Feb 29, 2012

Quote for the Day

"There are only three kinds of scenes: 'fights, seductions and negotiations.' " -Mike Nichols, quoted by Riedel today

Feb 24, 2012

Flesh-Eating Chekhov

Most of the time the press releases I receive can also be located somewhere online, but some of the smaller theaters that send info to American Theatre aren't quite at that level of information coordination. So I'm pleased to share this exclusive, which just came into our inbox yesterday, reprinted in full and without comment:
This upcoming fall Kennedy Theatre in Honolulu will present the present the world premiere of Uncle Vanya and Zombies by Anton Chekhov and Marcus Wessendorf.

Blurb for Uncle Vanya and Zombies:
Society has collapsed, Honolulu is a wasteland, and zombies are roaming the island O'ahu after a recent accident on one of the nuclear submarines off Pearl Harbor. To increase their ratings, a major network has turned the Kennedy Theatre into a television studio for their regular broadcasts of their new reality show Masterpiece Theatre and Zombies. The contestants on this show not only have to act in a classical play but also to survive its performance to win a flight into a "safe zone" or coupons for food no longer available to regular civilians. The major challenge for the contestants is to stay in character and get through the performance alive while fending off zombies released into the arena by the popular host of the show. After the peak ratings of last month's The Tempest and Zombies, the producers have decided to go for a classic example of realism this time, Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (1897).
Uncle Vanya and Zombies will be performed at Kennedy Theatre on November 9, 10, 16 and 17 at 8pm, on November 18 at 2:00pm.

Feb 20, 2012

President's Day Links

Not that these are presidentially themed...

Feb 18, 2012

The Full McNulty

I don't agree with every particular in Charles McNulty's big, bold, fed-up editorial on the artistic leadership void at SoCal's major resident theaters, centrally the Old Globe and Center Theater Group (for one thing, giving Robert Brustein the last word, with a weird swipe at "Red-state self-interest," is unfortunate). But it's the best, most forceful articulation of a theme McNulty's touched before (and his predecessor tackled from a slightly different angle), and more importantly, it eloquently and urgently organizes a lament I've been hearing almost since I started covering theater in the early 1990s: that nonprofit resident theaters have lost their way, that their work doesn't reflect their communities/the zeitgeist/anything other than commercial motives, that they're too focused on New York, both as a validating destination and as a programming guide, etc. A related argument, about the increasing commercialization of nonprofits, particularly in New York, has surfaced on blogs, most notably Parabasis. But as far as I've read, McNulty is virtually alone in the American press in sounding this alarm this way, and for that he deserves huge props.

Indeed, McNulty doesn't just talk in generalities, he names names. And apart from the sheer professional and critical stones that takes, what's striking about it, given the way I've rapped him in the past for focusing too much on larger theaters (and yes, theaters outside of SoCal), is that it proves he doesn't focus on the larger theaters because he's in love with their work but because he's passionate about the non-profit mission they should be serving, and that he cares enough to give them this tough-love reminder of that.

When I reflect on my own experience of this problem, I have to confess that it's never fired me up, except on a personal level (seeing one artistic leader go and disliking his successor, let's say). I guess it's because my expectations of large nonprofit theaters have never been that they do particularly risk-taking or groundbreaking work; though I'd love to see them do it more, I also understand that they have to keep their doors open in a hostile funding environment. You could probably say my relative indifference on this matter is a sign of how much I've internalized the everything-for-profit ethos of the last 30 years (and really, the resident theater movement we're talking about is only about 50 years old, so how long were the halcyon years, really, if indeed there were halcyon?).

But I think something else is at work, too: My focus and energy has simply been elsewhere for most of my theatergoing and journalistic career. It's been on smaller theaters, tiny incubators of talent, idealistic self-producers, scrappy ensembles; and in the cases I've been excited in a similar way about work at larger resident theaters, it's been the exception more than the rule, as when CTG's Kirk Douglas Theatre put on Michael Sargent's The Projectionist in its lobby. I don't mean to say I've never seen great work at the Taper, South Coast, La Jolla, the Old Globe, and the NY nonprofits, but I simply never understood it to be aimed at me, my tastes, or my income level. (The bright-line exception to this has been the idyllic but far-from-sleepy Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where even the hack work is touched by a special light; it has as much to do with the intense audience-artist rapport as with the high standard of work there.)

Lest I sound like I'm down on the very resident theater movement for whom I work, I should add that the tensions elucidated in McNulty's column have been on aired and explored at the TCG conferences I've attended, and that among the most encouraging things I saw at the one in L.A. last year is the presence of kindred spirits: artists from that under-sung theater town and from other beleaguered-in-different-ways American cities bonding over common problems of development (audiences, new work, and fundraising), creative risk vs. sustainability, and common dreams of challenging themselves and their audiences to face the present. When I take my focus off the ever-frustrating Big Kahunas, from Roundabout to the Taper, and think of the work being done by troupes in the broad mid-range—places like Woolly Mammoth, the Public, Playwrights Horizons, or in L.A., places like the small-but-hardy Boston Court—I'm more encouraged by the picture that forms of risks being taken and audiences being served—audiences, I might add, that include me.


Feb 16, 2012

Thursday on the Links

Feb 15, 2012

Life During Wartime

Last June, I found myself running the Power Point for a session at the TCG Conference in L.A. titled "What If…We Could Bridge the Divides? The Role of Theatre in Iraqi-US Reconciliation", with two theater artists from Iraq, Waleed Shamil and Amir Azraki, and one Iraqi-American, Heather Raffo, whose multi-character solo piece 9 Parts of Desire has made the rounds of many American and European theaters, and is now in fact being translated by Dr. Shamil into Arabic for a run in Iraq. I took notes on my laptop, as I was supposed to do internally for TCG, but I quickly realized that I was taking notes as a journalist, as well.

And a few minutes into Dr. Shamil's extraordinary slide presentation on theater in and around Baghdad, I pulled out my flash drive and quietly copied all his photos onto it; I knew that I wanted to write about this for American Theatre, and that when I did, I didn't want to have to track down photos from halfway across the world.

I did end up eventually writing about theater in wartime Iraq, and its fragile postwar hopes, for the February issue of AT—and so striking were the photos that one became the issue's cover image: It shows a woman from the Al Mada Street Theatre troupe performing a show called A Day in Our Country under a bombed-out bridge in Baghdad. The piece is here; there are also remarkable dispatches about theater in Algeria, Bangladesh, Uganda, and China.

I think some of our readers are confused about why a magazine called American Theatre covers as much international theater as we do; but as it's been explained to me, the idea is that we not only cover American theater but that we represent American theater to the world, and in that role we both bear witness to world theater and introduce international theater artists to American readers. In the case of Dr. Shamil and Iraq, though, the case for taking account of the state of the arts in country so integrally, and tragically, entwined with the United States should hardly need to be made.

Below, Dr. Shamil (on the right) talks with Azraki about the history of Arab theater.

And here's Heather Raffo, in an engaging talk about her show and its evolving reception with American and Western audiences:

Feb 14, 2012

Looking Back

If I've got one pet peeve in criticism, both in print and in water-cooler form, it's the "not likeable" canard. I don't mean to dismiss what people experience as sincere aversion to fictional characters they encounter in films, plays, etc., but I think they mislabel their revulsion; what people really mean when they say they don't like a character is that they don't find them interesting; they don't care what happens to them; they don't feel they're worth their time. I don't think I need to trot out a list here of despicable or egregiously flawed characters who sufficiently compel us to keep watching or reading (from outright juicy villains like Richard III to anti-heroes like Macheath). I'm also willing to admit that results may vary with people's tastes and tolerance; the eminently hate-able jerks churned out by Neil LaBute, for instance, mostly leave me cold, since they seem like stick-figure straw men for his monotonous enterprise of moral flagellation, while Pinter's gallery of louts and degenerates is more often compelling because they're unpredictable, and this gift of surprise makes them both genuinely funny and genuinely scary, sometimes both at once.

All of which is another way to say that I consider this largely a question of craft, or put still another way: the play's the thing, and if we're turned off because the people onstage seem to us unpleasant, the flaw is more theatrical than characterological. And all of which is preamble to my thoughts about two revivals currently presenting less-than-charming leading men to New York audiences: the Roundabout's self-consciously hard-edged Look Back in Anger and Encores!'s warm but clear-eyed Merrily We Roll Along.

In John Osborne's culture-rattling screed from 1956, Jimmy Porter is a sputtering misanthrope, rendered all the more bilious in director Sam Gold's severe, minimalist new production, on a narrow landing strip of stage. This approach leaves the play's bones exposed, so that it seems closer than ever to a Cockney remix of A Streetcar Named Desire. While I don't think that this more vein-opening approach ultimately works to the play's advantage, it's certainly watchable, in no small part thanks to the actors, particularly the peculiar but powerful main trio, Matthew Rhys, Sarah Goldberg, and Adam Driver. And I'd argue that, in any production of Look Back, what makes us keep watching an abusive, manipulative shit like Jimmy is the suspense of waiting for someone to respond or fight back—Will it be his put-upon wife Alison, or their awkward-bystander friend Cliff? Anyone? And while Osborne's play has been justly knocked for its shaggy-dog form, I quite admired the way Gold's brittle conception reframed some of its odd jolts and unexpected reversals; they felt true to the irreducible mystery of human relations rather than boiled down to a mere psychological or economic case study.

Merrily has a kind of reverse suspense, as it rolls the tape backward on the disintegrating professional and personal three-way friendship among a composer, a playwright, and a novelist. Like many Sondheimaniacs, I've loved the score for years but had never seen a good staging; I shared the conventional wisdom that the show doesn't "work," and more or less believed the complaint, which I've heard again even regarding this pretty marvelous new staging by James Lapine, that the show's leads, particularly the ruthless sellout Franklin Shepard, are so unlikeable at the show's start that it's a chore to watch them through to the end. I just didn't see or feel it that way at Encores!; it's true that at the opening, when we meet latter-day Franklin and Mary, an alcoholic novelist who's pined for Franklin all these years, they're both compromised wrecks who've made a shambles of their lives, but neither are villains beyond redemption. And there are enough seeds planted in this new opening—what happened between Franklin and his collaborator Charlie, exactly?—that we're interested enough to get to the next scene, and the next, and so on.

I would concede that this is mere plot-driven curiosity, which isn't the same thing as emotional involvement. But that's my point: We don't need to like characters, we just need to care what happens next, and as long as we're curious enough for a show to get its hooks in us, the emotions will often take care of themselves. And that's the case with Merrily, whose backwards structure gives the knife a few extra twists. Our sense of what these three people lost when they went their separate ways doesn't really begin to kick in until near the end of the first act—how could it? That's when we first glimpse the remnants of Franklin's first marriage and see him tempted into cheating with the diva Gussie and, perhaps more importantly for him, tempted into a worse infidelity: to his muse.

The show's sucker-punch effect snuck up on me in the divorce-court-steps scene when Beth (the terrific Betsy Wolfe), who we've only just met, delivers "Not a Day Goes By," the resentful cri de couer of someone who knows she won't be able to forget the lover who's wronged her. This is our introduction to Beth, which feels perilously late for such a major character, not to mention a character bearing such huge emotions—until it dawns on us, as it does viscerally in this knockout of a song, that in the run of the story this is of course Beth's wrenching final scene, and she's giving us the very good reason she hasn't appeared in the rest of Franklin's story. The kicker is that we know we're about to see more of her, pre-disillusionment, and it's going to hurt.

Once they start, these inverted, delayed-action emotional implosions keep detonating, until the show reaches its core sequence, the openly autobiographical "Opening Doors," which, like the brilliant "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs" from Follies, represents a microcosm of the show it sprang from. This roundelay of aspiration, rejection, and determination is Sondheim's most ebullient, precisely remembered tribute to youth and hope—not subjects he's known for celebrating, but there they are, shining bright. Even colored by the knowledge that these hopeful dreams will be dashed or cramped, they gleam here with a purity that can't be taken away. (It doesn't hurt that Colin Donnell, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and especially Celia Keenan-Bolger are a near-ideal trio for this production.) Storytelling craft can only take you so far, of course; in the case of this Merrily, it takes us far enough for empathy to pick up the baton and work those violins.

Feb 9, 2012

Feb 7, 2012

The Chemistry Proof

An utterly charming, disarming crossroads moment.

Quote for the Day

"If Shakespeare saw most of the productions of his work today, he'd probably say: 'Roland Emmerich was right. Edward de Vere actually wrote this.' "
-Michael Musto (h/t Charles McNulty)

Feb 6, 2012

Bashing Smash

This kind of thing makes me batty: Producer Ken Davenport tells theater folks it's our duty to watch Smash tonight:
It's about Broadway, it's shot on Broadway, it's written by a Broadway writer, directed by a Broadway Director, and stars a whole bunch of Broadway peeps.

And if there was one thing that could have an atomic bomb-like impact on Broadway theatergoing, Smash is it.
I call bullshit on this, for two reasons. First, the show's Broadway pedigree is what makes the thundering mediocrity of Smash, whose pilot I barely managed to get through last week, so disappointing. Shaiman, Rebeck, Mayer, and the show's estimable cast have turned out something so false, tired, and pandering that the word "cliché" is barely adequate. I'm not a snob; I can enjoy trashy, manipulative TV, but Smash doesn't even satisfy on that level. (I'll qualify this by admitting that a TV show's overall quality can't always be judged by its pilot.)

Secondly, does anyone really think that the Broadway brand is buoyed by a backstager full of fictional characters putting together a fictional musical? It's not as if anyone will be able to fly to NY and score tickets to the show's Marilyn Monroe musical, because it doesn't exist. (If Smash somehow becomes such a phenomenon that said musical does actually find its way to Broadway, I will eat my Kangol hat.)

I'll concede to Davenport a point he doesn't quite make: If Smash is a hit—and hey, I wouldn't begrudge these talented people a success, as long as I don't have to watch it—it will have a big national impact...on aspiring performers, writers, composers, directors etc., who will flock in even greater numbers to New York with Broadway as their North Star, in much the same way glamourous primetime soaps shows like L.A. Law allegedly swelled the ranks of law schools back in the 1980s. It would be a mixed blessing, but hardly lamentable, if another generation of performers looked beyond the autotuned Glee to the stage, the punishing, glorious arena where true performing talent is forged.

The Inadvertent Duet

Feb 3, 2012

Thank God It's Linkday

  • Teachout reaffirms Guirgis' Motherfucker in its Miami production; hard not to notice the surnames of the cast, as opposed to these.
  • Sarah "Maths Geek" Benson on Soho Rep's guiding principle: Do fewer things better.
  • Is this really all the ink that Tanya Saracho's L.A. debut will get in the paper of record there?
  • Actual footage of the Rudin/Norris faceoff.
  • The power of TV marketing: Though I found the Smash pilot barely watchable, the constant drumbeat and buzz almost makes me feel I should reconsider.

Feb 1, 2012

A Secret Buried in "Sons"

The February issue of American Theatre is out, and it includes the complete text of Stephen Karam's lovely, insinuating comedy/drama, Sons of the Prophet, which was perhaps slightly over-praised in its recent Roundabout production, but not by much; it's a rich and substantial work from an extremely agile and thoughtful young writer.

Sons is the kind of play that makes tenuous links between characters, incidents, and insights seem serendipitous, sneakily profound; though some critics have seen this as a kind of twee indie-sitcom shorthand for substance, I think they sell the play short. It's a craftier and richer canvas than it may first appear, with puzzles and private mysteries quietly woven into it. I happened upon on one such juicy inter-textual secret, in fact, while researching Karam for my Times feature last fall; the playwright swore me to silence then, but I feel that the publication of the script makes it fair game.

Sons of the Prophet concerns a Lebanese-American family in suburban Pennsylvania dealing both gamely and awkwardly with a series of ailments and calamities, though "family" may be too grand a term for the Douaihy household, which consists during the play's action of two guys on either side of 20 and their elderly Uncle Bill. Though Uncle Bill is virtually alone in his reliance on the family's Maronite Catholic faith, at one point his youngest nephew, fey Charles, gets worked up about a bit of spiritual synchronicity. He's curious about the Arabic writing under a picture of St. Rafka, a long-suffering Lebanese saint who was their late father's favorite, so he asks Uncle Bill to translate it; it reads "All is well," the famous mantra of Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese author of The Prophet, to which Karam's title refers. Then Charles and his brother Joseph have this interesting exchange:
CHARLES: "All is well." It means "All is well," so—I wanted to see what Gibran poem that's from so online, the first thing that came up is this hymn where—that's what's repeated in the chorus, "All is well, All is well," I put it on your iPod, it's in your bag just listen to it—
JOSEPH: No, now now are you / crazy?—
CHARLES: ...no, no, Joseph, take 10 seconds and listen to it, the song is—okay under the song, online, there was this scripture passage/that says—
JOSEPH: What scripture? Are you insane?
CHARLES: —it matches Dad's birthday perfectly, 12:17—
JOSEPH: Charles, you can't keep/doing this—
CHALRES: "My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment." "My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment." (Beat) Of course that could be random, but...finding it after...from the picture?...(Pissed Joseph isn't jumping in)...are you there?
I didn't recognize the scripture, so I used Charles' own Internet-based methods to track it down and was quite surprised where Google led me: to a Mormon text attributed to Joseph Smith (yes, the scripture number is actually 121:7, a correction that comes out in Karam's play). What the heck is an LDS scripture doing in a Maronite Catholic context?

The answer lies in the other project Karam was working on while completing Sons: Dark Sisters, the mostly excellent chamber opera he wrote with composer Nico Muhly, about troubles at a polygamous Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints compound based closely on Colorado City, Ariz. There's also a direct FLDS reference in Sons—a half-crazed book agent played by Joanna Gleason clips a photo of children clinging to a parent from news reports of a raid on the same compound, thinking it would make a good cover image for a proposed Douaihy family memoir (to be called, naturally, Sons of the Prophet). Got that?

Now, I wouldn't claim that these hand-stitched links between Smith and Rafka, and between two persecuted minority faiths, are a key to understanding Karam's work, which works plenty well without any special knowledge. But knowing that he's laced a textual puzzle into it gives me both an appreciation for his craftiness, and some inkling why Sons, for all its deceptively breezy pleasures, also moves on a subterranean level to touch tenderer, stranger truths. Who knows what other mysteries lurk in there? The point is, without naming them we can feel them at work. (I had more to say about the play's spiritual dimensions at the end of this review.)