October 2008 Archives

While most of you are preoccupied with getting your Halloween costumes just right for tonight--we're all drama geeks here, so don't front like this isn't your favorite holiday--those of us in Philly are just a little bit preoccupied by today's parade, which starts at noon.

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That's why this week I'm macking on: The Philadelphia Phillies! And since we're all drama geeks here, some of you might not know that they won the World Series on Wednesday night. Now you can shock the hell out of that brother-in-law who's always making fun of you. You're welcome.

The truth is, I don't even really like baseball. But I'll tell you what: I love me some Philadelphia. When I walked in the door after Wednesday's theater opening (Inquirer review here), you can bet I knew we were already up a run. I was hoping to take my kids out of school today too, just like my parents took me out of school to cheer my way down Broad Street for Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Gary Maddox, Pete Rose, Steve Carlton, Larry Bowa, Tug McGraw and the rest of 'em in 1980. But instead, my son wants to have cake at his class' Halloween party; he must get it from the New Jersey side of the family, the Yankee-loving bums. 

What's best about Philly fandom is its unabashed Philly-ness. Blogger Enrico Campitelli of The700Level.com (the 700 Level refers to the notoriously rowdy section at the Phillies'/Eagles' old Vet Stadium) heard this guy on the radio one morning, got a bright idea, and this was the result. The New York Times picked up the story (see second entry, "Finally, Yous Can"), and "Why Can't Us?" has been a rallying cry throughout our scuzzy illiterate principality ever since. As it turns out, us certainly can. I'll raise a Yuengling to that any day.

This week I'm hating on: Social media networks, or whatever they're calling them these days. That makes two weeks in a row, but this week it's worse. I'm spending so much time monitoring the various free ways to promote my blog and my writing and my conversational skills that it's actually encroaching--no, make that decimating--the time I used to spend doing actual journalism for actual pay, and completely reinforcing every narcissistic impulse that crosses my synapses, which also can't be good for said journalism. Although it being Halloween and all, this monitor-glazed pallor makes for one helluva zombie.

And screw Twitter, that's the least of the problem, although I admit to panicking a little every morning at the thought of all the tweets I missed by sleeping. Now, I spend all day trying to keep up with Twittermoms, BlogHer, an ever-expanding list of Facebook friends, the zillion blogs I follow, Google Alerts, LinkedIn; at least someone finally declared MySpace lame. Every last Ted Kasczynski-quoting one of you was right. It's too late for me now, but you can save yourselves. Go on without me, and please remember, I suffered so you don't have to. But if you do end up joining Facebook, I'll totally friend you.

Below: The "Fightin's"

October 31, 2008 10:30 AM | | Comments (0)
One of the best things about being a reviewer is watching new talent grow. The worst? Losing them. Every once in a while an actor comes along who makes you think, "Okay, I'll be watching him/her a whole lot over the next few years--if they stay." As every regional theater hub besides, maybe, Chicago can attest (and probably Chicago too), that's the problem with not being New York or L.A. 

If you ask some of the fine actors who have made Philly their home why they stayed, they all give the same reasons: there's enough quality work to be had, and they can buy a house and raise a family here on an actor's pay. Not too shabby.

But who can blame the ones that go? Actors don't get into this because they have dreams of becoming Philly-famous. There are some exciting new faces in Philadelphia theater this year--as local drama schools have been turning out top shelf talent at a rate I haven't seen before--but since raising a family and buying an affordable house probably isn't at the top of their list of priorities just yet, who knows if they plan to stick around?

I, for one, will cross my fingers and hope that if they leave, they don't drown in the CSI franchise's lower depths. And if they stay? Well, Fishtown and the Italian Market are a whole lot cheaper than Brooklyn, a Barrymore is a lot more accessible than a Tony, and If you take SEPTA to Trenton and pick up NJ Transit, it's like, what, 20 bucks total to get to Penn Station? I'm just saying.

This season, there have been a couple of young'uns who made my job really, really easy. Here's one of them in my review of Magnetic North from Monday's Inquirer
October 29, 2008 8:59 AM | | Comments (6)
Interesting article in the New York Times this weekend by Patricia Cohen about the lack of female playwrights on the city's major stages. On Monday night, those women's voices will be much harder to ignore, when a standing room only town hall meeting at New Dramatists convenes to discuss the issue.

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Though some New York artistic directors, such as Lincoln Center's Andre Bishop, might scoff at the problem, well, that attitude really just serves to underscore its depth. [CORRECTION: Please see Mr. Bishop's comment below.] By playwright Gina Gionfriddo's own observation, the O'Neill and Humana new play festivals are "dominated by women." Mind you, this meeting will examine New York's Off-Broadway houses and nonprofits, where men's work is produced four times more often than women's. Broadway is in even worse shape.

(At left: the Wilma Theater's production of Eurydice, a play written by a woman, produced and directed by another woman. Hear them roar?)

So how do Philly's major theaters compare? I took the top 14 area houses--"top" meaning they're professional, they've been around a while, mostly have a permanent location, have at least a three-show season that's readily accessible on their website, and are not solely Shakespeare-centric--and did a little comparing of my own. Here's the list: The Wilma Theater; Theatre Exile; Delaware Theatre Company; Interact Theatre Company; Walnut Street Theatre; Lantern Theatre; Philadelphia Theatre Company; People's Light and Theatre Company; Hedgerow Theatre; Arden Theatre; Media Theatre; 1812 Productions; Act II Playhouse; and Bristol Riverside Theater.

In New York, of the 50 plays by living playwrights being produced Off-Broadway and by nonprofits,10 were written by women. In Philadelphia, this season's grand total (which happens to include a few dead guys) comes to 64 shows. Of these, 13 were written by women, and of those 13, one is responsible only for a show's music, one for lyrics, and two are collaborations with men, so really the total's more like nine, but I'm willing to let everyone slide on this point. Still, the results aren't encouraging: on Philadelphia's major stages men are being produced at five times the rate of women, a fact that makes us quantifiably worse than New York, which in itself is a fact that really pisses me off. 

However, the productions are only one facet of the issue. While in New York female artistic directors might be, as the article says, a rarity, six of our 14 theaters are headed by women, so that's better. Of the season's 64 shows, 17 do not list a director. Of those remaining 47 shows, 19 are directed by women, and though that's not a perfect division of labor, it's not terrible, and most likely a result of Philly's nearly equal number of female artistic directors. Still, it remains to be seen how those percentages hold up when the rest of the season's directors are announced.

It's also worth looking at who's reviewing these plays. I don't know the New York numbers, but here in Philadelphia, among regular female critics, freelance or otherwise, there's Toby Zinman, me, and that's pretty much where the list ends. P.S., we both work for the same paper, whose fine arts section is edited by a woman and overseen by a female arts editor. Wonder if there's a connection? 

If nothing else, having women equally represented among the writing, producing, directing and reviewing ranks would, at the very least, affect the amount of David Mamet plays that get revivals each year, and for that, I think everyone would be just a little bit grateful.

October 26, 2008 7:54 PM | | Comments (6)
This entry is late because today I've been hampered by illness and unreliable internet service. Not sure if it was worth the wait, but here it is anyway...

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This week I'm macking on: Dennis DeYoung. You know, from Styx. He won a Jeff Award this week in Chicago (their Tony Awards) for his musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which makes complete and total sense. DeYoung, on his website, says of the ceremony, "It was an experience I will never forget. There was rock star boy onstage with this year's Tony winners." But anyone who's watched his career arc quickly from arena rock to Rocking the Paradise knows he's fronting; he's always been musical theater boy. It's the reason Tommy Shaw looked like he wanted to cry on that Behind the Music episode: DeYoung held him captive in some crazy personal rock opera called Kilroy Was Here, dressed him up like the Tin Man and made him sing, "Secret, secret, I've got a secret." Well some of us knew the secret, and it was that Dennis DeYoung secretly wanted to be Andrew Lloyd Webber. Congratulations!

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This week I'm hating on: the death of Rudy Ray Moore, even though the fact that he made it to 81 is in itself pretty amazing. No matter what you thought of him or the blaxploitation films that brought more of him to love, there's no denying that Moore was a master of his craft. Of course, that craft was an ability to make absolutely everything that came out of his mouth onstage or on camera sound so filthy you'd need a shot of penicillin just for listening. Moore was so dirty The Aristocrats locked their doors when they heard he was in town. His inimitable delivery paved the way for a whole genre of low-down, big-pimpin' hip-hop. 

So for the man who solidified the signifyin' monkey's place in popular culture, pour one out, but instead of a beer, make it a bottle of lube. He probably would have wanted it that way.

October 23, 2008 3:01 PM | | Comments (0)
My most recent review, Delaware Theatre Company's Master Harold... And the Boys, got me thinking. It seems like there's a burst of African-American issues-related shows in Philly this season--Driving Miss Daisy, Gee's Bend (which, if anyone cares, I thought had a really clunky script but some excellent acting by Kala Moses Baxter and one of my new favorites on the scene, Kes Khemnu), Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, Resurrection, Day of the Picnic--just about every major theater has one show in its season with this theme.*

I suppose part of the reason for the change is that everyone's capitalizing on the election, but really, it started with a recent thrust of nontraditional casting before Obama became the clear presidential candidate and has just sort of snowballed. And while this mass shift in programming focus is certainly long overdue and welcome, well, it begs the real question: why can't Philadelphia, a city whose population is 45% African American, support a dedicated professional African American theater? Since Walter Dallas' departure and Freedom Repertory Theatre's demise (and that's a whole 'nother long story) no one has stepped in to fill the void, and I'm going to guess it's not because Philadelphians are okay with leaving the issue of inclusion to the whims of the city's various white artistic directors, or catching the random touring urban theater production. 

Mind you, I'm not knocking the efforts at diversity being made by any of these other companies. I think it's great for the city and even better for expanding everyone's audience base. But honestly, what is going on here, and why? 


*By the way Philly folks, I'm omitting InterAct from inclusion and discussion on this post, as their commitment to programming diversity has been part of their mission since the company's inception.


October 23, 2008 10:51 AM | | Comments (5)
Here's another reason why a critic might be inclined to go easy on a theater: guilt. In the case of today's review, there's a company in the Philadelphia suburbs I feel like I've been hammering just about every time I visit. Sometimes it's their choice of play, others it's the level of performance or direction, but lately it seems that every time I go, this lovely little house situated inside an old grist mill ends up with a spanking that pains us both. 

I don't believe in critical boosterism, nor do I think it's my job to keep theaters in business, but there comes a point when a critic has to ask herself if perhaps the problem is a difference in taste, rather than simply a dearth of quality. So no, this wasn't the best Sherlock Holmes I've ever seen, and though it was an uneven production, it was good enough to deliver at least part of the experience I wanted when I left the house that evening. This time, rather than chastising the company for my perception of its comfort with mediocrity, I sat back and accepted it for what it was: a suburban theater with pretty conventional tastes. And that night I had a pretty good time.

This doesn't mean I'll always cut them slack; after all, I'm worried about my credibility, not theirs. But still, it's a lesson in context, which is important for everyone to remember, whether reading or writing a review. When McCarter stumbles--as I believe they did in their latest production--it's one thing. But judging a small local house by the same standard is another. They don't get a pass, of course, because that would be irresponsible on my part, but they do get credit for knowing what their audience wants when they leave the house, even if it might not be exactly what I'm looking for.


P.S., the first line contains a typo. It should read, "our collective anxiety," not "collection anxiety." And no one deserves slack for letting that slide.
October 21, 2008 10:26 AM | | Comments (5)
Over the weekend, I made my first reviewing visit to Princeton's McCarter Theatre in almost a decade. I'd missed the place and had only good memories of their world premiere of The Old Settler, and a phenomenal Hedda Gabler from back in the (childless) day. Too bad this visit wasn't as successful. 

For their production of Talley's Folly, it was remarkable to see how, with a can't-fail physical structure in place, they'd somehow built it all on sand. Theater doesn't rise or fall on its static elements, though they can certainly nudge a production into the positive or negative column; it's all about the life onstage.

October 20, 2008 8:59 AM | | Comments (0)
This week I'm macking on: Little musicals that could. Rocky Horror, Reefer Madness, Have a Nice Life, all musicals playing in and around Philadelphia recently or right now, all with a hand-stitched, bright-eyed, can-do appeal, all really unlikely candidates for success (Rocky Horror's obviously a proven entity, but it still plays like an underground hit). In any case, there's a mini-revolution happening in musical theater, led by the Off-Broadway crowd and filtering out into the provinces, of musicals that thrive on the small stage. 

I'm not talking about Songs for a New World-ish '70s throwback musicals, either. These are contemporary, fun shows that embrace camp, kitsch (yeah, I know, I was just ranting about kitsch yesterday, but this is different), and most of all, the idea that the fraught aughts are the best time to offer audiences a plain old good time. An indie theater company can't touch The Mikado, but give them A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant or Bat Boy, and you've got the makings of a great night out without bloat or baggage. Perfect for a regional theater scene like Philly's that has approximately a zillion nascent, ambitious young companies looking to make their mark in an increasingly competitive market.

This week I'm hating on: Twitter. But only because I love it so much. It's turned every moment into a meta-moment. Every Twitter tweaker sat by his/her computer Wednesday night, fingers poised and ready to rain down 140 characters of snark on anyone who'd listen... Online. 

I'm in bed with my husband watching the debate, we start riffing on Joe the Plumber and shazam, I've got the Crackberry shakes. Should I get out of bed and run downstairs to the computer to broadcast every comment that makes us chuckle (WWJTPD; Dow down, but sales of Joe the Plumber Halloween costumes up 1000%; Wonder if Joe Biden minds Joe the Plumber and Joe Sixpack joining him on the campaign), or should I make my husband get out of bed and find his Blackberry in the car so he can bring it upstairs and I can tweet our pillow talk from the lamest menage a trois ever recorded? 

I ran downstairs... But only four times. 

Below: The Brownie Song
October 17, 2008 9:30 AM | | Comments (2)
jesusstatues.jpgbeatles1c.jpgLong, long ago, John Lennon got in big trouble for comparing the Beatles' popularity to Jesus'. Well, it looks like the competition's still going strong, because there are roughly as many Beatles imitators out there as performers clad in Jesus robes. Ok, maybe Jesus is winning that one, and he's probably ahead on the merchandising end too. But still, the boys aren't doing too shabby. 

The thing is, it's just plain weird reviewing a show like the latest Beatles tribute, She Loves You! It's not theater, really, and it's not a concert, really. It's kitsch, plain and simple, and I'm just not sure how I feel about guaranteeing it a place alongside reviews of real theater and real theater companies. We all saw Caddyshack, right? We all know what happens when there's a turd in the pool, even if it's an ersatz turd: everyone runs away, the water gets drained, and they're scared off the pool for a long time. And I'm not even saying the show was bad, just that it ought to be in a different category than theater. Maybe a "Casino-Ready" heading would do the trick. 

Here's my review of She Loves You!, from today's Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Below: I think you know what this is.
October 16, 2008 10:54 AM | | Comments (5)
So you might think dinner theater Rocky horror would suck, wouldn't you? Well, it didn't. Last week in The Stranger, when Brendan Kiley mapped out his 10 fixes for theater, he dissed Rocky Horror, but simultaneously called for a "boor's night out." Rocky Horror is nothing if not the boors' Halloween--tricks, treats and all.

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I'll admit leniency toward Frank and co. as my parents raised me on a steady diet of, and affection for, cult movies. Where other kids fondly recall helping mom chop apples for pie, or nailing wood to a treehouse with dad, I remember Edith Massey wearing her bra in a crib and feel warm all over. Think I'm exaggerating? We had bootlegged VHS copies of Rocky Horror and Pink Flamingos--both of which we watched until the images started getting grainy--and one of my fondest "family night" memories was when our dad somehow got hold of enough Odorama cards so we'd all have one while we watched Polyester in the living room. (For years, our brother followed my sisters and me yelling, "My name is Francine Fishpaw and I'm an alcoholic! I can eat an entire cake in one sitting!") Mind you, this was all before my Bat Mitzvah, after which, things only got worse. Or--depending on your artistic sensibilities--even better.

The point of all this is really that sometimes it's hard to be objective as a critic. A show yanks your love chain, and even if the effort's just half-decent, you give it a break because it made you feel, well, a little bit warm all over. Of course, that bias can also cut the other way. I reviewed a production of The Glass Menagerie--a personal favorite--that didn't deliver exactly the nostalgia trip I'd hoped for, and I pretty much went ballistic. But in this situation, the audience had as much to do with the production's success as the cast, and they delivered better than a mob of stinkards at The Globe.

Here's today's Rocky Horror review from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Below: the theatrical trailer for Polyester.
October 14, 2008 8:38 AM | | Comments (2)
Here in Philly, in the past three months, two separate companies have produced Kenneth Lonergan's Bright Lights Big City-era drama This Is Our Youth. What I found most interesting about the productions was the difference in directorial perspective on the character Dennis Ziegler. Where the first director saw him as a threat (Revolution), the second saw him as a plain old loser (Simpatico), and I suspect the difference may lie in the fact that the first director is a man and the second a woman. 

Maybe a young male director has more at stake in Dennis'  self-mythologizing. If Dennis is completely full of crap and bluster, well then, what does that say about a director who identifies with him? Apply this question to Lonergan's constant reminders that the guy you are in 20 years will be a pale reflection of the guy you are today, and you've just provided the bellows that will fan Dennis' bonfire of the vanities into an inferno. A woman can see right through Dennis' bluff without any ill personal effects. However, I'm sure it's no coincidence that in the second production, the female character, Jessica, is far more sympathetic than in the first. 

Here's today's review from the Philadelphia Inquirer coupled with my review of the earlier show. 

October 13, 2008 9:30 AM | | Comments (2)
A bit late, I know, but I was very busy in synagogue yesterday atoning for all the mean things I've written about perfectly nice people during the past year. 

This week I'm macking on: journalists who drag theater out of its complacent spot as William Shakespeare's publicity machine, and into the bright light of contemporary affairs. The New York Times' Patricia Cohen wrote a chilling feature this week about the nosediving economy's effect on Broadway. The Stranger's Brendan Kiley published a hotly discussed column on how theater can fix itself (and though I might only agree with about half of his 10 fixes, the simplest--beer, babysitting, brash new works--would go a hell of a long way toward putting those coveted young butts in the seats, and keeping the old ones coming back for more). Ellis Henican keeps inviting me on his radio show to look at the election through a dramatic lens. And I'm sure there are plenty more examples I've missed that you're welcome to post below. Anything, anything journalists can do to give theater a makeover so it's no longer regarded as film's boring, uncool older sister (Ugh, that farthingale? So 500 years ago.) is a welcome change. I know it's great, you know it's great, the challenge is getting people to talk about theater as much as they talk about television and film. 

Obviously, it's a tougher goal since you have to actually leave the house to be part of the conversation, but if you can convince enough people they're missing enough of a cultural moment by staying home, or even better, can get inside their homes with a creative, interactive online presence surrounding each show (A good start? See New Paradise Laboratories' posting of auditions for its upcoming show Fatebook, a la The Real World, on its YouTube channel) and then offer them something extraordinary to discuss on their way out the door (and again, back online), you've elevated the entire sociological food chain. Nice work.

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This week I'm hating on: Oliver Stone, who gives you one more reason to spend your hard-earned entertainment dollars at a live, rather than filmed, performance. Why? Because, in the tradition of World Trade Center which was released around the five year anniversary of the attacks, his new film, W., couldn't possibly be released at a worse time. No one wants to see this now, because we've been living it for the last eight years. The right won't be interested because, well, it's Oliver Stone, and the left won't be interested because the wounds aren't just fresh, they're suppurating. Stone is such a pompous jerk that I imagine he thought he'd be doing the left a favor by helping to influence the election. Wrong and wrong. All Stone will have achieved with this film, no matter how good it is, is to remind everyone on both sides of the aisle the reason "liberal" became a dirty word (so self-righteous, so annoying). The worst part is that Josh Brolin, a genius of understated acting, might have turned in a career-making performance with this one, to say nothing of how much fun it would be to watch Richard Dreyfuss tackle the Darth Vader role (Hey, Cheney's the one who joked that his wife said the comparison 'humanized' him). 

Sure, with its epic, dynastic subject, it might be a great movie. In seven or so years. When we're in the midst of President Obama's second term, we're all driving American-made magnetic air cars and laughing about the days when we thought the nation was headed for bankruptcy and war with Iran. Boy, that was a time.

Below: Fatebook audition of "Katizzle Applebizzle from the 'hood of Minnetonka."

October 10, 2008 10:53 AM | | Comments (0)

rocky_steps.jpgThis week I'm macking on: Philadelphia. We're hosting a free Bruce Springsteen concert/rally for Obama on Saturday. Gary Steuer is wrapping up his first week as head of Mayor Michael Nutter's re-opened Office of Arts and Culture and the Creative Economy (that last part was added by the mayor for the office's new incarnation) even as the Wall Street economy proves how much less worthy it is of financial assistance than our artists. In Conflict is featured in this month's issue of American Theatre (I just reviewed the article's author, Krista Apple, here) going strong Off-Broadway and there are murmurs of its potential for a larger house. The 2008 Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, kick off on Monday night. And finally, I'm headed to Sarasota, Florida this weekend--host of the 2009 American Theatre Critics' Association conference--and figured as long as I'm down there, I'd  get a head start on checking out the drama scene. So what's playing at the Florida Studio Theatre? A Murder, A Mystery and A Marriage, with book and lyrics by former Arden Theatre Artistic Director Aaron Posner (the Arden will premiere Posner's new adaptation of Chaim Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev later this season) and music by Pig Iron member James Sugg, whose original production The Sea (Tom Waits fans, go on and click. The songs are very Swordfishtrombones, in a good way, and the show stands on its own.) was one of my all-time Fringe Festival favorites. And, oh yeah, didn't I hear something recently about the Phillies? So while visitors might pour on the haterade and call us fat, unfriendly, unstylish, ugly, a crappy vacation destination, dirty, noisy, dangerous and boring (things got worse for us since the last survey), all I have to say is dontcha wish your city was hot like ours?

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This week I'm hating on: Clowns. Specifically the clowns of the San Francisco Clown conservatory, who came up with this idea: a "Naked Clown Calendar" as an MS fundraiser. I know it's for a good cause and maybe you can pay the Judy Finelli Fund to not send you a calendar. Because really, this has to be the worst idea since last week's announcement of American Psycho, the Musical. Ever think about a clown's nipples? A clown's hairy belly? No? Of course not, and you know why? Because it would make you cry, not laugh. Because only John Wayne Gacy's victims had to do that, and they didn't want to. I couldn't upload any of their pictures as they're protected, and, um, they're scary. No need to thank me.

October 2, 2008 8:07 PM | | Comments (5)
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If you missed my appearance with Ellis Henican yesterday on Sirius Radio's Ron Silver Show, here it is, but it's on the long side. I come in at about 10:15 to discuss the drama--and dramatic analogies--surrounding tonight's vice presidential debate. More coherent than last time, but still suffering performance anxiety; one more reason to hate actors, I guess. (Oh, come on, it's a joke.) Enjoy.

October 2, 2008 1:31 PM | | Comments (3)

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