Aug 31, 2010

Pixies Musical?

I did not know about this. Now I do.

Babies and Mops

The new issue of American Theatre just hit newsstands and (partly) the Web. The Arena Stage's Molly Smith is the cover story, there's a new Fugard script in there, and lots of good stuff for your perusal. Among the things you can find online is my piece on the recent TCG Conference in Chicago; one thing you can only find in the print edition is my feature on theater for babies (yes, it does exist! just not as much in the States as in Europe but we're coming along--well, that's my story, anyway). A favorite quote from the latter story, from Swedish psychoanalyst/playwright Ann-Sofie Barany, who wrote the play Babydrama for 6- to 12-month-year-olds:
They want this--they need this. I’ve said it many times before: I think theatre is the best way of telling babies about life. Because theatre, when it’s really done in an exact way, it’s like a condensation of reality. There’s not a lot of noise going on; there’s not a lot of focuses; it’s super-clear.
All true.

But It Was Onstage First...

I join my colleagues in pre-cringing at Clear Blue Tuesday, the new rock musical film about 9/11, but I have to correct Time Out's recent post, which sighs with relief that it's a movie but was never a play.

The name rang a bell, and sure enough: It was done as a concert at NYMF in 2007, and the film was screened at NYMF last year.


Love this photo from the opening of August: Osage County in Sydney. White Midwestern American vaguely-professorial dweebs everywhere salute you, Tracy Letts.

Why I Love AT Facebook Fans

For a light Tuesday post on the American Theatre Facebook page, I threw out an easy one, an excuse for folks to tell us about themselves: What are your special skills? This is usually one of the more amusing sections of an actor's resume (I recall that "driving" and "English" are often helpfully listed, stretching the definition of "special" just a bit), so I'm expecting a few laughs from the responses. But I hadn't counted on the wags quoting the Bard at me: One immediately wrote, "Fencing, dancing, and bear-baiting," and another responded on cue: "Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine."

Cognitive Dissonance, Musical Theater Edition

From Michael Dale's review of Power Balladz:
We're at a performance of an unnamed cover band which is sponsored by the Council Of Creative Knowledge (figure out the acronym for yourself) and by Slanket, "the original fleece blanket with sleeves." Fronted by chums since 9th grade, Dieter Bierbrauer and Scott Richard Foster (the characters take on the names of the actors playing them), the band's repertoire includes hits by the likes of Journey ("Faithfully"), Guns N' Roses ("Sweet Child o' Mine"), Whitesnake ("Here I Go Again"), Poison ("Every Rose Has Its Thorn") Aerosmith ("Dream On") and Queen ("We Are the Champions"). I understand they also know some Damn Yankees but I don't recall hearing anything by Adler and Ross.
It's come to this, folks.

Aug 25, 2010

Unintentional Dyslexic Humor

My wife just mentioned that a friend sent her some links to his theatre company's "feb site and wacebook page," which really sounded more like the extremely apropos "fib site and wastebook page." I'm going to start using that.

Aug 24, 2010

Final Ashland Blogging: Merchant and the Rep Percentage

"Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?"

So begins director Bill Rauch's thoughtful, sensitive new production of The Merchant of Venice, in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor Elizabethan Theater through early October. The show opens with this provocative line from the fourth act's horrific trial scene, then "rewinds" (a clock at the top of the stage spins, and we hear whirring blips of rewinding tape) back to the play's beginning.

Unfortunately, this directorial choice is the strongest in the show, hinting at a level confusion and ugliness that the evening never quite delivers. Instead, this Merchant feels queasy, tentative, down-the-middle, with neither the romantic comedy nor the social horror feeling definitive, despite--because of?--the decision to present the text without excision or rearranging.

Anthony Heald's nuanced, entirely legible Shylock makes sense of every beat in this challengingly under-sympathetic character's arc, but this sensible, utterly defensible approach comes at the expense of the politically incorrect frisson the role, and the play, can generate at its best/worst. It's as if Heald and Rauch are unwilling to let us feel the full force of the odious, money-grubbing Jew stereotype which unmistakeably informs the play's writing, lest we join in that feeling for even a moment. The effect is a curious distance that robs us of involvement or implication; when, during the trial scene, Gregory Linington's oddly Einstein-coiffed Gratiano shouts taunts at Shylock, they draw awkward titters more than disgust, and I'm not sure the audience is entirely to blame.

Ugliness is not a problem for Al Pacino's Shylock, in Daniel Sullivan's Shakespeare in the Park production, headed to Broadway in October. Pacino can present the worst side of his characters without fuss or apology, while simultaneously giving them fully, recognizably human shape; this is practically his entire raison d'etre as a performer. And in Lily Rabe's Portia, Hamish Linklater's Bassanio, and Byron Jennings' Antonio, you have a satisfyingly odd, sexy, bumpy love triangle that's also recognizably human (the Jessica/Lorenzo/Gobbo triangle is more forced, but it fits the production's vision).

Rauch's production doesn't just suffer in comparison to Sullivan's juicy, involving production; it suffers more in comparison to his own brilliant, ultra-confident, near-perfect Hamlet, at the indoor Bowmer Theatre. Indeed, the outdoor shows at Ashland this year were, for me, a bit of a wash. I've already noted my boredom with the outdoor Henry IV, and while Darko Tresnjak's Twelfth Night is a undeniably bright and buzzy, its broad-brush comic style and colorful Mozartian overlay (with a stunning David Zinn set and lush Linda Cho costumes) were so much marzipan for me: It all looked so much better than it tasted.

And maybe it's because it's the outdoor stage, but I also have to confess that parts of Merchant and Twelfth Night suffer from the sort of declamatory, Shakespeare-by-numbers acting approach that Charles McNulty deplored in his thoroughgoing takedown last year--a puzzling piece, as I noted when it came out, given that on balance, OSF routinely employs some of the best actors I've seen anywhere, bar none. But I learned something else on this most recent trip in conversation with one director: I'd heard about the brain-exploding complications of the repertory schedule, and I always figured that the main complication was in casting actors in as many as three shows apiece, across a ten-month season--I was thinking about the performance part of the equation. I also knew about the rigors of changing over sets from the tech side of things. What I hadn't realized is that the interlocking rep schedule also straitjackets rehearsal time; the director I spoke to said that while the Equity contract allows up to 45 hours of rehearsal a week with actors, a director in Ashland may get closer to 20 hours a week with her actors, unless she can beg, borrow, or steal actors' time (and rehearsal space) for more.

The mind reels to think what this means for the festival's stepped-up emphasis on doing musicals, which were programmed sporadically until Rauch made a commitment to them a few years ago. But more importantly, I think it's entirely possible that a certain percentage of the Shakespearean acting at Ashland reverts to a default "classical" style that's clear, straightforward, and at worst uninspired. (One actor told me that while Shakespeare is definitely spoken with an American accent there, there's still a debate over what kind of American accent--is it "Tooz-day" or "Tee-ooz-day"?)

In short, in my whirlwind of nine shows in five days, I saw a festival in transition. Rauch has not only diversified the company racially and culturally, he has also striven to diversify it aesthetically, injecting American Sign Language, hip-hop diction, and the rock 'n' roll commedia approach of the Actors' Gang, among other influences, into the company. I've noted before how versatile the acting company appears to be, and I was especially excited this time out to see how many old hands weren't just hanging around but seemed as fresh as ever (Michael Elich, for instance, seems positively ebullient). But not every actor and director can, or would like to, do everything well. The audiences for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, including yours truly, have clearly embraced the festival's new direction (box office is booming, in other words), while the company and organization itself seems, by my rough estimate, only three-quarters of the way there.

For a large American theatre in this uncertain, transitional American moment, that's a damn good percentage.

Previous OSF posts:
The LA/Ashland Pipeline
Ashland Blogging II: Love for Lydia
Ashland Blogging III: Danlet
Ashland Blogging IV: Sob Story
Ashland Blogging V: Honorary Clasheros
Ljova, Lubitsch, and Ashland Blogging VI
For the LA Times Culture Monster blog: Ashland Blogging at Another Level

Aug 20, 2010

Friday Fun

Important warning signs for concerned wives: How to tell if your husband is gay. (I'm screwed on #6, borderline on #2.)

Cue inevitable Mad Men clip:

Long May She Prospera

So Helen Mirren plays "Prospera" in Julie Taymor's new film of Shakespeare's Tempest. Where have I seen this before?

My Interfaith Story

(cross-posted on the TCG blog)
On Sept. 9, 2001, I went to the downtown L.A. offices of Cornerstone Theater Company for a sort of mutual interview/audition process with several theater makers who'd been enlisted for a "festival of faith," a series of short, limited-run theater works that would be created with various local communities of faith: Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Baha'i. After covering and enjoying Cornerstone's work in L.A. since they'd arrived in 1992, and having been stunt-cast as myself in their Taper holiday show in 2000, I had decided to "join the dance," as someone later put it to me, as a musician/composer for a piece in this month-long festival. The festival was designed as a sort of ice breaker for the troupe's four-year "faith cycle," in which they would create full-length theater works with each of those communities, and build to a final "bridge show" on the subject of how faith "unites and divides us."

I recall little about the projects I talked about/auditioned for that day, except that my interest was most piqued by the Muslim project: It was going to be staged at New Horizon School in Pasadena, with a group of a few dozen kids aged 5-11. I think the director, a Dutch woman named Antonia Smits, probably mentioned then that she'd be adapting the mysterious Sufi poem The Conference of the Birds. I knew next to nothing about Islam and little about the Sufi tradition, except that I had a few records by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

You might see where this is going: After the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington two days later, Cornerstone's interfaith work acquired an almost frightening urgency and timeliness. My own interest in the Muslim project intensified, and not simply out of academic curiosity but out of a real question: Could the simple act of making theater bridge the divide that threatened to open wide among cultures and people living ostensibly peacefully together in this free country?

It almost didn't; the Muslim component of this faith festival was nearly scuttled due to security concerns on the part of New Horizon School. But before I knew it I was in rehearsals at an elementary school with about half a dozen adult actors, a gaggle of eager children, and an open-tuned blue guitar. The experience would have a spiritual and theological dimension for me; Attar's poem is a lot about shedding worldly desires and finding our precious treasure within, on a path that ironically requires a long journey outside oneself to discover (a paradox I tried to capture in the lyric: "We are very far from Simurgh/He is very close to us").

But of course the most immediate and striking dimension of the experience was social and cultural, as I spent weeks teaching my songs to boys and girls, and meeting their parents, at a school that looked and felt a lot like my own elementary school in Phoenix, Ariz., except for the prayer mats and the "names of God" prints, and varying degrees of hijab (I learned that the school, as it catered to Muslims from a variety of traditions, had an open policy on this count, and I was particularly intrigued to meet the glamourous, uncovered Saudi mother of one young girl who apparently chose of her own accord to be covered).

Ramadan happened while we worked on the show; the youngest of the children weren't required to fast, and the rest were pretty squirrely and distracted for a week. But the biggest cultural conflict the production faced was that its opening weekend conflicted with the opening of the first Harry Potter movie. Still, we had a good turnout, and I look back on my time working on a show Smits would call They Simply Said Enter with unremittingly warm feelings toward my collaborators and the children, parents, and administrators at New Horizon School.

Outside the walls of the school auditorium where we rehearsed and performed, it was an intense time: The U.S. and its allies went to war with Afghanistan, the Patriot Act was signed into law, and, on an entirely personal front, my mother died quite unexpectedly (I missed a few rehearsals, but I went on with her in my heart).

So I have little to add to the suddenly resurgent and unutterably painful controversy about Islam's place in America, which saddens and disgusts me in almost equal measure. But I can report from my own experience working and making theater with Muslims in the fraught aftermath of 9/11. For what it's worth, my experience was enriching, even healing. It answered, for me at the time anyway, the question of whether theater--and collaboration and dialogue more generally--could bridge the divide between cultures with a resounding yes. I have absolutely no doubt that dialogue and collaboration--and while we're at it, maybe some theater, as well--give the same answer today, as well.

Aug 17, 2010

Ashland Blogging at Another Level

For the LA Times, I take a look at the trend I identified here in some more depth, with some on-the-ground reporting.

Aug 13, 2010

"Venus" Sighting

I join Weill nerds everywhere in wishing other theaters would revive his underrated 1943 collaboration with Ogden Nash, One Touch of Venus, as the Shaw Festival is doing now. I've heard an excellent recording of the Encores production from some years ago with Melissa Errico in the lead, and I'd love to hear the score again, live, in a decent-sized house.

Just a thought, producers and programmers.

Motifs, Merrily

The consensus on Sondheim is that he's as great a lyricist as the American musical theater has ever produced, but opinions diverge on his music. I'm a pretty unreserved fan, and Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times helps to illustrate why, even without words, Sondheim is on par with some of the great composers for any medium in any age.

Aug 12, 2010

Facade Off

Some New York streets are disfigured for so long by construction/renovation scaffolding that when it's gone, the effect is transformational. I've worked in this building for more than two years, and I've never seen this facade.

Aug 10, 2010

Ljova, Lubitsch, and Ashland Blogging VI

I was so happy to read about my good friend Ljova in the paper of record. Among the weddings this composing/arranging/bandleading Renaissance Man appeared at was my own, bringing down the house with his wife in a stirring rendition of "Ochi chyornye." (I also hope he doesn't regret having me join him here.)

"Ochi chyornye," it's hard to forget, is also the tune played by the hard-to-sell musical cigar boxes in the marvelous Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner. In the cutesy Bock/Harnick/Masteroff musical of the same material, She Loves Me, that pivotal music box and the scene it inspires is duly musicalized, as are many, many, many other moments from the action of this screwball comedy about romance among Budapest shop clerks. It is not, as I've written before, a favorite show of mine, but I have to confess that Rebecca Taichman's well-turned, exquisitely cast production at Oregon Shakes makes as good a case as I can imagine for the show's modest but undeniable charms. The damn thing may work too hard for our affection, but it sure does work. And it's a snug fit for the Ashland rep company, not only because of the many smaller roles in which their comedians can shine (including Dan Donohue, Hamlet himself, as an officious maitre'd) but because the leads themselves are a quirky, quotidian pair, brought to life winningly in this case by Mark Bedard and Lisa McCormick.

Aug 9, 2010

Critics' Showcase

It's hard to convey how dispiriting it is to read, in this colloquy between the LA Times' Charles McNulty and the LA Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris, that the former clings to the cliche that the town's small-theater offerings have the taint of "actors' showcase" about them. But it is helpful to find out where McNulty sets the bar:
I'm not arguing that there aren't auteurs at work or theater companies with an appetite for experiment, such as Circle X Theatre Co., Son of Semele Ensemble and Circus Theatricals...The productions at Boston Court and the Fountain are consistently strong, even muscular at times. But radical or groundbreaking? These venues have dynamic artistic leadership and are committed to ambitious, meaningful work. The same is true of the Black Dahlia and the Blank Theatre Company. But I wish that our best and boldest theater directors had a more influential voice. If they did, the new work that is being generated would get only stronger.
So if your theater offers "strong, even muscular" productions and has "dynamic artistic leadership" that's "committed to ambitious, meaningful work," but you fall short of the "radical or groundbreaking" standard, your work is likely to have "all the urgency of an actors' showcase." Do I have that straight?

I can't argue with a fellow critic's honest perceptions, and McNulty seems to genuinely want to get it, and hey--he's been there in the trenches seeing the shows, and I haven't since 2005. But I have to call bullshit on this. Apply the dynamic-and-muscular-but-sorry-it's-not-groundbreaking standard to theater anywhere, in any era, and you'd end up with a very short list of highlights. Even Eric Bentley was disappointed more often than not, and he was seeing ostensibly the best of the best. I believe that every critic should maintain high standards and should routinely challenge his subjects and his readers, to the point of effrontery and even past it, but I'm sick of seeing L.A.'s small theaters get beaten with this stick so relentlessly, and by their hometown critic.

UPDATE: As usual, Don Shirley is a better reporter than I. In his response to the CM/SLM dialogue, he points out, in persuasive detail, how robust the Southland's midsize theater scene is, and writes hopefully that it may be best positioned to take the artistic risks valorized by Morris and McNulty. Frankly, that wasn't my experience with former 99-seaters that made the move up to midsize Equity contracts in the late '90s and early aughts; the slight move up to bigger-budget houses often meant smaller cast sizes, fewer performances of fewer productions, and more surefire commercial material. But to his credit, Shirley is relentless on the economic argument for his former employer, the LA Times, to cover these theaters.

Aug 7, 2010

Ashland Blogging V: Honorary Clasheros

Could American Night be Culture Clash's best show ever? And might it also signify, more than any show yet staged at Oregon Shakes, the festival's new direction under the leadership of artistic director Bill Rauch? I can only say, having seen the Clash do its subversively silly sketch comedy on contemporary themes for nearly 20 years now, and having followed Bill's progress as a visionary leader and collaborator for nearly as long, that the Clash's new show--a spiky, spirited, unaccountably moving romp through pop culture and politics around the theme of immigration and the infinitely fractal nature of hyphenate American identity--represents both a career summation and a kind of mission statement, a promise made as much as fulfilled, for both Culture Clash and Rauch's OSF.

It's always been easy to dismiss the Clasheros' shtick as multicultural Monty Python, as TV sketch material that happens to be onstage. And when I first saw them in The Mission at LATC, the easiest comparison at hand for their stereotype-exploding comedy was In Living Color. But Culture Clash's work has aged better than the legacy of that series, not least because they've honed their art as live theater artists, incorporating Anna Deavere Smith-style docu-theater practice into their writing, but also because the stage is the natural home of this kind of up-to-the-minute commentary, the success of an SNL notwithstanding.

So when a rancorous Tea Party Town Hall erupts about two thirds of the way through American Night (the whole thing is the fever dream of a young Mexican immigrant cramming for his U.S. Citizenship exam), the show doesn't just score easy points against big-haired birthers and Second Amendment wackos; it complicates the discourse with black characters from increasingly Latino South Central L.A., as resentful in their own way as whites are at the browning of California; Asian and Indian IT workers also elbow their way into the colloquy. And in the midst of a segment set at Manzanar Relocation Camp, a young Japanese American describes the rounding-up of his family and friends, even one old man wrenched from the convenience store where he was "refusing to serve blacks just like good American white shop owners." It's may not be Shaw, exactly, but the kaleidoscope of voices and points of view makes for a rich and almost giddy-making brew.

I'll just pause to acknowledge that only two of the Clash trio--droopily acerbic Richard Montoya and versatile livewire Herbert Siguenza--are in this show, though both Montoya and Culture Clash are credited as authors. Indeed, I've been told this is the first Clash show minus the cherubic Ric Salinas. I'm not sure why he's not in it; murmurs about a very tough development process between Montoya and director Jo Bonney were hard to avoid the week I was there; Montoya cites Salinas' toddlers as the reason here. But Salinas is missed. The central story of immigrant Juan Jose might be more affecting with him in the role; Rene Millan is absolutely fine, but the framing story of his personal journey, from needing to wanting to become American, is structurally sound but emotionally thin.

So why does the show otherwise work so well, as well as anything Culture Clash has done since Bowl of Beings? It has something do with the fact that this entire cast of OSF rep regulars, under Bonney's clean-lined direction, rises to the level of honorary Clasheros; this former Actors' Gang fan particularly enjoyed watching Kate Mulligan integrate her brittle brilliance into this manic mix. Indeed, at some point, the rapid-fire flipbook of irreverent caricatures, from Bob Dylan to Big Love to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, from an old-time radio broadcast to a dizzying Japanese game show, reminded me of the transcendently rude pleasures of Jerry Springer: The Opera.

Though I doubt we'll see that cathartic blast of blasphemy land at Oregon Shakes (next year's musical: Pirates of Penzance), the fact that Culture Clash is premiering their newest--and again, possibly tightest and timeliest--show in Southern Oregon strikes me as a very big deal indeed. Possibly even more striking is that this ensemble-created political comedy is the first salvo in "American Revolutions," a series of 37 plays commissioned by OSF from the likes of Robert Schenkkan, David Henry Hwang, Suzan-Lori Parks, Young Jean Lee, and many more. This is not business as usual for the classical rep company nestled anomalously in the Siskiyou mountain plain, to put it mildly. I look forward to more in this vein.

I'm a few days behind on my Ashland blogging. I'll have to catch up soon with my takes on Rauch's Merchant of Venice, Rebecca Taichman's She Loves Me, and Darko Tresnjak's Twelfth Night, as well as an overview of my experience of the festival, both onstage and around the town, this year.

Aug 6, 2010

Ashland Blogging IV: Sob Story

Those sitting next to me at the theater may have felt it--a late-in-the-show shudder as I suppress tears at some emotional turn in the play. It usually passes quickly, without any actual water (it would probably be easier, not to mention healthier, if I could just let the ducts flow, but alas, it seems I've been conditioned to the kind of public restraint that has the paradoxical consequence of increasing the violence of my reaction the more I hold back).

I can't recall, though, the last time I sobbed out loud in the theater, letting out a small, involuntary cry audible even to the actors onstage, as I did yesterday near the end of Liesl Tommy's production of Ruined, Lynn Nottage's wrenching, magisterial drama, Mother Courage-inflected about the ongoing war in the Congo, which ran for most of 2009 at MTC's City Center Stage, picking up a Pulitzer along the way. Staged in an avenue configuration in Oregon Shakes' New Theatre, this rendition has many advantages over the slightly cramped stage picture of the MTC production; the jungle trees to one side have a sense of depth and shadow that they lacked in New York, and the scenes of men carousing have more immediacy and dangerous intimacy.

Indeed, Tommy has spread the show out before us like a banquet and sharpened--some might say sweetened or simplified--the flavors. Kimberly Scott's Mama Nadi, the remorseless club owner/madam, is an earthier and more openly sympathetic figure than the cool customer played by Saidah Arrika Ekulona in New York; and there were times I felt the Oregon production edged near cutesiness or overemphasis. On the other hand, it felt more consistently alive, less presented than inhabited. And the emotional payoff of this more direct approach is enormous, as my sob attested, and ultimately redemptive. If Kate Whoriskey's premiere production mostly sobered us with its sense of social importance, and impressed on us an essentially despairing portrait of the seeming intractability of human suffering, Tommy's version moves us to feel both our complicity in its character's lives and those characters' universal connection to us. Brecht might not have approved, but I think Nottage would.

Fan as I am of OSF, there's usually at least one play in the season that bores me to distraction. This year it's Henry IV, Part One, which I took in last night on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage. Though this rip-roaring, roisterous history play was one of the first that sold me on the festival back in '98 (with Dan Donohue as Hal and John Pribyl, in a fat suit, as a hilarious Deadhead Falstaff), this current version feels pretty lifeless, apart from the climactic clatter of swordplay. This despite having one of Ashland's great clowns, David Kelley, as a perfectly acceptable fat-suit Falstaff, and direction by the estimable Penny Metropulos, whose work I've heartily enjoyed before. With an 11-show lineup, they can't all be winners.

Aug 5, 2010

Ashland Blogging III: Danlet

Pale, ginger-haired Dan Donohue is one of our great actors, possessed of the Hamish Linklater-ish skill for giving his leading men an edge of nerdy comedy and his fools a reedy Everyguy appeal, and possessed of a facility with language that makes every line--in Shakespeare or otherwise--ring with immediacy and clarity in the present moment. He has technique to burn but it's trained like a searchlight on a raw, roiling, utterly individual inner life. This mix of sinew and brains, precision and unpredictability, makes him an ideal American Hamlet, and in Bill Rauch's mostly thrilling production at Oregon Shakes, close to a definitive one.

Much has been made of Rauch's outre directorial touches--the female Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the deaf Hamlet Senior, the hip-hop Players--but what really stands out about the direction is the idiosyncratic but somehow perfect ways Rauch has cast several key roles: Jeffrey King's bald, hulking, ultra-butch Claudius, a military-corporate bruiser slimeball who nevertheless gives his crucial scene of unsuccessful prayer all the irony and abjection it contains; Susannah Flood's quirky, blowsy Ophelia, who's like a comic extension of Richard Elmore's doddering Polonius but who later enacts a disarmingly willful meltdown; Greta Oglesby's weary-eyed Gertrude, whose queenly poise seems to teeter on the edge of teary breakdown, or exhaustion, or both; Armando Duran's wondering, rumpled Horatio.

Donohue himself, though he'd also be the choice of a more conventional director, gives his Hamlet odd, uncontainable contours; Rauch has staged most of the melancholy prince's monologues and asides as freeze-frames in a glaring low light, and Donohue attacks these with an inward-directed ferocity that's as stunning as it is emotionally wrenching.

The threads fray a bit in the show's last turn: This Hamlet largely loses his edge and his urgency in England, and when he returns to an Elsinore that's gone even further off the rails (after a bold but probably ill-advised quartet of soap-operatic dysfunction between Laertes, Ophelia, Claudius, and Gertrude), he seems bracingly sane by comparison, and less likely than ever to set things right. But this is still far and away the best Hamlet I've seen onstage (certainly better than OSF's last one, with Marco Barricelli, in 2000, and better than Judelet), and one that, by showing the very age and body of our time its form and pressure, qualifies as a Hamlet for the ages.

I cared much less for Ping Chong's Throne of Blood (and worry for its critical fortunes when it goes to BAM in November). I'll probably write more about this when I get a chance, but the central problem with putting Kurosawa's film of Macbeth onstage is that while the film doesn't use Shakespeare's dialogue but instead "translates" many of the play's images and themes into striking visuals, that kind of visual storytelling is much harder to pull off onstage. And in Chong's stark but mostly inert stage production, the images can't do all the work and the dialogue doesn't exactly sing. There are many complicated and layered differences--cultural, dramaturgical, aesthetic--between Shakespeare's and Kurosawa's versions of the story that are fascinating to contemplate, but this spoken-language gap is not one of them.

NB: Donohue has some thoughts about playing Hamlet, among other things, here.

Aug 4, 2010

Ashland Blogging II: Love for Lydia

First impressions aren't always correct: The first show I saw at Oregon Shakes was, if memory serves, The School for Scandal, and I almost immediately dozed off amid the powdered wigs and shiny pants. This, I feared, was exactly the sort of thing I was going to be seeing all week from this classical troupe: accents and bustles and flipping fans. But in quick succession I saw a rip-roaring contemporary Henry IV, Part One, a moving Good Woman of Setzuan, the satisfyingly ramshackle fable Vilna's Got a Golem, a brilliant Midsummer, etc...You get the idea.

This year my playgoing schedule at OSF happened to kick off last night with Pride and Prejudice, in a nimble, unobtrusive, not to say undistinctive adaptation by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan, directed with admirable clarity by former OSF artistic director Libby Appel. This is middle-of-the-road fare that meets expectations and little more--to use Jane Austen's language, it is tolerable, agreeable, and handsome enough--and it illustrates a point I made in my last post: that in a repertory company, the romantic leads are often the weaker links. I did eventually warm to the blooming chemistry between Kate Hurster's Eliza and Elijah Alexander's Darcy, but though both are deft enough comic-romantic actors, this is hardly a sizzling pairing.

Also as usual with a rep company, it's the supporting players who inevitably steal focus: Demetra Pittman's magisterial Lady Catherine, for instance, or Mark Murphey's dry-as-dust Mr. Bennet (who plays glintingly off Judith-Marie Bergan's slightly too broad Mrs. Bennet), or Christian Barillas' solidly ditzy Charles Bingley. Speaking of ditzes, the real find here is Susannah Flood as Lydia, the youngest and boy-craziest of the Bennet girls; the role is comic catnip, but I can think of a dozen ways a young actress could botch it. Instead, the aptly named Flood bubbles over with manias and whims that seem to be occurring to her on the spot; her 11th-hour sit-down with her elder sisters is a gem of offhand comic characterization. Wondering at the absence of fellow officers at her hasty wedding to one, Lydia cries, "After all, England isn't under attack!" There's a wobbling pause, then a tiny spill of absolutely sincere doubt, tinged with terror: "Is it?"

Today there's meatier fare on the menu: This afternoon is Ping Chong's staging of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (itself a version of Macbeth), and tonight there's a contemporary Hamlet which I'm especially looking forward to, not only because I've heard only good things about it but because I just checked the program: Susannah Flood, of all people, is playing Ophelia. Ah, the happy exigencies of repertory casting.

Aug 2, 2010

The L.A./Ashland Pipeline

A large part of what a critic has to offer is the shows he's seen and the artists whose work he's followed. This is especially true of theater critics, who must observe everything they write about at firsthand. For better or worse, the bulk of my theatergoing--the theater that shaped me--has been on the West Coast in general, and Los Angeles in particular. Apart from several catch-up jaunts to London and New York, I spent most of the 1990s and half of the aughts following my affinities and logging precious seat time at L.A.'s best large and small companies: Theatre of NOTE, Circle X, Sacred Fools, Evidence Room, the Matrix, the Fountain, the Taper, Zoo District, the Black Dahlia, the Pasadena Playhouse, Actors' Co-Op, Deaf West, the Colony, the Tiffany, Theater/Theatre, East West Players, Boston Court, Padua Playwrights, Open Fist, Playwrights Arena, Theatre 40, Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, Troubadour Theatre, the Blank, the Groundlings, West Coast Ensemble, the Geffen, the Celebration, the Odyssey, the Shubert, Highways, Pacific Resident Theatre, A Noise Within, Antaeus, the Met, Burglars of Hamm, Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, City Garage, Interact, L.A. Rep and ACE. (I could go on.)

If I had to pick a few that stood out as particularly exemplary or formative, they would be Justin Tanner's repertory company at the Cast Theatre in the mid- to late '90s; the freewheeling salon that was the Evidence Room in its fin-de-siecle heyday; the outsized, experimental creative titans of the Actors' Gang; and the unflinching communitarian ethos of Cornerstone Theater Company.

Over a decade and a half, these companies provided what felt to me like the core of a vibrant theater scene, a full menu of theatrical options, and an irreplaceable education. Most of the best of them, and in particular those last four, demonstrated the timeworn cliche about the best theater arising from repertory ensembles, however loosely defined or ephemeral.

At the same time, as the editor of an actors' trade paper that covered the whole West Coast, I became aware of what some call the "I-5 corridor," a route along which actors willing to commute could find work, and maybe even piece together a theater living, from Seattle Rep to San Diego Rep. I was given to understand that one of the prime destinations along this trail, from a trade perspective if nothing else, was the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where a staff of 70-plus Equity actors are employed for up to 10 months a year, often for years at a time. That sounded to me like an underreported anomaly in a national theater economy where actors are usually the last hired and are invariably jobbed-in.

Well, I came to visit Ashland for the first time in 1998, and it immediately impressed me as more than a mere theater trade story; here was a genuine repertory ensemble doing classics and contemporary work as well as I'd seen anywhere (and yes, I have seen productions by the RSC, the Propeller Theatre, and the new Globe). At Oregon Shakes I would go on see a definitive Othello and Henry IV, Part One, a Tongue of a Bird that was better than the Taper's, an achingly good Trip to Bountiful, a resonant Seven Guitars, a beautiful Night of the Iguana, a lip-smacking Man Who Came To Dinner, a pungent Good Woman of Setzuan, a shattering Trojan Women, a lovely Pericles and a rollicking Troilus and Cressida, a weird and woolly Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?...Again, I could go on. I've also slept through some deadly dull filler (as I've done in L.A. and New York and London), and noted OSF's occasional dearth of convincingly dashing leads and dewy ingenues, a deficiency that to me has been more than compensated for by the company's great store of clowns, oddballs, seasoned souls, and unique characters.

Shuttling back and forth between L.A.'s financially poor and under-recognized theaters and Ashland's embarrassment of riches, I started thinking: What if some of the great talents of L.A. could score gigs in Ashland? It happened with Armando Duran, whom I'd seen in some Padua plays and who's now a fixture at OSF; the costumer Alex Jaeger was also no stranger in both towns. When the Actors' Gang's resident genius of the '90s, Tracy Young (who if she had lived in any other town might have had a career like Moises Kaufman's or Mary Zimmerman's) staged a piece called Four Roses, with four of her most salient muses enacting various Tennessee Williams heroines, it was clear: These great L.A. actors could do anything, but who would give them the chance? I wanted someone to create full productions around Evie Peck's Laura, Cynthia Ettinger's Maggie the Cat, Patti Tippo's Blanche, and above Kate Mulligan's Alma. But who in L.A. even knew how world-beating these actors were, let alone anywhere else on that semi-mythical I-5 corridor?

Bill Rauch, Cornerstone's A.D., had already noticed an affinity with the Actors' Gang's ensemble ethic, and in 1998 had co-directed with Young the deeply odd and greatly rewarding Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, in which three tales of royalty, marriage, and destiny played out simultaneously on the same stage; Cornerstone's and the Gang's actors worked together beautifully as a kind of tag-team rep company. So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised (though I was, a bit) when Bill started getting hired to direct shows at Oregon Shakes--Robert Schenkkan's searing Handler and a couple Shakespeares--and now, as the festival's new artistic director, that he's brought with him some of the great theater artists from the criminally under-sung L.A. scene I knew so well. Starting with his husband, the frigteningly talented actor/director Christopher Liam Moore, and two of Cornerstone's stalwarts, designer Christopher Acebo and lit manager Alison Carey, Bill has lured Tracy Young to direct at his new digs, and both Art Manke (formerly of A Noise Within) and Ken Roht (of Evidence Room, among other places) to choreograph, and he has not only the incomparable Kate Mulligan but also her husband, inveterate Actors' Gangster Brent Hinkley, living and working in Ashland.

Possibly most groundbreaking, Rauch and Carey's first commission in the ambitious 10-year, 37-play "American history cycle," is American Night, a new work not only created by the L.A.-based Chicano comedy trio Culture Clash but starring two of them--more or less the first case in the festival's history that its tightly knit ensemble has "star" interlopers. But if you're going to have any stars disrupt the complicated repertory machine that is Oregon Shakes, it's hard to think of anyone who disrupts decorum better, or more pointedly, than Culture Clash, a troupe I first saw perform at Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1991 and first interviewed a year later.

Among other achievements in the years since, Culture Clash helped close out Gordon Davidson's last Taper season with Chavez Ravine, a meditation/hallucination on the seeming transitory nature of L.A. history--"seeming" being the key word, since even that benighted town has roots worth recognizing and honoring, including its theater scene. I like to think that Rauch and co. are doing that, too--that along with the many other ways in which he has diversified and stepped up the game at Oregon Shakes, and alongside the many roots and traditions the festival now embraces under his leadership, some of the gems of the Los Angeles theater scene I witnessed, and bore witness to, shine on.

I'm in Ashland now, in fact, and I'll be blogging throughout the week as I take in the shows and the town, which I haven't visited since 2003.