Feb 26, 2010

Quick Hits

Working for the Weekend

  • I enjoyed this in-depth profile of Itamar Moses.
  • Charles McNulty loved John Doyle's Caucasian Chalk Circle at ACT, which made me realize I've never seen the Brecht original staged except in adaptations, and they happened to be two of the best things I've ever seen: Mee's The Berlin Circle at the Evidence Room and Lynn Manning's Central Ave. Chalk Circle at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee Center, in Cornerstone's production.
  • LaBute's acting Sly.
  • Bob Hofler revealingly compares the penury of playwrights and book authors.
  • Renee Fleming, indie rocker?

Without a Love of My Own

I've always loved it, and I remember it being used very effectively in a scene in John Patrick Shanley's underrated film Joe Versus the Volcano, but I'd never paid close attention to Elvis Presley's gorgeous rendition of "Blue Moon," from his seminal Sun Records sessions, until I was singing along with it recently (it's on a playlist of songs called "Oliver Lullaby" to help my baby son go to sleep). Can you tell what's missing from this rendition?

It's gorgeous--that ticking guitar, the reverb, Elvis' falsetto vocalise...but there's no bridge. To remind you, I'm talking about this part:
And then there suddenly appeared before me
The only one my arms will ever hold
I heard somebody whisper, "Please adore me"
And when I looked, the moon had turned to gold
The moon never turns gold in Elvis' sad, slowly ticking, 1-6-4-5 rendition. This turns the song's title meaning on its head; if Larry Hart's lyrics use "blue moon" to signify a rare and magical evening ("once in a blue moon") in which our singer meets the love of his dreams, Elvis makes "blue moon" mean simply "sad moon." The "you" in "you saw me standing alone" is more clearly than ever the moon itself; there's no other character here, no grand entrance and no happy ending (he doesn't sing the "now I'm no longer alone" lyric, of course).

This illustrates a truism about rock or pop music vs. showtunes: that the former is often best at crystallizing a mood, a single state of mind, and the latter is a more narrative form, with a beginning, middle, and end.

Strangely enough, a show like the current Broadway hit Fela!, in which Afrobeat jams grind along one chord figure for as long as a dozen minutes at a time, illustrates a similar point about how music functions in the theater: A song can build, develop, change, even accompany story, but it's better at conveying or intensifying a feeling, an impression, than bearing a text or having to carry the narrative (in the BMI Lehman Engel workshop, it's called "singing the book"). Lest I seem to be diminishing this incantatory power, the feeling such music conveys is huge, bigger and deeper than words, an end in itself. That much should be clear from Elvis' "Blue Moon," which stands out from other renditions precisely because of the strength and clarity of feeling he gets across. That he's undistracted by the cross-purposes of a story arc seems to make all the difference (compare it, say, to the urban kitsch of his preachy "In the Ghetto").

Snow Day

Russell St., Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Feb 24, 2010

Wednesday Week

Another song reference for the title of my midweek roundup...

  • When I saw Fela! Off-Broadway, it felt like an ungaingly, overproduced Broadway tryout--its ambitions outpaced its scale. Just saw it on Broadway; it has found its scale, big-time. May it run forever.
  • As a huge fan of Greg Itzin's L.A. stage work (Kentucky Cycle, Pinter and Beckett at the Matrix), it will be gratifying to see him onstage here.
  • Buckley and Juliet?
  • Today on the American Theatre Facebook page, folks give their remedies for saying "Macbeth" in a theater. My favorite: "Kiss a stagehand. Thrice."
  • Is Fela! the most Afrocentric musical ever on Broadway, I wondered? Then I remembered Sarafina!--which, as View From the Bridge helmer Greg Mosher happens to point out in a Q&A in next month's AT, was the longest-running hit to come out of his tenure as head of Lincoln Center Theatre.
  • My future?

Feb 23, 2010

What Would Sandy Meisner Do?

I didn't really start laughing until about the 4-minute mark, and I can't help thinking how much funnier it would be with more Rainn Wilson in it. But definitely worth a look.

Feb 22, 2010

I Don't Like Mondays

Actually, I don't mind Mondays, I just needed a catchy Gen-X-y quote for this list of quick hits.

Feb 20, 2010

Who Needs Hallucinogens...

...when you've got YouTube? (Seriously, worth sticking around at least till 1:54.)

Feb 17, 2010

The Ben & Charles Show

This may be a first: The Times' two critics, in dialogue, and about topical theater, no less. This exchange stands out:
BRANTLEY Strangely, the political works that have most moved and disturbed me in recent years — and by purely theatrical means — have been British imports: Sarah Kane's brutal “Blasted,” which forced you to imagine how ordinary people could commit the atrocities that were a daily part of conflicts like the Bosnian wars, and the National Theater of Scotland’s “Black Watch,” which made you feel you had crawled into the skins of a regiment of Scottish soldiers in Iraq.

ISHERWOOD Well I have to confess a mild sense of shame that Broadway has to import a play about the Enron scandal. It’s dispiriting enough that we’re importing mediocre revivals of American musicals, for God’s sake. But the British do seem to have a more fertile — and more inventive — approach to making theater that both addresses a political or social issue and succeeds as a work of the imagination. I also thought “Blasted” and “Black Watch” were excellent. The other major example that springs to mind is Caryl Churchill — also British! — who has written all sorts of plays that speak to social, sometimes topical issues but do so in ways that ensure that the plays won’t die when interest in the subject pales.

For the record, they do go on to approve the solidly American work of Nottage and Foote.

Feb 16, 2010


The title's a reference to a long morning with the seventh-month-old, who's on something of a sleep strike, and to the in-passing nature of this update. My Google Reader has a lot of goodies today:

  • 99 points us to a theatre pros' poll rating the top 10 American plays. It's the usual Millers and Williamses, a Kushner but no Mamet, and a bracing nod for Hansberry, the only female on the list.
  • An entertaining will-it-recoup pool on the Broadway season shows the Brit imports trailing.
  • Yosi Sergant breaks his silence about the NEA conference call (h/t Createquity).
  • Isaac and Scott tangle over diversity and access.
  • Brickman and Elice give a tour of Addams and a "family without subtext."

Feb 12, 2010

Magic Vanishing Act

Last summer, after a rocky six months on the brink, San Francisco's Magic Theatre hired a new managing director, Scott Hawkins. Hawkins, a conscientious manager to a fault, soon reached a painful conclusion:
After analyzing the budget in December, I decided we could no longer afford a managing director's salary.
It's hard to argue with the guy who fires himself first.

A New Site to Bookmark

My old employers have launched a new online theater mag. Looks pretty great, I have to say. Mazel tov, Mark!

Feb 11, 2010

That's Us!

The best response to Thomas Garvey's breathtaking pronouncement, "It's no secret, after all, that minority audiences unconsciously view characters as social emblems" (a claim I haven't yet seen defended on either aesthetic or political grounds), comes from Aziz Ansari:

Feb 10, 2010

Man on the Street

"Man and Traffic Light, Snowstorm, New York City" by Ted Croner (American, 1922-2005)

from the Met's "Artwork of the Day" feed

Look Thou Character

My esteemed colleague Gus Schulenberg suggested the question for today's American Theatre Facebook update: "Playwrights, how do you come up with your characters' names?" The answers so far are intriguing; you can join the discussion here.

Feb 9, 2010

Ad Thominem

Thomas Garvey lectures us about the meaning of "ad hominem." He's pretty obviously off the mark: An attack isn't ad hominem because it pulls an irrelevant personal insult into the argument (to say someone is "pudgy and unpleasant" is hardly to the point). An attack is ad hominem when it impugns the credibility of an opponent rather than addressing the merits of their case. (The example given here is more on point: The argument switches from the subject, abortion, to the person, a priest, who is deemed, justly or not, to be not credible on the subject.) The line can get hazy in criticism and punditry, which are by their nature subjective and often impertinent. But I'd say the following examples, culled from Garvey's blog, cross the line:
[Lydia] Diamond trafficks in sanctimonious psycho-biography disguised as pedagogy, and certainly the complicated life of the heroic Harriet Jacobs deserves better than the flat proclamations she has provided here. But as the playwright is sexy and connected (friends with Peter DuBois of BU, where she teaches, and actually married to a Harvard prof), I guess we're stuck with her for the time being.

You know, I think I'll go just a little further into why I feel Ms. Diamond is such a weak playwright. It's obvious she has emotional issues that she could access as dramatic material; there's a strong vein of sexual horror running through both Harriet Jacobs and Voyeurs de Venus, for example, along with hints of intriguing obsessions with trust and power. But Ms. Diamond doesn't actually work through this material - instead she conceals it in political preaching. Yet whom is there left to convince that slavery was horrifying? Nobody I know, and certainly nobody who's going to buy a ticket to the Underground Railway Theater! And why, exactly, could the playwright not deal with her emotional material while at the same time working through the full story of Harriet Jacobs? There's really no reason, except that Diamond's not that interested in Jacobs, frankly. Indeed, her version of Harriet's story is bizarrely truncated, because when Jacobs no longer serves as a proxy for her own issues, Diamond simply drops her: The End. This is why her writing feels so dishonest - and why, btw, she makes me realize how lucky Tennessee Williams actually was (to take one example) to have been prevented from an explicit homosexual politics in his drama. He was therefore forced to grapple with the actual emotions he was feeling (albeit in a disguised heterosexual mode). Intriguingly, this deception led to honest drama rather than agitprop.

Take a breather here, if you need to. I know I did. There's more:
I'm beginning to worry these days that racism has become a kind of psychological crutch for some people. While watching the plays of Lydia R. Diamond, for instance, I've twice felt that I was listening to a profoundly neurotic personality, but one that had found a kind of camouflage for its neurosis in complaints about racism. Meanwhile the blogs 99 seats and Parabasis have morphed into an orbiting system of obsessional dialogue about race.
And in challenging playwright Julia Jordan's statements about gender bias in the theater, he writes:
I'm wondering if you're concerned about the widespread perception that your advocacy of women playwrights is also an indirect form of self-promotion. If more female playwrights reached Broadway, but you weren't one of them, would there be a new socio-economic explanation for that gap?
I happened to stumble across two more jaw-droppers while trolling (there's no other word for it, alas) for the above. Though they're not examples of ad hominem fallacies, they do seem relevant to any examination of Mr. Garvey's worldview:
It's no secret, after all, that minority audiences unconsciously view characters as social emblems - and thus a negatively-drawn female character written by a woman could stir up greater feelings of unconscious betrayal in women than in men.
Finally, to a commenter standing up for Diamond's work:
Well, to be honest, Isabella, you're quite right about me - I am, indeed, promoting a cultural hierarchy. The best plays (so far) have been by white guys, I'm afraid, and it's too bad that unfortunate historical fact troubles you for reasons unknown, but hey - that's just not my problem.

Feb 3, 2010

Quick Hits

On deadline(s), not much time, just passing through:

Feb 1, 2010

Shirley on Pasadena

A must-read from a veteran of the L.A. theater scene. Key quotes:
Many donors prefer capital campaigns because buildings have more permanence than any particular production or season - but that sense of permanence isn’t what theater is all about.
It’s one of the great paradoxes of L.A. theater that the bigger theaters feel compelled to program smaller shows for financial reasons, despite the fact that those shows are aesthetically more comfortable in smaller venues, while the smaller theaters are free to do cramped versions of bigger shows - because their actors will work almost for nothing. What’s wrong with this picture? Plenty.

Things may turn around again for the old ship of the State Theatre. Having seen many fine (and a fair number of less fine) shows there, and having staged one of Back Stage West's Garland Awards there, I have only the fondest feelings for the old place. To use the title of the best show it ever staged (in my experience), I hope it will get a chance to play on.

Above, Nikki Crawford as Lady Liv at the Pasadena Playhouse

Roadmaps and Sports

Kamal Angelo Bolden in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, by Kristoffer Diaz, at Victory Gardens Theater. Photo Credit: Liz Lauren.

I don't have any stories in the new issue of American Theatre, but it's a favorite of mine for the way its various stories resonate off each other: profiles of three great ensemble companies (Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Neo-Futurists, and Pig Iron) somehow belong in the same issue as a look at SF's sophisticated Cutting Ball Theatre, a survey of museums programming more "live art" (including some Nature Theater), and a piece on Victory Gardens' Ignition festival for young playwrights of color. There's also the script for Melissa James Gibson's This and a first-person account of an American actor, Kermit Dunkelberg, playing Milosevic in a new play--in Serbia. (Maybe because I don't have a piece in it, I've been able to step back and see it clearly as a larger text. In any case, it's a good issue.)

In particular I loved the following quotes so much they've been sitting in a draft of this post waiting to publish since I first proofread them many weeks ago. From Pig Iron's Dan Rothenberg:
Scripts are like a roadmap. You can't just wave a roadmap in the air and say, "We went somewhere." They might give you a shape of something, but not the thing itself. Theatre is not a reproducible product.
And from Nature Theater's Pavol Liska:
Ultimately, every show is the invention of a new sport, a new game...Would you rather watch an exhibition game or a real game between two really strong teams? We’re interested in real games, the Championship World Cup—two best teams up against each other.
Good, good stuff.