Dec 29, 2011

Red-State Albee

A block away from my sister's house in Valparaiso, Indiana, where, alas, I'll be just through the New Year. Otherwise I'd so be there.

Dec 27, 2011

Non-Comfort Food

Econo-blogger Tyler Cowen is a truly odd duck, and as such he says some intriguing things almost as often as he says deeply strange things. His weirdly contrarian TED anti-talk about his suspicion of storytelling is a great example. (Transcript here.) A fair amount of it strikes me as rhetorical water-treading around a very basic idea with big implications—essentially, that narrative is a false comfort we can ill afford in a complex world—but this quote jumped out at me:
As a general rule, we're too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you're telling a good vs. evil story, you're basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it's, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don't have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you're lowering your IQ by ten points or more.
He's talking about Occupy Wall Street as much as he is, say, Tolkien. What's interesting to me is about the time I read this, I was making my way, at long last, through R. Crumb's amazing Book of Genesis comic (light holiday reading, you know). And though I don't want to put too fine a point on this realization or make any special claims about scripture, I was struck by how knotted and complicated the moral scheme of the Hebrew and Christian Bible really is, if you take it straight and take it (more or less) seriously. Sure, there's plenty of talk about good and evil, about faithful followers of God and covenants and those who are unlucky enough to be outside that favor, but these are outweighed by the sheer mass of story after story of complicated misalliances, misunderstandings, and half-measures.

The story of the Fall in Eden, in other words, feels much less like the Biblical template than the one that follows it immediately: that of Cain slaying Abel, then getting a more-or-less free pass to set up his family and lineage. Yes, I know, the writers take pains to show how Adam and Eve's next son, Seth, replaced Abel and sired the "good" line that would survive the Flood etc. But Cain, the repentant murderer, feels a lot more like the spiritual ancestor to the likes of Jacob, Joseph, Saul, David, and Solomon.

Reading this stuff with clear eyes, as David Plotz memorably did, might be many things—frustrating, maddening, sobering, revelatory, fascinating—but it seems to me very far from reductive or Manichean.

Dec 23, 2011

Happy Holidays

Can't explain why, but this Flanders and Swann's riff on Mozart's fourth horn concerto sounds like Christmas to me. And with that I sign off the Wicked Stage for a spell, until something stirs or strikes me.

Dec 16, 2011

The Only Hitch

These things aren't supposed to mean anything, but that Christopher Hitchens' thoroughly examined life ended on the same day as the misbegotten Iraq war for which he was the most vociferous—and, speaking for myself, most persuasive—advocate seems cruelly poetic. For it was he, more than Kenneth Pollack or Tom Friedman or Paul Berman or George Packer, who convinced me for longer than I care to admit that invading Iraq was, if never quite a wise idea, then a morally defensible one. (My shame-faced feelings about the war since have mostly closely tracked Packer's.)

It is an odd fate for Hitchens, whose overarching cause was anti-theism, to be linked forever with a disastrous invasion that has vanishingly little to do with the religious/secular battle he felt awakened to (with his famous "feeling of exhilaration") by 9/11. The best I can say in retrospect about the folly of this otherwise fiercely bright, clear-eyed man's case for war was that I, for one, never saw it as cynical or career-minded. Like his disgusting Clinton/Blumenthal betrayal years before, it was yet another sign of his thoroughgoing intellectual mischievousness and unreliability. That which made him a compelling figure also, on regular occasions, made him repulsive. As with his longtime colleague and compatriot Andrew Sullivan, you could neither really trust the man nor entirely dismiss him.

He was ultimately a kind of dead-serious literary/political entertainer, and even as I gladly wash my hands of much of what he stood for, I find myself still dazzled by his vigor and volubility. And I cherish this entirely typical quote, from the closing remarks of one of his jillion God-vs.-no-God debates, addressed in particular to young evangelicals:
For me, the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can't give way, is an offer of something not worth having. I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don't know anything like enough yet. That I haven't understood enough, that I can't know enough, that I'm always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn't have it any other way. And I urge you to look at those of you that tell you (at your age) that that you are dead until you believe as they do. (What a terrible thing to be telling to children.) And that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don't think of that as a gift, think of it as a poison chalice. Push it aside no matter how tempting it is. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way.
That's evangelism I can endorse.

Dec 15, 2011

Dec 14, 2011

Seconding Coates

An extraordinary post by Ta-Nehisi Coates, urging us to take account of our own ordinariness when contemplating moral quandaries, happens to include a resonant illustration from my area of consideration:
Some weeks ago I met a student who was specializing in economy and theater. She said that what she loved about both fields was that she had to presume a kind of rationality in studying her actors. She had to surrender herself--her sense of what she would like to think she would do--and think more of what she might actually do given all the perils of the character's environs. It would not be enough to consider slavery, for instance, when claiming "If I was a slave I'd rebel." One would have to consider, for instance, family left behind to bear the wrath of those one would seek to rebel against. In other words, one would have to assume that for the vast majority of slaves rebellion made no sense. And then instead of declaration ("I would do..."), one would be forced into a question ("Why wouldn't I?").
That, in a nutshell, strikes me as both a description of, and a mission statement for, an ideal social theater--one which confronts us with our humanity even, or especially, in extremity, and asks us, without the promise of easy comfort or catharsis, not only what we would do in a given situation but why we wouldn't do otherwise, or why we think we'd do much better than the characters we're invested in. That's the moral force behind the best Brecht productions I've seen, for one, but it's also not very far from the surface of any play that's moved me or gotten under my skin, from Shakespeare to Sondheim, from Albee to Nottage.

Dec 12, 2011

Leftover Quote File, Cont'd

A favorite I couldn't include in my piece on Maple and Vine, from playwright Jordan Harrison in answer to the question of when he fell in love with theater:
In third grade, I was in this musicalizaton of Johnny Apleseed—very avant-garde, I’m sure. My role was the class nerd, and I was the class nerd—but when I played the class nerd onstage, everyone who ragged on me in life was slapping me on the shoulder, as if there was something heroic about doing the same thing onstage that I did in everyday life. That was a kind of 'Huh' moment for me. That’s the beginning.

Dec 9, 2011

Leftover Quote File, Race Edition

Apropos my thoughts on Stick Fly, I recalled this (unused) quote from Lynn Nottage, from when I talked to her about By the Way, Meet Vera Stark:
One of my constant frustrations is that there aren’t more critics and writers about theater who are people of color. I feel that if a black female critic comes to Vera Stark, she’s going to have a completely different experience. At some point it really hurts my feelings and bothers me that the arbiters of taste and the gateways to the public remain by and large white men, which means that our work is not going to be 100 percent understood, because they don’t bring the whole context.
To my knowledge, in New York there's just James Hannaham at the Voice and Hilton Als at The New Yorker. Can anyone name any others? And any female writers of color? Whatever happened to Margo Jefferson?

To clarify: I don't take Lynn's quote to be an essentialist throwdown; I don't think she's saying that her work is only for black folks or that they should have exclusive authority over its interpretation. But for those voices to be entirely absent from the dialogue is self-evidently a deficit.

On a Clear Day, You Can Seethe Forever

Is the New York Post on some kind of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever jihad? First there was Riedel's vulture-circling notice, and now a preemptive slam from Jonathan Podhoretz, conservative pundit and sometime theater critic (though pointedly not the Post's actual full-time critic, Elisabeth Vincentelli). Though the show—which reimagines the quirky Burton Lane/Alan Jay Lerner musical about a shrink and reincarnation—opens Sunday night, but that didn't stop J-Pod from posting a story titled "New musical an abject failure":
Most really terrible pieces of popular culture are utterly uninteresting. On a Clear Day (which is in its last week of previews — I bought tickets at full price, so I’m violating no reviewing embargo) is both really terrible and interesting in spite of itself...When shows go as wrong as this one, everything goes wrong, and from the first minute. Watching the simpering florist flouncing limp-wristedly around the stage at the beginning serenading his flowers with the words “hey buds below, up is where to grow” might, in another context, cause ACT-UP to reconstitute itself, storm the theater and throw blood on him.
Stay classy, Post.

Mind the Soap

I don't want to rehash my thoughts from my last post, about the way I think we often condescend to our own enjoyment of plays that entertain us, but it was on my mind even moreso with Lydia Diamond's Stick Fly, which I saw a few nights ago. I'd read the play for my profile of Diamond, so nothing in its plot was a surprise, yet I still felt I didn't know where the play was going to go emotionally. I didn't warm immediately to one of the performances (Dule Hill's, if you must know); Kenny Leon's direction is oddly sloppy in a few places, as are a few of Diamond's transitions. Other than that, my playwright companion and I had a great time, and had plenty to talk about afterwards.

My favorite thing about the play, among many, is that it doesn't privilege any one character's experience over another, at least not finally; every one is revealed to be as much of a mess, and as likely to flare up into meanness or pettiness, as any other. My friend had a great analogy which I'll steal: He compared the play's game of class and racial dynamics to rock, paper, scissors. Indeed, so much is going on in any particular scene it felt almost symphonic to me, and the wrenching climax, a scene of father-daughter projection that even the characters acknowledge as a kind of high-stakes drama therapy, seemed totally apt and entirely earned.

What didn't occur to me and my companion was that any of this rich, rangy material was like a soap opera (well, no more than Other Desert Cities, which is admittedly much slicker and, to my mind, an ultimately hollow exercise). Yes, black folks in the audience respond audibly to the story's big twists and reveals; is that what has cued white critics to make Tyler Perry analogies?

I have to agree with my colleague Linda Winer that while this season has been so-so on musicals, it's new American plays that are setting the tone on Broadway (actually, her piece is a year-long wrapup, but the observation holds). Though I find The Mountaintop silly and Other Desert Cities overrated, add these two to Seminar and Stick Fly and you have a quartet of more-or-less meaty American plays worth seeing and talking about. When's the last time that was the case? UPDATE: Though I haven't yet seen them, by most accounts Chinglish and Venus in Fur would fit into this trend, as well. So make that a sextet of new non-British non-musicals on Broadwaya moment worth celebrating (and not only because not all of them will survive the year, most likely).

Dec 7, 2011

Entertainment and Its Uses

I've been wondering for a while whether StageGrade ruins my theatergoing experiences. When I saw War Horse, for instance, I had just read every review and was thus familiar with what purported wonders were in store, as well as with the lines of criticism advanced by a number of even its admirers; I found the wonders (the horse puppets) pretty wonderful but the show itself as trite and over-earnest as some critics had warned.

With Seminar, which I saw last week, I feared a similar fate. Even the good reviews, of which there were enough to give it a B+ median on StageGrade, made me fear that I would be more likely to agree with critics who found it glib, contrived, brittle. Rather than ponder too deeply what that expectation says about me, or dwell overly on the fact that I've been underwhelmed by Theresa Rebeck's work in the past, I can report that I thoroughly relished Seminar as a crisp, smart, thoughtful, and very funny piece of entertainment. Lest that sound like faint praise, it's not (or, at least, I'll get to why I don't think it should be faint praise); the play is so tightly constructed and directed, and the cast is so definitive and committed (really, no one is coasting on their type or their tricks here, least of all Alan Rickman—another unjustified fear I had going in), that it fully rewards one's attention for its 90 minutes or so, and spurs plenty of post-show buzz, conversation, and reflection, if not of the earth-shaking kind. (My wife, a fiction writer and a veteran of many writing groups and seminars, particularly enjoyed it, which strikes me as an important bona fide—she didn't even have a problem with the tendency of the characters to assess each other's writing after glancing at a mere page or two, a recurring complaint among some critics.)

But why do I feel the need to go further than to say it's entertaining and leave it at that? I agree with one of the more astute critics I read, David Barbour, that the play does have more to say than may meet the eye—for one, there's that extraordinary monologue, delivered by Alan Rickman, at maybe the two-thirds-point, which anatomizes a writer's dissipation in terms at once hilarious, acrid, and finally existential. But how much does a play that entertains us this well in the moment need to also satisfy our sense that it's also deeply valuable on some world-historical level, and/or that it will "survive" and somehow measure up beyond this production, i.e., without the first-rate cast and director it has now? (It's not unlike the dilemma I outlined in my thoughts about Jerusalem.)

It has a lot to do with what we mean when we say we're entertained—with what parts of us a play tickles, flatters, stimulates. We feel cheap if it's just pumping us for laughs, flattered if we're allowed space to think for ourselves about what we're watching, stimulated if we're surprised or teased into thinking about something more than what we're watching (other than the grocery list). But are a tickle, a tease, and a release of laughter enough?

You might call this as a tension between theater as performance and theater as literature. But if you see a play, as I do, as a kind of literary performance which, at bare minimum, must arrest our attention and hold it for the moment we spend with it, then I'd say that what Seminar accomplishes is enough—enough to be called a good play that's worth your time. Whether it's great in that larger, lasting sense, I can't be absolutely sure. (Can anyone? Though my hunch, and this surprises even me, is that it might be—that its insights about aspiration, literary and otherwise, about gender relations, ambition, and the perils of sensitivity, may speak to us in interesting ways in, say, 50 years.) For now, I honestly don't think that judgment needs to be called; what I do think is that Rebeck and co. are offering a first-class literary performance at the Golden Theatre that is worth catching while it's there.

Stick Fly's Slow Build

Kendrick Brown and Estella Henderson in the Houston's Ensemble Theatre production of Stick Fly (photo by Nathan Lindstrom for the Houston Chronicle)

I've seen Lydia Diamond around TCG over the past few years (she's on the board), and she led a great breakout at the conference in Chicago last year, but I hadn't met her till I sat down with her recently to talk about the long-overdue arrival of her play Stick Fly on Broadway for this Time Out piece.

Like Diamond, who's had just one previous New York production, the play's reputation precedes it, as I noted before; in researching the piece, I counted as many as eight professional productions at theaters small and large, black-identified and otherwise, since it debuted in 2005 (here's its original Time Out Chicago review, a mixed-positive notice). That production history is roughly the reverse of many new plays, which seem to need Broadway to give its validating stamp before regionals will look at them; Stick Fly's slow build may be a heartening sign that that tendency is weakening (another sign would be this), though now the next question is: If Stick Fly is a success on Broadway, will that lead to still more regional runs?

Dec 6, 2011

A Gallant Nod to the Gauls

Anthony Lane's pans can be a joy to read, though I think they leave him open to the common charge of shallowness and snark. I much prefer his raves and appreciations, because they require him to apply his formidable linguistic and descriptive skills to the film or artist at hand in a way his pans don't; I suppose one could argue that, from his point of view, the films and artists he dislikes are less worthy of his consideration, and so why not make the review more about his performance than about the work he surveys? (Off the top of my head, I recall relishing this review and this one, which my wife has actually used in an NYU writing class.)

And catching up with recent New Yorkers, I came across Lane's rave for Michel Hazanavicius' new black-and-white silent film, The Artist. Not only are the film's cinematic allusions in expert hands with Lane, whom I once heard deliver a delicious if supererogative encomium to Ava Gardner, but I was extra-gratified to find, at the end of his review, a spot-on summary of a national trait I've come to admire myself, and in a people not typically lauded by those of Lane's own sceptered isle:
What Hazanavicius has wrought is damnably clever, but not cute; less like an arch conceit and more like the needle-sharp recollection of a dream. It is, above all, a Gallic specialty—the intellectual caprice that applies a surprising emotional jolt.
And almost as quickly as I could think, "Ravel!", Lane goes there:
One finds the same mixture in Cocteau’s Orphée, which transmitted Greek myths as if in a live broadcast, and in Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” which sought not so much to mimic Baroque musical form as to uncover a vitalizing force within the act of homage. When challenged over the seeming levity of the piece, Ravel replied, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence,” and that will stand as a motto for The Artist—a spry monochrome comedy that is tinted with regret for the rackety noise and color, as far as we can hope to imagine them, of lost time. Make way for the old!
Guess I have to try to see that movie, but more important for the moment is to celebrate what criticism passes by.

Quote for the Day

"Physical presence, the sound of a voice, gestures, the way people sit or walk can be more telling than writing. It is easier to tell a lie in writing because one can hide behind prose. Gestures and the sound of a voice cannot be manipulated as easily as language, unless you are a carefully coached politician using rehearsed, coded gestures. But even then, nobody who watches and listens carefully will be duped. Images have an immediacy, and they can unveil secrets."
-Filmmaker Theo Roos, from an interview (PDF) in the fall Kurt Weill newsletter

Dec 2, 2011

TGIF Links

Quickly as I can:
  • I'm as relieved as anyone about this news, though I've always thought Diamond Dogs would make a good musical.
  • This is worth a whole post but for now I just have to say that I didn't find a chance to see The Blue Flower, but a colleague sent me a CD and I love the music. Shades of Flaherty, Weill, One Ring Zero, Little Jack Melody, late Leonard Cohen, even R.E.M.
  • Great profile of a singular theater artist.
  • John Moore, the Denver Post critic David Cote profiled so memorably just last month, is taking a buyout. Typical newspaper cutbacks? Maybe, but it's more interesting than that. Trust me.
  • Jeffrey Hatcher is "up-and-coming"?
  • Gotta love the specificity of this site.

Jesus, etc.

My review of the new Godspell is up at America, the Catholic weekly:
If you couple the atmosphere of communal expectation this 40-year-old show stirs in its fans with the fact that the show itself is designed as little more than a receptacle for those good vibes (you might even call it a kind of communion), it is easy to understand the strategy of the new revival, directed by Daniel Goldstein. It wants to tickle us where we live by liberally adding topical references (Steve Jobs, Lindsay Lohan, Heidi Klum) and audience interaction, as well as by amping up the musical arrangements to embrace disco, prog-rock, metal, hip-hop and “Glee”-style vocalizing. The approach smacks of an over-eager youth pastor straining to be hip for an audience of skeptical, ADD-addled kids. The uncharitable term for this would be “pandering,” though St. Paul might endorse it as a case of being all things to all people.
And that's the nice stuff I have to say.

Bbonus: I end up nodding to an actually spiritually enriching play currently running on the other side of 7th Avenue, Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet.

Dec 1, 2011

Lights, Magic, Opening

The December issue of American Theatre is out today, with two great main features: One is by David Barbour, editor in chief of Lighting & Sound America (and one of favorite critics over at StageGrade), on the use (and abuse) of projections in the theater. Fans of Wendall K. Harrington, read up on this surprisingly old theatrical technique here.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area's own performing arts polymath, Chloe Veltman, contributes a fascinating piece on the way magic takes advantage of theater techniques, and vice versa, which contains this odd, almost Onion-worthy story:
[Ryan] Majestic has become so disenchanted with magicians' current love affair with the theatre that he tries to remove the trappings of stage performance from his work whenever possible–including, curiously, the audience. Every night for nearly two weeks in April 2010, the magician broke into an abandoned house in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles late at night to perform his act. Majestic deliberately didn't tell anyone about his activities. "I did the show at midnight each night regardless of whether anyone walked in or not," Majestic says. "I hoped that if someone did come by, it would be a truly organic moment rather than feel fake, like a theatre performance."
Now that's commitment.

I've also got a few pieces in the issue: an extended conversation with the McCarter Theatre's Emily Mann and Victory Gardens' Chay Yew about being playwrights who run theaters (aren't many of those), and a Strategies column on a pet topic of mine: theaters that provide childcare for financially strapped parents like myself.

Fave quote from the Yew/Mann dialogue, by the way: "I see running a theatre as if you’re directing a play that never opens." Funny, I often feel that way about working at a theater magazine, even on publication day.