Feb 27, 2009

Tom Waits for No Man

A truly odd, awkward appearance on Fernwood Tonight, complete with uneasy laugh track (h/t Jimb Fisher).

Prophetic Brit(s)

A colleague just pointed out this Newsweek piece by Jeremy McCarter, which I missed at the end of last year. He makes the case for Caryl Churchill's Far Away, written in early 2001 and seen in New York in 2002 (and in a stark, effective production I saw in L.A. in 2004), as the defining work of the Bush years:
The story, like the decade, begins on a deceptively placid note. A girl named Joan tells her aunt that she can't sleep. Joan has heard shrieks, ventured outside and found people tied up in a shed. Aunt Harper assures her that her uncle is only trying to help the detainees, but the lie doesn't work. "He was hitting a man with a stick. I think the stick was metal," says Joan. "He hit one of the children." Before the brutality has been explained, Churchill skips ahead a few years. Now a young woman, Joan works in a shop designing hats so huge and ornate they'd make a pimp self-conscious. They are worn, we soon learn, by scraggly prisoners who are paraded before fashion judges on their way to execution. In the final scene, Churchill ventures even further into deadpan science fiction, as Joan and Harper discuss the shifting allegiances in a weird war that rages all around them. "The cats have come in on the side of the French," Harper reports. "The Bolivians are working with gravity," says Joan.

As McCarter notes, more than any specific parallels, it's the play's po-faced surreality that makes it feel eerily prophetic, and McCarter's comment about the Bush years, "Almost by the month, things that once seemed barely imaginable became all too real," immediately put me in mind of arguably the era's defining pop album (released on the eve of Bush's election), also courtesy of an unsentimental Brit: PJ Harvey's New York-inspired Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, with its indelible line, a mix of horror and wonder, "Things I once thought/Unbelievable/In my life/Have all taken place."

Come to think of it, that line still reverberates post-Bush, for good and ill. And I have the sinking suspicion that Far Away, alas, will always seem close to home.

Feb 24, 2009

Taste Tests

Critic-O-Meter is rocking, if I may say so myself. Shows covered just this week include include TFANA's Othello (B+), Sheila Callaghan's That Pretty Pretty; or The Rape Play (C+), Mabou Mines DollHouse (A-), Leslie Lee's The Book of Lambert (C-), Richard Foreman and John Zorn's Astronome: A Night at the Opera (A-), The Bridge Project's Winter's Tale (B+), and the Civilians This Beautiful City (B). March is going to be an even busier month, so brace yourself for midterms.

Feb 23, 2009


Over at Critic-O-Meter, early reviews for the Civilians' This Beautiful City are pretty mixed. I saw it last week myself, and pretty much loved it, but then, I have to own up to a personal bias: I'm a sucker for anything that treats religion and/or spirituality with circumspection, humor, skepticism, and wonder. Indeed, though I'm a liberal Christian myself, and I do recognize some Christian-right modalities from an evangelist-adjacent upbringing in Arizona-fried Missouri Synod Lutheranism, I'm especially drawn to what might be called the respectfully secular view--the fascinated, un-smug, clear-eyed attitude I sense in Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God; in Jona Frank's new photojournalism book about Patrick Henry College, Right (a great narrated slide show is here); in This American Life's famous "Heretics" episode (h/t Amanda). It's the kind of curious, engaged approach I watched Cornerstone Theater Company employ around L.A. in the early aughts in its ambitious Festival of Faith.

The Civilians' new show fits snugly into that genre, and if it adds little new content to the heated American debate over religious intolerance and sexual identity--the show's almost inevitable backbeat, given the political climate and the incredible windfall of the Ted Haggard scandal breaking while the Civilians were on the ground gathering material in Colorado--it nevertheless adds several indispensible voices to the chorus. And it does so in the Civilians' signature style: Anna Deavere Smith-style journo-monologues trading off seamlessly with sung soliloquys that exalt or eulogize a emotional state, a character, a tangle of themes. It's an odd, intoxicating blend, and what's quite striking is the bumpy ride it offers a New York audience: The night I saw it, laughter greeted some of the praise-worship elements, only to be silenced by the cast's earnestness; a few righteous anti-evangelical blasts delivered by Brandon Miller roused intense "right on" applause, while similar affirmations on the other side were met with either skeptical silence or titters.

But a different kind of silence, the pin-drop kind, enveloped a few sneakily moving monologues performed by Emily Ackerman: One by a confused young Christian woman with a complicated past, a huge heart, and a chilling imagination, and another by a fiercely self-possessed trannie whose yearning for God, despite what's been done to her in God's name, is palpable and undeniable. To me, this sort of multivalenced portrait is theatrical catnip--or, to keep in the spirit, theatrical manna.

R.U.R. Now (Or Have You Ever Been)

I was lucky enough to catch Mac Rogers' engaging, unapologetically genre-ific Universal Robots, inspired by Karl Capek's R.U.R., when it played at Manhattan Theatre Source a few years back. Because you can't keep a good robot down, and also because Czechs rule, it's baaa-aaack, and this spread in New York is a nice extra push.

Why People Hate Musicals

Exhibit A.
UPDATE: Shaiman chimes in.

Feb 20, 2009

Brits, Jews, Protest Art

I don't relish wading into the electrified waters of the Israel/Palestine conflict, or pronouncing on the similarly thorny issues of political art vs. agitprop. But the subject of Caryl Churchill's Gaza-incursion-inspired playlet Seven Jewish Children, and the prospect that the New York Theatre Workshop is considering staging it, has led to a lot of blogospheric chatter that I feel compelled to add to.

Starting at the end, Time Out's David Cote doesn't care much for the Churchill play, available in its entirety online, and uses this opportunity to offer a sweeping diss of the late-20th century British political theater of Pinter, Barker, Bond and (latter) Churchill, even including some plays Cote says he somewhat likes. "Often they think they’re being so shocking and complacency-shattering when in fact they’re just fuming over their own sense of powerlessness and outrage," he writes.

I share some of his misgivings, but I think David may be too sweeping here. I would make a distinction between Churchill's brief, nearly blank-verse Drunk Enough To Say I Love You and the new Seven Jewish Children on the one hand and her incisive, haunting plays, even as late as the eerily prophetic Far Away, on the other; and I would make a similar distinction between Pinter's late plays, as politically explicit as they may be, and his execrable later poems and borderline-unhinged political rants. At best, these blasts of outrage can be seen as a kind of crude protest art (what some more dismissively call "agitprop"), which is any artist's birthright and prerogative but which, thankfully in these cases, constitutes neither the foundation nor the tarnishing of a serious artist's reputation.

To move into more fraught territory, the question begged by a play titled Seven Jewish Children, in which characters without names talk in short, polyphonic bursts about how to explain Israel and its actions to their children, is: Is it anti-Semitic? I hate the way criticism of Israel routinely gets shut down by spurious charges of anti-Semitism (Yglesias is my hero on this point), but critics of Israel do themselves no favors when they themselves conflate Jewish identity with Israel's actions. I'm not a big fan of analogies because they're imprecise, but imagine if Lynn Nottage had given her Republic of Congo-set Ruined the title "Black People" or "Black Women." That would be ugly and off-point; I think Churchill's conception is similarly crude and ugly (at least in part because her title is not off-point).

Still, I'm not willing to throw the baby (bona fide plays, political and otherwise) out with the bathwater (in-the-moment protest art). In fact--to get to back to the notion of NYTW staging Seven Jewish Children--I wouldn't "throw out" the bathwater, either, just cherish it less.

UPDATE: Brit blogger Andrew Haydon has the most comprehensive non-hysterical take on what's wrong with Churchill's play (h/t Superfluities):
Like Churchill’s last play Drunk Enough To Say I Love You, the playwright’s politics are worn so baldly on the play’s sleeve, that the ersatz experimentalism of the piece’s form is lost in a mire of lecturing. We all get it. We’re not being made to work at complexity, we’re being told that something is bad. Ultimately, Seven... is a very quick theatrical trot through an opinion most of us have heard rehearsed a thousand times before. If Churchill really wanted to shake us up, she’d be putting the Israeli’s point of view. In the current climate, that really would be revolutionary.

Feb 19, 2009

A Glass Half-Empty

This just came up on my iPod the other day (yes, I've got plays on there next to the musics) and struck me with its resonance:
To begin with, I turn back time. I reverse it ... to that quaint period, the thirties, where the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down onthe fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.

And, also courtesy of the iPod, I heard these lines anew:
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'

Williams and Zimmerman: oracles for the ages.

Feb 17, 2009

What Freeman Says

In response to Isaac's thought experiment re: the "death of criticism" meme (and with reference to my response to the provocative John Lahr Q&A), Matthew Freeman has a thoughtful defense of the role of both critics and reviewers in the public discourse. Key points:
It could obviously be argued that a play is an end unto itself. That the purest way to experience a play is to sit with it, watch it, think about it, and leave it at that.

But that, thankfully, is not the way human beings have constructed their world, and not the way in which most of us process anything. In fact, art is in conversation with the world, and the world should be in conversation with art. When we get together for drinks after seeing a play and talk about its merits, we're all playing roles. Some are reviewers ("I really enjoyed that!") some are critics ("I feel like this really sticks out in this artists body of work because it touches on familiar themes...") some float in-between.

In my mind, the news media captures this spirit and puts it into a larger context. That's why I actually am very happy to see many different responses to a work. Those responses don't have to destroy or create one's own opinion, but they can augment the reason the show exists at all. We're creating work in order to inspire not only gut level responses, but complex ones, and everything in between.


Oleanna's 15-Year Journey to the Taper

And so, Mamet's controversial gender-relations scrimmage will make it to L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum after all. Not recalled, at least in this LA Times piece, is the play's rocky history with the Taper. I was around and reported it for the baby Back Stage West, and the short version is: It was announced for the Taper in late '93 or early '94, and Mamet insisted on casting Lionel Mark Smith, an African-American actor, as the entitled professor, opposite Kyra Sedgwick's naive-like-a-fox college student; the Taper's menschy-liberal AD Gordon Davidson reportedly thought that idea was wack; Mamet withdrew the play and it opened in February '94 at the 99-seat house the Tiffany, in a production directed by William H. Macy, which I pretty much hated (and which its publicist later confessed to me he found "hateful"). Now that Gordon's gone and Michael Ritchie is running the joint, Mamet will make what is, to the best of my recollection, his debut at L.A.'s most prominent theater. UPDATE: As Taidan points out in the comments below, my recollection is not so good. Still, these CTG Mamet productions are all post-Davidson. (There's a whole page about the controversy here.)

Interestingly, I caught another production of Oleanna years later at a tiny L.A. theater (with Warren Zevon's daughter in it, oddly enough) and found it...actually pretty compelling. And Pullman and Stiles is pretty good casting, I must say.

Feb 11, 2009

All-Purpose Obama Putdown

(h/t Parabasis)

Too Cheeky

As promised, your required daily dose of Sheila Callaghan (and yes, the charming illustration above is extremely relevant).

The Transit File

My hometown of Phoenix, AZ, finally has a light rail, but my dad (and probably most of my right-leaning friends from back home) seems to think of it as a subsidized luxury that won't ever pay for itself--unlike, say, the new freeways that went up after I moved away and turned the place into an even more sprawling mass?

I think I'll send him this encouraging story (h/t Yglesias).

What Was Wood Became Alive

I've long had a fascination with the Kaspar Hauser story (the Herzog movie, the Handke play, the Vega song), and years ago I happened to read a transformative book about the musical calling, Listening Out Loud, by the composer Elizabeth Swados. So I jumped at the chance to write about Swados' new music-theatre piece at the Flea, co-written with Erin Courtney, Kaspar Hauser: a foundling's opera. Quoth Swados:
"I love the sound of things...If two people are arguing on the street, I'm more interested in how they're shouting at each other than what they're saying. So it was so appealing to me to write songs for somebody who can't talk."

Both Sides Now

John Lahr conducts a fascinating Q&A with New Yorker readers--fascinating, contentious, and just a little self-serving. He begins by acknowledging his father, vaudevillean legend Bert Lahr (he taught Lahr fils "the importance of corrupting an audience with pleasure"). Then he throws down the gauntlet:
Most of the people dishing out judgment have no working experience of the theatre, have not written a professional play, a sketch, or even a joke; have never worked in a theatre, taken an acting class, or published any extended piece of work. They are creative virgins; everything they know about theatre is book-learned and second-hand.

Fair enough, as far as it goes. But the reader's sycophantic questions allow Lahr to expand on this theme past the point of reason:
There is almost no drama criticism in America—there is theatre reviewing. Part of the problem is that newspapers managed in their fantasy of objectivity—a philosophical impossibility—have institutionalized this theatrical ignorance. They insist on a sort of glass wall between the critic and the theatre world, so there can be no claim to vested interest. Therefore the critic must not fraternize, befriend, associate, collaborate or involve himself in any way with the beat he reports. This not only insults the notion of intellectual integrity, it dooms the drama critic to ignorance. His opinion may be right, he just doesn’t know why it is right.

This approach of critic-as-objective amateur also flies in the face of historical fact. On either side of the Atlantic, the important critics have been people who have working knowledge of the theatre. For instance, in the U.K., Shaw, Granville Barker, Tynan; in the U.S.: Bentley, Young Brustein, Clurman. Their criticism was always theatre-wise because it was written from inside the theatre community. The New Yorker’s drama critics have always had a comparable authority because, for the most part, the magazine made it a practice to employ critics who moonlighted in the arts. They worked both sides of the street, so to speak. Herman Mankiewicz co-wrote “Citizen Kane”; Charles Brackett wrote “Sunset Boulevard” and “Lost Weekend”; Robert Benchley acted; Dorothy Parker wrote lyrics; Tynan was the Literary Manager of London’s National Theatre and produced the theatre’s most successful revue, “Oh, Calcutta.” I was the first critic ever to win a Tony—for co-authoring “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.” Criticism is a life without risk; the critic is risking his opinion, the maker is risking his life. It’s a humbling thought but important for the critic to keep it in mind—a thought he can only know if he’s made something himself.

As a sometime theater practitioner and critic myself, I can say it's a lot more complicated than Lahr presents here (with just a touch of defensiveness). I agree with the thrust of his last thought--that a critic must keep in mind the relative lack of risk, not to mention the huge gap in effort, between his work and that of the artists he covers--but I'm not sure such a position need be the exclusive property of one who's "made something himself." Nor is a critic/practitioner guaranteed to "know why he's right" just because he's logged some time on the other side of the footlights. As in any field of endeavor, there are smart people who understand things and can explain them well, and then there are some on whom even the most life-changing experiences are useless to anyone but themselves.

I do agree that the fantasy of objectivity enforced at newspapers' theater desks (which mysteriously does not extend to their inevitably incestuous book review sections, for instance) is somewhat ludicrous. But I think Lahr is selling short the role of the aficionado, the super-informed fan who's compulsively in love with the medium--Pauline Kael is a fine example from his own magazine. I know one theater critic colleague, for example, who makes a pilgrimage to London a few times a year and has never set foot in the Tate Modern because he spends every spare afternoon and evening seeing every show he can. That kind of obsession may not automatically make a good theater critic, by any means, but there is a certain authority acquired by the critic who has trained herself to become a seasoned, and disinterested, viewer--one who sits clearly and squarely on her side of the footlights and renders her response, reckons with her feelings and with the play's meaning and context, without a personal investment colored by associations with those onstage or behind the scenes. For those who dedicate themselves to this role (and I have to admit, I've never wholeheartedly done so myself), this is a "beat" that can strike a lot deeper than Lahr is willing to admit.

Feb 6, 2009

Enter the Women

I've got a few features coming up on some Downtown shows that happen to be authored by women: Liz Swados and Erin Courtney's Kaspar Hauser: a foundling's opera at the Flea, which treats a subject that's long fascinated me, and Sheila Callaghan's That Pretty Pretty; Or, The Rape Play. Callaghan revealed that one of her inspirations was a 2005 theater preview in the Times that looked ahead with relish to a season of "men behaving badly" (it was the year of Fat Pig and Hurlyburly), a sentiment echoed in last year's season preview, also in the Times:
For as this season, amply stocked with duplicitous, deranged or deluded males, makes clear, men behaving badly may be a dispiriting spectacle in the public sphere (see Edwards, John), but it almost inevitably makes effective theater.

Inevitably? In any case, it counts as good news that Primary Stages, though not a Broadway house, has announced that its 25th season, starting this coming summer, will spotlight female playwrights: Cusi Cram, with A Lifetime Burning; Lucinda Coxon, with Happy Now? by Lucinda Coxon, and Charlayne Woodard, with Night Watcher by Charlayne Woodard. Times they are a-changin'.

LA's Next Stage

Inevitable, I guess, but a shame:
LA Stage magazine - covering the performing arts in greater Los Angeles - will become an online-only publication beginning with the next issue.

Theater lobbies and seats are one place where a print publication still makes sense, but I guess I understand the crushing economics. (Full disclosure: I've got a story in said issue.) (h/t Playgoer).

"Shiver Me Timbers"

The main target of this priceless parody of the NY Times' "Weekender" ad? Not the NY Times in particular, it seems to me, but dead-tree newspapers in general. This section in particular:
You call a 1-800 number and you get, like, a giant stack of newspapers that you'll never read.

Perfect for starting a campfire.

I use it as makeshift kitty litter.

Gallows humor, but I laughed. (h/t Gothamist).

LuPone's Last Laugh

Years ago, not long after she'd been pushed out of the Broadway run of Webber's Sunset Blvd., I saw Patti LuPone sing a benefit show, and she made a gracious, self-deprecating reference to that debacle before singing "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." So I'm not surprised at this report on how she's embracing and making of light of the Gypsy photo controversy:
A friend of mine just went on a cruise that Patti Lupone headlined in the Caribbean, just after Gypsy's closing...as a closer, she sings "...just the way you look tonight"...with a disposable camera...and takes pictures of the crowd the whole time.


David Cote takes a sincere look at the Civilians' sincere new show about American evangelicals, This Beautiful City, both in print and in video. I'm not a Christian of this particular stripe, but I'm looking forward to the show, and I'm gratified to see Cote take it seriously (this is a long way from "bad theater for stupid people").

Google Ad Watch

What's the top Google ad embedded in Charles McNulty's fine new feature on Edward Albee?
Albee Baby Carriage

Welcome To Albee Baby, The Online Destination For All Your Baby Needs

Funny, right? Then you get to this graf:
He acknowledges that the figure of a lost or stolen baby crops up with noteworthy frequency in his work.

Coincidence? Or does our greatest living playwright have some kind of strange reverse-psychology marketing deal with a purveyor of toddler trinkets? Play About the Baby, indeed.

Feb 5, 2009

Contra Electra

The opening date for the New Group's Mourning Becomes Electra is listed as Feb. 19. Today is Feb. 5. How much can change in two weeks of previews? The producers may hope for a lot of improvement, if Rocco is right; on the other hand, does this not seem a little early to issue a public slam? (Not that there isn't a precedent.)

Last month I saw a not-yet-opened production very early in previews, in preparation to do an interview with the director. I found the show to be in terrible shape--though I did not tell the director that, nor would it be cricket for me to say so here, and not only because I'm not supposed to slag folks I'm featuring; I also have some sense that two-plus weeks of previews can change a show, particularly Off-Broadway. Sure enough, in the weeks since I've heard good buzz about the very same show from people I trust.

Gary Gallery

One of my favorite shutterbugs, L.A.'s Gary Leonard, gets some well-deserved press. I can't imagine there's another gallery in the world featuring photos of both C. Everett Koop and Darby Crash, can you?

Not SNL?

This might be hilarious if it weren't apparently in earnest. I can't freaking believe someone thinks this is going to persuade Americans to support the arts. (h/t Playgoer)

How Much Would You Pay...

...to read this Time article by Walter Isaacson about how an iTunes-like "micropayment" system might save newspapers as we know them? Actually, in all seriousness, it's a pretty fresh perspective from a publishing veteran, who's able to provide a dose of fascinating backstory without getting all Andy Rooney about it:
One of history's ironies is that hypertext — an embedded Web link that refers you to another page or site — had been invented by Ted Nelson in the early 1960s with the goal of enabling micropayments for content.

Two data points stood out as potentially hopeful for me:
Thus we have a world in which phone companies have accustomed kids to paying up to 20 cents when they send a text message but it seems technologically and psychologically impossible to get people to pay 10 cents for a magazine, newspaper or newscast.

Interesting. And this, which resonates with me, as a conflicted music maker/consumer:
In addition, our two most creative digital innovators have shown that a pay-per-drink model can work when it's made easy enough: Steve Jobs got music consumers (of all people) comfortable with the concept of paying 99 cents for a tune instead of Napsterizing an entire industry, and Jeff Bezos with his Kindle showed that consumers would buy electronic versions of books, magazines and newspapers if purchases could be done simply.

It's not a panacea, and I do take Kay Steiger's salient point about the misplaced contempt for ad-supported models, but this seems like a good way forward for the journalism we've taken for granted for so long.

This Guy Rings a Bell

Very funny repurposed Onion slice over at Playgoer.

Feb 2, 2009

About Time (Out)

Amid the news that critic Elisabeth Vincentelli (her fascinating, contrarian blog is here) will leave Time Out's arts dept. to become Clive Barnes' replacement at the NY Post, this fact was unknown to me until Adam Feldman's brief tribute:
But we’re excited to see what this Corsican spark plug—who will be the first woman ever to serve as first-string critic for one of the three Manhattan dailies—can bring to the Post, whose theater coverage is currently a mix of dullish reviews and jauntily fictionalized gossip.

(Bold type mine.) I mean, I guess technically Linda Winer at Newsday doesn't count as one of the big three. If so, this is a milestone so long overdue, I'm not even sure it qualifies as a milestone. More like a shamestone—which just got rolled away.

UPDATE: As Adam fesses up in the comment below, Elisabeth is not in fact the first woman first-stringers for one of the big three--records show that Wilella Waldorf served as the first-string critic the Post in the early 1940s while the menfolk were off a-warrin'. Still, six decades is a long time between lady reviewers.