July 2008 Archives

zombies_on_broadway.jpgDespite the critical successes of Passing Strange, In the Heights, and August: Osage County, next season's Broadway roster looks an awful lot like seasons past. In fact, most of it comes from seasons past. In fact, even much of the new stuff--Billy Elliot, Shrek, Nine to Five, Vanities, Nice Work If You Can Get It (which gets its music from the Gershwins)--smells pretty musty. 

Rather than grabbing the excitement of last year's out-of-town newbies and burgeoning racial diversity, and adding more seats to the table, it's as though New York's producers collectively donned their blinders, dug in their heels and refused to budge. Taking cues from South Pacific and Sunday in the Park with George, we can expect almost all retreads, all the time. The 2008-09 season features Waiting for Godot, Guys and Dolls, All My Sons, Equus, Speed-the-Plow, Pal Joey, Dancin', Brigadoon, Godspell, somebody please stop me, I feel a flashback coming on...

There are a few ways to fight the revived zombies, even if they're really, truly wonderful zombies. And--high and mighty alert--I believe it's our duty as a theatergoing society to do so. After all, if we allow the zombies to feed unchecked, they will kill all our hopes for the future and spread across the land depositing mouldering revivals in every region. And the new shows? Without our help, they won't stand a chance. 

Just look at Passing Strange, which succumbed last week; the show closed after playing to less than half-filled houses for the past few months. Who wanted to play big spender with unpredictable Stew when Sandy and Danny were available? (Well, Spike Lee, for one, who filmed during the show's final week. But clearly he's an exception.) 

Ahead of the retrograde pack are a couple of little shows that could--[Title of Show] and 13--which are set to capture some of the glory meant for Glory Days. But diversity? Well, we can look backward for that too, with the revamped West Side Story, and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide (When the Rainbow is Enuf), which may or may not proceed as planned with India.Arie leading the cast. Still, there's Off-Broadway's production of the Bill T. Jones-directed and choreographed Fela!, which opens in previews tomorrow, and sounds like it might have big-time potential. And doubtless, a few surprises will emerge later in the season as well. Let's just hope they get the  kind of support they--and we--need in order to survive.

July 30, 2008 7:54 AM |
Enough already with trying to figure out whether or not newspaper theater criticism is still relevant, and on to imagining that it is, and that readers are interested in hearing about the process from the inside. I'm talking specifically about personal ethics emerging during the course of a review. 

It's not that old question about letting an actor or director take you out for a few beers before his/her opening. You already know the answer to that one, and it's the same no matter how cool s/he seems. (Are you listening, you acting/directing sirens?) No, these days I'm worrying about a real, honest-to-goodness dilemma that involves the confluence of a reviewer, her ethical biases, and a production that violates those ethics. 

I've got a show coming up that I'm not even sure will be assigned to me, but am already offended--I cringe just typing the word--by its mere presence on the roster. It's no fun feeling like Jesse Helms (R.I.P.), and coming from someone whose deep affection for performance art blossomed after seeing an '80s-era Karen Finley show, it's a bit of a contradiction. But there it is. 

In short, this year's Philadelphia Live Arts Festival (check out the festival trailer for a brief peek at the show in question) features Argentinian Rodrigo Garcia's Accidens (matar para comer). This performance, written and performed by Garcia, a former butcher, involves a duet between man and lobster, which as you might imagine, ends badly for the crustacean. The trouble is, I'm a vegan and recently wrote a feature for the Inquirer's food section about this gustatory transformation (but for some reason only the sidebar is still available online. Sorry.), and I just can't abide a performance that intentionally causes the death of another living creature in order to make its point. It recalls the Habacuc controversy earlier this year, which also used an animal's suffering for its own ends. What is it with South America? First Amores Perros (well, really Pixote was first), and now this? You'd think life was brutal down there, or something.

So ok, without having seen it, I get it, and probably, on the whole, agree with Garcia. His point, at least as expressed by the Live Arts fest's p.r. folks, is really not too far off from Michael Pollan's. Food is packaged, sanitized and renamed so as to completely divorce it from the life that ended so we might feast--obviously, you can extend the metaphor as you wish. Here, Garcia and I are aligned. But when it comes to taking that next step, sacrificing a beating invertebrate heart on the altar of artistic license, well, to me, that's barbarism, and the very opposite of what art was created to combat.

But let's get away from the concept's logical extension and back to the actual creature. I'm not particularly sympathetic to lobsters. After all, they're cousin to the cockroach, a creature that just happens to be the source of a serious personal phobia. But Garcia's lobster is alive, that is, until it's not. David Foster Wallace didn't used to think much about the critters either, until Gourmet magazine sent him to cover a Maine festival whose monumental scale of lobster massacre was more decadent than anything Caligula could have dreamed up. (Most unintentionally hilarious part of the piece? A clueless little toque dingbat at the feature's end.) Still not convinced? Here's another article from the Daily Mail on the subject. 

Still, it really, really pains me to recoil from a piece on principle, because dammit, I'm a theater critic, and it's my job to divine meaning from the cultural winds, be they foul or fair. However, I also know I'll be unable to judge the piece on its artistic merit alone, which is what every artist deserves, unless they're really, really depraved. 

But that, of course, is a moral judgement, isn't it? The question here is really this: do a critic's personal morals or ethical code have any place in a review? And conversely, humans being the way they are, how can one possibly pretend they don't? Though it's an issue I've struggled with this season, I still don't have an answer. 

July 28, 2008 11:00 PM | | Comments (6)
ebertroeper.jpgThe lastest victims of the critical cataclysm in American media are At the Movies with Ebert and Roeper, and the entire L.A. Times Book Review section. Though the parting of ways between Messrs. Roeper, Ebert and Disney will probably end up working in Roeper's favor, with a new show co-hosted somewhere else (And hopefully in higher profile. Here in Philly, the program aired every other weekend at 11 p.m.), I have grimmer feelings about the impact of the L.A. Times' decision on the publishing industry.

But even in Disney's case, the trend toward younger, shall we say, less sophisticated, coverage (Go on, click. I believe that's a beer bong around new co-host Ben Lyons' neck), bodes poorly for the arts and literature, and all the cumbersome effort involved in understanding them. Anyone else notice that as the arts pages shrank, somehow everyone found room to add video game reviews? Mind you, I'm so addicted to Facebook's Packrat game (God help me) that my skin itches just thinking about it, and my husband and I are about to install a Wii so our children will invite their friends here, rather than always wanting to go elsewhere (read: to a home with Wii). 

But there's only strategy involved in video game coverage, and maybe some cheats and codes. Rolling Stone might send Peter Travers to hole up in his living room for a few hours with Grand Theft Auto, and he might be into it, but that still doesn't make it a movie. (And yes, I'm aware that Talladega Nights was neither enlightening nor fun, but like it or not, its expository demands made it a movie.) I'll grant that maybe video games are even their own paradigm and don't have to subscribe to traditional narrative standards, but neither are they, even in their most sublime form, searching for a higher meaning. Their purpose is to be a fun game. 

Nonetheless there's an entire cable channel devoted to analyzing this zillion dollar a year industry. Meanwhile the A&E network, despite having a few thousand years of art history to which they might defer, and in a desperate bit to attract some viewers, any viewers, resorted to Gene Simmons' reality show (God help us all) and Sopranos reruns. How did we get here?

The arts are thrilling, and should be treated as such--in print, online, on television. Letting people in on the process, as the Grease and Legally Blonde reality shows did, isn't necessarily the answer, but overall, they sure don't hurt in drumming up a little excitement for the whole package. In fact, wasn't Siskel and Ebert a reality competition anyway, where you root for your favorite intellectual to come up with the most clever retort, and your least favorite to prove once and for all what a moron he is? 

However, the situation is so much more dire for the publishing industry. There are no flashy tv shows dedicated to reviewing literature, and as far as I know, there never were. If magazines and newspapers--you know, places for people who read--stop covering and reviewing new books, I shudder to imagine a world where the public is left to slog through the grammatical wasteland of Amazon.com reader reviews and trust the whims of Barnes and Noble's public relations department. And once books are no longer critically acclaimed, where will Hollywood get the bulk of its ideas? From video games?

Oh yeah, right.

Screw it, I'm going to play Guitar Hero. Wasn't there a Kiss song on there somewhere?

July 23, 2008 2:01 PM |
Ok, back to business. 

Exciting news from Philly's City Hall Friday, as Mayor Michael Nutter announced the opening of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (Henceforth, OACCE), a Frankenversion of the old Office of Arts and Culture (OAC). I've blogged about it before, recalling Nutter's campaign promise to re-animate the office somewhere between his inauguration and lunch of that afternoon. The closing of the OAC, shuttered by Former Mayor John Street four years ago, left Philly, as Inquirer writer Patrick Kerkstra noted "the biggest city in the country to lack a cultural affairs office." 

Street's lack of faith in a scene just beginning to garner national attention put a real dent in everyone's confidence. So during the last mayoral primary and election, the city's arts community threw its support behind arts- and gay-friendly Nutter (you can't have one without the other, he wisely realized; Street, however, alienated both groups), hoping to rekindle some of the Ed Rendell-era fire that once lit up the Avenue of the Arts. 

And, people figured, anyone in this town brave enough to call attention to the fact that the Phila. Muesum of Art's annual attendance is higher than attendance for birds games (Eagles games to you)--DURING his campaign!--might be crazy enough to make a difference. But six months into the new honcho's tenure, when the office remained closed, Philly's arts leaders were left wondering if they were suckered. 

Well, now it looks like they weren't. What's promising about this new version of the OACCE is the addition to its title, an assertion that civic support for the arts is integral to the region's economic health. Heading up the office is Gary Steuer, former New York-based veep of Americans for the Arts. The organization advocates for public-private arts partnerships and tracks congressional activity and other public policy related to the arts. (Their weekly news digest also makes great companion reading with your daily ArtsJournal newsletter.) 

Perhaps not coincidentally, Americans for the Arts held its national convention here last month, and it just so happens that their mandate appears pretty darn close to the mayor's promises, right on down to reinstating music and art education in the public schools.

But that's not all. Nutter also re-opened the city's Cultural Advisory Council, a group that advises the mayor and his administration on cultural and artistic issues, and said he hopes to make the OACCE a model for cities across the country. So good for him, and better for us. The economy's nosedive just might serve as the ideal petri dish to prove once and for all whether or not the arts--and its attendant "creative economy"--really can save us all.

Nutter's Delight: wherein the mayor rocks the inaugural mic (Obama, take note).
July 20, 2008 8:55 AM |
As an avid Radiohead-head I'm both thrilled and unsurprised by the band's latest innovation, a camera- and light-free music video, the making of which is yesterday's featured ArtsJournal video. The song, "House of Cards," comes off their industry-shaking internet freebie In Rainbows, and though the idea is cool, the lasers they employ are still too primitive to succeed as much more than a gimmick, though I have to admit they've come a long way since Laser Floyd. (What can I say? The critic in me needed to weigh in.) Still, anything new by Radiohead--audio or video--is guaranteed to be more daring than just about anything else on the pop culture radar. 

But it's not up to their usual standards in much other than capturing media attention and embracing new technology. It's a bit like watching the laser video version of Pong, exciting in its debut, but almost immediately passe. For this completely frivolous post that has little to do with theater (though having just reviewed Mamma Mia! let it be known that I'd really appreciate it if someone took it upon themselves to craft a musical around a decent band, like, say, Radiohead), I offer my favorite Radiohead video, which features fairly basic stop-motion animation and is now several years old, but fully realized both visually and conceptually. It's their ode to Jan Svankmajer, "There, There (The Boney King of Nowhere)," which is a whole lot better than sitting through two hours of Little Otik


And as a bonus, here's my favorite tech-themed video, Bjork's Chris Cunningham-directed video for "All Is Full of Love." All the alienation of "House of Cards," but twice the impact.

July 18, 2008 9:30 PM |
Looks like In the Heights made Broadway stand up and take notice of the Latino population's theatergoing potential--and everyone else's enthusiasm for Latino dance/music flavor. Yesterday's announcement that West Side Story is headed for a 2009 revival and considerable reworking is another obvious step toward continued diversification of the Great White Way. I'm not going to speculate about whether Latin culture, as depicted through a Sondheim filter, will manage to make its way to the forefront of this new production, but you can bet a whole lot of Latino actors will round out the cast, and as a result, will most likely deepen the show's conflict and resonance.

We are to expect a real departure from traditional mountings of the work, with Spanish additions to the songs and text. Arthur Laurents, still smoking from his Gypsy success, is sure to hit big again with this timely resurrection. Having him at the helm will be mighty thrilling, since he literally wrote the book on Maria and Tony, and he adds to the excitement with these cryptic comments:

"This show will be radically different from any other production of West Side Story ever done. The musical theatre and cultural conventions of 1957 made it next to impossible for the characters to have authenticity. Every member of both gangs was always a potential killer even then. Now they actually will be."

Things have changed even since a lean, mean John Leguizamo brought contemporary style to the filmed Romeo + Juliet 12 years ago, and I'm looking forward to a Broadway production not afraid to sharpen its knives, and let its chollos be the bad-asses they were always meant to be. 

July 17, 2008 8:43 AM |
Shakespeare.jpgOver the weekend I attended a production of King Lear at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, and was struck by Will's endless malleability. He is all things to all people, and in this case, bent obligingly to an interpretation of Lear's usurpers as wiseguy goombahs, pretenders to the throne who bow and scrape with one hand resting on a shiv. It's so head-smackingly obvious, but still, it's by no means a definitive interpretation. In fact, it's pretty clear that unlike the man who, "in his time plays many parts," Shakespeare keeps on evolving long after his time. As long as the English language appears onstage, I doubt a definitive Shakespeare production will ever emerge. Drop him anywhere in the last half-millennium--or heck, just throw a dart at any decade in the 20th century--and somehow he works. 

I'm well aware this isn't an original observation, but I dunno, I guess every year I enter Shakespeare season filled with some vestigial dread of bad Elizabethan impersonators and iambic pentameter endurance tests, and each year someone shifts the perspective just enough to allow the excitement of rediscovery to come flooding back. There are clunkers in his canon, it's true, but they're so rarely produced that when they do pop up it's always a treat to see them come to life outside of the printed page.

I don't know why other playwrights haven't lent themselves to so much subjective interpretation. Despite Vanya's arrival on 42nd Street, Chekov is usually presented in context. Marlowe doesn't have any companies devoted to his works (at least none that I know of). And though the Greeks often get a makeover, it's not one Greek and one play's original text reimagined a dozen different ways every summer across the country. 

Inept Shakespeare productions can ruin you for life--my father-in-law was so scarred by compulsory elementary school viewings of subpar productions he refuses to give the man another chance. And even loyalists have to wonder how many versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream it takes until they finally reach the tipping point? 

Well, here's the answer: it only takes a couple of bad ones. But when a director comes along to patch some new element in the culture to the precise spot where the script has become worn, the whole thing is so magical again you can almost see the fireflies. 

PSF's Pulp Fiction Lear served as a literal reminder that the bard was the straight-up O.G. And I'm already looking forward to seeing what insights Ian McKellan's naked Lear will, ahem, reveal.


July 14, 2008 2:15 PM |
Saw a production of Working last night. The show is based on Studs Terkel's book of interviews with clock punchers from every strata, and in the late '70s won a fistful of Tonys as a Stephen Schwartz (with the assistance of James Taylor) musical. Curiously, this Forbes.com article about the 20 fastest growing and fastest disappearing jobs in the U.S. popped up on my computer this morning. 

oil rig.jpg
The article portends some surprising and contradictory information about the future of employment in this country (Did you know there was a profession called oil roustabout? Me neither; I thought there was only the Elvis kind.), and in theater. 

The good news is that demand for producers and directors is on the rise, with almost 9,000 positions added nationwide since 2006 (this includes radio, tv and film, as well as stage numbers).

But strangely, demand for actors has dropped by around 7,000 spots, and looks as though it's not bottoming out any time soon. Added to another category, a random catchall titled, "Entertainers and Performers, Sports and Related Workers, Miscellaneous" (judging by this photo from the piece, I guess the "miscellaneous" jobs belonged to David Blaine and Criss Angel), the number drops precipitously by an additional 27,000.

Not sure what it all means for theater people, since so many different industries are represented under each section. Other than maybe a glut of two-handers emerging from playwriting workshops last year, I can't figure out the reason for the actor/director imbalance. Maybe animation's success, combined with the proliferation of reality tv and the strength of documentaries are to blame. At least onstage, you can't call it a show without directors, producers and actors.

July 10, 2008 9:40 AM |
Maybe it's reality tv's fault, or maybe it's just artists attempting--as artists are known to do--to impose some meaning on increasingly chaotic surroundings. Either way, there sure is a lot of site-specific work going on these days, and what's more, it's happening outside a fringe fest aegis, where such work is (thankfully) expected. 

Of course, it's summer, so Shakespeare is currently making the rounds in parks across the country, but that's not what I mean. Martin Creed's new work at Tate Britain sends athletes tearing through its halls. Technically, it's not theater, but let's at least tag it as a sort of performance art (or even better, stick it in Elizabeth Zimmer's "time-based" performance category). Improv Everywhere is getting national attention with their random acts of Twitter-triggered performance. Even opera, which around here is limited to one company kept in a tiered and gilded cage, is getting in on the act, with Die Soldaten's extravaganza wheeling its audience around the Armory. 

Here in Philly, that old standby Our Town put on its walking shoes when the Arden Theatre Company kept the first and third acts on its mainstage, but brought the audience across the street into historic Christ Church for the second. And Brat Productions was just awarded $42,000 from the Philadelphia Theatre Initiative to develop a piece for Edgar Allan Poe's birthday bicentennial modeled on haunted houses. 

It's heartening to see funders invest in non-traditional productions that by their very nature haven't a hope of "making it" to other cities. Touring shows make Broadway accessible to the rest of the country, but they're all about re-creating someone else's moment. In situ works create such a feeling of excitement about theater's connection to our lives, and reinforce its standing as an art form. After all, what makes theater so compelling is its transitory nature; once a particular production is gone, only memories and reviews are left behind. Site-specific work allows spectators to claim ownership of a piece in a far more profound way. Certainly, some of my most memorable theatergoing experiences have been stage-less. Hopefully, we're on the cusp of a whole new era of houses taking it outside the house.

July 9, 2008 9:23 PM |
I just received the comment below, and since those of us fighting to keep arts coverage in print have been full of doom and gloom lately, thought it was too good to keep hidden away among Drama Queen's past entries.

Hi Wendy, What a great blog! I was inspired by "Well Whaddya Know" to take action so I drummed up a website. Please let me know if you have any advice or content. By the way, I'm a guitar player for a living."

Paul Horsley.jpg
If you haven't read the entry, it's about a New York Times brief on the layoff of Kansas City Star music critic Paul Horsley and the local arts community's planned protest to support him. Here also is a touching blog entry by Horsley colleague Aaron Barnhart about McClatchy's axe falling on the Star newsroom.

So first of all, congrats to the commenter on being able to play guitar for a living. Second, thanks for giving those of us toiling away behind our computers and shivering in fear a reason to peer out at the sunshine. It's been a long time.

Third, do I have advice? I'm not only a critic, I'm also a Jewish mother from a long line of Jewish mothers and have made my reputation on giving advice, whether you want it or not.

So how's this: While the website is phenomenal, and will carry your message over the longer term, the thing to remember is that you are defending the live arts and their relevance in your city. Keep your protest just as live and relevant.

Kauffman Center.jpgkansas city star.jpg
Gather up all those musicians and dancers, plant yourselves in front of what I'm assuming is the centrally located, fancy new KC Star building [pictured at left] at lunch or rush hour (or both)  and start performing (get all your permits in order first, though). Contact the media, including the New York Times. Hand out leaflets with the Star publisher's contact information, a sample letter to the editor, and your web address. Videotape the whole thing, post it on your website and on YouTube, and then follow up with an encore in front of your almost-finished $358 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts [pictured at right].

Perhaps leaders from the Lyric Opera and other major area arts organizations might also consider requesting a meeting with the Star's editor and publisher. Oh, and you might want to check with Mr. Horsley to see if it's all okay with him. 

It's your move, New York and L.A.

Les Humphries Singers - Kansas City
Vezi mai multe video din Muzica »

July 3, 2008 11:06 AM | | Comments (2)
Just read this post on Andrew Haydon's blog for The Guardian, and was thrilled to see its relevance to a thought that's been fermenting in my entry box for some time. What's more useful: reviewing a new work with no advance reading of the material, the better to judge its success as a piece of performance, or reviewing said work after a thorough read-through, the better to tease out author-director contributions and its success as a translation from written to staged?

Unfortunately, here in Philly, we almost never receive advance scripts, and I believe that's to the detriment of producing theaters. I recently learned that on Broadway, scripts for new or new-ish, and not readily available plays, or even older scripts that have been reworked, such as this season's Gypsy, are given to reviewers as a matter of course. How has this practice not made it past the island's bridges and tunnels? 

Apparently, London's critics also receive these privileged press packets, but the thought that they might choose not to plow through them before opening night is a total shock. (You mean, you get them and don't read them? Don't you know how lucky you are? I'm reviewing King Lear for the millionth time in a couple of weeks, and still feel compelled to give it a good going over before curtain.)

Obviously, I'm in the translation camp, and believe the more you know about a production, the better informed your review will be. There's something to be said for first impressions, but as Chicago Tribune film critic/writing teacher extraordinaire Michael Phillips pointed out in a NEA seminar this year, they're not paying us to be like everyone else, they're paying us for our expertise. After all, if every schmuck was qualified to be a critic... Well, never mind about that.

Another point Phillips made was that there's possibly no greater waste of a reviewer's time than copying lines during a play. And it's true. I can't recall how many times I've been scribbling away and a.) forgot what I was writing mid-sentence, or b.) heard gasps or sudden laughter while looking down, and by the time I looked up, missed the moment entirely.

Phillips also suggested asking for the scripts beforehand, but I don't know, it feels a bit unseemly. Isn't it enough that we get two prime seats for free on opening night just for the chance to shred all that hard work? So I'm issuing an urgent call to regional theaters, with plenty of time before the '08-'09 season. Please make it a regular practice to hand out scripts along with press packets, or even better, to attach PDFs containing them right along with early press releases. After all, why should Broadway and the West End (and their attendant interpreters) have an edge over the houses that feed them?

July 2, 2008 9:49 AM | | Comments (3)

Me Elsewhere


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