Aug 29, 2009

"Great actress, okay movies"

The Onion on Meryl, and they've got a point:
What my friends and I figured out is that the name Meryl Streep isn't really synonymous with one truly unforgettable film. It's weird to think about, but it's undeniably true.

Go ahead, try and name a classic movie I've starred in. Not a classic character I've portrayed, mind you, but an overall amazing piece of cinema. You can't. You just can't.

It's no masterpiece but I do recall Silkwood fondly (and I must confess that Death Becomes Her is a guilty pleasure).

Aug 28, 2009

Historia de Lado Oeste

So the new, bilingual-ish revival of West Side Story is reinstating some English lyrics. Good move, though too little too late. I really admire Lin-Manuel's translations, actually--they sing well, they're very idiomatic--but I think Arthur Laurents did a shaky job of integrating them into the libretto, and his libretto is already creaky. I liked the dancing and some of the acting, but, as I note in my review for The Sondheim Review (not online):

Sondheim’s famous discomfort with his sophisticated lyrics for “I Feel Pretty”—a problem addressed if not solved in the new production by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s deft Spanish translation—cuts to the heart of West Side Story’s story problems. Would Maria, an “uneducated Puerto Rican girl,” really sing such tricky internal rhymes in English, Sondheim memorably posited? “She would not have been out of place in Noel Coward’s living room,” he quipped. Fair enough, but once you pick at that loose thread, the whole cloth starts to unravel: What gritty lower-class teen, Puerto Rican or otherwise, would sing a note or dance a step of West Side Story?

Once Laurents goes there—makes concessions to “realism” by having the Sharks speak and sing partly in Spanish, by making the Jets superficially dirtier and shaggier than before (they don’t even wash up for the dance), and by adding an extra jolt or two of violence—we have no choice but to go there with him. And that’s when we start to wonder: Why do the Sharks get idiomatic Espanol while the Jets remain saddled with “frabbajabba” and “spit hits the fan”? Why this slab of Spanish in one scene, and that swathe of English in another? For a form as marvelously artificial as musical theater, it’s death for an audience to start to think this way.

Aug 26, 2009

A Legacy of Service

The best Ted Kennedy tribute I've seen. I especially like Terrance's quoting Barney Frank to the effect that "government is nothing more than the name we give to the things that we choose to do together." The late Senator, whom I once ran into backstage at the Encores production of Kismet (he and Stokes were great pals, apparently), certainly had his dark side, but as even Michael Kelly's unflattering but ultimately admiring GQ profile from 1990 concluded, Kennedy was "a man of parts" but in sum he was greater than those parts, "a man who can rise above that caricature to stature."

Aug 25, 2009

Question of the Day

Why does Sammy Davis Jr.'s rendition of "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" open and close with a quote from "Rite of Spring"?

The Mind Reels

Dali, Disney, Destino. Damn.

"We'll Let You Know"

This jaw-dropping story about a casting director Twittering during auditions reminded me of a Peter Sellers classic. Audition indignities--as old as the hills.

Aug 24, 2009

Song of the Decade... "B.O.B."? Hard to argue; it still sounds pretty fresh nearly 10 years later.

Proud to Call Myself Lutheran

At least, this brand of Lutheran.

Giving OSF a Shake

As I noted recently, I really regret not having made it to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year. I hadn't been since maybe 2002 or '03, when it had become my one of my favorite theater destinations for maybe five years running. This year I had finally found the window and the write-off (a piece for American Theatre about Bill Cain's Equivocation, coming up in the September issue). I had the flight all booked for mid-June, and I was planning to see all nine shows then running in a mere five days. The day before the trip, though, my wife's ob/gyn advised bed rest, and the rest is history--history we'll recount to our son one day, preferably as we take him on his belated first trip to Oregon.

All of which is to say, I can't comment authoritatively on Charles McNulty's recent critical essay based on his first visit to OSF, nor am I in a position to dispute his takeaway from Oregon Shakes: great audiences, nice programming, crappy acting. OK, he calls it a "midlevel acting company," but you can tell he really, really didn't like the acting there; apart from Anthony Heald, he doesn't even name any of the actors. While he admits that the 92-member acting company, employed for the better part of a year, is the country's largest resident acting company, he finds enough mediocre acting that he recommends a total "overhaul" of the company.

Well, as I said, I haven't seen this year's roster, and haven't been back in a number of years. But I will say that the acting company was one of the main draws of OSF when I was regular visitor, and some of my favorite actors, and most indelible performances I've ever seen, were at Oregon Shakes, from Derrick Lee Weeden's Othello to Robynn Rodriguez and Ken Albers in Handler, from Demetra Pittman's Hecuba to BW Gonzalez's Good Woman of Setzuan, from Dan Donohue's Prince Hal to Tony DeBruno's Shylock, from John Pribyl's Caliban to Suzanne Irving's Hannah Jelkes to David Kelley's Bottom to Ray Porter's Puck to James Newcomb's Thersites to Richard Howard's Pericles*. I particularly relish having seen a handful of productions in their erstwhile small theatre, the Black Swan: Stop Kiss, Tongue of a Bird (better than the Cherry Jones/Diane Venora version at the Taper, gotta say), Trip to Bountiful (again, it spoiled me for the Signature Theatre rendition a few years back).

Did I see some subpar acting at OSF? Did I witness some actors stagnate over the years? Did I see some ridiculous, pretentious, overblown, bad-sci-fi, spear-carrier takes on the classics? Most definitely, yes. (Interested parties can click on these links to read my reviews over the years.) But have I ever had the comparable pleasure of getting to know a real repertory ensemble? Perhaps at Hollywood's Cast Theatre in the early 1990s, or at the Evidence Room and Actors' Gang and Cornerstone a few years later (some of those actors are up in Ashland now, actually); a little bit at A Noise Within.

Maybe McNulty, the first lead critic from the L.A. Times to cover Ashland in my memory, needed to catch more than four shows to "get it," but that's not necessarily easy to schedule; maybe the quality of the company has indeed plummeted, though I find that hard a little hard to believe; maybe, as the editor of an actor's trade paper for so long, my enthusiasm at discovering a real live resident acting company colored my judgment, and once I was smitten, I was smitten. Whatever the reason for the discrepancy, I'm hoping not only that I can get back to Ashland before long, but that national big-city critics, including McNulty, won't be kept away by the criticism (after all, as he graciously admits in a must-read column about how his opinions evolve, McNulty is often surprised to find how much he disagrees with himself).

*Corrected, thanks to a commenter--I originally wrote "Mark Murphey's Pericles."

Aug 21, 2009

Sands Time

Thomas Garvey's long-awaited Part III in his Emily Glassberg Sands takedown is here. It takes on the main "news" of Sands' study--that female artistic directors were much harder on women writers than male artistic directors were--with logic that seems to me a bit pretzel-like. Garvey essentially argues that female artistic directors, seeing a woman's name on the title page of writing samples Sands sent out, naturally and defensibly reacted from their own internalized sense of "what plays will succeed." If that's not sexism, it's surely a symptom of it, isn't it?

One bit stuck out as a typically tendentious Garvey touch. He's describing the generally unappealing female characters in Sands' writing samples, and he mentions
a woman dallying sexually with her best friend's college-age son - a controversial form of empowerment, to be sure, and one I can well imagine raising hackles in mature female readers with horny sons of their own.

Hmmm. Sounds like a bit of a reach. Why, I wonder, would this affect "mature female readers" with "horny sons" more than dads with same?

By spending so much time and consideration on this issue, and trying to delve deep into the primary sources behind some contentious headlines, Garvey is doing a valuable public service of a sort. But he's also painting himself into a corner--the familiar I-blogged-something-controversial-and-I-won't-back-down-in-fact-I'll-double-down corner, which I think of as the Megan McArdle and Leonard Jacobs model, as opposed to the I'm-thinking-out-loud-and-revising-my-thoughts-and-admitting-mistakes-as-I-go approach (the Andrew Sullivan and Isaac Butler model). I find the former attitude fascinating, even entertaining, but ultimately maddening and off-putting, and the latter ingratiatingly transparent and inviting, and ultimately better for clear and productive dialogue. Both approaches seem to be uniquely products of, and suited to, the blogosphere, but I'll gladly throw my hat in the latter ring.

"A Blessed Release"

Michael Feingold brings some sanity to the outrage over first-night critics getting their Tony privileges revoked:
Some of my colleagues on the press list are dismayed by the Tony administrators' decision; some are downright irate. For me, it's a blessed release.

Indeed, he reports that the first thing he did when he heard the news was take Burn the Floor off his calendar. He explains why:
These days, most of what we call "Broadway," good or not, comes, like Burn the Floor, from elsewhere: London, Off-Broadway, resident theaters across the U.S. The era when "Broadway" meant a specific way of creating theater, with its own attitudes and its own approach, is long gone; its surviving practitioners are mostly older than myself. And I am not young, except at heart.

And I can't argue with this:
The roster of Tony voters includes Broadway producers, presenters of touring attractions, artists with Broadway credentials, and officials of the theatrical unions. By removing the first-night press, the one sizeable voting bloc not directly involved in producing Broadway shows, the Tony management reaffirmed what the award is: a trade association prize, given by members to the work they hold most valuable—which, in practice, often means most commercially valuable. The theater press, as a group, is not part of this association, nor should it be.

That prompts him to ruminate on the future of criticism in the post-newsprint age, and to an essential home truth about the relationship of criticism to its subject:
The theater that leans on critics as a crutch, deriving its own estimate of its worth from its reviews, is probably in as unhealthy a state as the theater with no critical guidance or intellectual perspective at all. Somewhere between those two conditions, the new world that the Internet has caused will probably find a healthier middle way for the astute critical sensibility to function as part of the theater.

Aug 20, 2009

Tweets From Dad

I'm not a convert to Twitter, by a long shot, but this looks like the kind of thing it was made for.

Aug 18, 2009

Back in Business

Just edging back into the swim of work and the world after a few weeks on daddy leave, and finishing up a couple of deadlines, and ready to get back into the fray. A few short notes:

• Kurt Weill has been my favorite composer, bar none, roughly since my college years (since this record, to be precise), so I guess I owe a lot to the late musicologist David Drew. This quote from the Guardian obit describes a worthy, if lonely vocation: "He wished to diagnose and correct the received opinions and sloppy judgments about the classical music of the 20th century and its makers that came from both commercial and political pressure."

• While I appreciated David Cote's call to bloggers to snap out of their nicey-nice habits and "engage! enrage!," I think he went too far with his needlessly nasty takedown of George Hunka, a blogger/playwright with an admitted tendency to narrowcast and theorize in ever more rarefied and linguistically tortured ways but who remains an essential voice in the theatrical blogosphere. This isn't the first time Hunka has had trouble because he's a playwright/blogger; the Times sent me to review his play In Public a few years back (and no, David, it did not contain any "half-naked women reclining on divans enunciating morbid, goth-chick poetry while staring inscrutably at the audience"), then spiked the review, as far as I can tell because George and I were on each other's blogrolls. (With the Times' permission, I published my review here). Maybe there's a lesson for artists who put their thoughts out there so nakedly, but I think it's unfortunate that Cote penned such a thoroughgoing trashing of a relatively powerless artist from a position of editorial authority. I have to wonder, what with Hunka announcing plans for theatre minima's first season, what sort of coverage he and his company might expect from Time Out.

• In the damn-I-wish-I'd-written-it file is Kate Taylor's nice, economical piece on the major changes Bill Rauch has brought to Oregon Shakespeare Festival (though her lead is a bit of a groaner).

• So the Civilians are hunkering down in the San Fernando Valley to work on a play about the porn industry. After doing a play about the Christian right. I liked This Beautiful City and loved Gone Missing, and think the Civilians are great, but it feels like they're using a playbook--savvy urban liberals strive to empathetically decipher America's extreme/horrifying subcultures--that feels just a little shopworn. It's as if the Civilians are turning into the theatrical equivalent of The New York Times magazine circa 1995 rather than the quirky, unpredictable theatrical equivalent of This American Life. (And that's not even counting Steven Leigh Morris' objection: that the L.A.-based Center Theatre Group is behind yet another show by out-of-towners.)

• The only way I can keep some sane perspective amid the health-care kerfluffle is to read Mathew Yglesias, who helpfully points out the limitations of the presidency and aims his fire at the agency and moral (ir)responsibility of the Blue Dogs.

All hail the Dirty Projectors.