Mar 31, 2010

Good, Clean Brain-Eating Comedy Gold

One of my best friends, Doug Davis, took second prize for this Dawkins-inspired cartoon in the Center for Inquiry's Free Expression Cartoon Contest. Guess I'll have to congratulate him and pray for him.

Mar 30, 2010

Thoroughly Modern Musical

My preview of Green Day and Michael Mayer's American Idiot musical/opera/whatever is here. Shorter version: It comes as close, closer even than Tommy, as any Broadway musical has ever come to delivering on the long-unfulfilled promise of a true rock 'n' roll musical, one that both solidly rocks and makes a satisfying evening of theater; the Off-Broadway cabaret Hedwig and the Angry Inch is its only competitor. For what it's worth, I went into this story indifferent to Green Day and came out something of a fan; and while there are a few things to quibble with in Mayer's "libretto" and some of his bolder staging choices, I can report, based on a very early not-for-review performance, that this Idiot looks like a bull's-eye cast-wise, music-wise (great rockestrations by N2N's Tom Kitt), design-wise, and emotion-wise. It won't be for everyone, but it's one for the history books--a milestone for musical theater, and almost certainly a hit. UPDATE: Speaking of Hedwig...

Bulking Up, Not Paring Down

An excellent NPR piece about Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Money quote (emphasis mine):
A bump in donations, and record-high sales at the box office, meant that in the end OSF finished in the black; in fiscal year 2009, the company spent just a little less than the $26.6 million it had originally budgeted, employing more than 100 actors and 400 designers, crew and staff in the process.

That's the kind of outlay it takes to put on multiple plays, simultaneously, almost year-round, says Paul Nicholson, the theater's executive director for 30 years.

"This year we've got Pride and Prejudice, which has a cast with 19 or 20," Nicholson says. "We've got Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and that's got a cast of 13 or 14. We'll do a Shakespeare, typically, with 18 to 25 people — but we'll do four, sometimes five Shakespeares. And then beyond that you've got the other classics."

But scaling back, he says, is not an option for the OSF.

"Most theaters are having to pare down, and most are paring down on the work on stage," Nicholson says. "That's not the way to go."

Mar 29, 2010

The Theater of Protest

In his remarkably astute take on the way conservative Tea Party protesters have made themselves such easy targets, Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to the discipline and media-consciousness of the civil rights movement of the '60s:
These guys were the masters of protest as propaganda. The Montgomery bus boycott was a strategy and Rosa Parks was not some witless old lady, but a civil rights worker who'd been trained to accord herself a certain way. When Martin Luther King would be arrested he dressed a certain way, he seemed to try to convey to the cameras a kind of solemn restraint. The marches themselves were choreographed, and the strategy of nonviolence was drilled into anyone who'd protest.
It reminded me immediately of a short news piece I did for the November issue of American Theatre, about how director George C. Wolfe has been hired as Chief Creative Officer of Atlanta's Center for Civil & Human Rights, where the creator of The Colored Museum and former Public Theater impresario plans to bring a sense of immediacy and theatricality to the exhibits. As he said to me then,
I was impressed by how immaculately dressed everyone would be when they would go to a protest. It was about using the weaponry of fashion: The gloves and shoes matched when you went to sit at a lunch counter while hooligans squirted mustard on you.

Mar 26, 2010

When You Bend It, You Can't Mend It

I need to check the news more or something--I'm so mortified and ashamed that I didn't even learn that Kate McGarrigle had died (in January!) until I picked up a recent New Yorker and read about how her son Rufus Wainwright is grieving.

I don't have any great Kate McGarrigle stories--I did have the good fortune a few years back to see her join Rufus and Martha at Radio City Music Hall on her song "Talk To Me of Mendocino," and if memory serves, she and her sister Anna also joined Rufus and his opening act, Sean Lennon, on "Across the Universe," a multi-generational prayer if I ever heard one. I don't know a lot of the McGarrigle sisters' music, but what I know of it I love; I think Rufus' ode to his mother's "Beauty Mark" is the best child's song for a parent that I know of; and the brilliant, unsentimental song "Heart Like a Wheel," though in fact penned by her sister Anna, belongs forever to them both. Below, my favorite rendition of the song, by Billy Bragg (a tip of the hat to playwright Justin Tanner for introducing this version to me), following by McGarrigles' gorgeous rendition (Kate's at the piano).

Bookmark Us

We're already on Facebook and Twitter. Now my colleagues and me at Theatre Communications Group are dipping our toes into the blogosphere. As I always say, Read on, and tell us what you think.

Mar 24, 2010

Shorter Hilton Als

Suzan-Lori Parks should only write about black women.

Blogger on Fire

In case you hadn't already noticed, Playgoer has awakened from a slowish period with a series of blockbuster posts I'm personally too busy to do much more than recommend at the moment, particularly this one about theater in a mass-produced culture and this one about his area of specialty (which is we hired him to do a piece for American Theatre about it), Clifford Odets' continuing relevance. Garrett has always been a must-read, but he's stepped his game up (again) to make him a first-read.

Mar 23, 2010

Things You Can't Unsee

Patrick Borelli, author of Holy Headshot!: A Celebration of America's Undiscovered Talent, strikes again with a multimedia performance titled "You Should Judge a Book by Its Cover," on April 13 at Galapagos in Brooklyn:
[Borelli] takes thirty of the oddest book covers and tears them a new one. Joining him on stage are Dan Kennedy (author and host of Moth Story Slam), comedienne Julie Klausner and book cover designer Evan Gaffney. The show also features videos of interviews Patrick conducted with Steven Heller, Chip Kidd and Rodrigo Corral.

Mar 18, 2010

Dream-Casting the Signature Angels

I'm not sure about the Patinkin-as-Cohn idea, but Adam Feldman otherwise does a bangup job imagining his dream cast for the fall's Angels in America revival.

Quote for the Day

"I’ve yet to see anything that doesn’t work at the Pub. There are very few thought processes not improved by eating and drinking."
Oskar Eustis on The Human Scale, a solo piece about Gaza by New Yorker's Lawrence Wright (The Looming Tower), which Eustis directs at Joe's Pub this weekend

The Gender Theory of Broadway Transfers

NY Post critic Elisabeth Vincentelli adds her voice to the well-rehearsed argument about whether women playwrights have a harder time getting produced than their male counterparts. After clearing the complaints of the oft-produced Theresa Rebeck from her plate, Vincentelli puts some fresh meat on the bones of the thesis:
I think Rebeck's argument would gain credibility and traction if she questioned things like why the only show from last season's crop to transfer from off to Broadway is Geoffrey Nauffts' "Next Fall"--about gay men. Consider, after all, that several plays written by women had very healthy runs last year but didn't transfer: Melissa James Gibson's "This" and Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation" come to mind, not to mention the elephants in the room that are Gina Gionfriddo's "Becky Shaw" and Lynn Nottage's "Ruined." You might say they were too small for a Broadway house, or that their appeal is too narrow. But 1. this argument is bunk because it paints a depressing picture of Broadway as being hospitable only to British imports and big musicals (but then perhaps it is), and 2. you can easily say the same thing of "Next Fall," and there it is, at the Helen Hayes Theatre.

Bertolt & Wystan's Malfi

As the Red Bull Theatre is doing a production of Webster's Duchess of Malfi that's been getting mixed to positive reviews, I expressed here my wish that someone would revive the Brecht/Auden version that was originally commissioned for Broadway but never produced until the Theatre of NOTE did it, memorably, in L.A. in 1998 (I was there).

As if in answer to my prayer, Red Bull is generously offering a reading of the Brecht/Auden Malfi next Monday night. I'm not sure I can make it, but I can heartily recommend it, and not only to Brechtophiles.

Mar 17, 2010

Hey, Bloomberg Editors

I haven't seen Suzan-Lori Parks' new play The Book of Grace at the Public Theatre. Maybe it's as bad as your lead theater critic, John Simon, says in his review today. You might want to know two things:
1. On an episode of the TV show "Theatre Talk," Simon once dismissed Parks as a social climber for marrying a white man (I haven't seen it, and the video's not available online, but I've heard the report from a few sources).

2. The Book of Grace opens tonight, and it's pretty well-established etiquette to hold reviews, bad or good, until the morning after opening (or late on opening night at the earliest).
Just fyi.

My own feeling is, while it's nice to have a critic around who will choose the arcane word "furibund" over the careworn "furious," I would argue that in Simon's case the tradeoff just isn't worth it.

UPDATE: Time Out's review is also up early.

Mar 16, 2010

Things I Agree With

Tynan's Anger edition.

Variety Out of the Loop?

Valerie Harper's bravura turn as Tallulah in Looped opened Sunday night on Broadway; most every daily paper and/or major blog reviewer has weighed in, including The Hollywood Reporter, but as of this posting there's still no word from that other industry trade paper--you know, the one that just let its theater editor go last week. Coincidence?

Morricone on Ukulele

Ukulele Orchestra Of GB - The Good, Bad And The Ugly -
The crucial vocalizations kick in around at about 2:25.

Congratulations, You Suck!

Another rich topic on today's American Theatre Facebook page: What's the best thing to say to a friend whose show you didn't like? My favorite response so far is probably Sasha Anawalt's "You did it!" There are also a lot of variations on my own preferred feedback for a show I didn't like, which is, "I enjoyed myself" or "I had a good time" (I just omit the rest of the sentence, which would be, "I had a good time thinking about what to make for dinner tomorrow"). I used this recently, when I interviewed Catherine Zeta-Jones after catching what I considered her so-so performance in A Little Night Music, and I added another not-the-whole-truth compliment: "You were lovely in the show." I mean, she is lovely, and she's in the show.

A lot of respondents recommend one fool-proof word I only learned recently. It was during post-show handshakes at a show I'd done the music for; I didn't pick up on it at first, but when a certain colleague of mine kept repeating this one word over and over again, and offering no elaboration, I got the gist. That one deadly word? "Congratulations."

Innocent When We Dream

Lisa Kron's new The Wake sounds interesting, and ambitious--it's her play about post-9/11 America, though knowing Kron it won't be like anyone else's post-9/11 play. And I liked this response to a difficult question, in an LA Times Q&A:
In the Internet age, what makes theater still relevant?

Theater's operating principle is based on a universal human truth: All of us are completely innocent of the coming moment. No matter who you are, you don't know what's going to happen next. When we come up against that, it makes us feel alive. Accidents, sporting events, deathbeds, birth: That's when we consciously feel the stuff of life.

We like to watch characters because we get to see the way they define themselves, but also what they can't see. Theater is always about the blind spot. That's what makes it so compelling. None of us see the whole picture of ourselves.

Mar 15, 2010

Yma Dream

Yes, this was apparently the inspiration for Letterman's awkward "Uma, Oprah" joke at the Oscars. Incidentally, it also marked the beginning of the Mel Brooks/Thomas Meehan partnership; Meehan, who had originally written it as a New Yorker piece, was hired to write this version for Anne Bancroft's 1970 TV special.

Mar 11, 2010

The Bollywood Horse Slide

So wrong and so right, not necessarily in that order.

Coming To Our Consensus

Isaac and I didn't create StageGrade solely to dilute the disproportionate power of the New York Times' theater critics, but this week's openings have given a few choice illustrations of how this can work: Today, Ben Brantley gave Kander & Ebb's new musical The Scottsboro Boys arguably its worst review (I graded it as a D+), while the consensus of critics, by my lights, is closer to A-. And earlier this week, Charles Isherwood gave Irish Rep's Candida a pretty good drubbing (another D+), while our median at StageGrade puts the consensus at B+. To be fair, neither review was, strictly speaking, an outlier; both critics gave full voice to objections that were raised by some of their colleagues, even if the balance of opinion largely tilted the other way. But this seems to me a valuable corrective service.

Lest you think our efforts always result in grade inflation, check out the page for Happy Now?, of which Isherwood's Times review is among a minority of full-throated admirers. And lest you think we're picking on the Times' top two critics, consider Wilborn Hampton's outlying opinion of last year's Confidence Man. Finally, this median-grading doesn't just neutralize outlying views published by the Grey Lady: If you only read the Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout or the Voice's Michael Feingold on last year's Brief Encounter, for instance, you'd never know it landed robust raves from most critics.

You can follow StageGrade on Twitter here.

Mar 10, 2010

Rooney on His Ousting

Time Out lands an exclusive interview with Variety's last staff theater critic. Money quote:
We all have reason to be concerned about this ongoing erosion of arts coverage. In every way the critical voice is being undervalued. And if people feel they can take away editorial supervision and replace it with random freelancers filing to a copy desk where whoever happens to be there is editing that copy with no expertise and no experience in that field—you know, you start to wonder, Where is the authority in this coverage? What is there to set any paper apart as the paper of record? How is it different from people just filing random articles on blogs?
Some fascinating (and a tad prickly) responses from theater folks, who are quite used to working as freelancers, show up today at the American Theatre Facebook page.

Don't Be Alarmed by the Acting

Got a message from a colleague at work today, who let a friend of his use one of our conference rooms for an audition warm-up. To wit:
I have a friend in from LA for an audition. He is rehearsing his audition in the [conference] room for a few minutes this morning – will be out by 9am. He is auditioning for the understudy to Mark Rylance in ‘Le Bete’ and it’s pretty over the top.

Don’t be alarmed.
Consider this a versed alert.

When a Venue Closes...

...a white space opens. Via today's Thomas Cott, a new Tribeca venue called Space on White is holding a video contest to find a resident performing troupe. As posted on the NYC Performing Arts Spaces blog:
If you are an artistic, theatre, dance, music or production company looking for a rehearsal and performance "home", develop a short performance skit on video (1-4 minutes), showcasing your organization’s talents and mission while answering Space on White's prompt question: “What could you do with Space on White as your blank canvas?”
The winner gets 80 hours of free space and storage. I hardly think such a move begins to replace the soon-to-shutter Ohio, but it's a start. Info here.

Mar 9, 2010

Fairey Wishcamper

Like you, I've heard good things about Ellen Fairey's new play Graceland, coming to LCT3 in May. This article makes it sound like the opposite of a lighthearted romp, but I had to nod along with a waggish friend of mine who, when informed that Henry Wishcamper was directing (a brilliant guy who helmed one of my favorite shows ever), opined that their last names strung together sounded like the name of a particularly colorful drag queen.

How Often Do You Watch Racism?

A coworker sent along this gobsmacker. It's possible that Netflix's collaborative filtering is getting just a wee bit too granular. Happened to someone else, too.

Quote for the Day

“We are not going to give meat to an audience of vegetarians."
--Mario Quintero, lead singer/songwriter of Los Tucanes, a narcocorridos band, on why he sings songs heroizing Mexico's drug cartels (via)

Trade Nix Crix

Changing of the guard is one thing. But what does it say when they keep firing the guard and not replacing him?

Variety theater editor David Rooney assigned and published my first New York theater review a month before I moved here back in summer '05. It was a great welcome. So it's not more than just bad news for the arts and entertainment journalism racket that the trade has cut him loose as theater editor in favor of an all-freelance approach; it's a blow that hits home for me. Obviously someone will have to continue to assign and edit those reviews, and we just have to hope it's someone with a fragment of the acuity and sensitivity that Rooney brought to the job. I also hope we'll get to continue reading his work in some venue or other. He has been a consistently fine and straight-shooting critic, and he willed be missed.

Mar 7, 2010

An Unforeseen Consequence of the Newspaper's Death

Which contains this portable, and inarguable, lesson: You can't insulate your clothes with old animal bones.

Klieg Lights Keep On Burning

Allan Carr's rocky horror Oscar show--ah, the memories.

Mar 6, 2010

Here Comes the Neighborhood

I mentioned in this space how glad I was when the Brooklyn Standard opened a few blocks away. Today the same restaurateur opened a new sitdown coffee place even closer--in fact, it's the first such establishment I've ever shared a block with. If this is gentrification, I welcome it (for the moment).

Mar 5, 2010

Yes Exit

The most popular American Theatre Facebook page question yet was simply yesterday's, "Have you ever walked out of a play at intermission?" The answers ranged from a simple "Yes" to agonized narratives of remorse and fellow feeling for abandoned performers.

One striking recurring theme: More than one respondent confessed to inadvertently leaving after the first act of Waiting for Godot, not realizing there was another act. A few others, oddly enough, knowingly left at intermission of Godot. "There must be something in us that almost can't bear the repetition," offered Ross Beschler.

What piqued my interest, above all, was the divergence between those who almost found it blasphemous to ever walk out on a play, and those who'd more than made peace with the practice, and indeed insisted on the preciousness of their time. As Melissa Hurt put it: "A bad play sucks all my energy out of me!"

There's also this great anecdote from Hayley Smith Pilat:
I got really mad when Harvey Keitel & his wife [left at intermission] after I'd printed comps for them for every performance and this was the final one. Later someone told me that her water broke...doh!
And you have to appreciate the frankness of Brendan Burke's final comment:
If i can see basically where it's going and i have to meet my weed guy, i'll usually walk.

Subway Aditorial

A few that caught my eye in recent days.

Mar 3, 2010

Wed. Hot Links

Archie S. Kaufman

I actually found the first act of Race kind of awesome. I enjoyed David Mamet's presidential farce November in much the same spirit: He may no longer be the same brilliant punk who gave us Glengarry and American Buffalo, but I have to say I like having this cranky/crafty old pro around; at his best, he's like some unholy hybrid of Archie Bunker and George S. Kaufman. The first scene of Race is excruciatingly stiff and expository, but the rest of that first act sang, to my ears, and Mamet does know how to bring down a curtain.

Alas, here he's playing for bigger game, and the second act turns into a painfully awkward conservative straw-man roleplay, rehearsing all the things he's wanted to say in arguments, real or imagined, with liberals on the subject of race. And though James Spader is generally excellent throughout, during one long lecture/scene opposite the one-note Kerry Washington, Spader's slightly pudgy build, blond hair, and sing-songy sarcasm actually put me in mind of Glenn Beck.

As a side note, David Alan Grier deserves a play to himself, maybe even one by Mamet (and having seen Grier in Forum years ago, I could actually see him rocking November).

Ulimately, my final grade for Race would be close to the median here.

Mar 2, 2010

Ruby Tuesday

Mar 1, 2010

Pasadena's Second Act?

Sheldon Epps gives a guardedly optimistic interview to the LA Times' Patt Morrison about the now-shuttered Playhouse. Apart from feeling more or less reassured by Epps' tone, I liked in particular this clarifying quote, the gist of which I long ago went hoarse repeating:
MORRISON: Gloria Swanson remarked in the 1960s that L.A. is not regarded as a theater town. Could you recycle that quote today?

EPPS: What surprises me is that inaccurate perception sustains itself, year after year. It's clearly not true. I don't think Los Angeles is second to any theater city in the world. The perception remains because there is this other big industry. If somehow the film and television industry were not here, everybody would think of L.A. as a great theater city.

You can cast a play as well or better here than anyplace in the world because of that other industry. I did [August Wilson's] "Fences" here two years ago. Look who I got to be in it because they live here: Laurence [Fishburne] and Angela [Bassett].
There's also a tidbit I'd never heard before. I knew that Sheldon was a preacher's kid from South L.A., but I didn't know this:
EPPS: People think I made this up, but I actually did see my first professional production at the Pasadena Playhouse, in 1964. It was [Carson McCullers'] "The Member of the Wedding," with Ethel Waters. I fell in love with going to the theater and really discovered the power of words to tell a story in a dramatic form.
He's mum about the specific future of the Playhouse, but he seems quietly confident that there is a future there at all, which is cause for some hope.