualities. I can't always do that, but in places where it might be distracting, or might take attention away from the play itself, I am happy to oblige. Interestingly enough, my first line--that burst of inspiration, so to speak--rarely changes for me. If I don't have that starting point, I find it almost impossible to translate the notes I've made; that first line (or paragraph) is the Rosetta Stone of my criticism.

I don't expect that this will particularly useful or enlightening to any of you--who out there is giving a critic a close read (who watches the watchmen indeed)? But, as Foreman has said, if you've got even only an audience of one that you affect, you've done your job, no?

------------------------[The following is ROUGH DRAFT material; do not pull-quote any of this.]------------------------

The danger of writing, after that first initial flash, the flush of an idea, is that what you create will never be as close to that vision of perfection. And so you take to studying craft, learning how to hone and perfect your skills, which in turn carries another risk--that you will know so much that you will no longer be able to enjoy it. Itamar Moses, whose The Four Of Us proved that he was no stranger to meta-drama and post-modern conventions (in which art comments on itself), is back with a collection of five short plays--Love/Stories (or, But You Will Get Used To It)--that attempt to work through these post-modern worries by, appropriately enough, getting post-post-modern with them, something that will come as no surprise to fans of David Foster Wallace. What's delightfully surprising is how seriously Moses takes this opportunity, attempting (and rarely failing) to expand his range (unlike Will Eno's redundant one-act series Oh The Humanity).

His first play, "Chemistry Read," is a throat-clearing example of a modern ten-minute play; it's shallow, but the twist is that it's demonstratively so. A writer (Felipe Bonilla) sits with a director (Maren Langdon), using a reader (Laurel Holland) to try and find an actor with some modicum of chemistry. (As John Russo proves with his gleeful parody of smug, arrogant actors, this can be difficult to do.) However, the writer panics when one auditioner (Michael Micalizzi) turns out to be the guy who stole the girl that he wrote the play for. "I am not then obliged also to employ him, am I?" he says, looking to the reader for help.

It's not a bad start, but it's all uphill from there. In "Temping," a Guy (Micalizzi) sits at a desk, half-collating, half-listening to the Girl (Langdon) at the next desk talk to her ex-boyfriend, a series of trailing-off sentences that don't end well. Not only is the scene a reminder to actors that even monologues require partners, but it's an opportunity for Moses to play with intent; her second phone call, to a sympathetic friend, clarifies what brought her to tears in the first.

It's also a brilliant segue into "Authorial Intent," a three-scene one-act that begins with A breaking up with B, after she discovers--in parallel with the central metaphor of the play--that because she let him move in, he's no longer the man she loves (the "you who doesn't live here"). The actors then replay the scene, framing each segment with the literal subtext: "INSTRUMENT: Costume. DEVICE: Costume Change i.e. 'B returns without his jacket and tie.' OBJECTIVE: Permission To Tell Lengthy Story TACTIC: Insistence Upon Lack of Desire to Tell Lengthy Story." Then, suddenly, the actors are playing themselves, Laurel Holland and Michael Micalizzi, as they reflect upon the nature of acting itself. By nature, post-post-modernism is a send up of itself, though Moses misses the chance to go one step deeper by making a fourth scene, in which that scene is part of the same play (all of which, remember, is still part of the overall evening of Love/Stories).

The next piece, "Szinhaz," completes a different sort of metaphor, equating theater with love as a Soviet director, Istvan (Bonilla), speaks through his translator, Marie (Langdon), to explain how he has suffered for his art: "It was like being punched. Again. And again. And again. Into his face. By a train." But through all of this, he has found that you get used to it, much like the affair he is having with Marie, an affair that has become an all-consuming love, one that can only be adequately expressed by a frozen painful silence.

Finally, "Untitled Short Play" allows the evening's narrator (Russo) to interject, mirroring the author's worry and indecision in what is an entertainingly long series of scene-delaying clarifications. After all, although a man and woman (Bonilla and Holland) sit at a cafe table not looking at one another, the "avoidance [is] borne not of unfamiliarity but more of something like the opposite," a frisson that exists "like a dense fog." Which is, of course, a simile that must be elaborated on, for it's not the outside that he's concerned with, but the unknowable inside.

--------------------------[The above is ROUGH DRAFT material; do not pull-quote any of this.]--------------------------

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Photo/JJ Lind

Chuck. Chuck. Chuck.
is the sound Cash's adze makes as he cuts a coffin for his mother, Addie, in William Falkner's As I Lay Dying. It's a fitting title for Immediate Medium's adaptation, for they've not only brought the words of this classic family drama to life, but they've brought the sounds to life, too--even dead Addie's, with her whispering voiceover, and the murmuring brooks of human worry. Going one step further, Rob Ramirez actually turns Faulkner's stream of consciousness into a literal one, with projected lines from the novel snaking down from that centerpiece of a coffin. There's singing and dancing, too, much like Elevator Repair Service's adaptation of The Sound and the Fury, though it's not experimental so much as it's a necessary tact for wrestling Faulkner's prose to the ground without stifling it.

There's never the slightest risk of that here; Immediate Medium's ensemble work is superb, as is their aesthetic cohesiveness: Maki Takenouchi's set is a dirt-filled sandbox ringed with lights and rigged with laundry wires, Max Dana hides lights inside of buckets of water or beside the heat lamps so that each scene always feels distinct and a little private, and Suzie Chung's costuming strikes a nice balance between elegance and the requisite grime of this country family. If anything stands in the way of Chuck.Chuck.Chuck., it is Faulkner himself, whose narrative of the Bundren family's disasterous (and reflective) journey to bury Addie (LeAnn Lind), is sometimes overly oblique. Director JJ Lind combats this--a death that the doctor, Peabody, describes as "merely a function of the mind"--by remaining physical: Vardaman (Liz Vacco) guts a fish, Jewel (Megan Camisi) isolates himself from the family by drawing and redrawing his beloved horse on the exposed brick wall, Cash (Max Dana) makes his sawing into a workman's music, and Dewey Dell (Siobhan Towey) scurries about, keeping her brothers in line even as she frets about her secret pregnancy.

The big, action-packed climaxes of the novel--a perilous river crossing, a blazing fire--come to life in swirls of projections, dancing, and live music (provided by Ben Vershbow, Robin Aigner, Brady Jenkins, Suzie Chung, and Caroline Shaw, sometimes doing nothing more than stamping their feet). If there are exaggerated moments, like Vershbow's winking rapist, MacGowan, or Hugh Sinclair's drunken patriarch, Anse, it's only because Immediate Medium doesn't have space to let you reread and recontextualize the chapters: it all has to exist in the moment. And exist it does, from the tender way Dana's voice breaks in an otherwise technical account of the thirteen-step coffin-building method to the way Michael Rushton's Darl slowly grows more and more erratic, going mad, but rationally so.

Some cuts have been made, some text has been reshuffled or overlapped, but it feels as if it's all there, and that's what matters. For in the end, all there is for any of us is that final sound.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Astronome: A Night At The Opera

Photo/Paula Court

There's a second subtitle to Richard Foreman's latest work of theater, Astronome: A Night at the Opera, a collaboration with the avant-garde composer John Zorn. That title is the parenthetical "A Disturbing Initiation" (which happens to be especially accurate for me, a first time Foremanner), but that's not a warning, just as the complimentary earplugs aren't actually necessary. It's a statement of fact--something that may not belong in a review of this almost text-less, symbolic work of theater (can it be called a play?). If Zorn's piece--the Tazmanian Devil doing a punk show--is meant to provide catharsis, then it is Foreman's half that is taking it on, showing how "human beings [are] buffeted by forces that invade human life." The result, which seems more directed at the actors than the performers, is one hell of an initiation. "Stage fright" is ominously, constantly whispered by Foreman's disembodied voice, and this is certainly one way to deal with it.

Textual analysis seems a little pointless, though, given the way in which Hebrew and English letters are spiderwebbed across the set, alchemical diagrams come wheeling out, and a woman in all black (Deborah Wallace) keeps attempting to erase an already clean blackboard. It's also hard to put a straight face on actors going in and out of a giant nostril and mouth, something that seems reminiscent of Double Dare, or the long-tongued lounge "singer," a green-skinned Tony Clifton (Jamie Peterson). What's necessary, by Foreman's rules--"I don't see it, you don't see it, nobody sees it except the man stumbling upon it quite by accident"--is to just experience it. Watch the symmetrical moments, the tightly choreographed shaking and collapsing. See the blinking photo flashes, the swinging pendulum, the out-of-place bras. Listen through the throat-clearing music.

"It's very easy to choose the negative path to avoid things that are painful," continues Foreman. His play isn't painful, nor really disturbing, and there are enough oddly wonderful and curious things to fascinate the intrepid theatergoer. But since we're talking about stage fright, isn't Astronome a word of advice to the artist? This is what you can choose, it says, don't avoid it.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

STUFF (To Do This Weekend) - 2/13-2/15

Tonight, go check out The Nonsense Company's Great Hymn of Thanksgiving/Conversation Storm. If my reviews (of the '08 FRIGID version and this '09 return) didn't convince you, how about this trailer?

If two innovative plays for the price of one didn't get your attention, how about adding on a talkback with Martin Denton and reducing the price to $10 (if you order online and use the code PS122)?

On Saturday, you can check out Chuck.Chuck.Chuck., an adaptation of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. If you liked Elevator Repair Service's work on Sound and the Fury, you'll love this--Immediate Medium knocked my socks off by getting physical with it, and they even manage to convey a lot of the sub-stories surrounding the coffin-bearing main plot. The double-edged sword is that it always takes me longer to review something I loved (especially when that involves rereading a novel); thankfully, I can still urge you to go, review unread.

And on Sunday? Catch up on whichever of these you didn't see, and if you went to both, then reward yourself by snagging a cheap ticket to Speed the Plow (what with this being a holiday weekend and all); there's a reason why Raul Esparza was the only non-TV star to be cast, and as fantastic as low-mercury William H. Macy is (and he really is) and good as Elizabeth Moss has become (I enjoyed the second scene), watching Esparza's apoplectic third scene reminded me that revivals do have their place. (Alternatively, if you're looking for something new, I hear great things about Ruined.)

And remember, Call Cutta in a Box, that one-person show starring you, is still running through 2/27 at the Goethe-Institut. The most one can expect from theater is to have their perception altered a little (making theater a drug that is far healthier, long-lasting, and addictive than any other), and this immediate pen-pal experience with a call-center operator from India is a real eye-opener.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Leah's Train

Photo/Michael Ou

As will surprise absolutely no-one, the train in Karen Hartman's play Leah's Train is a metaphor: "Time seems to stop on a train." This may clarify some of the delusional theater that follows, but it in no way justifies the tale of a mother, Hannah (Mia Katigbak), and daughter, Ruth (Jennifer Ikeda), caught in the shadow of their migratory ancestor, Leah (Kristine Haruna Lee). Saying that it does is akin to saying that anyone who prizes a kaddish cup, that apparently most synechdocal of objects, is Jewish. (Which is what this play does.) Nobody wants to see last-resort theater, but that's what Jean Randich's direction feels like: "We didn't connect with this play, but here's our best shot."

To everyone's credit, parts of that "best shot" work, with Randich using Stephen Petrilli's excellent lighting design to jump between the military train that Leah is using to escape from 1913 Russia and a twentieth-century Amtrak that Hannah, Ruth, and Ruth's soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend Ben (Louis Ozawa Changchien) are all on. The fragmented cuts between scenes and the use of ghostly double-casting (Changchien and the young Raphael Aranas) create a world in which cowardly daughters run the risk of forever living in their mother's shadows. In fact, this visual texture even smooths out some of the forced writing, such as in a scene where the four primary "modern" characters all "write" letters (monologues) that are, for some reason, similar.

But back to the metaphor: if time stops on a train, then so does movement. When things finally happen, they're compressed into an abrupt burst, as if catching up for all the prior meandering. Save for the natural chemistry between the needy Hannah and the sarcastic Ruth, this doesn't actually resolve much--in fact, it's just as artificial as everything that precedes it, from Ruth's convenient childhood trauma (if only we could all overcome such horror as easily as Ikeda) to Ben's abrupt decision to flirt with his ex-girlfriend's mother (to be fair, he doesn't know, but that means he has no artistic motivation to do so) to the way all three of these characters immediately come to terms with the shared fantasy that they are interacting with Leah.

A train is the wrong metaphor for this play, for Leah's Train is slowly paced, cramped in its characterizations, and awkwardly put together. But who'd want to see Leah's Bus?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Wendigo

Eric Sander's adaptation of Algernon Blackwood's The Wendigo, a spooky short story from 1910, starts with a killer line: "Our hunting party brought back no moose that year." It's a far cry better than Blackwood's clunkier version, and a hint of just how streamlined the Vagabond Theatre Ensemble's production is going to be (a little too slim, at only forty-five minutes). Matthew Hancock's direction helps to smooth things over, too: his actors have accents, but they don't exaggerate them. (Comedy is not the intended effect of this piece.)

In fact, the cast is generally terrific, with Nick Merritt smoothly transitioning from the task of "ominous narrator" to that of "excited novice hunter" and Kurt Uy's Defago slipping from a confident if somewhat brusque guide to that of a terrified, superstitious drunk. As Hank, Graham Outerbridge has the gruff behavior of a mercenary leader down cold, and Erik Gratton, with his deep radio voice, uses perfect enunciation to emphasize Doc's rationality.

However, despite Brian Tovar's excellent lighting (pinpoints piercing the blackness), the strict minimalism of Nicholas Vaughan's set (black poles hang like dead trees) and Gino Barzizza's static, projected backdrops prevent the show from capturing anything atmospheric. Candice Thompson nails the period costumes, but she's left threadbare conjuring up a wendigo. Only M. L. Dogg's calm, constant, cricketing sound design remains in the moment, and even that is undercut by the occasional use of generic thriller music.

That the play ends up looking a bit like The Blair Wendigo Project isn't necessarily a bad thing, and the production is constantly elevated by the careful culling of Blackwood's original descriptions. The smoke-lit darkness may not be terrifying, but it is certainly engaging, particularly when Hancock grounds the text in action--the ominous sound of Defargo's whetstone would make a Foley artist proud. If you ever see a wendigo, run; until then, you might as well walk to see The Wendigo.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Great Hymn of Thanksgiving/Conversation Storm

Normally, when something as unique as Great Hymn of Thanksgiving/Conversation Storm comes around, it takes very little time for the derivatives to start piling on. Granted, theater is a far less immediate medium than television, but while it's terrific that this work still feels original a year after the '08 Frigid Festival (and its two halves have existed since '03 and '06), it's also a shame, surely, that not enough people have seen this production to pilfer from it.

Then again, there's the fact that stealing the Nonsense Company's technique is pretty damn hard; they, unlike some of the material they glibly discuss, are not fungible. Their first piece "Great Hymn of Thanksgiving," is aptly subtitled "for three speaking percussionists," and requires Ryan Higgins, Andy Gricevich, and Rick Burkhardt to follow sheet music for, among other things, mastication, wine-glass harmonics, and the plate-scraping rhythms of an errant fork. Parents: tell your children they can play with their food, so long as their mischief is synchronized and politically charged, for the monotonous cowbell-garblings of the cast are extracted from the Army Prayer Manual, world news reports, and Rae Armantrout's poetry. It is a clear collision of our hypercasual comforts with a distant reality: we cannot even imagine killing our own turkey, let alone visualize the charred casualties of war.

Without pause--for when is there ever a break in life?--the show segues into the second act, "Conversation Storm," a more conventional play only in the sense that there are characters, that they speak lines, and that there are scenes. But Burkhardt's writing here is just as inventive: he gives life to another too-casual behavior, the "thought experiment," by forcing Hugh (Higgins) to "out torture" Alec (Burkhardt) in a ticking timebomb game of "Do You Talk?" This isn't the audience-approved stuff of 24, but rather a boundary-pushing extrapolation: "You can either believe me," says the terrorist/victim, his testicles already crushed by a bathroom stall door, "or you can fuck my son." The one-act is performed lightning-fast, jumping forward and back between scenes--even rewriting some of them--as it mixes comedy and drama in an attempt to parse the concept that "torture is fine as long as we don't enjoy it too much."

Burkhardt and company succeed and fail in this endeavor: for all the unsettling screeches and scratches of the first act and the unpleasant scenarios and scares of the second, the performance is still primarily enjoyed--if not too much, then just enough.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

metaDRAMA: Just [ ] It

Sometimes I wonder why I stretch myself so thin instead of focusing all of my attention on one specific thing and getting it done, but aside from the fact that I'm not built that way, I find that I'm more fascinated in seeing how the arts cross and influence one another. In the January 26th New Yorker, two different artists speak about very similar things.

First, in an article on the choreographer Balanchine, Arlene Croce writes,

"He subscribed to the Hegelian view of history as a spiral: everything recurs, but in a different form. Not only dance movement but all art, even the most novel-seeming, is a version of something that has already been said or done. For this reason, he saw no harm in appropriating; he stole and was stolen from--that was the way of art. As he told Volkov, "If you like something of someone else's, why not take it? The important thing is that it seem natural and fit in." With Stravinsky, he shared a firm belief in the labor of art as perpetual renovation: Stravinsky, who liked to quote Goethe--"Everything has been thought of before: the task is to think of it again."
Is it just me, or is everything about that paragraph fantastic? First off, I've got to read some Hegel, but along those lines, it's very reaffirming to hear the anti-copyright argument made so apolitically. It's also reassuring to remember that my own creative writing (i.e., not criticism) doesn't have to reinvent the wheel; I can work a familiar story, so long as I find a different way of pointing it out. As I've said before, I focus on theater because I feel like that medium gets the closest toward creating an entirely new worldview--because so many different opinions go into it, from the writing to the directing to the actor's interpretation to the audience's reaction.

It's also great to just ignore the Disneys and Rowlings for a moment and just regard the simple truth that simply allowing someone else to use Mickey Mouse or Harry Potter will not be allowing them to profit off of your invention. They need to use it naturally (i.e., well), or nobody will buy it. If you are that protective of your intellectual property, then you know deep down that you aren't deserving of it--you fear that someone else will come along and tell that story (or write that character) better than you. And for serious, when it comes to creativity, I am most certainly an Objectivist. I want the best art possible.

Nowhere is this more clear than in painting, where artists study, mimic, and eventually find their own voice by working with the greats; in Calvin Tomkin's profile of Walton Ford, we learn that this 48-year-old artist has learned a lot from Audubon, and we get this great line about the difference between "illustration" (cheap entertainment) and "art" (meaningful masterpieces): "[T]o become art, [illustration] has to open up and allow for other intereptations." In other words, the more closed-off an object is, the less great it is. What makes the Mona Lisa so resonant is not simply itself, but the way in which the original has been so magnified by a multitude of contrasting works--even forgeries--that only re-enforce the beauty of the original. (Which is not to say that some of these spin-offs didn't become masterpieces themselves.)

Television--the most immediate and fluid of the visual art forms--has started to realize this. (Granted, the Pepsification of Saturday Night Live isn't necessarily the best way to start, but then again, MacGruber is a knock-off, too). YouTube clips immediately mash up and reinterpret the present (just listen to the techno remix of Christian Bale's [expletive deleted] rant). All of these simply provide us with more and more worldviews, none of which are necessarily competing with one another so much as providing further context and insight into the way we actually think--into the way, ultimately, that we are all human.

Let's bring it all home by assuming that Goethe is right: everything has already been thought of. What's left, then, is to find new ways to combine it. And if we hold back the building blocks of our culture--if we cling desperately to protect "property"--then we are just handicapping ourselves.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Salman Rushdie, "The Enchantress of Florence"

Salman Rushdie's latest novel opens with a foreign stranger--appropriately modeled after the classic tricksters of fables and fantasies--approaching a golden lake that "looked like a sea of molten gold." Wealthy as the Mughal capital, Fatehpur Sikri, is, this is of course an illusion, the sun making the water appear otherworldly. The Enchantress of Florence has a similar effect: written in the embellished prose of a many-sleeved storyteller, it stretches a wanderer's journey into a golden epic. However, although there is an underlying "reality" of the novel, which walks between Arabian Nights-like fantasy and a grittier Florentine drama (the cadences sound Umberto Eco-ish there), let the strength of water itself not be forgotten. Much as Rushdie rambles, he also flows; for all that he gushes, he also channels.

If there are complaints with Rushdie's novel it is that, unlike his most remembered work (Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses, or even The Ground Beneath Her Feet), this is magical realism without the realism. This is not to dismiss the five-page bibliography, but the exotic romances here--of blind elephant judges, voluminous prostitutes, poisons and princesses--keep the novel untethered. (Not to the degree of Moorcockian pulp that Michael Chabon dabbled in with the recent Gentlemen of the Road.) And yet, "the untruth of untrue stories could sometimes be of service in the real world." These "improvised versions of the endless stream of stories he had learned" will get both the golden-haired foreigner, Mogor dell'Amore, and his spiritual ancestor, Antonino Argalia out of many a predicament.

Enjoyable as the novel is to read, it's hard to identify a central theme--mainly because that theme deals with the physicalization of illusion. The stories within The Enchantress of Florence bring adventures to life for the reader, but they do so even more literally within the novel, for Emperor Akbar has willed his perfect queen, Jodha, into existence--through mass belief and rumor, treading the line between "delirium and sanity." When dell'Amore arrives with a secret for Akbar's ears only, he conjures up a new woman, Qara Kos, the "hidden" princess. Along these lines, there is much to be said for the secret ways in which women once had to wield their power in a world of men, though the novel is more engrossed in literary romance than physical romance.

Of course, The Enchantress of Florence doesn't always know what it is, and while that exotic patchwork of diaphanous stories works for the first half of the novel, some of the latter sections drag, as consequences often do. In some ways, however, it is necessary for Rushdie to have weak sections to his tale: if his illusion were perfect, it would be impossible to write of illusions; if love were truly indomitable, it would simply be enslavement.