Apr 29, 2009

What They Said

Too buried to blog much at the moment, but not too busy to check out, and recommend, two excellent and provocative discussions about new models and new play development going at Playgoer and Parabasis, respectively. More anon.

Quote for Today

If there is a Gresham's law in money, that bad money drives out good, there is not one in art or in ideas. Bad theatre does not drive out good; it ends only by exposing itself.


W. McNeil Lowry
, quoted in the thick and essential new American Theatre Reader (full disclosure, there's a piece by yours truly in it--but really, it's a must-have)

Apr 23, 2009

Greenpoint Graffito


Food criticism, racial slur, or Dada text art? Near corner of Leonard and Norman, Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Accomplice Goes West

For my birthday this year, my wife got me tickets to Accomplice: The Village, the interactive theater/mystery tour thingy. I'll never see the Village, or Sam's Falafel, the same way again. Neil Patrick Harris had a similar experience on the original Accomplice show a few years ago, only he did something about it: He got in touch with the show's creator, Tom Salamon, and now, thanks to their combined efforts, it's headed for Hollywood.

Apr 21, 2009

Short Trip


Corner of Manhattan & Norman, Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

$75K for Blogging

Really? That's more than I've ever made at any job, ever. Sign me up!

Apr 20, 2009

Blasted v. Ruined

New Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage, defending the hopeful ending of Ruined in the LA Times against critics who found it "unworthy" or jarring:
"My response?" says the playwright briskly. "They have never been to Africa. They have never spent time with these women to understand that you can be brutalized and still find a way to heal. It was very important for me to be optimistic about that and still tell the truth." Nottage pauses.

"Maybe some people wanted a 'Blasted'-type play," she says heatedly, referring to Sarah Kane's unrelentingly grim wartime drama. "But I can tell you, that woman killed herself. And that's the difference between her and me!"

Ouch.

Pronouncing "Godot"


The buzz about the new production of Waiting for Godot is good, and I look forward to seeing it next weekend. Among the things I'm wondering about, though, is how they're pronouncing the title character's name. The best productions I've seen--one at the Matrix in L.A. in 2000, and one a few years back by Dublin's Gate Theatre--honored Beckett's apparent wishes and pronounced it "GOD-oh," with the same first-accent stress as "Pozzo" and "Gogo" (indeed, this Marx Bros.-esque rhythmic affinity is the most reasonable explanation for the similar pronunciation). But, of course, popularly the play is almost invariably referred to in a faux-French pronunciation, roughly "G'Doh," to the point that I feel a little awkward pronouncing it correctly in conversation. (Try it: It sounds weird but gets better with practice.)

This is hardly the most important element of a production of this classic--and I don't even recall how the actors in this production said it--but a friend from out of town I spoke to briefly who'd seen and enjoyed the new Broadway production recently referred to it in passing in the familiar English-class way ("Waiting for G'Doh"), and I didn't get a chance to split hairs with him. I'm curious, that's all.

Joe Turner Not Going Anywhere



Ignore the few critical quibbles and rush to see it; it's almost unbearably great. It made me grasp, as possibly no other production of an August Wilson play has, the enormity of his achievement as a theatrical poet, with roughly equal weight on both the poetry and the theater.

In Joe Turner as in his entire body of work, Wilson is after nothing less than an embodiment of the African-American experience as its own self-sufficient dramatic system--as he once put it, "I don't believe there's any idea that cannot be contained by black life, or any of the full variety of human experience; I believe that world is capable of sustaining you." To get to this sense of universality--the notion that "any idea" can be found in the African-American universe--Wilson burrowed deep into his own culture in a basically essentialist, almost black-separatist project. That's why, I think, he famously rebuked color-blind casting and came close to sentimentalizing pre-integration black life, and why he never wrote a "civil rights" problem play, or a play explicitly about white vs. black and the American Dream. He was not particularly interested in ameliorative racial politics, or in the ways the black American experience resembled or differed from that of other immigrant groups to the U.S., or in the way black culture relates to the white mainstream. There is much of value to say about these things, particularly in our current historical moment; but that was not Wilson's project.

But that he succeeded so well for so long at his project of staging black life in all its depth and complication is owing not only to this cultural singlemindedness but to his unique qualities as a writer.

While we take for granted that his plays are plot-thin and language-driven and we often hear there's a "music" in his dialogue--a nicer way of saying "his characters talk a lot"--what hit me like a thunderbolt in this this exquisite new Joe Turner is the brilliant way Wilson theatricalized the African-American narrative rather than explicating it. For all that discursive dialogue, Wilson doesn't issue pronouncements; his characters may get some juicy monologues but not so they can tidily "sum up" their experience and its meaning. And while it may be relatively easy to parse the play's walking-bones vision as a metaphor of the Middle Passage (a connection made more explicit by the lesser and later play Gem of the Ocean), the hoodoo magic realism of Joe Turner and its searing, ambivalent conclusion are, blessedly, not so easy to take apart or reduce as symbols or statements. That's because, as with any powerful theatrical gesture, fully articulated in a richly imagined world, the symbols in Joe Turner don't mean something else--they signify and stand for themselves, within the context of the play; and one measure of a play's greatness is how well the play itself can stand for the world, or a world unto itself. That, in short, is what Joe Turner, like the best of Wilson, does.

Ultimately, I think this sense of the theatrical gesture as an end in itself is rooted in Wilson the poet--in the poet's sense of economy, of pith, of language working on us not as rhetoric or narrative but as ritual and rhythm--as, essentially, poetry. That's what gives the final theatrical gestures of Joe Turner their stunning power; Wilson is playing the theater the way the best poets play language, or the best musicians play their instruments, with a sense of cadence, impact, and inevitable surprise. The only other playwrights I can think of who come close to what Wilson does here are Tennessee Williams--another culturally essentialist poet mining his own sub-strata of American experience--and Conor McPherson, the latest and finest in a line of Irish playwrights doing something similar in a different context.

It's true that Wilson didn't always follow his better poetic angels in all his plays or in his pronouncements about them; particularly as his 10-volume century cycle came into focus, I think the plays themselves began to buckle slightly under the weight of their social responsibility, of signifying something other than themselves. But at his best--and Joe Turner's Come and Gone is either his best or as good as he ever was--Wilson made theater as rich and irreducibly theatrical as any that's ever been made.

Rush.

Apr 15, 2009

L.A. Envy



It doesn't help that New York seems to have misplaced spring, but this video by Clark Vogeler (h/t Andrew Sullivan), with its gorgeous time-lapse shots of Echo Park and Silverlake in particular, really makes this ex-Eastsider ache.

Retro Edition

Ralph Keyes has an amusing piece in Editor & Publisher about so-called "retro" references in journalism and how they may alienate the young and the not-tuned-in:
Retrotalk is ubiquitous among journalists of a certain age. By using it they set themselves apart from those born in the last three or four decades. On "Meet the Press," New York Times columnist David Brooks said about Hillary Clinton, “In the first debate she’s Emily Post, now she’s Howard Beale,” referring to the late etiquette maven and the angry protagonist of the 1976 movie "Network." In a recent column Brooks wrote, “And not to get Rod McKuen on you or anything …” Say what? Inquiring younger minds want to know.

As someone who discovered rich stores of culture, pop and otherwise, via references by my elders that were initially obscure to me (and as a songwriter who once used Geraldo's opening Al Capone's vault and finding it empty as a metaphor in a lyric), I heartily embrace and encourage the practice. In fact, poised as I am between the Brooks boomers and a younger crop of new journos, I sometimes find myself not quite grokking references in both directions, but that's all part of keeping up with our ever-evolving language and cultural conversation--or what David Foster Wallace called, slightly holding his nose at the clinical sound of the phrase, our "discourse community." I say, the broader and stranger, the better.

Apr 14, 2009

Kora, Kora, Kora


This guy from West Africa, who I often see on weekends at the 53rd st./Lex E/V station, is amazing. UPDATE: Best I can find, his name is Jaili Kandjia Cissoko, and someone else wrote about him here.

Mystery and Color


A little off-topic, I know, but one of the highlights of my Easter weekend was a visit to the Met's Bonnard exhibit (rush to see it; it closes Apr. 19). Like many of us, I suspect, my eyes are a little numb to the charms of early 20th-century French painters working in domestic themes, in a style that looks at first glance sorta-kinda impressionist; it's a look ruined by overexposure on a jillion prints and posters. And that was my initial reaction to this showing of Bonnard's late interiors: great, a bowl of fruit in really bright colors; nice curtains; zzzzz.

Then I caught the above painting, "The White Tablecloth," and was transfixed by the shaded figure in the bottom left of the frame, who doesn't seem to be in the same room, or even the same painting. And I started to notice a lot more of such out-of-place details, signifiers of inchoate longings and missing spaces and lost time, in all his paintings, even those that seemed simplest and most documentary ("The Cherries," for example). In the face of this yearning, uncertain, even depressive quality, which can take a second tour around the exhibit to feel, the obsessive sensual pleasure of Bonnard's extreme colors begins to acquire an emotional weight, even a drama.

I spent a lot of time with "The White Tablecloth," in short--the prints I've seen, and the reproduction above, don't begin to do justice to its curious sense of lived-in space--and got more and more stirred by it, in just the same way I'm stirred and silenced in the actual presence of any powerful piece of art that can reach across centuries and communicate with immediacy. And even if the essence of that communication is a deep, saddening ambivalence, as it seems to be here, the inherently conjoined act of communicating and receiving is heartening in itself. Not a bad reminder, at least for me, why we bother with art at all.

Apr 10, 2009

Embedded Critics

Via Playgoer, I came across this modest proposal from Douglas MacLennan:
Lots of arts organizations have blogs on their websites. Most aren't very good, and they're difficult to maintain well. There are many out-of-work critics. And less and less arts coverage in local press. So why not critics-in-residence?

...Of course there are big ethical issues. But art critics already write catalog essays for museums. Music critics write program notes. Newspapers take ads from arts organizations. Rules have been developed to define the ethics of each situation. Why couldn't there be a critic-in-residence protocol that helped promote intelligent discourse and didn't compromise the reader, the critic or the institution?

Some of my favorite people have crossed freely between making and writing about/commenting on art, and even between publicity and journalism. I mean, I guess that's a line I'm close to right now, working for TDF while hawking my wares as a freelancer. Indeed, I haven't been a full-time employee of an actual media company for nearly six years now. And though my economic situation has occasionally been better than that of many of the starving theater artists I cover, in recent years that has less frequently been the rule, and I've looked at certain nonprofit arts organizations, and the cool people who work there, with something approaching professional envy.

Of course, the ideal position for me would be some unholy hybrid of composer/music supervisor and critic/essayist. Not gonna quit the day job...

Apr 9, 2009

Usage Warriors

So, as I mentioned before, I've been pretty blown away by John McWhorter's Word on the Street, which I literally found on the street in my neighborhood. A big portion of it deals with the controversies over Black English--a fully systematic and valid dialect of English with strong antecedents in nonstandard dialects of the British Isles, as McWhorter illustrates, but not on its own a separate language. What knocked me over about his book was his matter-of-fact demolition of so many "style" shibboleths I'd taken for granted ever since I created the Back Stage West Style Guide back in 1993. How many hairs I now regret splitting, and infinitives unsplitting.

This is apparently not news to many educated folks; Isaac pointed me to an excellent essay by David Foster Wallace, "Tense Present," in which Wallace, who knew all about the inherent relativism of language standards but still had to teach English to actual young writers, strikes a delicate, well-modulated balance between the Descriptivists (who rightly point out that human languages are always and invariably evolving, to the consternation of self-appointed guardians) and the Prescriptivists (those self-appointed guardians). Wallace called for a more enlightened, self-aware, well-tempered prescriptivism--a stance in which agreed-upon rules of usage are not absolutes but merely guidelines toward the common goal of clarity and style in written communication. Wallace held up Bryan A. Garner's 1998 A Dictionary of Modern American Usage as a sneakily brilliant middle-of-the-road approach between the linguistic liberals and linguistic conservatives.

That said, can anyone tell me what's wrong with the following sentences?

Frankly, it's not fair.

Certainly, things are going to change.

Presumably, the change will be gradual.

Unfortunately, that's not fast enough for most of us.

Hopefully, it is going to change in our lifetimes.

The answer is so plunkingly obvious, I'm ashamed to say that I never thought of it (nor did anyone ever explain it to me.)

What's the Story?

I was quite disappointed with the new Broadway production of West Side Story; I will go into more detail in a published piece I'm contracted to write (ditto Exit the King, which I was in fact not disappointed by, even though its last 20 minutes paled next to my memory of the 1999 production at the Actors Gang, featuring John Reilly and the incomparable Molly Bryant). But for now I'll say a few things: I admire Lin-Manuel Miranda's deft Spanish translations--to my wife's chagrin, I can't seem to stop singing "Hoy siento tan preciosa"--but I feel that writer/director Arthur Laurents' tweaks, including the Spanglish, did nothing but emphasize how creaky the book is (has always been).

Obviously many, even most, critics don't agree. But in reading over the reviews, I came across some odd boners in John Lahr's New Yorker review. They're minor on their own, but they help illustrate some of my problems with the script. Emphases mine:
...Bernardo (George Akram), whom Tony accidentally stabs during a gang dustup...

And:
When Maria discovers her dead lover, the moment is like a punch to the heart.

As far as I could tell, that's not what's going down eight shows a week at the Palace Theater. As for the "accidentally" business--well, let's consult the stage directions for the end of the rumble:
TONY pulls RIFF off of BERNARDO. RIFF pushes TONY away and re-approaches BERNARDO, whose hand goes forward with a driving motion, running his knife into RIFF...TONY leaps forward to catch RIFF. HE breaks his fall, then takes the knife from his hand. TONY leaps at BERNARDO and rams his knife into him.

A crime of passion, certainly, but an accident? That's the way Tony seems to think of it, as he explains to Maria:
I don’t know how it went wrong. I didn’t mean to hurt him. I didn’t know I had. But Riff...Riff was like my brother. So when Bernardo killed him--...‘Nardo didn’t mean to, either. I know he didn’t! Nobody did.

Right. (Note the passive construction for Bernardo's killing Riff--his "hand goes forward"; there's no such evasion for Tony, who "rams his knife into" Bernardo.) Now, is this just romantic muddleheadedness, or is it another kind of romanticizing--mid-century liberal idealization of the ennobled, essentially guiltless underclass? In my view, West Side Story mixes both, and that pitiful self-importance is at least one problem I've always had with the show.

As for the second description, of Maria "discovering" her dead lover--well, maybe because it didn't make a punch, or even an impression, on my heart, I couldn't help but notice how contrived the following scene looked onstage:

MARIA
Tony...

TONY
Maria!

(As they run to each other, CHINO runs on and fires a gun. TONY stumbles as though he tripped. MARIA catches him and cradles him in her arms as he falls to the ground.) I didn’t believe hard enough.

MARIA
Loving is enough.

TONY
Not here.

But hey, the dancing is great.

Curmudgeon Bait


John Simon. Rock of Ages. The perfect storm:
“Rock of Ages” is innovative even for the most experienced critics: For the first time, we are asked to review Noise. Not pure noise, to be sure, but noise encroached on by a smattering of unmusical music, stultifying lyrics, banal dialogue and a story that carries triviality to new heights, or lows. It is impure noise, against which the best earplugs offer only partial relief.

Apr 8, 2009

Not the Ed Wood Version


I liked Dierdre O'Connor's new play Jailbait quite a lot--it's so much better than the film of the same title. But I was less enamored of the Cherry Pit's production. I should also note that my colleagues mostly differ.

(Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Apr 7, 2009

Offending the Audience

Garrett Eisler at Playgoer has been out front with critical coverage of the New York Theatre Workshop's contortions since the Rachel Corrie controversy--a contretemps to which the recent reading of Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children can be seen as a sort of belated response. So Garrett's long-awaited and strikingly circumspect column about it is a must-read (bottom line: he found Lisa Kron's solo rendition moving and nuanced, and above all theatrical).

I especially liked his concluding modest proposal, not only on its own terms but because it's just so quintessentially Garrett:
If I were running a theatre and Seven Jewish Children landed on my desk, I'd immediate issue commissions to 5 or 6 other playwrights I admired and tell them to write me their own 10-minute play on any subject they wish as long as it's something so unbearable that you're convinced no theatre company would ever do it. So the result would be an evening, hopefully, of the most offensive, morally troubling, personally insulting theatre around. No talkbacks, no panels. Just buy a ticket and go see what some really interesting playwrights can do when there are truly no holds barred. I think the effect of entering such an extreme "free speech zone" for a night would be as exhilerating as it would be infuriating.

And it probably would sell a lot of tickets, too.

From House to White House


This looks promising.

Reasons To Be Nervous

I haven't seen reasons to be pretty, and to be frank, as a non-fan of Neil LaBute, I probably won't be rushing to grab a seat (for the record, most critics do seem to like it). But I wish the production no ill, and found this a little chilling:
A male audience member was so incensed by actress Marin Ireland’s character, Steph, that he began verbally assaulting the actress during the performance from his seat, press representatives have confirmed...The ticketholder reportedly called Ireland a “bitch,” among other expletives, before being escorted from the theater. The incident was not part of the production.

(h/t Broadway.com)
Speaking of LaBute, I was surprised to see that one of his most vigorous cheerleaders, John Lahr, took a bye on reviewing the play, instead handing duties to his New Yorker colleague Hilton Als.

Apr 2, 2009

Walk This


Courtesy of Ian David Moss, I just discovered Walk Score, which rates relative walkability-vs.-car dependence on a citywide as well as a neighborhood level. It's imperfect, but nevertheless fascinating, since I recently figured out I've lived 11 separate places in my life.

The walkability trend for me has mostly been on the upswing, though my childhood home, in a solidly middle-class Scottsdale neighborhood, gets a 55 score ("somewhat walkable"), while the slightly more upscale Phoenix address I grew up in from sixth grade through high school, where my dad still lives, gets a measly 37 ("car dependent"). My L.A. address scores may be a little misleading, because my longtime neighborhood of Echo Park, which gets a handy 58 score, actually had fewer amenities nearby when I lived there throughout the '90s, while the last place I lived in L.A., in Los Feliz, has a surprising score of 82. I mean, I know I walked a lot when I lived there--I literally spent whole days without recourse to a car--but I thought that's just because I was a cash-poor, home-based freelancer. My current Greenpoint, Brooklyn address only fares a bit better, with a score of 86, while my current midtown workplace gets 100, and this highlights another flaw in Walk Score's admittedly flawed methodology: which neighborhoods are more pleasant to walk in.

Actually, Walk Score's list of Top 10 most walkable cities is an eye opener:
1. San Francisco
2. New York
3. Boston
4. Chicago
5. Philadelphia
6. Seattle
7. Washington, D.C.
8. Long Beach, Calif.
9. Los Angeles
10. Portland

L.A. beats Portland? News to me!

(Photo by Jean-François Lanzarone)

Favorite No-Shows

Alexis Soloski composes a wish list of infrequently performed plays she'd loved to see, including works by Hrotsvitha, Capek, Artaud, and John Ford. I recognize a few titles from years of theatergoing on the West Coast: Balzac's Mercadet, for instance, which I caught in a scintillating production by Antaeus (this is the play notable for, among other things, its climactic waiting for Godeau); Artaud's Spurt of Blood, which I saw in a gallery courtyard called ArtShare; and Everyman in the Mall, in an environmental staging by Cornerstone, which I nearly but never quite saw (and which, in an odd twist, happened to feautre Michele Mais, currently on B'way in Rock of Ages).

If I could draw up a short list of shows I'd love to see produced in New York, I'd include the razor-sharp (and remarkably relevant) Mercadet as well as Johnny Johnson, if only to hear Weill's score live; more Churchill revivals as good as last year's Top Girls, including Serious Money and Mad Forest (I have no good excuse for missing the acclaimed Matrix Theater production); Genet's The Screens (I did see Cornerstone/Peter Sellars' half-successful take, would love to see it (relatively) straight); Hansberry's Les Blancs, which I saw at Oregon Shakes many years ago and which shares some of the impulses and politics of Lynn Nottage's (superior) Ruined; the Brecht/Auden Duchess of Malfi, which had a stellar L.A. premiere and deserves further airings; the original Spring Awakening; a considered (possibly revised) revival of Zoot Suit; another production of Havel's The Memorandum (saw Jessica Kubzansky's near-definitive one); Schiller's Don Carlos (again, my interest is based on a killer production I saw in L.A., at the Evidence Room).

I'll stop here and throw it out to you, dear reader. What seldom-produced plays would you like to see?

Rocking On


Last week I caught Rock of Ages on Broadway and I had a remarkably good time--not just because the show is a savvy bit of post-boomer pandering that actually entertains, and not only because the audience of young and aging rock fans is unlike any I've seen on Broadway, or at any theater, period (with the possible exception of Hollywood's Cast Theatre in the mid-'90s), but because I realized that I have a better schlock filter than I'd expected. By which I mean: I was a precocious little fuddy-duddy back when hair metal was ascendant, and I even remember thinking about the popular music of the time, "I refuse to be nostalgic about this crap when I am/it is old." As sad as that image is--a teen anticipating future appeals to his collective '80s/'90s coming-of-age experience--I'm happy to report that I either did not or only dimly recognized at least half of Rock of Ages' disposable tunes (that said, "Oh Sherry" remains one of my favorite songs, so go figure). This realization--that I had successfully escaped a certain kind of spurious generational fellow feeling (in retrospect, I think avoiding MTV had a lot to do with it)--did not impair my relative enjoyment of what is essentially a winking oldies revue, or stop me from marvelling at the bracing novelty of audience members with punk highlights sipping Coors Tall Boys at orchestra center, or a balding bridge-and-tunnel Guido hitting on a barmaid who works the aisles during the loud numbers. What's not to like?

That's all by way of preamble to my new piece on the L.A.-based creators of the show: book writer Chris D'Arienzo, director Kristin Hanggi (of bare fame, picture above), and choreographer Kelly Devine.

The World May Not Need Another Coffee Place...


...but my neighborhood sure did.

Apr 1, 2009

Virtual Churchill


The first scene of Seven Jewish Children, XtraNormalized. (h/t Kyle)

Newspapers Must Die, Long Live Newspapers

Jack Shafer demolishes the "newspapers are essential to democracy" trope--a new favorite argument, as he points out, of some media critics who previously lamented the corporatist hegemony of old media.

The gist:
Media consolidation critics Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, who asked "Who'll Unplug the Big Media?" in The Nation a year ago, are back this week lamenting the demise of big newspaper journalism. They're calling for "tax policies, credit policies and explicit subsidies to convert the remains of old media into independent, stable institutions." I can't wait to hear the duo's pitch for a government subsidy to keep Rupert Murdoch's New York Post alive.

...I so love daily newspapers that I subscribe to four of them out of my own pocket, so please don't lump me in with the haters. But...I can imagine citizens acquiring sufficient information to vote or poke their legislators with pitchforks even if all the newspapers in the country fell into a bottomless recycling bin tomorrow.

Big media is getting unplugged, and with it a lot of smaller old-school media, as well. And, as Clay Shirky says, here comes everybody.