Nov 23, 2011

Holiday Reading

It has arrived. Have a great Turkey Day, dear readers!

Stepping Up With a Throwback

New Yorker illustration by Pascal Blanchet

I was one of the few critics who unreservedly loved Jordan Harrison's last play at Playwrights Horizons, Doris to Darlene, a Cautionary Valentine. But Maple and Vine, which I saw at Humana in April, felt like a breakthrough work for the 34-year-old playwright.

In researching and talking to him and his collaborators for this Times piece, in anticipation of the play's current Playwrights production, I discovered at least one reason why this play feels like a departure: It began its life as a Civilians project by director Anne Kauffman, and still contains germs of interviews the troupe conducted with real-life off-the-gridders, which gave Harrison his premise (a contemporary couple flees their rootless, neurotic contemporary lives to join a community of 1950s reenactors).

The combination of Harrison's seriously fanciful imagination, which earns him frequent comparison to Sarah Ruhl (he did also study at Brown with Paula Vogel), with the bracing, too-odd-to-be-fictional documentary material may partly explain Maple's exceptional richness and ambivalence. It could also be that Harrison has simply grown into a major playwright. Whatever the case, I can't wait to see the New York cast dig into this (though I'm quite delighted that Kauffman kept the inimitable Jeanine Serralles, one of only two holdovers from the Louisville cast, as the play's mesmerizing and forbidding authenticity enforcer).

Nov 22, 2011

Jung, Freud, and Spielrein, Take Two

Sam Robards as Jung, Harris Yulin as Freud in the Taper production of The Talking Cure

Sounds like Christopher Hampton's script for A Dangerous Method is an improvement over the original play on which it's based, The Talking Cure, which I reviewed in the LA Times in 2004:
Whatever their quirks or blind spots, surely the fathers of psychoanalysis were at least interesting company. But somehow Hampton has managed to drain the fraught relationship of two fascinating men of all vital signs.

Intellectual vigor, competitive spark, anxiety of influence -- all are missing in action from this lifeless tintype.
But A.O. Scott calls the new film "intellectually thrilling", and he doesn't seem to be alone. It could be that Cronenberg as director made the difference, or perhaps the medium. Or maybe it was the spanking scenes.

Re-Breaking News

At American Theatre, we often write about artists and plays before they reach the wider consciousness, or at least the stage of a major media town. When I was researching Tracy Letts last year, for instance, for a piece about August: Osage County in Oregon Shakes' Illuminations, I discovered that American Theatre profiled him and the play when it premiered at Steppenwolf back in 2007, which means we didn't cover that play's subsequent meteoric ascent in our pages, except to note the prizes it went on to win. It's one reason American Theatre is such a hard pitch for freelancers: If you're not plugged into the whole regional scene (and/or you don't read the magazine religiously), you're less likely to know which emerging writers we've already written about before their big national splash. Want to write about that hot new playwright at Humana or Steppenwolf? Better make sure we didn't already go there.

It's a modest example, but last May I wrote about Holland Taylor's one-woman show as late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, which she had the Lone Star State-sized cojones to debut in Galveston under the title Money, Marbles, and Chalk. It's now on a big stage in Chicago under the name Ann. So I thought, stealing a favorite trick from Fresh Air's Terry Gross, who deftly repurposes her interviews when someone she talked to years ago is in the news again, we could post the news piece (which never appeared online till now) as a reminder that the magazine is on the case.

Nov 18, 2011

Some Splaining To Do

In my inbox this morning, this news stuck out:
Steppenwolf Theatre said Wednesday that the actress Julianna Margulies will be the guest of honor of its annual Women in the Arts fundraising luncheon.

The star of "The Good Wife" (a CBS drama set, but not filmed, in Chicago) will be interviewed by Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey about her career. The event is slated for March 12 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph St.
Margulies is certainly worth honoring, but I have to wonder if this is all an elaborate ruse to get her in the room and ask her to account for this major Good Wife fail, from last October:
The first scene of Tuesday's episode, penned by Robert and Michelle King, 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?

The Midwestern rubes were putting on a show. The fictional politicos snicker at the childishness of it all.
The obvious next move would be for members of Steppenwolf to playfully invade the Women in the Arts luncheon with a scene from The Cow With No Country. All in good fun, of course.

Nov 11, 2011

Friday Links

Buried under another deadline avalanche, so here are some stray links:

Nov 8, 2011

From the Leftover Quote File

On musical theater writing, from my February feature on multifacted playwright Laura Eason:
I once got this incredibly sweet email from Charles Strouse; he saw an adaptation of mine at 59E59 a couple of years ago, and completely out of the blue wrote me an email saying how much he enjoyed it, and I thought, Wow, that’s amazing. So I wrote him when I was trying to work on [some] musicals, "What is your advice about process?" And he said, "The advice is that there’s no process, and it really has to be dictated by who you’re in the room with, and what the material is, and what works for you is what you should do. How you’re going to use the music, how it’s going to function in relation to the book, and then once you know that, trying to execute it well."

Sarah, Seth, Dulcinea

I'm not a big Sarah Silverman fan, but this is good stuff. It's clear she'll make a great Joanne in Company one day.

Nov 7, 2011

Late Nite Links

Big and Small

Maybe I over-research as a reporter, but I almost always end up with a lot, lot more material than I can put into any given story. Case in point, my preview piece on the L.A. run of Bring It On: The Musical, for which I interviewed director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, songwriters Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tom Kitt and Amanda Green, book writer Jeff Whitty, lead perfomers Taylor Louderman and Adrienne Warren, cheer director Jessica Colombo, and CTG honcho Michael Ritchie. Not only did I not get to include quotes from all of the above about the show, which will tour 12 cities over the next six months with Broadway as an unspoken but assumed end goal; I didn't even get to include some of the choicest material from Blankenbuehler and Miranda, the latter of whom is a freakin' quote machine (I made the mistake of following the In the Heights creator on Twitter for about one minute, until he threatened to take over my Twitter feed). Probably my favorite unused quote from Blakenbuehler, who's really the driving force behind the Bring It On musical, is his case for the theatricality of hip-hop dance:
The kind of hip-hop [dance] I like really caters to storytelling, much better than if I was in a swing vocabulary or a Charleston. A lot of where hip-hop comes from is backing up artists, so the [physical] vocabulary is almost like pantomime. When I started In the Heights, I started off almost putting pantomime, like sign-language pantomime to the lyric, and then broadening it into a dance step. So [in the Bring It On number "Do Your Own Thing"], her lyric is, "Somebody took my life and pressed restart," so literally when I started choreographing, it was like, I press a restart button, and then how does that turn into a dance step? That's sort of how I function, because I'm not a hip-hop choreographer.
And from Miranda, on pop-culture references in his lyrics:
With Heights, I felt an enormous responsibility, like, We're doing hip-hop for an audience that does not necessarily listen to it, we need to make them feel very taken care of. That's why in the opening number there's a Cole Porter reference and a Duke Ellington reference, literally so a Broadway audience would say, "I know those people, I like this"...

When I'm writing for the theatre, I have a gut-check: If I'm making a pop-culture reference, I need to feel like it will make sense 100 years from now. So I'll reference Frodo, who is gonna outlive us all, and there's a rap about Michael Jordan, who I feel like we will still be talking about in 100 years. So I really try not to make the reference to whatever pop artist is on the radio right now, because they might not even be around in six months.
Along those lines, Whitty, who I didn't find room to quote in the story at all, confessed that he'd learned his lesson from Avenue Q's various updating issues (the George W. Bush reference, the inclusion of Gary Coleman as a character):
I don’t want this show to date I tried to invent a language that isn’t full of texting lingo. But there is a callout at the very end to Mrs. Garret and Facts of Life. She’s timeless. And I know that Charlotte Rae is coming to the opening.
In an entirely different vein, I write in this month's American Theatre about a trend that seems to be long overdue: large resident theaters producing/presenting the work of small theaters from their own hometown. It's something that seemed like a no-brainer when I was covering L.A. theater, large and small, and seeing a lot of effort duplicated and audiences dispersed. We hear lots of talk about theater bridging cultural and generational divides; it's good to see cases of it bridging aesthetic and institutional divides, as well.

Nov 2, 2011

Gil Cates, True Believer

I didn't know Gil Cates personally—I think I must have met him at least once during my time on the L.A. theater scene, and one of Back Stage West's best Garland awards shows (hosted by Chris Wells, with performances from Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, Reefer Madness, Pacific Overtures, the presence of Carol Burnett) did take place at his lovely Westwood theater.

But Cates did loom over the L.A. theater scene in the best possible way, and what was especially striking about him was that he was the only theater leader in that "industry town" who kept his feet firmly in the worlds of both stage and screen, and who indeed saw no meaningful distinction between them. It's something that even we who valorized the anomalous practice of that ancient lively art in La La Land occasionally lost sight of, even waxed bitter about—I'm certainly not the only L.A. theater lover who occasionally imagined what the quality of the city's stage offerings might be if the 800-pound gorilla of the movie biz wasn't there to suck up all the cultural and aspirational oxygen. Of course, that's a silly daydream—without the magnet of film/TV, L.A. wouldn't be L.A., and the vast talent pool that happens to create much of the great theater there would largely evaporate, or find other lines of work.

Anyone who tries to square that circle—to imagine those two worlds together, to get them speaking to each other, even collaborating—is in for a lot of frustration and heartbreak (as I never tire of saying, there's a good reason I decamped for New York). But Cates' exemplary career clearly shows he was a tireless optimist, a true believer, as well as practical problem-solver. L.A. has no shortage of true believers in its dream factory, and despite the odds it has an encouraging number of adherents to the impractical, underrecognized cause of L.A. theater, but (with the possible exception of Joe Stern) no one embraced and celebrated both of them as fully and effectively Gil Cates did. He will be missed, indeed, but that's what I'll miss him for most.

For a more personal, and surprisingly moving, tribute, you couldn't do better than Charles McNulty's in the Los Angeles Times.