Monday, October 30, 2006

Size Doesn't Matter?

Matt Freeman asks about the incredibly shrinking play epidemic that is going on:

This trend towards shorter works strikes me as a concession to the ease by which we consume other media. (It may be that people don't mind something longer if they see uniform excellence.) It may simply also be that the shorter works are those that have the least fat on them, and therefore, are direct and elegant in a way that flabbier works are not.

Sometimes, though, there is power in some weight and length, and stories need to develop in a way that is firmly edited. Imagine trying to turn Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? into a more compact, sixty-five minute evening. How much of the play could be lost in order to get across the major ideas? Plenty? How much of the exhaustion and bullishness would be lost in a trimmer version... all of it.

The point about ideas was the focus of a Michael Billington column back in 2005. Billington was wary of the potential for dramatists to start getting slack on the way they attack ideas. Or, worse, choose smaller ideas that can be managed in a short piece. Billington, like Matt Freeman, understands that Beckett and others have mastered the "crystallisation of an idea." However, there is something lost on this way to bite-sized dramas:

But what I miss is the polyphonic richness of which drama is capable, or the complexities of character revealed by an unfolding narrative. One reason why people are flocking to Don Carlos is that it provides exactly the kind of stimulus so much modern drama lacks: exploration of ideas through character, examination of the manifold selves that make up individuals, the thrilling collision of private and public worlds.

August Wilson is always brought in these discussions, with good reason. Wilson's plays generally run two and half to three-plus hours, but, as Freeman points out in his example of Virginia Woolf, you can't really conceive of them being much shorther.

Of course, there really aren't many people, including Wilson enthusiasts, who could say that his plays couldn't deal with a little judicious cutting here and there. But could you cut... say... 45 minutes from Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and end up with the same play?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Who The Hell Are We?

The blogosphere has been talking of how to handle criticism of the work of fellow bloggers.

Parabasis had thrown the question out on his blog this past week with regards to a production he currently has running: In Public, which is written by another blogger, George Hunka of Superfluities.

What i'm thinking about lately is how reluctant we are to criticize each other's work. I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing. But I've got a show open right now, and a lot of bloggers have come to see it, and they have said amazingly positive things about it. I am incredibly greatful for all the wonderful things people are saying. I also know (not because they've told me, but because it just makes sense) that at the same time they are withholding criticism of the play.

Scott Walters of Theatre Ideas points out that we are very quick to criticize the ideas of others, why are we reluctant to turn the searchlights on our own community.

All of this talk came home when I received a comment on a brief post I wrote about my wedding anniversary.

The commenter, one Neil Labute, posted a comment on my blog and another blog. (I am not sure if it really is the Neil Labute, in fact, I should assume it is not, but the idea that it could be Mr. Labute is interesting.)

Well, Mr. Labute seemed offended that James Comtois and I would spend time discussing his work. In both cases he said that he couldn't wait to see our next productions, so that he could see how it is supposed to be done.

This made me think about the questions of blogging criticism. I don't know Neil Labute and I have never been shy about writing criticism of his work. But it is out there. And he very well could be reading it.

At first my reaction to Mr. Labute's jab about us spending time discussing his work was anger. (His intended response, I am sure.)

I mean I can't speak for James, but I have spent money on tickets to Mr. Labute's movies and plays, and I have purchased several of his playscripts. I don't mind if he has disagreements with critical assessments, but the insinuation that people who have spent time and money watching and reading his work have no place to be discussing it is absurd.

However, that being said, Mr. Labute's comment about our next plays, which basically challenges us to do better, is well put.

Who the hell are we, theater artists, to proclaim what we think is the right way to do it, or the wrong way to do it, or what is wrong with American theatre or playwriting anyway?

Should playwrights be openly slamming the works of other playwrights? (Whether they are famous or not.)

Are we all part of the theatrical community, whether we are David Hare or a playwright producing his own play in a 40 seat theater in Seattle?

Do we circle the wagons, or so we throw each other under the bus?

Scott Walters makes sense when he says the following:

Blogging has the potential to spread ideas beyond a small circle of friends and acquaintances to the theatre world as a whole. A playwright reading a serious discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of In Public might be able to strengthen the play he or she is working on right now. The same is true of a
discussion of directing, or designing. As theatre bloggers, we have the opportunity to have a positive impact on the development of other theatre artists, and I think one of the things we need to model is a rigorous form of critical thinking and self-assessment. I'm not talking the spilling of blood, I
am talking the granting of the ultimate artistic compliment: taking something seriously.

With the decline of Arts Coverage, even in the alternative weekly press, (our own Boston Phoenix now has the lead critic sandwiching three weekly reviews into one column,) can blogs actually be considered a replacement? Probably not. Can blogs provide the positive impact that Scott is talking about? It seems more likely.

I always remember Michael Lewis' great book Next; the Future Just Happened. He presented a picture of how many massive changes happened during the explosion of the Internet. However, we were kind of oblivious to these shifts because they happened so fast and we were all right in the middle of them.

My last post was really more akin to something one would put in a greeting card I guess. A nice memory of my wedding day.

Ten years ago, who would have thought I would be interactively sharing it with people from all over the world. And to go one further, who would have thought that one of the most successful playwrights of the past twenty years would take the time to make fun of it. (If, in fact, it is really him.)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Perfectly Blessed Storm

Four years ago today, I woke from by bed at a small inn and padded across the floor to push back the curtains.

My view was the harbor of Edgartown, and what I saw could only be described as The Perfect Storm. Winds whipped nastily and boats rocked and pulled at their moorings. The raindrops spattered against the panes of glass on the window with horizontal impact.

Ahhh. My Wedding Day.

Blissfully, the rain subsided as we all arrived at the Church, and then laid off as we exited after the service as well.

However, the wind kept up and resulted in perhaps our favorite wedding picture of all time: My wife and I are exiting the church as the bridesmaids and groomsmen are trying to wrestle with the soaring and billowing train of the wedding dress, which looks as if it is threatening to pull them off the ground.

For any couples worrying about the forecasts for the blessed day, please don't lose any sleep. The weather couldn't get any worse than that day, and we had a day I wouldn't change for the world.

Happy Anniversary, My Love.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

To See, Or Not To See

I am a Hamlet enthusiast, if not a fanatic. I read the text at least once a year, I try to see as many productions as I can, and I devour criticism about the play.

However, strangely, I have never been much into the textual/authorship debates that occupy the discussion of many other bardoloters. My knowledge of these things is pretty much is confined to the notes and introductions in my Riverside Edition of Shakespeare.

I am torn about attending what looks like a great event tonight. Actor's Shakespeare Project is putting on a panel discussion at the Strand Theatre, which is the site of their current production of Hamlet.

Hamlet Conversations sports some of the fine directors of recent regional productions of Hamlet, and will include the added bonus of moderation by Stephen Greenblatt who is the author of the recent best-seller Will in the World; How Shakespeare became Shakespeare.

As much I would love to attend, this is one of the few nights in this busy theatre season when I can take advantage of a night off to catch up on sleep. I am moving through life the last five days as if I am underwater.

If any Mirror up To Nature readers attend, please let me have a rundown.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Being UnAlone
Thom Pain;(based on nothing) by Will Eno
at New Repertory

Who order'd that their longing's fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cool'd?
Who renders vain their deep desire?--
A God, a God their severence ruled;
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea.
-To Marguerite, Matthew Arnold

The New Rep production fo Thom Pain: (based on nothing,) surprised me with its emotional climax. I had read the text back when James Urbaniak was performing Will Eno's short little stealth missle of a play, but was unprepared for how moved I was going to feel at the end.

During its initial success, I reviewed the critical praises it was receiving and was intrigued with the concept. Charles Ishwerwood of the New York Times, in a rave review of Thom Pain, famously praised Will Eno by calling him "the Samuel Beckett of the Jon Stewart generation."

Most reviews seemed to focus on the long pauses and the acerbic provocations of the main character. However, on my first reading of the text, I pleasantly found that Eno had written a tightly scripted, very structured piece, in which seemingly disjointed clues come together in quick climax and then a touching denoument.

And, rather than bullying the audience, Eno wants to seed their imagination with natural imagery that is simultaneously beautiful and repellent.

One of the most amazing images that stays with you long after the production: A shy, awkward man, alone in the world, gets food poisoning, vomits and collapses in a park during December. He hears music and stumbles over to the brightly lit public skating rink where happy couples and families whiz by in joyful holiday bliss. He stands at the edge, covered in his own bile.

That image, and many others, resonates on several levels with such deep incisiveness that it is hard to dismiss.

But aside from the structure, there is even more to discover about this play. Given much of the talk around our theatrical blogosphere regarding experimentation and provocation, it was interesting to see that a play considered to be a very fringey and confrontational work, would have such a big, shaggy, lovable-mutt heart at its center.

At first, Diego Arciniegas, a wonderful actor, possessed of a great voice, seems the wrong choice. He is too handsome, and not schleppy enough to be the acerbic loser of the piece. Soon though, you are drawn into the patterns and rythyms of Thom Pain's web. So much for reading the text of the play beforehand.

On that note: I noticed in several other reviews of the play around the country, people have mentioned that when the lights come up, the actor playing the part doesn't seem to be whom they would expect. For instance, Brendan Kiley, in his "live blogging" review of Thom Pain at Seattle Rep, says almost immediately, "He [Moore] is in his 50s, which seems weird, having read the script, which is a monologue about someone who seemed to be an angry young man."

I realize now that these are really funny reactions on our part. Thom Pain could be anybody, he could be any person you pass on the street or he even could be you at either some time in the past or some time in the future.

Loneliness is a bitter disease. Thom is a clever, witty and, yes, attractive person. The key to the play is to realize that this man's life could just as easily have gone in a different direction, but the masterstroke is Eno's resistance of our need to pinpoint the cause of Thom's messed up circumstances. Thom gives us snapshots of somebody's life, incidents that perhaps all might add up to a diagnosis. But in the end, it doesn't seem as if the flawed man we see on stage is at fault for what has happened to him. And neither does it seem as if he is blaming anybody else.

He is the ultimate stoic, smirking his way through life, knowing that at least he is alive. Maybe he will find love, but maybe he won't. And at the core of such an existence we do not find freedom or grand enlightment, we find...Pain.

It is in Eno's commitment to his controlling idea that I find the Isherwood comparison to Beckett so fitting. In the end, the pain of Thom Pain is the pain we all experience, the bleak understanding of existence.

What this lovable loser, this post-modern, Beckett-like tramp would most desperately like for us to understand, is perhaps the only wisdom he can offer: In our time on this earth, sometimes just the simple state of being "Un-alone," might be the greatest joy for which we can hope.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

New New New

This week, if you want to see new plays, check out the following:

First Blush by Amy Adler at Boston Playwright's Theater

Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck at the Wimberly Theater

The Out on the Edge Festival at Theater Offensive is worth a look as well.

These are World Premiere shows. Shows that haven't been performed in other places, you are seeing them for the first time here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Red Meat for the Masses

Mr. Excitement and Joshua James point to the recent article by Richard Nelson on the first anniversary of Nelson's taking over the Playwrighting Program at Yale Drama.

After reading teasers, I was pumped up to read the article. After all, what playwright wouldn't be stirred by this:

The damage this culture of “development” has done and continues to do to my profession is and has been immeasurable. To take just one catastrophic change: actors, directors, and even audiences are being taught by this culture to “help”
the playwright write his or her play...

here is a whole slew of individuals, often interesting and generous individuals, who have been put into the unfortunate position of “shepherding” plays through this process. In other words there are many many hands now stirring or being encouraged to stir the playwriting pot...

Getting others’ hands out of the playwright’s play (and head) is a major task and a necessary goal of the profession and of a professional playwright-training program.

Mr. Nelson's disdain for the development cycle is understood. I won't argue that, in fact, I agree.

However, (please read the rest of the article) his argument is near impossible to follow:

He wants a pre-professional program, but he seems to spit on any talk of the nuts and bolts of how a play works?

Hamlet has no structure? No character, no motivation? What the hell is he talking about?

For the record, I agree with 13P's mission and I agree that development cycles can be ridiculous. I do think that audience feedback takes things a little too far. But let's remember Shakespeare went through many versions of plays over the years, tinkering with Hamlet, etc. One has to believe that some of the changes were based on seeing the play performed and looking at how audiences reacted.

Having followed plays through development cycles and all the way to production, I will say that Mr. Nelson is dead wrong. One of the problems is that there is too much "What is the play about?", "Why did you write it?" Meanwhile, everybody tiptoes around the fact that the play is "not working," and that there are serious problems with it.

Mr. Nelson is too smart not to know that he is playing semantics. He is substituting the word "rules," (which he knows will always disgust artists,) for what are actually "principles."

(Far more valuable are Jose Rivera's Assumptions About Playwrighting.)

Now, once again, I would rather see productions than endless development. And, being a playwright, I do take ownership of my plays. Very often I have produced and directed my own plays.

What I see happening is that development programs are becoming the equivalent of the Hollywood test screening. Theatres put on a series of readings for the subscribers and see if they like respond positively. If so, then it wins a production. If not, the playwright is subjected to all sorts of vague advice and gets the equivalent of going straight to DVD.

Contrary to Mr. Nelson's view, I find that plays change very slightly from first reading to production.

At least he is clear what he thinks. Original Voice is the only thing one needs to succeed. No principles, no guidance, no knowledge of what has come before. The fact that the audience, or even the director has no clue what you are doing, (or what the point is,) should not matter. Once you have original voice, you need nothing else. You just need productions.

A friend of mine who graduated from an MFA writing program often jokes: "The first thing you notice about going to get an MFA in writing is that you are immediately set to studying the works of authors who never went to an MFA Program. And the second thing you notice is that most of the best teachers you have never went to an MFA program."

13P realizes what the answer is. They have formed their own company, and they are taking ownership.

As a supplement to this article, I would suggest people read Feingold's review of a Second Stage production last year.

I wish I knew who encourages plays like Rajiv Joseph’s All This Intimacy, the second entry in Second Stage’s summer "New Plays Uptown" season. I don’t mean that the results are so dire—Joseph has talent and is presumably young enough as
a playwright to be entitled to make the many kinds of mistakes that All This Intimacy commits, all over the stage, practically every time it draws a breath. Nor do I object, particularly, to the inflicting of such an immature play on adult critics with better things to do, or contrariwise, to the infliction of their resentment on the author: Baptism by fire may not be the most pleasant way for a young artist to learn, but it has its informative side, especially in our cuckoo-headed culture, which offers artists constant encouragement to repeat their worst mistakes. Some of Joseph’s elders and should-be wisers have built entire careers on such encouragement.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Kushner On Miller

I was running to the post office at lunch today and heard Tony Kushner on NPR talking about Arthur Miller on what would be Miller's birthday.

You can hear it here.

Kushner has become one of the most eloquent defenders of Miller, O'Neill and Williams as the playwrights who forged the way for serious American Drama.

Despite the inexplicably consistent efforts of many critics, some whom I greatly admire, to bring it down, Death of a Salesman, as Kushner explains, will continue to exist as a work of art.
Do Critics Need a Self Defense Class?

Bloom: Actors are not animals! They're human beings!

Bialystock: They are? Have you ever eaten with one?

-The Producers by Mel Brooks

Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter, spent his life around dangerous animals. And he died, from a poisonous stingray, in pursuit of his passion and his vocation.

It seems that theater reviewers might be able to relate after the recent rough-up of a critic by the artistic director of the Cleveland Playhouse.

In the past few years critics seem to fall back on the fact that they often must engage personally with their subjects as some type of badge of courage. You would think the theater beat is akin to some strange tributary that must be navigated as if one was Mr. Irwin on a croc hunt for the Discovery Channel.

However, this latest incident in Ohio may lend credence to their tearwaters. The Denver Post theatre critic, John Moore, tries to make sense things, and ends up with some advice:

The goal of the critic is to move readers to action - usually to go and see a particular show. The goal is not to move an artistic director to deliver a sharp right uppercut.

There is no universal rule book for criticism, no how-to manual. My guidelines: Be true to your visceral emotional response, good or bad. State your case and back it up. Be a catalyst for discussion. Encourage dialogue. Don't be personal. Never try to be funny at the expense of someone's feelings.

Of course criticism is no place for grudges or vendettas or misuse of power. Every show at every theater must be a clean slate. Conversely I think it is the responsibility of any critic, especially one at a major metro newspaper, to use his influence and access to help build up the community he serves in any way that does not compromise his ability to also objectively evaluate theater.

That means speaking to classes, moderating forums, and most of all - seeing as many plays as possible, and writing about them honestly. Then let the readers decide.

Happy Hunting Critics!....And Artistic Directors!

Monday, October 16, 2006

While The Dig gets stuck, The Stranger leaps forward:

Jenna Sherer's caustic, but poorly constructed, rant about fringe theatre is still attracting comments on The Daily Dig .

Meanwhile, Brendan Kiley, writing for Seattle's Stranger, tries to blog a review in real time from a performance of Thom Pain at Seattle Rep. Technically, it was a nightmare, but you can read the aborted project notes.

Would any Boston theatre company, let alone the Huntington or the ART allow an alternative weekly or a blogger to live blog a review from the booth?

That's why Seattle and Chicago are theatre towns, and we are still trying to catch up.

And no, it doesn't mean I neccessarily think it is a good idea. But it is a good experiment.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

We All Get Bad Reviews Now and Then...

But there is really no excuse for this behaviour by at the Cleveland Playhouse:

Artistic Director Michael Bloom, inspired by an unfavorable review Brown had written of the play and his direction, spied Brown in the back row of the theater, hurried down the aisle and ran the critic down in the lobby, where he passionately delivered an intimate and unrestrained critique of the review.

Accounts of the exchange differ. Brown says Bloom gripped his
hand and wouldn't let go, cursed him loudly in a threatening way and then pounded him overly hard on the back as he left.

Bloom, calling the incident "unfortunate," declined to dissect it but described his parting gesture as a "pat" on the back.
What seems uncontested is that the encounter was uncomfortable, unfriendly and -- to Brown at least --
slightly scary.

Don Hall Responds

Don Hall wrote a response to my query about his thoughts on a critic like Jenna Sherer at the Weekly Dig.

Far from banning her from performances, Don says, "bring it on!" But there is so much more to his response that is worth reading. He talks about avante-garde and fringe theatre in general, but he also talks about the differences in audiences between cities:

I've noticed that in New York at least (I can't speak to the fringe scene in Boston) that the audience is a bit more European in their approach to theater. Joel Jeske once told me that in NYC, you can put up anything and it will get some sort of audience because going to the theater is a priority for New Yorkers. Theater is a part of the leisure activity scene.

Chicago, while having a thriving theater community, does not have a thriving theater audience.

Simply put, the Chicago audience, in general, will put up with a lot of high concept, intellectual, avant-garde shows but they will not, under any circumstances, put up with being bored.

What struck me is the distinction Don makes between theater community and the theater audience.

I went to see The Departed last night and, (sitting in a jam packed theater full of Bostonians,) I had a great time, and noticed the absolute blast the audience was having. Though the film is not at all the definitive Boston movie that some suggest it is, it revels in the attitude and patois of the area.

We, as an audience, were also all responding to the underlying corruption and tangled alliances between crime, cops and legislators that this city has experienced. Although, I guess we are like any other city whose current political system was birthed in patronage.

But the brief glimpses of Matt Damon's crooked cop staring at the dome of the State House longingly, just seem to strike a unique chord of cynicism and shame in a Massachusetts audience. Whitey Bulger, ( whom Jack Nicholson's character is based,) commited outright terrorism on the city of Boston for decades, while his brother Billy ran the Mass legislature.

Just for the record Boston went throught the hurricane of the Priest Abuse Scandal through the late nineties and early 2000's. And in all the time since, only one theatre production has dealt directly with that scandal. Sin, A Cardinal Deposed which was written by a Los Angeles writer from the transcripts of Cardinal Law's deposition, and produced by....a Chicago Company, Bailiwick Repertory Theatre.

I loudly spoke out about this at the time, basically saying that our neighbors were suffering and we as artists did nothing to try and help us make sense of this artistically. I think people misunderstood what I was asking for, most of the comments about my statements indicated that people believed I was advocating more "ripped from the headlines," or documentary theatre.

(For the record, in 2002, our local playwright Ronan Noone did write The Lepers of Baile Baiste, a fantastic play which deals with priest sexual abuse in Ireland, which was produced here in Boston.)

My question is: (and I would be very interested to see if what Scott Walters thinks,) Is there, or should there be a line between the theatre community and the theatre audience?

Monday, October 09, 2006

A Return To Strangeness

Yesterday's Boston Globe had an article about Small Beer Press in Northhampton, MA. Small Beer specializes in publishing a brand of literary fiction that isn't scared to introduce elements of genres such as science fiction, fantasy and horror. This type of hybrid is being called New Wave Fabulist.

``A new wave fabulist is a writer who has transcended the conventions of sci-fi and fantasy fiction, lifting the traditional genre form into a new literary realm," says Morrow. Any effort to narrow down the category much further than that, he
adds, ``would be like trying to nail a raindrop to the wall."

Critics have often talked of an element of strangeness or weirdness that that imbues almost all great works of fiction. Many consider Henry James a marvelous psychological and realistic novelist, but then again...Turn of the Screw and any number of short stories will show you his keen awareness of metaphysical possibilities. Toni Morrision's Beloved has a ghost as well.

Of course, talent will always out on these types of endeavours. Strangeness was special forte of H.P. Lovecraft, the inspiration of Stephen King and many other Horror writers. However, now that Lovecraft's fiction has been published by the Library of America, in one of its "for the ages" volumes, critics have been quick to point out its silliness, immaturity and amatuerishness.

The New York Review of Books has an article about Lovecraft this month:

Lovecraft is at his most effective when he evokes this inhuman realm, just as he is at his best when he suggests, rather than attempting to describe. He does himself no favors by revealing, for example, that the beings of the Great Race are cone-shaped, of a "scaly, rugose, iridescent bulk...ten feet tall and ten feet wide at the base"; the sight may cause Lovecraft's narrator to scream hellishly, but the reader is more likely to picture some kind of Cyclopean jelly candy. The more spectral and unimaginable his subject, the more Lovecraft is at home. Where he fails utterly is in conveying lived experience, the material counterweight to his phantoms. His monsters, when exposed to the light, exhibit the pathos of creatures in poverty-row horror movies; his depictions of human life on earth in his own day are the least credible elements in his work.

On our stages, apart from the occasional failed foray, we have essentially given up on the thriller. Some theatre companies will occasionally trot out Knott's Wait Until Dark, which only serves to highlight how much better film and television can do that genre.

The ghostly and supernatural are still viables, Conor McPherson, (The Weir, St. Nicholas,) has undoubtedly shown us how well it can work. And the psychological-thriller elements of The Pillowman seem incredibly weak compared to the ghostly and macabre stories the author Katurian weaves.

One of August Wilson's triumphant moments was Herald Loomis's vision in Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Indeed, anybody who reads Wilson's canon can feel that supernatural vision at the edges of the best of his work.

Maybe it is the Method's hold over actors, that makes them more comfortable with the realistic. Shakespeare had no problems with ghosts and witches.

I am doing Chilling Tales for Salem Theatre Company up in Salem, MA again this year. It is great practice for not only the actor, but the playwright as well. It is you, your story, and audience. That is it. Of course, we are surrounded by the replica of 1797 East Indiaman Cargo Ship, which is big help, but as far as pure theatre, you can't get better practice than this.

As a performer you are sitting in dim light, with just a story tell to a small group of people. Can you rivet their attention? Can you suspend their reality just for at least a brief moment somewhere in the course of the story? Can you bring them to a place where these eerie things are at least somewhat plausible?

It is great fun and a great challenge.

Does drama need to get back to a strangeness?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

When in Doubt...

I love situations where reviewers, who were sitting in the same audience, seem to have seen two completely different shows:

Here is the Seattle Weekly on the Seattle Rep's production of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt:

Everything that could go wrong with this edgy, risky work—and plenty could— goes perfectly right, resulting in a performance that carries an emotional and intellectual wallop that reverberates long after the final curtain. Deftly avoiding easy sentimentality and ham-fisted moralism, director Warner Shook stages Shanley's play with grace, confidence, and fierce economy....

At every turn, Doubt foils audience expectations—each moment shades to gray. And it's not only the play's central question that remains unanswered and steeped in uncertainty.

And here is Brendan Kiley in The Stranger:

The problem with Doubt as a production at the Seattle Rep is that there's too little of it...

...the audience member sitting in the Rep is too sure of everything—the direction (by the usually impeccable Warner Shook) and the muddled acting telegraph the conclusion from the first scene. To confirm my suspicions, I asked my date, who knew nothing about Doubt, at what point she figured out whether Father Flynn was guilty: "Oh, from the very beginning," she said. "The rest was obvious."

I guess this would be a case where you should see for yourself.

As a side note: I like Doubt, but "edgy"? and "risky?" C'mon Seattle Weekly, you know better than that.
When Arts Organizations Attack...each other

Hat tip to Blog for Cambridge on this story of two mainstays of the artistic scene here in Cambridge. The Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center and The Dance Complex continue their bitter fued.

The fight between the two groups began three years ago when East Cambridge-based CMAC tried to evict the Dance Complex from its Central Square studios. Since then, the battle bursts back into public view every time the City Council passes a budget.

CMAC wanted the dance group to pay market rate for Odd Fellows Hall. The Dance Complex maintained that the only reason CMAC holds the deed to the building is because in 1993 the better-established CMAC had a credit rating while the then-fledgling Dance Complex did not. Dance Complex officials said they have acted in autonomy, finding tenants for the two retail stores on the first floor of the building and paying for renovations and the mortgage since 1993.

"They've invested no money in the building," said Rozann Kraus, founder and director of the Dance Complex. "The only money they've spent on the Dance Complex is the money they paid their lawyers to try to evict us."

Kraus said CMAC is trying to make a money grab for the building. CMAC's executive director, Shelley Neill, declined to comment when reached by phone.

The city is involved in the dispute because Cambridge provides annual funding to CMAC and helped fund the down payment for the Central Square building. According to a 1993 agreement, the city paid CMAC $75,000 for a down payment for the purchase of 536 Mass. Ave.

Can't we all just get along.
(what would Don Hall do?)

How to respond to this...

Hey New England Theatre Producery Types out there: I have a really pressing question to ask you:can you stop making shit? Boston has thousands of fringe theatre companies out there, all with the same mission statement plastered boldly on the cover pages of their programs - to get us wee ones (65 and under)
into the theater. The problem is, we want theater that is relevant or at least entertaining. Not stuff that's so "avante garde" that it is actually meaningless or stuff that's too artsy to hold any water. And yet the shit keeps pouring out.

It goes on, and people are weighing in on the comments. I am going to say something that may be slightly controversial, but here it goes... this is refreshing.

Now, people have said I am wrong for giving Ms. Sherer any credit for her foul-mouthed reviews. ( She liberally peppers the f-bomb and s-bomb into her missives. )

Here is the thing though, this reviewer is receiving our marketing, reading our mission statements and going into the shows with expectations as high as we are making them. And I believe that she is trying to channel the actual, off-the-street audience member who may find themselves wandering into the BCA or the Devenaugh, or the Actors Workshop because they saw a flier or an ad. This is not neccessarily a bad thing for the theatre scene to have.

Would I want her to attend one of my shows? Good question. I guess because I am on a hiatus from producting anything right now it is easier for me to sit back and delude myself into thinking I would welcome it. "Bring it on!"-- so to speak. An the other hand, I wonder what Mr. Don Hall, the Angry Guy In Chicago would do. He more than likely would bar her from entering the theatre.

I would see his point, since the more experienced producer side of me knows from reading her reviews that she may be the type of critic who could haul off on you because she got no chicken in her pad thai before the show, or her umbrella broke in downpour that afternoon.

Somebody, (in talking about Ms. Sherer to me,) mentioned the Tricia Olszewski imbroglio in which a stringer theatre critic, who had a habit of consistently trashing productions, made comments on her personal blog that would indicate that she didn't like theatre in general. Olszewski was then pretty much forced to give up her post after local theatre producers vocally protested to the paper. This post from theatreboy is far more detailed.

Understandably, many critics, including our own Bill Marx, saw a sort of chilling effect in this event. After all, should theatre producers be able to force out a critic? My feelings, after reading many accounts (which included statements from Olszewski) were that Olszewski really didn't like theatre, and when pressed by her editors, she copped to that fact.

This isn't the case here, although I would say that Ms. Sherer has demonstrated that she has incredibly low tolerance and even hostility to avante garde work. But then again, this is the attitude of 98% of the theatre going public.

And I would agree that she should really dial down her outrage about shows she hasn't yet seen. It isn't civil, fair, or constructive.

That type of rhetoric would only be permissable in a column that is announcing her departure.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

"New" Versus "Current"

On a Google Playwriting Group I belong to there is discussion going on about defining what, exactly, are new works.

People may say that it is being too picky, but I think it is important to try and cut through the marketing flab that even theatres have to engage in in order to compete in the marketplace.

Will Stackman has introduced a possible classification system, and I have kind of fleshed them out below:

New: A new play is a play that is receiving a world premiere production. It may have received readings, or a staged reading before, but this is its first actual full production with a substantial run.

Current: Regional Premieres would be the prime example of this type of play. For instance, The Pillowman and Thom Pain, both playing regionally here in Boston are current plays. They have premiered within the last few years elsewhere and played in many different cities and garnered reviews and hence increasing the marketing power behind them.

Category X: (I haven't figured out a name for these types of productions yet.) Basically these are the types of regional productions that we get with Yale Rep's Eurydice, (which I reviewed below,) or bobraushenbergamerica, currently at the American Repertory Theatre. These are productions that make the regional circuit, (and perhaps even to off broadway,) but basically with the same players in place. The set design, sound design, director, and a couple of actors are usually the same.

The Eurydice currently playing at Yale Rep, is basically the same Eurydice that was done at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before, and bobrauschenbergamerica has played at Humana, BAM, etc.

In the comments of a post on Mr. Excitement, Isaac Butler of Parabasis points out that it is a little misleading to call Eurydice a New Play, because, as he says, "Ruhl wrote it in grad school, and it has been produced in many different places. The Yale Rep production is a re-mounting of the Berkeley Rep production, with a few cast changes, but the same design and central actor (Maria Dizzia). "

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

by Sarah Ruhl
Yale Repertory Theatre

A little over two thirds of the way through Les Waters' beautiful staging of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice at the Yale Repertory Theatre something surprisingly refreshing happens. It is not something that you will read in detail about in many of the reviews, but I will point it out here because it is something seemingly small, but matters to me a great deal.

Let me go back a number of years ago. I was attending a tech/dress rehearsal of Andrei Serban’s The Taming of the Shrew at the American Repertory Theatre. This period of rehearsals is an incredibly stressful time in which sound, light and costumes are all fighting for attention. At one point of the show, Mr. Serban had staged a character to enter with great panache and flourish to the Austin Powers theme music.

The first time the entrance was made Mr. Serban stopped everything and requested to do it again and to have the music be louder. So, they made the entrance again. Once again Serban stopped everything and had it done over. Finally, he yelled up to the tech booth, obviously agitated. He said something to the effect of this: “Louder, Louder, what is the problem? You have to FEEL the Music not just lightly hear it!!!”

Finally, the sound was raised to an appropriate level for next time, and I noticed the difference, I noticed how the scene came alive more, how much more response there was. It is a slight pet peeve of mine, especially in smaller, independent theatre shows when the volume is played at a tinny and low level.

The central image of the Orpheus myth is music. So, I was incredibly pleased when Orpheus makes his sad song at the Gates of the Underworld during Eurydice, and the volume keeps increasing and increasing until, as Mr. Serban said, we feel the music. I personally thank the sound designer, Bray Poor, for this.

It is a credit to the creative team, most of all playwright Sarah Ruhl, that we feel the importance of the moment intimately. Feeling that something is at stake for actual people is the essential task when wrestling with a legend like this. After all, we are dealing with a myth that is known to most of the world in some form or another.

In this production what we feel is the tender and aching pangs of loss. In this play loss manifests itself in such banal ways as realizing a lover’s annoying habits, or in such monumental ways as choosing to forget and thereby losing memories.

The inventiveness of Ms. Ruhl’s rethinking of this tale goes beyond her choosing to focus on Eurydice and her experiences in the underworld while awaiting Orpheus. The play also expands its meditation on loss to include another central character, Eurydice’s father, played with great compassion by Charles Shaw Robinson.

On an incredible set made of slightly decaying, but still beautiful, blue and white tiles, (and with the help of the aforementioned sound design,) Ruhl’s dialogue and themes charge into the space with a freshness and playfulness that invigorates.

While sitting at the beach, Orpheus makes a charming marriage proposal by trying to teach the musically challenged Eurydice a tune, but she is much more likely to read a book than to listen to a symphony and so he ties a string to her finger to help her remember. She notices that the string is tied to a “specific finger,” and she eagerly says yes to the implied proposal. But, after an embrace, she sheepishly asks, “Maybe, we could also get a real ring?” Ruhl knows people, and knows how to turn a scene.

This charming prelude is followed by her deceased father, now a resident of the Underworld, writing a letter in the form of a wedding toast . With a magnificent touch by the set and light designers, the weight of this simple scene is magnified with the subtlest change in our focus as we breathlessly discover something that was sitting right in front of our eyes.
The inventiveness keeps coming as we watch the wedding night unfold in both the real world and in the imagination of Eurydice’s father through playfully choreographed dances to the old standard, "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree." And the introduction of the Lord of the Underworld brings tension to balance the overly, (to my personal taste,) sweet feel of the nuptials. Mark Zeisler, as a cross between a lounge lizard and The Continental, (a Christopher Walken character on Saturday Night Live,) cuts a weirdly comedic, but seductively powerful Satanic figure, and he is helped along by Ruhl’s bold choice of overly theatrical dialogue.

Eurydice’s entrance into the Underworld is a steady progression of theatrical magic and stagecraft, (echoing many things from The Phantom of the Opera to Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses,) and I am hesitant to give away the pleasures, though most of them will probably be outlined in every review available for the play.

The visual feast this of this arrival and the brilliant soundscapes of the later journey of the doomed lovers out of Hades bookend what for me, (in what I am guessing will be a dissenting opinion,) a relatively mushy center. Ruhl becomes so sure of her clever conceit, but then chooses to revel in the more lyrical and melodramatic aspects of it for far too long. I am stealing this line (from Carl Rossi, a critic here in Boston,) but it seems that Ruhl has created, in Eurydice's father, just the sort of parent that all of us would like to preserve from death forever.

The running time of the play is approximately 90 minutes and the first 20 – 25 and the last 20 or so minutes are full of the inventiveness that has been heralded of Ruhl’s work, but the center 40 minutes are the textbook example of “second act problems.” We are held in the reminiscence of trees with swings and lovely pastoral images of home life as Father and Daughter reconnect. This is rich territory, but as we watch father and daughter in their little cubbyhole of the afterlife, we realize that what we have to learn from this, we get within five minutes. And to make things more awkward, we are treated to painfully quick scenes of Orpheus mourning or plotting on the other side as he races on and off the stage.

There is a brief shot of energy about midway through this period when the Lord of the Underworld (Zeisler againg) appears, played as a spoiled young child, complete with tricycle. But the brief, intermissionless, running time allows no development , and the overall feeling I had during all of these scenes was of marking time.

Ruhl has figured out an impressive way into the myth, and there is much too see and experience in this production, but a mind that thinks in such a wonderful collage of references should either explore themes to a greater extent, or have the discipline to cut them.

The actors contribute with wonderful performances. Maria Dizzia is a delightful Eurydice and Joseph Parks is a winning Orpheus. And the tightly bunched trio of Gian Murray Giano, Carla Harting and Ramiz Monsef avail themselves expertly in the slightly underwritten roles as a chorus of rocks.

A thanks is due to Paula Vogel for guiding and supporting this talent to the stage in a time when could lose people like Ms. Ruhl to Hollywood faster than you can say Charlie Kauffman.

I look forward to a future of theatregoing with Ruhl's work on the stage, and I am going to try as hard as I can to see the Clean House at Trinity Rep.

(Photo credits: All Photos, Joan Marcus, copyright 2006)

Monday, October 02, 2006

Kushner, The Documentary

Stanley Kauffman reviews a new documentary on Tony Kushner, Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner:

Freida Lee Mock, an admirably skilled documentarian, followed Kushner from just after 9/11 until the 2004 presidential election. Much of this time was of course spent in or around the theater, but it becomes clear that Kushner believes in his theater work as a source of strength and possibility for other aspects of his life.

Like Bernard Shaw in just this one respect,
Kushner takes his playwriting as an enabler. Because of his fame, he is invited to universities and conferences and other public occasions where he speaks.

Kauffman also reminds people of Kushner's valuable article on about Eugene O'Neill, The Native Eloquence of Fog.

Following up on Kauffman's comment above, it is probable that Kushner's social and political activity is also enabling something. Kauffman anxiously laments in the review that Kushner is in prime writing age - 50 years old - and "we want more." I have always wondered about the enabling of artistic stagnation by larger popular and social success. I imagine that being booked solid for lectures is a very seductive way for creative procrastination to grab hold. Perhaps equally seductive may be the idea that at least, for a while, anything you write will be produced somewhere.

Anna Deveare Smith has written that she is "in awe of procrastination," and fights against letting it get even a foothold.

It has been over decade or so since Angels in America and who would have thought at the time of its triumphant appearance that so little in the way of original drama would issue forth from its creator.

If I sound greedy, and unreasonable...well, I plead guilty.

Note: In the way of documentaries about the theatre, let's not forget This So Called Disaster; Sam Shepard directs The Late Henry Moss.