Sep 30, 2008

Corinthians Against Prop. 8

On the LA Times' new arts blog Culture Monster, I caught this lovely two-minute anti-anti-gay-marriage proposition video by Dave Barton of Rude Guerrilla Theatre. I know this post is likely to reach mainly the converted and/or non-California voters, but it seems well worth reposting here, there, and everywhere (to lead a better life).

Sun Sets

I hold no brief for the politics of The New York Sun, which has officially folded, but I will miss its arts coverage--particularly the astute reviews my colleague, Eric Grode, one of the finest in the business. His last review: a fine, nuanced reading of Equus.

Sep 29, 2008

Quote for Today

I'm reading Jane Jacobs' classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which is about urban planning but ultimately about so much more, and this quote from Eugene Raskin, an architecture professor at Columbia, explaining how a neigborhood's aesthetic monotony can't be concealed by superficial flourishes, popped out and stopped me cold:
Art is the one medium in which one cannot lie successfully.

Positively Wildean.

Sep 25, 2008

I know it's wrong, but...

...the only thing getting me and the better half through this surreal campaign is the nonstop snark at Wonkette.

Mac World

Mac Wellman goes into orbit with 1965UU, though I found the results curiously, and somewhat endearingly earthbound.

(Photo of Paul Lazar by the Chocolate Factory.)

Sep 24, 2008

At Long Last, TKTS

On Oct. 16, the new TKTS booth and redone Duffy Square will at last reopen. I've been hearing about the new booth ever since I started at TDFin Oct., 2006, so this is a big deal. A promising write-up here.

Sep 22, 2008

Criticism for Its Own Sake

For a talk I'm giving later this week, I searched for what I remembered as one of the best pieces I've ever read on the proper role of critics in our media-saturated age; I used to distribute copies of it to cub critics at Back Stage West, and to anyone else who asked. I still occasionally quote the 84 percent figure from an eye-opening study cited in the piece (see below).

Well, I couldn't find my hard copy, but some digging on the Web turned it up. It was written by the Irish theater critic Fintan O'Toole, on invitation by The Economist. And though it's 12 years old, it rings ever true. A clarifying sample:
Critics should be honest enough to accept that they represent nobody but themselves--not the art form, not even in any real sense the newspapers that employ them. Their job is not to report on how a work was received by an audience. It is not to sell books or tickets. It is not to reform or mould the practice of theatre or music or poetry. And it is not to maintain, as arbiters of taste and value, the authority of the institutions who print their opinions.

The job of the critic is to try to ignore the magnifying effect of print and hyperbole, to preserve a sense of proportion, and to give a genuinely individual opinion. It is a modest but by no means a contemptible task. And it is one that is inextricable from the artistic process itself.

As for that study:
An American sociologist, Wesley Monroe Shrum, in a recent study of the relationship between critics and performers at the Edinburgh Festival fringe, provides some empirical evidence for the belief that critics often say what artists think. He asked 43 directors and actors to say what was good and bad about their own show. The vast majority (84%) used "phrases or comments" that were similar to those used by one or more of the critics. Some of the artists were much more dismissive of their own work than the critics were. In one play, for instance, the critic praised the acting but the director thought it was "nervous" and "patchy."

The whole thing is well worth your time.

"Trees" Underground

One of last year's most pleasant surprises was Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate, the inaugural production of Roundabout Underground, a tiny basement theater under the Laura Pels. How are they going to follow up that ingratiating, oft-extended hit (now getting a production in L.A., by the way)? With another fascinating new play by a Brown-educated, Vogel-ized young playwright, Steven Levenson. I cover it for TDF here.

Tiny "Ragtime"

One of my favorite contemporary musicals is Ragtime--I saw its U.S. premiere in L.A. an inordinate number of times (and found that production, which starred Brian Stokes Mitchell, LaChanze, Marcia Mitzman Gaven and John Dossett, superior to the later Broadway production), and I've had the pleasure of reviewing it a few times. So it was a pleasant surprise to read that it's getting a splendid, can-do 99-seat revival in L.A. Make them hear you, indeed.

(Uncredited photo of Josie Yount as Evelyn Nesbit.)

On a scale of "9 to 5," a 5?

Maybe it's not that bad, but Bob Verini's Variety review, the first out for Dolly Parton's Broadway-bound 9 to 5 musical, makes the show sound like a reasonably good time (particularly for the presence of Allison Janney) with a few bloat problems and a book that hasn't addressed some of the movie's more pronounced problems. My favorite graf:
Taste nadir is reached by intercutting (without irony) [the boss] Hart's trussed-up kidnapping in a car trunk, then hanging from the rafters, with the triumphant Girl Power ballad "Shine Like the Sun." [Director Joe] Mantello surely intends a contrast with his act one "Wicked" finale: Females still sing of self-empowerment, though someone very different is defying gravity. But there's something cringe-inducing in musical self-congratulations for terror arguably worse than the victim's workplace misdeeds.

Yeah, I remember that weird S&M bit from the movie, and even as a kid I could tell that scene was off.

Sep 21, 2008

Mose Allison on Sarah Palin

OK, not really. But this rang out:
You're quoting figures, you're dropping names
You're telling stories, you're playing games
You always laughin' when things ain't funny
You try to sound like big money
If talk was criminal, you'd lead a life of crime
'Cause your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime

(h/t: my better half.)

Sep 18, 2008

Broad Brush

I don't know all that much about black theater artists and their relationship to the American theatrical avant-garde, but even I felt something amiss in the broad generalizations that start off Hilton Als' new review of Thomas Bradshaw's Southern Promises. He cites Robert Wilson's casting Sheryl Sutton in Deafman Glance and later Einstein on the Beach as cases of "purposefully incorporating blackness into America’s primarily white avant-garde theatre." Fair enough, but then Als writes:

Since Sutton’s début, no other black actor, writer, or director has had the same impact on our theatrical avant-garde. Aside from the early work of the playwright Adrienne Kennedy—particularly her 1965 piece, “A Beast’s Story,” and 1969’s “Sun”—black theatre in this country has remained, for the most part, mired in folklore and its various offshoots: minstrel shows that pass as naturalistic family dramas; “get whitey” spectacles; nostalgia-tinged song-and-dance revues. This trend is disrupted only when artists like Wilson and the late Iranian playwright and director Reza Abdoh—whose 1993 play “Tight Right White” is one of the most insightful and entertaining treatises on race that we’re likely to see—amass enough power to hire black actors, and to force the audience to see things as they do. (When companies like the Wooster Group want to inject race into a show, more often than not their white actors don blackface and coon it up as a “critique” of the performance of blackness.)

Again, it's not my area of expertise, but does Suzan-Lori Parks not count? Or George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum? And is that unappetizing list of black theater sub-genres, which I guess includes and dismisses everything by August Wilson, Douglas Turner Ward, Lynn Nottage, Kia Corthron (and these are just the names I can pluck off the top of my head), really relevant to the question of the scarcity of black artists in the avant-garde theater? Hilton seems to be moving the goalposts there.

All of this seems a rather poor introduction to the work of Thomas Bradshaw, whose play "Southern Promises," as far as I can tell, may be considered avant-garde primarily because it's being performed at PS 122.

Sep 17, 2008

Southern Drag

I'm as much a sucker for a snappy period piece as anyone--for what a waggish colleague of mine calls "AMC theater"--but Peccadillo's new revival of Charles MacArthur's Johnny on a Spot didn't quite send me.

"Southern" Discomfort

Inspired by the story of Henry "Box" Brown, a slave who literally mailed himself to freedom, Thomas Bradshaw has written a very strange play, Southern Promises, and with such a straight face it's hard to know how to take it. That, as I note in my Voice review, may be the point.

(Photo by Sarina Finkelstein.)

Sep 15, 2008

Timely Tips

An excellent primer on how to challenge racist language and behavior, which I think could apply any number of other "ist" offenses. Particularly helpful amid the current resurgence of identity-political correctness. (h/t Young Jean Lee)

Row K, Seat 9

Costume designer Bobby Pearce and his very well-behaved theatergoing companion, who sat three seats away from me at the Marvelous Wonderettes premiere.

Being in Space

Charles McNulty offers an extremely thoughtful piece on how a venue influences, even determines the theatrical experience. The occasion is the Mark Taper Forum's unveiling of its newly refurbished mainstage, but McNulty doesn't dwell much on that (it's been detailed elsewhere). Instead he gives an astute if idiosyncratic (and for me, bittersweetly nostalgic) tour of some of L.A. theater's essential stops, from City Garage to the Fountain Theatre.

I don't know if it's something about L.A. and its anomalous relationship to live theater, but McNulty gives eloquent expression to a strain of similar thoughts I recall having when I was on the beat there--a sense of occasion and particularity that seems especially pronounced there, which I think patrons in such theatergoing capitals as New York and London take for granted. Theater in L.A. springs up in unlikely places--there's no "district," exactly, though there are a few areas of concentration, in Hollywood and North Hollywood--and its very out-of-the-wayness, which the Taper despite its ostensible centrality shares with the tiniest garage theater, can make a theatergoer uniquely alive to the experience. You could almost say that all theater in L.A. feels site-specific.

Like politics, all theater is local, which is to say that while an artist's reputation develops nationally and internationally, the actual art form is experienced at a particular site on a particular street inside a particular building. Yet there's been a false or perhaps idealistic assumption that theatrical space is characterless and interchangeable -- "empty" in director Peter Brook's famous formulation -- offering merely a neutral ground for the show to begin.

The whole piece is worth a read, even (perhaps especially) for the non-L.A.-acquainted.

(Photo of the hallway at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose Ave.)

Sep 12, 2008

Critical Crossover

In a microtrend worthy of note, the first two playwrights being produced in the Abingdon Theatre's new season are also theater critics: Robert Brustein, former ART director and New Republic theater critic, whose play The English Channel dramatizes the Shakespeare authorship debate, and Steven Leigh Morris, theater editor of the LA Weekly, whose Beachwood Drive grew in part out of his work years ago adapting Kushner's A Bright Room Called Day for Theatre of NOTE. Leonard Jacobs has a Back Stage piece with some noteworthy quotes about the place of the critic in the theater. Morris:
"Maybe it's a dated concept, but a critic is an investigator of the form and of the world. Critics probe, trying to understand what a play is about, what the world of a play is about. I think it was Suzan-Lori Parks who said a play is a big house and a critic is one of the people coming over to look at it. You can talk about how the house being constructed a certain way because a river flowed through it 600 years ago — and look how they used crossbeams — or you can say the walls are pink and how could they have done such a thing?"

So, much like a playwright, Morris says, "The critic's job is to investigate a feeling. I'm reluctant to pass judgment — that's not a side of criticism that interests me. It's trivial to the larger interests of a play."

The trouble with criticism, Brustein says, "is it's an extrinsic art. The poor critic is out of the room, waiting his turn, and when he gets in — I include myself in this — we don't see everything we're supposed to see."

How well I know the drill: waiting my turn to investigate a feeling, and not seeing what I'm supposed to see.

Ben in Love

A nice reminder from the Times' No. 1 scribe that, contrary to a received opinion I hear too often about critics, particularly those at the paper of record, he does not in fact hate the theater:
...though I’ve been reviewing plays for The Times since 1993, I can say honestly that I’m never bored at the theater. Uncomfortable sometimes and even on occasion in pain, but never bored. It helps, of course, that I’m being paid to pay attention. Anything, if you focus on it closely enough, acquires interest, even the seemingly monochromatic.

But more important, theater is one of the few things in my life that I fell in love with early that I have remained in love with. (New York City is another.) I feel in an odd way as if I’m married to it, which means that I put up with it when it’s not behaving well because we have a long, long relationship, and I know the splendors of which it’s capable. It still has the power to make me grin, writhe and cry as nothing else can.

I know I've given Brantley a few knocks on this blog, and you could argue that this sort of testimonial ought to go without saying, but when he's right, he's right. I've met maybe two critics in my lifetime who don't feel this way. Truth be told, most of us love the theater not wisely but too well.

Rix Place

I know it's only September, but this picture of Bernard Rix in front of his holiday house in Phoenix, Ariz., came up randomly as a screen saver this morning, and it cheered me immeasurably.

Sep 11, 2008

Let It Be 9/11

In the lobby of 520 8th Avenue today, a choir gathered for a free musical program, and handed out lyric sheets for all lunch-breakers and passersby to join in on "Let It Be." I didn't live in NY in 2001, but this performance helped me share in a wee bit of horror and concomitant solidarity.

In all seriousness, the songs I turn to on this day are PJ Harvey's "Good Fortune," not precisely for its resonance with this day but as a generally New York-themed cheer-up song, at the center of which lies this heart-stopping line:
Things I once thought unbelievable
In my life have all taken place

And Leonard Cohen's "Anthem," with its hard-to-argue-with chorus:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Another Shuffle...

Trying to avoid the usual suspects from my record collection (and leaning a bit on this resource), I've come up with a 9-track, 8-writer run in my Songbook Shuffle game. (I still can't beat my 10-track record below...yet.)

Here goes:

1. Leon Payne's "Lost Highway," performed by Hank Williams...
2. "Your Cheatin' Heart," performed by Fats Domino...
3. "Please Don't Leave Me," performed by Screamin' Jay Hawkins...
4. "You Put a Spell on Me," performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival...
5. "Have You Ever Seen the Rain," performed by The Ramones...
6. "Danny Says," performed by Tom Waits...
7. "More Than Rain," performed by Elvis Costello...
8. "Alison," performed by Everything But the Girl...
9. "Don't Let the Teardrops Rust Your Shining Heart," performed by Holly Cole.

Sep 10, 2008

Songbook Shuffle

If I did more theater than I do, I think it's safe to say that one of my favorite parts of the process would be crafting the pre-show music mix. I know that was the case with the Garland Awards I used to put on, as well as my recent nuptials. And it's certainly the case with my upcoming Ars Nova show (which is likely to be an excellent evening, if I may say so).

Well, because the concept for my show is other great singers interpreting my "songbook," I started to make a mix exclusively of some of my favorite cover versions of great songs--Mary J. Blige singing "One," Johnny Cash singing "Down There By the Train," Nouvelle Vague's "Making Plans for Nigel," George Burns croaking "Fixing a Hole" get the idea. But then I stumbled on Dylan's tin-eared but somehow endearing cover of the Beatles' "Yesterday," and a light bulb went off. What if I made a mix that was a daisy chain of songwriters covering each other's work? There would be two rules:

1. No song can be performed by its writer.
2. Each song must be written by the singer of the previous song (except, necessarily, for the opening track).

Whether or not I end up making my pre-show mix this way, this makes an awesome game. Here's one hypothetical iteration:

1. "A Taste of Honey," sung by Paul McCartney...
2. "Yesterday," sung by Bob Dylan...
3. "The Times They Are a-Changin'," sung by Paul Simon (& Art Garfunkel)...
4. "The Boy in the Bubble" sung by Patti Smith...
5. "Dancing Barefoot," covered by U2...

Next I could have used Blige's take on "One," but that's a dead end, since I don't know of any covers of Blige by other artists. So instead...

6. "One," sung by Johnny Cash...
7. "Folsom Prison Blues," sung by Bob Dylan (a version so obscure, and probably a bootleg, that it's not linkable online, but trust me--I've got it)...
8. Dylan's "I Threw It All Away, " sung by Elvis Costello...
9. "The Comedians," sung by Roy Orbison...
10. And finally, the Orbison-co-authored "Handle With Care," covered by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins.

Whew! That's a 10-track, 9-writer chain (the writers of "Taste of Honey," Robert William Scott and Ric Marlow, don't count).

Can you, dear readers, do better?

Sep 9, 2008

The Spirit Moves

A few events I'm excited about this week:

A reading/singing event for Amanda Petrusich's new book It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music will go down at Book Court in Cobble Hill on Thurs., Sept. 11 at 8 p.m. Amanda was among the expert panelists kind enough to join me in a post-show discussion about the American folk tradition during the run of The Devil and Tom Walker last spring. There's an excellent post about the book here.

And opening this week at PS 122 is Reid Farrington's multimedia repurposing of one of my favorite films, Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, with a single live performer, multiple screen surfaces, and God knows what else (music by Cat Power, perchance?) I'll get the hairshirt pressed.

L.A. Playgoer

My colleague Steven Leigh Morris guest-blogs at Garrett Eisler's crib on a topic much on the minds of we who consider or have considered both coasts home of a sort: Why L.A. theater don't get no respect. He raves about a Keely Smith/Louis Prima bio-revue at Sacred Fools (which I also heard great things about from Don Shirley when he was in town recently), and shrugs about the purportedly Broadway-bound Vanities.

He fails to mention another L.A. import I've been hearing about for some time now, The Marvelous Wonderettes, a sort of candy-colored, distaff version of Forever Plaid, which opens next week at the Westside Theatre. As far as I know, it marks the N.Y. producing debut of everyone's favorite independent L.A. publicist, David Elzer, in association with another no-slouch name, Peter Schneider.

Sep 8, 2008

The Ick File

I hate to pile on Ben Brantley's odd Broadway preview yesterday (Isaac has already dinged him for obviousness), but I have to say, this paragraph struck me as exceptionally tone-deaf:
Broadway, it seems, has eclipsed Playboy as the place to make Hollywood pay attention. There was a time when female movie stars who felt they were being ignored by the industry took off their clothes for Hugh Hefner’s magazine. Now they brush up their Shakespeare — or Schnitzler or Miller — and hit Gotham. Of course if you can manage to be naked while appearing in a production with cultural cachet, as Ms. Kidman did, then you’re really in business.

Maybe I'm revealing a pop-cultural blind spot here, but when exactly was that bygone age when a Playboy spread led to respect in Hollywood? I mean, I've only looked at it for the articles, of course, but I hadn't exactly noticed the trend.

Moses Muses

This pensive photo wasn't up online with last week's initial LA Times posting of my profile of Itamar Moses, who has three plays opening on the West Coast in the coming month or so.

Photo by Dave Getzschman.

Sep 6, 2008

Take 5

Since I left the Back Stage organization five years ago, more or less exactly, this is the best idea I've seen them come up with since. As one who was always beating the drum of making it a real nuts-and-bolts trade paper for non-A-list actors, I can only say: Bravo!

Sep 5, 2008

Ripped From The Headlines Ibsen

Just got this in my inbox:
The Mayor of a small Northern town,
is beset by an embarrassing family scandal,
political back room intrigue,
exposed coverups
and an out of control liberal press.

That's pretty quick-thinking marketing for a new production of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble's new production of Ibsen's Enemy of the People at the Connelly Theatre.

Reflective "Pool"

If you'll pardon a non-theatrical recommendation, I just saw Chris Smith's film The Pool, and found it quietly, oddly moving.

Smith was present after tonight's showing to talk about the film, and what intrigued me was that he made such a beautiful film in a language he doesn't speak or write. One of the actors told him he'll never know how good the dialogue sounds to a Hindi-speaking ear (and apparently it does, for which credit must go to Smith's translators and actors). I know Sergio Leone directed reams of films in English without speaking it, and Truffaut muddled through Fahrenheit 451 without mastering English (and it shows). And obviously, works in all media lose a lot in translation to other languages--I've recently been looking at various version of Don Quixote for a project I'm working on, and it's instructive to note how much wordplay and richness and contrast gets lost (apparently, as I don't read very good Spanish) or must be rethought or, worst of all, explained in footnotes. And I know that opera directors (and even opera composers and singers) regularly direct in languages they have no familiarity with. But I guess I've never thought through this odd situation: a work being created in its original form in a language its auteur doesn't understand.

The obvious insight here is that a film's "language" isn't, or isn't only, the stuff characters say. But that's a big part of it, isn't it? I found the film richly rewarding, and the performances matter-of-factly droll and often funny, but I'd love to read what an Indian critic might say.

For What It's Worth

These conventions have kept me up later than I'd like on schoolnights, yet I'm somewhat energized about the presidential race this year. It combines the thrill of watching two pretty fascinating campaigns duke it out with my greater-than-usual excitement, as a liberal Democrat, with our candidate and his chances. How I felt, in brief:

Obama: Great speech by an extraordinary man who's certain be an above-average president, and likely to be a transformative two-termer.

McCain: Surprisingly sincere speech by a decent man whose time has come and gone, and whose groveling to a disgusting party that denied him his chance last time is skin-crawling to witness.

The rest is a sideshow, and a very entertaining one at that.

If you want to show your support for Obama and catch some first-rate music theater talent at the same time, the Broadway United for Barack show at the Metropolitan Room on Monday, Sept. 15 is the place to go. Performers include Lin Manuel Miranda, Daniel Reichard, and Felicia Finley.

In the meantime, while I enjoyed Tom Ridge's "John Bush" gaffe and that "Sarah Pawlenty" slip, this flub from the DNC beats it for sheer absurdity:

Sep 3, 2008

Moses Supposes

I had a really good time writing about the extremely talented and rather extraordinarily cool Itamar Moses as he heads into a very, very busy fall. The story's already up here.