Friday, May 20, 2016

Backstage in Biscuit Land: Welcoming All

Courtesy of Touretteshero
"Hands on buzzards."
"Biscuit wave."
"Pony cunts."

Suddenly, Jess Thom looks sheepish. That last phrase was unplanned.

Language is slippery and in Backstage In Biscuit Land we are led by a loose tongue. Well, that's not quite accurate. Our guide is neurological because the artist behind the show has Tourette's Syndrome. With physical and verbal tics, Jess Thom cannot always control what she says and how she moves. The result: she says biscuit, hedgehog, and cats a lot. But she is also a creative font of phrases, words, and juxtapositions that make you laugh and think.

The show is unrestrained and lively. Devised and performed by Jess Thom and Jess Mabel Jones, Jess Thom is the host with her trusty sidekick Chopin (Jess Mabel Jones). It has the high-kick energy of a kids morning show and the wacky props to go along with that (all the items on stage were generated by Jess's tics at one point in time or another--a loaf of Steve, a dinosaur balloon, ducks in costumes, an anvil with the word "Dinner" written on it).  They sing slightly dirty songs, play fake game shows, encourage the audience to do the "biscuit wave" and embrace a sense of play.  Ultimately, Backstage in Biscuit Land is an unusual personal monologue that drifts into almost non-stop improv as Jess's verbal tics provide frequent misdirection.

She may be trying to tell you serious and important things when her tics insert their mischief. Yet, they don't derail the storytelling or the evening. That's the point. She embraces these asides and she harnesses them to make this a story about life with Tourette's but also about what happens when we try to isolate and segregate the unexpected from the planned.  Her going off script creates joy, laughter, and pleasure. Why don't we allow our theater spaces the same kind of flexible attitude?

Her message of inclusivity springs from a painful episode Thom experienced at the theater in 2011 where she was asked at intermission if she wouldn't mind moving to the sound booth at a show because other patrons were threatening to leave because of her tics.

At this point in the show, when she tells us this uncomfortable story, she has already charmed us with her word play. She's created genuine warmth with Chopin in their goofy, vaudeville doubles-act.  Then she hits us with a tale of segregation and isolation.  She lightens the mood immediately after but the work has been done. She's gotten under our skin. We must confront the question of who's experience we are giving primacy to in theater spaces.

Thom is an advocate for the "relaxed performance" which means the rules of theater etiquette are loosened.  She lives and demonstrates what a relaxed atmosphere can create. In the audience at her show last night, a baby cooed, people ticced, and there were bursts of robust laughter (and no audience policing or tsking that followed). In relaxed performance, audiences members are permitted to get up and move around.  Everyone is welcome (and as I spoke to Thom about a few months ago, the "relaxed" label allows anyone to fit under its umbrella).  No one is self-conscious about the things that "uptight" performances tend to frown upon.

In a time where there seems to be a relentless effort to get audiences to conform to some unwritten rulebook of what is "proper," Thom gives everyone a space to make the evening their own and no one misses the strict rules for a moment (and you get a cookie!).  For Thom, this flexibility is a necessity, but she makes us think about all the people we are excluding when we do not also make this a priority for all. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Ironbound: Rationing Love

Marin Ireland & Morgan Spector. Photo by Sandra Coudert
Martyna Majok's new play Ironbound slyly lures you in with a well-set snare.  She gets you comfortable watching a couple fight.  The dialogue is funny.  The performances are keen.  Maybe we think we know who these people are.  But what Ironbound remarkably does is unwind one character, Darja, and let us see how she this bruised and defensive woman was made by her life experiences.  Nothing is as simple, straight-forward, or obvious as you think. 

Darja (Marin Ireland) has come from Poland because her husband Maks (Joseph Bania) dreamed of this journey. But somehow two husbands later she finds herself not far from where she began, under an overpass waiting at a bus stop fighting with her boyfriend.  She lives with Tommy (Morgan Spector), a postal worker, and frets over her son Alex who has taken off with her car. She and Tommy have a blow out and it's hard to know where she will land.

The structure of the play with flashbacks gives us insight to how the events of her life have added up to what we see before us. We agonizingly watch her learn her emotional limits and erect the boundaries that she makes for herself.  We also get a glimmer as to why.  There are things she will never say and there are parts of her we cannot know.  But we see how much of Darja's tough facade is built before our eyes.

Marin Ireland, as Darja, gives us all shades of this character's toughness and resolve. We watch the layers of hurt, betrayal, pain, disappointment, abandonment, abuse, work, and work and work add up.  We see her claw her way to America from Poland.  We see her life improve and we see backsliding.  But she has no choice but to press on.  We watch how she survives--because ultimately this is a story of that messy, frustrating, constant battle to just keep living. Yet in that fight, surprisingly, she never stops loving.  However, she rations her love. She keeps it on a shelf, protected from casual jostling.  She takes it out and only looks at it sparingly. 

Majok creates a character who is somehow direct and full of subterfuge. She is desperate and protective of her weaknesses. She is full of contradictions that all add up to sense.  Because of this she cannot help but remind you of people you know--tough people who live between worlds, those who struggle to make ends meet, or those who have always left you a bit puzzled when you meet them because they are here and yet somewhere else at the same time.

The strength of the character is made even more glorious in performance.  Ireland is skittish fury. Her anger has nuanced inflections. It rises and falls with her triumphs and defeats, and her triumphs that are defeats. For all that is revealed in Majok's script, Ireland manages to hold back as well.  She gives Darja an underbelly of the unspoken.  She holds it all in her body.  In one moment, with her back to the audience, she kicks at rocks on the ground.  She says nothing in that moment but the way she holds her body, shielding it from our gaze, and turning inward, it speaks to us.

Morgan Spector is an equal foil.  He walks the line as the schlub who's not perfect but who wants to be better.  He could have easily strayed into overblown caricature but he finds this man's sad reality and plays this not-delicate character with detailed care. 

For the most part the play is a carefully constructed portrait of these characters.  One character who is quite peripheral ends up as more of a catalyst for conversation than a fully-drawn person.  Some of the writing and performance surrounding him are done in quick, broad strokes.  It's not fatal to the play because so much of the rest of the piece is handled with tremendous nuance and care.  But that's why it stands out a bit as not quite as strong as the rest.

Nevertheless, Daniella Topol's direction keeps this material vibrant and grounded--we're in a real place, with real people, and even using flashbacks we do not lose our sense of the corporeal.

The show runs through April 24th at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.  
I attended on a complimentary ticket.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Rey: I Needed Her

I didn't know how much I needed Rey until I met her.  
Image: Lucasfilm 
I'm one of those children of the Return of the Jedi generation--in the sweet-spot of Kenner marketing for Star Wars toys but a little too young to have seen Star Wars or Empire Strikes Back in the theater. But by the time Return of the Jedi came out my little brother and I were primed for it.  It was the first and only time we would see a movie at the one screen movie theater in our hometown.  They tore down the theater two years later.

Star Wars was so woven into the fabric of our childhoods.  My first crush was Han Solo, natch.  And from a Harrison Ford obsession I found myself cutting clippings out of movie magazines, learning about filmmaking, and finally becoming a student filmmaker myself.  
In my later life, I even helped launch the Star Wars Fan Film Awards at AtomFilms.  I visited Skywalker Ranch and saw the original lightsaber.  And if I did nothing else in my film career that was a really good day.

But like many childhood things, you put them away.  In a wave of nostalgia (selling the last of our original Star Wars toys at a family yard sale a few months ago as my mother was moving out of our childhood home) The Force Awakens came at a propitious time for me.  I was curious about where this story might go and I dragged my brother out to see it on Christmas at the multiplex at the nearby mall.  But it turned out I did not need the relic of my past as much as I thought I did. What I wanted was a new future, brimming with hope and for me that is what The Force Awakens has provided. 

SPOILER BASED DISCUSSION OF THE FORCE AWAKENS.  Do not read further unless you have seen the film. 


This brings me to Rey.  Having avoided all spoilers or even buzz about The Force Awakens I had no idea it had a female heroine--a protagonist who is loyal, hard-working, dedicated to her friends, and as she discovers, a damn good pilot.  Alone on her planet and waiting for her family (taken from her by force it would seem) to return to her, she lives a dull, repetitive existence with little adventure and not a lot of comfort.  Her life is defined by hostility.  Totally can relate, Rey.  I live in New York City.  It’s like that shitty desert outpost with bad housing, pig-like men who somehow control your fate, and everything costs way too much. 

But Rey manages to keep pushing forward despite this world of hers which hardly encourages her at all.  We see signs of her imagination (a Resistance fighter doll she keeps on her shelf which looks homemade, playing with a Resistance pilot's helmet), her dreams of beauty (a dying flower that she keeps in her house, her dream of the ocean, her wonder at the green), and her willingness to act to help others.  

Her journey through The Force Awakens is not only our discovery of Rey but Rey's discovery of herself.  She is an invisible girl who becomes seen.  

One could argue this is her role both in the film and for the audience.  Female representation on screen has never felt so pronounced.  At time where images of women still fall into boring and limiting roles as the girlfriend, wife, mother, or sex object, here is a woman who is none of those things.  

As Luke Skywalker's lightsaber leaps into her hands the power she possesses becomes more than just that of Jedi or warrior.  She is the chosen one, passing by Kylo Ren who thought he had all but beaten his master, earning the right to this lightsaber.  There is delectable glee in watching a mediocre white man be shown up by a remarkable woman. I mean he’s been studying and practicing his powers for years and here she arrives, learns the words “the Force,” and manages to hold her own against him in a fight.  I’d argue this is light side over dark side working rather than that Mary Sue bullshit people seemed to get all up in arms about.  But I was ready to leap from my seat as she swung that lightsaber.   

I've been an addict to chosen girls all along. Quickly finding myself on the Buffy The Vampire Slayer bandwagon back in the 90's and devouring Philip Pullman's prose when he introduced the small girl who needed to save the world in his series, His Dark Materials.  I lost a little faith in this path with Twilight and The Hunger Games--with female characters who never felt self-possessed to me (to be fair I only saw one Twilight movie and only read one Hunger Games book before giving up on those frustrating heroines).  Though I suspect the success of those series at the box office paved the way for Rey.  

And if those women spoke to you, great.  But for me I was waiting for Rey.  She takes action.  She rescues BB8 and fights to protect him.  (Is he a him?  Why gender a droid and yet here I am doing just that).  She commits to BB8’s mission at her own personal sacrifice.  She is a girl who is publicly appreciated for her quick thinking, technical know-how, and repair skills with the Millennium Falcon by an aging, older gentleman (who miraculously does not hit on her). She is celebrated openly by her peer for her piloting and flying maneuvers.  She breaks out of her captivity with the First Order on her own merit (with a little help from the “Force”).  And her “rescue” comes in the Pretty Women vein of “and I rescued him right back...”.  But at no point is she glanced over by the camera with lasciviousness.  

When Finn first sees her, maybe he sees a pretty girl in distress (malegazeapalooza) but in a moment he sees her as a woman who can fight off multiple assailants all on her own.   The joke of him taking her hand is that she does not actually need his help.  He needs hers.  It’s a moment that resonates for women dealing with a lifetime of mansplaining.  We laugh at his bone-headed assumption.  We’re not laughing at her.

She grieves with Princess Leia over the loss of someone they cared about but it's not two gals gabbing about a cute boy they both are checking out.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  But for the longest time it feels like that's all we've been given.  And I love a little Peeta-Gale love triangle as much as the next person.  But when that's ALL you get. Over and over.  And you can never see women be anything but a pawn in men's can get tired of that male gaze pretty damn fast.  

And The Force Awakens is not devoid of the male gaze.  But god damn it feels like a shift. Even an incremental one.  Until I had met Rey, I think I had given up hope that in my lifetime I would see this change take hold.  I witness sexism every day in my life.  I chafe at people proclaiming feminist intentions in work that still for me feels so entrenched in using the negative stereotypes it’s hard to see them transcend them (Ex Machina I’m looking at you).  That a major motion picture could put the story in the hands of a female character in this way, feels liberating--like a massive rainstorm after agonizing drought.

But mostly, I feel like I know Rey.  In my bones.  Her struggles are ones I recognize and relate to.  Yes, I’m Tumbling the shit out of photos of Oscar Isaac and John Boyega because they’re super-cute and their onscreen romance of sorts is delightful. But I’m crying in the movie over Rey.  When she is powerful I feel more so.  And it has been a long time since I felt that kinship.   

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Top 10 of 2015: UK/International Edition

It’s no secret I love plays.  But it certainly comes out more when you see what shows I prioritize when I travel.  I did see some musicals but I didn't like them.  This Top 10 list reflects a play heavy schedule but a play with music squeezed itself in there.  

I saw 95 shows abroad but this heavily favors what I saw in Edinburgh at the Fringe.  I missed some of the high profile shows in the UK showing up on other Top 10 lists (bad timing).  I’ve expanded my list beyond the UK this year to “International” because I saw work in Berlin and Amsterdam as well which was important to include.   

1. I Heart Catherine Pistachio (Edinburgh Fringe): I still don’t know what this was and it was absolutely the best thing I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe.  Was it performance art?  A play told through movement? Just a play? I don’t think labels matter in this instance.  Appalling, morally bankrupt, and truly grotesque (in the best possible way), this show used movement and mockery to tell a fucked-up story that felt like a very adult version of Roald Dahl.  Dark, funny, and unbelievable, it was so hard to watch yet you could not look away.  Somehow in telling a story that showed off the worst of humanity, it forced you to look at your own.  And it was very very very funny.

2. Iphigenia in Splott (Edinburgh Fringe):  Walking out of this show I kind of get a sense of what it was like to see Look Back in Anger in 1956.  Searing rage on stage that wildly stabs at society and, in particular here, at the government for how bad things have gotten in the UK today.  Using class and gender to illustrate this point and making us see our own complicity as we try to dismiss this girl in front of us who does not want our pity and does not want our compassion, and yet demands it. 

3. Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons (Edinburgh Fringe):  An idea play that transcends ideas.  It manages to be sly and obvious at the same time--not hiding its intent and yet creeping into you mind and imagination such that it will stay with you long after you see it.  Who are we if we limit speech?  Not the kind of speech but the amount.  How much of what we say makes us who we are?  And does limiting who we are change how we govern and care. That’s a lot to manage in a two-hander, student work that also takes place sometimes in a cat cemetery.  Hope this show tours to the US because I think the lessons in it are valid regardless of geography. 

4. This Will End Badly (Edinburgh Fringe):  Rob Hayes’s play may have been about men in crisis but it did not at the same time engage in female erasure so AMEN FOR THAT.*  He explores mental illness, toxic masculinity, and the struggle for three men to communicate and express themselves.  I’ve since read his other plays—Awkward Conversations with Animals I’ve Fucked and Step 9 (of 12)—and he seems to be playing with male characters who are lost and searching in different ways.  And he does so with a dark humor and love of language so that even as things get more challenging there’s a beauty to that darkness. I’m on board. (I received a complimentary ticket).

5. Medea (Gate Theatre): There was a lot of Greek theater in London this year and I missed most of it. But I’m glad Jane Howard suggested I check out this production based on an Australian adaptation of Medea. Writers Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks have concocted a clever twist on an old classic. Told from the perspective of Medea’s sons and with a contemporary setting, we get insight on developing masculinity, brothers, parenting, and marriage through the eyes of children. But their harried mother who has locked her boys in their room and who comes in looking forlorn is not just your average overworked, tired mom at the end of her rope. Her name is Medea and we know how this story ends and that's where all the drama comes from--sadly, anxiously waiting for the boys to catch up with us. It’s a gamble to put all your theater eggs in the hands of children and yet this Belvoir/Gate Theatre production managed to pull it off. They were not cloying and their sense of childish abandon quietly plays out against the tragic ending we all know is coming.

6. Women’s Hour (Edinburgh Fringe):  Feminist protest theater about the media images of women.  Sign me up.  Somewhere between performance art and a variety show, these women brought a joyful noise to a serious and tough subject.  Smart and cutting.

7. The Glass Menagerie (Toneelgroep Amsterdam): Yeah I went to Amsterdam to see Sam Gold’s production of The Glass Menagerie, a play I don’t actually like.  What of it?  You know what.  It was worth it.  Taking the histrionics down a notch and just focusing on the intimacy of a struggling family, Gold and the talented Toneelgroep ensemble made the memory play magic happen but kept the drama grounded.  No fanciful bullshit.  All hard truths.  

8. Polyphony (Edinburgh Fringe):  Daniel Kitson was back to Edinburgh with a new show which relied on pre-recorded segments.  Thankfully this time he was an active participant in the story about a man putting on a play.  Whether this was a show about Kitson battling his own creative demons or another pleading exploration of his curmudgeonly persona or fiction layered on truth in ways we’ll never know, it was both a return to form (intricately structured layered narrative) and incremental movement away from what he's done before.  He keeps pushing at the edges of storytelling and it's always in the border regions that his structural work excites.  

9. Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour (Edinburgh Fringe):  In some ways this is the most mainstream show on my list.  It is written by Billy Elliot scribe Lee Hall and at times it can feel like a ELO jukebox musical (yeah, what?), but it’s about young women, living life on their terms, full of sexual agency, in a world that really is inhospitable to them.  It’s an all-girl ensemble (and an all-female band when I saw the production) and it’s a coming-of-age story we’ve seen many times before but so rarely from an exclusively female perspective.  And they all kick-ass.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

10.  Kill My Darlings: The Streets of Berladelphia (Volksbuhne/Berlin):  I had to include this show more for my experience of it than for what happened on stage.  I can't actually tell you what the show was about.  I saw it in German without super-titles.  But I learned that seeing work outside my native language could be really liberating.  With dancers descending from the rafters on wires, a rainstorm on stage, audience members being invited to the stage to slip-and-slide in the rain puddles, and a helpless octopus I was shaken and moved by it.  

Honorable mentions: Simon Godwin again wrangling difficult material into something riveting with Man and Superman, Sebastian Nubling's literal car crash Ring Cycle epic, The Beauty of Revenge, the Berliner Ensemble's criss-cross-dressing Twelfth Night and the handsome face of Sabin Tambrea,  Jamie Lloyd putting James McAvoy on a unicycle in his underwear in The Ruling Class, Mark Rylance being Mark Rylance in Farinelli, the joyful silliness of Dracula: Mr. Swallow the Musical, the secret life of YouMeBumBumTrain, the thumping-heartbeats of The Body, the ridiculous and delightful Harlequinade, Sonia Jalaly's extreme exuberance in Happy Birthday Without You which made me laugh until I was crying, the delicate magic of This Is Not a Magic Show, the unexpected rawness of The Solid Life of Sugar Water, the smart and intrepid ensemble in 1972: The Future of Sex, the raw howls of Luke Wright and What I Learned From Johnny Bevan, Sleepwalk Ensemble's haunting Actress, the vivid teen bedroom dreams of Late Night Love, the intense discomfort of Tonight I'm Going to Be the New Me, the creative cacophony of Jess Thom's Backstage in Biscuitland.  

*For the record I’m actually really interested in someone exploring masculinity and its destructive forces on society because I really believe that feminism is about equality and that men suffer from the inequities of society.  Destigmatizing femininity, celebrating the spectrum of masculinity, and allowing men to see themselves outside the confining boxes of contemporary society is something that we’d all benefit from.  But for some reason in 2014 I saw some “boo-hoo” masculinity shows that in my estimation did not go far enough in excavating this.  Making work by men for men with no regard to women and in fact marginalizing women in the process did not, for me, do anything but engage in the kind of erasure I feel like we already experience.  

Monday, December 28, 2015

Top 10 of 2015: U.S. Edition

Another year of broken promises to myself.  An effort to see less theater this year resulted in me seeing 60 more shows over last year.  New personal record: 265 shows. Eeeek. Stop the madness, Nicole.  I also reached my lifetime 1000th show this fall.  

Due to theater calendars and Broadway transfers, I saw a number of shows last year which came back this year.  I did not include them in my 2015 Top 10 because they have previously appeared in my lists. Just so you don't think I forgot them, these shows would have appeared on my Top 10 this year if I had not seen them before:  An Octoroon, The Flick, Fun Home, King Charles III, A View from the Bridge.

Here's my Top 10 for 2015 for the US (the UK edition is pending).

1. YOUARENOWHERE (PS122/COIL): I had never attended PS122's COIL festival before. I picked this show randomly out of the catalog on the basis of a reference to "missed connections" in the description. It turned out to be a life-changing piece of theater and I instantly became a devotee of the artist who created the show, Andrew Schneider (my interview with him is here).   Nothing in theater surprises me anymore and this show managed to do so a lot—which is why it’s number one. We did a podcast about it where I broke down crying. But much of its power comes from the fact that I walked in knowing nothing about it. So I won't say anymore. Don't miss it when it comes back to New York and to London in 2016. (I received a complimentary ticket).

2. Hamilton (The Public/Broadway): Yes. Lin-Manuel Miranda's new musical is as good as everyone says it is. In fact, it might even be a bit better. This hip-hop musical about the founding fathers pushes at all the boundaries of what we know musicals to be through its casting, musical references, and visual language. It's cute how I worried that it would not find an audience on Broadway because of the hard-to-market subject matter (a rap battle about the banking system, whaaaaaaaat). It's so fricking popular I probably will never get a chance to see it again. But it benefits from multiple views (I saw it three times but I'll never be satisfied) because of the rich text and intersecting concepts. Sure the cast recording is out there and every kid, adult, and senior from New York to Tasmania is singing along with it, but it's a whole other thing to witness the work of Tommy Kail's direction, Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography, Howell Binkley's lighting design, and the performances of the incredible cast. Their voices may be captured on the cast recording but the work they are doing on stage is a lot more subtle and nuanced. It needs to be seen. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Daveed Diggs and lost my shit. And for those of us who saw Renee Elise Goldsberry kill it in IGMATATIOTR seeing her get to take a major part in a major musical is a worthwhile payoff.  Most of all, you need to see the staging of Satisfied. Theater perfection. Book now for 2017.

3. Small Mouth Sounds (Ars Nova): Bess Wohl's play performed mostly in silence by a talented cast really pushed at the idea of what a play can accomplish. Without much dialogue, we understood these fully developed characters and emotionally engaged. Director Rachel Chavkin guided these performances and the simple story perfectly. It also reminds me of why sometimes work should be seen in a small intimate setting. Some theater is best up-close and personal and this play's semi-immersive setting made you feel like you'd gone upstate to a retreat yourself. The characters made their own discoveries and so had I. (I received a complimentary ticket).

4. John (Signature Theatre):  Annie Baker writes another one of her conventional-unconventional plays. With an evocative setting and the intense focus on a romantic relationship, Baker moves in a new direction. But her ability to take something small and personal and suffuse it with sweeping meaning remains. Taking big swings at nostalgia, childhood, religion, spirituality, mental illness, and abuse, her four characters manage to meaningfully wrestle with these big ideas in ways that are unique to them. Her work makes me glad to be alive right now. And the creative team behind this show (Mimi Lien's detailed set, Bray Poor's layered sound design, Sam Gold's astute direction) only added to the strength of the show.

5. Nice Girl (Labyrinth Theatre): Melissa Ross's play about a woman who lives at home with her mother and dreams of another life was heart-breaking. As the play teased out the quiet defeats in an unspectacular life and hope in the face of disappointment, Diane Davis made every moment on stage as the drifting Josephine count. Nick Cordero and Liv Rooth completed this solid ensemble and created rich characters full of good qualities and bad. Everything about this play made me ache and feel. That’s a great night at the theater.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

6. Oklahoma! (Fisher Center/Bard):  Daniel Fish's stripped-down, immersive Oklahoma made a creeky, traditional show feel vibrant and new.  His unconventional approach to the ending turned the question of American expansion on its head and emphasized the political elements of the musical which had always been there but I’d never noticed them before.  With a cast and staging that dial-ed up the sex appeal, I can only hope this show returns for another engagement.  More people need to see this if for no other reason than to see what can be done with older material.  This makes a great case for the need for smart, innovative revivals.   

7. 10 out of 12 (Soho Rep): Anne Washburn’s play about a play in tech may not have been as epic as Mr. Burns but it again pushed at theater form in an exciting and joyful way. With a complicated soundscape (designed by Bray Poor), the audience wore headphones and the “theater” played out on stage for our eyes and off stage in our ears. Getting at the heart of collaboration and the ephemera of art, Washburn’s play and Les Waters’s production made the labor of creation anything but laborious. Wonderful performances and a unique experience.

8. Guards at the Taj (Atlantic Theater): When we started to talk about this show on the year-end podcast I got really emotional. Rajiv Joseph's play about two friends who see the world in different ways was a surprising mix of history and humanity. And yes an unexpected bit of staging may have turned a lot of heads. But the bond between the two friends is what I come back to when I think about the show--the intensity of their love for each other and the depth of anguish when they act in contravention of that relationship. Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed made it all just click. Amy Morton's staging was not too shabby either.

9. Futurity (Soho Rep/Ars Nova): I was little burned out on theater when I finally got to see Futurity (hence no review at the time) but beyond my personal mental haze I knew I was watching something special. It was strange, moving, and far from a traditional musical and yet the scale and style of the production fit the homemade feel to the show. Cesar Alvarez and Sammy Tunis improvised chats between scenes made the intense story about the Civil War, protest, and progress go down easier. Those charming moments gave balance and perspective to the darker parts of the story. And it was weird in the best possible way. With a lovely score, idiosyncratic style, and surprises galore, this musical makes me hopeful for the future of musicals.

10. Theater For One: I'm Not the Stranger You Think I Am (In a box):  5 minutes of Will Eno’s play Late Days in the Era of Good Feelings was better than most full-length shows I saw this year. This collection of one-on-one theater shorts was a fun, intimate theater experience.  But Eno's short used the format to its greatest advantage and with his usual dark humor I wanted to stay in that theater booth forever, lost in his language and imagination.  This may be someone’s idea of hell but certainly my idea of heaven.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

For the many performances, shows, productions, and moments in 2015, these are some Honorable Mentions:  Attacking class issues with heart-breaking accuracy, Stephen Karam's The Humans reminds us all of the distance between our former suburban lives and trying to carve out a New York existence, Kenneth Collins and Temporary Distortion making durational work rock and roll with My Voice Has an Echo in It,  Marcus Youssef and James Long showing how debate in theater can be smart, funny, and dynamic in Winners and Losers, Taylor Mac’s queering of history and music history in his massive song cycle A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne making vampires on stage truly frightening in Let the Right One In, John Cameron Mitchell’s second coming as Hedwig showing us all why he was our favorite in the first place, The Civilians joyous exploration of the porn industry in Pretty Filthy, Patti Murin’s delectable turn in Lady Be Good, Robert Falls smart and elegant staging of The Iceman Cometh, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig showing the ugliness of progress in The World of Extreme Happiness, Larissa FastHorse making incendiary theater with a reading of her play What Would Crazy Horse Do, Justin Guarini proving his rightful place in musical theater in Paint Your Wagon and Company, Fun Home getting even better on Broadway and making us all cry over and over again, Sufjan Stevens agonizing grief while touring his new album about the death of his mother, Richard Eyre’s fast and furious production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, the corroded glass wall in Ghosts (designed by Tim Hatley) being a great fucking metaphor and gorgeous piece of stagecraft, that moment Ken Watanabe as The King reaches for Kelli O’Hara’s Anna to dance and the temperature in the room went up several degrees, Emily Schwend’s excavation of mansplaining and female rage in The Other Thing, Donna Lynne Champlin being incredible in the difficult to swallow Bruce Norris play The Qualms, that scene, you know the one, in Cuddles, which was a whole other level of horror in a show about a vampire, Abby Rosebrock’s hilarious and sad Singles in Agriculture, some shows I can’t talk about that I saw at the O’Neill Center as works-in-progress that give me hope for the future of theater, Karen Pittman’s swagger in King Liz, Erin Markey’s wackadoo walking tour Daddy Warbucks Please Adopt Me, the remarkable Cymbeline in the Park that made sense, that one little girl with a bow on her head who was so full of verve in Public Works production of The Odyssey, Deaf West’s Spring Awakening which almost made me like a musical I really dislike and a cast of Broadway newbies who I hope get cast in more musicals, James Macdonald’s riveting production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine (even if the seating was agonizing), the Eclipsed ensemble, Paul Soileau’s naked performance lecture on creating and inhabiting his stage personas,  Chris Gethard’s Career Suicide, an honest and difficult stand-up storytelling show about suicide and depression.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Lazarus: Waiting for Lift-Off

Watching artists you love make a show that fails to achieve lift-off can be rough.  You know they have the talent and vision, but after two hours of waiting for it to appear you realize its not coming. It's the Great Pumpkin, Ivo van Hove! Sadly Lazarus is the turgid musical stage collaboration from director Ivo van Hove, playwright Enda Walsh, and musician David Bowie.  It should have been a dream-team but they never manage to make this oddball musical about an alien trapped between worlds work.  Like an incongruous series of music videos the visual and musical language of the show seems to oscillate between obtuse literalness or complete abstraction but neither generates excitement, emotional engagement, or dramaturgical meaning.

Based upon the book of The Man Who Fell to Earth (with the book of the musical written by Walsh and Bowie) Mr. Newton (Michael C. Hall) is an alien trapped on earth wishing he could return to his family in the stars. He spends his days drowning his sorrows in gin, Lucky Charms, and twinkies. He is haunted by the image of the woman he was once in love with, Mary-Lou. He's hired an assistant Elly (Cristin Milioti) who finally finds purpose in her life by serving Newton. Mr. Newton starts to see visions of a young girl (Sophia Anne Caruso) who is sent to "help" him.  But Valentine (Michael Esper), a menacing baddie, is in search of Newton for unknown nefarious reasons.

Even with this other-worldly premise the constant references to earthbound places in the lyrics grate against the story being told. As is often the case with music not written for the stage if the lyrics are not moving the story ahead, giving insight into characters, or establishing the world of the musical then one starts to wonder what are they even doing there. Here the songs unevenly conjure mood or get illustrated with on-the-nose precision. Mention a place in Berlin and see that place in the projections.

The music itself is equally unruly.  Music director, orchestrator and arranger Henry Hay attempts to take some iconic rock songs and turn them into musical theater tunes.  Bowie's famously iconoclastic work is inherently difficult to whip into a cohesive music style. Certainly some numbers on their own end up being interesting  standalone interpretations (a guttural Changes from Milioti and a quiet, gentle Heroes from Hall) but it does not eliminate the head-scratching going on in this show.  Oddly enough, van Hove's Bowie inflected Angels in America felt like a better Bowie musical than this because the music there enhanced emotion already generated by the powerful play.

Only once was there any emotional resonance in Lazarus. As the strange relationship develops between Mr. Newton and the young girl, they have a moment of connection which gives Lazarus a moment of authentic heartache.  Van Hove stages this scene using an overhead camera which zooms in on Hall who is splayed out on the floor as he has his reaction.  It essentially works as good cinema playing in close-up.

But for a "theater-y" theater director this production is incredibly flat when it comes to visuals.  Van Hove is know for his stripped down interpretations of classic plays, but he feels stylistically adrift in this new work.  There's a simple palette at play (Newton and his team all in beige, Valentine and his team all in black) with dynamic projections that play out on the surface of the set or create visual layers as they are projected behind the band who are positioned on stage behind plate-glass windows on the set.  But its rare that the visuals add emotional vitality to the production.

One of the most successful elements of van Hove's low-key style has been that the emotion of the underlying writing or performances gets elevated in the simplicity of the staging.  Or in a minimalist environment slight changes amplify the emotional impact of the work.  Here the staging feels empty and no matter what anyone says or sings the pool feels shallow throughout.

Unfortunately this shallow plot leads to some uncomfortable misogyny. The entire story line with Elly veers from the awkward to the maudlin to the highly questionable. Like a sex doll, poor Cristin Milioti positions herself around the stage with pelvis thrust forward waiting for something.  She's manipulated by unseen forces and it all comes down to her throwing herself at Newton.   Her ongoing tension with her husband is poorly executed and confusing.  For a time she walks around in a lace body stocking for no narrative reason.  Her unearned meltdown is some sort of manic window-dressing but without anything behind it.  Frankly that felt like a metaphor for the whole disappointing endeavor.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

10 Out of 12: The Drama of Theater

Anne Washburn loves her meta-narratives and with 10 Out of 12 we watch a play about tech-ing a play. Although this is for all intents and purposes a "backstage" drama that is at times wickedly funny, it seems a distant cousin to wacky behind-the-scenes farces such as Moon Over Buffalo or Kiss Me Kate. Washburn intentionally pushes our focus from an exclusive "actor" driven world and encompasses the whole backstage world.

As Washburn took us meticulously through the way in which words and storytelling evolve over time in Mr. Burns, here (with maybe less precision than Mr. Burns) we descend into the world of theater-making with egos in costume, unsung heroes solving every emergency, and the utter messiness of artistic creation.  It is a foreign culture, with a language we don't know and rules we don't understand. Yet, we are immediately submerged in this world.

The entire audience wears headsets so you could literally tune into the action happening on another frequency. The voices in your head are backstage technicians calling light cues, sound cues, making adjustments, and doing their jobs.  The technicians and crew get ample stage time--some live  and some as disembodied voices.

We experience the mystical rhythm to the calling of light cues--both mechanical and poetic all at the same time.  The director tries to explain what he wants out of the lighting design.  He speaks in abstract images and words which the lighting designer must translate into physical execution. Never has it been clearer what a lighting designer does and what an unenviable task it is to be given an imprecise "artistic vision" and attempt to give the director what he wants (when in this instance it's clear he doesn't know what he wants).

We have the same opportunity with the sound designer who is meant to bring an aural jaguar into a scene, yet push it to the background, even as the director suggests he probably will cut it all together anyway. Thankless heroes, every one.

Because of the tech purview, there are fascinating moments of the impotence of the director and the power of the stage manager (she turns off the monitors so no one backstage can hear the outburst that's about to go down in the front of the house).  The playwright of the play being tech-ed in 10 Out of 12 is not present and a litany of complaints are lobbed in her direction in her absence.  Tech is not about the writer.

In the first act the actors are largely pushed to the background while the technical work becomes the foregrounded cacophony. It's inevitable that we drift back to the world of actors at some point--not for nothing, they are a reliable source of "drama." They are also the one aspect of the stage experience that we, the theater audience, have familiarity with. Through the first act we watch as the actors are bored. They play games and misbehave. The drama that they create is not the scripted kind. The outbursts are from the people behind the characters.

The absurd play within the play offers ample opportunity to make fun of "serious" theater.  But the work being done here is so strong, "serious" theater can handle the ribbing.  An ensemble of talented actors shows us what it is like to be actors.

I loved the headsets and sonic/theatrical layering. I enjoyed not knowing what was going on exactly in this theatrical world and then discovering it all as we went along with it. When the technicians are gossiping or commenting on what we are seeing on stage, the intimacy of the headset makes you feel a part of the crew.  Headphone theater has this particular power.  I felt that as well with Greg Wohead's show Hurtling where he is whispering in your ear through headphones.  It's a great opportunity to provide a semi-immersive feeling even if your audience is still safely ensconced in their seats.

10 Out of 12 somehow manages to both embrace and debunk the romanticism of theater and theater-making.  With all the hostility, impatience, and fried nerves, we see the grueling process to make things look effortless.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Glass Menagerie: The Ugly Truth

Photo by Sanne Peper
As mother and son wrap their hands around each other’s hands, there is kindness, understanding, frustration, control, and acquiescence.  Sam Gold’s minimalist production of The Glass Menagerie with the Toneelgroep Amsterdam company focuses on touch and the intimacy between the family members of this American classic.  Although this is a “memory play” and Gold’s moments of magical staging emphasize Tom Wingfield’s imagined recollections, it is the tactile that leaves a lingering impression.  Never have the concerns of the Wingfields felt so grounded and corporeal amidst the theatrical space of memory.*   

Amanda Wingfield (Chris Nietvelt) is not the larger-than-life Southern belle living in a reverie of the past in this production.  She is, instead, a mother desperate to sort out what will become of her disabled daughter, Laura (Hélène Devos).  Laura is in physical agony and wears a painful brace on her leg to move herself around.  She comforts herself with her phonograph and a collection of glass animals. Amanda sets about to have her son Tom (Eelco Smits) help her solve the problem of Laura.  Amanda wears Tom down over time and he agrees to invite one of his coworkers to dinner, Jim O'Conner (Harm Duco Schut), so he can introduce him to Laura.  There is real affection between Amanda and Tom, but with each brush of her hand and touch, Amanda is pushing Tom further and further away. 

All that we see comes from Tom and so these impressions are his interpretation of events.  As Tom sets the stage for the story he (via Gold’s direction) positions Jim, “the gentleman caller,” in a balcony overlooking the stage and Jim observes Tom’s story until he is called for—popping open a can of soda at one moment and sucking on candies while he waits to enter the scenario.  But he’s always there waiting.    

Gold extends the main stage with a rectangular thrust into the audience and sets the main action beyond the proscenium on a plywood surface (scenic design is by Andrew Lieberman).  We can see the far recesses of the empty proscenium stage behind the action.  Tom starts the music and sets the scene as is often the case but the first jarring moment comes from Amanda’s entrance.  She enters the theater carrying the adult Laura hoisted over her shoulder.  Amanda climbs a set of steps and places Laura on the kitchen table.  Suddenly, Laura’s dependence feels more acute.  Amanda’s attendant care becomes very real.  When Amanda then launches in to her panic over Laura’s future, her abandonment of her typing class, and her lack of prospects, this is not frivolous.  This is not about appearances or wealth.  This is a practical concern.  What will become of Laura. 

Even Amanda’s memories of her youth and her dreamy days at Blue Mountain are delivered by Nievelt in a matter of fact way.  She never gets big or flowery.  And her chipper story of the past dies in her mouth with a bite of dessert when she mentions the husband who has abandoned them.  There’s not much reverie after that. 

Often The Glass Menagerie can make Amanda feel like a relentless fury who is endlessly nagging Tom until he has no choice but to abandon the family as his father did.  But the dynamic here is played quite differently.  After Tom and Amanda have their first big fight, Tom tries to make amends.  He sits on Amanda’s lap and apologizes for walking out during their argument. In turn, she sits on his lap to convince him to help with Laura.  She won’t relent and her presence is physical as well as verbal.  It is not an external attack (as maybe Cherry Jones played it most recently on Broadway where her strong physical presence was matched by Zach Quinto’s), but instead Nievelt makes this a closely whispered plea as she clings to Smits physically for ballast. 

For Tom, this drifting away from the family feels more like the tide pulling at him than a tidal wave.  Nievelt plays Amanda's nearly constant torrent of words like death by little duck bites, as the tiny wounds and growing discomfort pile up.  But Nievelt's steely performance is so controlled that the escalation feels ominous as it increases in desperation.  Smits, for his part, as Tom, also comes across as measured.  His affection for mother and sister are real, which makes the leaving of them the more tragic.  Though he may be telling the story post hoc, with resignation over what he has done,  during the telling of it Smits plays Tom as wholly enmeshed in the family and we watch as he tears himself from them. 

Gold also focuses on Laura’s physical struggles here.  Beside the various moments she is carried by her mother and brother, we watch as she winces in pain as she tries to swing herself from the stage steps back up to the stage on her own. Her mother and her brother rub her aching limbs to try and ease her severe discomfort.  When the brace is removed, a large red welt remains etched into her leg.  This is not a young woman who will be launching herself out into the world on her own any time soon.

The whole play comes to a head when Jim arrives. Amanda launches into hostess mode and she and the garrulous Jim explode into conversation.  Tom and Jim had been seated on the stage’s edge talking when they were interrupted by Amanda.  Tom is then left seated comically on the ground wedged between the feet of his mother and Jim's as they gab away.  They hardly notice he’s there.  He’s done his part—delivered a gentleman caller and feels he has no other purpose here.  

Gold throughout indicates Tom’s point of view and control of the story throughout.  Tom walks over to a neon sign from the dance hall and turns it on so that the dance hall music from next door starts to drift into their home (sound design by Bray Poor). Tom (via Gold’s direction) reconfigures the entire stage to allow Laura to have a brief magical and romantic moment alone with Jim,  physically far from Amanda and Tom’s interference.  Scenes like these feel theatrical, symbolic, and mannered to match Williams’s language and “memory play” intentions.  But that theatrical style is set against the way in which Gold plays out the grueling reality of Laura’s situation.  No matter what colorful stagecraft is employed to help Tom tell his story, he knows (and we know) none of this magic will last.  This production makes the ugly truth just as present. 

*Note I attended the Dutch language production without English subtitles and from other reviews I glean there was some adaption of the script for this production which I could not comment on. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Goldberg: An Unexpected Thrill


In a massive room full of people seated in hammock chairs wearing noise-canceling headphones, you could still hear coughing.  I gave up counting the coughs after 40 but a healthy reminder of the vexing problem of shared artistic experiences.  

Marina Abramović’s new work, Goldberg, involves a partnership with pianist Igor Levit and lighting designer Urs Schönebaum.  Staged in the drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory, the audience is intended to find their own personal silence at the start.  Then at the sound of a gong place the noise-cancelling headphones on.  The second gong signifies the moment to take off the headphones and Levit plays Bach's Goldberg Variations in full.

Before we placed the headphones on, rather than engage in “silence” most people just chatted with their friends. Some woman loudly exclaiming something about some Skarsgård to her friend.  I shut my eyes and tried some yoga breathing.   Every time I enter the Drill Hall I feel something church-like about it.  With this soaring ceiling and massive frame, I'm always driven to quiet.  But alas, I'm the only one. 

After the gong sounded, the headphones were a welcome respite.  Intentional conversation died away.  I could nearly feel my heartbeat in my ears.  I was tingling. Like an astronaut waiting for the blastoff.  Muscles tensing and relaxing.   Suddenly I could feel cold air and smell perfumes. My nostrils ached with stimulus.

Many people took this as a time to close their eyes. But I found I didn’t need to blink away the now muffled crowd anymore.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw something move. Should I turn my head? I peeked. The piano originally installed at the far end of the drill hall was slowly sliding towards us on a long black runway.  Levit was on board. He was glancing into the crowd which was now largely ignoring him. I nearly waved.  

He looked like this man adrift on a boat looking for some connection. His fingers were visible below the keyboard.  Moving but not playing anything yet.

With the ring of the second gong, we took off our headphones and a line of light lit the perimeter of the nearly endless room. The only other light was a thin streak of illumination over the keyboard.
The piano rotated on a slow turntable and so depending on the piano’s position you could see Levit playing at times or not.

When I couldn't see his hands and only watch his shifting and swaying body in silhouette it was if music was emerging from a moving void of darkness--like an inky black swirl generating this disembodied sound.  It was kind of magical in its own way.  

But when I could view his hands, I was overcome with emotion.  Whether the musical movements were jubilant or somber, his hands no longer seemed connected to a human. Flesh morphing and moving with speeds that were incomprehensible. Like rabbits bouncing and skating across the keyboard, his fingers seemed to barely touch the Steinway piano.  At this pace and in the dim light, all shapes started to bend.

There were moments when my mind wandered, as I expect durational work encourages. But when I'd tune back in and focus on the music I'd cry again.  The feat of Levit’s playing overwhelmed me.

Near the end, Levit took a long pause between movements.  For a moment there was true silence in the room. A holding of collective breath, questioning whether this was the end. 

Besides that long beat of stillness, it seemed as if the audience otherwise was aflutter all the time.  Rustling fabric. Shifting bodies. Constantly adjusting. Self-awareness to the max.

And after his pause, he started to play again. With that the audience returned to their fidgeting.  

When Levit finished, he shook his hands. He clutched the piano bench beneath him before he could stand for his bow. Could he even feel the bench in those hands?   He wiped bleariness from his eyes and looked wrung out. He was human after all.   

Monday, November 2, 2015

Edinburgh Quick Cuts

I reviewed only a handful of the 70 shows I saw at EdFringe. So here are my links to those reviews and just a few notes on works I didn't get to write about otherwise (and I have a separate post about Forest Fringe):

Actress: There were a couple of shows in the festival this year that looked at female performance and the audience’s gaze on female performers (Tonight I’m Gonna Be the New Me by Made in China, Wrecking Ball by Action Hero). Actress by Sleepwalk Collective was the first of these shows that I saw. Actress was more focused on the female performer as an object we use until she runs out of words to say. Language was a reoccurring theme in the shows I saw this year (Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons and Can I Start Over Again), but Actress looked at it from the perspective of the engine for the life of this object and once the lines were said and the words used up the object has not other purpose except to expire. Led by iara Solano Arana who looks like a tattooed pixieish Alice in Wonderland she leads us into a world filled with text and emojis (maybe the first time I’ve seen emojis used on stage). We spend some time thinking about how we all are lifetime of language and a history of words.

A Reason to Talk; An unusual documentary based theater piece about one mother and daughter who struggle to speak to each other.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

Counting Stars: A bittersweet love story of two toilet attendants and the life they lead as immigrants in London in the ever increasingly politically heated and racially divided city.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

Crash:  A mysterious banker who has suffered a loss and the way in which he pulls himself back together after a trauma.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

Down and Out in Paris and London: A look at poverty in the past and now and how things have hardly changed.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

Happy Birthday Without You: After seeing a lot of performance art and a lot of heartfelt, serious work about daughters and mothers, Happy Birthday Without You skewers all of that with a big, brassy song in its heart. Star and writer Sonia Jalaly as Violet Fox invokes the spirits of Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, and Julie Andrews as a way to celebrate Violet's birthday and confront Violet's mother’s failures as a parent--all through her ART. Maybe after so many dark shows about grief and sadness I needed someone to lampoon the super-earnestness of self-confessional theater. After room after room of monologues with no props and a lot of darkness, Happy Birthday Without You offers darkly-comedic version of that (with a lot of props and goodie bags). Jalaly has an incredible voice for mimicry (seriously if anyone revives The Rise and Fall of Little Voice this woman should be top on your list). I laughed so hard at one point I distracted Jalaly...or Violet. I just could not stop laughing at a suitcase called the Suitcase of Sorrow.

The Human Ear: So boring. Don't even click on this.  (I received a complimentary ticket).
Iphigenia in Splott: Gary Owen’s play Iphigenia in Splott makes no apologies about being a play about class, politics, and austerity. With a blistering ferocity and a heroine who dngaf this mesmerizing play will make you furious and heart-broken. With a star performance from Sophie Melville, as Effie, a girl in a forgotten place, with no future, with no real home, with no real love. But she's self-possessed, aggressive, and when she catches the eye of a soldier...and he catches hers back, she is led down a new path where she opens herself up to the pain and the suffering she's long been covering up with anger.

But Effie's life does not go as she plans. You could imagine both being terrified of bumping into this wild and unruly girl on the street and wanting to give her a giant hug when everything around her goes to shit. This fury and vulnerability all in the same person makes you invested in everything she is doing. You can’t take your eyes off of her but you also know things cannot work out well for her. This is Iphigenia after all. Queasily waiting for the tragedy to kick in you find yourself caring more and more about this place you did not even know existed. Now only if maybe politicians did the same.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons : How much of our personality, our stories, and our lives are captured in the words we use. If we suddenly had a finite number of words to use a day how would that impact our relationships and identities. This is the question of Sam Steiner's work performed and directed by students at Warwick University. It's a delicious exercise in a near future that feels like it could happen just around the corner. And the devastating reality that the two characters in the play face as their words begin to chip away at who they are and what they want when its all said and done comes swiftly and effectively.

Molly:  A really intriguing, stylish work about a sociopath.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

On Track:  Feminism on a treadmill. For realz.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour:  A raucous play with music about a gaggle of Catholic high school choir girls who go wild one afternoon in Edinburgh.  (I received a complimentary ticket).
Daniel Kitson's Polyphony;  A meta-theatrical tale about legacy, friendship, the voices in our heads, and the changing face of our own understanding as we age.
Raz: A wild night out on the town for a partying man leads him to think about things he doesn't want to.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

Ross and Rachel: You did not need to be a fan of Friends to enjoy this dark slice of our cultural obsession with OTPs. Considering the sitcom characters ten years on after the show ended and living out their lives in the shadows of other people’s expectations James Fritz’s single-hander play forces us to confront the desires we project upon others, to analyze our complicity in seeking out fairy tales, and to look at something we thought we knew from a different angle. Take the situation-comedy out of the scenario and what a morass we all bear some responsibility for. The play does a particularly great job looking at male fantasy, the collective consciousness of the audience, and what compels us to demand “perfect” endings for our stories. A great piece of writing and the stripped down production by Thomas Martin (inside a way too hot shipping container) deserves another life beyond the Fringe.
This Will End Badly:  An exciting, dark work about men and how they cope with pain.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

What I Learned from Johnny Bevan: If Iphigenia in Splott had a brother who went off to university it might be Johnny Bevan. Middle-class Nick meets working-class Johnny at university and Johnny leads him into a world of performance poetry, radical politics, violence, and poverty. Nick has set off to University looking for something beyond the sports, drink, and girls. But it takes Johnny to pull Nick out of his coddled, comfortable upbringing. But it is when Nick, now a 40 something journalist, looks back on his friendship with Johnny that the evolution of the class system in the UK and the politics of the past 20 years are brought into focus. Pushing beyond the ideals of youth, this play leaps into the adult reality of inequality and as it does so it scrapes at your innards.

Luke Wright wrote and performed this poetry fueled monologue. With a torrent of words the world of Nick and Johnny are brought to life. The changing nature of their friendship, the sexiness of exploring the unknown and the harsh reality of coping with adult issues as a teen.  His colorful characters were so rich I was painfully reminded of that moment upon graduating University when I realized my roommate and I were leaving school with the same degree but with her family’s wealth her journey would be far more comfortable and far less precarious than my own. She had a safety net I would never have and it allowed her the flexibility to experiment with jobs, career paths, travel, and further education. A painful reminder that the American dream is wracked with inequality from the get-go. And sure luck, talent, personality, and a million other things go into why people starting in the “same place” and end up somewhere else. But the hurdles in the way certainly play a part.

Women’s Hour: When asked what my favorite show of the festival, this is the one that leaps to mind every time. Poking fun at an actual Radio 4 show, Sh!t Theatre hosts a feminist variety show which looks at what is even “women’s programming” and how equality for women in the world remains an uphill battle. Remarking on the luxury tax places on sanitary products (seriously!), the lack of lines of dialogue for women in movies, internet trolls trading in graphic misogyny, and gender specific items that really need not be, these young artists hurl themselves into this show with wild abandon and it’s funny, fierce, and educational. There are also roller-skates, crumpets, and SHOES. The exuberance and honesty of the work coupled with its vital message made me wish we had more than an hour. I need these laughs but I also needed this anger. This piece held the right balance of both. “For delicate minds in delicate times,” indeed.

John: The Voices All Around Us

Somehow this review got left in my I'm reviving it now...with some spoilers.

Annie Baker peels back the layers of a relationship in crisis in her new play, John. With an eerie tone, discussions of the supernatural and the religious, John may feel like the abruptly interrupted ghost story the character Elias tells during the play. But Baker's real focus is the tension in that disruption. Along with the keen eye of director Sam Gold, Baker and Gold craft an entire world from the incomplete stories told, the dangling sentences uttered, and all the things in relationships left unspoken but that fill the space of our minds. This is not a ghost story in the traditional sense—the hauntings are by words and ways in which people and objects change you forever.

Elias (Christopher Abbott) and Jenny (Hong Chau) may like spooky stories but their endeavor to chase the ghosts of Gettysburg is just a distraction from the real difficulties they face with each other. They have stopped into a bed and breakfast for a couple of days on a drive from Columbus, Ohio back to NYC. Mertis (Georgia Engel) is their host--a cheery, sugar-free woman intent on making sure they have a good time. But Mertis carries with her a quiet sadness and a deep empathy for this couple.

Mertis is the one who presents this story to us by peeling back the curtain on the stage or covering it back up again with each scene change. Mertis speaks of mystical watchers, launches into Latin, and writes florid prose about sunsets in her journal. She has a husband we never see. Her best friend Genevieve (Lois Smith), an older blind woman dependent on her nephew, comes over to eat Vienna fingers and tells stories of her troubled mind. Personal philosophies of love, life, and what is bigger than we are circle all these characters as well as the mysteries of this house, this world, and the secrets of our own hearts.

But at it's core John focuses on Elias and Jenny fighting to keep their relationship alive when perhaps what they had has already departed--we may be watching the ghost of their relationship--echoes of what once was played out by muscle memory.

We watch Jenny trying to be accommodating even when she's in agony with menstrual cramps. Elias is short-tempered, over-sensitive, and a little over-bearing. Jenny tells lies. Elias can’t do anything but tell the truth, whether it’s pleasant or not. But as more information trickles out about each of them, their behavior gets a slightly different gloss. The more you know someone the harder it is to condemn them outright. Our understanding and allegiances shift ever so slightly. And our assumptions continue to be torpedoed.

Baker spends a lot of time with these characters looking at the objects they embed with power. From childhood toys to memories, these things, ideas, and voices in our minds can have the same power over us as people. We let them get in our heads. We bend ourselves toward them. We watch bits of ourselves slip away. And sometimes in a relationship to lose a bit of yourself to become a couple is a positive. In this play the examples of the voices taking hold in people’s minds (Genevieve’s controlling ex-husband, Jenny’s American Girl Doll Samantha) are negative and destructive. But sometimes you can't know until you are inside it whether losing yourself to someone else is a positive or a negative.

The play reaches a peak on this theme with Genevieve’s curtain breaking speech (the one time Mertis is not in control and Genevieve pops out from the curtain in the middle of one of the intermissions). Genevieve takes a moment of our time to explain that she's reached an age where she stopped hearing the voices of others in her head and paid no mind to what others thought of her. This release from those voices becomes a liberation and the speech is unnerving in it's precision and cutting honesty. It left me weeping.

Mimi Lien's hyper-realistic set of a B&B overrun with teddy bears and Christmas tat was far too much like my own mother's living-room for my liking (I mean it was really accurate). But shows a keen eye for decorative storytelling and adds another layer to the mystery of Mertis. It is the external expression of a kitschy B&B but nothing about Mertis quite fits this environment. Sound design by Bray Poor makes great use of the "upstairs" off-stage space where noises, arguments, and conversations are muffled and communicated to us with intentional obfuscation. The house in the play becomes another character who makes no one comfortable--the rooms are too cold, the spirits within are unsettled, and even with the external trappings of a home it is not one.

If the secondary goal of scary movies is to end up clutching the person next to you to feel safe, here Baker's creepy and atmospheric John makes the arms of the person you are with the last place you will feel true comfort. John shows that we need not fear the mystical when the familiar can do the most harm.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Ross Sutherland and His Adventures in Videotape

Scottish poet, storyteller, and artist Ross Sutherland arrives in New York this week with a show called Stand By for Tape Back-Up.  It's a meditation on grief, nostalgia, and the odd bits of life we pick up along the way.  Sutherland performs the show live with a looping VHS tape of clips from movies, television, and advertisements as the back-drop. It's an indescribable delight (though I tried to describe it here). The show was one of my top 10 shows in the UK in 2013. I walked in knowing nothing about Sutherland's work...and walked out a fan.

New York audiences will have a chance to see Stand By for Tape Back-Up October 9th and 10th at Union Docs in Brooklyn. Tickets are $15.

Sutherland generously agreed to answer some cheeky questions about the show and it's very 80's content.

What's a VHS tape? Is that like Netflix? Is it a British thing? How do you use the VHS tape in this show?

Let me explain! Once upon a time, TV was a fast-moving river that churned all day, every day. Even when you turned it off and went to bed, it still kept going. You couldn't pause it or save any of it or anything. Then one day, someone came up with the concept of watching something ‘more than once’. We take it for granted now, but the concept of ‘more than once’ was revolutionary at the time. So VHS was born! A VHS tape was like a little bowl you could dip into the river and use to save a tiny bit of water. Then you could drink that little bit of water whenever you wanted! But the bowl wasn't very accurate. And the water got stinky really fast. And sometimes the water got stuck inside the bowl and ruined it. Also: tracking. I tried really hard on this analogy and now I wish I hadn’t.
Stand By For Tape Back-Up is about a single videotape that I made with my granddad when I was a kid. The tape was a collection of our favorite TV shows and films. After my granddad died I lost the tape but then recently I found it again. So, in the live show, I lead the audience through the contents of the tape, re-purposing scenes from films and using them to tell a personal story from my life.

You are a performance poet. What is a performance poet? Are you like that vinyl record of Robert Frost reading his own poems my parents had and never listened to? 

God I don't know. I write a lot of poetry but it’s always a weird thing to define yourself by. I can't meet someone in the street and say, “I’m a poet”. That just sounds like a flamboyant way of telling someone I’m unemployed.
Poetry forms the basis of all the work I do though. Whether I’m making a film or a theatre show or a board game, etc, I always approach it the same way as a poem. Lots of the poetry I write is a bit like word-puzzles. I set myself all these horrible rules, and then I have to try to write around them. The harder I make it to write, the more I bypass all the cliched cheesy stuff in my head. I like live performance because poetry feels like a living thing to me. When you read it on the page it can sometimes feel opaque and closed-off, but live you can hear its flaws and its frailty.

There are scenes from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on the tape.  In what ways are you like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?

When I rediscovered the videotape, one of the first discoveries I made was finding an episode of TFPOBA on it. The weird thing is, I know I didn't put it there. So I’m assuming that it must have been my granddad who added that to the tape. I’m comforted by the thought that my granddad might have been a fan of the Fresh Prince. It brings me closer to him to imagine him watching it. Since then, I’ve watched the Fresh Prince a lot more. I dunno. These things become weird conduits.

The show is highly dependent on synchronicity of words and images. Has it ever gone terribly wrong?

I have to stay exactly in-time with the videotape or the entire performance stops making sense. My performance is written to match the video shot-for-shot, so I can’t even drop a second. I’m pretty good at it by now and can cover most of my fuck-ups. 
I had one incident during the London run earlier this year when we had a technical fault ten minutes from the end. The video stopped working entirely. It was just a power issue but for a second, everyone in the room thought that the videotape had snarled up and destroyed itself.  
We all shared this panicked moment. I felt like a man who had spent the last hour parading around with a precious, priceless vase and then slipped and thrown it at a wall.

Name 5 scenes from movies that sum up the show.

This is tricky! Rather than choose scenes appears on the tape itself, I’ve tried to pick scenes from films or TV shows that deal with the same sort of themes.
Groundhog's Day
The Girl Chewing Gum
Limmy's Show
Arizona Dream
Sans Soleil
Is this your first appearance in NYC? What are you most looking forward to?

I’ve never been to New York before. I’m really excited. I’m expecting some sort of cross between Annie Hall and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Please don't tell me that films have lied to me.