December 2008 Archives
This week I'm macking on: Vacation! I'll be out of town from tomorrow until after the new year, so don't expect to see any posts until then. However, I do plan to take in some Florida theater. Strangely enough, just like last time I went away, when Sarasota's Florida Studio Theatre hosted a Philly show--James Sugg and Aaron Posner's A Murder, A Mystery and A Marriage--this time FST is producing Michael Hollinger's Opus, an Arden Theatre baby. So if I can't resist, maybe I'll sneak away to a computer for a quickie review or something (I'll probably need the alone time anyway). And also, I'll be in Disneyworld for a couple of days, which should, I don't know, be really freaky, and then up to Savannah, Georgia. If anyone has theater recommendations along that route, please send them to me. Any time I'm on vacation and have a legit excuse to get a babysitter is a good time.
This week I'm hating on: Finite print space for reviews. I reviewed 1812 Productions' Cherry Bomb, a new, full-length musical about the Cherry Sisters--a family act widely considered "the worst act in vaudeville" for today's Philadelphia Inquirer. (p.s., the link takes you to a piece written by WFMU mad genius Irwin Chusid, whose compilation album and companion book Songs in the Key of Z are the definitive primers on outsider music.) I managed to do an okay job, I guess, in a mightily compressed way, of conveying what the show was about, giving some history and throwing forth my likes and dislikes. But I sure could have used some room to stretch out.
Some productions make every syllable of their 420-470 alloted review words into a Sisyphean torment. (Spoiler Alert: ever read a review whose plot synopsis is way longer than the reviewer's analysis? A sure sign it was one of those shows.) Because sometimes, you see a conventional and adequate but unexceptional production of a frequently produced show--in keeping with the spirit of the season, let's say A Christmas Carol. Well, what is there to discuss? It was good, everyone knows the story, and I don't know, I guess you could complain or champion the tradition of mounting it every season. The end.
But in the case of Cherry Bomb and all its incidentals--the rising local talents among the cast and creators, its subject matter, its historical importance, the sisters' place in the pantheon of outsider music, the show's dramatic context, its sociopolitical elements, its conceptual strengths and faults, its music, direction, script, lyrics, none of which have been reviewed before--well, that's where a nice, flexible website would really come in handy.
Considering all the time invested in the show's development, the grant money involved, and the sheer enormity of producing ambitious new work now, when the city's economy is imploding (Let's just ignore the rest of the world's imploding economies, shall we? ), it is almost a disservice to give Cherry Bomb such a cursory review. And that didn't used to be the case. For example, take Frank Rich's 1993 review of the Broadway premier of Angels in America, which clocks in at a well-padded 1443 words, not including the cast box. Ben Brantley's review for the current revival of American Buffalo is shorter by almost a third at 960 words. My word count at the Inquirer has shrunk by 100 or so words just since 2006.
Considering the disappearing ranks of paid critics these days, I guess a cursory review is better than none at all. At the same time, with these halfway useful, halfway explored ideas, is print media, in its efforts to remain afloat in its current, tangible, deliverable form and refusal to adapt to an online model, subsequently hastening our demise? I guess we'll know soon enough.
I preface this entry by saying that aside from being elected the first African-American president, there is probably no greater feat in my mind than pulling off a one-person show. It takes such chutzpah that even the act of not completely pulling it off is still a triumph of the spirit, of the timeless human drive to make meaning of our lives, to show that among the millions of people across several millenia who have lived and died, this story also matters. And that's a noble effort, indeed.
But when all things are equal, as they mostly are in the following two reviews of recent one-person shows, what makes one float and the other take on water? In the case of Tony Braithwaite's Look Mom, I'm Swell vs. Judy Gold's 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, there are plenty of parallels. Both shows, obviously, explore their creators' relationships with their mothers. Both grew up as awkward, drama-loving outsiders. Both use impressions in their act, I guess to diffuse the cumulative effect of watching one person talk about him/herself for an hour-and-a-half. And both were professional pieces performed in major area houses (Gold's house was a bit more major than Braithwaite's but I suppose major is in the eye of the beholder anyway). So why did I like one so much more than the other?
I guess the difference here is partly due to the intangible charisma factor--Braithwaite is just slightly more humble and self-effacing--but I think it also helps that he's just plain more honest about what he's trying to achieve. Tony Braithwaite wants to talk about Tony Braithwaite, pure and simple, and in this honest (internal) declaration, he makes it his business to convince the audience he's worth watching. Gold is less honest about her goals, and though what she really wants to discuss is her relationship with her mother, she builds a complicated structure that not only distracts from her own story, but might just have been a better idea on its own. Or at least an entirely worthwhile--but separate idea. If someone invites you over for a dinner party and during the hors d'oeuvres whips out their Amway catalogue (or whatever Jewish women sell, say, Pampered Chef housewares), you're going to spend the rest of the evening feeling at least a little taken aback. Gold isn't selling Amway with her act, but it's not exactly the dinner party she promised, either.
Anyway, you can judge for yourself. Here's my review of Tony Braithwaite's Look Mom, I'm Swell. Here's my review of Judy Gold's 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother. Both are from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Ok, this is the last time I'll mention Dance Dance Revolution, I promise, unless it somehow manages to show up in a theater near me (hint, Philly, hint).
What I want to know is why--despite the fact that the show is sold out for the rest of its run--there are no reviews anywhere (New York: step up your game ASAP) except this sort of breathless and kind of confused one on Controlgeek, a blog about theater technology? Just asking. I mean, if people were wondering why theater criticism seems increasingly irrelevant, I dunno, I'd say the entire print media and internet dropping the ball on this one is probably a pretty good example.
(Below: Dance Dance star Van Hansis, whom you might--or might not--know better as Luke of As the World Turns' Luke and Noah, and whose first kiss garnered for the soap a positively foamy million-and-a-half hits on YouTube.)
Puffy previews are great for getting the word out, and there were a couple of those (here and here), but when the rubber hit the road, you'd think there'd at least be some smoke, or skid marks left behind, or at the very least an acrid odor, not just, you know, an empty can of Bud tossed out the back window (beer, by the way, is free during performances). Maybe there was some "no critics allowed" thing going on that I'm not aware of, and if so, well okay, maybe that would explain the lack of reviews, but certainly not the lack of "Les Freres Corbusier Ban Critics" stories. I'm just hoping the deficit has a real explanation and it isn't that everyone was so busy running from A Christmas Carol to Radio City Music Hall that they missed out on all that free beer and those half-naked actors (their advertising, not mine) over at the Ohio Theatre.
UPDATE: Thanks to Liz Gorinsky for pointing me to her review of the show, which Google somehow missed. A great example of why long reviews were so much fun to write, back in the days when they used to exist, and of the web's usefulness in filling in the information gap when the official channels are closed.
This week I'm macking on: Mark Pinsky's New Republic article on why Barack Obama's economic stimulus proposal should include a new New Deal-style Federal Writer's Project. Journalism is imploding just as much as car manufacturing and Wall Street hedge fund pimping, and it's arguably better for us than either. Since the jury's still out on whether Congress will allow the people who brought us Hummers and those who deal in unfettered capitalism to die on the same sword by which they thrived, at the very least it ought to throw a lifeline to the one industry clairvoyant enough to call attention to this garbage long before it started to rot. And even if that industry was as retrograde in its preparation for this day as the others, well, at least we were only hurting ourselves.
You can hear Pinsky discuss the Federal Writer's Project here on NPR's program Day to Day, which on Wednesday was cancelled and its staff laid off. You can also read Pinsky's chilling account of being axed from the Orlando Sentinel. And if you're feeling particularly masochistic, check out Paper Cuts' graphic map of 2008's layoffs and buyouts at U.S. newspapers. The Federal Writer's Project employed 6,600 people; last year alone we lost over 15,000 newspaper jobs. Brother (and by brother, I mean Mr. Obama), can you spare a dime; or rather, can you afford not to?
And I'm hating on: The fact that in his article Pinsky sideswipes the New Deal's Federal Theatre Project. What, it's less controversial or overtly political to federally subsidize journalists instead of artists? Are you kidding? Anyone who believes the right (and often the left) thinks journalism is politically neutral needs someone to remove their blinders and give them a good kick in the ass. There, did that hurt? Good. Now maybe you won't be so surprised when Obama's Federal Writer's Project (from your visionary mouth, Mr. Pinsky, to G-d's ears) gets backhanded by Congress. And you'll be able to see better when you sock them right right back with a fistful of arts programs.
Just reading through the Federal Theatre Project's accomplishments brings tears to my eyes, and I'm talking real, wet, chest-swelling tears of amazement that when things were going so terribly wrong, this country did something so right. So much of Depression-era government-sponsored artistic propaganda was concerned with integration and racial equality, it seems less than coincidental that now, as we teeter again on the abyss, we have our first African-American president waiting to take office. It also makes the possibility of a WPA-style out-of-the-closet, new-work-developing, status-quo-challenging arts program seem slightly less-far-fetched than under, say, a Bush administration... Any Bush administration.
The FTP brought touring productions to rural areas; produced work that ranged in content from Yiddish theater to the "Living Newspaper" plays (which, though they were indeed controversial, employed plenty of out-of-work journalists); and perhaps most spectacularly, produced with its Negro Unit an all-black "Voodoo Macbeth" in Harlem, directed by the 20-year-old Orson Welles. That last one alone is the sort of miraculous event that could induce me to wear a flag pin. But more important, it underscores the point that federal support for the arts is both the hallmark and legacy of a great civilization. We, as a nation, could sure use that sort of reminder right now.
Below: Newsreel of Voodoo Macbeth
It seems that when I wrote on this blog last week about the changing face of family theater, I really struck a nerve. It's a genre that's been disrespected for a long time, but seems to have come into its own in recent years.
Director Whit MacLaughlin, who is becoming such a regular presence here I ought to start bugging him for advertising fees, traces the change to Disney's hiring of Julie Taymor, "a downtown artist," to design The Lion King. (Taymor's upcoming projects include Spider-Man The Musical and a film version of The Tempest.) Suddenly quality theater for children paid off, and as usual, that payoff trickled out into the regions where it settled in and allowed a fertile yet neglected aspect of professional theater to really blossom.
As a critic and parent, it's particularly gratifying to attend performances with my children that challenge and inspire us. All of us. Considering that some of Philly's major players and fringe fest regulars are working both on and offstage on several shows (sometimes all at once), the holiday theatergoing season is really starting to feel like something worth celebrating.
Here's my feature for today's Philadelphia Inquirer, which discusses those Philadelphia theaters whose family projects are in either in full bloom or just starting to bud, and what they do that makes their approach unique.
With the news this weekend of Sunny von Bulow's death, a lesser-known fact about her ex-husband and accused (and convicted, then acquitted) attempted murderer Claus von Bulow emerged: he's currently writing theater--and art and book--reviews in London. (Von Bulow's former attorney Alan Dershowitz said in an interview that von Bulow sends the reviews to him, and that he reads them, but I couldn't find any online).
Claus' father, Danish playwright Svend Borberg, also reviewed theater, and, as it happens, was a Nazi sympathizer.
More proof (as if you needed any) that theater critics really are horrible people. I guess when you think about it, it's a good thing we have this outlet and that the only thing we're likely to kill is a show or two.
It's crunch time, with a feature in the works and a ton of reviews to pound through before I leave for vacation with my family. To Disneyworld. But that's a discussion for another time.
This week I'm macking on: Dance Dance Revolution. Again. Because it's open now. Les Freres Corbusier never gave me tickets, but that's cool, I'm still gonna try my hardest to see it before it closes, and even if I don't, I'm embarking on an all-out effort to get the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival to import it next fall. I have no idea if this is even a feasible plan, if anyone besides me wants to see it (although, after reading this Village Voice article, I cringe to imagine the stiffs who wouldn't), or if it's even available for import, but dammit, it's sure worth a try.
As far as I'm concerned, I think the team's pyrotechnic extravaganzas and pop culture excavations represent nothing less than the bright, smart future of the American musical. If you, like me, probably won't get to New York this month, no worries. Here's what's up next for the company, and happily, it's a packed dance dance card.
In any case, if you happen to see the Dance Dance Revolution, please leave a comment here and let me know if your experience was anything close to the thrill-ride I imagine.
This week I'm hating on: The paucity of decent Jewish holiday music. Jews get that irritating Adam Sandler song, an album by the serious Baron Cohen, and the broken promise of an Amy Winehouse/Mark Ronson Chanukah album.
Meanwhile, just this year alone, Christians get Motorhead's Lemmy, rapper Jim Jones, with his second holiday entry (and p.s., he also produced this way below the radar musical/vanity project last month), Elvis, the Flaming Lips, and Kristin Chenoweth, among others. Well here's what you get from me in return, you holiday chazzers, for hogging all the good stuff: 12 minutes of an uninterrupted Enya Christmas. Feel free to regift.
Everyone loves an excuse to whip up a musical, but in the case of those affected by Prop 8, the urge comes naturally. After all, who loves musicals more than gay people and the people who love them? That's right bitches, no one.
Brought to you by the folks at Will Ferrell's Funny or Die, a comedy website that's often not all that funny (sorry, I'm a critic in all things), but boasts an impressive roster of A-list starpower, here's Prop 8: The Musical, featuring Jack Black, John C. Reilly and a whole lot of their friends whose names and faces you probably know. Who's missing? Curiously, it's the very funny Wanda Sykes--click here for her comedy routine on the subject--who was recently moved enough by the debate to come out as gay... And married to her partner. Hopefully she'll show up for round two.
Anyway, I don't know how much good it can do at this point, but hey, at least they're still keeping it on the radar. Or, um, gaydar.
Bring it on home, Neil Patrick Harris.
See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die