Dec 30, 2013

Tops of 2013

As my modest theater blog enters its 10th year, it now feels chiefly like a venue for links to my feature writing as it comes along (though I was too busy recently to trumpet my latest piece for the paper of record, on that endearing little Bacharach show, in this space, so here goes), and/or a trough for spillover from said feature writing. The remaining posts here tend to be quasi-reviews, or meta-reviews, or newsy/opinion-y tidbits, written for a variety of reasons: because I either imagine or know with some certainty that no one else has or will make the point I feel needs making, or I just have something to get off my chest that no venue would, or has bothered to, ask me to write about. I wish there were more posts like the latter--and I'm honestly surprised at how many there still are, actually--but in any case, here were the top dozen or so posts of the past year, measured in the cold hard metrics that already rule us all, and in the darkness bind us, in the word trade.

Making Good
Really, all I did with this post did was prove that I have a scanner at home, and that I can save theater playbills. But I was pretty confident that no one else would post the budget figures for the original spring LaMaMa staging of the Foundry's Good Person of Szechwan alongside similar figures for the Public transfer in the fall. Anyone who saw both and kept the programs could have done this, as the Foundry has printed its budgets in its programs for the "last seven or eight years," according to Melanie Joseph, to whom I spoke because of the popularity of this post. (She also told me that comparing the two budgets was an apples-and-oranges deal, given not only the fixed-cost differences in venue but also the disparity between a generative production and a remount.) But no one else did. I wish I'd posted about how and why it was the best show I saw all year, maybe in many years, and how it's one of the two best Brechts I've seen, in part because of its nimble, embracing queer spirituality/politics...but instead I posted about how much it cost. Maybe this tendency is what that program quote, "The truth is concrete," is talking about.

Should Plays Be Artist-Proof?
This post sprang from an offhand comment by playwright Rajiv Joseph about his play Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, from an interview I did with him at my day job. He confessed that he feels he underwrote a character because the actor who did the original role filled in so much of its depth, and he's seen productions since that made him cringe. That reminded me of similar misgivings from Bobby Lopez and Annie Baker, and I was off the races.

Who Needs Critics?
When Backstage announced early this year that it would cut theater reviews altogether, it hit me close to home; I was the founding editor-in-chief of its West Coast branch, and of the West Coast Garland Awards; theater coverage was simply a given all those years ago and in the years since, there and at any number of now-shrinking or vanishing publications. This post had me wondering out loud: Who really reads all those damn reviews and features about theater? And if nobody does, what the fuck have I been doing with my life?

Suffering Made Flesh
My reaction as a (non-Catholic) believer to The Testmant of Mary, an impassioned hodpgepodge of Colm Toibin's alt-gospel from Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner, surely garnered extra hits because it was linked by my sometime employer, the Jesuit magazine America (which had a very exciting year in its own right, I should note).

Putting the "God" in Godot
Herewith, a quick spin on an arguably trivial hobbyhorse of mine--the correct pronunciation of Beckett's masterpiece.

Got Scot?
My only ticket giveaway of the year, for the Lincoln Center Macbeth. The winner, for the record, was Meaghan Monahan. (And sorry it wasn't such a hot show.)

The Book of Bobby
This post merely cued up my Denver Center Theater program piece on The Book of Mormon, returning for an encore in LDS-adjacent territory--a piece that gave me an excuse to talk to the show's nearly secret weapon, the undersung Bobby Lopez.

Filtered Water
Another cue-up post for a program piece, this one for BAM and an intriguing piece about climate change and personal atomization, Water, by the British company Filter.

Cromer's Town
Yet another cue-up: I sat down with the NY-based genius director for his hometown magazine Chicago as he prepared to play Ned Weeks in the (still-running) TimeLine revival of The Normal Heart.

"I Can Talk in a Fine Circle": Eliza Bent's Hotel Colors
In this disarming chat with my coworker at American Theatre, the multitalented Eliza Bent, she told me about how she translated her new play into English (her first language), and I confessed some squirrely moments in hostel living.

Drinking With Stew (and Heidi)
This was the first in a series of "overflow" interviews with the Negro Problem/Passing Strange folks about the state of the rock musical, and all things theatrical and musical, conducted for this American Theatre trend piece.

Mourner Has Broken
A post I felt I had to write, essentially in mourning for the person I used to be--a person who used to love Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner, but found its newest incarnation at the Public a stiff.

No Time Like the Present
Rounding out this baker's dozen on a positive note, this post had me waxing generous about the current generation of playwrights, against what I feel is the default hand-wringing--or worse, scolding--posture among my peers about the current state of theater and playwriting. There is indeed much cause for concern, even a case for despair, but surely I wouldn't still be at this if I felt it were entirely a lost cause--and you, whoever few you are, wouldn't still be reading it.

Here's to a brighter 2014.

Dec 24, 2013

Bards on the Boards

For what it's worth, when I recently took issue with Charles McNulty's review of three high-profile New York Shakespeare productions, I had already filed my review of the fall's Bard glut, but it's only online now (and in print in a week or so), in the Jesuit weekly America.

Since I've already hammered the point that American Shakespeare is seldom best represented on Broadway, and only slightly less rarely in New York in general, here's another point I'm particularly keen to stress, given some critics' slightly overstated plumping for the superiority of the "original practices" approach:
On their surface, the Globe productions on Broadway could not be more different from [the Donmar Warehouse "Julius Caesar"]. Both “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night” are performed and staged in a meticulous recreation of Elizabethan stage practice, right down to the starched ruffs, tooting recorders and all-male cast; audience members who arrive 20 minutes before curtain can watch the actors get into their authentic costumes and makeup on the stage of the Belasco Theatre. But in following to the hilt a trend so diametrically opposite from contemporary interpretations like Donmar’s, these original-practices stagings end up making a similar point about the plays: that strong, unfamiliar concepts can make them shine in a new light.
A pithier way to put it, I guess, is that anyone who thinks that Mark Rylance is giving "original practices" performances (as if anyone could presume to know what those would look or sound like), rather than thoroughly contemporary interpretations that reach us in the eternal present of the theatre, is letting themselves be snowed. And Rylance is hardly alone in this. Indeed, much as the slavishly recreated 1940s sets and score and style of Mike Nichols' Death of a Salesman only made the cast's utterly current, unadorned naturalism stand out all the more starkly, the frisson between the apparently old and the sneakily new in these Globe productions is the sweet spot they've hit (well, in Twelfth Night, at least).

RTWT, as the kids say.

Dec 16, 2013


Charles McNulty is right on the merits and right in his reasoning in this new review lamenting the Lincoln Center Macbeth and adding his praise to the hosannahs for the Globe's Twelfth Night and Richard III. And he's not wrong to point out that this contrast only affirms the prejudice against Americans doing Shakespeare--a prejudice also reinforced, if his peers are to be believed, by Romeo and Juliet on Broadway and at CSC, and by (in my fairly lonely opinion) the sumptuous but unevenly acted new Julie Taymor Midsummer, as well as by the stunning Donmar Warehouse women's-prison Julius Caesar (which I had the great fortune to see the same week as I took in the Globe's "original practice" Shakespeares, affirming not only the apparent superiority of Brits at the Bard but the notion that a strong conceptual framing can bring out the best in these plays). I also think McNulty's point about the grounding in rhetoric that lies behind successful verse drama is sound, and all too frequently taken for granted.

But if I were a West Coast theater company that had ever produced Shakespeare, from A Noise Within to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I might take exception to the critic for the Los Angeles Times offering these as his generous caveats to the Brits-are-better verdict. In noting that Macbeth's Lady is played by a Brit, Ann-Marie Duff, he qualifies:
Duff's presence in the cast demonstrates how precarious it is to nationalize these differences. The English-born Rylance, though he trained at RADA, grew up in the States, and of course there are plenty of Americans (Kevin KlineAndre BraugherDiane Venora, Liev Schreiber, Dakin Matthews, Michael Stuhlbarg, among them) who can mellifluously hold their own with their British counterparts.
Of those happy few, only Dakin Matthews has strutted and fretted on a West Coast stage in the Shakespeare. I know that McNulty has visited Ashland and counted himself underwhelmed (would it be churlish to note that his visit included precisely one Shakespeare play?), but if this review of three New York productions is to be taken at face value, the lead critic of the LA Times has had to travel all the way to Lincoln Center to find American actors bungling Shakespeare, while his SoCal backyard must be full of them, given that none but Matthews makes his Dream Team list. My own personal list, if anyone cares, would include the thoroughly American Dan Donohue, Derrick Lee Weeden, Anthony Heald, Robynn Rodriguez, Demetra Pittman, David Kelly, and many others I saw over the years I happily and repeatedly visited the mecca in Oregon, as well Jenna Cole, Robertson Dean, and Geoff Elliot, among others at A Noise Within. The Public's offerings in Central Park have also been quite solid, and occasionally inspired, in recent years.

In short, I've seen enough entirely and unapologetically American Shakespeare (and to lay my cards on the table, participated in it, too), and much of it on the benighted Left Coast, to be so over this Yanks-vs.-Brits debate. Perhaps a more illuminating context in which to consider why New York productions show Brits to advantage would be the commercial pressure that constrains what makes it to a stage here. Shakespeare can certainly be good box-office on his own, but moreso with Brits in the cast (witness the RSC's now-routine incursions). American productions in New York, meanwhile, are often cobbled together with celebrities at the helm and actors of widely ranging backgrounds in the supporting roles (though Jude Law's Hamlet proved, as did Ian McKellen's King Lear, that top-heavy, shakily supported productions are a more pervasive problem).

But for McNulty, as for many, what happens in New York is by definition the prevailing (if not exclusive) standard by which the American theater is judged. Breaking that default assumption is something you might hope an out-of-town critic of McNulty's acumen would be well positioned to do, but alas, this doesn't seem to be in the stars.

Dec 9, 2013

Stephen Todd

In lieu of a new Sondheim show, the airing tonight of Six by Sondheim on HBO qualifies as an event for fans. I'm gratified that the great interview clips that showed throughout the otherwise mediocre Roundabout revue Sondheim on Sondheim in 2010 have been put to the purpose for which they seemed obviously intended--I remember writing, in a notice for the Sondheim Review, that they looked like excerpts from an inevitable PBS documentary. Alas, since it's HBO, not PBS, that will be airing the doc, I won't be seeing it, at least not right away.

But it has been universally praised by folks I respect; I come not to bury Six by Sondheim but to footnote it. Since none of the six iconic songs the documentary makers have chosen to illustrate Sondheim's career/life story comes from the show that is arguably his crowning achievement, I'll take this excuse to excerpt my own interview with the man, from a 2011 issue of American Theatre. On the topic of what is apparently, and somewhat soberingly, his most personal show:

One story that intrigues me is that when you played the score of Sweeney Todd for Hal Prince's wife, Judy, she told you, "Oh my God, that's you—that's the story of your life." In the Secrest biography you say, "No one's ever asked me about that or gone deeper into that." I don't know if I should.
It's hard to say exactly what Judy meant by that. Maybe she meant it was about somebody who'd been wronged early on in life, which in a sense I was, and that creativity, me making shows, in a way there's an analogy to be made with Sweeney killing everybody. It's a form of expression, isn't it? I have to think about it. Instinctively—because very often what she says is insightful—I smell that there was a rightness about that comment. In fact, though I'd seen Christopher Bond's Sweeney at Stratford East, what I did with it was very different. By the time I got through with his play it was not the jolly romp that he meant it to be. It was more passionate and—I'm avoiding the word "dark," but certainly it was darker than he intended. He wrote that thing as a Christmas show; the legend of Sweeney Todd is as traditional over there as Puss in Boots. So, yeah—I have to think about it, but instinctively, I think her observation was correct.
Coming out of the theatre in London a few years back, I heard someone saying, "I knew it was about a guy killing people and a woman making them into meat pies, but I didn't know it was going to be so grim."
(Laughs.) Well, that describes exactly the British attitude.

Nov 19, 2013

Got Scot?

Capping this season's surfeit of Shakespeare productions is the Lincoln Center production of Macbeth, which I've taken to calling MacHawke after its star, Ethan Hawke (much as I will always think of Zeffirelli's Hamlet as Giblet and Oregon Shakes' fine production of same, from a few years back, Danlet). I've been offered a pair of tickets to give away to a Wicked Stage reader as I see fit, so here goes:

In the comments below, tell me one difference between Shakespeare's play and Holinshed's Chronicles, which was his main source for the play. You've got until Nov. 26 to enter, at which point I'll pick a winner randomly from the entrants.

In the meantime (or part of the meantime), you don't even have to enter the giveway to get discounted tickets to the show by going here, or going to the Telecharge page and using this code MACBLOG89; this last offer is good only through Nov. 21 (opening night).

Nov 14, 2013

Putting the "God" in Godot

How much does it matter how you say “Godot”? With Beckett, no detail is too small. As I’ve noted in this space before, the excellent 2000 Matrix Theatre production starring David Dukes and Gregory Itzin (alternating in the role of Vladimir) is the one from which I learned that Beckett intended all the show’s names to be trochees: DI-di, GO-go, POT-zo, LUCK-y, and, at the crown, GOD-oh. Ever since, the comic whine of the line, “We’re waiting for Godot” has the right bounce for me only when it’s WAIT-ing for GOD-ot (that’s definitely the delivery that sticks with me from Bill Irwin’s great, exasperated turn in the fine 2009 Broadway production).

Still, this Marx Bros.-style pronunciation doesn’t sit well in many American ears, because for some reason we read the word as if it were analogous to “Bordeaux,” so we tend to say, “guh-DOH,” or really, the Homer Simpson-esque “g’DOH.” There’s enough confusion on this point that it regularly inspires Times features on the subject--this from the 2009 revival, in which director Anthony Page sets us straight, and now this, from Dave Itzkoff, about the current revival starring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, likewise helmed by a Brit, Sean Mathias, who insists on the correct pronunciation. Itzkoff effectively throws up his hands and says everyone’s right, concluding that since we don’t have a recording of Beckett saying the name, all bets are off, and that perhaps the answer is the so-called “French way” advocated by Georges Borchardt, the agent who reps the Beckett estate, “with equal emphasis on both syllables” (more on that in a second). But in the same paper in 1988, Mel Gussow recounted that in conversation with the author, “he pronounces [it] with the accent on the first syllable.” And on YouTube, a Beckett-directed rendition from the San Quentin drama workshop is not ambiguous about the pronunciation (it’s right here at 8:54). 

On Twitter, Gregory Mosher had this response to Itzkoff’s piece:
Well, all right, so what about this “French way”? I’ve listened as best I can to the French production below (featuring, incidentally, Roman Polanski as Lucky), and I’ll admit that it sounds a bit like they’re accenting both syllables. But there’s no question that they’re hitting the first, not eliding it, and most importantly, they’re definitely not shying from the open “o,” the “aw” vowel sound, of the first syllable, which in English sounds uncomfortably close to “god.” At bottom, this discomfort might explain our aversion to this pronunciation--what John Lahr tells Itzkoff is too obvious a reference to the Almighty. It’s a devilish linguistic puzzle, really, that runs to the heart of the play’s conception; Beckett wrote it in French, in which language the deity is of course “dieu,” but he attached the masculine diminutive “ot” (a la “Franchot,” which, come to think of it, is pronounced FRAN-show) not to “dieu” but to “god.” So there is understandably an issue when the play is done in English, in which “god” is an actual word, and a non-trivial one. A little indirection might seem appropriate, no?

Still, whether you stress the first syllable or stress both, it seems clear--as noted from the Beckett-directed video above--that the playwright wanted the sound of “god” to be heard in the word, both in French and in English (yes, even despite the huge difference in meaning!), and that to say “guh-DOH,” to make the vowel sound an “uh” rather than an “ah,” is wrong.

A tempest in a tea-po, you say? Not really. As Greg Itzin told my Backstage colleague, Scott Proudfit, at the time, “Beckett was also a poet, and the starting point with all good literature is the words. The rhythm tells you something; the rhythm delivers something to the audience and to you." Lest that sound high-faluting, perhaps the best case for the trochee is illustrated by this excerpt, from the English script, in which the riffs on Pozzo’s name, and its confusion with Godot, make more comic sense if all the names have the same accents:

POZZO: Be careful! He's wicked. (Vladimir and Estragon turn towards Pozzo.) With strangers.

ESTRAGON: (undertone). Is that him?


ESTRAGON: (trying to remember the name). Er . . .



POZZO: I present myself: Pozzo.

VLADIMIR: (to Estragon). Not at all!

ESTRAGON: He said Godot.

VLADIMIR: Not at all!

ESTRAGON: (timidly, to Pozzo). You're not Mr. Godot, Sir?

POZZO: (terrifying voice). I am Pozzo! (Silence.) Pozzo! (Silence.) Does that name mean nothing to you? (Silence.) I say does that name mean nothing to you?

Vladimir and Estragon look at each other questioningly.

ESTRAGON: (pretending to search). Bozzo . . . Bozzo...

VLADIMIR: (ditto). Pozzo...Pozzo…


ESTRAGON: Ah! Pozzo...let me see...Pozzo...

VLADIMIR: Is it Pozzo or Bozzo?

ESTRAGON:'m afraid don't seem to…Pozzo advances threateningly.

VLADIMIR: (conciliating). I once knew a family called Gozzo. The mother had the clap.

This exchange is worth hearing in the original French, below (starts at around 17:35):
Update: Some comments from a Facebook posting of the above:

David Barbour Although, in the biography I'm reading, Beckett is quoted as saying the opposite, because he was afraid that the stress on the first syllable would make people think he was referring to God. I have a feeling he changed his mind on this more than once.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Interesting. (What bio is that?) Yeah, the meaning is obviously hugely different between French and English, so the equivocation is understandable. But it's not as if he didn't have a chance to correct it in the productions he actually directed, which all said GOD-oh, as far as I can find. I was most interested to discover, though, that our imagined perception that "g-DOH" sounds somehow "more French" is obviously wrong, because even the French say it "GOD-oh" (or, if you insist, GOD-OH, which really doesn't make any rhythmic sense).
David Barbour It's Damned to Fame, by James Knowlson, which is the authorized bio. I think he says that Beckett pronounced it equal stress on the syllables. In the book, Beckett emerges as both exacting and rather passive-aggressive. For example, he always insisted that All That Fall shouldn't be staged in a theatre. Then he would go ahead an authorize productions. Then he announced that they didn't work. He did the same thing with a BBC broadcast of Godot.....

Nov 13, 2013

Filtered Water

I've got a piece in the new BAMBill, also online, about Filter Theatre's new environmentalist drama Water, which I saw on video in advance of writing. An excerpt:
A transatlantic mystery with climate change as a thematic backdrop, Water has characters staring into laptops, moving hurriedly through desolate airports, speaking through disembodied microphones, or, if they’re feeling particularly forward, addressing us directly with a slide presentation on the molecular structure of H2O. The world around may be warming, but the world of Water feels distinctly chilly.
“This piece’s preoccupation is the fluidity and loneliness of our modern lives,” says director David Farr, an associate director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, who worked with Filter to devise the piece. “And the show’s strangely minimal, stripped quality accentuates this melancholic solitude."
RTWT here

Nov 1, 2013

The Book of Bobby

The Book of Mormon has now been a Broadway hit for two and a half years, and it's now making its second trip to Denver--about as close to "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" as this irreverent if less than scalding take on the LDS faith may get in our lifetime. I had occasion to interview Bobby Lopez, the less-famous partner in the BoM creative triumvirate (who incidentally has another long-running hit musical in New York), for the show's return to Denver. He proved quite circumspect about his role in the show's creation, and when pushed, about its real attitude toward religion, which as I noted in my review, seems to be that religious faith is "magical thinking that somehow (magically?) makes us kinder to each other." Lopez, recalling his fateful meeting with South Park savants Matt Stone and Trey Parker:
We discovered that we all had the same feelings about religion and God--that God doesn't exist and yet somehow he does...And that even though the stories are made up, the leap of faith that people make makes them better people.
Lopez's disillusionment with the Catholic faith he grew up came less from the familiar narrative of sexual awakening or atheist reasoning than from a close exposure to its rituals:
In college I sang in choirs and I started to see the mechanics behind the Mass. There is quite literally a backstage, and the Mass is quite literally stagecraft. Where I went they had incense, and there was an organ that had something called a zimbalstern--a wheel that tinkles when you push the key and makes it feel like there are angels in the church. There are stories, there's a throughline, there's a snack. It's everything that theater does; it's basically a proto-musical.
That last bit is the key to Lopez's turnaround: He may see "through" the stagecraft of religion, but he now puts whatever faith he has in that stagecraft itself: 
Any kind of literature, any kind of art that tells a story is a form of religious experience--it's a consciousness-changing endeavor. It transmits spirit through it. In musical theater, we're lifting people up, giving them stories and arming them for experiences they encounter in life.
Yes, that, as well as making jokes about famine and baby-raping. RTWT here (PDF).

Oct 30, 2013

Making Good

There are no Playbills on offer at the Public's current production of The Good Person of Szechwan, a remount of the Foundry Theatre's beautiful, pitch-perfect queering/contemporizing of Brecht's great fable, which I'd say, based on limited authority (I haven't seen every show onstage in NYC), must be among the best things currently onstage in NYC (Fun Home, just across the lobby, ain't chopped liver, either). Instead, the program you're handed at the end of Good Person is a specially printed one. That must have been expensive, you may be thinking; and you can learn in the very same program that in fact "Programs & Front of House Displays" set the remount back $6,300.

You can learn that because, as they did for the original LaMaMa production in February, the Foundry has printed their budget, in the interests of transparency, and something to do with Brecht's characteristically opaque quote about the truth being "concrete." Above, at left, the LaMaMa budget ($203,815), and at right, the Public numbers ($476,861). That looks like a big markup for a show to move a few blocks over, but what's not immediately clear is that the original production ran for 25 performances, by my count, and the new one runs 57. That means that while you can duly note the big jump in, say, production/technical costs between LaMaMa and the Public, the new Good Person is a (relative) steal at these prices, given the show's large cast and band. It's true that lot of uncountable development costs were absorbed by the original production, of course, since the show didn't have to be recreated from scratch for the move; that surely saved the Public some dough (and maybe now they'll do more imports/coproductions with Off-Off shows that deserve a longer life).

Now, if we could just see the receipts...

Oct 2, 2013

Cromer's Town

Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
I confess I haven't followed David Cromer's busy New York directing career as closely as I could or should have; but how could I? He's been as busy as Sam Gold, it seems, since he brought that amazing Our Town to town a few years ago (actually I'd count his winning streak from the import of The Adding Machine the previous year, in which show I was lucky enough to catch the subbing Nick Offerman; Cromer's New York directing debut, I was recently reminded, was actually Orson's Shadow in 2005, starring fellow Chicagoan Tracy Letts).

Now he's returning to Chicago to act in the Timeline Theatre's revival of The Normal Heart, in the role of Ned Weeks--a role that apparently lends itself well to director/actors, as Joe Mantello returned to performing after a long hiatus for the play's 2011 revival. (Interestingly enough, there's another synchronistic connection with another iconic AIDS play: Cromer played Louis Ironson in an acclaimed Chicago storefront production of Angels in America back in '98--the role Mantello originated in L.A. and on Broadway.)

This was a fine excuse to sit with Cromer and chat for Chicago magazine. A sample:
Northlight’s 1986 production of [Normal Heart], directed by Eric Simonson, transfixed Cromer (“It’s one of the only times I’ve leapt to my feet at the end of a show,” he says) and not least because he was coming of age himself during the plague years. The formative fears of that time can still surface: Cromer says that while getting tested for HIV some years ago, he started to “wig out” until a clinic counselor close to his own age put things in perspective. “He said, ‘It’s our generation; we’re just scared, and we’ll never not be scared.’ The monster can’t be defanged for us."
RTWT here. 

Sep 27, 2013

Baitz on Film

More than a dozen years ago, when L.A. native Jon Robin Baitz belatedly premiered his L.A.-set play Mizlansky/Zilinsky at the Geffen Playhouse, I had the chance to sit down with him and chat about his career, which for all its New York pedigree and well-made-play reputation, began in part under the fold of the avant-garde Padua Hills gang (Baitz reconnected with this formative influence in this 2012 interview with John Steppling).

We've stayed lightly in touch since, but I didn't have the opportunity for another meaty conversation with him until last year, when Other Desert Cities--another California-set play, among an ouevre not generally set on that coast--was finally bowing at the Mark Taper Forum, a theater Baitz grew up going to, and I talked to him for the program.

Now he's getting his first major New York revival, of a play set in South Africa in 1970. The Film Society had its debut at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1987 before opening to some acclaim at the Second Stage the following year, in a production starring a young whippersnapper named Nathan Lane. The Keen Company's production, starring Euan Morton, opens next week, and it was the occasional of this lovely chat for my former employer, TDF. He spoke in part about how, though the play was inspired by some formative years he spent in South Africa at a private school while his dad was working for Carnation company, he felt he had 
"no way of talking about South Africa now. I did go back in the ’90s and went to one of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, and got a ride back to Johannesburg from Pretoria with Athol Fugard, whom I knew a little bit. There was slightly a menacing vibe, and a few burning cars and tires here and there.” A sense of menace is chief among the things he remembers from his younger years there: “There was a dominant terror of black people, which was just under the surface of the daily discourse there. ‘When is the revolt going to happen?’ ‘Do you have your guns ready?’ It was nothing if not weird."
RTWT here.

Sep 26, 2013

Watch This Space

Early in my New York freelance career, I wrote about the opening of a new multimedia arts space not far from Ground Zero. It was almost exactly seven years ago, in early September, 2006, and 3-Legged Dog had just moved into its new space on Greenwich Street, the 3LD Art & Technology Center. Since then it's weathered any number of crises and not only survived but thrived. So it was a pleasure to revisit the space as it embarks on an ambitious new season, also for the Times. Don't miss the stunning slideshow.

Sep 19, 2013

Is It Worth the Waiting For?

My formative-album-replay project continues apace over at my Train My Ear blog, and I feel I'd be remiss if I didn't mention here that today's is a cast album, Oliver! (the original London recording with Georgia Brown--accept no substitutes). I haven't done a lot of those since I started the project last winter--I'm trying to spread the love to all the genres and subgenres that have shaped my tastes--but the few show records I have revisited (Fiddler, Pacific Overtures, Threepenny) have made me hear anew how much the music leads the theater. This should be obvious, I guess, but it seems it's not always remembered by the people who actually make musical theater--one reason, I suspect, that I don't have more cast albums on my preferred playlist.

Sep 10, 2013

Today in Wicked Stage history

I'm in Arizona helping my dad prepare for a big move, so I'm kind of out of the loop. I offer in lieu of original blogging, a look back to a post from five years ago today in which I proposed a "songbook shuffle" game for polymathic pop-music lovers (this was before kids scrambled my brain). The premise was simple:
 What if I made a mix that was a daisy chain of songwriters covering each other's work? There would be two rules:
1. No song can be performed by its writer.2. Each song must be written by the singer of the previous song (except, necessarily, for the opening track).
I came up with some fun results (and a really long one in the comments section). And just for today, I've concocted a brief one, fresh off the mind-press:

1. "All the Things You Are," played by Charles Mingus...
2. "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," sung by Joni Mitchell...
3. "Big Yellow Taxi," sung by Bob Dylan...
4. "Dark Eyes," sung by the Dirty Projectors...
5. "Stillness Is the Move," sung by Solange Knowles

Do try this at home!

Sep 3, 2013

Blonde Faith

I realized recently that one could mark the years of my young life by actress crushes: Amy Irving and Ingrid Bergman in high school, Holly Hunter and Audrey Hepburn in college, and some indeterminate years later, the only outright blonde who would make the list, the marvelous Carole Lombard. I've more or less dropped the straight-up idolization habit, in part as my film consumption has flatlined and in part as I began to have relationships with actual ladies, and I haven't missed it much. But I'm glad that last crush led me to the great, bold Lubitsch comedy, To Be or Not To Be, in which Lombard made her greatest statement on film (and tragically last, as she died in a plane crash before its release), and grateful that Backstage editor Mark Peikert asked me to write about it for their Standing Ovation column. An excerpt:
There are other Lombard performances worth a look: her definitive ditz in “My Man Godfrey”; her entirely convincing dramatic work in “Hands Across the Table”; even her sassy bride in “No Man of Her Own.” But only in “To Be or Not to Be” was she given the fullest measure of that greatest acting opportunity: the chance to show restraint, to underplay, to load subtext under a glittering surface. And what a surface: Swathed in an hourglass wrap by Irene, or with her hair laced with flowers to play Ophelia, Lombard never looked more radiantly glamorous, with the borrowed high-status grandiloquence of the classical actor. But when the dire circumstances of the plot conspire to reduce her to the actor’s more typical status of Gypsy or whore—a word Siletsky pointedly almost utters about her—the brilliant facade drops to show a still more brilliant core of resolute integrity.
 One footnote about something I noticed on this viewing: If she's playing Ophelia, then it's in a dramatically reorganized production of Hamlet, given that she entertains Robert Stack's flyboy during her husband's "To be or not to be" speech, then receives her husband in her dressing room, post-speech. But what's a nunnery speech among farceurs?

RTWT here.

Aug 29, 2013

A Dubious Anniversary

Ten years ago today was my last as editor-in-chief of Back Stage West, the weekly actors' trade paper I joined 10 years previously (on Sept. 14, 1993). I just marked this anniversary by filling out an invoice for an upcoming short piece that will appear next week (I think) in the new national Backstage (it's an encomium to one of my favorite film performances). It will be my first proper byline in my old stomping grounds since, well, 2003 (I was asked to contribute a brief recollection on Back Stage's 50th anniversary here).

I don't know what to say, except: It's been a long time. Life is short. I take it all back.

Aug 26, 2013

Mourner Has Broken

“The old officeholders, the filthy herd of swine whom we vaguely knew and would even vaguely nod to at cocktail parties, were quietly replaced by a new herd of swine whom we didn’t know--the new generation, who dressed in new colors--those chalky colors, yellow and pink and various greens--and lived in new neighborhoods, and even ate in new restaurants with new styles of cooking.”
In the Public Theater production of The Designated Mourner that closed yesterday, that line in the first act is followed by the far-off buzz of a helicopter, presumably carrying shipments of strange new foodstuffs and/or hunting down the holdouts who still enjoy their haute cuisine. And it was that risible conflation of petty intergenerational animus with the advance of the jackboots, of fashion with fascism, that pretty much gave the game away for me. It’s not that I found nothing to admire this time in a play which, based on its 1997 film version, I once esteemed (and had since perhaps over-idealized). And it’s not that I don’t understand what my far more admiring colleagues glean from this Wallace Shawn monologue-with-extras; I’ve enjoyed reading some back-and-forth about it and have learned from these different points of view, sincerely.

It’s just that in this production, which I confess I struggled mightily to enjoy, I feel like I saw right through the play: its audience-baiting mix of contempt and conviviality; its insistently but seldom convincingly nihilist view of the persistence of the self; the thinly conceived, sci-fi-ish end-of-civilization premise, which once seemed vaguely futuristic and smartly non-specific but now seems just awkward, anachronistic, not-quite-allegorical, neither fish nor fowl; and above all its flimsily veiled reactionary snobbery, which Shawn sneaks by in the guise of his central narrator’s unreliability and ambivalence. Oh, sure, we’re not supposed to take Jack’s demarcation of highbrow and lowbrow, or his bitter envy of one and guiltily un-guilty enjoyment of the other, at face value, because he’s a miserable, untrustworthy prick. And I guess we’re supposed to be appalled by his insufferable aesthete father-in-law’s sympathetic appellation for the poor as “dirt eaters.” (A digression: Because Shawn has played a definitive Vanya, I couldn’t help thinking of his Jack as an homage to that character’s belated midlife crisis, and of Howard, the above-it-all professor, as a kind of Serebyrakov and daughter Judy as an overshadowed-helpmate Sonya figure.)

But the horror of the great, illiterate unwashed, and in particular of their presence within our midst and even in our own selves, feels like the palpable grist of Mourner, whose title refers to a ritual Jack performs to mark the end of Western civilization, more with relief than in grief. It seems to me that a certain liberal/illiberal defensiveness about First World creature comforts and cultural privilege, along with the attendant obliviousness to both the world’s suffering and to deeper levels of meaning, has been a rich subject and stance of much of Shawn’s work, from My Dinner With Andre to The Fever, and that part of what makes these so strong is that as a performer he powerfully embodies those contradictions, with his mole-like physiognomy and his doddering charm masking a sputtering rage (or is it vice versa?), and his barely-offstage upper-class intellectual pedigree.

The Designated Mourner feels to me like an attempt to do something more than another self-flagellating Shawn-ologue--to have us see Jack, his own default id and stand-in, more coldly than ever, as if from outside. Hence the introduction of other voices, though not quite other characters, into what is essentially still a monologue; hence the literal coming-true of the long-dreaded stripping-away of civilization's veneer; hence his own character’s defiant pushback against our identification with him, even at his most vulnerable or joyous. And while I admire the attempt to construct another monologue, and to perform its contradictions with his own unique voice and body, I felt, in this production at least, those ambitions falter. This Mourner was strongest, if not strong enough, when Shawn had the mic; the rest of Andre Gregory’s odd quasi-environmental production only seemed to distract from whatever rapport his actor/playwright established with us, and not in a productively unsettling way, just an unsettled way.

It’s possible that I may change my mind again about Mourner--that a new production coming up in L.A., for instance, with Paul Mackley as Jack (I saw Paul do The Fever effectively many years ago), might give the play a fresh life (in fact, it's tantalizing to imagine the play with a different cast; like, how about Kevin Spacey as Jack?). And I should revisit the movie soon to see how Mike Nichols made this work better; I recall him as both a more roguishly charming and a more disturbing Jack. But I’m afraid, honestly afraid, that I may never recover what I once felt for the play. Indeed, it might be some kind of backhanded tribute to it that I feel I identify with Jack in this sense: I, too, I am mourning something to which I once ascribed more value. And like him, I’m ambivalent about it--I somewhat fear what it may say about me, but there it is.

Jul 30, 2013

The Turntable Cranks Up Again

I've slowly but surely restarted my formative-album replay project over at my other blog, Train My Ear, and though many of the records aren't theater-related, today's is a beloved collection of Brecht and Weill songs in French:
It's not an exaggeration to say that hearing these gutsy, iconic German classics in the language and chanson idiom of Brel and Piaf and Gainsbourg is a revelation--it even sounds a bit like a homecoming. Franck Aussman's orchestra, clearly taking a cue from the Lewis Ruth Band arrangements, plays this catalogue in a way that's both loose and jaunty, almost casual, but also spikier, more syncopated than we're used to hearing it; the banjo and rickety saloon piano feel like part of the percussion section, and the percussion in turn feels like a crucial partner in the accompaniment. The vocals, mostly handled by the unflappable contralto Catherine Sauvage, have that distinctly Gallic sigh, edging easily into a sneer, that locates passion and resignation, the embrace and the shrug, closer together on the dynamic/dramatic spectrum than we Americans (and most definitely than the Germans) do. And the Francophone setting implicitly places Weill's signature harmonic language within an early-mid-century Continental context, alongside Milhaud and Satie (or his teacher Busoni) as much as Hindemith or Eisler.
I'll return to theater blogging proper soonish. For now--maybe this is a summer thing--the record collection beckons.

Jul 20, 2013

The Critic Sleeps Tonight

As I write this, my four-year-old son is at a matinee of The Lion King with my wife. (Ah, seems like only yesterday he was going to toddler theatre...) They've never seen it; I saw it twice at the Pantages in Los Angeles, and my review in 2000 was decidedly mixed:
They say you can't argue with success, but here goes. Disney's Tony-winning stage adaptation of its hit animated film The Lion King, now onstage in Hollywood's newly sumptuous Pantages Theatre, is really two shows for the price of one: The first is a captivating, haunting, endlessly inventive visual and aural feast, with South African choral-and-drum music by Lebo M, sinuous choreography by Garth Fagan, almost edibly gorgeous lighting by Donald Holder, and the ingenious puppetry of Michael Curry. As shaped by director Julie Taymor, this first show is indeed as groundbreaking and replete with theatrical wonders as the hype has promised. The second show, which shares the stage uncomfortably with the first, is a tacky rehash of the animated film, complete with Elton John and Tim Rice's unprepossessing songs, and Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi's flat characterizations and vapid dialogue; blame for the clunky lyrics to the new music is spread among five writers. While much of the design ingenuity of the aforementioned masters is also evident in this other show, its key elements--book, lyrics, and music--range from mildly diverting to appalling.
So why did we just spend full price for two house seats, using some birthday money from my dad to help cover just one of the tickets? (Face value these days is--gulp!--$170, which I'm ashamed to say was a rude shock to me.) It's not like there aren't other, and much cheaper family entertainment options in New York. But as much as I like to think that kids' entertainment need not be overly pandering or cloying, and that there need not be a category of film and theater and music tailored specifically to young attention spans and unformed tastes--there is, and it's huge, and much of it that's available to us, from Pixar to New Victory to Music Together, is at a pretty high level (though Blue Man Group, which we took our oldest son to a month ago, was a bit too much for his tender age). So I'm willing to draw lines, and admit that while there is plenty of un-nourishing crap out there that it's best to steer my kids away from, there's also a lot of solid, well-made entertainment I don't personally care for that isn't going to rot their brains.

It's the reason I don't mind too much when my wife shows our sons The Sound of Music, a film whose charms I'm largely allergic to; I'd prefer a regular rotation of Singin' in the Rain, or if it must be a Julie Andrews film, Mary Poppins, but a little "Do Re Mi" isn't going to kill them.

Likewise, I guess, "Hakuna Matata."

Jul 18, 2013

Two Characters

Most good actors, in my experience, manage a delicate balancing act between being vulnerable, emotionally available, with feelings closer to the surface than seems altogether healthy on the one hand, and on the other hand being pragmatic, protective, even businesslike about their uniquely individual craft. It's genuinely hard, I think, for actors worth their salt not to take things personally, because their personnot only their body and voice and face but in some real sense their very spirit, their essenceis literally their working canvas, their toolbox, their workshop, in a way that few of the rest of us can begin to understand.

So I tend to cut actors a lot of slack for behavior that may seem to others narcissistic, paranoid, oddly out of tune with social cues, or downright standoffish or arrogant. I can report that my recent lunch at Joe Allen's with Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif, who star in the current Off-Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' nearly impenetrable The Two-Character Play, did not disappoint in the oddness department. Plummer, for one, was dressed in a biker's cap and a mismatched, pajama-like combo of long striped coat, plaid top, and striped pants; at one point she asked me to repeat a line from the play back to her just to hear me say it; at another point she got up and walked around the lunch table and delivered a somewhat inscrutable monologue about the impact of the Carol Reed film Odd Man Out on her life (some of the monologue, at least, made it into my Q&A in the New York Times). And Dourif, though dressed conservatively and less prone to non-sequiturs, still manages to give off the look of a very serious and slightly scared man-childan actor one Guardian critic compared, I think aptly, to Tony Perkins.

But if I was expecting them to be defensive or strange or mistrustfuland I'll confess it may have crossed my mind that things might get weirdI was proven wrong. These two seasoned eccentrics were gracious and expansive to a fault. And they gave me lots of gems I couldn't fit into my Times piece, which I'm happy to share here.
  • Sanford Meisner forbade Dourif from appearing in Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore, though Dourif was a Circle Rep founding member. (Dourif also happened to note that Hot L was clearly structured as a kind of symphony without music; hmmm, where have I heard that before?)
  • That Amanda Plummer infamously dropped out of the Off-Broadway premiere of Bug because she and director Dexter Bullard couldn't stand each other: "I adore Tracy Letts, and I wanted to do that play like crazy. On the record, the director didn't get along with me, and I not with him. And it was really evident."
  • Dourif ruthlessly treats acting as a business, and is often the one telling his agent to take the higher-paying gig over the prestige role. It's one reason he almost turned down a brilliant role on Deadwood: "The original offer was awful, and I wasn't going to do it. My girlfriend got on the phone and called up the agent and said, 'I've been praying for this for him, don't fuck this up. You go and make this work.' He called [David] Milch and they straightened everything out. HBO doesn't pay a whole lot, but it got really doable. And I was really happy I did." Yeah, so are we.
  • Plummer participated in a workshop of Waiting for Godot with Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave at the Ulysses Theatre in Croatia in 2004; of course, the Beckett estate's notorious ban on gender-bent productions prevented it from reaching a paying audience. Oh, and who did Plummer play? Lucky, natch.
And lucky is what I count myself sometimes to bear witness to the lively arts and their wildest and woolliest practitioners.

Jul 17, 2013

Should Plays Be Artist-Proof?

Brad Fleischer and Arian Moayed in Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo (photo by Craig Schwartz)
In the current issue of American Theatre, I've got an interview with playwright Rajiv Joseph (Gruesome Playground Injuries, The North Pool), and while talking about his Broadway play Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, he made an interesting confession. He mentioned that one reason Robin Williams was happy to sign on to play the role of the tiger on Broadway is because "the plight of the veterans is a cause that is very dear to him, so he had an investment in the material." And that led to this exchange:

That’s interesting, because the American soldier characters don’t come off that well in the play.
JOSEPH: You know, one of the problems with starting this off with a great director like Moisés [Kaufman] and the great actors I had is that I often don't see some of the weaker parts of the text. And I've seen productions of it since then where the character of Kev [one of the American soldiers] just comes off as cartoonish, and I wish I had written it differently. I see it now but I never saw it before, because Brad Fleischer is a great actor and Moisés is a great director, and they never played it for that cartoonish quality. But what can you do? It's done and gone.

In a recent conversation with Book of Mormon co-author Bobby Lopez, he voiced a similar concern about the way its Ugandan characters' immiseration has been portrayed since the show opened--that while the humanitarian crisis in which the missionaries find themselves was meant mainly to provide hard-edged contrast for the show's comedy, it wasn't meant to be a source of comedy in itself. Lopez admitted that he's seen post-opening casts go for the laughs wherever they can find them.

It raised an issue that came up when I was writing about Annie Baker's Vanya at Soho Rep. She told me she'd seen productions of her own work that made a hash of it (though she wouldn't go on the record to say which ones), and the question of interpretation is ever-present with Chekhov plays, which arguably stand or fall on how well they're done (Sandy Meisner famously discouraged young actors from even attempting Chekhov).

So my question is: Is Rajiv being too hard on himself here? Does a good or great play need to be director- and actor-proof, or is one mark of a great work that it only shines in the finest and subtlest of renderings? I can see a good case to be made on either side here, though with a living form like theater, which truly exists only in the present tense, interpretation is all. Films and recorded performances aside, we can only see Shakespeare done the way artists are doing him now (one reason this bloke says he's done). I'd concede that there are relatively production-proof texts whose glories are nearly impossible to submerge even in a mediocre rendering, but that even those--maybe especially those--benefit from fresh, insightful new stagings that make seemingly familiar and indestructible works seem strange, vital, inexhaustible (last year's cobweb-clearing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? comes to mind). But there are just as many if not more great plays that defy a straightforward, common-sense approach, and that frankly wither without vigorous interpretive engagement (Brecht's, for one).

I can't say yet whether Bengal Tiger and Book of Mormon, both shows I admire enormously, belong in either class of deathless, revivable work, though I can say that I will almost certain have the chance to see them again in new stagings in my lifetime. But, particularly in an age of collaboratively made theater, it's worth wondering about the usefulness of the "artist-proof" measuring stick.