Dec 29, 2011

Red-State Albee


A block away from my sister's house in Valparaiso, Indiana, where, alas, I'll be just through the New Year. Otherwise I'd so be there.

Dec 27, 2011

Non-Comfort Food


Econo-blogger Tyler Cowen is a truly odd duck, and as such he says some intriguing things almost as often as he says deeply strange things. His weirdly contrarian TED anti-talk about his suspicion of storytelling is a great example. (Transcript here.) A fair amount of it strikes me as rhetorical water-treading around a very basic idea with big implications—essentially, that narrative is a false comfort we can ill afford in a complex world—but this quote jumped out at me:
As a general rule, we're too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you're telling a good vs. evil story, you're basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it's, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don't have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you're lowering your IQ by ten points or more.
He's talking about Occupy Wall Street as much as he is, say, Tolkien. What's interesting to me is about the time I read this, I was making my way, at long last, through R. Crumb's amazing Book of Genesis comic (light holiday reading, you know). And though I don't want to put too fine a point on this realization or make any special claims about scripture, I was struck by how knotted and complicated the moral scheme of the Hebrew and Christian Bible really is, if you take it straight and take it (more or less) seriously. Sure, there's plenty of talk about good and evil, about faithful followers of God and covenants and those who are unlucky enough to be outside that favor, but these are outweighed by the sheer mass of story after story of complicated misalliances, misunderstandings, and half-measures.

The story of the Fall in Eden, in other words, feels much less like the Biblical template than the one that follows it immediately: that of Cain slaying Abel, then getting a more-or-less free pass to set up his family and lineage. Yes, I know, the writers take pains to show how Adam and Eve's next son, Seth, replaced Abel and sired the "good" line that would survive the Flood etc. But Cain, the repentant murderer, feels a lot more like the spiritual ancestor to the likes of Jacob, Joseph, Saul, David, and Solomon.

Reading this stuff with clear eyes, as David Plotz memorably did, might be many things—frustrating, maddening, sobering, revelatory, fascinating—but it seems to me very far from reductive or Manichean.

Dec 23, 2011

Happy Holidays


Can't explain why, but this Flanders and Swann's riff on Mozart's fourth horn concerto sounds like Christmas to me. And with that I sign off the Wicked Stage for a spell, until something stirs or strikes me.

Dec 16, 2011

The Only Hitch


These things aren't supposed to mean anything, but that Christopher Hitchens' thoroughly examined life ended on the same day as the misbegotten Iraq war for which he was the most vociferous—and, speaking for myself, most persuasive—advocate seems cruelly poetic. For it was he, more than Kenneth Pollack or Tom Friedman or Paul Berman or George Packer, who convinced me for longer than I care to admit that invading Iraq was, if never quite a wise idea, then a morally defensible one. (My shame-faced feelings about the war since have mostly closely tracked Packer's.)

It is an odd fate for Hitchens, whose overarching cause was anti-theism, to be linked forever with a disastrous invasion that has vanishingly little to do with the religious/secular battle he felt awakened to (with his famous "feeling of exhilaration") by 9/11. The best I can say in retrospect about the folly of this otherwise fiercely bright, clear-eyed man's case for war was that I, for one, never saw it as cynical or career-minded. Like his disgusting Clinton/Blumenthal betrayal years before, it was yet another sign of his thoroughgoing intellectual mischievousness and unreliability. That which made him a compelling figure also, on regular occasions, made him repulsive. As with his longtime colleague and compatriot Andrew Sullivan, you could neither really trust the man nor entirely dismiss him.

He was ultimately a kind of dead-serious literary/political entertainer, and even as I gladly wash my hands of much of what he stood for, I find myself still dazzled by his vigor and volubility. And I cherish this entirely typical quote, from the closing remarks of one of his jillion God-vs.-no-God debates, addressed in particular to young evangelicals:
For me, the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can't give way, is an offer of something not worth having. I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don't know anything like enough yet. That I haven't understood enough, that I can't know enough, that I'm always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn't have it any other way. And I urge you to look at those of you that tell you (at your age) that that you are dead until you believe as they do. (What a terrible thing to be telling to children.) And that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don't think of that as a gift, think of it as a poison chalice. Push it aside no matter how tempting it is. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way.
That's evangelism I can endorse.

Dec 14, 2011

Seconding Coates

An extraordinary post by Ta-Nehisi Coates, urging us to take account of our own ordinariness when contemplating moral quandaries, happens to include a resonant illustration from my area of consideration:
Some weeks ago I met a student who was specializing in economy and theater. She said that what she loved about both fields was that she had to presume a kind of rationality in studying her actors. She had to surrender herself--her sense of what she would like to think she would do--and think more of what she might actually do given all the perils of the character's environs. It would not be enough to consider slavery, for instance, when claiming "If I was a slave I'd rebel." One would have to consider, for instance, family left behind to bear the wrath of those one would seek to rebel against. In other words, one would have to assume that for the vast majority of slaves rebellion made no sense. And then instead of declaration ("I would do..."), one would be forced into a question ("Why wouldn't I?").
That, in a nutshell, strikes me as both a description of, and a mission statement for, an ideal social theater--one which confronts us with our humanity even, or especially, in extremity, and asks us, without the promise of easy comfort or catharsis, not only what we would do in a given situation but why we wouldn't do otherwise, or why we think we'd do much better than the characters we're invested in. That's the moral force behind the best Brecht productions I've seen, for one, but it's also not very far from the surface of any play that's moved me or gotten under my skin, from Shakespeare to Sondheim, from Albee to Nottage.

Dec 12, 2011

Leftover Quote File, Cont'd

A favorite I couldn't include in my piece on Maple and Vine, from playwright Jordan Harrison in answer to the question of when he fell in love with theater:
In third grade, I was in this musicalizaton of Johnny Apleseed—very avant-garde, I’m sure. My role was the class nerd, and I was the class nerd—but when I played the class nerd onstage, everyone who ragged on me in life was slapping me on the shoulder, as if there was something heroic about doing the same thing onstage that I did in everyday life. That was a kind of 'Huh' moment for me. That’s the beginning.

Dec 9, 2011

Leftover Quote File, Race Edition

Apropos my thoughts on Stick Fly, I recalled this (unused) quote from Lynn Nottage, from when I talked to her about By the Way, Meet Vera Stark:
One of my constant frustrations is that there aren’t more critics and writers about theater who are people of color. I feel that if a black female critic comes to Vera Stark, she’s going to have a completely different experience. At some point it really hurts my feelings and bothers me that the arbiters of taste and the gateways to the public remain by and large white men, which means that our work is not going to be 100 percent understood, because they don’t bring the whole context.
To my knowledge, in New York there's just James Hannaham at the Voice and Hilton Als at The New Yorker. Can anyone name any others? And any female writers of color? Whatever happened to Margo Jefferson?

To clarify: I don't take Lynn's quote to be an essentialist throwdown; I don't think she's saying that her work is only for black folks or that they should have exclusive authority over its interpretation. But for those voices to be entirely absent from the dialogue is self-evidently a deficit.

On a Clear Day, You Can Seethe Forever

Is the New York Post on some kind of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever jihad? First there was Riedel's vulture-circling notice, and now a preemptive slam from Jonathan Podhoretz, conservative pundit and sometime theater critic (though pointedly not the Post's actual full-time critic, Elisabeth Vincentelli). Though the show—which reimagines the quirky Burton Lane/Alan Jay Lerner musical about a shrink and reincarnation—opens Sunday night, but that didn't stop J-Pod from posting a story titled "New musical an abject failure":
Most really terrible pieces of popular culture are utterly uninteresting. On a Clear Day (which is in its last week of previews — I bought tickets at full price, so I’m violating no reviewing embargo) is both really terrible and interesting in spite of itself...When shows go as wrong as this one, everything goes wrong, and from the first minute. Watching the simpering florist flouncing limp-wristedly around the stage at the beginning serenading his flowers with the words “hey buds below, up is where to grow” might, in another context, cause ACT-UP to reconstitute itself, storm the theater and throw blood on him.
Stay classy, Post.

Mind the Soap

I don't want to rehash my thoughts from my last post, about the way I think we often condescend to our own enjoyment of plays that entertain us, but it was on my mind even moreso with Lydia Diamond's Stick Fly, which I saw a few nights ago. I'd read the play for my profile of Diamond, so nothing in its plot was a surprise, yet I still felt I didn't know where the play was going to go emotionally. I didn't warm immediately to one of the performances (Dule Hill's, if you must know); Kenny Leon's direction is oddly sloppy in a few places, as are a few of Diamond's transitions. Other than that, my playwright companion and I had a great time, and had plenty to talk about afterwards.

My favorite thing about the play, among many, is that it doesn't privilege any one character's experience over another, at least not finally; every one is revealed to be as much of a mess, and as likely to flare up into meanness or pettiness, as any other. My friend had a great analogy which I'll steal: He compared the play's game of class and racial dynamics to rock, paper, scissors. Indeed, so much is going on in any particular scene it felt almost symphonic to me, and the wrenching climax, a scene of father-daughter projection that even the characters acknowledge as a kind of high-stakes drama therapy, seemed totally apt and entirely earned.

What didn't occur to me and my companion was that any of this rich, rangy material was like a soap opera (well, no more than Other Desert Cities, which is admittedly much slicker and, to my mind, an ultimately hollow exercise). Yes, black folks in the audience respond audibly to the story's big twists and reveals; is that what has cued white critics to make Tyler Perry analogies?

I have to agree with my colleague Linda Winer that while this season has been so-so on musicals, it's new American plays that are setting the tone on Broadway (actually, her piece is a year-long wrapup, but the observation holds). Though I find The Mountaintop silly and Other Desert Cities overrated, add these two to Seminar and Stick Fly and you have a quartet of more-or-less meaty American plays worth seeing and talking about. When's the last time that was the case? UPDATE: Though I haven't yet seen them, by most accounts Chinglish and Venus in Fur would fit into this trend, as well. So make that a sextet of new non-British non-musicals on Broadwaya moment worth celebrating (and not only because not all of them will survive the year, most likely).

Dec 7, 2011

Entertainment and Its Uses


I've been wondering for a while whether StageGrade ruins my theatergoing experiences. When I saw War Horse, for instance, I had just read every review and was thus familiar with what purported wonders were in store, as well as with the lines of criticism advanced by a number of even its admirers; I found the wonders (the horse puppets) pretty wonderful but the show itself as trite and over-earnest as some critics had warned.

With Seminar, which I saw last week, I feared a similar fate. Even the good reviews, of which there were enough to give it a B+ median on StageGrade, made me fear that I would be more likely to agree with critics who found it glib, contrived, brittle. Rather than ponder too deeply what that expectation says about me, or dwell overly on the fact that I've been underwhelmed by Theresa Rebeck's work in the past, I can report that I thoroughly relished Seminar as a crisp, smart, thoughtful, and very funny piece of entertainment. Lest that sound like faint praise, it's not (or, at least, I'll get to why I don't think it should be faint praise); the play is so tightly constructed and directed, and the cast is so definitive and committed (really, no one is coasting on their type or their tricks here, least of all Alan Rickman—another unjustified fear I had going in), that it fully rewards one's attention for its 90 minutes or so, and spurs plenty of post-show buzz, conversation, and reflection, if not of the earth-shaking kind. (My wife, a fiction writer and a veteran of many writing groups and seminars, particularly enjoyed it, which strikes me as an important bona fide—she didn't even have a problem with the tendency of the characters to assess each other's writing after glancing at a mere page or two, a recurring complaint among some critics.)

But why do I feel the need to go further than to say it's entertaining and leave it at that? I agree with one of the more astute critics I read, David Barbour, that the play does have more to say than may meet the eye—for one, there's that extraordinary monologue, delivered by Alan Rickman, at maybe the two-thirds-point, which anatomizes a writer's dissipation in terms at once hilarious, acrid, and finally existential. But how much does a play that entertains us this well in the moment need to also satisfy our sense that it's also deeply valuable on some world-historical level, and/or that it will "survive" and somehow measure up beyond this production, i.e., without the first-rate cast and director it has now? (It's not unlike the dilemma I outlined in my thoughts about Jerusalem.)

It has a lot to do with what we mean when we say we're entertained—with what parts of us a play tickles, flatters, stimulates. We feel cheap if it's just pumping us for laughs, flattered if we're allowed space to think for ourselves about what we're watching, stimulated if we're surprised or teased into thinking about something more than what we're watching (other than the grocery list). But are a tickle, a tease, and a release of laughter enough?

You might call this as a tension between theater as performance and theater as literature. But if you see a play, as I do, as a kind of literary performance which, at bare minimum, must arrest our attention and hold it for the moment we spend with it, then I'd say that what Seminar accomplishes is enough—enough to be called a good play that's worth your time. Whether it's great in that larger, lasting sense, I can't be absolutely sure. (Can anyone? Though my hunch, and this surprises even me, is that it might be—that its insights about aspiration, literary and otherwise, about gender relations, ambition, and the perils of sensitivity, may speak to us in interesting ways in, say, 50 years.) For now, I honestly don't think that judgment needs to be called; what I do think is that Rebeck and co. are offering a first-class literary performance at the Golden Theatre that is worth catching while it's there.

Stick Fly's Slow Build


Kendrick Brown and Estella Henderson in the Houston's Ensemble Theatre production of Stick Fly (photo by Nathan Lindstrom for the Houston Chronicle)

I've seen Lydia Diamond around TCG over the past few years (she's on the board), and she led a great breakout at the conference in Chicago last year, but I hadn't met her till I sat down with her recently to talk about the long-overdue arrival of her play Stick Fly on Broadway for this Time Out piece.

Like Diamond, who's had just one previous New York production, the play's reputation precedes it, as I noted before; in researching the piece, I counted as many as eight professional productions at theaters small and large, black-identified and otherwise, since it debuted in 2005 (here's its original Time Out Chicago review, a mixed-positive notice). That production history is roughly the reverse of many new plays, which seem to need Broadway to give its validating stamp before regionals will look at them; Stick Fly's slow build may be a heartening sign that that tendency is weakening (another sign would be this), though now the next question is: If Stick Fly is a success on Broadway, will that lead to still more regional runs?

Dec 6, 2011

A Gallant Nod to the Gauls

Anthony Lane's pans can be a joy to read, though I think they leave him open to the common charge of shallowness and snark. I much prefer his raves and appreciations, because they require him to apply his formidable linguistic and descriptive skills to the film or artist at hand in a way his pans don't; I suppose one could argue that, from his point of view, the films and artists he dislikes are less worthy of his consideration, and so why not make the review more about his performance than about the work he surveys? (Off the top of my head, I recall relishing this review and this one, which my wife has actually used in an NYU writing class.)

And catching up with recent New Yorkers, I came across Lane's rave for Michel Hazanavicius' new black-and-white silent film, The Artist. Not only are the film's cinematic allusions in expert hands with Lane, whom I once heard deliver a delicious if supererogative encomium to Ava Gardner, but I was extra-gratified to find, at the end of his review, a spot-on summary of a national trait I've come to admire myself, and in a people not typically lauded by those of Lane's own sceptered isle:
What Hazanavicius has wrought is damnably clever, but not cute; less like an arch conceit and more like the needle-sharp recollection of a dream. It is, above all, a Gallic specialty—the intellectual caprice that applies a surprising emotional jolt.
And almost as quickly as I could think, "Ravel!", Lane goes there:
One finds the same mixture in Cocteau’s Orphée, which transmitted Greek myths as if in a live broadcast, and in Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” which sought not so much to mimic Baroque musical form as to uncover a vitalizing force within the act of homage. When challenged over the seeming levity of the piece, Ravel replied, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence,” and that will stand as a motto for The Artist—a spry monochrome comedy that is tinted with regret for the rackety noise and color, as far as we can hope to imagine them, of lost time. Make way for the old!
Guess I have to try to see that movie, but more important for the moment is to celebrate what criticism passes by.

Quote for the Day

"Physical presence, the sound of a voice, gestures, the way people sit or walk can be more telling than writing. It is easier to tell a lie in writing because one can hide behind prose. Gestures and the sound of a voice cannot be manipulated as easily as language, unless you are a carefully coached politician using rehearsed, coded gestures. But even then, nobody who watches and listens carefully will be duped. Images have an immediacy, and they can unveil secrets."
-Filmmaker Theo Roos, from an interview (PDF) in the fall Kurt Weill newsletter

Dec 2, 2011

TGIF Links

Quickly as I can:
  • I'm as relieved as anyone about this news, though I've always thought Diamond Dogs would make a good musical.
  • This is worth a whole post but for now I just have to say that I didn't find a chance to see The Blue Flower, but a colleague sent me a CD and I love the music. Shades of Flaherty, Weill, One Ring Zero, Little Jack Melody, late Leonard Cohen, even R.E.M.
  • Great profile of a singular theater artist.
  • John Moore, the Denver Post critic David Cote profiled so memorably just last month, is taking a buyout. Typical newspaper cutbacks? Maybe, but it's more interesting than that. Trust me.
  • Jeffrey Hatcher is "up-and-coming"?
  • Gotta love the specificity of this site.

Jesus, etc.


My review of the new Godspell is up at America, the Catholic weekly:
If you couple the atmosphere of communal expectation this 40-year-old show stirs in its fans with the fact that the show itself is designed as little more than a receptacle for those good vibes (you might even call it a kind of communion), it is easy to understand the strategy of the new revival, directed by Daniel Goldstein. It wants to tickle us where we live by liberally adding topical references (Steve Jobs, Lindsay Lohan, Heidi Klum) and audience interaction, as well as by amping up the musical arrangements to embrace disco, prog-rock, metal, hip-hop and “Glee”-style vocalizing. The approach smacks of an over-eager youth pastor straining to be hip for an audience of skeptical, ADD-addled kids. The uncharitable term for this would be “pandering,” though St. Paul might endorse it as a case of being all things to all people.
And that's the nice stuff I have to say.

Bbonus: I end up nodding to an actually spiritually enriching play currently running on the other side of 7th Avenue, Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet.

Dec 1, 2011

Lights, Magic, Opening


The December issue of American Theatre is out today, with two great main features: One is by David Barbour, editor in chief of Lighting & Sound America (and one of favorite critics over at StageGrade), on the use (and abuse) of projections in the theater. Fans of Wendall K. Harrington, read up on this surprisingly old theatrical technique here.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area's own performing arts polymath, Chloe Veltman, contributes a fascinating piece on the way magic takes advantage of theater techniques, and vice versa, which contains this odd, almost Onion-worthy story:
[Ryan] Majestic has become so disenchanted with magicians' current love affair with the theatre that he tries to remove the trappings of stage performance from his work whenever possible–including, curiously, the audience. Every night for nearly two weeks in April 2010, the magician broke into an abandoned house in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles late at night to perform his act. Majestic deliberately didn't tell anyone about his activities. "I did the show at midnight each night regardless of whether anyone walked in or not," Majestic says. "I hoped that if someone did come by, it would be a truly organic moment rather than feel fake, like a theatre performance."
Now that's commitment.

I've also got a few pieces in the issue: an extended conversation with the McCarter Theatre's Emily Mann and Victory Gardens' Chay Yew about being playwrights who run theaters (aren't many of those), and a Strategies column on a pet topic of mine: theaters that provide childcare for financially strapped parents like myself.

Fave quote from the Yew/Mann dialogue, by the way: "I see running a theatre as if you’re directing a play that never opens." Funny, I often feel that way about working at a theater magazine, even on publication day.

Nov 23, 2011

Holiday Reading


It has arrived. Have a great Turkey Day, dear readers!

Stepping Up With a Throwback


New Yorker illustration by Pascal Blanchet

I was one of the few critics who unreservedly loved Jordan Harrison's last play at Playwrights Horizons, Doris to Darlene, a Cautionary Valentine. But Maple and Vine, which I saw at Humana in April, felt like a breakthrough work for the 34-year-old playwright.

In researching and talking to him and his collaborators for this Times piece, in anticipation of the play's current Playwrights production, I discovered at least one reason why this play feels like a departure: It began its life as a Civilians project by director Anne Kauffman, and still contains germs of interviews the troupe conducted with real-life off-the-gridders, which gave Harrison his premise (a contemporary couple flees their rootless, neurotic contemporary lives to join a community of 1950s reenactors).

The combination of Harrison's seriously fanciful imagination, which earns him frequent comparison to Sarah Ruhl (he did also study at Brown with Paula Vogel), with the bracing, too-odd-to-be-fictional documentary material may partly explain Maple's exceptional richness and ambivalence. It could also be that Harrison has simply grown into a major playwright. Whatever the case, I can't wait to see the New York cast dig into this (though I'm quite delighted that Kauffman kept the inimitable Jeanine Serralles, one of only two holdovers from the Louisville cast, as the play's mesmerizing and forbidding authenticity enforcer).

Nov 22, 2011

Jung, Freud, and Spielrein, Take Two


Sam Robards as Jung, Harris Yulin as Freud in the Taper production of The Talking Cure

Sounds like Christopher Hampton's script for A Dangerous Method is an improvement over the original play on which it's based, The Talking Cure, which I reviewed in the LA Times in 2004:
Whatever their quirks or blind spots, surely the fathers of psychoanalysis were at least interesting company. But somehow Hampton has managed to drain the fraught relationship of two fascinating men of all vital signs.

Intellectual vigor, competitive spark, anxiety of influence -- all are missing in action from this lifeless tintype.
But A.O. Scott calls the new film "intellectually thrilling", and he doesn't seem to be alone. It could be that Cronenberg as director made the difference, or perhaps the medium. Or maybe it was the spanking scenes.

Re-Breaking News

At American Theatre, we often write about artists and plays before they reach the wider consciousness, or at least the stage of a major media town. When I was researching Tracy Letts last year, for instance, for a piece about August: Osage County in Oregon Shakes' Illuminations, I discovered that American Theatre profiled him and the play when it premiered at Steppenwolf back in 2007, which means we didn't cover that play's subsequent meteoric ascent in our pages, except to note the prizes it went on to win. It's one reason American Theatre is such a hard pitch for freelancers: If you're not plugged into the whole regional scene (and/or you don't read the magazine religiously), you're less likely to know which emerging writers we've already written about before their big national splash. Want to write about that hot new playwright at Humana or Steppenwolf? Better make sure we didn't already go there.

It's a modest example, but last May I wrote about Holland Taylor's one-woman show as late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, which she had the Lone Star State-sized cojones to debut in Galveston under the title Money, Marbles, and Chalk. It's now on a big stage in Chicago under the name Ann. So I thought, stealing a favorite trick from Fresh Air's Terry Gross, who deftly repurposes her interviews when someone she talked to years ago is in the news again, we could post the news piece (which never appeared online till now) as a reminder that the magazine is on the case.

Nov 18, 2011

Some Splaining To Do


In my inbox this morning, this news stuck out:
Steppenwolf Theatre said Wednesday that the actress Julianna Margulies will be the guest of honor of its annual Women in the Arts fundraising luncheon.

The star of "The Good Wife" (a CBS drama set, but not filmed, in Chicago) will be interviewed by Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey about her career. The event is slated for March 12 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph St.
Margulies is certainly worth honoring, but I have to wonder if this is all an elaborate ruse to get her in the room and ask her to account for this major Good Wife fail, from last October:
The first scene of Tuesday's episode, penned by Robert and Michelle King, was set at a fundraiser in a hotel ballroom. "And now as dinner is served," says the hostess, "Steppenwolf Theatre will entertain us with scenes from their hit play, 'The Cow With No Country.'"

Yeah, that's credible. Steppenwolf does bits of its shows in hotel ballrooms all the time. Just as the beef is served.

And with that introduction, a motley and pathetic little group of ragamuffin actors popped out, replete with their crude puppet-cow and all, and do some kind of whacked-out performance that lands somewhere between moronic Medieval drama, pantomime, Bertolt Brecht, "War Horse" and "Jack and the Beanstalk."

English accents and all. We kid you not. What has that got to do with Steppenwolf?

The Midwestern rubes were putting on a show. The fictional politicos snicker at the childishness of it all.
The obvious next move would be for members of Steppenwolf to playfully invade the Women in the Arts luncheon with a scene from The Cow With No Country. All in good fun, of course.

Nov 11, 2011

Friday Links

Buried under another deadline avalanche, so here are some stray links:

Nov 8, 2011

From the Leftover Quote File

On musical theater writing, from my February feature on multifacted playwright Laura Eason:
I once got this incredibly sweet email from Charles Strouse; he saw an adaptation of mine at 59E59 a couple of years ago, and completely out of the blue wrote me an email saying how much he enjoyed it, and I thought, Wow, that’s amazing. So I wrote him when I was trying to work on [some] musicals, "What is your advice about process?" And he said, "The advice is that there’s no process, and it really has to be dictated by who you’re in the room with, and what the material is, and what works for you is what you should do. How you’re going to use the music, how it’s going to function in relation to the book, and then once you know that, trying to execute it well."

Sarah, Seth, Dulcinea


I'm not a big Sarah Silverman fan, but this is good stuff. It's clear she'll make a great Joanne in Company one day.

Nov 7, 2011

Late Nite Links

Big and Small


Maybe I over-research as a reporter, but I almost always end up with a lot, lot more material than I can put into any given story. Case in point, my preview piece on the L.A. run of Bring It On: The Musical, for which I interviewed director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, songwriters Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tom Kitt and Amanda Green, book writer Jeff Whitty, lead perfomers Taylor Louderman and Adrienne Warren, cheer director Jessica Colombo, and CTG honcho Michael Ritchie. Not only did I not get to include quotes from all of the above about the show, which will tour 12 cities over the next six months with Broadway as an unspoken but assumed end goal; I didn't even get to include some of the choicest material from Blankenbuehler and Miranda, the latter of whom is a freakin' quote machine (I made the mistake of following the In the Heights creator on Twitter for about one minute, until he threatened to take over my Twitter feed). Probably my favorite unused quote from Blakenbuehler, who's really the driving force behind the Bring It On musical, is his case for the theatricality of hip-hop dance:
The kind of hip-hop [dance] I like really caters to storytelling, much better than if I was in a swing vocabulary or a Charleston. A lot of where hip-hop comes from is backing up artists, so the [physical] vocabulary is almost like pantomime. When I started In the Heights, I started off almost putting pantomime, like sign-language pantomime to the lyric, and then broadening it into a dance step. So [in the Bring It On number "Do Your Own Thing"], her lyric is, "Somebody took my life and pressed restart," so literally when I started choreographing, it was like, I press a restart button, and then how does that turn into a dance step? That's sort of how I function, because I'm not a hip-hop choreographer.
And from Miranda, on pop-culture references in his lyrics:
With Heights, I felt an enormous responsibility, like, We're doing hip-hop for an audience that does not necessarily listen to it, we need to make them feel very taken care of. That's why in the opening number there's a Cole Porter reference and a Duke Ellington reference, literally so a Broadway audience would say, "I know those people, I like this"...

When I'm writing for the theatre, I have a gut-check: If I'm making a pop-culture reference, I need to feel like it will make sense 100 years from now. So I'll reference Frodo, who is gonna outlive us all, and there's a rap about Michael Jordan, who I feel like we will still be talking about in 100 years. So I really try not to make the reference to whatever pop artist is on the radio right now, because they might not even be around in six months.
Along those lines, Whitty, who I didn't find room to quote in the story at all, confessed that he'd learned his lesson from Avenue Q's various updating issues (the George W. Bush reference, the inclusion of Gary Coleman as a character):
I don’t want this show to date quickly...so I tried to invent a language that isn’t full of texting lingo. But there is a callout at the very end to Mrs. Garret and Facts of Life. She’s timeless. And I know that Charlotte Rae is coming to the opening.
In an entirely different vein, I write in this month's American Theatre about a trend that seems to be long overdue: large resident theaters producing/presenting the work of small theaters from their own hometown. It's something that seemed like a no-brainer when I was covering L.A. theater, large and small, and seeing a lot of effort duplicated and audiences dispersed. We hear lots of talk about theater bridging cultural and generational divides; it's good to see cases of it bridging aesthetic and institutional divides, as well.

Nov 2, 2011

Gil Cates, True Believer

I didn't know Gil Cates personally—I think I must have met him at least once during my time on the L.A. theater scene, and one of Back Stage West's best Garland awards shows (hosted by Chris Wells, with performances from Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, Reefer Madness, Pacific Overtures, the presence of Carol Burnett) did take place at his lovely Westwood theater.

But Cates did loom over the L.A. theater scene in the best possible way, and what was especially striking about him was that he was the only theater leader in that "industry town" who kept his feet firmly in the worlds of both stage and screen, and who indeed saw no meaningful distinction between them. It's something that even we who valorized the anomalous practice of that ancient lively art in La La Land occasionally lost sight of, even waxed bitter about—I'm certainly not the only L.A. theater lover who occasionally imagined what the quality of the city's stage offerings might be if the 800-pound gorilla of the movie biz wasn't there to suck up all the cultural and aspirational oxygen. Of course, that's a silly daydream—without the magnet of film/TV, L.A. wouldn't be L.A., and the vast talent pool that happens to create much of the great theater there would largely evaporate, or find other lines of work.

Anyone who tries to square that circle—to imagine those two worlds together, to get them speaking to each other, even collaborating—is in for a lot of frustration and heartbreak (as I never tire of saying, there's a good reason I decamped for New York). But Cates' exemplary career clearly shows he was a tireless optimist, a true believer, as well as practical problem-solver. L.A. has no shortage of true believers in its dream factory, and despite the odds it has an encouraging number of adherents to the impractical, underrecognized cause of L.A. theater, but (with the possible exception of Joe Stern) no one embraced and celebrated both of them as fully and effectively Gil Cates did. He will be missed, indeed, but that's what I'll miss him for most.

For a more personal, and surprisingly moving, tribute, you couldn't do better than Charles McNulty's in the Los Angeles Times.

Oct 28, 2011

TGIF Hot Links

Oct 27, 2011

For the Hunka Family

Schoenberg + Teletubbies = early Halloween fear candy. (via Daniel Capo on Vimeo.)

Oct 26, 2011

More Cote

Did you miss his readings-and-chat evening with Young Jean Lee, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and David Adjmi? Good news, it's all here.

The Dirty Dozen


The above was our half-joking working title at American Theatre for this great new feature by David Cote, which surveys 12 of the nation's most influential theater critics about the state of the arts, and the state of arts coverage, in their respective markets. It's an excellent national panorama, and inspires something like cautious hope for the form. I liked in particular the profile of John Moore, critic for the Denver Post:
Moore's statewide beat sends him tooling for hours over mountain roads in his 2004 Subaru Forester. "I'm putting a lot of miles on my car," he says with a laugh. "But we think it's important to focus not just on the metro area. Outside of Denver, you've got Theatre Aspen and the Creede Repertory Theatre, which was started by Mandy Patinkin, but it's 250 miles from Denver."

..."These mountain-town theatres don't just add to the economy. Some actually drive the economies. Mineral County has only 450 residents and Creede Rep is one of its largest employers. It draws audiences from all over Colorado, New Mexico and Dallas. They get 20,000 people to see seven or eight shows in rep in a tiny town. And they don't just do light summer fare. This past summer, Creede did The Road to Mecca. It's, like, great theatre in the strangest places."
That's always American Theatre's beat.

Wednesday Hot Links


Quote for the Day

"If a reviewer should deem a production a failure, so be it. But at least start from the presumption of purpose; discuss the ideas. And this has been the revelation for me, as a relative luddite, from this small fuss. There is now more insight to be had, in aggregate, from Twitter than from our print media; and indisputably more depth to be found in blogs written from passion, and in reflection. It is a small cultural revolution and – like all revolutions – it looks like a good thing. For now."
-Playwright/director Anthony Nielson, whose RSC production of Marat/Sade is prompting patron walkouts

Oct 25, 2011

The Puppet People Are Back


A few years back I had the privilege of interviewing Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff, the husband-and-wife team who constitute the puppet company Phantom Limb. Quite apart from the joys of discovering their meticulous work was the pleasure of meeting them, or more precisely, meeting them in their amazing habitat. As I wrote then,
To visit the vividly antiquarian 15th-floor loft apartment in TriBeCa [Sanko] shares with his wife, Jessica Grindstaff, or just to witness this couple's beguiling notion of street clothes, is to recognize them as born show people -- post-punk heirs to purveyors of raree shows and wunderkammers.

"When I met Erik about 12 years ago, we started going to antique and oddity stores and realized we were into the same odd stuff -- taxidermied things," said composer Danny Elfman, who co-wrote the sparkling score for "The Fortune Teller"..."I always considered myself a 19th century man living in the 20th century. Erik is that, but even more so -- he's from some other place in the space-time continuum."
The same might be said of his wife, who designs a line of prize ribbons among other things. I also managed to slip into that story a mention of the one object in their apartment that transfixed me the most:
Behind [Sanko] sat a metal globe scrubbed of text.
My wife to this day rolls her eyes a bit when I start to go on about the magical "puppet people" and that text-less globe (and more to the point, how I might get my hands on one). So I was delighted to get another chance to visit with them about their new show, 69° S., inspired by the 1914 Antarctican voyage of Sir Ernest Shackleton, which plays at BAM Nov. 2-5 (after a preview run in Burlington, VT, pictured above). My piece for Time Out is here.

And this time, I found out more about that globe: It's a Geppert military globe from the 1940s, apparently used at sea; its metal surface would allow the captain or whoever to put little magnetized pins on it. Sanko and Grindstaff didn't fork over for this expensive antique, though; I'm told that his brother found it in the street. That kind of thing only happens to the right people.

Waits Breaks Loose


"I’m always looking for sounds that are pleasing at the time. The sound of a helicopter is really annoying until you’re drowning, and it’s there to rescue you. Then it sounds like music."
-Tom Waits, in Sasha Frere Jones' New Yorker review/feature
crossposted at Train My Ear

Like Randy Newman, Tom Waits already sounded like an old man on his first record, so it shouldn't be a surprise that both artists are still going great guns. And while Waits' new record Bad as Me sounds more or less like what you'd expect from him—the carnival-barker-bluesman-in-a-barn shtick—the record's penultimate track, "Hell Broke Luce," is a shattering breakthrough. On 12th listen, give or take, I'm prepared to say that this howl of PTSD rage ranks as one of the five or 10 best things he's ever done, and in a sense it's the work that his entire career has built up to.

What do I mean? While Waits has expressed anger and vitriol before, there's often been a comforting theatricality about it, a once-removed wink that lets us off the hook a little bit, puts a little literary distance between his howling and yowling and the realm of authentic pain and suffering. When he's barked "God's Away on Business" or "Misery Is the River of the World," he's done it with an emcee's leer; you can see the crumpled top hat and gold-toothed grin; even the harrowing "Murder in the Red Barn" has a camp Guignol affect about it. When Waits has poured real ache or outrage in his songs, it's been in quieter songs like "Georgia Lee" ("Why wasn't God watching? Why wasn't God listening? Why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee") or the uncharacteristically topical panorama "Road to Peace."

"Hell Broke Luce" is something else altogether: Its anger and confusion and nastiness is immersive and immediate. It's the first time, it seems to me, that Waits has used all that trademark clatter and atmosphere—the handclaps and stomps and echoes, and in this case, gunfire and what sound like ululuations—to put us viscerally into a scene rather than to powerfully suggest a mood ("Clap Hands," most of Swordfishtrombones) or, if he's telling a more conventional story ("Franks Wild Years," "What's He Building in There"), to put us in the presence of a narrator, a raconteur. There's no such distancing screen here, or if there is, it's fused to the narrator's own dissociative disorder. His name seems to be, or used to be, Geoff, an Iraq war veteran who's seem some fucked-up shit that's still rattling around his brainpan. And I do mean rattling—the phrasing and form of this song, though artfully controlled (check out the "Taps" moment at 1:52), is as disorienting as its noisescape. I swear here advisedly, too, just as Waits does in the song: The man's language, for all its pungency and ugliness, has very seldom been outright profane, so it's arresting to hear him simply declare within three lines, "That big fuckin' bomb made me deaf."

If you've ever glibly joked that Tom Waits sounds like a crazed homeless person screaming at you on the train, this song will straighten that grin right out; this doesn't sound like play-acting anymore. Just as he's spent the better part of his career honing his skills creating bang-on-a-can soundscapes, I think that Waits has had to go through a whole career of playing the addled and dispossessed, of trying on the hobo's clothes, to earn the right to be inside Geoff's skin. He's definitely crawled into it, and damned if this song won't crawl under yours, too.

Indeed, it's interesting that Frere-Jones' New Yorker piece pegs another song on the record, "Talking at the Same Time," as sounding like an outtake from Threepenny Opera, when it's "Hell Broke Luce" that is clearly a "Kanonen-Song" for the age of IEDs and scrap-metal Humvees. Waits practically quotes the Brecht/Weill tune's catalogue of casualties:
Kelly Presutto got his thumbs blown off
Sergio’s developing a real bad cough
"Real bad cough" might double as a description of Waits' voice. He's never used it with such lethal purpose before.

Oct 24, 2011

Speak Softly and Advocate for the Arts

Margy Waller* has a blockbuster post today at Createquity proposing that arts funding advocates stop shouting and e-blasting, and instead start doing business the way every other major industry lobby does: Quietly work behind the scenes with lawmakers and stakeholders to change minds and line up commitments. As Waller puts it succinctly: "Is our advocacy goal a widely seen news piece outlining all sides of the issue? Or, do we want a successful budget outcome? I think it’s the latter." She quotes Donna Collins, executive director of Ohio Citizens for the Arts, which successfully led an effort to increase Ohio's arts budget:
“We didn’t want to be in the headlines,” she said. “We didn’t want to see masses of people on the statehouse lawn with signs about funding the arts. We wanted people on message, talking with their own elected officials at home, as well as in Columbus. Our advocates, from the smallest rural community to the large urban centers, all had compelling stories about the positive impact of the arts.”
Waller does acknowledge the counter-example of Kansas, where the Governor started the fight against arts funding, and that that kind of action requires a defensive response.

Indeed, I'd argue that the reflexive stance a lot of arts advocates, which is to man the barricades and speak out despite the diminishing returns, was learned during the "culture wars" of the 1980s and '90s, when it was the Republican right, not the arts lobby itself, that was using the arts as a political football. The culture wars arguably have moved on (in large part because arts funding has essentially been decimated), and Waller's post makes a compelling case that we should unlearn those defensive reflexes. While it's true that arts funding, like funding for PBS and NPR, remains an easy target for conservatives in budget-conscious times, the last thing supporters of public arts funding should be doing is setting up the target for them. If every lobby that receives government subsidies thrust itself into the media spotlight with every budget cycle—well, some would argue we'd have a much more transparent democracy. But with a playing field so slanted toward ginormous industry lobbies and their constituencies, it's only fair for arts advocates to get their relatively infinitesimal piece of the pie via the same process.

*This post has been corrected; it initially credited Ian David Moss with authorship of the Createquity post.

Oct 21, 2011

Daisey and His Critics, Round II

You'd expect that Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs would be controversial for its entirely coincidental timing (in the works for some while, the show had been performed all over the country before arriving at the Public Theater and starting previews the week Jobs' death on Oct. 5) and for its singling out of Apple, and Jobs, as a particularly high-profile exploiter of cheap, immiserated Chinese labor.

But an arguably larger meta-controversy has broken out, partly via Scott Brown's review in New York, and via Jeremy Barker's review-of-the-reviews at Culturebot (he hasn't seen the show and in fact actively plans to not see it). The argument boils down to this, from Brown:
What Daisey doesn’t address, strangely, is the level of comfort with this situation all of us dead-eyed Apple acolytes have developed. He seems to assume no one he’s addressing has ever considered the dubious origins of the products they rely on or the vitrine sheen of injustice that coats just about every manufactured item priced within reach of the average mortal. And in doing so, he actually lets us — and himself — off the hook...

How disappointing. For a good stretch of his highly engrossing show, Daisey’s on track to leave us with a truly distressing idea: that we’ve adjusted to injustice. That, in a world of metastatic injustice, we’ve simply chosen the best-designed injustice out there, the commodity whose brand feels most consistent with how we’d like to see ourselves. That everyone in this theater, including Daisey, will exit the room and immediately fire up a product assembled by hand, by another human being, possibly a very young human being, who’s likely in a state of profound mental and physical distress, thanks to barbarically intense work shifts. Instead, we’re treated to yet another one-button solution: You’ve seen my show, so feel good about yourself.
Barker seconds Brown and goes further:
I think Daisey has fallen victim (as he has before) to the artist’s fallacy I most loathe: That the artist, by virtue of being an artist, has a privileged position that allows him or her to speak on behalf of others, to give voice to the voiceless and by doing so, enlighten a benighted audience.

Sometimes, of course, this is in fact what art does. But it’s rare. More often than not, art like this serves to place the artist in the wrong role (artists are artists, not journalists or truth-tellers) which they fail at, by setting up straw-man argument (that their audience is actually ignorant of some or another reality)...

I’m certain there are many Americans who are completely ignorant of what goes on in off-shored Chinese manufacturing. I doubt they’re the sort who buy tickets to plays at the Public, though. As commendable as Daisey’s attempt to reconnect us with out means of production is, to see “blood seeping through the keys of our Macbook” when we boot it up, the reality is, people largely already know this. As Brown essentially argues, the far more interesting story is the pernicious ability we’ve developed to live with the cognitive dissonance of loving things we know are abusively produced. And it’s not even just technology; we do it every time we eat. That is a story that needs to be tackled, and it’s a shame Daisey instead chooses to preach to a choir, and offer them the false reassurance of theatrical catharsis rather than challenge the audience’s assumptions.
There's a lot to unpack there, and I concede some of these specific points. I do think Daisey occasionally exaggerates for dramatic effect, if not in his harrowing Shenzhen reportage then in some of his claims about how ignorant and compliant the tech press has been, and by extension "we" must be. Brown and Barker are on to something with this idea that we're numb to injustice, but what they're rejecting, essentially, is that a piece of theater like Daisey's could really make us feel that injustice afresh—could re-sensitive our hardened or, more likely, willfully oblivious attitudes to the immiseration that props up our economy.

What I didn't make clear in my previous post on Terry Teachout's review (because I was too busy snarking about Terry's politics) is that he is admirably able to appreciate the theatrical value of Daisey's work apart from its op-ed agenda. This is a recurring divide in most reviews, as Barker also notes, but most critics come down on the plus side. I think Sam Thielman in Variety frames it best:
The anecdotes, statistics, and old-fashioned moral arguments the monologist puts forth in his latest show demand action. Taking such a firm stand, however, puts the burden of proof entirely on Daisey. If this is political theater, he'd better be able to show us some theater before he trots out his politics. And he does...Helmer Jean-Michele Gregory (Daisey's wife) helps create a bond between the performer and the audience that is absolutely essential to the show's emotional impact.
The kicker there is the "emotional impact" line, and it's where my thinking goes with this theater-vs.-journalism/advocacy meta-controversy.

There's an assumption on the part of Barker and Brown that the transaction involved in seeing a piece of politically engaged theater is something like: Liberal audience feels good about itself for seeing a show about its own complicity in the misery of the world's less fortunate, then immediately walks out of the theater, calls cabs, and checks their iPhones. It's a variation of the piety-ends-at-the-church-door critique, which, being a churchgoer myself, I'm familiar with from both sides. I would question this assumption on two interrelated levels: 1. That theater does nothing to change attitudes or behavior outside its walls, that it's all literally nothing more than after-dinner entertainment for rich people, and 2. That the activity of watching a politically engaged piece of theater has zero ameliorative value in itself.

And rather than refuting each of these assumptions with specific examples (Did seeing The Fever change my vote in the next election? No, but I think it's influenced my priorities over the long-term, and colored what I'll say to my son when he asks about privilege and poverty), I'd instead pose the question: What activity or practice does change people's attitudes and behavior? Reading journalism and/or non-fiction? Direct political action, or exposure to it? Following blogs or talk radio or cable TV chatter? Literal firsthand experience of all the world's political conditions and systems? And who in any of these realms is empowered to speak with unimpeachable authority? I'm willing to concede that journalists, pundits, activists, and stakeholders may indeed have more moral authority than a theatrical storyteller like Daisey. But to push this further, which of these moral authorities is likely to move opinion and action? I'm open to a case being made in favor of any of these, but I would humbly submit that theater shouldn't be cordoned off as something that doesn't count—that it can and does have a role, however small, in the ecology of social criticism and activism.

Now, there are definitely good-faith and bad-faith examples of this, and I can think of few things more deadly than an evening of shitty political theater (I've seen plenty that brings out my own inner Teachout). I happen to find Daisey on the good-faith side of the ledger, but it's fair to criticize his work as bad journalism, bad theater, or even as a bad journo-theater. But to assail him simply for attempting to fuse the two—to attack The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs for being what it is, a hybrid of theater and journalism, as if giving this material a shape and an emotional arc (Barker's "false reassurance of theatrical catharsis") somehow debases it or makes it "glib"—is what I find suspect.

Riedel Sets Gun on Snark

Who is the audience for this?

Oct 19, 2011

Midweek Linkfest

Oct 18, 2011

Just the Opinions, Please


I mostly agree with Terry Teachout's rave for Mike Daisey's new Steve Jobs show, an opinion shared by most critics. Daisey's assault on the blissful ignorance in which we enjoy our electronic i-gadgets made by hand under torturous conditions in China should really be beyond the usual partisan categories, since we all, red and blue, left and right, are in thrall to cheap electronics. Indeed, in its artfully comedy-wrapped outrage, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs reminded me favorably of Wallace Shawn's The Fever.

But I had to wonder: How might Daisey's attack on globalization's dark side play with conservatives, given that one of his targets is China's miserable "special economic zone" in Shenzhen?

Cue Tory Terry Teachout at the Wall Street Journal, a fan of the show and of Daisey:
Mr. Daisey, though his political perspective is well to the left of center, is no kind of ideological wind-up toy. Indeed, it's downright startling to hear him call China "a fascist country run by thugs," or speak of the "useful idiots" of the tech press who look the other way at the horrors of life in Shenzhen, which Mr. Daisey pungently describes as "a Stalinist wet dream." You can't get much more politically incorrect than that, at least not Off Broadway.
Really? To put it mildly, I think Terry has a rather caricatured, Cold War-era view of those to his left (which includes most of his critical peers, from whom we will await in vain, I think, howls of Sinophilic umbrage). Not to mention that while Teachout is content to relish Daisey's opinionating about China, he's less inclined to accept the playwright's firsthand reports of conditions in Shenzhen:
The trouble with The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, as with all theatrical journalism, is that Mr. Daisey is in essence asking us to take his word for it. He hasn't brought back pictures or named names, and the artful anger with which he tells his tale inevitably makes it still more suspect. You don't have to be a puritan to prefer that facts be served straight up.
Teachout's final gratuitous swipe at Occupy Wall Street (I guess we'll have to take his word for it that he counted "19 iPhones" in one block) only serves to remind us who his employer is.

Still, as he says, it's a thrilling show that's well worth your time, and indeed it will make you think twice about your next upgrade.

Oct 14, 2011

"Down, Down I Come"

Sully waxes Shakespearean, including a gratifying shout-out to D.C.'s theatrical riches.

Two Blasts From the Past


Back in the 1990s in L.A., I got to know a brilliant singer/songwriter, Kevin Ray, at several open mikes, chiefly Highland Grounds' "Open Mind" Wednesdays; we who plied our tunes on piano, as Kevin and I (mostly) did, were a rarity in that guitar-dominated scene, and we ivory ticklers had to stick together. Quite apart from that friendship, he also became one of my favorite singer/songwriters for his intricately crafted, often sweeping pop (one of the best from those days here), which had a Rufus Wainwright-esque level of ambition but a more downhome aesthetic inflected by R&B and country.

Some of Kevin's best songs over the years, he told me, had been written for a musical he was developing called The Last Word, about L.A.'s undersung Central Avenue jazz scene of the 1940s; I remember one in particular called "Hollywood Slumming," which, though he trotted it out very rarely in those solo days, stuck with me. Imagine how gratifying it is, then, to hear that same tune sung and danced by a fiercely talented cast as the thrlling opening number of Kevin's mostly awesome musical, now called Central Avenue Breakdown, and currently part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival (Kevin relocated to NYC about the same time as me, in 2005). The show's book, by Ray and Josh Sohn, is imperfect, but the cast is terrific (particularly Rodrick Covington and Josh Tower), Christopher Windom's direction and choreography are lively and authoritative, and the six-piece jazz band positively kicks. I've never seen a NYMF show that sounded as good, frankly, and in short I couldn't be happier or prouder of my L.A. homeboy. (There are just a few more performances if you'd like to see and hear for yourself.)

Another blast from my past surfaced this week, as the actors' trade paper Back Stage celebrates its 50th anniversary. As the founding editor of Back Stage West back in '93, I was asked to share an anecdote from my time there. Naturally, I chose a salacious story involving the LAPD vice squad. That, and several recollections, are here.

Oct 12, 2011

Talk About a Brechtian Bark

Michael Feingold, on Robert Wilson's Threepenny, covered previously here:
Although the installation-like works of his creative years, long since past, employ live performers and move through time, Wilson has never really had any interest in the theater. He actively seems to disapprove of the theatrical impulse and even to resent its continued existence. Least of all, engaged as he has been in a world of wealthy backers, museums, and foundations, has he ever had any interest in theater with the kind of social-activist impulses that partially fueled the creation of Threepenny. Premiered before Brecht became a communist, the work is not actively political as many of his later works are, though he tried to make it so in subsequent rewritings. It was meant as provocative entertainment for middle-class theatergoers—part satire, part shock effects, part aesthetic innovation, part moral indictment, and part sheer theatrical diversion. Audiences worldwide have relished the unexpected, heady mixture ever since.

Wilson carefully removed all these aspects of the piece, turning Brecht and Weill's middle-class wake-up call into dead entertainment for rich people.
RTWT.

Oct 11, 2011

Has This Ever Happened To You?

As a member of the press, I'm typically shielded from the ticketing headaches of the average theatergoer, but occasionally I opt to pay for my tickets through the usual channels and receive yet another reminder of why theatergoing for the average person can feel like a losing proposition.

So does this ever happen to you: You order tickets for a show, then realize within five days of the reservation that you need to switch them to another night, and you call the ticket service (OvationTix, in my case) and ask about their policy, and they tell you: No exchanges or refunds? Understand, availability is not an issue—there are plenty of seats at all performances. But this no-change policy effectively means I'm out the price of two tickets for a show I can't attend, and to attend another performance I've got to fork over for another two tickets?

I mean, I've dealt with Ticketmaster and Telecharge and their evil fees, and I've missed one-night-only concerts I'd paid full price for and didn't fuss about it (because they were one-night-only deals, and the demand was understood to be relatively high). And I know that it must be a headache to have people trying to switch their reservations all the time; presumably that's what the "service charges" are for. But with Zipcar, for instance, you've got within 24 hours of your reservation to change or cancel it for a car; it just seems exceedingly stupid that you can do nothing similar about reservations for two seats at the theater.

End of rant.

Charles Not in Charge, Part III

I don't have much to add to Isherwoodgate (Isaac has been on the case), but I wanted to pass along this comment on the American Theatre Facebook page. It's a point of view you don't hear very often in these too-quick-to-righteous-anger debates. From Utah playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett:
As a playwright, I'm hurt and yet fascinated and sometimes secretly thrilled when people HATE my plays. To draw hate, or even lasting irritation, from somebody is an artistic accomplishment. Of course, it's not an accomplishment anybody likes claiming, but it's still impressive.

That Isherwood is so annoyed by Adam Rapp that he feels he has to avoid his work is really saying something. Rapp has moved his mind. Unfortunately for Isherwood, he's moved his mind in a way that he thinks is negative or maybe trivial. But I don't think Isherwood can really think Rapp is trivial if he's SO bent out of shape that he has to stop watching his plays!

Presumably, Isherwood is paid to review. Probably he doesn't even *have to pay* to see Rapp's plays. So he sees a bad play. So what? Sometimes work is boring. Why take it so personally?

As a playwright, even though I can get really hurt if somebody dislikes something, I still think, "You know, it's just a play. If you don't like it, that's okay. THERE ARE ALWAYS MORE PLAYS."

Also, bad reviews are a part of playwriting. I'm not put off by Isherwood's bad reviews. If you're a playwright, you have to accept and expect that people will totally and maybe irrationally *hate* what you've done. It may take three months to write a play, but it will always only take one second for someone to say, "That sucks." But that's the way it is.

I would only add one thought: I've been a little dismissive of the outrage on Rapp's behalf, from fans who wish Isherwood had done this ages ago and/or from sensitive theater folks who are hurt on any playwright's behalf. I do think that Rapp can stand it, and his career has shown few signs of being slowed by Isherwood's disdain. But if I do a thought experiment and imagine a playwright I admire, like, say, Conor McPherson, being subjected to the longstanding scorn of a powerful critic I don't admire (as I do Isherwood, in fact), I'm willing to admit that my view—roughly stated, that Isherwood shouldn't lose his nerve and retreat from the field—might be different.

Oct 8, 2011

Charles Not in Charge, Ctd

A blast from the past, from David Ng's Oct. 2007 profile of Adam Rapp in American Theatre (as quoted in this space):
Criticism is really unevenly distributed in this town. Obviously the power of the Times is discouraging. It's killing new plays, demolishing one after another. Charles Isherwood and Ben Brantley have a lot of power. I would like to think that Michael Feingold, Jeremy McCarter and David Cote and people who are really interested in new work would have an equal distribution of power. But we're so governed by the Times. Everyone is so afraid to talk about it, which is what I hate. Now that I've been demolished by them, I'm not going to be afraid to talk about it.
Gus Schulenberg makes an excellent point in the comments (namely, that this whole who-likes-new-plays demarcation is flawed).

And though I've since seen work by Rapp that made me like him less, I more or less stand by this qualified appreciation, on the occasion of one of Isherwood's most scathing pans.

Oct 7, 2011

Charles Not in Charge

I think Isaac nails the problem with Charles Isherwood's public offer to stop reviewing Adam Rapp's work: that to admit how one's personal tastes color one's reviews creates a very slippery slope. If you disqualify yourself because of one self-perceived bias, why not others? Why not all?

Indeed, comments like this, from playwright Kristoffer Diaz on Facebook, are exactly the kind of thing that such an admission invites:
"Mr. Isherwood has clearly stated aesthetic tastes that fall at odds with much of the work being created today. It's not that he dislikes a lot of work; it's that he fundamentally believes many kinds of plays are artistically invalid. As one of those writers who whom he fundamentally disagrees, I'd prefer someone else at The Times review my work as well. This reviewer is stating that he is incapable of objective analysis."
For my part, I've long been surprised that Charles keeps dutifully trudging out to see not only Rapp's work but that of Itamar Moses, another playwright he's never cared for; it has often felt to me as if he and Rapp, or he and Moses, were unwillingly handcuffed together, Hannay-and-Pamela-style (minus the clinch at the end). Given that I share much of Isherwood's distaste for, and puzzlement at the success of, Mr. Rapp, I fully understand where he's coming from.

What makes me wince about this is that it's a white flag of surrender. A mere reviewer may be expected only to file an "up" or "down" vote on shows as he sees them go by, as if in factory line. But a critic absolutely has a responsibility to advocate for and against plays and artists and organizations; it's part of the job description, and cheerleading is a role Isherwood has taken up with gusto in the cases of Sarah Ruhl, Will Eno, and Annie Baker. Of course, it's also salutary, in this bloggy age, for critics to take the opportunity to be transparent about their tastes and thought processes, to reexamine or reframe their opinions, in forums like the Times' "Theater Talkback" (which is essentially a fancy blog). Some disparage this as "navel-gazing" but to my mind it's entirely welcome and humanizing self-reflection.

To me, it's obvious that that was the spirit in which Isherwood's column was intended, not as a way to ding Rapp one last time. The problem is, it was on balance not a reflection at all but a capitulation; Charles isn't wrestling messily and transparently with his difficulty, he's just walking away from and washing his hands of it. And I wholeheartedly understand his impulse, but I'm not the second-most important critic in America, and if I were, I would hope I'd realize that my job was, as Isaac puts it, to
[pen] a carefully observed and specific critique of what doesn't work in Rapp's writing and how his success is to some extent representative of several larger problems in art and the American theater respectively, since clearly that's what Isherwood believes.
If theater criticism suffers from anything, it's from too little conviction, not too much, and this—if Charles' editor accedes to it—would be another blow on the wrong side of the ledger.

UPDATE: The Garv takes his usual dump on the conversation, but makes the important point that Ish doesn't assign his own reviews. True enough, which is why the most telling sentence in Isherwood's piece comes at the end:
My editor hasn’t agreed yet. But what do you think?

Oct 6, 2011

Prophets Both Lebanese and Mormon


photo by Sarah Krulwich for the New York Times

I admired Stephen Karam's two previous New York productions, Columbinus and Speech & Debate, and had the chance to write about him for the L.A. premiere of the latter.

So I jumped at the assignment to write up his next two premieres, coming close on each other's heels this time, for the paper of record.