June 2009 Archives

I've been asked by about 10 people to weigh in on Spring Awakening, whose national tour is currently writhing through Philly's Academy of Music. However, rather than write a review, which my colleague Toby Zinman has already done very nicely in today's Philadelphia Inquirer, I'll just say that I loved it, and instead, offer a list of 10 thoughts (one for each of you) Spring Awakening awoke in me.

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10: Northeast Philly got something right. I know, I know, it's the "Great Northeast," but so far, the greatest contribution they've made to the performing arts landscape is Blake Bashoff (at left, with Kyle Riabko as Melchior), a Washington High grad who plays the troubled (ok, they're all troubled) Moritz. Maybe I've forgotten some great Neezer (besides my cousin AJ Slick, who happens to be the best Stevie Ray Vaughn cover artist ever to sling on a Gibson). If I have, I'm sure someone will remind me.

9: The Spring Awakening song "Totally Fucked" sounds a lot like the Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson song "Life Sucks." In fact, both shows share a similar theme. A rock musical about 19th century adolescents? An emo musical about the adolescent behavior of a future president? Same diff.

8: I was surprised to see how closely the musical stuck to Frank Wedekind's source material. A season or two ago, a local company (Or rather, local now. They arrived in our fair city from New Orleans by way of a gal named Katrina.), EgoPo Productions, did an expressionistic rendering of the original, complete with masks. It was startling stuff, and I'm pretty psyched that we regional viewers came in on the later end of the musical's run, if only because it gave the locals a chance to capitalize on Broadway's fortunes while simultaneously supplementing and enriching our overall theatergoing experience. More, please.

7: I'm on board with Sheik's/Sater's decision to intensify Martha's suffering in "The Dark I Know Well," changing her abuse from merely physical to both physical and sexual. Why? In a play about children's victimization by the adults charged with their care, incest is one of the few secrets Wedekind avoided, but its inclusion makes perfect sense.

6: I'm not on board with Michael Mayer's decision to make Wendla such an obviously willing participant in her... What is it? Seduction? Rape? Sexual baptism? The original take ain't pretty, but neither are the ragged emotions of Wedekind's kinder. When you're 14, sometimes no really does mean yes, and even when it doesn't, you spend years wondering if maybe it did after all. That confusion, particularly in light of Wendla's begging Melchior to beat her, also made perfect sense.

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5: If you follow my Twitter/Facebook feed, I apologize for repeating myself, but I still think my favorite emotion is whatever attaches itself to a minor chord. I guess it's something between yearning and anticipation, maybe both. The best way to maintain that feeling is to make your own Duncan Sheik station on Pandora. It's like listening to the cast recording, but quieter.

4: Melchior's philosophical transformation and friendship with Moritz, among other things, reminded me of Leopold and Loeb, which reminded me that there's yet another take on their story opening here in August. Mauckingbird Theatre's production will mark the third show I've seen about those two nasty little sociopaths. Why, after all these years and crimes, do Leopold and Loeb still fascinate? 

3:  While discussing the show over a drink with my pal Jim Rutter, the Broad Street Review's dance/theater critic, I asked him why he liked this one so much, but disliked Rent. He answered that Rent glorified its characters, while Spring Awakening's characters (and emotions) were so much more genuine. That's true, even if it sort of misses Rent's point. But I'd wager there wouldn't be a musical Spring Awakening if Rent hadn't taken on La Boheme first.

2: What kind of a moron would bring their little kid to see a show like that? And if parents are too lazy to do their own homework, can't we at least help those kids out so they're not stuck sitting between mommy and daddy watching a sexy teen proto-Nazi masturbate onstage to Desdemona's murder? People love theater, they love turning their kids on to theater, just not necessarily, you know, turning them on. Why do movies and video games require ratings, but not theater? Sure, it's an imperfect system, and I'm not in favor of policing people's parenting, or censorship, or ignorance, but since, as Spring Awakening so deftly illustrates, parents are clueless, and more important, theaters aren't looking to alienate anyone these days, why not offer them a big fat clue right on the ads?  

1: To protect the innocent, I'm keeping the year of my own forest-heavy "Purple Summer" to myself. I will say this, though: the music and circumstances may be slightly different, but it's both terrifying and comforting to know that for 118 years--at least--the lyrics to those songs have remained the same.



June 24, 2009 11:41 AM | | Comments (1)
Right now, Philadelphia's greatest cultural export appears to be the loosely collected members of Pig Iron Theatre Company, whose newest work, Welcome to Yuba City, will premiere at September's Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival. According to them, the troupe officially consists of three artistic directors and five company members, but I don't buy it. Some members have been around since the group's founding in 1995, but other newer performers fit in seamlessly, and once someone is involved, they seem to organically break off into solo projects or new companies as though Pig Iron is some kind of Philly-wide petri dish swimming with constantly replicating, ambitious, creative amoeba. 

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(We've got an archetype convoy. Pictured from left: James Sugg, Dito Van Reigersberg, Alex Torra, Geoff Sobelle. Photo by Jason Frank Rothenberg.)

The Pig Iron hallmark is a dance-physical theater blend of non-traditional narrative and staging, and their stamp shows up in just about every side project undertaken by one of its "members." Even Geoff Sobelle's Hamlet, at the generally tradition-minded Lantern Theatre, was somehow transformed into an acrobat-trickster. Lately, Rainpan 43, a Pig Iron splinter group, has been getting a lot of press, what with the successes of All Wear Bowlers and Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines, but Chekov Lizardbrain won Pig Iron proper an Obie award. Not that they needed New York to vindicate their efforts--after all, they've been Barrymore Award favorites many times over and always premiere new work here at home--still, it doesn't hurt.

While critical acclaim from the New York Times might be a signal to some for a well-deserved break, Machines' cast members Quinn Bauriedel, Sobelle and its director Charlotte Ford are clearly spending their down time up and about. Tuesday night, the group hosted a preview performance for Welcome to Yuba City, directed by Bauriedel (who settles into the director's chair for the first time since 1998's The Tragedy of Joan of Arc) and featuring Sobelle, Ford, Sarah Sanford and Van Reigersberg. 

While still in its infancy, the show offers a clown's eye view of the American West. So far, the piece explores some mythic western archetypes (long-haul trucker, leader of a "compound") that populate the sort of diner whose parking lot is usually filled with more tumbleweeds than cars. To this end, the company trained with Giovanni Fusetti in an effort to locate their "inner clowns," and will perform on a set that fills 10,000 feet of a 20,000 foot warehouse. 

So why devote all this blog real estate to a preview? Because even though the Live Arts Festival imports some phenomenal artists from off the Schuylkill Expwy (this year's crop includes Mike Daisey and ex-Luna members Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips--though Phillips might not count, since she's originally from Bucks County), Philly's homegrown bounty makes this festival a destination event instead of a drive-thru window. It's why last year I couldn't even get a ticket to another Pig Iron splinter show, Emanuelle Delpeche-Ramey's Oedipus at FDR. Seriously. Never saw it. (Note to festival organizers: let's work on that this year, mkay?) 

I'm not saying the local productions are perfect, or that Pig Iron doesn't stumble. (They do. It took me years to get over their 1997 Fringe show Cafeteria.) However, I do believe that Philly is about ready for its closeup, and since I'm holding one of the lenses, I might as well use it to zoom in. 
June 18, 2009 1:10 AM | | Comments (0)

So here's the thing about Theatre Communications Group's Press Summit: how do you present the entire press/theater dynamic, framed by the implosion of the newspaper industry and giftwrapped in our current economic crisis, open it up at a conference table, and assemble a new paradigm (batteries not included) in just two hours? You don't.

TCG09.jpgIf you're wondering how many minds it took to reach that particular conclusion, well, TCG sat down with Peter Marks, Lou Bellamy, Mark Cosson, Neil Pepe, Olga Sanchez, Chris Rawson, Judy Rousuck, Phil Stephenson, Raelle Myrick Hodges, Jim O'Quinn, Susan Booth, Steve Cosson, Emily Mann, John O'Neal, Elizabeth Blair, Neil Pressley, Jason Zinoman, Richard Zoglin and me. (I know I said Bartlett Sher would attend, but he was a no-show. I'm sure he had a good excuse.) The earth didn't rumble and subscribers didn't fall from the heavens, but we did start an exchange that felt kind of like a first date. Not one of those hot, crazy first dates where you start out at dinner and end up pressing the emergency stop button in the nearest elevator (No I haven't, but it sounds fun, right?), but more like one of those first dates where the conversation moves along nicely, you get a chance to really check your companion out across the table, and you think, "You know what? I could maybe do this again."

[Above: Pepe, Hodges and Stephenson get to know each other a little better.]

"This" was the act of feeling out the dead zone between critics and artistic directors. However, as it turns out, we're all pretty much on the same side. Time Magazine's Zoglin explained his goal these days is just to maintain a place for theater in the national press--no easy feat. Meanwhile, Civilians' artistic director Cosson worries that as goes newspaper criticism, so goes public discourse about theater. Without that discourse, he believes, the work is incomplete.

How do two professions that are often at odds, but somehow have the exact same goal, find a way to cooperate? Miracle Theatre Group's Sanchez hosts cultural celebrations in conjunction with her productions; thus, even if the show is ignored due to tight space in the A&E section of the paper, a Day of the Dead celebration with local children might--and did--receive coverage in the Local or Family section. When Hodges took the reins at Brava after its founder and 22-year artistic director's departure, she thawed the icy heart of a San Francisco journalist with persistent personal invitations to get to know her via special events at the theater. Now? Hodges understands and appreciates that the journalist/a.d. relationship will never result in a new BFF, but she does feel he now gets her mission and is willing to allow her some room to settle in. Atlantic Theater Company's Pepe, on the other hand, hasn't circumvented the media entirely, but says getting the word out on social media sites such as Facebook increased his audiences at a time when he expected the butts-in-seats count to take a major hit.

The journalists were less optimistic, with plenty of expected hand-wringing over lost space, readers, jobs and dollars. Sure, when you're reminiscing about the power of words on a printed page, things are grim. And yet. Maybe I'm just relentlessly, blindly upbeat, but I can't help thinking we're headed into a robber baron era for entrepreneurial-minded writers. I'm also of the firm belief that readers' ability to comment on or question reviews and get a response from critics is a superb development for theaters, criticism, and incidentally, individual critics, often freelancers, who can use that personal interaction to help build a loyal audience. Its absence is one of print's biggest drawbacks, yet when it's available online, it's almost always under- or never-used by critics. When Ms. Rousuck asked what we'd like to see happening in five years, my vision included getting critics to dig in with both hands and help craft criticism into the kind of ever-evolving organism that is a true reflection of theater's living art.

But hey, what do I know? TCG may reconvene this group again, and if they do, I hope we return triumphant, with every house still producing and every critic still employed, because for right now, that's enough to ask. But wouldn't it also be great if next time we let loose a little and ended up in that elevator, groping together to uncover some new and previously unexplored synergy?

Yeah, me too. Hey TCG, thanks for a good time. ;-)

June 5, 2009 2:06 PM | | Comments (2)

Sorry folks, looks like you're gonna hafta wait until tomorrow for your TCG scoop...

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June 5, 2009 12:19 AM | | Comments (0)

JohnWaters.jpgOn Thursday I'm heading down to Baltimore for Theatre Communications Group's National conference. However, I'm not attending just to have cocktails with opening speaker John Waters (though that would be nice), or to spy on the show folk (though I probably will). I've been invited to participate in TCG's "Press Summit," which will place a whole bunch of artistic directors in a room with a whole bunch of theater critics, on camera, for two hours. If that sounds a little like an aesthete's version of a cage match, well, don't get your hopes up. You don't really want to see us in unitards, do you?

The good/bad news is, we're all meeting for a common purpose, because these days critics and the critiqued are neighbors on the same leaky, uncomfortable, storm-tossed ship. With theater companies and newspapers closing at roughly the same rate, we're all looking a bit green and hoping for a cabin with an ocean view, if only to get some fresh air and see what's ahead. TCG hopes this summit will be that cabin.

Joining me on the panel will be--among others--Bartlett Sher, who just enjoyed the pleasure of Mr. and Mrs. President's company at his production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone; Lou Bellamy, artistic director of St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre Company; Raelle Myrick Hodges, a former Philly homegirl, who founded Azuka Theater and for some reason left to go somewhere else not half as cool (Okay, fine, she won a NEA/TCG grant and is now artistic director of San Francisco's Brava Theater Center. Congratulations. Whatever. We miss her.); and Emily Mann, artistic director of Princeton's McCarter Theater. There are other, equally esteemed directors attending, along with plenty of rising and established critics (Okay, fine, the New York Times' Jason Zinoman; Time Magazine's Richard Zoglin; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Christopher Rawson, among others), and the whole thing will be moderated by Judy Rousuck, former theater critic for the Baltimore Sun, and current critic for WYPR, Baltimore's NPR station. And sorry for the extreme editing--I've been told blog readers won't stay focused for very long, so trust me, there are about 20 of us and we're all pretty good at what we do.

We're charged with discussing the present challenges and future adapt-or-die strategies of theater and its media-based parasitic twin, as well as hopefully coming up with some answers. I'll blog and Twitter from the event and give you a link to TCG's video when it appears, but know this: if Mr. Waters joins me for cocktails, you're gonna have to wait.

June 2, 2009 7:14 PM | | Comments (0)

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