Oct 28, 2011

TGIF Hot Links

Oct 27, 2011

For the Hunka Family

Schoenberg + Teletubbies = early Halloween fear candy. (via Daniel Capo on Vimeo.)

Oct 26, 2011

More Cote

Did you miss his readings-and-chat evening with Young Jean Lee, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and David Adjmi? Good news, it's all here.

The Dirty Dozen

The above was our half-joking working title at American Theatre for this great new feature by David Cote, which surveys 12 of the nation's most influential theater critics about the state of the arts, and the state of arts coverage, in their respective markets. It's an excellent national panorama, and inspires something like cautious hope for the form. I liked in particular the profile of John Moore, critic for the Denver Post:
Moore's statewide beat sends him tooling for hours over mountain roads in his 2004 Subaru Forester. "I'm putting a lot of miles on my car," he says with a laugh. "But we think it's important to focus not just on the metro area. Outside of Denver, you've got Theatre Aspen and the Creede Repertory Theatre, which was started by Mandy Patinkin, but it's 250 miles from Denver."

..."These mountain-town theatres don't just add to the economy. Some actually drive the economies. Mineral County has only 450 residents and Creede Rep is one of its largest employers. It draws audiences from all over Colorado, New Mexico and Dallas. They get 20,000 people to see seven or eight shows in rep in a tiny town. And they don't just do light summer fare. This past summer, Creede did The Road to Mecca. It's, like, great theatre in the strangest places."
That's always American Theatre's beat.

Wednesday Hot Links

Quote for the Day

"If a reviewer should deem a production a failure, so be it. But at least start from the presumption of purpose; discuss the ideas. And this has been the revelation for me, as a relative luddite, from this small fuss. There is now more insight to be had, in aggregate, from Twitter than from our print media; and indisputably more depth to be found in blogs written from passion, and in reflection. It is a small cultural revolution and – like all revolutions – it looks like a good thing. For now."
-Playwright/director Anthony Nielson, whose RSC production of Marat/Sade is prompting patron walkouts

Oct 25, 2011

The Puppet People Are Back

A few years back I had the privilege of interviewing Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff, the husband-and-wife team who constitute the puppet company Phantom Limb. Quite apart from the joys of discovering their meticulous work was the pleasure of meeting them, or more precisely, meeting them in their amazing habitat. As I wrote then,
To visit the vividly antiquarian 15th-floor loft apartment in TriBeCa [Sanko] shares with his wife, Jessica Grindstaff, or just to witness this couple's beguiling notion of street clothes, is to recognize them as born show people -- post-punk heirs to purveyors of raree shows and wunderkammers.

"When I met Erik about 12 years ago, we started going to antique and oddity stores and realized we were into the same odd stuff -- taxidermied things," said composer Danny Elfman, who co-wrote the sparkling score for "The Fortune Teller"..."I always considered myself a 19th century man living in the 20th century. Erik is that, but even more so -- he's from some other place in the space-time continuum."
The same might be said of his wife, who designs a line of prize ribbons among other things. I also managed to slip into that story a mention of the one object in their apartment that transfixed me the most:
Behind [Sanko] sat a metal globe scrubbed of text.
My wife to this day rolls her eyes a bit when I start to go on about the magical "puppet people" and that text-less globe (and more to the point, how I might get my hands on one). So I was delighted to get another chance to visit with them about their new show, 69° S., inspired by the 1914 Antarctican voyage of Sir Ernest Shackleton, which plays at BAM Nov. 2-5 (after a preview run in Burlington, VT, pictured above). My piece for Time Out is here.

And this time, I found out more about that globe: It's a Geppert military globe from the 1940s, apparently used at sea; its metal surface would allow the captain or whoever to put little magnetized pins on it. Sanko and Grindstaff didn't fork over for this expensive antique, though; I'm told that his brother found it in the street. That kind of thing only happens to the right people.

Waits Breaks Loose

"I’m always looking for sounds that are pleasing at the time. The sound of a helicopter is really annoying until you’re drowning, and it’s there to rescue you. Then it sounds like music."
-Tom Waits, in Sasha Frere Jones' New Yorker review/feature
crossposted at Train My Ear

Like Randy Newman, Tom Waits already sounded like an old man on his first record, so it shouldn't be a surprise that both artists are still going great guns. And while Waits' new record Bad as Me sounds more or less like what you'd expect from him—the carnival-barker-bluesman-in-a-barn shtick—the record's penultimate track, "Hell Broke Luce," is a shattering breakthrough. On 12th listen, give or take, I'm prepared to say that this howl of PTSD rage ranks as one of the five or 10 best things he's ever done, and in a sense it's the work that his entire career has built up to.

What do I mean? While Waits has expressed anger and vitriol before, there's often been a comforting theatricality about it, a once-removed wink that lets us off the hook a little bit, puts a little literary distance between his howling and yowling and the realm of authentic pain and suffering. When he's barked "God's Away on Business" or "Misery Is the River of the World," he's done it with an emcee's leer; you can see the crumpled top hat and gold-toothed grin; even the harrowing "Murder in the Red Barn" has a camp Guignol affect about it. When Waits has poured real ache or outrage in his songs, it's been in quieter songs like "Georgia Lee" ("Why wasn't God watching? Why wasn't God listening? Why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee") or the uncharacteristically topical panorama "Road to Peace."

"Hell Broke Luce" is something else altogether: Its anger and confusion and nastiness is immersive and immediate. It's the first time, it seems to me, that Waits has used all that trademark clatter and atmosphere—the handclaps and stomps and echoes, and in this case, gunfire and what sound like ululuations—to put us viscerally into a scene rather than to powerfully suggest a mood ("Clap Hands," most of Swordfishtrombones) or, if he's telling a more conventional story ("Franks Wild Years," "What's He Building in There"), to put us in the presence of a narrator, a raconteur. There's no such distancing screen here, or if there is, it's fused to the narrator's own dissociative disorder. His name seems to be, or used to be, Geoff, an Iraq war veteran who's seem some fucked-up shit that's still rattling around his brainpan. And I do mean rattling—the phrasing and form of this song, though artfully controlled (check out the "Taps" moment at 1:52), is as disorienting as its noisescape. I swear here advisedly, too, just as Waits does in the song: The man's language, for all its pungency and ugliness, has very seldom been outright profane, so it's arresting to hear him simply declare within three lines, "That big fuckin' bomb made me deaf."

If you've ever glibly joked that Tom Waits sounds like a crazed homeless person screaming at you on the train, this song will straighten that grin right out; this doesn't sound like play-acting anymore. Just as he's spent the better part of his career honing his skills creating bang-on-a-can soundscapes, I think that Waits has had to go through a whole career of playing the addled and dispossessed, of trying on the hobo's clothes, to earn the right to be inside Geoff's skin. He's definitely crawled into it, and damned if this song won't crawl under yours, too.

Indeed, it's interesting that Frere-Jones' New Yorker piece pegs another song on the record, "Talking at the Same Time," as sounding like an outtake from Threepenny Opera, when it's "Hell Broke Luce" that is clearly a "Kanonen-Song" for the age of IEDs and scrap-metal Humvees. Waits practically quotes the Brecht/Weill tune's catalogue of casualties:
Kelly Presutto got his thumbs blown off
Sergio’s developing a real bad cough
"Real bad cough" might double as a description of Waits' voice. He's never used it with such lethal purpose before.

Oct 24, 2011

Speak Softly and Advocate for the Arts

Margy Waller* has a blockbuster post today at Createquity proposing that arts funding advocates stop shouting and e-blasting, and instead start doing business the way every other major industry lobby does: Quietly work behind the scenes with lawmakers and stakeholders to change minds and line up commitments. As Waller puts it succinctly: "Is our advocacy goal a widely seen news piece outlining all sides of the issue? Or, do we want a successful budget outcome? I think it’s the latter." She quotes Donna Collins, executive director of Ohio Citizens for the Arts, which successfully led an effort to increase Ohio's arts budget:
“We didn’t want to be in the headlines,” she said. “We didn’t want to see masses of people on the statehouse lawn with signs about funding the arts. We wanted people on message, talking with their own elected officials at home, as well as in Columbus. Our advocates, from the smallest rural community to the large urban centers, all had compelling stories about the positive impact of the arts.”
Waller does acknowledge the counter-example of Kansas, where the Governor started the fight against arts funding, and that that kind of action requires a defensive response.

Indeed, I'd argue that the reflexive stance a lot of arts advocates, which is to man the barricades and speak out despite the diminishing returns, was learned during the "culture wars" of the 1980s and '90s, when it was the Republican right, not the arts lobby itself, that was using the arts as a political football. The culture wars arguably have moved on (in large part because arts funding has essentially been decimated), and Waller's post makes a compelling case that we should unlearn those defensive reflexes. While it's true that arts funding, like funding for PBS and NPR, remains an easy target for conservatives in budget-conscious times, the last thing supporters of public arts funding should be doing is setting up the target for them. If every lobby that receives government subsidies thrust itself into the media spotlight with every budget cycle—well, some would argue we'd have a much more transparent democracy. But with a playing field so slanted toward ginormous industry lobbies and their constituencies, it's only fair for arts advocates to get their relatively infinitesimal piece of the pie via the same process.

*This post has been corrected; it initially credited Ian David Moss with authorship of the Createquity post.

Oct 21, 2011

Daisey and His Critics, Round II

You'd expect that Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs would be controversial for its entirely coincidental timing (in the works for some while, the show had been performed all over the country before arriving at the Public Theater and starting previews the week Jobs' death on Oct. 5) and for its singling out of Apple, and Jobs, as a particularly high-profile exploiter of cheap, immiserated Chinese labor.

But an arguably larger meta-controversy has broken out, partly via Scott Brown's review in New York, and via Jeremy Barker's review-of-the-reviews at Culturebot (he hasn't seen the show and in fact actively plans to not see it). The argument boils down to this, from Brown:
What Daisey doesn’t address, strangely, is the level of comfort with this situation all of us dead-eyed Apple acolytes have developed. He seems to assume no one he’s addressing has ever considered the dubious origins of the products they rely on or the vitrine sheen of injustice that coats just about every manufactured item priced within reach of the average mortal. And in doing so, he actually lets us — and himself — off the hook...

How disappointing. For a good stretch of his highly engrossing show, Daisey’s on track to leave us with a truly distressing idea: that we’ve adjusted to injustice. That, in a world of metastatic injustice, we’ve simply chosen the best-designed injustice out there, the commodity whose brand feels most consistent with how we’d like to see ourselves. That everyone in this theater, including Daisey, will exit the room and immediately fire up a product assembled by hand, by another human being, possibly a very young human being, who’s likely in a state of profound mental and physical distress, thanks to barbarically intense work shifts. Instead, we’re treated to yet another one-button solution: You’ve seen my show, so feel good about yourself.
Barker seconds Brown and goes further:
I think Daisey has fallen victim (as he has before) to the artist’s fallacy I most loathe: That the artist, by virtue of being an artist, has a privileged position that allows him or her to speak on behalf of others, to give voice to the voiceless and by doing so, enlighten a benighted audience.

Sometimes, of course, this is in fact what art does. But it’s rare. More often than not, art like this serves to place the artist in the wrong role (artists are artists, not journalists or truth-tellers) which they fail at, by setting up straw-man argument (that their audience is actually ignorant of some or another reality)...

I’m certain there are many Americans who are completely ignorant of what goes on in off-shored Chinese manufacturing. I doubt they’re the sort who buy tickets to plays at the Public, though. As commendable as Daisey’s attempt to reconnect us with out means of production is, to see “blood seeping through the keys of our Macbook” when we boot it up, the reality is, people largely already know this. As Brown essentially argues, the far more interesting story is the pernicious ability we’ve developed to live with the cognitive dissonance of loving things we know are abusively produced. And it’s not even just technology; we do it every time we eat. That is a story that needs to be tackled, and it’s a shame Daisey instead chooses to preach to a choir, and offer them the false reassurance of theatrical catharsis rather than challenge the audience’s assumptions.
There's a lot to unpack there, and I concede some of these specific points. I do think Daisey occasionally exaggerates for dramatic effect, if not in his harrowing Shenzhen reportage then in some of his claims about how ignorant and compliant the tech press has been, and by extension "we" must be. Brown and Barker are on to something with this idea that we're numb to injustice, but what they're rejecting, essentially, is that a piece of theater like Daisey's could really make us feel that injustice afresh—could re-sensitive our hardened or, more likely, willfully oblivious attitudes to the immiseration that props up our economy.

What I didn't make clear in my previous post on Terry Teachout's review (because I was too busy snarking about Terry's politics) is that he is admirably able to appreciate the theatrical value of Daisey's work apart from its op-ed agenda. This is a recurring divide in most reviews, as Barker also notes, but most critics come down on the plus side. I think Sam Thielman in Variety frames it best:
The anecdotes, statistics, and old-fashioned moral arguments the monologist puts forth in his latest show demand action. Taking such a firm stand, however, puts the burden of proof entirely on Daisey. If this is political theater, he'd better be able to show us some theater before he trots out his politics. And he does...Helmer Jean-Michele Gregory (Daisey's wife) helps create a bond between the performer and the audience that is absolutely essential to the show's emotional impact.
The kicker there is the "emotional impact" line, and it's where my thinking goes with this theater-vs.-journalism/advocacy meta-controversy.

There's an assumption on the part of Barker and Brown that the transaction involved in seeing a piece of politically engaged theater is something like: Liberal audience feels good about itself for seeing a show about its own complicity in the misery of the world's less fortunate, then immediately walks out of the theater, calls cabs, and checks their iPhones. It's a variation of the piety-ends-at-the-church-door critique, which, being a churchgoer myself, I'm familiar with from both sides. I would question this assumption on two interrelated levels: 1. That theater does nothing to change attitudes or behavior outside its walls, that it's all literally nothing more than after-dinner entertainment for rich people, and 2. That the activity of watching a politically engaged piece of theater has zero ameliorative value in itself.

And rather than refuting each of these assumptions with specific examples (Did seeing The Fever change my vote in the next election? No, but I think it's influenced my priorities over the long-term, and colored what I'll say to my son when he asks about privilege and poverty), I'd instead pose the question: What activity or practice does change people's attitudes and behavior? Reading journalism and/or non-fiction? Direct political action, or exposure to it? Following blogs or talk radio or cable TV chatter? Literal firsthand experience of all the world's political conditions and systems? And who in any of these realms is empowered to speak with unimpeachable authority? I'm willing to concede that journalists, pundits, activists, and stakeholders may indeed have more moral authority than a theatrical storyteller like Daisey. But to push this further, which of these moral authorities is likely to move opinion and action? I'm open to a case being made in favor of any of these, but I would humbly submit that theater shouldn't be cordoned off as something that doesn't count—that it can and does have a role, however small, in the ecology of social criticism and activism.

Now, there are definitely good-faith and bad-faith examples of this, and I can think of few things more deadly than an evening of shitty political theater (I've seen plenty that brings out my own inner Teachout). I happen to find Daisey on the good-faith side of the ledger, but it's fair to criticize his work as bad journalism, bad theater, or even as a bad journo-theater. But to assail him simply for attempting to fuse the two—to attack The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs for being what it is, a hybrid of theater and journalism, as if giving this material a shape and an emotional arc (Barker's "false reassurance of theatrical catharsis") somehow debases it or makes it "glib"—is what I find suspect.

Riedel Sets Gun on Snark

Who is the audience for this?

Oct 19, 2011

Midweek Linkfest

Oct 18, 2011

Just the Opinions, Please

I mostly agree with Terry Teachout's rave for Mike Daisey's new Steve Jobs show, an opinion shared by most critics. Daisey's assault on the blissful ignorance in which we enjoy our electronic i-gadgets made by hand under torturous conditions in China should really be beyond the usual partisan categories, since we all, red and blue, left and right, are in thrall to cheap electronics. Indeed, in its artfully comedy-wrapped outrage, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs reminded me favorably of Wallace Shawn's The Fever.

But I had to wonder: How might Daisey's attack on globalization's dark side play with conservatives, given that one of his targets is China's miserable "special economic zone" in Shenzhen?

Cue Tory Terry Teachout at the Wall Street Journal, a fan of the show and of Daisey:
Mr. Daisey, though his political perspective is well to the left of center, is no kind of ideological wind-up toy. Indeed, it's downright startling to hear him call China "a fascist country run by thugs," or speak of the "useful idiots" of the tech press who look the other way at the horrors of life in Shenzhen, which Mr. Daisey pungently describes as "a Stalinist wet dream." You can't get much more politically incorrect than that, at least not Off Broadway.
Really? To put it mildly, I think Terry has a rather caricatured, Cold War-era view of those to his left (which includes most of his critical peers, from whom we will await in vain, I think, howls of Sinophilic umbrage). Not to mention that while Teachout is content to relish Daisey's opinionating about China, he's less inclined to accept the playwright's firsthand reports of conditions in Shenzhen:
The trouble with The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, as with all theatrical journalism, is that Mr. Daisey is in essence asking us to take his word for it. He hasn't brought back pictures or named names, and the artful anger with which he tells his tale inevitably makes it still more suspect. You don't have to be a puritan to prefer that facts be served straight up.
Teachout's final gratuitous swipe at Occupy Wall Street (I guess we'll have to take his word for it that he counted "19 iPhones" in one block) only serves to remind us who his employer is.

Still, as he says, it's a thrilling show that's well worth your time, and indeed it will make you think twice about your next upgrade.

Oct 14, 2011

"Down, Down I Come"

Sully waxes Shakespearean, including a gratifying shout-out to D.C.'s theatrical riches.

Two Blasts From the Past

Back in the 1990s in L.A., I got to know a brilliant singer/songwriter, Kevin Ray, at several open mikes, chiefly Highland Grounds' "Open Mind" Wednesdays; we who plied our tunes on piano, as Kevin and I (mostly) did, were a rarity in that guitar-dominated scene, and we ivory ticklers had to stick together. Quite apart from that friendship, he also became one of my favorite singer/songwriters for his intricately crafted, often sweeping pop (one of the best from those days here), which had a Rufus Wainwright-esque level of ambition but a more downhome aesthetic inflected by R&B and country.

Some of Kevin's best songs over the years, he told me, had been written for a musical he was developing called The Last Word, about L.A.'s undersung Central Avenue jazz scene of the 1940s; I remember one in particular called "Hollywood Slumming," which, though he trotted it out very rarely in those solo days, stuck with me. Imagine how gratifying it is, then, to hear that same tune sung and danced by a fiercely talented cast as the thrlling opening number of Kevin's mostly awesome musical, now called Central Avenue Breakdown, and currently part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival (Kevin relocated to NYC about the same time as me, in 2005). The show's book, by Ray and Josh Sohn, is imperfect, but the cast is terrific (particularly Rodrick Covington and Josh Tower), Christopher Windom's direction and choreography are lively and authoritative, and the six-piece jazz band positively kicks. I've never seen a NYMF show that sounded as good, frankly, and in short I couldn't be happier or prouder of my L.A. homeboy. (There are just a few more performances if you'd like to see and hear for yourself.)

Another blast from my past surfaced this week, as the actors' trade paper Back Stage celebrates its 50th anniversary. As the founding editor of Back Stage West back in '93, I was asked to share an anecdote from my time there. Naturally, I chose a salacious story involving the LAPD vice squad. That, and several recollections, are here.

Oct 12, 2011

Talk About a Brechtian Bark

Michael Feingold, on Robert Wilson's Threepenny, covered previously here:
Although the installation-like works of his creative years, long since past, employ live performers and move through time, Wilson has never really had any interest in the theater. He actively seems to disapprove of the theatrical impulse and even to resent its continued existence. Least of all, engaged as he has been in a world of wealthy backers, museums, and foundations, has he ever had any interest in theater with the kind of social-activist impulses that partially fueled the creation of Threepenny. Premiered before Brecht became a communist, the work is not actively political as many of his later works are, though he tried to make it so in subsequent rewritings. It was meant as provocative entertainment for middle-class theatergoers—part satire, part shock effects, part aesthetic innovation, part moral indictment, and part sheer theatrical diversion. Audiences worldwide have relished the unexpected, heady mixture ever since.

Wilson carefully removed all these aspects of the piece, turning Brecht and Weill's middle-class wake-up call into dead entertainment for rich people.

Oct 11, 2011

Has This Ever Happened To You?

As a member of the press, I'm typically shielded from the ticketing headaches of the average theatergoer, but occasionally I opt to pay for my tickets through the usual channels and receive yet another reminder of why theatergoing for the average person can feel like a losing proposition.

So does this ever happen to you: You order tickets for a show, then realize within five days of the reservation that you need to switch them to another night, and you call the ticket service (OvationTix, in my case) and ask about their policy, and they tell you: No exchanges or refunds? Understand, availability is not an issue—there are plenty of seats at all performances. But this no-change policy effectively means I'm out the price of two tickets for a show I can't attend, and to attend another performance I've got to fork over for another two tickets?

I mean, I've dealt with Ticketmaster and Telecharge and their evil fees, and I've missed one-night-only concerts I'd paid full price for and didn't fuss about it (because they were one-night-only deals, and the demand was understood to be relatively high). And I know that it must be a headache to have people trying to switch their reservations all the time; presumably that's what the "service charges" are for. But with Zipcar, for instance, you've got within 24 hours of your reservation to change or cancel it for a car; it just seems exceedingly stupid that you can do nothing similar about reservations for two seats at the theater.

End of rant.

Charles Not in Charge, Part III

I don't have much to add to Isherwoodgate (Isaac has been on the case), but I wanted to pass along this comment on the American Theatre Facebook page. It's a point of view you don't hear very often in these too-quick-to-righteous-anger debates. From Utah playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett:
As a playwright, I'm hurt and yet fascinated and sometimes secretly thrilled when people HATE my plays. To draw hate, or even lasting irritation, from somebody is an artistic accomplishment. Of course, it's not an accomplishment anybody likes claiming, but it's still impressive.

That Isherwood is so annoyed by Adam Rapp that he feels he has to avoid his work is really saying something. Rapp has moved his mind. Unfortunately for Isherwood, he's moved his mind in a way that he thinks is negative or maybe trivial. But I don't think Isherwood can really think Rapp is trivial if he's SO bent out of shape that he has to stop watching his plays!

Presumably, Isherwood is paid to review. Probably he doesn't even *have to pay* to see Rapp's plays. So he sees a bad play. So what? Sometimes work is boring. Why take it so personally?

As a playwright, even though I can get really hurt if somebody dislikes something, I still think, "You know, it's just a play. If you don't like it, that's okay. THERE ARE ALWAYS MORE PLAYS."

Also, bad reviews are a part of playwriting. I'm not put off by Isherwood's bad reviews. If you're a playwright, you have to accept and expect that people will totally and maybe irrationally *hate* what you've done. It may take three months to write a play, but it will always only take one second for someone to say, "That sucks." But that's the way it is.

I would only add one thought: I've been a little dismissive of the outrage on Rapp's behalf, from fans who wish Isherwood had done this ages ago and/or from sensitive theater folks who are hurt on any playwright's behalf. I do think that Rapp can stand it, and his career has shown few signs of being slowed by Isherwood's disdain. But if I do a thought experiment and imagine a playwright I admire, like, say, Conor McPherson, being subjected to the longstanding scorn of a powerful critic I don't admire (as I do Isherwood, in fact), I'm willing to admit that my view—roughly stated, that Isherwood shouldn't lose his nerve and retreat from the field—might be different.

Oct 8, 2011

Charles Not in Charge, Ctd

A blast from the past, from David Ng's Oct. 2007 profile of Adam Rapp in American Theatre (as quoted in this space):
Criticism is really unevenly distributed in this town. Obviously the power of the Times is discouraging. It's killing new plays, demolishing one after another. Charles Isherwood and Ben Brantley have a lot of power. I would like to think that Michael Feingold, Jeremy McCarter and David Cote and people who are really interested in new work would have an equal distribution of power. But we're so governed by the Times. Everyone is so afraid to talk about it, which is what I hate. Now that I've been demolished by them, I'm not going to be afraid to talk about it.
Gus Schulenberg makes an excellent point in the comments (namely, that this whole who-likes-new-plays demarcation is flawed).

And though I've since seen work by Rapp that made me like him less, I more or less stand by this qualified appreciation, on the occasion of one of Isherwood's most scathing pans.

Oct 7, 2011

Charles Not in Charge

I think Isaac nails the problem with Charles Isherwood's public offer to stop reviewing Adam Rapp's work: that to admit how one's personal tastes color one's reviews creates a very slippery slope. If you disqualify yourself because of one self-perceived bias, why not others? Why not all?

Indeed, comments like this, from playwright Kristoffer Diaz on Facebook, are exactly the kind of thing that such an admission invites:
"Mr. Isherwood has clearly stated aesthetic tastes that fall at odds with much of the work being created today. It's not that he dislikes a lot of work; it's that he fundamentally believes many kinds of plays are artistically invalid. As one of those writers who whom he fundamentally disagrees, I'd prefer someone else at The Times review my work as well. This reviewer is stating that he is incapable of objective analysis."
For my part, I've long been surprised that Charles keeps dutifully trudging out to see not only Rapp's work but that of Itamar Moses, another playwright he's never cared for; it has often felt to me as if he and Rapp, or he and Moses, were unwillingly handcuffed together, Hannay-and-Pamela-style (minus the clinch at the end). Given that I share much of Isherwood's distaste for, and puzzlement at the success of, Mr. Rapp, I fully understand where he's coming from.

What makes me wince about this is that it's a white flag of surrender. A mere reviewer may be expected only to file an "up" or "down" vote on shows as he sees them go by, as if in factory line. But a critic absolutely has a responsibility to advocate for and against plays and artists and organizations; it's part of the job description, and cheerleading is a role Isherwood has taken up with gusto in the cases of Sarah Ruhl, Will Eno, and Annie Baker. Of course, it's also salutary, in this bloggy age, for critics to take the opportunity to be transparent about their tastes and thought processes, to reexamine or reframe their opinions, in forums like the Times' "Theater Talkback" (which is essentially a fancy blog). Some disparage this as "navel-gazing" but to my mind it's entirely welcome and humanizing self-reflection.

To me, it's obvious that that was the spirit in which Isherwood's column was intended, not as a way to ding Rapp one last time. The problem is, it was on balance not a reflection at all but a capitulation; Charles isn't wrestling messily and transparently with his difficulty, he's just walking away from and washing his hands of it. And I wholeheartedly understand his impulse, but I'm not the second-most important critic in America, and if I were, I would hope I'd realize that my job was, as Isaac puts it, to
[pen] a carefully observed and specific critique of what doesn't work in Rapp's writing and how his success is to some extent representative of several larger problems in art and the American theater respectively, since clearly that's what Isherwood believes.
If theater criticism suffers from anything, it's from too little conviction, not too much, and this—if Charles' editor accedes to it—would be another blow on the wrong side of the ledger.

UPDATE: The Garv takes his usual dump on the conversation, but makes the important point that Ish doesn't assign his own reviews. True enough, which is why the most telling sentence in Isherwood's piece comes at the end:
My editor hasn’t agreed yet. But what do you think?

Oct 6, 2011

Prophets Both Lebanese and Mormon

photo by Sarah Krulwich for the New York Times

I admired Stephen Karam's two previous New York productions, Columbinus and Speech & Debate, and had the chance to write about him for the L.A. premiere of the latter.

So I jumped at the assignment to write up his next two premieres, coming close on each other's heels this time, for the paper of record.

The Book of Jobs

Another index of how theater is disproportionately on my brain: When Gary Coleman died, the first thing I thought of was Avenue Q. And when I heard that Steve Jobs died yesterday, the second thing I thought of, after an involuntary shudder of shock, was Mike Daisey, whose monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is currently at the Public. I went to Mike's blog last night and found simply this:
"Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked." —Steve Jobs
That's genuinely classy, but Daisey won't be able to leave it at that, of course. Given that he doesn't work from a script but changes his text on the spot every night, the next few weeks of performance should be particularly interesting.

"Threepenny" Wilsonia

The opera composer Nico Muhly recently half-joked to me that he'd like to see all Broadway musicals directed by Robert Wilson, imagining how much Phantom of the Opera, for instance, might be improved (at least in the lighting department).

I'm wondering if he would say the same if he'd seen Wilson's Threepenny Opera, which I caught at BAM last night (it's there for a few more). I haven't seen any of Wilson's opera productions, but I can imagine how his slow-moving, often breathtaking stage-pictorial style, which generates an undeniable, otherworldly force field on the stage, might click with larger-scale musical forms like those of Glass or Wagner. With scores that alternate songs with book scenes, as did his Woyzeck (which I did see, and didn't like) and this Threepenny, Wilson seems at a loss, grabbing at any number of approaches with only intermittent success:

  • Commedia lazzi abetted by absurdly loud sound effects, which at many points compete with the pit band in less-than-euphonious counterpoint;
  • Silent-film play-acting, including one well-executed if pointless Chaplinesque chase sequence, but elsewhere a lot of sub-Shockheaded Peter mugging;
  • Tableaux, like the haunting, inexplicable longeuer at the opening of the Turnbridge scene, in which an old whore with orange hair (Ruth Glöss) reads untranslated from a scroll while silhouettes of her younger colleagues vogue around her under a clutch of hanging lamps and a faint, distinctly un-Weillian piece of atmospheric music repeats a two-note interval dozens of times.

This last bit (and to some extent the Chaplin chase) felt to me like the liveliest things Wilson put onstage, and tellingly, these are two of the many, many moments in the show that have nothing to do with either Brecht or Weill. Whatever the merits of Wilson's unique theater vision, I have to say that it feels frustratingly unmoored from actual dramaturgy; the moments that work here seem to do so almost randomly.

It must also be said, with regret, that this Berliner Ensemble cast, though they'd probably be interesting to watch doing a Brecht play, proves itself largely beneath the challenges of Weill's score, which is trickier than it may sound (the "Jealousy Duet" in particular is a train wreck, and there's a lot more out-of-tempo sprechstimme than seems entirely necessary). And while the pit band is generally strong, where are the drums? From where I sat, it looked like Stefan Rager was conducting with his seldom-used timpani mallets, but if memory serves, there should be a kit kicking this score along.

There were two exceptions to my general musical disappointment: Angela Winkler's ecstatic "Solomon Song," delivered in one near show's end, had a kind of batty beauty about it, and Stefan Kurt's executive-tranvestite Macheath, though a vocal mixed bag for some of his numbers, really stepped up in the full-chorus numbers ("What Keeps Mankind Alive" and the finale).

As did Wilson, somehow. Though I cannot count this Threepenny a success, I found that by the two-hour mark I had more or less settled into/resigned myself to the irregular Wilson pulse (his shows do seem to change ours, at least), and these full-chorus numbers had an iconic charge about them, however weak. Particularly the finale: There was the gallows centerstage, and the mock-Handel chorale ringing through the theatre in German, and the prostitutes made up in a striking simulacrum of a classic Lenya look. This was almost enough to link this entire evening of oddball Wilsonia to Brecht and Weill's masterpiece. I guess the best construction I can put on my feelings about the whole affair is that this Threepenny represents Wilson in dialogue with Brecht and Weill, but that the voice heard loudest throughout is Wilson's.

UPDATE: Brantley heard it differently. For him, the non-Broadway approach to the vocals was bracing. I agree in principle that this music shouldn't be pretty, per se, and that many if not most American singers don't get this. But this production mostly errs too far on the other side of the ledger; at times I could palpably feel the performers straining to land the downbeats, let alone their pitches. A little of that Brechtian bark goes a long way. UPDATE 2: Elisabeth Vincentelli loves it, comparing the long-overdue debut of the Berliner Ensemble to "the Rolling Stones are just making their New York debut after decades of playing Europe." Seeing a once-great band in its dotage? I'm afraid the comparison is all too apt. UPDATE 3: I'm obviously an outlier here, as David Sheward more or less loves it, too.

Oct 4, 2011

Same-Sex "Sunrise"

Last month I had the pleasure of playing my first gay wedding in New York, and I found the occasion to change one lyric, in the classic "As Time Goes By." Where the original said, "Woman needs man/And man must have his mate/That no one can deny," I substituted, "Everyone in love/Deserves to find a mate/That no one can deny" (which admittedly doesn't bear too close an examination—if you're in love, haven't you already at least found a mate?).

Now a pro has gone back and revised his own wedding classic. Sheldon Harnick, responding to the request of New York "interspiritual minister" Rev. Josh Ellis, signed off on new lyrics for the Fiddler on the Roof chestnut "Sunrise, Sunset" to be sung at same-sex marriages, and the first instance was at the nuptials of Daniel Sherman and Richard Skipper. Harnick didn't exactly perform major surgery to pull this off (Ellis has posted the new lyrics on his site), as essentially all he did was double up the gender in the couplets: "Is that the little boy I carried? Is this the little boy at play?" But I have to admire his concession to the various shades of butch with this important caveat: "When did she get to be a beauty? [Alternative: When did she get to be so handsome?]"

Tuesday on the Links

  • I place no stock in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, but I'll care for it even less if it disses Laura Nyro.
  • Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie in Ohio certainly doesn't look like your average junior high theatre project.
  • I don't recall Diane Paulus or Suzan-Lori Parks even implying that Porgy & Bess is racist, but if debunking that is central to your case against their production, I guess you have to imagine they said so.
  • Cirque du Soleil should just call their next show "Jumping the Shark" (and put actual shark-jumping in it, natch).
  • Yes or no?