Wednesday, March 28, 2012

metaDRAMA: "Feesability"

You're at work and you decide to check your e-mail. Somewhere along the line, you must have gotten your e-mail address on one of these various blasts, but that's OK, because the stars have aligned and, lo and behold, you're actually interested in the show on offer. The website's a little wonky, so you call, and -- wow, it turns out there's hardly any wait at all for a human representative when you're prepared to throw down for a ticket. Except . . . that deal isn't quite as advertised, is it? There's small print, but it doesn't say anything about the not one, but two service fees. And suddenly that "special promotional rate" -- while still below "market" value, whatever that is, since the show hasn't opened yet -- isn't so special. It's already shot up by 25%, and if you want to get anything at the theater, or dine out in the neighborhood, it's going to get even more expensive. And then, instead of purchasing the ticket, you decide you'll go to the theater, instead, though who knows when you'll have time to do that. So maybe you just won't see the show after all. In the short term, it hardly matters; someone will buy that ticket, right? The point here is, you won't. And maybe the fee rubs you the wrong way, like having to pay to check a coat after you've already paid the cover charge at the club, or finding out that you need to get bottle service if you want the bartender's attention. Maybe the next time you get a blast for a show that you want to see, but it's at this particular theater, you decide it's not worth the trouble. Maybe you stop going to see shows altogether.

In this way, a theatergoer's trust slowly erodes. They're either worn down to the point at which they'll see anything, for any price, or they're jaded and hyper-selective. Neither is really good for the industry, because after one too many bad shows, after one too many stretched budgets, they'll have discouraged the people who were once oh-so-starry-eyed for the stage. They'll have burned those bridges. And somewhere, it started with a needless and needling fee, yet another barrier to seeing live entertainment, yet another reason to stay home and watch Smash (or worse) on the sofa.

So the next time you reach out to your supposed fans, the next time you try to offer them a deal, when you try to work out an arrangement to help the audience you want meet the costs you need to charge, don't pull a bait and switch. Just tell us what you want, and we'll let you know.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

THEATER: The Lady from Dubuque

I had the pleasure of attending a talk-back performance of The Lady from Dubuque, in which a wonderfully cantankerous Edward Albee took the opportunity to wonder why critics today were so much smarter than they were back in 1980, when their pans quickly put an end to its Broadway premiere. I'm not sure how serious Albee was being -- the playwright, like his characters, speaks cuttingly and with highly veiled sarcasm -- because he also mentioned the three-dimensional aspects of his characters and the lack of symbolism in his plays. (I'll agree with that for masterpieces like The Goat, in which Sylvia can be taken at face-value, or Virginia Woolf, which represents things without using cut-outs, but can one claim that with a straight face for Me, Myself, and I?) Mind you, this in a desperately bitter play in which Death, more or less, appears in the guise of a dying woman's aristocratic "mother," Elizabeth (Jane Alexander) and her more down-to-earth companion, Oscar (Peter Francis James); in a play in which Sam (Michael Hayden) watches in horror as his dinner-party "friends" abandon him and his wife, Jo (Laila Robins), when the going gets tough.

There's much to appreciate about the message at the muscular heart of The Lady from Dubuque, particularly David Esbjornson's fluid staging, the ease of which only serves to cast the two visitors with more menace. (Ever seen the film Funny Games? It's a bit like that, in that the calm veneer simultaneously masks and reveals the horror.) And Signature Theatre's revival boasts a terrific ensemble: not just the deeply wounded Hayden, utterly relaxed Alexander, scene-stealing James, and mighty Robins (who one can easily imagine doing true justice to Wit), but also Thomas Jay Ryan and Catherine Curtin as an annoyingly meddlesome couple. (It's much harder to get a read on C. J. Wilson's brutish Edgar and his more-than-a-floozy girlfriend, played by Tricia Paoluccio.) But much of the show's second act revolves around blind hysterics and an unfocused script that makes the first act's fourth-wall-breaking winks seem out of place. Albee notes that he lets the characters speak; perhaps he should have stepped in as an editor, then.

Mind you, this isn't saying that discomfort has no place in the theater, particularly in a show that's dealing with death. But the stylistic shifts cut these characters off from the realism to which one can relate, and the supernatural elements -- what one might call Lost-syndrome, in which characters refuse to ask or answer the most primal of questions -- prevent this show from being a naturalist work. Instead, these clashing elements turn The Lady from Dubuque into a black hole, which absorbs all development and momentum, and while that may say something about the subject matter, it's too reductive an approach for a two-act melodrama. One clutches to the grim moments of humor, deftly delivered by James's unflappable deliveries, mainly because it's hard to find anything else, what with Hayden reduced to a quivering mess on the floor and Robins slipping in and out of a pain-filled consciousness.

Kudos, as always, to Signature Theatre, for continuing to show us the history and growth of our greatest playwrights; but as for The Lady From Dubuque, you'll just have to count me as one of those non-sophisticates to whom this play just isn't for.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

THEATER: That Beautiful Laugh

Photo/The Artigiani Troupe
I think I've figured out why some people are afraid of clowns: it's because they're kids who have never grown up. It can be a little frightening to see adults so recklessly free, so literally lost in their own world; what is excusable in children as an exploratory, exhilarating phase is, all grown up, is almost menacingly silly. (Inane is only a letter removed from insane.) This is worth noting not because Orlando Pabotoy's clown show, That Beautiful Laugh, nor his talented performers, are bad -- they are quite good! -- but because the looseness of the affair provokes a certain tension, even at La MaMa: they might do anything to get a laugh!

Over the course of slightly more than an hour, we'll join the brave yet comparatively incompetent Flan (Alan Tudyk), shy yet physically dominant Ian (Carlton Ward), and deliberate yet excitable Darla Waffles Something (Julia Ogilvie) as they show off their comic repertoire to an unborn egg, hoping to make it fly, either through physical or levit(y)ational means. There's a dance with stilts, and a creepy shadow-puppet song about the "Scary City," plus a "rule of threes" series of performances that include Flan's cryptic non-act (that may actually be fairly impressive); Darla's nonsensical "feats," like attempting to yo-yo with one's mouth; and Ian's "DAHN-gerous" arsenal of the everyday: a clothes hangar, plastic bag, and hula hoop -- kids, do not try this at home!

Still, one wishes That Beautiful Laugh had set the bar a bit higher; the production, like Scott Tedmon-Jones's pull-curtain set, is somewhat primitive, and while there's charm in building something from a ragtag nothingness, it's a wearying sort. According to Flan's fairy-tale prologue, the goal is to restore true laughs to a land that has forgotten them (it still has squiggly, nervous, and Santa ones, to name a few), and yet the show seems happy -- if the final sequence is any indication -- to conjure up and bottle any old laugh. To this end, there's a lot of cheap humor and a lack of developed running gags and/or punchlines: it's what you'd expect of children playing at dress-up, not of adults playing at comedy.

Friday, March 16, 2012

THEATER: Venus in Fur

I first covered Venus in Fur over two years ago, back at CSC, with Wes Bentley opposite an already stunning Nina Arianda: I thought it was a sexually charged play that needed to work out its own kinks (pun intended) so that it might express itself more suggestively and less literally. I'll admit now that I was wrong about that: this is a play about dominance, and so it's necessary that the orders be barked, and that control be wrested not just in the play-within-a-play, but between the actress and actor outside of that, Vanda (Arianda) and Thomas (Hugh Dancy). I don't think David Ives has tightened up much of the script, though Walter Bobbie, no longer playing to three sides of a theater, has certainly improved the thrust of the action, especially the more intense moments; instead, this is just a case of all parties -- myself as a writer, and Arianda as an vibrant young actress -- maturing and coming to terms with the deeper needs of the script.

However, I'm unfortunately stuck with the same complaint I had with Bentley's performance, which is that the back-and-forth between the two remains unbalanced and without nearly as much chemistry or punch as one desires -- this, most likely due to the fact that Mark Alhadeff was called in to replace Dancy for this evening's performance. While Alhadeff is a fine actor, he doesn't come across as tough enough to handle a live wire like Arianda. While her wattage fluctuates throughout the night, his remains static; only occasionally is there enough friction to actually spark some tension between the two. When he says that "There can be nothing more sensuous than pain, nothing more pleasurable than degradation," they're just words, but when she quips that "You don't have to tell me about sadomasochism, I'm in the theater," every word lands a punch. And while it's true that she's meant to be the more extroverted, energetic of the two, from the moment she runs into the theater with an umbrella, squealing her apologies and stripping to her lingerie, Alhadeff must do more than play a lethargic opposite; at some point, mustn't he feel the thrill that the audience receives from Arianda's deft command? As she often instructs, he must appear ambiguous, not ambivalent.

In any case, for a play about sex and identity -- however muddled the supernatural ending remains -- Venus in Fur remains fleetly funny, though that's no surprise from an author as experienced as Ives. Moreover, the play-within-a-play framework is a surprisingly excellent choice, not just because of the director/actor relationship, but in the sense of the dual auditions that are occurring, to say nothing of all that glorious subtext. This is a play that really needs two evenly matched stars to provide it with bite and momentum, but on nights when those two align, I'll bet Venus in Fur is really something.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

THEATER: The Maids

Photo/Carol Rosegg
Forget Venus in Fur; the real power play is to be found in Red Bull's revival of Jean Genet's savage 1947 drama, The Maids. Claire (Jeanine Serralles) and Solange (Ana Reeder) are sisters in the employ of Madame (J. Smith-Cameron), social prisoners who give their lives meaning by acting out, each night, a spiteful exaggeration of their oblivious mistress, all so that the other sister may pretend to kill her. (Hell hath no fury like a servant scorned?) Penned in by propriety, however, they are unable to exact their true revenge, and each time it seems that they may at last free themselves -- if only in a dream -- the alarm rings, snapping them back to their grim reality.

Jesse Berger's outstanding and intimate direction emphasizes their boundaries by having the audience surround their boxed set; the floor is lushly carpeted, the pillows are plush, and yet the walls, however velvety, are pressing in. But the show's real magic comes from the illusory qualities of Serralles and Reeder, two women often on the verge of disappearing: one moment willowy, the next a fiery iron posed to strike; repressed to the point of mere furniture, dominating one another the next. These two extraordinary actresses are unafraid to plummet through despair all the way to deadly triumph. They're quite well-matched, with Serralles's swift and balletic transitions lifted up by Reeder's boisterous and deliberate sniping, though both grown even further layered when contrasted with the wondrously callous ignorance oozing out of Smith-Cameron's pores.

Berger's ultimate decision to slightly abscond from his otherwise stiflingly effective realism won't satisfy everyone, but the performances and the plights that provoke them will. Whereas other plays about hateful bosses stoop to the relief of comedic catharsis, as in this year's AssistanceThe Maids offers only one true escape: next stop, oblivion.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

THEATER: Hurt Village

I don't doubt the accuracy of the picture Katori Hall paints of the former Memphis project she's titled her play Hurt Village after. Though many of her characters come across as stereotypes, I don't believe them any less: there's a reason stereotypes exist, whether that's fair or not, and the ensemble embodies them well. But there's a reason theater is a different medium than photography or painting: it's a three-dimensional, living art form, and must do more than simply show a moment in time. It must breathe life into its characters long enough for us to care aboutthem, not just their social circumstances, otherwise it's just a rawer sort of propaganda. It's a little telling that I felt more uncomfortable at the talk-back following Hurt Village than I did during the production itself -- uncomfortable with how shocked the audience was that parts of America look and sound like this. (In that sense, however, Hurt Village is a success.)

But while Hurt Village may have achieved its goal to shock people -- a shallow goal, if you ask me (look at the difference between the gruel of Thomas Bradshaw and the manna of Young Jean Lee) -- it misses out on opportunities to nurture empathy and provoke outrage. The script jumps around far too much, settling on all of the things that it is not rather than any one thing that it is: it is nota coming-of-age story for Cookie (Joaquina Kalukango), a thirteen-year-old girl who has said fuck the village and decided to raise herself; it is not a tale of the neglected soldier Buggy (Corey Hawkins), whose dishonorable discharge after ten years of service has all but forced him to once again start dealing drugs with his buddy Cornbread (Nicholas Christopher); it is not about the inadequacies of the welfare state, in which Big Mama (Tonya Pinkins) discovers that despite the government's choice to evict her from a one-bedroom project where she works night shifts and lives with her unemployed daughter-in-law Crank (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and granddaughter Cookie, she makes roughly $400 too much to qualify for Section 8 housing, and therefore may end up on the street. There's no real resolution or development to any of these characters or situations, just an emphasis (well-enhanced by set designer David Gallo and the raw direction of Patricia McGregor) on how awful all of this is.

Yes, one of the major themes in Hurt Village is that of neglect, but did Ms. Hall truly think the best way to demonstrate this was by neglecting her own characters? To dilute her potent moments by spreading them so thin in an overreaching and overlong work? Hints of indecision are visible in the way Hall's script quits the aggressive freestyle rap rhythms of its opening and gets lost in poetic, polemic monologues; in turn, these lead to hints of falseness as the drama twists on itself: Skillet (Lloyd Watts) is all but forced to show Cookie a moment of kindness because he's the only character who can do so, and he's about to be killed; the supposed kingpin of the Hurt, Tony C (Ron Cephas Jones), makes mistake after mistake in threatening Buggy, simply because Hall wants Buggy to get close enough to choke the man. Even good moments are corrupted by their brevity: we all feel sorry for big-mouthed Ebony (Charlie Hudson, III), who vomits on stage after his involvement in a murder, but only for a moment, since we'll never see him again. The same goes for  Toyia (Saycon Sengbloh): she may have a lot on her plate, but because we so rarely see her, most of her interactions with her "ace boon coon" Crank seen to come out of nowhere. Toward the end of the play, even the director seems to be throwing things together, tossing the carefully established realism of the first two hours away in order to flush out an unnecessary dream monologue and hasty epilogue. (This is part of why I much preferred the similarly themed Milk Like Sugar.)

Hurt Village is so concerned with being demonstrative and provocative that it accomplishes less than it should -- a bit like Occupy Wall Street. Perhaps Signature finds it necessary to crank up the volume every now and then just to get through to their subscriber base (though I'd argue that Athol Fugard's Blood Knot works to far greater effect). Still, as I once wrote about Ms. Hall's Hoodoo Love, at least a searing voice is there, even if a stirring message is not.