Tuesday, June 29, 2010

More Frightening in the Abstract or the Real?

The Boston Globe's Sandy MacDonald takes in K2 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival:

Like Macdonald, I always find the decision to mount a revival of this play interesting. Without the dread of the impending annihilation by Nature, the play does read a little like subtext theater - clunky though not too melodramatic. The published play script includes a foreword, in which the author talks about the very different ways the play was staged in its first two productions:

"Since the Broadway production opened in March of 83, much attention has been focused on the awesome efforts of designer Ming Cho Lee, who who created a wall, well beyond my wildest dreams. In the Portsmouth and Syracuse productions, the designers had smaller spaces and smaller budgets, but were also able to create beautiful and imaginative sets. ... In Syracuse the set was totally abstract - made entirely of steel and fiberglass - a frozen, existential, no man's land."

The photo above is of the Berkshire production, which I haven't seen. It appears they have split the difference between the abstract and the realistic.

This ties in with the recent New York Times article about the challenges of staging horror in theaters:

Theater artists are divided over how to tackle onstage violence. Most writers simply reject rigid naturalism and strip their productions to bare essentials. “St. Nicholas” and “The Pumpkin Pie Show,” an annual collection of gothic tales by Clay McLeod Chapman, are built around spooky monologues and finely tuned dialogue on an empty stage. “The stories I heard around the campfire as a kid scared me most because they worked on the imagination,” Mr. Chapman said. “Theater should exploit what it does best. I want it to be intimate and spare. As soon as there is an effect, I am looking for the pulleys and the wires, and you lose me.”

As Jordan Roth, president of Jujamcyn Theaters, one of Broadway’s biggest landlords, noted, “If the effects aren’t believable, horror quickly becomes camp.”

The article notes that there is disagreement about this. For instance, playwright James Comtois points out “When you see someone cut onstage, there is just something shocking and jarring.”

Just in Time for the 4th of July!

What would the mayor of Amity (Martha's Vineyard) do?

This morning's Boston Globe reports:

Sorry, not theater related, but I like Jaws and always remember one of takeaways from it was "these waters are too cold for a Great White." Not anymore.

Lois Dreams

Lois Dreams, originally uploaded by arthennessey.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Lois Lane & Race

Over at Parabasis, blogger Anne Moore was visiting home and took in It's A Bird, It's A Plane...It's Superman... at the Dallas Theater Center. It is a reworking of the 1966 musical, and it features the contributions of playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Good Boys and True.)

Here's Moore:

But I was struck by the blasé radicalism of casting a black actor, Zakiya Young, as Lois Lane, not least because Dallas is where I first really understood racism as a real thing, witnessing the makeup of extended family Christmas parties where the only brown faces were the maids and bartenders.

At this performance, though, it was a different story. Not only is Lois the romantic lead, but she’s the object of desire for both male leads, both of whom are white. Furthermore, the main revision of the play was to place the (now-interracial) relationship between Lois and Clark at the heart of the story. The awesomeness of the Lois Lane casting decision was clearest to me at two moments in the play: when the Lex Luthor character (inexplicably named Max Mencken) sings her a song called “The Woman for the Man,” where he lists all the reasons Lois would make a perfect partner for a rich and powerful man like himself—she’s smart and beautiful, everyone wants her. And then there’s the final clinch between Superman and Lois, as they’re flying above the city

Moore's observation reminded me of something, this isn't the first time Lois has experienced life as a black woman:

(Top Photo by Brandon Thibodeaux.)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Nicky Martin - An New Era at 72

The Boston Globe has a feature on Nicky Martin, former AD of Huntington Theatre Company and current Artistic Director of Williamstown Theatre Festival in Western Massachusetts.

At 72, Martin will be stepping down after the upcoming season at Williamstown. He suffered some health issues that have him a bit reflective in this article.

Still, 2008 was not without its challenges, the most thorny being a stroke that Martin suffered in the fall. He recovered, but lost movement in his left hand, arm, and leg. He now walks with a cane and uses a wheelchair to get around. Last fall he attended an intense physical therapy program in Birmingham, Ala., at the urging of such friends as Victor Garber and Andrea Martin.

“Everything they say about a stroke is true. It’s life-changing in a very frightening way,’’ says Martin, whose gregarious, sharp-witted personality remains intact. “I find I can do my work, but I’m only really happy now when I’m directing or when I’m with my friends. I find my enforced time alone is difficult — and not healthy for me.’’


While he admits that he “can’t honestly say that the stroke made me see life in a new light,’’ his choice to direct Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town’’ at Williamstown July 28-Aug. 8 reflects a man ruminating on life and mortality.

“It’s a play about seizing every single moment in life that you can,’’ Martin says. “As you get older, the play’s last act, which is about life and death, is the one that’s the most sonorous for you. That’s where I am, and I’m not unhappy to be there.’’

Sports Writer Takes On Dramatic License

Dan Shaughnessy takes a look at the A.R.T's Johnny Baseball.

But I walked out of the theater bothered by the unnecessary blending of fact and fiction. I fear that most of the ART patrons now believe that Mays tried out for the Red Sox at Fenway in 1948 and was sent packing by a racist general manager named Joe Cronin.

It never happened. Robinson and two other black players did try out at Fenway in 1945. It was a sham. That episode is mentioned in “Johnny Baseball,’’ but the scene we see has Mays at Fenway in 1948, and a posse of Yawkey’s drunken “baseball men’’ turning him away.

Mays, one of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived, was scouted by the Red Sox when he played for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1949. The Sox passed, and ultimately the New York Giants signed him. Cronin did not sign Mays, but he never saw him try out at Fenway. Cronin passed away in 1984 and can’t defend himself, and family members who still live in New England are saddled with this unflattering portrait.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Summer (Theatre) in the City - and surroundings

You don't have to trek that far for summer theater this weekend.

Mill 6 Collaborative's T Plays are still at the Factory Theater this weekend. Our local NPR station had a segment about it this past week.

If that doesn't quench your thirst for new plays, you may want to head over to Boston Playwrights Theater for the Boston Actors Theater's Summer Play Festival 2010. Only one weekend.

Over at the American Repertory Theater Johnny Baseball goes into extra innings.

And for a Richard Dresser double header - (He wrote the book for Johnny Baseball) - you can take a drive up to Salem for STC's production of Rounding Third.

At New Rep in Watertown, Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas opens this weekend.

Table Manners is the subject at Gloucester Stage. The fine production gives Thomas Garvey reason to think about Alan Ayckbourn's particular legacy over at the Hub Review.

This weekend, the Regal Players wrap up Into the Woods with Rachel York.

Also your last weekend to catch The Lady With All The Answers at the Central Square Theater.

And for an interesting event, New Exhibition Room is sponsoring a walking tour of Boston that explores more than 200 years of theater in Boston. Go here to get tickets for the tour, called Theatre in Everything But Name

Cougar or Cremaster?

Apparently, this Orangina ad is stirring up some controversy in Europe:

It called to mind an image or two from the trailer of artist Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle. Specifically this one:

The Cremaster Cycle plays in full for the next few weeks at the Kendall Square Cinema here in Cambridge as well as other cinemas across the country.

Below is a trailer for the re-release:

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cultural Capital Crisis

At the same time that Boston is moving toward more international theatre offerings, (Robert Orchard's ambitious new ArtsEmerson initiative opens this season,) it seems Los Angeles is going to be cutting back in that area.

Charles McNulty reports in the Los Angeles Times that the UCLA Live's International Theatre Festival will be shuttering due to cost cutting measures:

It seems to me that the decision, made by Waterman and members of UCLA Chancellor Gene Block’s staff, reflects a lack of understanding of the theater festival’s unique place in the city’s cultural ecology. There is simply nowhere else to experience the kinds of offerings Sefton was importing to Los Angeles. Beyond the Brooklyn Academy of Music and one or two lonesome xenophilic venues in the U.S., the only option is a pricey European flight.

Well, depending on how all the fundraising works out for ArtsEmerson, Mr. McNulty may want to start looking at flights into Boston!

But let's hope that things work out for UCLA's festival. After all, we're not too sore at the outcome of the NBA finals.

And, while we are on the "Cultural Capital" front, Kris Vire of TimeOut Chicago has posted a question to theChicago theatre community on the heels of the TCG conference which just took place there.

A number of out-of-town critics have praised Chicago as America’s real theater capital over the last several years. What if, instead of continuing to export our stuff elsewhere for praise and dollars, we embraced what London’s Michael Billington, Toronto’s Richard Ouzounian, New York’s Terry Teachout and others have written and sell ourselves, not New York, as said theater capital?

A good read.

Five Theatre Books for the Beach

As theatre people we tend to spend a good part of our lives inside, trying to find ways to keep the light from invading.

Right now, the summer is here and the sun is shining. On weekend days at the Boston Center for the Arts, (a complex that contains numerous stages and rehearsal spaces,) you can see actors and stage managers sitting out on the benches near the patio seating of restaurants like The Beehive. There they linger, talking to each other until the last moments before the matinee call times.

With enough SPF though, the beach can be a welcome retreat for the alabaster-skinned theatre practicioner. Below, I have some suggestions for your theatrical summer reading.

Arthur Miller by Christopher Bigsby

A very authoritative biography of one of America's leading cultural figures.

Christopher Bigsby chooses to focus on Miller's early artistic period up through the truly disastrous marriage to Marilyn Monroe.

At the outset, Bigsby claims that this is not only Miller's story,
but also the story of the country. The playwright's personal history, as told by the biographer, tracks closely with America's development through the great Depression to World War II, the Cold War and into the dawn of the 1960's.

Bigsby had unprecedented access to Miller's early drafts
and unpublished works. He also had access to the subject himself. Although this type of license can cause a biography to tilt over closer to hagiography at times, in this case it allows Bigsby to find some inconsistencies. And it also provides for some occasionally interesting side journeys into the realm of memory itself.

The Necessity of Theater; The Art of Watching and Being Watched by Paul Woodruff

Using a kind of Socratic method, Philosophy professor Paul Woodruff constructs a definition of theatre and then sets out to test it from several different angles.

The one sentence definition he presents:

"Theatre is the art by which human beings make human action worth watching, in a measured time and space."

The ensuing examination takes us from college sports stadiums to how Brecht's theories triumphed in spite of himself. This is philosophy and so it reads much more methodically, and with less colorful examples than books written by such critics as Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein and even Brooks Atkinson. And it does not have the urgency of Brecht or Artaud's rallying cries. However, by giving equal time to both sides of the sacred space, ("watchers and the watched",) Woodruff opens up some new avenues into exploring theater's continued relevance and survival.

His emphasis on the art of WATCHING is unexpected, welcome, and refreshing. While we often focus our attention, and rightly so, on what is being practiced on stage, we rarely examine, beyond declining attendances and the graying of hair, what is happening on the other side of the lights.

How Good is David Mamet Anyway? by John Heilpern

John Heilpern, long-time critic for the The New York Observer,
published this intriguingly titled collection of essays and selected reviews in 2000. Heilpern is a fine writer. He takes strong stands, sure, but he does it without the excessive vitriol of, say, John Simon's more acid notices.

Being a Brit in the U.S. he provides a unique lens through which to examine the Anglophilia that American theatergoers and theatre artists seem to have for London imports. The following is from an essay comparing and contrasting American and British theatre:

"The English are never quite who or what they seem. They are a nation of actors in disguise.

The higher lunacies of a John Cleese are like a like a safety valve releasing the
English from the pressures of habitual restraint. They are innately understated. 'A bit of a setback last night' means the roof fell in. Traditional reserve, diffidence, insularity, go to the core of the national identitiy. Outwardly unemotional, the English are easily embarassed; the rules and riddles of the class system are their containment, irony their greatest defense and smoke screen. The ironist deflects and disguises what he really feels, as if hiding behind an actor's mask.
The British need their theater like oxygen or a fix to loosen up, to understand who they really are behind their masks."

Letters from Backstage, The Adventures of a Touring Stage Actor by Michael Kostroff

You may know Michael Kostroff as Attorney Maurice Levy on HBO's The Wire. But did you also know that Mr. Kostroff was a
full-fledged member of the regional touring units for The Producers and Les Miserables?

Well, he was, and, best of all, he immortalized his experiences through electronic dispatches sent to friends and family. Letters from
Backstage is a witty, fast and interesting look at what life is like on a national tour - from finding comfort in chain restaurants like P.F. Chang's to the physically exhausting rehearsals and warm-up routines. And there are plenty of neat peeks behind the curtain at the complicated staging of a big broadway show:

"At the 'five minutes' call, dressed in their robes, the chorus girls go to the stage to rehearse the Glass Pass - a moment in the 'I Wanna Be a Producer' number where they have to pass champagne glasses to each other down the line without looking. Apparently, this move is easy to mess up. I think it is ironic that, in a show where we have people flipping, jumping on trampolines, climbing over furniture, doing Russian splits in midair, operating life-sized puppets, riding motorcycles, and dancing on pointe wearing foam rubber military tanks, the Glass Pass has emerged as the one thing that MUST be reviewed each night before curtain."

And there sadness as well. The tour's first Carmen Ghia is replaced, and Kostroff observes simply: "It was sad and strange. There was no good bye. He was just gone one day."

Shakespeare by Mark Van Doren

I would feel as if I was shirking my responsibility if I didn't include a book about the Bard.

The New York Review of Books publishes this excellent collection of essays on Shakespeare's plays and poems. Mark Van Doren was a professor at Columbia University and set down his thoughts based on his years of teaching.

It is assumed that the reader will have at least a passing familiarity with the individual plays, but the prose and style is not too academic, (Van Doren was also a poet.) The essays are enjoyable and informative, even though you may find yourself disagreeing with the professor at times. But if you love Shakespeare, consider the experience of reading this volume to be like having a conversation with a friend who loves him, too.

Here is Van Doren on Richard II:

"Richard is Shakespeare's finest poet thus far, and in spite of everything he is a touching person. He is not a great man, nor is the play in consequence a considerable tragedy. But as a performer on the lyre Richard has no match among Shakespeare's many people. And as a dramatizer of himself he will be tutor to a long posterity, though none of his pupils - Hamlet is the best known - wil be exactly like him."

Those are a couple of in-print books that could be nice to read with the surf in the background.

Enjoy the summer!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Shakespeare By George - Complete With Torture

I would like to point you to the posts of my colleagues Thom Garvey and Ian Thal, who both attended a Federalist Society event here in the Hub that was co-sponsored by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. The evening, entitled Shakespeare's Henry V and the Law and War, included Andrew Card and the now infamous John Yoo.

Thom Garvey:

Now to my mind, bending Shakespeare to the service of this kind of thinking is an atrocity in its own right. But I was still game, in a sporting kind of way, to entertain a little sympathy for the devil, largely because the Federalists had enlisted a few libruls to speak on its panel and act in its drastically abridged version of Henry V. I didn't even mind that director Steven Maler had tailored his text to avoid too deeply discomfiting his guests of honor. After all, I figured, if you're going to get Goering and Goebbels to your production of The Merchant of Venice, you've got to play Shylock a certain way.

Of the performance itself, let no more be said; there's a popular impression that lawyers are akin to actors, but based on this experience, I'd say that may be a delusion. Fans of bipartisanship can take heart, though, in the fact that the Democratic actors were just as bad as the Republican ones.

And here is Ian Thal:

Of course, in the interests of the "civility" that the Federalist Society maintains for its panel discussions, crushing children's testicles wasn't discussed, while the sadomasochistic techniques seen at Abu-Ghraib were only alluded to and waterboarding, whose use by the Spanish Inquisition was widely condemned by 16th century English writers as barbaric, was only mentioned in passing.

Read them both for what a taste of this strange evening was like, and for their takes on the participants' readings and analysis of Shakespeare.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Snidley Whiplash Faces Off Against 3-D?

The Denver Post has an article the art of melodrama that still has a following in the West:

The now uniquely American art form Iron Springs purveys is actually rooted in the 16th-century Italian tradition of commedia dell'arte — comedies with stock characters, exaggerated acting, skeletal plots — and morals that are spelled out in their subtitles. These implausible tales, with their necessarily happy endings, first spread through America on Mississippi River gambling boats. Nomadic troupes then took them to Western mining camps, where their broad acting styles more than made up for the many language barriers.

"You didn't have to be particularly well-read to follow a plot," said Littrell.

The advent of silent films and TV sparked a resurgence in the popularity of melodramas that lasted for most of the 20th century, each passing year further establishing it as a now uniquely American and unchanging art form.

"Melodrama is the Shakespeare of the American West," Littrell said. "For many people, the stories and the good, clean fun, never grow old."

Tilda Swinton on the Theatre - The Mousetrap As A Kind of Kabuki

From a Salon interview with Tilda Swinton:

I'm not a natural theater audience, I'm afraid. I find it difficult to be in a theater audience. But when I used to live in London, I used to go every year for my birthday to see "The Mousetrap," and that's the theater that I love. I think the "Mousetrap" productions change every five years or so, but certain things don't change, and haven't changed since the '40s. There are props that are on the stage that have been there ever since. There are certain pieces of clothing that look like they've been there for a while as well. And of course they're talking about rationing and things. I sometimes think it would be fantastic to be in a production of "The Mousetrap," or rather that production, the production in St. Martin's Lane. Because it is like a sort of kabuki performance. You're going for that kind of kabuki. I love the theater where television actors come through the door and everybody claps, and they come to the front of the stage and they bow and then they go back into the scene. That's the kind of theater that I love.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Critical Storms in the Northeast Corridor

Philly critic, Wendy Rosenfield, touched off an enormous comment thread when she started off her review this way:

The title of Megan Gogerty's musical Love Jerry isn't a sign-off, but an entreaty. Nice People Theatre Company, in producing this show about an active pedophile, asks a not-so-nice question: Can you love Jerry? I'd like to ask an even less nice question: Why should I be forced to try?

Wendy responds to the firestorm in the comments and on her Drama Queen blog:

I believe this script is fundamentally flawed, that the questions it raises are the wrong questions (and yes, I believe that on this topic there is a clear right and wrong approach) and the answers it suggests are the wrong answers. After all, love, therapy and forgiveness is the same cocktail the Catholic church claims it served up while managing its pedophile priests, and look how successful that's been for the church and its young victims.

Meanwhile, here in the Hub, Louise Kennedy's review of the American Repertory Theater's production of Johnny Baseball is getting some attention from one of the show's creators, Richard Dresser.

Dresser has written a letter in response:

In Louise Kennedy’s review of “Johnny Baseball’’ at the American Repertory Theater (“Bases Loaded g, June 4), she writes, “Given the theme, it’s just wrong that some of the show’s jokes are cheaply homophobic.’’

As the book writer of “Johnny Baseball’’ I must respond. There is not a single homophobic joke, cheap or otherwise, in the show. Not one. In talking to both gay and straight members of the “Johnny Baseball’’ team and gay and straight audience members and friends who have seen the show, it has become clear that only one person has found homophobia in “Johnny Baseball.’’

I haven't seen Johnny Baseball, yet. However, when the review first came out, I did think that Kennedy's remark was a little strange, especially when it appeared, (as Dresser goes on to point out,)with not a single example.

Anybody out there who has seen it have any idea to what Kennedy might be referring?

Critical Snark of the Week

Louise Kennedy, not one prone to such phrasing, seems to have reached some sort of pain threshold with regards to the work of playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. Nachtrieb's play Colorado is currently playing at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. Here is the opening of Kennedy's Globe review:

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s plays go over the top and then keep going — until the bottom drops out. At times scabrously funny, crude to the point of incredulity, and relentlessly satirical, they would be brilliant if only they were . . . brilliant. That is, if they were as smart and original as their author evidently thinks they are.

Instead, they’re merely clever and mean.