Jul 28, 2007

Bard & Writings

Apologies for the light posting. I'm on an extended trip, starting last weekend with Bard's SummerScape, where I caught Ken Roht's Orange Star Dinner Show in Bard's plush Spiegeltent. It's a drag cartoon of backstage rivalry at a food-free Wyoming dinner theatre, and I was touched to see how well Ken and co. won over a slightly baffled, all-ages audience. I will say that the whimsy and chaos quotients of this six-actor version of his sprawling 2005 holiday show seem a bit higher than necessary, but there are several priceless, killer songs in a variety of flavors, and the score has been recorded. At Bard's Fisher Center, I caught an extraordinarily fine, all-Brit production of Shaw’s Saint Joan, directed by the estimable Gregory Thompson and acted with the sort of offhanded authority that only UK-bred actors seem able to pull off (something I also observed here). I couldn't agree less with Mark Blankenship's Variety takedown. What I saw was a towering play, fleetly and scintillatingly delivered, with its contemporary resonances rippling out naturally, almost matter-of-factly, but with a gathering and gripping force. And Thompson's in-the-round staging, though inarguably mounted in a traditional theater space, somehow felt site-specific. I'm now in L.A. for a friend's friend's wedding and some music business. So I'll close with some links: My LA Times piece on Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez; my TDF feature on Marian Seldes; and my Village Voice review of an Ice Factory offering, Johnny Applef!%ker. More when (if) I return.

Jul 20, 2007

Apropos of Nothing...

Definition of castrati: talented young men for whom there are no small parts.

From the Mouths of Babes

Tonight at my little neighborhood church in Greenpoint, the theater company Polybe + Seats will present the culmination of its "Let Us Play a Play" summer theater workshop for kids ages 6-8. The show? Look and Long by Gertrude Stein, which I've found described on the Interwebs as "the story of a man, a woman, and two children who are visited by a strange spider creature who changes their physical forms." How awesome is that? The show starts at 6 p.m., it's free, and I've been told "the performance will be brief, so please arrive on time." I've come a long way from here, and I thank God for the journey.

Jul 18, 2007

I, Robot

What is it with the Czechs and automatons? I'm thinking of their famous puppet theater, and of the disturbing films of Jan Svankmajer. I thought of these last night as I watched Mac Rogers' lovely, stirring show Universal Robots, at Manhattan Theatre Source through--yikes--tomorrow night only. It's an unashamedly sci-fi fable about the limits and responsibilities of science and the imagination, and it (mostly) deftly spins the Karel Capek play R.U.R. out of Capek's own real-life between-the-wars Czech Republic milieu. It doesn't manage to sustain its balancing act between the real and the fanciful, and it can't avoid some inevitable B-movie cliches. But it goes about its serious-minded business with such a pure spirit, and delivers so many delicious, unexpected jolts of humor, that it's worth sitting through some of the rough patches for the overall impact of the storytelling. I could see the play growing into a larger, more lavish venue and production, but this one is quite fine, and the cast is pretty close to ideal. I guess this is where you can find out about any spare tickets.

Jul 13, 2007

Joel Bloom, We Hardly Knew Ye

I cut my teeth as a theater critic reviewing for the L.A. Downtown News, and among the spaces I most enjoyed covering was Al's Bar, in which were staged some boisterous, sloppy, often brilliant evenings of performance, and in which many overpriced plastic cups of middling beer were consumed. Among the playwrights whose work I first covered there was Joel Bloom, who went on to found Bloom's General Store on the corner of Traction and 3rd in the arts district, long before it was the hip hub it is now. Cornerstone Theater Company's offices are practically next door, and though Al's is long gone, there are more coffee places and restaurants and galleries in the once-blighted area than ever before.

Well, Joel died today after a long battle with cancer, but his legacy of stubborn persistence--of believing L.A. had an arts district east of Downtown that was worth sticking to, living in, playing in, working in--lives on. I don't think he'd know me from Adam, but I'll miss going back to see his cantankerous, bespectacled visage behind the counter at Bloom's. He's already missed.

Jul 9, 2007

Actors at War

Simi Horwitz's story in the current Back Stage kind of blew my mind. I don't even know what to think about it: It's an in-depth, mostly in-their-words account of four actors with strong theater and film credentials who've enlisted and have served, or are serving, in Iraq. I was alternately moved, chilled, awed, and depressed by it. Here's a typical double-edged gem, in a story full of them:
Della Salla has also rethought his personal goals. The turning point came two weeks after he returned from Iraq and went to a commercial audition. "It was macabre," he says. "Here I was, sitting around with actors who were busy as bees—talking about their careers and auditions, chatting away on their cell phones…. I just felt like saying, 'Do you have any understanding of what's going on in the world?'

"I then had to go on camera," he continues. "Because I had been wearing a helmet in Iraq, I still had tan lines where the straps had been. The casting director stared at the lines and said, 'You really should be careful. Use sunblock on your vacation.' I was ready to bust a gut. I said, 'Yeah, yeah, I'll remember that for my next vacation.' "

It's worth reading in full.

One Little Word: Married

I knew my editor at Newsday, John Habich, was off getting hitched in Blighty. Had no idea on what scale. And under portraits of Princess Di? Wowzer. A big shout out to the newlyweds.

Jul 6, 2007

July Churches

Just a few items as another weekend descends upon us.

The Civilians' Gone Missing is indeed as great as everyone says it is. Like Anna Deavere Smith crossed with This American Life, but with nifty songs and a better tailor...

I can't wait to see Greg Whiteley's new film Resolved, about high school debaters. I was an official speech-and-debate geek in my springtime years, though I confess I was in the thankless subset of "interpretive" (i.e., acting) events, which meant I was a geek's geek (though the words used in those innocent days were a little harsher). Still, some of my best friends were debaters--master debaters, as we never tired of calling them. Whiteley, whom I met in a Suzuki/Viewpoints workshop in L.A., has already made one fine doc (New York Doll). I have high hopes for Resolved (good article on it here)...

Finally, I've found a TV series that crystallizes several long-untapped facets of my sense of humor (is that a mixed metaphor or what?): Richard Curtis and Dawn French's BBC comedy The Vicar of Dibley. As an inveterate, never-quite-recovered Anglophile, liberal Christian, and Ab Fab fanatic, I find that this series, about a freewheeling female pastor in a dangerously twee Oxfordshire village, plays a bit like a British Roseanne plopped in the middle of Cold Comfort Farm, with a hefty helping of nun and Jesus jokes. In other words, sheer catnip.

(NB: This post's title, for all you Culture Clash fans, is from the troupe's first big show, The Mission, in which they imagined the Anglicization of a certain Latin crooner's name.)

Jul 3, 2007

Sand and Tits

Amusingly scathing reviews are in for Gary Griffin's production of Kismet at the English National Opera. For the record, I've reckoned with a buxom pair of Kismets, both staged in the midst of the current war; I was a bit more indulgent of this bit of 1950s flotsam.

Opera and Mock-Oratorio

Not seeing as much theatre as I once did in my theatre critic days. But I did catch Tom Rowan's The Second Tosca at 45th Street Theatre (just closed, alas), which was quite a fine little opera-world backstager, with the requisite share of twists and surprises, double-edged but passion-dipped tributes to the opera world and its discontents, inside jokes, and sexual tension. Rachel DeBenedet and Vivian Reed were exceptionally fine, and as far as I know believable, as semi-dueling divas. It deserves a life in regional and smaller theatres--I could see it at the Colony Theatre in Burbank, or International City Theatre in Long Beach, in a heartbeat (just to name two houses I know well from of old).

Over the weekend I trained it up to the impossibly idyllic Caramoor music venue for the U.S. premiere of Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy, a mock-oratorio by Eric Idle and John Du Prez based on the Monty Python film The Life of Brian. Idle narrated, acted, and sang some key passages, but for the most part handed over singing duties to a game cast, including Christopher Sieber, Jean Stilwell, Shannon Mercer, and Theodore Baerg. (The conductor and Caramoor music director, Michael Oundjian, happens to be Idle's cousin, and he led the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the chorus with vigor.) I'm happy to report that Idle is still on his game as an inspired goofer, even if his metier now tends more to English music-hall winking than Orton-esque subversion; The oratorio included musical parodies of Bach and Handel, a doo-wop setting of "Woe Woe Woe," a Bernstein-ish cha-cha, and a few tinkly arena-pop power ballads. The scene stealers were a quartet of gloriously incongruous bagpipers and Idle's own merciless parody of Bob Dylan, complete with out-of-tune harmonica, guitar, and slurred vocals. The high points of the Brian-based comedy had to be a giddy sex duet between Sieber and Mercer (called "Amourdeus") and the Gilbert-and-Sullivan-worthy musicalization of the film's most pricelessly contrarian scene, "What Have the Romans Done for Us?" Expect it to show up at pops concerts, if not on Broadway.