Dec 30, 2013

Tops of 2013

As my modest theater blog enters its 10th year, it now feels chiefly like a venue for links to my feature writing as it comes along (though I was too busy recently to trumpet my latest piece for the paper of record, on that endearing little Bacharach show, in this space, so here goes), and/or a trough for spillover from said feature writing. The remaining posts here tend to be quasi-reviews, or meta-reviews, or newsy/opinion-y tidbits, written for a variety of reasons: because I either imagine or know with some certainty that no one else has or will make the point I feel needs making, or I just have something to get off my chest that no venue would, or has bothered to, ask me to write about. I wish there were more posts like the latter--and I'm honestly surprised at how many there still are, actually--but in any case, here were the top dozen or so posts of the past year, measured in the cold hard metrics that already rule us all, and in the darkness bind us, in the word trade.

Making Good
Really, all I did with this post did was prove that I have a scanner at home, and that I can save theater playbills. But I was pretty confident that no one else would post the budget figures for the original spring LaMaMa staging of the Foundry's Good Person of Szechwan alongside similar figures for the Public transfer in the fall. Anyone who saw both and kept the programs could have done this, as the Foundry has printed its budgets in its programs for the "last seven or eight years," according to Melanie Joseph, to whom I spoke because of the popularity of this post. (She also told me that comparing the two budgets was an apples-and-oranges deal, given not only the fixed-cost differences in venue but also the disparity between a generative production and a remount.) But no one else did. I wish I'd posted about how and why it was the best show I saw all year, maybe in many years, and how it's one of the two best Brechts I've seen, in part because of its nimble, embracing queer spirituality/politics...but instead I posted about how much it cost. Maybe this tendency is what that program quote, "The truth is concrete," is talking about.

Should Plays Be Artist-Proof?
This post sprang from an offhand comment by playwright Rajiv Joseph about his play Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, from an interview I did with him at my day job. He confessed that he feels he underwrote a character because the actor who did the original role filled in so much of its depth, and he's seen productions since that made him cringe. That reminded me of similar misgivings from Bobby Lopez and Annie Baker, and I was off the races.

Who Needs Critics?
When Backstage announced early this year that it would cut theater reviews altogether, it hit me close to home; I was the founding editor-in-chief of its West Coast branch, and of the West Coast Garland Awards; theater coverage was simply a given all those years ago and in the years since, there and at any number of now-shrinking or vanishing publications. This post had me wondering out loud: Who really reads all those damn reviews and features about theater? And if nobody does, what the fuck have I been doing with my life?

Suffering Made Flesh
My reaction as a (non-Catholic) believer to The Testmant of Mary, an impassioned hodpgepodge of Colm Toibin's alt-gospel from Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner, surely garnered extra hits because it was linked by my sometime employer, the Jesuit magazine America (which had a very exciting year in its own right, I should note).

Putting the "God" in Godot
Herewith, a quick spin on an arguably trivial hobbyhorse of mine--the correct pronunciation of Beckett's masterpiece.

Got Scot?
My only ticket giveaway of the year, for the Lincoln Center Macbeth. The winner, for the record, was Meaghan Monahan. (And sorry it wasn't such a hot show.)

The Book of Bobby
This post merely cued up my Denver Center Theater program piece on The Book of Mormon, returning for an encore in LDS-adjacent territory--a piece that gave me an excuse to talk to the show's nearly secret weapon, the undersung Bobby Lopez.

Filtered Water
Another cue-up post for a program piece, this one for BAM and an intriguing piece about climate change and personal atomization, Water, by the British company Filter.

Cromer's Town
Yet another cue-up: I sat down with the NY-based genius director for his hometown magazine Chicago as he prepared to play Ned Weeks in the (still-running) TimeLine revival of The Normal Heart.

"I Can Talk in a Fine Circle": Eliza Bent's Hotel Colors
In this disarming chat with my coworker at American Theatre, the multitalented Eliza Bent, she told me about how she translated her new play into English (her first language), and I confessed some squirrely moments in hostel living.

Drinking With Stew (and Heidi)
This was the first in a series of "overflow" interviews with the Negro Problem/Passing Strange folks about the state of the rock musical, and all things theatrical and musical, conducted for this American Theatre trend piece.

Mourner Has Broken
A post I felt I had to write, essentially in mourning for the person I used to be--a person who used to love Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner, but found its newest incarnation at the Public a stiff.

No Time Like the Present
Rounding out this baker's dozen on a positive note, this post had me waxing generous about the current generation of playwrights, against what I feel is the default hand-wringing--or worse, scolding--posture among my peers about the current state of theater and playwriting. There is indeed much cause for concern, even a case for despair, but surely I wouldn't still be at this if I felt it were entirely a lost cause--and you, whoever few you are, wouldn't still be reading it.

Here's to a brighter 2014.

Dec 24, 2013

Bards on the Boards

For what it's worth, when I recently took issue with Charles McNulty's review of three high-profile New York Shakespeare productions, I had already filed my review of the fall's Bard glut, but it's only online now (and in print in a week or so), in the Jesuit weekly America.

Since I've already hammered the point that American Shakespeare is seldom best represented on Broadway, and only slightly less rarely in New York in general, here's another point I'm particularly keen to stress, given some critics' slightly overstated plumping for the superiority of the "original practices" approach:
On their surface, the Globe productions on Broadway could not be more different from [the Donmar Warehouse "Julius Caesar"]. Both “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night” are performed and staged in a meticulous recreation of Elizabethan stage practice, right down to the starched ruffs, tooting recorders and all-male cast; audience members who arrive 20 minutes before curtain can watch the actors get into their authentic costumes and makeup on the stage of the Belasco Theatre. But in following to the hilt a trend so diametrically opposite from contemporary interpretations like Donmar’s, these original-practices stagings end up making a similar point about the plays: that strong, unfamiliar concepts can make them shine in a new light.
A pithier way to put it, I guess, is that anyone who thinks that Mark Rylance is giving "original practices" performances (as if anyone could presume to know what those would look or sound like), rather than thoroughly contemporary interpretations that reach us in the eternal present of the theatre, is letting themselves be snowed. And Rylance is hardly alone in this. Indeed, much as the slavishly recreated 1940s sets and score and style of Mike Nichols' Death of a Salesman only made the cast's utterly current, unadorned naturalism stand out all the more starkly, the frisson between the apparently old and the sneakily new in these Globe productions is the sweet spot they've hit (well, in Twelfth Night, at least).

RTWT, as the kids say.

Dec 16, 2013

Yanked

Charles McNulty is right on the merits and right in his reasoning in this new review lamenting the Lincoln Center Macbeth and adding his praise to the hosannahs for the Globe's Twelfth Night and Richard III. And he's not wrong to point out that this contrast only affirms the prejudice against Americans doing Shakespeare--a prejudice also reinforced, if his peers are to be believed, by Romeo and Juliet on Broadway and at CSC, and by (in my fairly lonely opinion) the sumptuous but unevenly acted new Julie Taymor Midsummer, as well as by the stunning Donmar Warehouse women's-prison Julius Caesar (which I had the great fortune to see the same week as I took in the Globe's "original practice" Shakespeares, affirming not only the apparent superiority of Brits at the Bard but the notion that a strong conceptual framing can bring out the best in these plays). I also think McNulty's point about the grounding in rhetoric that lies behind successful verse drama is sound, and all too frequently taken for granted.

But if I were a West Coast theater company that had ever produced Shakespeare, from A Noise Within to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I might take exception to the critic for the Los Angeles Times offering these as his generous caveats to the Brits-are-better verdict. In noting that Macbeth's Lady is played by a Brit, Ann-Marie Duff, he qualifies:
Duff's presence in the cast demonstrates how precarious it is to nationalize these differences. The English-born Rylance, though he trained at RADA, grew up in the States, and of course there are plenty of Americans (Kevin KlineAndre BraugherDiane Venora, Liev Schreiber, Dakin Matthews, Michael Stuhlbarg, among them) who can mellifluously hold their own with their British counterparts.
Of those happy few, only Dakin Matthews has strutted and fretted on a West Coast stage in the Shakespeare. I know that McNulty has visited Ashland and counted himself underwhelmed (would it be churlish to note that his visit included precisely one Shakespeare play?), but if this review of three New York productions is to be taken at face value, the lead critic of the LA Times has had to travel all the way to Lincoln Center to find American actors bungling Shakespeare, while his SoCal backyard must be full of them, given that none but Matthews makes his Dream Team list. My own personal list, if anyone cares, would include the thoroughly American Dan Donohue, Derrick Lee Weeden, Anthony Heald, Robynn Rodriguez, Demetra Pittman, David Kelly, and many others I saw over the years I happily and repeatedly visited the mecca in Oregon, as well Jenna Cole, Robertson Dean, and Geoff Elliot, among others at A Noise Within. The Public's offerings in Central Park have also been quite solid, and occasionally inspired, in recent years.

In short, I've seen enough entirely and unapologetically American Shakespeare (and to lay my cards on the table, participated in it, too), and much of it on the benighted Left Coast, to be so over this Yanks-vs.-Brits debate. Perhaps a more illuminating context in which to consider why New York productions show Brits to advantage would be the commercial pressure that constrains what makes it to a stage here. Shakespeare can certainly be good box-office on his own, but moreso with Brits in the cast (witness the RSC's now-routine incursions). American productions in New York, meanwhile, are often cobbled together with celebrities at the helm and actors of widely ranging backgrounds in the supporting roles (though Jude Law's Hamlet proved, as did Ian McKellen's King Lear, that top-heavy, shakily supported productions are a more pervasive problem).

But for McNulty, as for many, what happens in New York is by definition the prevailing (if not exclusive) standard by which the American theater is judged. Breaking that default assumption is something you might hope an out-of-town critic of McNulty's acumen would be well positioned to do, but alas, this doesn't seem to be in the stars.

Dec 9, 2013

Stephen Todd


In lieu of a new Sondheim show, the airing tonight of Six by Sondheim on HBO qualifies as an event for fans. I'm gratified that the great interview clips that showed throughout the otherwise mediocre Roundabout revue Sondheim

on Sondheim in 2010 have been put to the purpose for which they seemed obviously intended--I remember writing, in a notice for the Sondheim Review, that they looked like excerpts from an inevitable PBS documentary. Alas, since it's HBO, not PBS, that will be airing the doc, I won't be seeing it, at least not right away.

But it has been universally praised by folks I respect; I come not to bury Six by Sondheim but to footnote it. Since none of the six iconic songs the documentary makers have chosen to illustrate Sondheim's career/life story comes from the show that is arguably his crowning achievement, I'll take this excuse to excerpt my own interview with the man, from a 2011 issue of American Theatre. On the topic of what is apparently, and somewhat soberingly, his most personal show:

One story that intrigues me is that when you played the score of Sweeney Todd for Hal Prince's wife, Judy, she told you, "Oh my God, that's you—that's the story of your life." In the Secrest biography you say, "No one's ever asked me about that or gone deeper into that." I don't know if I should.
It's hard to say exactly what Judy meant by that. Maybe she meant it was about somebody who'd been wronged early on in life, which in a sense I was, and that creativity, me making shows, in a way there's an analogy to be made with Sweeney killing everybody. It's a form of expression, isn't it? I have to think about it. Instinctively—because very often what she says is insightful—I smell that there was a rightness about that comment. In fact, though I'd seen Christopher Bond's Sweeney at Stratford East, what I did with it was very different. By the time I got through with his play it was not the jolly romp that he meant it to be. It was more passionate and—I'm avoiding the word "dark," but certainly it was darker than he intended. He wrote that thing as a Christmas show; the legend of Sweeney Todd is as traditional over there as Puss in Boots. So, yeah—I have to think about it, but instinctively, I think her observation was correct.
Coming out of the theatre in London a few years back, I heard someone saying, "I knew it was about a guy killing people and a woman making them into meat pies, but I didn't know it was going to be so grim."
(Laughs.) Well, that describes exactly the British attitude.