Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Illyria from Prospect Theater

This last weekend a friend had tickets to see Illyria, a new musical version of Twelfth Night being presented by Prospect Theater Company, an Off-Off-Broadway theater company.  It was the second Prospect production I have seen, the first being The Iron Curtain, which I judged for the NYITA.

Prospect put on shows I would never produce for Untitled Theater Company - old style musicals written today, done straight.  Watching Iron Curtain I felt like I was seeing a new musical from the 50's or early 60's, and  Illyria felt more like the 70's. 

That being said, it was good.  Really good.  Very, very good.  And this is not the first time - their Iron Curtain was also remarkably well done.  The performers were amazing - I particularly enjoyed Jimmy Ray Bennett as Malvolio and Jessica Grove as Viola, but they were incredible all around, skilled singers and actors all with impressive credentials.  The choreography (Christine O'Grady) was always well done, perhaps not as flashy as Iron Curtain (which had a full out tap number!), but always appropriate.  The direction (Cara Reichel) was on target, the music was enjoyable, and the lyrics were often clever (both music and lyrics were by Peter Mills).

Yes, I could have some dramaturgical qualms with it.  My friend pointed out some questions about the second act, and I agreed the ending could be improved upon.  And, as I said, it wasn't the style of theater I am usually drawn to creating myself.

But good work is good work, regardless of whether it is the same style in which I work in, and this was excellent.  I know how hard it is to put together a musical that holds together that well, and I was impressed.  So I just want to acknowledge my colleagues.  I know none of you personally. I don't know if you may stumble across this blog while googling yourself (something I would do), but if you do - well done.  I have happened into your theater twice, I have seen two shows, and I thoroughly enjoyed both.  Thanks.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Synecdoche, New York - review

I occasionally write film reviews for the National Board of Review
. I cross posted some when I had a myspace blog, and now that I have this blog I will be cross posting a few here as well.

There’s a children’s song that begins Charlie Kaufman’s new movie, Synecdoche, New York. The song is about the city of Schenectady, New York, and the city of Schenectady is a synecdoche for the movie, and the world, as a whole. Understand that? Then you are one step towards understanding the infinitely reflecting mirrors that make up Kaufman’s latest metaphysical reflection on life.

Kaufman is a rarity in Hollywood: a writer whose movies are identifiably his, no matter who is directing. From Being John Malkovitch to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his films have been a unique combination of fantasy and philosophic reflection, with a touch of melancholy underneath it all. For his directorial debut, he has taken the melancholy and put it front and center. The children’s song that begins the movie seems to be light and carefree, until you realize it’s truly about death.

And of course, the song itself is a synecdoche: a part representing the whole, for those who have not recently attended a poetry class. For the whole movie is about death. Which is to say, it is about life, which has but one ending for us all. It’s also about a director (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), creating a play about death. Both the movie and the play within the movie taps into the same existentialist gloom that inspired Beckett.

Beckett expressed his gloom through the sparseness of his plays. Kaufman, by contrast, is ornate, perhaps overly ornate. Kaufman prefers worlds within worlds within worlds, so that his own directing debut, which stars Hoffman a director, has that director then choose an actor (Tom Noonan) to play a director, who then chooses an actor playing an actor to play an actor playing a director, and so on, ad infinitum.

Hoffman once again shows why he is one of the most talented contemporary actors to somehow become a Hollywood star, portraying the depressed antihero pitch perfectly. He is surrounded by a bevy of talented women, especially Samantha Morton, who plays his soul mate, a woman who has bought a symbolically burning house.

Of course, the movie seems to say, don’t we all live in a burning house destined to collapse on us one day? And isn’t there beauty in the fire?

It takes a certain taste to respond to that sort of poetic reflection, but Kaufman is one of the few writers (and now a director) who has been bringing an introspective spirit to Hollywood. This film does not always succeed: there might be one too many layers of its sprawling, Russian doll of a story, but like life, the joy of the film is in the struggle.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Chekhov Lizardbrain

I saw Pig Iron's production of Chekhov Lizardbrain on Saturday. I enjoyed it, especially because of the neuro angle. To me, it shows once again what a rich theatrical field neurology is. Autism of course has become the cause of the day recently, especially in politics. For some reason McCain seems to feel that because Palin's son has Down Syndrome, that gives her a special window into autism. Of course, the two things are miles apart, and it takes more that a few months for even a parent of a child with autism to really understand it. But I digress...

One technique I particularly enjoyed in the production was the doubled scenes, first seen in their real form (the "film" version as they called it in the script) and then again from the lead character's perspective. James Sugg was impressive playing the lead, and seeing him transform from scene to scene as the character moved in and out of his own head was a definite joy of the production (the inner character was named Chekhov Lizardbrain).

The reviews of the play have been tremendous. The New York Times review focused on the Chekhovian loneliness that the autistic suffers from - reminding me that the Times review of Brains & Puppets focused on the loneliness of difference as well. For Chekhov Lizardbrain, I would agree that the emotional heart of the piece did lie in that loneliness. And perhaps also for Brains and Puppets, upon reflection.

Another interesting entry to the field of neurotheater.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Why is theater liberal?

A recent article in the Times talks about the political plays of today, almost all liberal. It's true: politically right wing theater is an almost non existent breed. But what the article fails to really address is why.

One answer, in modern times, is simple: the current spate of political plays have been reactive against the Bush administrative. When theater critiques society, it is critiquing power, and all the political power for the last eight years has been in the hands of the conservatives. The fact that the Bush administration has used their power as a bludgeon has certainly increased the desire (and the need) to fight it.

But even during the Clinton years political plays were not right wing. To a great extent, in New York, they were simply not; few plays bothered to address that administration. And even then, if a critique came, it was much more likely to come from the left of Clinton than from the right.

Of course, as I have been reflecting recently, choosing theater as a career is almost an act of insanity, and not the sort of insanity typical among right-wingers. It involves choosing to put more time and energy than most highly paid lawyers spend into a job that has few monetary rewards. The best theater is created by people who have, in some actively way, chosen not to earn the money they are fully capable of earning in favor of doing art.

This is a mindset that is definitely to the left of not just McCain, but of Obama, who recently stated:

"If I were watching Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me, right? Because the way I’m portrayed 24/7 is as a freak! I am the latte-sipping, New York Times-reading, Volvo-driving, no-gun-owning, effete, politically correct, arrogant liberal. Who wants somebody like that?"
There must be something off when I look at that statement and say, I would want someone like that. I really would. Perhaps arrogance isn't the most positive characteristic, but if that's what it takes to openly admit the other horrors: reading The New York Times, sipping a latte, failing to own a gun, or being a liberal (and really, do I care what sort of car you drive or whether you are "effete," usually a code word for either cultured or gay), I'll take arrogance every time.

But really, aside from the fact no one here in New York can afford a car, doesn't that describe half the Artistic Directors I know? And how did Joe the Plumber become the person we should all want to be, while a liberal who reads The New York Times became someone even the Democratic candidate calls a "freak"?

But that is all part of a disdain for intellectuals that has become a standard part of political discourse here in America. And theater is an arena for intellectuals. Yes, it is also a place for emotions, and for beauty, but it is one of the few places where people are asked to think out loud in front of you so you can consider what they have to say. Theater like no other art form is about debate, and by that I don't mean televised debates meant to convince the public that you have the right demeanor and are capable of looking into the camera and sounding forceful, but actual debates of actual ideas.

Of course, neither candidate has said anything about arts funding during those televised debates, and I suspect any question about the issue would be met with surprise, and, at best, halting platitudes. However, there has been a web site that has tracked their positions, ArtsVote2008.

Frankly, I was surprised to see that either of them had public platforms on the matter. But Obama's is surprisingly detailed. Of course, I do know that Isaac Butler over at Parabasis has mentioned that he was helping create an arts policy for Obama, so I did know some work was being done.

McCain just put out his first statement of any kind on the issue, a brief memo endorsing education. I'm all for arts education, but it would be nice to believe those kids, once educated, had something to do with their learning that actually paid money.

But none of this is surprising either. Would Republicans be more apt to support the arts if theater were more conservative in bent? Perhaps, though public funding might still be seen as a sort of socialism.

However, of all the things that Obama did not want to be seen as, perhaps the one thing I am with him on is the "politically correct" issue. Of course, political correctism has been defined many ways by many people. One thing that theater does, and does well, is create an empathy for The Other, whomever that other is. And sometimes the attempt to understand other cultures alone can bring accusations of political correctism. But that is not how I would define it.

The truly negative connotation in political correctism is the adaptation of beliefs not because they have been examined but because they are held by those around you. By that definition, hatred of the cultural elite is a sort of political correctism of the right. But there are plenty of points of view we, the effete, latte-drinking theater community, tend to have, that are not often critically examined. And if we are devoted to understand The Other, doesn't that extend to those whose political views are different from our own. Maybe we might not wish to be Joe the Plumber, but it is important to understand where he's something from, or where Sarah Palin is coming from, or McCain, or even Bush.

We cannot change who we are. I would not want to. But if the power is going to be moving to the left in this country, as I suspect (and hope) it will be, it will be our duty to not stop our critical thinking, and to be ready to examine political issues from multiple perspectives. Perhaps that will not create a political play from the right, still. But at the least it will create far more interesting political plays from the left.

That's it for now. I'm off to buy a Venti and read the latest from Ben Brantley.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Attack at the Hungarian Jewish Theatre

We have been getting an increasing number of international submissions for the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas. Although many of the plays address politics, I don't think of the festival itself as a political statement, more as a celebration of culture. But I am reminded that, sadly, there are still moments when putting on Jewish theater can be dangerous.

Right before Rosh Hashana, there was an attack on the director of the new show at the Hungarian Jewish Theatre, using water guns filled with acid as well as buckets of pig feces. Six or seven neo-Nazis then beat the director and some bystanders who tried to help. At least one remains in the hospital.

Last year, Mark Vail, a Jewish theater director from Uzbekistan (who often also directed in Seattle), was murdered. Of course, he was also putting on plays that dealt with gay themes, so one can blame extreme homophobia as well.

Recently, a friend of mine mentioned that almost all theater in New York is gay or Jewish. An exageration, I think, but it does remind me how much we take for granted.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Belated London roundup: Merry Wives, Six Characters, and War Horse

I've been a little delinquent on posts here, but I did want to give a roundup of the plays I saw (beyond Havel's) during my trip to London.

The first was Merry Wives of Windsor, at the Globe. It is the first play I've ever seen at the Globe (Although I've visited, as you can see from the picture, left). I must admit that I got off the plane, dropped my stuff off at the hotel, and left directly for the show, which is not the ideal mode of seeing it. I felt perfectly awake while running as fast as I could from the tube station to the theater, remembering that in London, a 2pm start actually meant a 2pm start, not a 2:07 start (of course for me, it was an 8am start, with no sleep). But halfway through the first act I started nodding off, and it wasn't because of the play. Well, not completely.

The play itself was decent, and the performances were generally strong. I read a review that called the play the best version of Merry Wives seen, then compared it to a British sitcom. I agree with both of those comments...which really underlines what a poor play it is, at heart. But I always wonder why it is that, just because a play has Shakespeare's name attached, it must be performed again and again, when there are far better plays around on which one can spend one's energy. I would like to have back the hours sitting at productions like Henry VIII or Pericles (which I have somehow been obligated to see three times). Yes, Shakespeare has some great plays, and I am a bit of completist myself (I am not going to claim that every play Ionesco or Havel wrote was of equal quality), but it is one thing to present them all as an event, it is another to make a regular practice of it.

But perhaps I was just getting sleepy and testy. Nonetheless, a beautiful theater, and fun to see in action.

The next day was devoted to Leaving, but the day after I saw two more shows : first, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Gielgud. This production was directed by Rupert Goold, who brought his Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart here to New York recently. This is a teched up production, with the framing conceit that the producer is actually a documentary filmmaker, considering using actors to portray "reality." The six characters drop in and demand to be filmed, and the play begins in earnest.

The framing conceit is interesting at times, highlighting the reality vs. fiction themes of the play, and uses of projections and tech tricks are at times impressive, as we see the characters get filmed in a artificially created environment, but it loses itself at the end, as the last half of the last act strays further and further from the original in a series of gimmicks that become almost an end in itself.

That being said, the production looks beautiful, and the acting is tremendously good, making it a very enjoyable show to watch. Of particular note was the Father, played by Ian McDiarmid with a repressed sexual energy that some British actors excel at like no others. It transformed the lurid soap opera that the characters describe, always a problem for me when reading the play, into something fraught with tension. Also good was the filmmaker, Noma Dumezweni.

The final show I saw was War Horse, at the National Theatre. War Horse is an adaptation of a book by the name name, by Michael Morpurgo. The story is a somewhat sentimental tale of a horse and a boy, both of whom get pulled into the events of World War II. The amazing thing about War Horse is the puppetry, particularly of all the horses. From the movements of the horses, to the sounds they make (voiced by the puppeteers, three to a horse), to the incredible design which allows actors to leap up on their backs and ride them, every element was incredible well thought out and executed. A professional, well designed show throughout, with universally strong performances, but the puppets were the real stars.

You can see a bit (just a bit unfortunately) on YouTube

Of course, I love puppetry, and reacted with excitement when the man at the box office at Six Characters mentioned the play, which I'd already read about. "I heard about that one," I said, "incredible puppets, right?"

"Well, yes, there are puppets," he said, almost apologetically. "But really, the production is very good. It's not what you would think of when you think of a play with puppets."

Of course, it was exactly what I would think of. I would have hoped that there has been enough puppetry recently in prominent shows to let people realize that puppetry is a vast, incredible realm of possibilities, not just variations on Punch & Judy shows. Apparently not. That point was particularly brought home to me when I read the ever-snarky Michael Riedel's column attacking Julie Taymor's upcoming production of Spiderman.

"The reason she worked with puppets most of her life is because she never had much of a budget," a source says. "But then Disney came along and gave her $25 million to do 'The Lion King.' "

Yes, puppetry is a great way to incorporate deaign elements when there are some monetary constraints. It is also a great way to design shows that have the budget for some amazing creations - as the Lion King, among many other shows, has proved.

But Riedel's main criticism:

There's a set designer and a costume designer and a projections designer and a fight designer and an aerial designer and a graphic designer and a film designer. In short, if you're a designer of any kind, you've got to get on this gravy train.
After coming back from London, having seen two West End shows that used strong design elements to create really noteworthy shows, that sort of comment just makes me sad.