Sunday, November 30, 2008

Hanukkah theater

I have been seeking out Hanukkah plays, partly because I wanted to put them on the web site, partly because I was curious about what other Hanukkah plays there were out there besides my own.

There are almost none that I can find.

I did find three based on books by Eric Kimmel, who had made a bit of a specialty of writing books relating to Jewish holidays, especially Hanukkah.  In fact, if this was a posting on Hanukkah books, my focus would be on his books, a few interesting modern ones from Kar-Ben Publishing, and The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming (the recent book from Lemony Snicket).

When growing up, I used to watch the Christmas specials and long for a Hanukkah special that was just as exciting as the Christmas offerings.  The fact that Irving Berlin had written the music for White Christmas (not the mention Easter Parade) seemed particularly unfair.  Of course, I enjoyed the occasional Saturday Night Live Hanukkah moment - Hanukkah Harry or Adam Sandler's song.  They follow the same spirit that I noticed hearing a clip of the Hanukkah song with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in Colbert's Christmas special - a sort of self deprecating humor saying, well, it's OK, but it's not quite Christmas.  Which is all amusing enough.  But I wanted something that had some sincere...Hanukkah spirit.

When I was young, I was determined to write a Hanukkah special of my own.  Of course, as an adult, I never followed up.  But when I was asked to write a new Hanukkah play last summer, I got excited about the thought. Unfortunately, the theater that originally asked me changed their plans,  but by then I had already internally committed to the idea.  Thus Playing Dreidel with Judah Maccabee was born.

I realized pretty quickly that I no longer wanted to imitate Christmas tales.  I wanted to figure out what Hanukkah really meant, as a holiday.  And I was confronted with two realities - Hannukah as it is practiced, complete with dreidels, latkes, menorahs, and presents.  And then there was reality number two: the historical events on which Hanukkah is based.

I have always been fascinated with the transitional period between the old Temple in Jerusalem with its High Priest and animal sacrifices and the more contemporary (well, two thousand years old, but it's a relative thing) age of Rabbis, the Talmud, and prayer.  The Judaism I know barely resembles the ancient religion, which was closer in structure to the Catholic Church and closer in observance to paganism.  What would Judah Maccabee think of the modern day holiday supposedly based on him, I wondered. And what was it really, besides the presents, that seemed meaningful to me about the holiday growing up.

So that became the basis for my play.  I hope I have captured something authentically Hanukkah.  Looking at the selection of Hanukkah plays and fiction (or lack thereof), I don't think it is something that has been done very often, surprisingly.  

On board is the always reliable Peter Bean and Dmitri Friedenberg, who besides being a good actor is a cello virtuoso (he played the instrument in Hiroshima: Crucible of Light).  I've also drafted the folks at Evolve Company, as usual, for some puppetry.  They're doing a whole thing with a scroll and shadow puppets.  It should look beautiful.  And Cory Einbinder has done some neat looking fight choreography.  And Carla Gant, the costume designer, has been making a costume for Judah Maccabee much better than the one I improvised for the publicity shot.  (Barry Weil, who usually does our graphics, wasn't available, so I did the postcard above, as well as put together the publicity shot.  I was proud of the card, not because it was so beautiful, but because I managed it at all with my limited Photoshop powers.)

We open Sunday.  I'm curious to find out what people think.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Robert Lepage and Peter Brook

I've been attending theater nonstop recently - five shows in the last four days.  Three of them were shows I was scouting for the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas, in one way or another.  And two of them were directed by two masters of the avant garde: Peter Brook and Robert Lepage.

Peter Brook is known, of course, for his book The Empty Space, which I read in college.  It is a great book with deep insights.  Or so it seems when reading it.  Unfortunately I have now seen two of Brook's plays:  The Man Who..., and this most recent production (at the New York Theater Workshop), The Grand Inquisitor, and to say I have been underwhelmed is to exaggerate my enthusiasm.  They are both indeed done in an empty space, with minimal set, minimal lights, minimal costumes, and, sadly, minimal drama.

Both times they commit the worse crime a production can commit.  They were tedious.  I was particularly sad about The Man Who..., as I love the source material (Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) That suffered from Brook's desire to use a multinational cast who, unfortunately, didn't all have a good grasp of English.  In a play exploring neurology, especially neurological conditions that affect language, that's a major problem.

The Grand Inquisitor features Bruce Myers, whose command of English was impeccable.  But a one man recitation without theatrical affect demands work so riveting that it needs nothing else.  It wasn't.  And a production so spare demands that each gesture mean the world.  But the gestures were just motions.

Now, I have been told by those who have seen his Midsummer Night's Dream or King Lear (both before my time) that Brook is capable of greatness.  Perhaps he is.  Robert Lepage certainly is.  I have seen him direct The Far Side of the Moon, one of my favorite productions ever.  I even found his less acclaimed Elsinore amazing.

Unfortunately, this time he was directing The Damnation of Faust by Hector Belioz at the Metropolitan Opera.  It was an opera that was never really meant to be staged.  It was only staged in full once during Belioz's life.

Lepage has a whole new set of video toys at his disposal, now.  The Times did a whole feature on them, and they are impressive, as far as technology goes.  As far as theater goes, however, they have yet to prove themselves.

In fact, it seemed to me as if Lepage's toys got in the way of his inventiveness.  The most powerful moments I've seen Lepage direct are often the simplest.  I think often of the moment in The Far Side of the Moon where he invoked the full feeling of being in outer space just by sort of wiggling on the floor.  It sounds almost ridiculous, but in context it was amazing.  And though Elsinore seemed at times to be a series of magic tricks, they were incredible magic tricks that made you wonder how he could have possibly accomplished them.

The tech for this opera is amazing to tech geeks, I'm sure, but to to an average audience member it just looks like projection, and theatrically static projections at that.  Perhaps with a more dramatic opera Lepage will have more success.  Lepage is planning to use some of his new tricks with his Ring cycle, coming up at the Met, and I hope, I truly hope, that it will all pay off there.

Because each time I've walked in the theater over the last four days I've walked in hoping to be amazed.  To be transported.  To be reminded what I truly love about theater.  It hasn't happened recently.  To tell the truth, it rarely happens.

But Lepage is capable of it.  Perhaps Brook is as well.

Maybe next time.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Readings and stage directions

I have a friend who hates play readings.  He finds them a chore to sit through, and thinks that only those who are obligated agree to attend.

I am having two coming up (Golem Stories Dec 1 and Rudolf II Dec 15), as part of the Prague 1600 program with the Czech Center. Come on down!

I don't hate readings.  I do admit that I find many a chore to sit through.  But I must admit, for all that I love theater, many shows I go to because of obligation I find a chore to sit through.  I know many talented actors, directors, etc, but a truly well written, well directed, well performed play is a hard goal to accomplish, and just because I know one talented person involved doesn't mean the show as a whole will be enjoyable.

To me, a reading is no different.  Yes, it has less visuals and less flash.  But a well done reading can be enjoyable, just as a well done play is.

But a well done reading, to me, means that you must think of the reading as a performance.  Which is one reason I hate hearing stage directions.  I understand why some people feel they are necessary, but I never have.  Unless the reading of the stage directions is a performance in itself (and you do, on occasion, find a playwright who really writes clever stage directions), it is an unnecessary element.  It seems to me much simpler and much better to come up with simple staging solutions that convey the sense of what it happening clearly.  Most playwrights do not write stage directions as dialogue, so it should not be performed as dialogue.

Not that I haven't seen any good reading where the stage directions have been read.  I have.  I know it is an accepted convention.  But as a director, I don't like it much.

For the upcoming reading of Golem Stories (Monday, December 1 at the Bohemian National Hall, if you want to come!) Henry Akona has agreed to make some limited sound cues to get me through the more thorny stage direction issues.  Sound is always the most complicated, and the closest I've gotten to stage directions in  a reading is having someone vocally announce sound effects.  

Most actors who haven't worked with me seem surprised for a moment when I stand them up and start arranging them at music stands (or whatever seems appropriate), and have them move from place to place occasionally.  But they quickly get used to it.  And even having someone stand two music stands over versus at the music stand right next to the character they are speaking to does, I think, make a difference.

Another draw for those who might be thinking of coming to the readings:  Peter Demetz, the author of Prague in Black and Gold, will be there to talk afterwards.  I can think of no one more knowledgeable about the golem or about Rudolf II.  And his book is an amazing resource, for those who haven't read it.

So as I said, come on down!

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Times notices Off Off Chicago (a belated grouse)

I am not one to usually grouse at the New York Times or the current bete noir of theater blogs, Charles Isherwood. I feel like, though Isherwood and the Times have their problems, so does theater media in general in New York, and really, the reason that The New York Times is the only game in town is that it is the only daily that makes any credible effort towards covering theater.

But I would think that knowledge of the New York theater scene should be a prerequisite, and it does gall me that Isherwood seems totally ignorant of anything but the most high profile work. When I first came to New York, Mel Gussow was the second stringer, and I often fantasized during the first few years of having him come to my theater. He has, sadly, passed away now, though I was lucky enough to at least have him moderate a discussion on Ionesco during my Ionesco Festival. His reviews were always extremely smart, a lesson in theater as well as a review, and he found numerous artists off the beaten path whom he chose to highlight. After he retired from reviewing, he wrote books on Beckett, Miller, Stoppard and Pinter, among others (long form interviews with them, really). I miss him.

All this is said as a prelude to my belated grouse. I was looking at last Sunday's Arts and Leisure section, when I saw an article entitled Prolific Director Off Off Off Off Broadway. In some ways my hackles were raised immediately: I hate it when people add Off Off the Off-Off-Broadway term (One reason I prefer the term independent theater), trying to make a further hierarchy among the small, disenfranchised theaters of New York.

But in fact, the truth was much much worse. Or, to mirror the headline, it was Much Much Much Much Worse. For the director, David Cromer, who was supposedly obscure, was only obscure because he had done a few shows off the beaten Chicago. Here, of course, he has recently directly the highly visible and successful Off-Broadway productions of The Adding Machine (won an Obie and a Lortel) , as well as the very successful Orson's Shadow which had its start at a tiny little theater in Chicago...called Steppenwolf.

My God, is that what passes for a find? This is "the most talented theater director that Americans have never heard of?" Is Isherwood even aware there actually is an Off-Off-Broadway scene, here in New York?

I wish Cromer success, and congratulations on his article in the Times. I saw both The Adding Machine and Orson's Shadow and enjoyed them. But this sort of coverage in the Times is why so many very talented directors in New York continue to be unheard of.

Perhaps we should move to Chicago so Isherwood can notice us.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

California Musical Theater AD resigns over Prop 8

I must say that I am conflicted over the recent news that Scott Eckern of California Musical Theater has resigned as Artistic Director.  Eckern was a proponent of Proposition 8 in California - more than proponent, he donated $1000, which is a sizable amount for anyone who makes theater their main business.  He is also a Mormon, and was following his religious beliefs.

When the donation came to light, he faced threats of a boycott of the theater.  He quickly responded by resigning, stating he never meant to hurt anybody, and offering to donate $1000 to a gay rights charity.

What to make of this?  According to the New York Times, nobody is happy, not even those who threatened to boycott the theater, such as Marc Shaiman.  Eckern, for his part, said "I honestly had no idea that this would be the reaction."

I have to wonder how someone who makes his living in musical theater could have been surprised that homosexuals feel strongly about achieving equal rights.  I almost feel bad for him, alone in a small section of society where almost everyone supports gay rights, while the majority of America still fights against them.

But would I feel bad for him if he had voted against a woman's right to vote, or for school segregation?  Would I feel bad for him if he had voted that Jews should not have the right to marry?

I don't think Mr. Eckern is a bad person.  But I cannot forgive his prejudice, either.

Yet let us also bear in mind that, publicly at least, our Democratic President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden have stated that they do not believe in gay marriage, either.  Secretly, I was hoping that maybe they were lying when they said it.  After all, they did not want it to become the center of the campaign.  And they certainly didn't contribute money to the cause - that in itself puts Eckern in a totally different category.

And yet, how sad.  And how hopeless Eckern's battle was.  Because, for all the hubub about Proposition 8, those who are fighting against gay marriage have already lost.  Yes, there has been a setback.  But it is a only matter of time.  The ads for Prop 8 focused on the children.  The children will learn that being gay is acceptable, the ads implied.

They will already learn that, of course.  And soon those children will vote.  And someday they will look back at people such as Eckern and shake their heads in wonder, maybe even feeling a little melancholy for those caught in an old belief system, a belief system destined someday to die.

I hope soon.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Doctor Atomic and American renewal

On Wednesday, I saw Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera. I was interested in it not just because of the mixture of science and art but also, of course, because at UTC61 we produced a play called Hiroshima: Crucible of Light last year. Both pieces focus on Robert Oppenheimer and The Bomb.

Frankly, I was underwhelmed by the opera- by the design, by the direction, by the libretto, and even by the music, by John Adams. Doctor Atomic is all about waiting, specifically waiting for the first atomic bomb to be tested at Los Alamos. The final scene (after 3.5 hours of waiting) was quite literally a scene about waiting, waiting through a countdown in which two minutes somehow took ten. It takes a avant garde master like Beckett to dramatize waiting, and Doctor Atomic definitely didn't reach the level of Godot. We sat up in the cheap seats, which I do love at the Met - they aren't bad, even all the way up there. Thank goodness some seats are affordable, much more so than Broadway.

But one thing the opera did make me reflect on was a statement I read on the BBC news right after the Obama win - I can't find the exact article again, but what it said was almost identical to what U.N. President Kofi Anan stated: Obama's win once again demonstrates "America's extraordinary capacity to renew itself and adapt to a changing world."

I've seen sentiments like that often in the last few says, mostly on the international news sites, often enough to make me think that renewal and reinvention are virtues somewhat commonly attributed to us by the rest of the world.

How does this relate to Doctor Atomic? Well, the opera was of course a reminder that for all the great good the U. S. has done (and I do believe we have at times managed to do great good), we have also committed some terrible sins. My mind boggles at the idea that we were actually able to bring ourselves to drop that monstrosity on Japan. Everyone here talks of World War II in terms of Germany (and by implication Hitler and the Holocaust), because that way we can talk about WWII as the only morally justifiable war, but we forget the war, or at least our involvement in it, started and ended with Japan.

I think about that time in particular because it was on the heels of the New Deal and our emergence from the Depression. And of course the day Japan surrendered because of our atomic assaults, VJ day as it was called then, was a cause for jubilation at the time - and who can begrudge a nation sick of war celebrating its end? But in the midst of that celebration was the seeds of those problems that would shape the era to come, problems partly embodied by The Bomb.

Now, we are in celebration mode again, at least among the New Yorkers who comprise the majority of my associations. We have renewed ourselves in racial politics, but at the same time, Proposition 8 in California shows that we are having far less success in the area of homophobia. Will we someday renew ourselves again, get rid of our discriminatory laws, and maybe even elect a homosexual president? I hope so, but it will be a long time in coming.

And this time, unlike that moment at Los Alamos, we are heading into bad economic times, not out of them, and it will take a lot more renewal to find our way through. I'm glad that the international community is excited about Obama, and that in itself is an important renewal, regaining our status in the world. But we are not done.

The truth is, we will never be done.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Bohemian National Hall (aka the Czech National Building)

This weekend, the Bohemian National Hall in New York, alternatively known as the Czech National Building, finally reopened.

That probably doesn't mean that much to those who have not been following the saga of the BNH. But it means a lot to the the Czechs, who have been following its progress closely. And I hope that, in years to come, it will come to mean more to those of us in New York.

The BNH originally opened in 1896, and it was a gathering place for Czech and Slovak immigrants. The building is five stories high, and the spaces within it are vast and beautiful. After it fell out of disuse in the 1940's, it was rented to a number of groups. Perhaps most interestingly for the theater crowd, it was the original location of the Manhattan Theater Club, back when the MTC was a burgeoning Off-Off-Broadway company.

It then fell into total disrepair, occasionally attracting notice as a curiosity, but mainly a large, empty skeleton. However, the Bohemian Benevolent Literary Association continued to maintain ownership, and in 2001 the BBLA sold it to the Czech Republic for a dollar. There were grand plans. It was to become a theater, a cinema, an art gallery, a cafe, the home of the Czech Center and the home of the Czech consul general's office, all in one. The Czech government would do all the work on it, and the BBLA would then have a home and an office of its own.

Then the work began. Or rather, didn't begin.

I first encountered the Bohemian National Hall in 2006, right before the Havel Festival. One floor had been (almost) completed. But Halka Kaiserova, the Consul General at the time, was determined to have the space be functional. So she offered us the opportunity to have our opening there, a party in celebration of Vaclav Havel's 70th birthday.

It was exciting, and the event was highly successful. But a look into the old ballroom found a space in a sort of gorgeous decay, that made me feel like perhaps Peter Brook could take the space as is and make it into a functioning theater.

However, that wasn't the vision, although Gita Fuchsova, who came in to help make the BNH project function again, was able to use the raw space for a number of interesting cultural events.

But once again the space shut down for repairs, with the firm determination that this time, it must be finished - by the end of October, 2008, just in time for the 90th anniversary of Czech independence and the upcoming Czech presidency of the European Union.

It just made it. Almost. There is no cafe, still, that has to be built. But the rest is there.

The ballroom/theater is an incredible large, beautiful space, with a bar, a stage, and a huge area with high ceilings and a balcony all round that can serve multiple functions. How it works as a theater - well, that is to be seen, I suppose. I helped somewhat in the planning, but I was one of many voices, and much had already been set. And how a space functions in reality is always a little different than the theory. But New York has a new theater space, which is always good news (The elaborate curtained stage can be seen above).

And, as promised, there is a cinema on the ground floor, an art gallery on the second floor (with an exhibit about the BNH with pictures of it in development, an exhibit I recommend), the BBLA of the third floor, and even a beautiful roof terrace.

Untitled Theater Company #61 will have the honor of presenting one of the first programs there, Prague 1600, a look at the time of Rudolf II and the Golem. Our first event: A screening of the classic silent film The Golem, accompanied by live music from Gary Lucas. It will be in the main ballroom/theater, and it is worth attending just to see the space alone. But I can also say the Gary is an extremely skilled musician, and this is a rare chance to see his work absolutely free. Truly worth going to. Check out the clip on YouTube and see/hear his work.

After that, we will be having readings of Golem Stories (December 1) and Rudolf II (December 15). Go to all of them!

But even if you miss those programs (which you should not!), I recommend the visit to the BNH. It is a building truly worth seeing.