Jun 23, 2012

A Non-Review of the New Daisey

I'm here in Boston for the TCG conference, and last night Mike Daisey offered a two-hour presentation of his newest monologue, The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure), which he'd previously presented at Spoleto. I'm not in a position to review it since, a) It's a work-in-progress and it shouldn't be reviewed, and b) I only caught, say, the last 75-80 minutes of it, running as I was from TCG staff duties elsewhere. I do have some comments and impressions to share about it, though, and frankly, just some lovely quotes I'd love to share with the world that may not survive in future drafts of the work. I'll break them down into bullet points to keep this post under control (not least because I have more TCG staff duties to attend to in less than an hour).
  • This was the perfect crowd for the piece, which interweaves a trip Mike and his wife/director, Jean-Michele Gregory, took on the Orient Express through Europe with a kind of consideration/self-flagellation over l'affaire Ira and the attending controversy. The TCG attendees are by and large people who followed that kerfuffle with great attention, so Daisey didn't have to explain what he was talking about when he referred to Chinese labor, the "retraction episode," etc. This was, by at least one account, not the case in Spoleto.
  • Given that backstory, I'm unsure whether this new piece will stand on its own as its own monologue or function as a kind of epilogue to The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which itself has already changed (and will almost certainly be re-reviewed when it returns to Woolly Mammoth next month). As the latter, it was quite an effective evening of theater (is that too review-y?).
  • Daisey is in no danger of not having a long and auspicious career in the American theater, if he wants it. He is still a spellbinding storyteller and theatrical magician. Whether he'll ever have, or deserve, a larger platform for his art or his activism is an open question.
  • The new piece's touchstones include Karl May, a popular German fabulist of the 19th century, whose tales of the American West were eventually debunked; and Upton Sinclair, whose muckraking novel The Jungle helped lead to the creation of the FDA. Daisey points out, correctly, that Sinclair was called a liar for many of the distortions and exaggerations in The Jungle but that those questions were eventually drowned out by the urgency of addressing the real abuses the book helped bring to light. The jury is still out on whether something similar might have happened with Daisey—as he points out, the American Life retraction episode, which attracted orders of magnitude more attention than his original Agony broadcast, effectively separated him and his lies from the truth about Foxconn's abuses, and who's to say that the latter is not the lede that will stick in people's minds? But there's a reason Sinclair wrote his exposé as a novel, not reportage. It's an important distinction.
  • "Vienna is the Helen Mirren of cities. It looks fabulous despite its age."
  • "I'm obsessed with death—that's why I work in the theater."
  • "Theater is not an illusion. That's its great secret. Theater is the house of the real."
  • There was also a lovely metaphor about the experience of theater being the music of the space between the audience and the performer, the strings of that being plucked, something like that—I can't reconstruct it, which was kind of the point of it, anyway.
No piece will entirely satisfy Daisey's critics, of course; I spoke to one documentary theater artist afterwards who's still pretty pissed at him for his "cheesy" theatrical embellishments, even in last night's piece. Why does the whole story have to be about him? this artist wondered; real people and their stories should be compelling enough for theater, if it's done right. Daisey will be on the closing panel this afternoon with a number of documentary-ish theater artists, and I'm sure we'll hear more on this theme. I look forward to the colloquy, and I desperately hope it's not a Panel All About Mike and Ira, but I also can say I look forward to Daisey's next piece, and the next, and so on. He fucked up, no question, but he's still got life left in him as an artist.

Jun 19, 2012

Coming To Our Consensus

As my partner Isaac Butler points out, as much in amazement as celebration, it's been 3 1/2 years since he and I launched Critic-O-Meter, which just over two years ago morphed into StageGrade.

Isaac has a great post about how working on these sites has changed his views not only of criticism and its purposes but of specific critics themselves. I too miss the lively comments section on Critic-O-Meter, and I would second his observation that while there are some astonishingly poor critics and editors out there, the value they bring to the art and practice of theater is undismissable—and I'd emphasize the they in that sentence. C-o-M and StageGrade are built on the premise that to read just one critic, no matter how good, is myopic and wrongheaded, and that the "conversation" we always hear that theater is supposed to spark is already going on to a large extent; you just have to know where to look for it.

I love this comment from a friend of Isaac's, which I'll just steal most of:
Here's one of the major things StageGrade has proved: critical consensus is largely correct. Much like in polling, where individual polls can be outliers, but the averages are largely correct, the StageGrade for every show always, without fail, replicates the word on the street. And it shows that most critics actually do understand that their job is to consider the work on its own terms. Sarah Ruhl and Amy Herzog are really different artists, but the same group of critics agrees that they are fulfilling the aims that their work sets up. When there's a legitimate split decision—Lonergan's The Starry Messenger, Shinn's Picked—it's generally because the work is legitimately divisive. In both those plays, audiences who want to see long, uncommercial plays by each of those writers weren't disappointed.
If StageGrade has helped not only to steer theatergoers to plays they'll like (and ward them off plays they won't) but to go some small distance toward democratizing the way criticism is read, shared, and used, so much the better. There might be hope for its future yet.

Jun 18, 2012

Realism and Its Discontents

photo by Julieta Cervantes

I couldn't have been more on board for Soho Rep's indie-star-studded Uncle Vanya, and not just 'cause I got the chance to report on and contemplate it in advance. A little over a month ago, I'd sat through Target Margin's meta-take on the play—a kind of surface playing-at-the-text rather than in it—and was both fundamentally dissatisfied with the production and curiously interested in it; I didn't like it, by any stretch, but I was surprised how much it didn't bore me. The experience was a bit like skimming through the play while my mind was elsewhere; it wasn't involving on its own rather modest terms, but it was still Uncle Vanya, probably my favorite play (and one I know as well as I know any play).

So I went to Soho Rep eager to see what seemed on paper like an inspired idea: to have an extraordinary cast perform it in an intimate space without period frills, to just see and hear the play without distraction, not unlike the quietly intense version captured in Louis Malle's film of Andre Gregory's gorgeously idiosyncratic production, titled somewhat unfortunately Vanya on 42 Street.

This new Vanya is most decidedly not a meta-take, or a coolly distanced one, but its soporific effect on me made Target Margin's seem peppery by comparison. I could write for a while about a lot of the show's problems, but I think their root causes can be ascribed to two interrelated problems I would call phony naturalism and technical difficulties.

The first, phony naturalism, is a rookie mistake I almost can't believe adapter Annie Baker and director Sam Gold have made, since their work together has if anything been characterized by a laser-like specificity, a reinvigorated attention to detail that can make fly-on-the-wall naturalism feel urgent, even experimental, rather than just the people-on-a-couch default of lazy theatrical imagination. This Vanya, alas, is a shruggy, desultory affair that seems to have confused casual, offhanded, non-specific mumblecore sensitivity for realism. Indeed, it plays almost like a parody of the Annie Baker/Sam Gold aesthetic, and its shabby-hipster limbo makes a frustratingly imprecise match for Chekhov's world—which, with touching perversity, Baker's adaptation keeps faithfully referring to, right down "versts" and "barley kasha."

The show's technical difficulties are integrally related to the first problem. It was a bold, quixotic idea to stage the whole thing in the round, actually more "in the square," as we're seated (quite limb-crushingly uncomfortably, it must be added) on carpeted risers against four walls of a frustratingly non-specific room. The space and the staging are challenges I don't think this production ever surmounts. The invigorated naturalism Baker and Gold do so well, as they must realize themselves, only seems effortless, but it's as crafted and calibrated as a piece of music, and it relies on us not doubting its reality for a second, and on us entering the world of the play as smoothly and unobtrusively as possible. But largely because of the weird, unforgiving space, this Vanya never feels real in that way; it's impossible to guess in what room we're in or what the characters are doing there, or where they go or come from when they're offstage (Serebryakov may call the place "a labyrinth," but I'm not sure we should all feel as lost as he does for the whole play); why, for an interminably long stretch of the first act, the actors are so dimly lit as to be inscrutable, even from a few feet away; or why, for a disorientingly long part of the second act, they must sprawl across the unattractive shag carpet floor (Was the place robbed of its furniture during intermission? my colleague wondered). And, it must be said, while I think Gold has largely earned his rep as a wunderkind director, the challenges of an in-the-round staging, of making it feel natural and simply observed rather than effortful, self-conscious, and sightline-defying, almost entirely defeat him here.

I get why he and Baker thought all this would work like gangbusters; I think almost every one of these actors would be great in their roles in another production of Vanya (as I more or less felt about many of the actors in Target Margin's rendition); and I even think Baker's quirky but doggedly faithful adaptation, with its many contrasting registers, might be worth another look in another production. The good news for Soho Rep is that most critics don't agree with me, and seem to see instead the Vanya that Baker and Gold envisioned; the bad news, as far as I'm concerned, is that those unfamiliar with this great, great play will be bored stiff by it.

Jun 15, 2012

Vamping at Will

A scene from As You Like It by Francis Hayman (c. 1750)

Why do we keep returning with joy to As You Like It, one of Shakespeare's most plotless works? A delightful suspension of action may be part of its perverse appeal, as I wrote in a program piece back in 2005 for the Center Theatre Group:
In As You Like It, Shakespeare comes as close as he ever did to a kind of Socratic dialogue in theme-and-variations form, with characters gathering in various combinations in their languorous forest exile less to advance the plot than to talk, mock, and muse. The mere wisps of story Shakespeare provides are there primarily to usher the characters into the forest as quickly as possible, and later to provide a quick and painless ending. At the play's center, then, are some of the Bard's great ruminative exchanges on life and love, sharpened by contrasts—male and female, jaded and hopeful, city and country—and leavened by an easy laughter that bubbles throughout like an unhurried brook.

..Comedies are characterized by a movement from discord to harmony, which is why so many of them end in marriages and reconciliations. The special genius of As You Like It—a title whose self-confidence mirrors its heroine's—is that Shakespeare managed to minimize the discord so he could vamp expertly on his chosen themes, like a composer holding a suspended chord in mid-air until he's good and ready to resolve it. It's a rarefied comedy form, certainly, but consider the durability of such plot-light and argument-heavy antecedents as The Importance of Being Earnest, Heartbreak House, or the entire ouevre of Chekhov, who famously thought of his plays as comedies. As You Like It proves, as if we needed proof, that Shakespeare's virtuosity is in his insights as much as his imagination.
I'll be seeing the Shakespeare in the Park production tonight, and the Soho Rep Vanya tomorrow. It will be a ruminative weekend, I think; I'll leave incidents for the police blotters.

Jun 14, 2012

Auteur, Auteur

Does the auteur theory stop at the stage door?

The idea that playwrights shouldn't direct their own work is almost axiomatic; you can see it all over the reviews of John Patrick Shanley's Storefront Church, for instance, and it's such an article of faith for an old hand like Sondheim that he takes pains in Look, I Made a Hat to point out that frequent collaborator James Lapine is the exception that proves the rule. I understand the reasoning--that writers can't be "objective" about their work—and I've certainly seen plenty of shows in which the directorial hand of the writer was insufficiently strong, and it was probably safe to assume that someone outside the writer's own head would have sharpened the proceedings. But I don't quite understand why the writer/director is held up as an ideal in film, the showrunner/creator/producer is similarly elevated in television, but stage autocrats get the stink eye.

I asked the question flatly on the American Theatre Facebook page today ("Should playwrights direct their own work?") and got a fair number of immediate and unqualified "nos" and "nevers," as well as some predictable and healthy pushback. But my favorite response comes courtesy of Robert Garfat of British Columbia:
Canadian playwright, George F. Walker, used to get flak from two particular press critics for directing his own work. One critic said that Walker's plays were great, but Walker was a poor director. The other said that Walker was a fine director, but his plays were no good. Then George discovered a play written by an obscure French playwright and took it to the stage, directing the production, called Theatre of the Film Noir. Both critics loved the production, the first because Walker's direction of this inferior and obscure French work was sublime. The second critic lauded the play, saying that even though Walker's direction wasn't up to its usual standard, this play was much superior to those plays written by Walker. A week later, George revealed that he had written the play under a pseudonym.
Check and mate. Nobody knows anything.

Jun 12, 2012

L.A. Tony Times

What happens if you hold an online chat about the Tony Awards and only five people turn up? Could it be a sign that you're in the wrong city?

Jun 7, 2012

Checking Off a New Vanya

The cast of Soho Rep's Uncle Vanya

In the spring of 2002 I appeared in an L.A. Classical Theatre Lab production of Uncle Vanya; I don't recall how they found me, but they needed a guitarist because their Waffles, Alex Wells, didn't play; I was given the two or three lines assigned to the hired man, and was then gently worked into the scenes in which Astrov asks Waffles to play. (For the record, I came up with some minor-key tunes that sounded a bit more Spanish than Russian, though I also threw in a few bits of my favorite Janacek string quartet for good measure.) The production was a success and was extended, running at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice after bowing at Hollywood's Met Theatre.

I went into the show more or less considering Vanya my favorite play, or at least my favorite Chekhov play, which comes to about the same thing. And it was a fine, intense, intimate production with an eminently watchable cast (the only "name" being Orson Bean, who made a perfectly dry-as-dust Serebryakov, though our stage manager, for what it's worth, happened to be James Tupper). Good thing it was watchable, because director Bruce Katzman's decision to have no one exit the space but simply go to chairs arranged around the back of the set when our scenes were done meant that I, and my castmates, took in every second of the show about a hundred times in a few months. My admiration for Uncle Vanya did not diminish—if anything, my appreciation for its fine-grained, multilayered craftmanship only grew—but I got more than my fill of its despairing beauty, enough to last me for a number of years. A break from Voinitsky et al was in order.

I've seen only a handful of productions since, none particularly impactful; Target Margin's recent meta-rendition left me cold, which I think may have been the intention. I do look forward with interest to the reportedly rip-roaring version by Sydney Theatre Company, coming to the Lincoln Center Fest later this summer.

In the meantime, though, I have been happily occupied with a consideration of the new version opening soon at Soho Rep, with playwright Annie Baker and director Sam Gold at the rudder. It's intimate, it's in the round, it's matter-of-factly contemporary, and it has a great cast (seen above)—in short, it promises to make explicit the link between Baker's exquisite, oblique observational writing (on sample in full in a fantastic new anthology published by my employer) and Chekhov's, which many critics have already noticed and eagerly pointed out.

My piece for the Times is here. One of many delicious details I couldn't fit in: In this production, Waffles does play guitar, and he and the hired man will be breaking into the authentic Russian stylings of Lubeh. You heard it here first.

Jun 6, 2012

Stage-Door Ray

I've little to add to the encomiums (encomia?) for the late Ray Bradbury, except to recount that he was a source for my first Arts & Leisure byline back in 2006, when Godlight Theatre was staging a version of Fahrenheit 451 at 59E59. He'd given countless interviews already but of course I wanted a fresh one for my piece; but he was in L.A. and quite hard of hearing, I was told. So to make it happen, I was to fax him written questions, which he would then answer by calling me a few minutes later. Problem is, the nearest fax machine to me, a new-to-Brooklyn freelancer, was the Fedex/Kinko's down the street in Cobble Hill, so I had to request that Mr. Bradbury delay his reply for, say, 15 minutes, so I could rush back to my home phone and receive his call. It all worked out, and he gave me some fine quotes (including a provocative solution to Israel/Palestine conflict).

My only other experience with him (as opposed to with his work, which has been blessedly everywhere around me throughout my life, as it has all of us) was when he accepted a special award for his theater work at the L.A. Weekly awards back in 2004. He was, as always, very quotable:
"This is the culmination of a lifelong dream," he began, recalling that in junior high he told his friends he was going to be an actor at the local radio station. " 'Do you know anybody?' my friends asked me. I said no. 'Does your father know anybody?' they asked me. I said no. And they said, 'How are you going to get work as an actor if you don't know anybody?'" The only logical reply: "I said, 'I'll hang around the stage door and be lovable.' "

Bradbury thanked the theatre for "saving my life, when motion pictures have so often destroyed it." He explained, "I've dedicated my life to the theatre. I've always written plays, but no one was interested in doing them. So I saved my money. Eventually I asked my wife, 'Is this the year we open the window and throw the money out?'" He hailed Charles Rome Smith, the founder of Pandaemonium, an all-Bradbury-all-the-time company which has gone into overdrive on the man's work of late. His sharpest jab was at Hollywood mendacity: "The studios want to come over and pee in my soup. They say it will improve the flavor."
Though Francois Truffaut's film of Fahrenheit 451 is a bit of a dead letter, it did inspire one of Bernard Herrmann's most gorgeous scores (sampled above). The tireless imagination around which such inspiration orbited will be missed. This beautiful, James Agee-worthy childhood recollection in a recent New Yorker is a good a way as any to remember him:
I’d helped my grandpa carry the box in which lay, like a gossamer spirit, the paper-tissue ghost of a fire balloon waiting to be breathed into, filled, and set adrift toward the midnight sky. My grandfather was the high priest and I his altar boy. I helped take the red-white-and-blue tissue out of the box and watched as Grandpa lit a little cup of dry straw that hung beneath it. Once the fire got going, the balloon whispered itself fat with the hot air rising inside.

But I could not let it go. It was so beautiful, with the light and shadows dancing inside. Only when Grandpa gave me a look, and a gentle nod of his head, did I at last let the balloon drift free, up past the porch, illuminating the faces of my family. It floated up above the apple trees, over the beginning-to-sleep town, and across the night among the stars.

We stood watching it for at least ten minutes, until we could no longer see it. By then, tears were streaming down my face, and Grandpa, not looking at me, would at last clear his throat and shuffle his feet. The relatives would begin to go into the house or around the lawn to their houses, leaving me to brush the tears away with fingers sulfured by the firecrackers. Late that night, I dreamed the fire balloon came back and drifted by my window.

Jun 4, 2012

Major Over Minor

(cross-posted at Train My Ear)

I'm not entirely approving of the Tori Amos-ish direction of Regina Spektor's new record, but there's no arguing with the catchiness of "All the Rowboats." It's not that three-note minor key melody that hooks me—the same riff Tom Waits' "Cemetery Polka" is built on, not to mention a recurring motif of JC Superstar ("Talk to me/Jesus Christ"):

No, it's the odd note she drops in at the :34 mark on "rowboats" and "paintings":

She avoids hitting it again until 2:20, and finally, extremely satisfyingly, hammers it a few times after 3:03 (she does sneak it in briefly at the :52 mark on the word "sculpture"). Why is it so satisfying? Because that interval is a classic tension-builder: a major seventh over a minor chord. This is Bernard Herrmann/Sweeney Todd territory. I may not be willing to go to the mat for Ms. Spektor's compositional genius (though I think I would for this gorgeous new song), but to toss this major-minor collision into a three-minute pop ditty gives fresh sharpness to the term "hook." It certainly pulls me in.

Jun 1, 2012

Friday on the Links