Dec 31, 2008

Leapy New Year

To close out this extraordinary year of upheaval, setback, and possibility, I can think of (or rather, find) nothing better than this lo-fi video of one of Matt Walker's clowning classes at USC. (Yes, this Matt Walker.)

Here's to a fearless (yet similarly cushioned) jump into 2009.

Dec 19, 2008

Merry Merry Etc.

Today is basically the end of my workday year, not counting a few straggling days in late December. That doesn't mean I won't be posting here again in '08, and I certainly won't be able to stay away from updating and tweaking Isaac's and my new baby, but I will be in Indiana and California for Christmas next week, ostensibly relaxing with family.

And though I've already watched my favorite holiday special twice this season--and I half-wish I could schlep out to Connectictut to check out the stage version--I'm likely to pop old Emmet in the DVD player at least once again before the turkey is carved.

So, at the end of tumultuous yet oft-blessed year, I leave you with my best wishes, and one of Paul Williams' lyrics, steeped in his signature blend of syrup and spirit:
Like a flower that has blossomed
In the dry and barren sand
We are born and born again most gracefully
Thus the winds of time shall take us
With a sure and steady hand
When the river meets the sea

Pal Joey: Not Everyone Hates It!

Performing its important corrective function, Critic-O-Meter today reports that Broadway's new Pal Joey, despite the negative advance buzz and a slam from the NY Times' Ben Brantley, actually has a number of full-hearted (and some half-hearted) admirers, and that even most of the show's detractors are not as down on it as Ben. In other recent news, just about everyone loves Red Bull's Women Beware Women and were lukewarmly welcoming to Shrek.

Oh, and I'm happy to note that the site's birth has reached the Guardian and Utne Reader.

Dec 18, 2008

Piven, Struck Through

I have nothing to add to the reports of Jeremy Piven's sudden withdrawal from Speed-the-Plow, which, for the record, I enjoyed, if with a tad less relish than many of my peers. But I couldn't help noticing that this Times item on his withdrawal contains what seems like a first: an entire paragraph with a line through it (NOTE from Friday, 12/19/08: the strike-through graph has been removed so that the piece makes little sense; I saved the original page here). It's still entirely readable under the cross-out line, of course, and I'm wondering why this tidbit merited the chopping block:
At a recent matinee of the play, Mr. Piven was visibly perturbed with two theatergoers who arrived late for the performance, staring at his watch and tapping his foot while the latecomers took their seats.

Still more confusingly, this struck-through paragraph contains a hyperlink to a previous Times piece about Piven's co-star Raul Esparza singing on demand for theatergoers. Distinctly odd. Is this perhaps a case of the Times becoming ever more blog-like, or a mere error that gives us a backstage peek into the Gray Lady's editing process?

UPDATE: The Mamet mafia calls in not one but two new Bobby Goulds: William H. Macy and Norbert Leo Butz.

Zadie Didion?

I've got a confession, dear readers: Though I'm an avid reader of various things (increasingly online), I don't get through all that many proper books (certainly not as many as my Critic-O-Meter colleague), which means I'm hopeless when someone starts talking about new fiction, which writers are good, etc. Hopeless.

So I hadn't read a word of Zadie Smith until this recent New Yorker piece about her family of British "comedy nerds." The rap on Smith, according to people I trust, is that her first novel, White Teeth, was incredibly overhyped, her second, On Beauty, is "supposed to be" better. After reading her extraordinarly apt and moving personal history, "Dead Man Laughing," I'm inspired to decide for myself about her fiction. Ostensibly a tribute to her frustrated late father, Harvey, the essay ranges over themes of family, time, mortality, class, and race with the surprise and suspense and thrill of the best fiction.

Along the way, Smith proves that novelists can be devastating and illuminating critics of the lively arts. While I was struck by her envious comparison of standup comics and novelists, by the way she traces the sense of dashed class aspirations that links generations of despairing British comedy right up to David Brent, by her term "comedy nausea," I think my favorite excerpt is her offhanded precis of a sketch act she sees as an opening act for her brother, a budding standup comic, in a pub theater. Brace yourself:
Two men and two women performed a mildewed sketch show of unmistakable Oxbridge vintage, circa 1994. A certain brittle poshness informed their exaggerated portraits of high-strung secretaries, neurotic piano teachers, absent-minded professors. They put on mustaches and wigs and walked in and out of imaginary scenarios where fewer and fewer funny things occurred. It was the comedy of things past. The girls, though dressed as girls, were no longer girls, and the boys had paunches and bald spots; the faintest trace of ancient intracomedy-troupe love affairs clung to them sadly; all the promising meetings with the BBC had come and gone. This was being done out of pure friendship now, or the memory of friendship.

Every bit of the essay is that good, and better. It put me in mind of Steve Martin's "In the Birdcage," a beautiful culling from his excellent memoir, Born Standing Up, that's actually better than the book. And its incision, clarity, and transparency put me in mind of Joan Didion's best work. Yes, I think I will be checking out White Teeth and On Beauty.

Dec 17, 2008

The Secret Isn't Secret Anymore

From a recent benefit for Chris Wells' brilliant Secret City, which I wrote about for this month's American Theatre.

Camus' Caius

I'm really glad I saw Horizon Theatre Rep's production of Camus' brilliant Caligula, in a crackling translation by David Greig, even if director Rafael De Mussa (pictured above) made one hugely significant misstep.

Dec 16, 2008

Meter Reader

New on Critic-O-Meter: Red Bull Theatre's Jacobean Women Beware Women gets a warm embrace, Edward Bond's chilly Chair garners mostly cool admiration, and Shrek gets reviewed more or less for what it is: a franchise.

Good News, Bad News

Offsetting the news that Gypsy will move up its closing date from next Mar. 1 to Jan. 11, just one week after Black Sunday (Jan. 4, when it seems that half of Broadway will shutter), is an encouraging tidbit I, for one, had overlooked: Forbidden Broadway Goes To Rehab, initially announced to close out the franchise on Jan. 15, is now selling through Mar. 1.

But what will be left to parody?

Deathbed Star

James Surowiecki, in the current New Yorker, puts the plight of newspapers into perspective better than I have in any of my musings on the subject, explaining how the end is starting to look a lot more like a spectacular flameout than whimpering fadeout:

The peculiar fact about the current crisis is that even as big papers have become less profitable they’ve arguably become more popular. The blogosphere, much of which piggybacks on traditional journalism’s content, has magnified the reach of newspapers, and although papers now face far more scrutiny, this is a kind of backhanded compliment to their continued relevance. Usually, when an industry runs into the kind of trouble that Levitt was talking about, it’s because people are abandoning its products. But people don’t use the Times less than they did a decade ago. They use it more. The difference is that today they don’t have to pay for it. The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product.

What does it say, after all, that I read Surowiecki's piece on the subway this morning—The New Yorker being the only dead-tree publication to which I still subscribe—and then found it immediately for free online, all the better to link to it here? His sobering conclusion:
For a while now, readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime—intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on—and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.

Maybe guilt is one answer: After reading the various Atlantic blogs for years now without paying a dime, I've put an Atlantic subscription on my Christmas list.

UPDATE: A former Atlantic blogger dissents on Surowiecki's economic emphasis, pointing out that the "problem newspapers are having with online isn’t that the readers won’t pay, it’s that the advertisers won’t pay."

Dec 15, 2008

"Ages" to Rock Broadway?

According to a post on All That Chat, the hair-metal extravaganza Rock of Ages is moving to the Atkinson. Start stocking up on lighter fluid.

Animal Animus

Way off-topic, but as it comes via Trey Graham, it passes my stringent arts-related test: "Fuck You, Penguin," a hilariously profane blog that, in lashing out at toxic levels of cuteness in animal photos, somehow only fortifies it (to my softie's eyes, at least).

Road's End

Lowered expectations can be a boon, clearly. Partly thanks to this new site, and also because I'm a fan, I've read every review that's been written of Road Show, Sondheim's new chamber musical at the Public, and I was prepared for the worst. What I saw instead was an arty, rueful, resourceful little musical of hearteningly sturdy craftmanship and, I almost hesitate to add, an unmistakeably valedictory tone that was moving in itself.

I can't argue with my fellow critics on substance; Road Show is inarguably a bit hollow and lachrymose, but it's never less than smart and involving, and I was surprised how often I smiled or laughed more or less exactly as I think Weidman and Sondheim intended—with a world-weary, slightly self-aware catch in the throat. Over the years I've gone from Sondheim skeptic to smitten fan, and today I hover uneasily somewhere between the two; I'm no longer convinced, as I once was, that time alone will be enough to turn his thornier shows into Rodgers & Hammerstein-style standards, though I cherish nearly every one of his scores the way I cherish the theater scores of Janacek, Ravel, Weill (I exclude Passion, the only show of his that put me to sleep). I was left cold, for instance, by the recent Sunday revival, and not because of the production; I think that show has proven to be what its critics said it was all along: a brilliant but lopsided conceit with a constrained, self-involved view of art and human connection.

On the other hand, one thing that moved me most about Road Show was seeing Orville Mendoza among the ensemble; years ago, he was among one of L.A.'s most essential Sondheim interpreters, etching an indelible Sweeney Todd in East West Players' 99-seat production, and later a definitive Kayama in EWP's Pacific Overtures. East West was among a cadre of scrappy L.A. theaters who kept my Sondheim faith alive in the 1990s and beyond by presenting his shows in intimate settings where every crammmed-in word counted (a revelation later echoed here).

And this may be the thing I think I like most about Road Show: its gritty modesty, its clear embrace of the smaller canvas and whites-of-their-eyes intimacy. I wish I could say there's a commensurate increase in intensity and impact to compensate for Road Show's smaller scope, but that's not quite the case; I'm not sure there's that much there there. Still, director John Doyle's dry-eyed, free-ranging presentational boldness seems exactly right in this pointedly Off-Broadway context, and it manages to show this brittle material in its best possible light. Perhaps paradoxically, something about Doyle's production—the travelling trunks, the echoes of vaudeville, the hard-sell, win-or-lose themes—put me in mind of possibly the greatest musical ever, which not coincidentally has lyrics by Sondheim and recently announced a new Broadway closing date, the towering Gypsy. As rough bookends to a career, an artist could do a lot worse. I will only add, as someone who has seen a lot more than his share of bad theater, that if all the so-called failures I sat through were as good as Road Show, I'd be a much happier man. Faint praise, perhaps, but not meant to damn.

Below, Orville sits at Sondheim's piano (isn't Facebook great?).

Dec 10, 2008

Today on (and About) Critic-O-Meter

Two plays with war and family on the brain: Craig Lucas' Prayer for My Enemy and Keith Reddin & Meg Gibson's Antigone remix Too Much Memory. Read all about 'em.

In other Critic-O-Meter news, LA Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris offers a longer and more thorough version of his blog entry deploring Isaac's and my new review-reviewing site. I'm honored that Steven takes our site seriously enough to take it apart so vigorously (and I'm kind of tickled by the piece's illustration, by Justin Renteria), but of course I'm disappointed that he relates our venture to the culture of standardized testing and a reductive "one-click-fits-all" model.

While I admit feeling a sting of truth when Steven writes, "To assess a play with a grade is mildly insulting to the critic but deeply insulting to the creators," I also have a response, having been on both sides of that coin--I've been reviewed as well as reviewed others, and both I and my targets, last I checked, are still standing. And the response is this: that at least part of what Critic-O-Meter is intended to do is to serve as a corrective to the undue power of a few daily critics, both in the area of consumer advice and in the realm of setting the terms and boundaries of the critical conversation. I have felt firsthand, and heard secondhand over the years, the deep frustration with the way one or two critic's tastes and distastes too often become the final verdict/conventional wisdom on a play for all time--in the markets I've worked in, it's been whoever has "Times" on his side--when I and others who care about this kind of thing know that the critical conversation about a given play is/was much, much wider and more diverse than any one critic's writing could possibly reflect. So what could I do with this knowledge? Ramble on about a particular undersung show when asked, or even when unasked; advocate favorites with theatre awards or year-end lists.

Critic-O-Meter, in that spirit, is our way of broadening the conversation to include everyone writing about every show we can find (and have time to include); if we want to drop our thoughtful two cents about our favorite shows and issues into the giant wishing well of the blogosphere, well, that's what a blog like this or this is for. The grading process at Critic-O-Meter, as Steven rightly notes, is entirely subjective, but that's the essence of our gamble: that the grades, and the paragraphs of summary we add about each show, are the value that Isaac and I add beyond a simple review aggregator.

As a critic, sporadic practitioner and occasional paying theatergoer myself, I know I can handle the insult of being reduced to a grade, particularly if the so-called "reduction" in fact holds out the chance of a more abundant, noisy, and spirited conversation.

Dec 8, 2008

Another Great Invalid

I once wondered, in a weak, self-doubting moment, how I had ended up invested in, or on the side of, what felt like so many lost or disrespected causes: mainline Christianity, mainstream liberalism, arts journalism, musical theater, theater in general. To those seemingly-always-losing-ground concerns, I might add music (as a business, at least) and journalism/criticism in the age of the Internets. As much as I feel invigorated by the trends I've highlighted here and here, I can't deny that to make ends meet, I've mostly had to think outside the box of the actual journalism industry (and the cratered music business, for that matter). Though he's mostly stating the obvious, coming from blog optimist Andrew Sullivan, this pre-mortem has an especial sting. His diagnosis:
The problem here, however, is that online advertising, while growing, is not growing fast enough to replace print advertising. It almost certainly will one day, but the distance between the print sinking ship and the online life raft was always perilously long. And now the recession has whipped the waters between into hurricane turbulence. I have a feeling that if and when the storm ends, there will be few ships left and only a few survivors clinging onto small but buoyant dinghies.

And he concedes the most damning retort to media optimists:
The terrifying problem is that a one-man blog cannot begin to do the necessary labour-intensive, skilled reporting that a good newspaper sponsors and pioneers. A world in which reporting becomes even more minimal and opinion gets even more vacuous and unending is not a healthy one for a democracy. Perhaps private philanthropists will step in and finance not-for-profit journalistic centres, where investigative and foreign reporting can be invested in and disseminated by blogs and online sites. Maybe reporter-bloggers will start rivalling opinion-mongers such as me and give the whole enterprise some substance. Maybe papers can slim down sufficiently to produce a luxury print issue and a viable online product. There’s always a hunger for news, after all.

My question, then, is what to do about this state of affairs, except wring our hands? Shrinking space, particularly for arts coverage, has been a recurring theme since I started in print journalism nearly 20 years ago. But as my own reading and consuming habits, and those of the generation coming up behind me, have migrated inexorably to the Web, I have found access to more, not less, arts coverage and criticism, and my writing has arguably reached as many if not more readers through the Web than it ever did in print (the line blurs a bit here, since though I've essentially left the journalism-industrial complex for my living, I still freelance for a number of print publications with a much bigger Web presence and legitimacy than I've got on my own; that Sullivan's blog beats major news organizations in Web traffic is a glaring neon sign of the times).

In one of the few ink publications I still tote around for subway reading, The New Yorker, I came across this speculative analogy, in Adam Gopnik's recent piece:
Samuel Johnson arrived in London in March of 1737, at the age of twenty-seven. He...had no luck in his dream, of becoming a London writer and wit, for a very long time. He had the misfortune to have arrived in London in a time not unlike this one, with the old-media dispensation in crisis and the new media barely paying. The practice of aristocratic patronage, in which big shots paid to be flattered by their favorite writers, was ebbing, and the new, middle-class arrangement, where plays and novels could command real money from publishers, was not yet in place. The only way to make a living was to publish, for starvation wages, in the few magazines that had come into existence. Johnson worked as a miscellaneous journalist, carrying his clips around and begging for assignments.

Sounds like fun. And here's a tart little cautionary aside that may also seem relevant to our time, particularly in the blogosphere:
The new order had also produced a permanently bitter and underemployed class of writers, who had meant to be Popes but were left to be merely beggars in the square outside, and they made their living working for penny-a-line pamphlets and cheap gossip tabloids, creating a constant mouse scream of malice that runs in counterpoint to Johnson’s grave sonorities.

A final meat for the stew: the Web's lack of space restrictions blessedly allows Playgoer to write 5,480 words about a recent disgrace at the Times (the public editor's kowtowing to the Catholic League over Jason Zinoman's review of Corpus Christi). Garrett has some ads on his site, but I doubt he's making serious bank for writing that long, and that passionately, about something he cares about—nor does he have an editor pressuring to him to temper or trim his views.

In short, our current cultural moment, in which unpaid or barely paid self-publishers and freelancers can have their say and reach an audience with a minimum of investment and no limits on expression but their own imagination and stamina, may soon enough be a moment we'll look back at with a wistfulness rivalling our current eulogies for the newspaper business—either that, or this new-media moment of simultaneous scarcity and opportunity is a small eddy that will swell into the wave of the future. We can't know, but as for me, I'll keep looking forward as much as I look back.

Dec 5, 2008

What Mark Blankenship Said

I don't share his love for Roger Ebert—I'm something of a Paulette myself, and Ebert's dismissal of Raising Arizona was what made me write him off years ago—but I do second Mark's wary optimism about the unfolding future of arts journalism (which very often looks more like an unraveling than an unfolding). Taking on a post by the senior critic conflating the death of print newspapers with the end of thoughtful criticism, Mark writes:
What surprises me is the sense of hopelessness in Ebert’s writing. Like many people who built careers in “old media,” he equates the death of newspapers with the death of thinking, as though people who don’t want to get their information in the traditional way are people who don’t want to think at all. For a man who pushed criticism into a new medium (television), I would expect him to see that American thoughtfulness isn’t dying but changing.

And the change is right there in Ebert’s hands. He wrote his essay on a blog, after all, and he even responds to some of the comments about it...So… what’s the problem, then? Ebert wrote a lovely, forceful essay. Even better, he’s discussing it with his readers. How exciting for them and for him! If you scroll through the comments, you find excellent arguments and counter-arguments, and you find Ebert clarifying his points. To my ears, the canary isn’t dying. It’s singing louder than before because it’s harmonizing with a flock of birds.

Yet Ebert makes a sour prognosis about the death of thought, and throughout the comments section he vehemently defines himself as a “newspaperman.” He’s one of many people who feel this way, but I’m singling him out because I’m surprised he doesn’t see how his own work is forging the path for the future.

Because really, newspapers may be familiar, but they aren’t necessary. There are many valid ways to think through problems and process information, and we’re simply in a transitional period toward a new model.

And again, this new model–the web–is helping criticism, not hurting it. It’s giving us more space to voice our thoughts and find our thinking challenged. On this very site, reader feedback has helped me evolve my outlook on several things, and the site’s limitless format has allowed me to dig deeper than any of the mainstream publications I write for.

So isn’t it time to stop bemoaning change? We’re building a new model at this very minute, so of course we haven’t perfected it yet, and of course it will be different than what has come before. But that’s okay. That’s vital.

I couldn't agree more.

Brother David

I'm pre-sold on anything Elvis Costello does—take it or leave it, the guy's work is like a family member in my life—so of course I tuned into Spectacle, his new Sundance talkfest. The premiere with Elton John was, for me, must-watch TV, even with Sir Elton's digressive ramblings and Elvis' professorial clucking, and musical performances that were decidedly ragged. If it doesn't quite promise to be the musical version of Inside the Actors Studio (and would we really want that?), with EC in charge it looks to be a warm and informed forum for musical advocacy, at least.

To wit, though I was happy to see the always-worth-plugging Leon Russell and Laura Nyro get due props, I was gobsmacked to witness the finale: A mini-tribute to the late, great David Ackles, a Leonard Cohen-ish singer/songwriter whom Costello has championed before and whose exposure on Spectacle this week, and endorsement by the likes of Sir Elton, may be the high watermark of his fame thus far.

One comment by Costello struck home bittersweetly for me: that with Ackles' acting and theatrical background (he had been a child actor), he might have had the kind of success in the theater that Sir Elton has had. This struck me in particular because I had the good fortune to meet Ackles years ago, before I knew of his pedigree or his famous fans, when we were both members of the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in Los Angeles (not affiliated with New York's BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, and since renamed). That makes us sound more like colleagues than we really were; in fact, he served as a mentor on a troubled short musical of mine, and I'm sorry to say that the only real time I spent with him was a brief meeting at his ranch in Tujunga when, in his mentor role, he was on hand to mediate a dispute between my librettist and my lyricist, who weren't speaking to each other. As the composer caught between these two warring wrtiers, I was worried the project wouldn't happen at all. Ackles, with a singular empathy for all sides, defused the tension and graciously assured us all that the show would go on. And so it did.

I only recall hearing him present one song in the workshop—a wry, Randy Newman-ish tune from the point of view of William Randolph Hearst regarding the title subject of Ackles' musical, Sister Aimee, about the great L.A.-based preacher Aimee Semple McPherson.

I've learned some of this from a fan website for Ackles, who is much more known and loved in the U.K. than over here. Here's hoping that these two famous, bespectacled Brits will help put Ackles' distinctive work back on the map, and keep it from staying, as his moving, mysterious signature song has it, "Down river...locked away."

It's Critic-O-Meter Day!

A number of times over the past few years, I've been involved in some of the usual back-and-forth—in person and blogospherically—about the role of the critics, their relationship and responsibility (if any) to theatrical artists and consumers, the inordinate power of the Times, etc. I recalled that years ago on this blog I used to cull L.A. theater reviews into rough groupings and ranks, rating which shows had been reviewed best, worst, etc. I've enjoyed such features as Slate's Summary Judgment, which pithily sums up reviews of movies, and I often look at Metacritic to see a survey of critical opinions. (I also fondly remember Spy's "Review of Reviewers," but that's a horse of a slightly different color.)

You see where I'm going with this? When my esteemed colleague Isaac Butler of Parabasis linked approvingly to a proposal by (apparently now a private blog) which posited the "theater Metacritic" idea in so many words, I contacted Isaac right away, and we talked about launching just such a site.

Long story short, I got some advice from Marc Doyle of Metacritic, who told me there have been proposals over the years to rate theater reviews there but the economics haven't worked out; for a while Isaac and I received help from James Marino of Broadwaystars, where we thought we might launch our site. In the end, we decided to just get it up and running in Blogger.

And so, without further ado, I present to you the official launch of CRITIC-O-METER. It doesn't include every show up in New York, and it doesn't include every review of every show up in New York, but that's essentially our goal (Nate Silver of 538 is also a sort of inspiration). I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you'll feel free to offer your suggestions and feedback.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go check the latest reviews.

(Image: "The Art Critic" by Raoul Hausmann.)

Dec 4, 2008

The Crossover File

Toronto critic Kelly Nestruck recently found herself reviewing a director who's also a critical colleague of hers, and went on to muse on the ethics of such crossovers (h/t American Theatre Web, via Broadwaystars). As is often the case, the contrast is with the British model:
I used to think critics should keep their hands as clean as possible, but living in the UK for a couple of years really challenged my point of view on this issue. The critical culture over there is quite different, dating back to Bernard Shaw, who straddled the critic/artist divide, and newspapers seem less worried about pure objectivity - a fairly mythical concept anyway.

As one who's made the leap myself, both in NY and L.A., I do make a point of recusing myself from the work of close friends and/or people with whom I've worked in direct professional relationships (a play by Brian Parks, my assigning editor at the Village Voice, and a recent production at the Metropolitan Theatre, where I did the music for The Devil and Tom Walker last spring, are just two instances of shows I've chosen to opt out of reviewing). Most critics in the U.S. wouldn't go as far as I have, but check out the Brits' idea of fair game:

In recent years, Mail on Sunday critic Georgina Brown sat on the board of the Bristol Old Vic, but still reviewed shows there, and Evening Standard critic and alleged snoozer Nicholas de Jongh's play Plague Over England opened at the Finborough theatre. These are a couple of exceptional examples of potential conflicts of interest, but then there are the regular, everyday ones of critics hired to write program notes or paid by theatres to host post-show talkbacks.

Personally, I judge these issues on a case-by-case basis—and I do try to keep the cases to a minimum. For instance, some critics and editors don't think a reporter who's written a feature on a show—i.e., met and spoken to artists involved in a given production—ought to then put on his critic's hat and review the same show; others, like The New Yorker's John Lahr, often do both in the same story. Speaking for myself, I wouldn't have a freelance career to speak of if I couldn't transgress that line on occasion. For me, the important line-crossing questions are: Have I sought work as a composer or dramaturg (the two things for which I've received credits in New York) from the same artists I've reviewed? Have I—a bit thornier, this—ever reviewed the work of artists from whom I've sought employment? The truth is, not that I recall—and I think I'd recall.

I often feel that this dance can't go on forever—that eventually push will come to shove, and my two worlds will start to overlap too incestuously—but so far this balancing act has proven sustainable, and perhaps more importantly, it's kept me alert and interested in this mutable art form. I can't say it's made me a better critic, but it's made me a more engaged critic and observer.

Wait For It...

When I reviewed Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed Off-Broadway a few years ago (alas, this is all that's left online of the review--they've erased years of reviews from the site), Julie White's agent character had one line that stuck in my craw, as a longtime L.A. theater champion (who had in fact seen Julie White onstage in L.A.). It was about how they'd solved the problem of cellphones in the theater: "We've simply stopped doing theater altogether."

OK, fine--you can read this at the character's expense, if you choose, but I don't think that's how the line got its laughs. Now, more than two years later, White has brought the same gag to a stage in L.A. How does the joke play in the belly of its beastly target?

Leave it to the LA Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris, who already noted the diss in a piece last spring, to single it out in his review:
The agent makes a quip about how L.A. has solved the problems of cell phones in the theater by not doing theater. “Choices were made.” Big laugh. At what? A myth about L.A. that’s so false they don’t even believe it in New York anymore.

I was happy to note the review just below that one--my old Appalachian Twelfth Night colleagues, the Dancing Barefoot peeps, are staging Deb Pryor's Southern twister The Love Talker at Son of Semele. Yes, Virginia, they still do theater in L.A.

Best-Kept Secret

Chris Wells, ex-Actors' Gangster and fellow former Angeleno, is one of my favorite stage and/or cabaret performers, but I haven't seen him perform in quite a while--unless I can count his monthly "gig" leading a secular artist's service called The Secret City, which he began hosting a little over a year ago, and which I've profiled in a brief piece in this month's American Theatre (the story's not online; get thee to a newsstand).

As someone who's been going to the theatre almost as long as I've been going to churches, I'm especially appreciative of the Sunday morning sanctuary that Chris has created, though he's taken pains not to call what he does a "church." As he puts it:
“It doesn’t have baggage for me, but I’m very mindful that the word ‘church’ is really loaded for people,” Wells concedes. For him, the reason worship makes such a natural fit with theatre has nothing to do with belief systems.

“One of the reasons that fundamentalism appeals so much to some people is the feeling of belonging,” says Wells. “And it occurred to me that artists have suffered what I’ve referred to as a diaspora—I really feel that for a number of reasons artists have been exploded out of any feeling of being central to the civilization. Not to sound too political or paranoid, but that is how you disempower people—separate them from other like people.

“So my desire was to re-gather those people and say, ‘Not only do we have a purpose, but we actually have maybe the greatest calling there is.’ ”

Can I get an amen? The Secret City will hold a cabaret benefit this weekend at the space, Theatrelab, 137 W. 14th St., Sat. Dec. 6 at 7 & 9:30 p.m., and Sun. Dec. 7 at 9 p.m. Info here.

Dec 3, 2008

Prop Culture

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

Apologies for the light posting...been working a lot on this new venture (more on that anon). Meantime enjoy Shaiman's handiwork--a numbah even Scott Eckern could enjoy.

Nov 26, 2008


A rough week at the theater: I reviewed Stephen Belber's Iraq War-themed Geometry of Fire and Shelagh Stephenson's abuse-themed Five Kinds of Silence. Even when I don't love what I see, this year I'm thankful to still be on the beat I love.

Nov 24, 2008

1,000 to 1

Media pundit Jay Rosen is very excited about what he sees as a future model for journalism on the Web: building reader/information networks around writer/reporters. In this bloggingheads diavlog, he's talking to Conor Friedersdorf of the new center-right online magazine Culture11, but his advice seems salient for any new media venture (indeed, Rosen has done a lot of work with HuffPo, and progressive powerhouse Talking Points Memo is the case study he eventually gets to later in the diavlog—a network he says is now "bigger than the Los Angeles Times"). The obvious missing link: any discussion of how such a new model would pay for itself. Still, some hearty food for thought to chew on.

Nov 20, 2008

Venue Attrition

Apologies if another writer in my bloggerhood has already posted on this new study by the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation about the fortunes of Off-0ff-Broadway venues, which I found sobering. To wit:

Over 25% of OOB venues in both the West Village and Midtown area have either been demolished or repurposed into non-performance spaces in the last 5 years

43% of all OOB venues are located in the West Side Midtown area of Manhattan

The East Village, which only accounts for 14% of the overall OOB venues, is currently presenting 30% of the OOB productions

Those stats about Midtown, the East Village, and the Theatre District are a little confusing--they seem to contradict each other, or at least to indicate that though there's a concentration of OOB venues near the Theatre District, Downtown venues still stage a disproportionate number of OOB shows.

Shay Gines, the foundation's executive director, spells it out a bit more clearly: "Over the last 5 years, we have lost 26% of the Off-Off-Broadway stages in the Midtown area. We have watched a steady decline in the number of productions that are taking place in the 'theatre district.' Even more disturbing is the fact that of the 30 Off-Off-Broadway houses in the Greenwich Village area, over 25% have already been lost and with the displacement of the theatres from the Archive Building, that percentage increases to 40%."

I imagine we'll see a more in-depth post on this from Leonard any minute now.

Don't Say a Word

Still not quite used to seeing this familiar mug in the underground. On a similar note, though I haven't (advertently, at least) heard a note of the Jonas Bros.' music, I found this mutual interview a manifold delight.

Make It a Double

I lucked out last week, covering two hotshot playwrights and finding their newest works live up, more or less, to the hype. That would Itamar Moses' baseball trio Back Back Back and Thomas Bradshaw's uncharacteristically restrained Dawn. The kids are all right.

Nov 17, 2008

Roubaix Baby

If Anton Chekhov were alive today, had developed a mild case of ADD and a killer CD collection, and had for some reason decided to make a Christmas-family-reunion movie set in the humble French town of Roubaix, I can say with some confidence that the results might resemble Arnaud Desplechin's vivid, utterly involving, slightly flaky, almost unavoidably resonant A Christmas Tale. I was a big fan of his previous import, Kings and Queen, which introduced me to that troubled Pan, Mathieu Almaric (currently appearing in some other moving picture show, I hear) and the beautiful blank slate Emanuelle Devos. Both have fine roles in the new film, which doesn't have quite the heady undertow of the Kings and Queens but is worth seeing for an exquisitely unsentimental performance by Catherine Deneuve, and to trip on how much her daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, looks like a blend of her parents (with a little Susan Sarandon thrown in, somehow). Bon tiemps.

Nov 15, 2008

Cooler Heads Prevail

Adam Feldman has an extremely thoughtful Time Out blog post about the Eckern affair, in which he deplores the furious backlash against supporters of California's Prop. 8 as counter to the inclusive traditions of the theater, not to mention counterproductive to the same-sex marriage cause. In the process, Feldman also reveals Christine Ebersole of Grey Gardens fame to be a particularly spicy flavor of wingnut (9/11 "truth" and the amero? Wow).

His conclusion:
It seems to me that in judging whether someone is a bigot, we must be fair-minded about people’s differences, however silly or repugnant we may find them. Do Ebersole’s opinions make me think less of her as a person? Yes, they do. But she has a right, up to a point, to be wrong. And so did Eckern. Those of us who disdain their views must work to change their minds and resist the temptation to merely purge them from our programs. The theater world was a refuge, in the 1950s, for actors and writers blacklisted from Hollywood. That is a tradition worth keeping alive: the decency of the left.

Nov 14, 2008

The Death of Music

Not really--just evidence from The Hollywood Reporter of further hard times in the music business, in this case the film-scoring end of it. Sample anecdote:
"It used to be that composers would still get paid a fairly decent amount to work on an independent film," says Richard Kraft, co-owner of Kraft-Engel Management. "But now it's usual to argue just about paying for musicians."

Given this reality, many composers and producers are trying to find ways of being creative and cost-conscious at the same time.

Such was the case with Jonathan Demme's latest film, "Rachel Getting Married."

"Jenny Lumet's script had musical references in it," says producer Neda Armian. "The singing of the vows was in the script, and she had even chosen (songs) for it. Some of those songs, though, were quite expensive."

For the pivotal "I do" scene, the screenplay originally called for an AC/DC song, but, Demme says, "we discovered that to have someone do a cover version of that song, live in our movie, would cost more than our entire cast put together."

So he thought of another song, Neil Young's "Unknown Legend."

"You know, Neil's 'Unknown Legend' is the most romantic song I've ever heard," he says. "We were able to get a very, very favorable deal to have Tunde (Adebimpe) sing (that)."

Instead of negotiating for the rights to other music, he then "recruited an exquisite band of musicians whose job it was to make beautiful music in the moment. We never rehearsed a shot. We never planned a shot."

A happy ending, of sorts, but there is also this:
With the number of sessions being cut, and composers being pressed to record twice the amount of music per three-hour session, many musicians can barely pay their bills.

A bailout of the music business, anyone?

California's Dukes

I didn't even know there was such a position, but Carol Muske-Dukes, a fine author whom I got to know as the widow of the late actor David Dukes, has been named California's poet laureate. She wrote a sensitive book about her late husband about six years ago, which I wrote about here. (h/t Culture Monster)

Are We Going To Miss This?

There's a lot of talk about how hard it's going to be laugh or make jokes about the next occupant of the White House. I for one will be pretty satisfied to give up that luxury. (Enjoy while we still can.)

(Photo of Pres. Bush with members of the Arizona State University Men's and Women's Track Team Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008, during a photo opportunity with 2008 NCAA Sports Champions at the White House. White House photo by Eric Draper.)

Nov 13, 2008

Blues for Whitey

A friend and colleague from my church, Jason Benjamin, has a rocking Dixieland band, the Red Hook Ramblers, whom I've heard play everywhere from Greenpoint Church to the yard of Louis Armstrong's house in Corona, Queens to the Pussycat Lounge. In the coming week, they'll continue their hike along the sacred-and-profane continuum with a performance in a church in Bergen, NJ and a burlesque club on the Lower East Side (next Wed.). Jason puts it in perspective with a thoughtful email:
I don't make any pretense about what my band does. We're white guys from good neighborhoods - what right do we have to play the blues, or spirituals?

Let me tell you: it's about paying reverence to the long tradition of American expression; a very f'd up trail from 1800s black minstrels to stuff like Kelly Clarkson. I like hiking back a bit to retrace the giant footsteps. I like reviving some of their work to see if it still kicks. The good stuff never stops kicking...

Our next two gigs are at a church and then at a cabaret. 100 years ago, those were the only two places where a black man could publicly express himself. Now a black man will soon be expressing himself in the highest office of our country. What a perspective.

These gigs aren't history lessons, they're fun. We're gonna raise the roof. But I gotta say I'm proud to be playing music that works in both the houses of the sacred and the profane, there's something electrifying about that, and deeply American. We're playing African-American spirituals and gospels at Old Bergen Church in NJ tomorrow. Next Weds we're playing raunchy jazz at the Slipper Room in the LES with a variety of female dancers. Reverence, man, reverence.

Amen to that.

Mental Health Czech

Just caught the Prazak Quartet last night at Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, doing two of my absolute favorite pieces, Janacek's first quartet and Smetana's "From My Life." Still buzzing from that, and I thought I would share this finale from the Smetana. On this gloomy day (in New York, anyway), nothing cheers me up like a Czech.

When We Dead Awaken

You may notice a theme running through my two reviews this week: of Zombie Joe's Urban Death and Irwin Shaw's antiwar semi-classic Bury the Dead. More surprising, given my track record in recent weeks, is that I actually liked them both a fair bit. Who says the theater is dead? Undead is more like it.

Nov 12, 2008

Eckern Resigns From CMT

Scott Eckern has resigned from the artistic directorship of California Music Theatre. And Jeff Whitty takes exception to the LA Times' reporting in the comments section.

For the record, though I'm miles away from California, and I'm not versed on the differences between how California defines civil unions and how it would define marriage, I understand why passions run hot on both sides. But I do think the argument from "tolerance" is not a very illuminating frame of reference, finally. We "tolerate" things we deplore, until one day we're pushed too far and we don't tolerate them anymore. What's called for isn't tolerance but justice. And though the angels in this case are on the side of same-sex marriage, the road to justice--in this case, full legal rights--is not going to be an easy one.

I think a lot about an ongoing conversation I had with Bill Rauch when he headed up Cornerstone. He told me how he'd worked contentedly alongside a stage manager, an evangelical Christian, until one day he found out that she believed gays--Bill and his husband, Chris, included--were going to hell. Many of us would be tempted to sever the relationship there, but Bill isn't like most of us. Long, pained meetings with a facilitator ensued, and the limits of "tolerance" were tested. To wit: To what extent should we tolerate the views of someone we consider intolerant? Is it in turn intolerant of us not to allow a person to believe and support, in their private hearts and lives, things we find hateful? I think these questions are worth asking ourselves, honestly and with humility, when we ponder the odd, sad case of Scott Eckern. Once we've thought (and even prayed, if that's how we roll) on it, we can act, advocate, and associate in good conscience.

My answers to those questions, incidentally, would be, rolled together: We should listen respectfully to other points of view and express our own similarly, but it is not intolerance to disassociate ourselves, professionally or personally, from people whose views we find, upon reflection, truly hateful. If we're in a position of hiring or licensing authority, it's obviously thornier--but I would venture to say that it can't reasonably be called discrimination to disallow discrimination. Is Scott Eckern contributing to an anti-gay campaign a form of "discrimination"? Narrowly defined, no, which is why I think calls for his head were misplaced. Is it something Eckern's colleagues have every right to be concerned, and upset, about? Surely, and that's where the politics of letter-writing, hand-wringing, and public pressure have their place. Still, it would be great for all concerned, and for the cause of justice in particular, if a modicum of civility were preserved. One lesson we might take from last week's presidential election: Cooler heads prevail.

(Related topics, including Cornerstone's inclusion of gay Muslims in its "faith" cycle, and another illuminating glimpse of Jeff Whitty's salutary open-mindedness, were touched on here.)

UPDATE: If you haven't done so already, check out this thoughtful, evenhanded post by Sacramento critic Kel Munger, who knows whereof he speaks more than any of us East Coast armchair pundits.

Nov 11, 2008

Redemption for Scott Eckern?

Avenue Q co-author Jeff Whitty thinks maybe so.

Whitty also posts a transcript of much of a conversation he had this week with Eckern, the embattled artistic director of Sacramento's California Music Theatre, who as a dutiful California Mormon gave $1,000 to support efforts to pass the anti-gay Prop. 8. Leonard Jacobs posted a complete letter of protest from the estimable Susan Egan yesterday. Eckern has since given $1,000 to the Human Rights Campaign, but not before this choice exchange with Whitty:
"This is Scott Eckern, from the California Musical Theatre."

...I knew he'd already had a well-earned earful from Marc [Shaiman], so I decided to try a different tactic. I put on my soft voice.

"I understand that you contributed a thousand dollars to the 'Yes on 8' campaign."

Mr. Eckern affirmed that he had.

"So I have a question. This summer, my Mom celebrated her 70th birthday in Oregon, and my entire family came out and we spent a week together. It was wonderful. I brought my partner Steve, and we spent a lot of time with my five nieces and nephews. They love Steve. All they know is that he's the person I love and care about, just as with any other relationship they've come across. But I'd like to know: in your opinion, was I hurting my nieces and nephews?"

"No," Mr. Eckern said.

"Because so much of the Yes on 8 advertising was about hurting children. At least one of your spokesmen said that gay people actually recruit children."

I don't want to say too much about Mr. Eckern's response -- he can state it himself if he wishes -- but I'll say there was real ambivalence about the tactics of the campaign. I'm not sure these issues had occurred to him, quite, when the gays were a faceless menace to marriage. And he admitted that he said nothing as the inflammatory tactics escalated.

Next question: "How would me marrying Steve hurt straight marriages?" This got into the religious "the Bible says" argument, which I pointed out didn't wash in the United States I lived in with its vast array of religious affiliations. Mr. Eckern did point out that he was for civil unions, etcetera, just so long as the word "marriage" wasn't used -- that weird and tiresome semantic argument, whose subtext always seems to be, "We want to give you rights, but keep our foot on your neck at the same time."

Next question: "So why is it that a straight couple can meet in a bar in Vegas and be married an hour later, but my septuagenarian neighbors David and Donald, who've been together for thirty years, can't get married and have its legal protections? Doesn't that say anything?"

The conversation got very emotional. I let him talk and tried not to interrupt. I spoke about my new antipathy toward the Mormon church. I was firm, but honest, and with that honesty I expressed a great degree of hurt. Mr. Eckern kept bringing up the artistic perspective, that theater is a forum where people of opposing views can come together and air them and everybody can learn. I was less starry-eyed about the power of theater: "Well, then you walk out of the theater and the world still sucks"...

It was really hard not being livid. I know that there's a great degree of hue and cry over getting Mr. Eckern fired. I've searched my soul about this. I'm instinctively not comfortable with the idea of his dismissal, though my activist side still whispers, "Punish!" I fear for what Mr. Eckern's dismissal would say about theater: that there's only room for the pro-gay crowd. In a way, if we only allow people we agree with, if we only allow people who share a broad sympathy for the human condition, then we become one of those dreaded fantasy "elites" that Fox News and Sarah Palin and the jerks at the children's table keep harping about.

UPDATE: The LA Times' Culture Monster blog has more. Highlights: In addition to reporting that Whitty accepts Eckern's apology, the embattled AD outs his sister as a lesbian in a domestic partnership relationship; meanwhile, the theater continues to weigh its options. And Hairspray's Marc Shaiman suggests that a gay-rights benefit at the theater would help repair the damage, concluding with a note of caution about some of the rhetorical excesses of those on his own side: "We have to watch ourselves and not become what we're fighting against."

The "Theater" in "Mystery Science Theater"

I knew there had to be an element of theater in the late, great TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000--in other words, another excuse to refer to it here. In the latest Onion, a 20th-anniversary reunion interview confirms that the famous mud-planet logo--well, read on:

AVC: How did that distinctive logo come about?

Joel Hodgson: That's foam insulation. That's the stuff that you caulk around your windows, and we had a bunch of cans of that. And Trace had this ball that he got from the Guthrie Theater in his storage.

Trace Beaulieu: It was a 48-inch fiberglass ball that was used in one of their productions, and it was made so meticulously that it had to drop from the ceiling of the theater and roll to a specific spot on the stage every time. You couldn't bring it in a door. It had to go out through a dock door, it was so huge. But we just sat in the shop and sprayed it with foam insulation and then cut the letters out with a band saw.

"Atomic" Implosion

(Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.)

I ate popcorn at the opera on Saturday--or rather, at the Chelsea Clearview cinema, where I watched a live HD broadcast from the Metropolitan of Doctor Atomic. This whole simulcast thing is an excellent idea and a great bargain ($22 vs. $150-plus for a decent seat at the Met), and I see via Playgoer that some theaters are taking the plunge, though while I'm talking about the broadcast itself, it was a little disconcerting to see Gerald Finley interviewed on-camera seconds after the end of the first act, like a halfback who just scored the winning TD.

As for the opera itself--well, I'll have to take the word of critics I trust that it was better in Frisco. I'll start by saying I'm a huge fan of the composer, John Adams--I saw lot of him on the West Coast, where he regularly guested at the L.A. Phil, and I still cherish the memory of his lively Ojai Fest directorship of 1993 (God, was it that long ago?). I'm also a fan of most of the Peter Sellars work I've been lucky enough to see (again, mostly at LA Opera and on the teevee), and their work together has been alternately brilliant (Nixon in China), lachrymose (The Death of Klinghoffer), and impassioned (El Nino).

Two of those were operas with libretti the poet Alice Goodman, while El Nino is an oratorio with a crazy quilt of texts relating to exile, journey, and the Nativity. The text of Doctor Atomic was assembled in a similarly hodgepodge way, and to my mind the opera's problems start there, though like a chain reaction this deficit goes on to wreck the music and the production, too. In treating the days leading up to the first atomic bomb test at Los Alamos in 1945, Sellars (who is credited with "libretto") stitched together documentary texts, firsthand accounts, and poetry beloved by the extremely well-read J. Robert Oppenheimer.

This leads to some wrenchingly beautiful and haunting material--as well as sprawling deserts of essentially undramatic, thuddingly prosaic recitative, set to restless music that eventually acquires the monotony of the seemingly arbitrary. Penny Woolcock's production often looks great as a static installation with some moving parts, but the problem with stage pictures is that the theater no less than music moves in time, and a brilliant picture tends to look dead after, say, 10 minutes. I had a hard time tracking any of the characters, because they aren't given scenes to act so much as states.

On the plus side, I was grateful to be exposed to some stunning texts, many of them beautifully voiced by Sasha Cooke, in the dramatically extraneous role of Oppenheimer's wife, Kitty. All her words, in fact, are from poems by Muriel Rukeyser. I was struck in particular by this:
Now I say that the peace the spirit needs is peace,
not lack of war, but fierce continual flame.
For all men: effort is freedom, effort’s peace,
it fights. And along these truths the soul goes home,
flies in its blazing to a place
more safe and round than Paradise.

"Effort is freedom," that's one to remember (shades of Flow, no?). And this:
Those who most long for peace now pour their lives on war.
Our conflicts carry creation and its guilt,
these years’ great arms are full of death and flowers.
A world is to be fought for, sung, and built:
Love must imagine the world.

Musically, I felt mostly adrift, though Adams' is a sonic world I don't mind drifting in. Exceptions include a "Vishnu" chorus in the second act, with some of the Bhagavad-Gita's gnarliest images making for a deeply disturbing chorale. And of course, the searing "Batter My Heart," setting a favorite poem of Oppenheimer's by John Donne, which closes Act One memorably:

Speaking frankly, it all comes off a bit like a work of art by two very, very concerned citizens who seem to have mistaken the nimbus of world-ending, nature-warping dread surrounding the dawn of the Atomic Age for drama. This dread has inspired some of Adams' most anguished music, and in the lead role Finley is often quite movingly wracked--remarkable given that he spends about three-quarters of the show in much the same state: as a walking guilt ghost, his own self-contained Banquo. But it's a faltering piece of music-theater--something of a dud explosion from artists who at their best can be incendiary.

This is inarguably cool.

Nov 10, 2008

Angel Passing

Like most folks my age, my first exposure to Miriam Makeba, who died a few days ago, was through Paul Simon's Graceland tour in the mid-1980s. I was impressed (though for a while I was more into the music of her tourmate and ex-husband, Hugh Masekela). Then one day I found an amazing record in a used-LP bin (shown above) and found one of my favorite songs, ever. It's called "Mbombela (Train Song)," it's in Xhosa, and it puts into words and music the reaction of folks seeing a train for the first time. It's breathtaking, from that unidentifiable pair of chiming guitar chords (trust me, I've tried to identify them--that second one is some kind of alien polytonal thing) to the slowly gathering chug-chug percussion, the snaky accordion, and of course the voices--Belafonte's dusky baritone and Makeba's keening wail.

This more well-known classic, "My Angel (Malaika)," is a lovely benediction, as well.

A voice to cherish.

Dorn Again

When I look to count my blessings, as I often do, high among them is the chance not only to see some of the best theater in the world but to view it with heightened critical attention, and on occasion to meet and talk to its makers. As much as it can be a relief to see a show as a "civilian," without having to form an opinion or follow up with any coverage, I think I'm now fully conditioned to process and digest works of theater (and any art or entertainment product, in fact) with a critical eye and mind.

Sometimes the assignment can make all the difference. Most of the time my directive is to show up and review the show, without any other frame or filter. There are some exceptions: One of my early gigs for was to cover Rosie O'Donnell's appearance in Fiddler on the Roof--obviously a slightly different mandate from issuing a first-impression judgment of David Leveaux's stark production (count me among the minority who admired it, even with Fierstein and O'Donnell mugging their way through it). When Newsday sent me to review Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate, they wanted me to report on Roundabout's new space as well as review the show.

Then there are the times I see a show with the notion that I'll be interviewing one of the actors. It was in this context that I saw the resplendent new British Seagull; I am (still) meant to speak to Art Malik, who plays the part of the suave, middle-aged Dr. Dorn with a seemingly effortless blend of gravity and charm. What I'm so grateful for, even apart from the chance to speak to this fiercely fine actor, is the chance to see Seagull anew, with a focus on Dorn. It's not an exaggeration to say that viewing the play with this circumspect country doctor in the foreground revolutionized and complicated the play for me, and sharpened the outsized virtues of Ian Rickson's first-rate, often exquisite production.

It occurred to me, as it never had before, how much Dorn recalls Vanya's Astrov, and in turn Chekhov himself: handsome, resolute, clear-eyed, at a remove yet deadly earnest under his facade of nonchalance. It is clearly Dorn who was once the golden-boy heartbreaker of this country district, including for Arkadina; it is Dorn to whom most of the characters turn for a sympathetic ear and who, in Christopher Hampton's incisive new version, pronounces the lot of them, not without love, "neurotic." It is he, famously, who at first blithely conceals the play's tragic denouement from the assembled party, then spills it to Trigorin with flustered horror.

More important in this production, though, is Dorn's relationship to Treplev's short play--the one the serious young writer stages for the guests at the beginning of the show, with Nina in the lead. This ponderous, easily mocked text imagines a time eons away from ours, when some kind of universal spirit can flourish without the encumbrances of living creatures and their petty strivings. Without skewing the play's crucial balance of sympathies (to my mind, all these characters are slightly ridiculous and self-defeating in their individual ways), Rickson makes this play-within-a-play resonate a little more heavily than it usually does.

This in turn transforms Dorn in a crucial way: When he alone among the assembled audience professes to admire the play, and to see Treplev's potential as a writer, it does not come off as the blinkered condescension of an older man trying to be encouraging, as it does in many productions; it attunes us to the play's roiling undercurrent of philosophical contemplation, of existential dread--in short to the play's spiritual dimensions, such as they are. There's a lot of stock placed in "spiritual strength" and the life of the spirit, particularly in the play's later passages--a view that seems counterposed (or is it?) with the doctor's admonition to Sorin to shed the "animal fear" of death. While I think it's clear from the play's conclusion that Chekhov did not share the redemptive worldview of his countrymen Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, he, like Dorn, took questions of life and death, body and spirit, with the empathetic seriousness of one who'd wrestled with them himself and found the effort worthy.

In my own small way, from my aisle seat I have felt similarly blessed.

Ideas That Pay

If I've seemed less than concerned about the rolling collapse of the newspaper business in previous posts, let me correct that impression. The biggest problem with the slow death march of advertising- and subscription-supported publishing is the threatened extinction of things for which it once paid handily if not handsomely: big newsrooms, investigative reporting, foreign bureaus, and yes, in-depth arts journalism. Jon Fine's piece about the crunch facing the AP highlights the problem: If paid reporters lose their jobs, to whom will we bloggers have to link for primary sources? Will we actually have to change out of our pajamas and venture out and do some reporting?

The thorny way forward is suggested, again, by the music industry's trial-by-fire. Seth Godin is talking here about the book publishing business (h/t Andrew Sullivan), but I think the hard medicine would serve newspapers as well:
2) If everything is free, how is anyone going to make any money?

First, the market and the internet don't care if you make money. That's important to say. You have no right to make money from every development in media, and the humility that comes from approaching the market that way matters. It's not "how can the market make me money" it's "how can I do things for this market." Because generally, when you do something for an audience, they repay you...And you know what? It's entirely likely that many people in the chain WON'T make any money. That's okay. That's the way change works.

That's OK? It's not going to feel OK for a lot of folks. This next point beats a familiar drum:
The lesson from Napster and iTunes is that there's even MORE music than there was before. What got hurt was Tower and the guys in the suits and the unlimited budgets for groupies and drugs. The music will keep coming. Same thing is true with books. So you can decide to hassle your readers (oh, I mean your customers) and you can decide that a book on a Kindle SHOULD cost $15 because it replaces a $15 book, and if you do, we (the readers) will just walk away. Or, you could say, "if books on the Kindle were $1, perhaps we could create a vast audience of people who buy books like candy, all the time, and read more and don't pirate stuff cause it's convenient and cheap..." I'm a pessimist that the book industry will learn from music. How are you betting?

I'm betting the newspaper business will have to do more dying before it's reborn. I'm reminded of the Dylan lyric, "He not busy being born is busy dying," which sounds nice in theory but is not at all nice or easy in practice.

Nov 6, 2008

Real Queer Politics

As a proud former Californian, I'm pissed about the way Prop. 8 went and dismayed by what I've heard about the campaign on both sides. To me this looks like a common-sense civil-rights issue, but I know for those with a personal stake in it it has life-or-death importance. I've got to admit that, as contentedly religious and married as I happen to be, the way our religious and legal insitutions have sacramentalized the union of man and wife, after millennia of slightly less enlightened arrangements, seems to have led to as much heartache and misunderstanding as amity.

So it was a joy to read, from multi-disciplinary performer (and former Back Stage West critic) Adelina Anthony, this amusing and inspiring, only-partly-sarcastic rant in the form of a list of "gay marriage strategies":
#1) PROTECT the SANCITY OF MARRIAGE FOR REALZ! Queers let's stop playing defense and play hard-core offense. We MUST Protect Marriage from the Hets, i.e. we need to launch a campaign that allows marriage to take place between a man and a woman—ONLY ONCE!! This way we help hets preserve the sanctity of marriage! They can't do it without us. Look at their 50% divorce rate that increases exponentially as they marry for the 2nd or 3rd time. This is a historical opportunity for gays to build a true coalition with the Christian Wrong. And when they have used up their one-time only marriage license, they can, of course, have future domestic partnerships or civil unions.

#2) MARRY AN IMMIGRANT! Preferably Mexican because we all know that anti-immigrant laws in this country still equate anti-Mexican. This is a spectacular way to build coalitions amongst the disenfranchised in our country. Think about it. We can help hardworking immigrants gain their citizenship and in return they can help build those lovely homes gays like to live in and be the wonderful nannies that keep raising privileged babies.

#3) MARRY EACH OTHER! This is an old strategy that many queers have used before, but we should do this in record numbers. Let's find practical ways to make queer group marriage work. After all, it takes a village to raise a child, and I DO want mine raised by beautiful YMCA village people. This strategy should also quell criticism from within the queer community that those of us who aspire to marriage are seeking a normative livelihood (Hey, I hear your radical arguments, but I think it's more than okay for the rest of us to seek ways to protect our families and be so normal as to not get killed in the streets for whom we love or sex in bed.)

#4) GO to CHURCH! If Jesus was brave enough to wear a dress and roam the streets with 12 other lonely men, fight for the rights of the poor, fight for the protection of prostitutes, and fight for the separation of State and Church (Remember: Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's) we can be brave enough to start a queer spiritual movement. Get in there and reclaim Jesus as the radical queer figure that he was for his time and not the religious bigotry he's been used for over and over again. Amen. Or Awomyn.

#5) DON'T GO to CHURCH! For those of us who understand that the Catholic and Christian global business industries were/are the tools of colonization for people of color, especially Latinos and Blacks, let's reclaim our TRADITIONAL two-spirited and matriarchal ways of living and making familia. Trust me, I've been to the Vatican, that Pope ain't po!

#6) CALL IT WHAT IT IS. And if you are making a life with someone ina committed relationship. Don't be afraid to name that person your wife or husband. Trust me, I had a domestic partnership and there's nothing sexy about introducing your other half as your domesticated panocha. Language is power. Name it. Live it. Make progressive art.

Yes We Can… it's just gonna take more work. And let's leave single-issue movement models behind. Follow the L.A. Bus Rider Union's model and build coalitions. Queers we gotta keep coming out in other movement work. If we fight for our communities we need them to fight for us.

Bottom line: This country's Religious Wrong will continue to make Gays and Abortions and Immigrants hot button issues because they want to have absolute control on how to make family and nation and profit. We need to keep the change coming…

NOTE: I had to look up panocha. Let's just say it doesn't mean "bread."

Can't Stop the Beat

Mark Blankenship processes his mixed feelings about the election--yea for Barack, nay for gays--and finds fresh hope, of course, in Hairspray. As I posted before, I still love this exchange from Mark O'Donnell's libretto, in which, after Tracy tells Corny Collins that she wants to grow up to be the first female president, she's asked:
Corny Collins: As your first act as president, what would you do?
Tracy Turnblad: I'd make everyday Negro Day!

Change we can believe in, and dance to.

Nov 5, 2008

Hit By the Brick

Williamsburg's Brick Theatre was the site of my first review assignment for the NY Times when I first arrived here in NYC three summers ago. The show was Dear Dubya, a reading-style presentation of credulous real letters to the parody site (ah, how blessedly quaint that all seems now). I liked it a fair bit. Since then I've moved within walking distance of the theater, and though I've heard good things about a few shows there I hadn't made it back...until Time Out sent me to cover a new show there called Lord Oxford Brings You the Second American Revolution, Live!. It's not a good show, but given its alternative-American-history premise, it did make me reflect for a moment that the review, filed last week, would come out after the election.

(Photo by Sarah K. Lippmann.)

Nov 4, 2008

The Great Man Theory of History

What strikes me about this, easily the most significant election of my lifetime, is that as much as it inarguably means in terms of massive historical forces and the institutions that largely shape and constrain our lives, it is just as much if not more the story of a unique individual, a leader, setting out to face those large forces and to move them. We're going to hear a lot in the coming days and years about race and symbolism, about America overcoming its racial shame, and as much truth as this train of thought may carry, in this moment I think it's worth remembering that nothing about this historic election was inevitable; that it's not some giant, deterministic narrative being shaped by forces beyond our control; that it's the result of generations of work and sacrifice by individuals who could have done otherwise. I'm resistant, in other words, to explanations and historical rationalizations--the economic crisis is to blame, the Republicans' brand is broken, Obama magically embodies some generational zeitgeist--which would in any way minimize the extraordinary individual achievements of the people who've stood up for the good and the just in this country, including this culminating figure, Barack Hussein Obama.

In related news, it's hard to express how gratified I am that the state from which the Kendt family hails, Indiana, fell (albeit narrowly) into Obama's column, and that Arizona, the state in which I was raised, was as tight as it was. I wish that my grandfather, Harold, and that my mother, Nancy (who would have been 72 today), had lived to see this day. As true-red Republican as they were, I'd like to think they'd be as proud of their country today as I am, and not least because of the history they both witnessed, to varying degrees and with varying responses, in their hometown of Gary, Indiana (I posted on this topic on Super Tuesday).

My next post will be about theater, I promise.

(Photo: Obama campaigns in Gary, Indiana.)

Alas, Too Young To Vote

Emily & Jack Proudfit, Chicago, Ill.

The Map That Matters

Courtesy of the NY Times:

Nov 3, 2008

More Lessons From the Music Business

Again, not to beat a dead horse, but this kind of questioning seems to be what we in the culture racket need to be pondering:
...It occurs to me that the sheer amount of people in the world who now have vast and unprecedented music libraries at little or no cost to themselves seems to constitute an important cultural phenomenon.

It might not be legal. It might not be ethical. But it is unarguably an important cultural fact.

And it’s a phenomenon that is growing and spreading, despite efforts to stop it.

So - leaving aside the legal magnitude of that fact for a moment - from a purely cultural perspective, that’s an incredible shift.

Think about it. A great many people have access to most music whenever they want it. A great many. And that number is getting greater by the day.

Not only that, but they also have the tools to remix, remake, mash-up, alter, compile, share, create derivative works - or just reference a fairly significant proportion of all of the recorded work that’s ever been created for their own edification and information.

That changes everything.

Please note:

I am NOT asking: “Is it right that people should download music for free without permission?”

I am NOT asking: “Is the record industry doomed?”

I am NOT asking: “Should artists get paid for the work they do?”

And nor am I asking whether all musicians will simply stop making music, which is a preposterous notion, and you are not to take seriously anyone who even suggests it. Those people are, as the popular saying metaphorically puts it, "on crack."

Again, substitute "access to free news/journalism content" for "unprecedented music libraries," "newspaper business" for "record industry," and "journalism" for "music," and you have roughly the contours of my thinking on this subject. Which is why I remain cautiously hopeful that our cultural life and discourse will stay interesting, even--perhaps especially--in a rough economy.