Sep 30, 2011

October Already (and the Top 10)


The October season preview issue of American Theatre just went up online, and it's a keeper. There's a meaty, provocative interview with Clybourne Park's Bruce Norris (available online here; alas, my critical sidebar on the play, with quotes from four directors who've mounted it, is only in the print edition, so pick up a copy), a gorgeous spread about the Prague Quadrennial, a gut-busting interview with Reggie Watts (also print only), and oh so much more.

But we all know what y'all really pick up the annual October issue for: the Top 10 list, in which we rank the plays that will be most produced in the coming theater season at TCG members nationwide (at least those who bothered to get us their schedule info by the deadline; I've learned that since we put together this list, another member theater let us know about its production of Clybourne Park, which would have made it onto this list—an awkward oversight, but one that points up our disclaimer that this "Top 10" is only a snapshot of the coming season). Without further ado, my people:
Red by John Logan (23 productions)
God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza (23)
In the Next Room, or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl (13)
The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow from Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock (11)
Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies (11)
Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts (11)
To Kill a Mockingbird, adapted by Christopher Sergel from Harper Lee (8)
Spring Awakening, by Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music), adapted from Frank Wedekind (7)
Race by David Mamet (7)
August: Osage County by Tracy Letts (7)
Over to you, theatro-blogosphere.

Sort of a Last Word

Matthew Freeman has perhaps the best response I've seen to the handwringing about the parlous state of American playwriting, from Todd London's Outrageous Fortune to this recent lamentation from Terry Teachout, which postulates that, though playwrights are no longer at the center of the cultural discourse, they probably keep at it because they "meet the nicest people."

Nice try, Terry, if just a little condescending (though I confess that the people, nice and otherwise, are sometimes all that keep me in the theatre journalism racket). As Freeman succinctly puts it, he writes plays
because they are the long-standing, traditional form of art that I've chosen for my medium. Does there need to be further explanation than that? Just because photographs exist, does that mean painters need to explain why they still paint? I do not concede that drama is no longer a part of the cultural conversation. Tony Kushner may not make thousands of dollars from Angels in America...but it's still Angels in America. It's value is immeasurable; it's a permanent part of the American canon. That's work of a value that is expressly disproportional to the amount that he is paid for it...Should poets stop writing poetry just because none of them is Robert Frost? Because the culture has changed? Are poets, in fact, just writing poems because poems are fun to write? No. They are important, and valuable, and necessary.Even the ones you've never heard of. Even the ones you've never read.

Theater is like any art. I honestly am amazed when people ask why it's made.
Amen, Rev. Freeman.

Quote for the Day

"As critics get older – and I concede this may be a fault – they also tend to become less recklessly violent in their judgments."
-Michael Billington, quoted by Miriam Gillinson

Music in Its Bones


photo of the Steppenwolf production of The Hot l Baltimore by Michael Brosilow

Isaac Butler kindly asked me to contribute to his blog's awesome Lanford Wilson "issue," and I turned in a consideration of my favorite of his plays, The Hot l Baltimore, which I saw in a marvelous production at the Little Victory Theatre in Burbank in 1996 (I can't find my review, but Phil Brandes' gives an idea), and which Steppenwolf recently staged to mixed acclaim, in a Tina Landau production that seemed to highlight, or make explicit, the thing I took away from a rereading: that Hot L is a piece of music as much as a play. Yes, it's said of a lot of plays that they're "musical," but really—this one has music in its structural bones as well as in its multi-voiced dialogue. The whole post is here. I also recommend 99's look at the Talley trilogy.

Sep 28, 2011

Today's Links...

The Two-Bit Opera


Last month it was Sondheim; now Time Out gives me another chance to geek out on another favorite composer on the occasion of a production of his biggest hit. What Bob Wilson and the Berliner Ensemble do with Threepenny will be something to see, of course, but I'll be there in large part to hear that deathless score, and sung in German, a real rarity on these shores.

Sep 21, 2011

Theater of War

Pace Hunka, I found this, from Billington, bracing:
I think people are in danger of getting a little prissy about the qualifications to be a theatre critic. Obviously, you need a passion for the medium, a vision of its potential and the capacity to communicate. But I've come to feel that critics, myself included, have been recruited from too narrow a stratum. We still, mostly, tend to be English Lit graduates who may have dabbled in literary journalism, or even had a go at directing or writing plays, before moving on to a seat in the stalls. Nothing wrong with that. But, for several reasons, I've come to believe that a knowledge of public affairs and life's larger crises is also a useful attibute for a critic.
This comes in response to news that WMD-sniffer Judith Miller will review theater for the Tablet, which reminds me that economics reporter Catherine Rampell is now moonlighting at the NY Times theater desk. I do have mixed (and not entirely disinterested) feelings about the way newspaper folk are shuffled around from the sports desk to the features desk, from clothes to food to the city beat, but I think Billington's following point merits consideration:
One obvious reason is that theatre is changing. It increasingly tackles big issues: global warming, economic collapse, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It therefore seems logical that journalists with some knowledge of geopolitical tensions should bring their experience to the critical table...I'm not saying it's a job for anyone: it requires dedication, stamina and what the late Bob Robinson called "a willigness to have your evenings ruined". I'm simply suggesting that, as theatre engages increasingly with the public world, a critic has to be alert to politics, economics and foreign affairs as well as having a capacity for aesthetic judgment. "What do they of cricket know who only cricket know?" CLR James famously asked. You could apply exactly the same question to theatre.
It is a good question, and it makes me think that having a small child around the home (even a small child with a taste for cast albums, I can't think why) is a great reminder that there's a life outside the theater. Lord knows mine, at least, has profoundly changed the cost-benefit equation of a ruined night.

Not Just the Usual Guardian Snobbery

David Cote, a.k.a. Benedict Arnold (kidding!), has a thoughtful piece in today's Guardian about why American companies can't compete with the UK's far-reaching National Theatre. And it's more than just money: It's also the artistic leadership, stupid. Some hard words not only for the usual suspects (Roundabout!) but also Lincoln Center (apparently the permanent stable of the National's War Horse) and the Public, both of which, Cote concedes...
...offer solid work every season. But how many of their world premieres have international reach? Why aren't they commissioning world-class plays that the National or the Royal Court might want to import, as we have done with War Horse? Where is the play about the BP Gulf oil spill? Where is the play from inside the Tea Party? Where is the bold revival of Strange Interlude? Where is a sprawling historical comedy about utopian communities in America? John Guare's A Free Man of Color – a dazzling piece set in 19th-century New Orleans, produced last year at LCT – is the exception that proves the rule.
RTWT.

Sep 20, 2011

Tuesday on the Links

Sep 19, 2011

Quote for the Day

"Parenting small children is many things. It is a reminder of the essence of things, for one...Parenting small children is also fucking boring."

-Catherine Treischmann, in a marvelously frank piece about playwrighting while parenting

Sep 16, 2011

Linking for the Weekend

Sep 13, 2011

Quote for the Day

"A person whose financial requirements are modest and whose curiosity, skepticism, and indifference to reputation are outsized is a person at risk of becoming a journalist."
-Louis Menand, writing about Dwight McDonald in The New Yorker

Sep 12, 2011

With the thoughts I'd be thinkin'...

...I could be another linkin':

Sep 9, 2011

More Links

More Intertube samplings...

Obligatory 9/11 Post


Cast members of They Simply Said Enter

On Sept. 9, 2001, I went to the downtown L.A. offices of Cornerstone Theater Company to audition/shop for a project in their Festival of Faith, a five-show program at various houses of worship or faith-community centers in the Southland that would kick off their several-year "faith" cycle (Cornerstone organizes its work with multiyear subjects--work, justice, geography, etc.). I'd long been a fan and critical advocate of Cornerstone's work, and since their mission was in large part about dissolving the barriers between audience and artist, I decided to take the plunge and work/play with them in some capacity as a composer/performer. I also felt great affinity for this particular subject, being a bit of a church nerd.

All the major faith traditions were represented in the projects being proposed/tried out that Sunday afternoon, but I took particular interest in the Muslim project, which would be an adaptation of Farid ud-Din Attar's The Conference of the Birds, to be performed at Pasadena's Muslim grade school, New Horizon, with a cast of students and a handful of adult performers. I more or less committed to that project, which would be helmed by a visiting Dutch director, Antonia Smits, and was told I'd hear later in the week about who would work on what.

The next day, Sept. 10, I sat in an office at the Actors' Gang space on Santa Monica (now the Open Fist Theatre) and had my first and only interview with founding artistic director Tim Robbins. It was a tumultuous time for the company, as Robbins had returned over the summer and led the Gang's foundational "Style" workshops with their progenitor, Georges Bigot, as they worked on new productions of The Seagull and Mephisto. Robbins' return had cast the 25-year-old troupe into upheaval, with old factions reemerging and new ones developing; the internal strife had festered for months under the radar until the Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris dropped this bomb.

The Robbins interview went well enough, considering that the Morris piece hovered in the air, and that the Gang I'd come to know and love since the early '90s had had little or nothing to do with Robbins, and instead had a lot to do with artists who seemed to be on their way out since his return: Tracy Young, Chris Wells, Dan Parker, and Evie Peck, just for starters. I told him that Young's recent Dream Play was maybe the best thing I'd seen at the Gang, ever, at least since her co-staging with Cornerstone's Bill Rauch of Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella...at which point Robbins paused, stared at me blankly, then hurried me downstairs to "purge" the curse of having uttered the name of the Scottish Play in his theater; as I recall, it involved going outside the venue's front door, throwing salt over a shoulder, spitting a few times, spinning around, etc. Robbins was a good sport about it, but insistent that I carry it out, and that was the end of that interview.

The next morning was the infamous clear blue Tuesday we all remember. Robbins, I heard on good authority, immediately piled into a car with a friend and drove fast and furiously across the country to his home and family in New York City; the Gang's shows would open later in October, and the following summer Robbins would star with Helen Hunt in the L.A. premiere of Anne Nelson's The Guys (which I heartily disliked). Cornerstone's Festival of Faith, meanwhile, was destined to take on a more urgent meaning; later that week we learned that New Horizons, despite some concerns about security, would go ahead with the show that would eventually be called They Simply Said Enter, with a live guitar-and-vocal score performed by yours truly and a cast of adorable 5- to 11-year-olds and a few adults. (I recently recalled the experience here.) The rehearsal process had its challenges--my mother died suddenly in the midst of it--but none had to do with religious or cultural conflict. It was a creative idyll in the midst of a dark, uncertain time.

Ten years later, most of those kids are in college, the Actors' Gang is relocated to Culver City, and Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella is set to open next year at Rauch's new home, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In the years since, I've seen very little on any stage that I felt definitively addressed or spoke to the post-9/11 world, and how could it, really? As noted, The Guys left me cold (and Robbins' later Embedded was still worse); Theresa Rebeck's Omnium Gatherum was lively and of its moment, though I doubt it would hold up today. I admired Yussef El Guindi's Back of the Throat and found Michael Frayn's Democracy had a bracing, sidelong relevant to the odd, discomfiting rhetoric of our wartime politics and the fragility of our "Western" values.

I don't think, though, that anything onstage will ever feel as charged to me as the song I heard in a Kurt Weill revue at the Odyssey Theatre just days after 9/11. I don't think Brecht and Weill's "Pirate Jenny" has ever landed quite the way it did that night:
Well you gentlemen can wipe those smiles off your face
Every building in town is a flat one
This whole stinking place will be down to the ground
Only this cheap hotel standing up, safe and sound
And you yell: "why do they spare that one?
You yell, "why the hell do they spare that one?"
And this conclusion:
By noontime the dock is a swarming with men
Coming out from the ghostly freighter
They're moving in the shadows where no-one can see
And they're chaining up people
And delivering 'em to me
Asking me: "Kill them now or later?"
Asking me: "kill them now or later?"

Noon by the clock and so still at the dock
You can hear a fog horn miles away
And in that quiet of death i'll say:
"Right now!"
And they pile up the bodies
And I'll say: "That'll learn you."
For months after 9/11, it seemed that every review either said, "This great piece of fluff is exactly what we need to get our minds off the tragedy," or "This challenging piece of provocation is exactly what we need to hear, now even more than ever!" Clearly, what we needed then, as now, is theater that does both--reflects and refracts as well deflects and diverts. Ultimately, though, I stand closer to the side of the Odyssey's Ron Sossi, who reportedly said, "I go to the movies to escape; I go to the theatre to delve."

UPDATE: Chris Shinn's Dying City was also a highlight of this grim past decade, and an American Theatre Facebook fan pointed to the best play about Sept. 11 written before Sept. 11: Caryl Churchill's Far Away (a point made before). It was at Sossi's Odyssey Theatre (again) that I saw a fine, haunting production in 2004.

Sep 6, 2011

The Madhouse


A few years back I had the privilege of interviewing Jeremy Lawrence, a fine actor and translator who's made something of a cottage industry of playing Tennessee Williams in a series of solo shows drawn from the playwright's own words. In the course of the interview, Jeremy spoke the indelible line, "My picture is in the renovated madhouse," by which he meant that the current occupants of the small house in Key West, Fl., which Williams nicknamed his "madhouse," are fans of Jeremy's, and that his photo proudly hangs there.

That line stuck with me, and not long after, I spun the few fragments I know about the Key West residence and Tennessee's work into a song called simply "The Madhouse." So for Tennessee's centennial, celebrated in this month's issue of American Theatre (which also features another interview with Mr. Lawrence), I offer..."The Madhouse."




My picture is in the renovated madhouse
In a place of honor by the stair
Folks who stay there throw away their care
This unreal estate was once a kind of hothouse
There's still a trace of sweetness in the air
When you visit, you'll wonder is it there?
It may not speak to you
And yet I think you'll feel it
Here is a place where something grew
The Madhouse

In this window seat, his flowers had their greenhouse
Though it was never water they were fed
On a white page he set a stage instead
You have to believe he saw it as a playhouse
The light through the curtain set the scene
On the lace grid the phantoms did convene
This is the fateful room
Wherein the summer smoke commenced to whirl
And curl and bloom
The Madhouse

This island retreat, for some, is just a funhouse
Where they play to spite the sands of time
They resist love with every twist of lime
But this patch of earth is solemn as a courthouse
It was here the fatal case was made
Where he would not fail if he did not fade
Perhaps you've seen the sense
Wherein relying on strangers
Can be a kind of self-defense
In the Madhouse

Sep 2, 2011

The Crazy Uncle Hilton Files


Yelena action shot by Hilton Als

The New Yorker's certifiable No. 2 theater critic strikes again, with a book report review of the recent Aussie-fied Uncle Vanya at Kennedy Center. As Charles McNulty recently noted on Facebook, the vaunted New Yorker fact-checkers must have been out to lunch:
Speaking of Vanya, Als writes: "Ever since his late wife's brother, the old scholar Serebryakov (John Bell), who owns the estate, returned to it with his beautiful new wife..." It was Vanya's sister, now dead, who was the professor's first wife. Or have I lost my mind?
It would be news indeed that the achingly single Vanya had ever married, and Als must have missed Vanya's bitter speeches about his late sister doting on Serebryakov.

But then, maybe Als was too busy snapping cellphone photos of Cate Blanchett to notice the finer points of the plot (yes, he's the "major critic" Elisabeth Vincentelli called out anonymously here—little did she know that Als would actually post his photos, which clearly weren't confined to the curtain call, on his blog).

Sep 1, 2011

Pre-Labor Day Links

Emerging from one deadline valley only to face another, but I still find time to jog about the Intertubes.
Oh, and I almost forgot: The September issue of American Theatre, with a centennial (re)consideration of the great Tennessee Williams among many other goodies, is on newsstands and (partly) online.