November 2008 Archives
Very, very full. Feeling sluggish. Here's an extra light post-Thanksgiving Mack Attack.
This week I'm macking on: The sheer variety of holiday shows that aren't A Christmas Carol. There's so much to choose from I don't think the Inquirer is even reviewing any of the local Dickens efforts, though they have an whole separate calendar listing section for them. (Don't quote me on that--they might sneak in one or two reviews that I don't know about. The important thing, really, is that I'm not reviewing any of them.) You might feel differently, but then, you're probably not a theater critic if you do.
This week I'm hating on: The economy. And not just because my portfolio is really starting to sag from all the deflated Ford, GM and Tribune stock that used to keep it filled to a perky, respectable, blue-chip-studded C-cup. Although it is. No, I'm hating on the economy today because people are killing each other at Wal-Mart for discounts on crappy Chinese and Bangladeshi crap, instead of treating their families to all those awesome holiday shows. Just when theaters are feeling comfortable enough to start taking chances, they're rewarded by stagnation the likes of which we haven't seen since Annie was adopted. I wonder how many companies will survive into the next season, and I'm desperately afraid that most of the young ones will be knocked out, let alone those with big, new houses that need to be filled in order to keep the lights on. All this, just as we--and by we, I mean Philadelphia, though you may certainly insert your own city's name here--were starting to make some headway on this "arts economy" thing. If you're of a certain political bent, you could probably see it as a natural culling of the herd, but then, you could also see it as the innocent suffering the sins of the wicked. In any case, given the choice between the "arts economy" and the "economy economy," I'll take what the arts economy has to offer to what's left of our civilization any day.
Here's what I've noticed lately in Philadelphia theater, and you can tell me if you've seen the same thing in your town: children's theater rocks. I'm working on a feature on the subject, and can't really get too far into it without tipping my hand, but damn.
I remember the days when taking your kids to see a show meant some slapped together summary of a fairytale that usually ended in a bunch of people skipping through the aisles in plushie suits, singing something inane about love and friendship. I'm sure there are companies around Philly still milking that same cash cow, but in the past few years the bar for family theater has been raised so high that the shows are often worth seeing without going to the trouble of bearing/bringing a kid.
Today's review of Cinderella, this year's incarnation of People's Light and Theatre's annual holiday panto, takes notice of this new trend. Because not only wasn't the panto all that panto-like (it was structured more like a vaudeville show), it also engaged the talents of some of the area's most creative theater minds and brought in an unapologetic Fringe sensibility while simultaneously tipping a bowler to other successful and cutting-edge Philadelphia artists.
And what better audience for the avant-garde, for surrealism, for the marriage of drama and technology than children? Kids are completely non-linear thinkers (at least until their innate absurdism gets instructed out of them), and willing to swallow whatever they're given as long as it provides an interesting flavor--otherwise, they'll spit it right back out at you, and never taste what you're offering again. They're the roughest critics and the most loyal customers, and if you win them over, you're not only helping yourself, you're shaping the future of the arts.
The long-term result of companies throwing major resources behind family programming is a generation that grows up with a lifelong appreciation for challenging theater. The short term result is, of course, money in the bank during rough economic times, since--aside from the packed school, birthday and scout audiences--most parents will justify taking their kids to a play, if not themselves. But it's pretty sweet that in this genre at least, making money and making substantial, worthwhile art aren't at odds.
I know I'm late checking in this week, and I apologize. Again. But hey, at least I showed up for dessert.
This week I'm macking on what I'm also hating on: Theater about technology. So many playwrights use an old-fashioned linear narrative to tell an internet-based tale, a method that has so little to do with the actual use of the internet that it's almost infuriating. Okay, sometimes it's actually infuriating. But when techno-drama's done right, it makes you feel like you're surfing the crest of a rogue wave, allowed to see higher, farther and deeper than any human ought to be allowed. And that's a beautiful thing.
This reflection all came about because I saw Theatre Exile's production of Carlos Murillo's Dark Play last night and though I'm not reviewing it (you'll have to wait a day or so for Toby Zinman's assessment), I can't help but weigh in, since it deals with the same technological issues Brat Productions' User 927 tried to wrestle into submission earlier in the season. (My review of that play is here.) What's so interesting to me about these two plays is the way they attempt to capture the mercurial nature of the internet, which is essentially missing the point. Like mercury, the internet shape-shifts almost as soon as it's touched, let alone committed to old-fashioned paper. Remember chat rooms? Remember AOL, from the days when people used to pay for e-mail? Both plays do, and both playwrights are alarmed by the internet's most notorious episodes (waiting for the production about this next), and use them as the vehicle for Victorian-style cautionary tales. But the internet's a slippery creature, and a year or so after their respective premieres, both plays already read like time capsules.
During an interview today on a totally different subject, New Paradise Laboratories' Whit MacLaughlin--whose Fatebook, a performance about, yes, Facebook, is slated to premiere at the 2009 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival--summed up everything wrong with this type of drama. "People tend to gravitate toward the hysterical, but people were probably hysterical when Gutenberg printed the first bible." Exactly. Hysteria is generally only worthwhile when viewed in hindsight. It's why Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible without a role for Joe McCarthy, but plenty of room for the inhabitants of Salem, Mass.
So how ironic is it that the production I've seen that best expresses the banality of internet evil and its detached menace was Wooster Group's Hamlet? That's right, Shakespeare, once again, bitch slaps his pretenders and proves his enduring relevance (sorry Mr. Tynan, I know how you hated that term). He's really the only logical match for the internet, Godzilla to its Mothra, and he's the only playwright who could survive being refurbished from an analog relic into a prophet of the digital age.
Rather than spelling out technology's cold front for an audience, Wooster chooses the more elegant route. Their actors' eyes never meet, so busy are they tracking the multitude of screens and monitors surrounding them. It's the dramatic equivalent of teenagers who sit side-by-side texting one another. Hamlet's questions of identity were sent centuries ago, long before middle-aged men were IM-propositioning teenagers by pretending to be their peers. To be or not to be? That has always been the question, but online, it's even tougher to answer. Instead of picking a side, the best contemporary tech-based theater will function as an elastic exchange of information, adaptable, fluid, and impervious to hysteria.
It's been a hell of a long week both personally and professionally, so I apologize to my regular and faithful readers for not posting more. I'll try to hit you back next week.
In the meantime, this week I'm macking on: Philadelphia's steadily growing reputation as a hotspot for new play development. If you missed it, this New York Times feature hardly has enough room to mention all the opportunities available to playwrights here. It mentions many of our best beloved artists as well, people whose names--based on their steady and consistent output alone--certainly deserve to be circulating on the national stage, and on national stages. Bruce Graham, Michael Hollinger, Jennifer Childs, Geoff Sobelle, all outstanding Philly playwrights, and only a fraction of the total. In addition, so many of our established houses are dedicated to incorporating new work that just about every major company and some of the minors include at least one piece making in its world debut on a local stage.
This unique environment is thrilling for critics as well. I'm happy to review The Music Man or Chazz Palminteri's touring production of A Bronx Tale, as I did this week (click either to see the reviews), because they're known entities and easy writeups. But nothing will quite put you on your game and make you contend with the weight of your words like reviewing a brand new production. At that point, it's all you, baby, and you stand or fall on your own merits. As a critic, all you can do is hope that you're not the writer history remembers as the one who almost sunk our next Beckett. It's an exciting and terrifying environment in which to write, and one that probably comes closest to mimicking the opening night excitement and terror felt by those whom we critique. The way I figure it, that's only fair, and it ought to be a more frequent part of every critic's experience, though far too often, it's only a tiny portion.
This week I'm hating on: The way life keeps getting in the way of my theatergoing. I had to cut a deal with my husband last month: no more going to shows that I'm not reviewing and no more features. Of course, I've worked out a complex system of justifications to get around that, like: no more than two shows a week, and if I go to more than that it's only because I'm reviewing three or so that week, but if I don't have any reviews, then only two. And I'll only do features if my editor asks me. Or if I have a really great idea.
No, my husband's not a total a*hole. He's actually a really great guy who never shied away from a dirty diaper, helps coach our son's soccer team, and takes our daughter to horse shows even though he's really, really allergic to horses. It's just that the theater critic's schedule (out at night and writing every weekend) is not conducive to family life, at least not if you take either theater or family seriously. I'm guessing that's why there are so few mothers of young children in this gig, and it's certainly why I took a five year sabbatical from the job after our second child was born. Also, with the news industry being the way it is, and most critic spots going freelance and paying a pittance, this isn't the job of a primary breadwinner, and yet its importance and the necessity of being an expert on the topic of what's going on in theater in your town if you're writing about theater in your town hasn't lessened any. I don't know the answer, but I can certainly take up your time bitching about it here. Thanks. I feel better already.
It's been a heckuva week, but you've done a heckuva job, brownies. Everyone, and by everyone, I mean even Fox News and Glenn Beck, is feeling cautiously optimistic about the nation's future. (But not Rush Limbaugh, who probably doesn't feel much besides outrage and cravings anyway; believe me, it takes one to know one.)
So in the spirit of a week that's made me feel like singing, I'm macking on: Musicals about American presidents. Kaufman and Hart's 1937 I'd Rather Be Right featured George M. Cohan as a singing, dancing--yes, dancing--Franklin Delano Roosevelt, proving that theater showed long ago that with the right guy in charge, anything is possible. Two other, more dubious presidential tributes come from my new favorite company, Les Freres Corbusier. (Their latest musical, Dance Dance Revolution, based on, um, Dance Dance Revolution, opens at New York's Ohio Theater in December. I'll take two comps, please. Pretty please.) Corbusier's 2003 glam musical President Harding is a Rock Star (in production in D.C. right now--thanks to DCist's Missy Frederick for the tipoff and please comment here about the production. I'm DYING to know.) and 2006 emo musical about the founder of the Democratic party, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, trace W. right back to his populist roots with a pair of mavericks who went rogue, and got elected for it. Finally, there's Kenya's entry into this category, Obama: The Musical. I don't know how good it is, but I know a whole lot of people over there are damn glad to be singing about someone who knows that their nation is on a continent called Africa.
There's one missing missing from this list, and I know it's a biggie, but under the circumstances, let's just acknowledge that it exists and move on. There will be plenty of time during the next four years to worry about meth-fueled skinheads. Right now, I'm happy to watch the curtain go up on the newest presidential show in town, and I'm hoping this one's a winner.
This week I'm hating on: Prop 8. Because it sucks, as I think every other drama queen among my readership would agree. This election was all about change, and though there's been a small setback on the issue of gay marriage, I see it as an opportunity to the issue to a larger stage, as in the Supreme Court. Take heart lovers, the ACLU has taken up the fight, and since I come from the city of Rocky, I ain't ready to call it for the bad guys just yet.
Below: Obama, the Musical (minus the very unpresidential crotch-grabbing dance numbers. If you want those, they're here.)
Can I have a do-over?
Last time I was on here, I was complaining about social media. Well now I have seen the light, and it's fueled by an alternative energy called democracy.
All night, during the election mayhem, I was glued to Twitter and Facebook, as news and opinions poured in from around the world. And not from pundits (or "pundints," as Sarah Palin--Godspeed--used to say when she wasn't saying "nucular") but from citizens taking part in the democratic process in real time. This time, while official commentators buzzed in the background or provided fodder for snark, the leveling power of Web 2.0 communication was so overwhelming I almost wept from the sheer enormity of its implications--and this was before Obama's acceptance speech.
On Twitter, the Election 2008 feed whipped by so fast you could hardly make it to anyone's 140th character, let alone the 100th. I was tipped off to businesses giving away everything from coffee and doughnuts to vibrators (that giveaway continues until 11/11), and got my schadenfreude on by reporting to my 125 followers that the Fox Newsroom needed a Prozac IV drip, stat. I learned when Tina Fey was readying her shot glass, but I also learned how complete strangers and non-celebrities were reacting to the excitement moment by moment; meanwhile, detached from our earthly cares, the Mars Phoenix sent out a poignant goodbye from its frozen planet. Back on Facebook, a friend messaged me from France to say Paris was burning with hope. It was crazy and beautiful, in an election that lit a clean-burning coalfire under the rump of the body politic.
And the arts? Where do they fit in? Well, I'll tell you this much, before the Phillies and politics took over the feeds, I was tweeting links to my reviews, features and blog posts, and every time I did, I'd see a big and immediate jump in traffic to those sites. Mind you, some of these visitors were from Philly, where they could easily find links to the Inquirer's website and current reviews on their own, but didn't... Until I mentioned it to them. And the out-of-towners, who wouldn't otherwise read Philly reviews? Well, they did.
While personal pr is a part of why I'm constantly working the updates, it only comprises about a third of my motivation.( I don't have a clue how to make money off this thing, though I'm sure there's a way--I'm taking recommendations, BTW--but the site is young enough that programmers are falling all over themselves to create accessories to enhance tweeters' experience.) No, the other two-thirds belong to the thrill of being a part of something nascent but already integral, a new, wired American presidency and populace, ready to receive data from the masses, and willing--no, hungry--to listen. Don't let the sneezing pandas and angry cats win, no matter how cute they are. Who better but artists and lovers of the arts to ensure that arts coverage remains a critical component of 21st century media?