Oct 28, 2010

Thursday Time Capsule

This kind of blew me away--it's like two epochs colliding, but with a civility that's almost hard to believe now.

Oct 27, 2010

Stepping In It

As the Chicago theater scene's hometown booster, it's pretty much Chris Jones' job to be outraged by something like this (h/t Isaac):

The first scene of Tuesday's episode [of The Good Wife]...was set at a fundraiser in a hotel ballroom. "And now as dinner is served," says the hostess, "Steppenwolf Theatre will entertain us with scenes from their hit play, 'The Cow With No Country.'"

Yeah, that's credible. Steppenwolf does bits of its shows in hotel ballrooms all the time. Just as the beef is served.

And with that introduction, a motley and pathetic little group of ragamuffin actors popped out, replete with their crude puppet-cow and all, and do some kind of whacked-out performance that lands somewhere between moronic Medieval drama, pantomime, Bertolt Brecht, "War Horse" and "Jack and the Beanstalk."

English accents and all. We kid you not. What has that got to do with Steppenwolf?

Isaac's right that it's probably wrong to blame the actors. But Jones' post made me think of a few other instances of light mockery directed toward the company: the inspired epilogue of Being John Malkovich, for instance, in which we learn, PBS docu-style, about how the title character, possessed by John Cusack's seedy puppeteer, goes on to turn his acclaimed theater company in a new, puppet-oriented direction.

Jones' piece, in which he concedes that Steppenwolf can leave itself open to parody at times, also reminded me of something Austin Pendleton told me about his first impression of the troupe some years ago:
An outside producer saw a play Pendleton directed Off-Broadway in 1979, Ralph Pape's Say Goodnight, Gracie, and wanted to take it to Chicago. But there were catches on both sides: The play's New York producer would only let the play move only if Pendleton was kept on as the director, and the Chicago producer would only accept that condition if his own special terms were met.

"He said, 'OK, but you have to use the members of this new company called Steppenwolf,' " Pendleton recalls. "At the time, I thought: 'There's a group that actually calls themselves "the Steppenwolf"? That's pathetic. Either they're trying to borrow the energy of a rock group, or, even worse, they've named themselves after the Herman Hesse novel.' I wasn't interested, but the producer insisted.

"So, grumpily I went off to Chicago, and as soon as I began to work with the company, I got swept away by them."

Oct 26, 2010

Kron's Sextet

I had the pleasure recently of sitting down with Lisa Kron to talk about her new play In the Wake--known in its L.A. incarnation earlier this year as The Wake, which sounds perhaps too Irish. (Most of her best friends, Kron told me, are Irish Catholics, actually, so maybe that helps account for the original title.) The play's a politically themed comedy about liberal discontent during the Bush years, and from what I've heard there are plenty of laughs and a little sex, but in person Kron--at least on the day I talked to her--was strikingly serious, even somber. It was a meaty interview, in other words. The result is here.

I probably shouldn't have been too surprised by her soberness of purpose, or rather by the way in which a serious-minded playfulness infuses all her work, since in doing research I came across this forceful, moving testimony she gave on marriage equality at the 2007 Stonewall Seder. Definitely worth a look:

Oct 25, 2010

Let Down and Hanging Around

I can pinpoint almost exactly where La Bete went off the rails for me, down to the line. The current Broadway revival, duly praised for its performances and the sharp, bright direction of Matthew Warchus, was my first acqaintance with the play, and having StageGraded the mixed reviews, I was prepared to be underwhelmed, or worse. On the contrary, I found myself enchanted and intrigued, and not only by the legend-in-the-making opening marathon monologue by Mark Rylance as the title boor; I felt for almost the play's entire running time that playwright David Hirson was brilliantly rehearsing a subtle and multilayered argument between high and low, vulgarian and snob, theatrical immediacy and literary distance, in the conflict between the emptyheaded but full-throated clown Valere (Rylance) and the dyspeptic aesthete Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), with a suitably majestic patron (Joanna Lumley) as a crucial catalyst and pivot point.

I was with the play even up through the performance of Valere's lame anti-vanity allegory "The Parable of Two Boys From Cadiz," and I was especially taken with the moments following it, in which the Princess seems finally to have seen through the charlatan, and Elomire, sensing that she's come around, takes the opportunity to speak frankly, letting loose an impressively nuanced jeremiad against his rival's pretensions:
Decrying France's vulgar predilection
For cheap and undistinguished works of art,
His play, ironically, is from the start
As bad as any work that it decries!
This bleak phenomenon itself implies
A danger to our nation more malign
Than so-called facts of cultural decline!
It represents a much more lethal trend:
The language used by artists to defend
Against the rule of mediocrity
Has been appropriated to a 'T'
By just those mediocrities who rule!
It's dangerous to be governed by a fool,
But worse when fools bemoan the sad decline
Of standards which their efforts undermine!
To mourn decaying values in a play
Which only reinforces the decay
Devalues the idea that it expresses!
This amounts to a more complicated thesis than I'd seen critics discern in the play--I can't count how many claimed that Hirson's play deplores our culture's preference for senseless vulgarians, and that that urgent message has become "even more relevant today" (two extremely wearying tropes, the first being precisely the kind of elitism well-read blue-state theater folks are frequently accused of, and the second an encomium I've been tired of since I first heard it applied to every significant revival of a bona fide classic since, I don't know, roughly the Reagan Administration).

Unfortunately, those critics turn out to be largely correct: The Princess responds to Elomire's tirade by chiding him for not seeing the entertainment value of Valere's work. Though we never get to see Elomire's work to compare, this judgment makes the Princess look a blind fool, since the "Cadiz" play is pretty pallid stuff, neither very good on its own merits or so-bad-it's-good fun. Elomire concludes the play vowing to continue his lonely quest for artistic excellence--in all, an extremely disappointing ending to what seemed until just a few minutes before a rich verbal fugue on taste, talent, and meaning.

And while I'm expressing disappointment with Broadway shows, I have to say that one reason Elomire's speech hit me so strongly is that it's a nearly perfect description of my feelings about Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which entertained me more or less in the way decent sketch comedy or a middling episode of South Park might, but left me glaringly aware of the many things it is not: especially funny, apt, uniquely insightful. As a contribution to the never-quite-right genre of the Broadway "rock musical," it mainly made me appreciate Passing Strange--a show I liked and admired more than outright loved--all the more.

BBAJ has its inspired moments, no question, and I think there's a smart idea operating behind its coarse playfulness--the one you've read about, about how American exceptionalism feeds American ignorance and self-involvement. I just think a show that demands our attention as brashly as this one does should have more than one idea.

Oct 24, 2010

Out of the Dark

In Patrick Pacheco's interview with Tony Kushner--in which Pacheco has the chutzpah to quote longtime nemesis Andrew Sullivan to the voluble playwright--I was struck most by the conclusion, in response to the inevitable question of whether Kushner feels he's "preaching to the converted":
"A great preacher starts with the doubt and uncertainty and skepticism that are the necessary concomitants of faith," he says. "He starts in the scary places, in the places where God is silent, in the places where God seems cruel, in the places where the world is not just and where people are ground to dust by monstrous, even satanic, forces where God doesn't intervene. Or where you ceaselessly betray God in your heart and your actions. You start there and progress toward whatever hope for change and light you can find. It's true of the prophets, it's true of John Donne, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King. And it's true of artists."

Oct 20, 2010

Quote of the Day

"The mind can only absorb what the butt can endure."
-Patricia Milton on the American Theatre Facebook page, where this morning's topic is play length

Flashback to the Future

With the announcement that both Robin Williams and Donny & Marie are slated to make Broadway debuts in the coming months, that makes stars of two of my favorite childhood TV shows trodding the Main Stem boards (Tom Wopat is already a fixture). If somebody decides to put Muppets, Sleestak, or the cast of Hee Haw on the Great White Way, this is going to get downright eerie.

Oct 19, 2010

Tuesday Quick Links

A busy week, again, so this will have to suffice for a while:
  • Scott Walters hears Tony Kushner, and righteous anger ensues. A must read (and not for the reasons you may think).
  • An excellent point about the irrelevance of spoilers.
  • Tiny Boston Court beats mighty Center Theatre Group in L.A. Ovation noms--this is historic.
  • What Jonah Lehrer said at the TCG conference, more or less.
  • I've got to cancel/postpone my Path Cafe solo gig this coming Friday--a cold has slain my already meager singing voice, and it doesn't recover as quickly as it once did.

Oct 18, 2010

The Gang's All High

Tim Robbins' Actors' Gang has announced the "Axis Mundi" series, an extracurricular series of off-night talks and screenings and events around the Gang's Culver City location. I have a lot of respect for Robbins and his company, but I can't help but read a lot of "Ray" in the press release ("Ray" being the ponytailed pomp peddler Robbins played so eerily well in High Fidelity).

"It's time to stir things up and gather community in a public forum that allows for illumination, dissection, and discussion of contemporary issues," Robbins is quoted as saying in the press release I got. "Nothing is out of bounds." The release goes on to inform us, "Axis mundi is a term representing the center point of the compass, a symbol that crosses human cultures, expressing a point of connection between the sky, the earth and the four directions."

A key sign that this is still the Gang we love, though, is that amid the planned panels on corporate corruption and earnest satire of the "institutionalized ignorance infecting America," there's this:
Tues., Nov. 9: Dark Side of Oz - A visual/audio mash up of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz. BYOW

Oct 15, 2010

Busy Days

Apologies for the light posting. I reappear briefly to announce two public appearances in the coming week or so:

On Friday, Oct. 22, at 8:30 p.m., I'll be playing some tunes at the Path Cafe.

On Monday, Oct. 25, 6:30 p.m. at the Martin E. Segal Theater, I'll join Time Out NY editor David Cote and a few other esteemed colleagues on a panel about the state of criticism in the age of Twitter.

Only one will feature a piano, but both are free.

Oct 10, 2010

Too-Convenient Parking

David Byrne says this is an oft-reproduced image of the Michigan Theatre in Detroit, but I'd never seen it till I checked in with his bleakly illuminating traveblogue (h/t Createquity). At American Theatre we're cooking up a story about the state of the lively arts in this desolate former auto capital, and I'm looking forward to it all the more keenly.

Oct 9, 2010

Best. Office. Ever.

My favorite bit: When Daryl shushes Michael with these wise words: "We have to listen to the overture, otherwise we won't recognize the themes when they come up later."

Oct 6, 2010

A New Low for Riedel

The Post's resident scourge has already pronounced himself bored in advance by this season's star-starved Broadway offerings, so he goes looking for fresh targets in the supposedly Broadway-bound, reportedly somewhat troubled musical Leap of Faith at the Ahmanson in L.A. So there's been some backstage sniping, and Brooke Shields can't sing; that much is fair game (though that doesn't explain why a show that's gotten mixed reviews is flatly labeled "bad" in the headline).

But check out Riedel's take on the director/choreographer, Rob Ashford:
Last year, powerful behind-the-scenes players were touting Ashford as the next Michael Bennett. But then "Promises, Promises" opened and "the next Michael Bennett" became the next Roger De Bris.

"Promises" is a hit at the box office. But Ashford's direction and choreography are swishier than anything Roger De Bris came up with for "Springtime for Hitler."
Huh? I guess in the Post, swishy = sucky? Now, I didn't see it, but I understand that Ashford's production of Jason Robert Brown's cheerful lynching musical Parade, originally produced at the Donmar Warehouse but also seen at the Ahmanson last year, was nothing to sneeze at. Suitably manful, too, I would imagine.

Seriously, I love good dish as much as the next culture vulture, and I'm more or less down with Rebecca West's call to "listen...to our geniuses in a disrespectful manner." But Riedel defines decadence down; he regularly goes beyond the call of doody.

Oct 4, 2010

Left Cold by Brits

photo by Tristram Kenton
As an inveterate Anglophile weaned on Doctor Who, the Pythons, and Merchant Ivory, I still found last week's Broadway season openers, Brief Encounter and The Pitmen Painters, impressive but largely unsatisfying. The first is an alternately lavish and impish production of a very attenuated romance that wears out its narrative welcome pretty quickly, despite some moments of pure theater magic involving a ukulele and an overturned rowboat; the latter, despite the efforts of a lovely ensemble cast, falls into the dodgy genre of art-as-vehicle-of-social-uplift. I'm often a sucker for this kind of story when it involves a backstage, let's-put-on-a-show element (like Lee Hall's other Broadway show), but I find it insufferable when it features characters who are walking mouthpieces for half-baked ideas about the meaning of "art"--a noun which should almost never be the named subject of any play.

In short, these two new offerings, if not quite the dog's breakfast, aren't exactly the dog's dinner, either.

Oct 1, 2010

The Season's Top 10

Along with the nifty new October season preview issue of American Theatre is the much-anticipated Top 10 list of plays slated for the most productions in the coming season* , reprinted here in full:

The 39 Steps (23)
adapted by Patrick Barlow from Alfred Hitchcock

Circle Mirror Transformation (15)
by Annie Baker

Superior Donuts (10)
by Tracy Letts

Ruined (10)
by Lynn Nottage

August: Osage County (9)
by Tracy Letts

God of Carnage (8)
by Yasmina Reza

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play (8)
by Sarah Ruhl

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (8)
by Rachel Sheinkin (book) and William Finn (music and lyrics)

To Kill a Mockingbird (7)
adapted by Christopher Sergel from Harper Lee

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (7)
by August Wilson

A few surprises there (Ma Rainey?). And sorry to say, this is as strong a representation of female playwrights as we've seen since we've been doing the Top 10 list. Take it away, Playgoer.

*The usual caveats must be mentioned: This list reflects only TCG member theaters who got us their season lists by our deadline.