December 2009 Archives

I'm just gonna say this and you can judge or not: I'm obsessed with the Josef Fritzl case. I'm obsessed with it to the extent that I've set up Google alerts with various Fritzl family members' names, and never let a day go by without clicking each link.

I don't know why, and to be honest, I've purposely avoided exploring it too deeply (perhaps after realizing my dad--generally a really good guy--has a similar moustache). What I do know is that 2009, aside from being a great number of other things, was the year of Josef Fritzl in the arts. This year, the Fritzl case was represented onstage in a controversial Viennese play, a New Zealand rock opera, and even on the English National Opera's stage, in a production of Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle

In the visual arts, well, I found the nice portrait at left online, but also, a London gallery hosted a much-discussed Fritzl-based installation

This year's final Fritzl alert contained the announcement that the liquidator of the Amstetten dungeon where Fritzl kept his secret "family" will fill the space with concrete. And fittingly, the news has me thinking about its artistic potential. Any chance Rachel Whiteread could get in there first?
December 31, 2009 12:34 PM | | Comments (1)
dog a day.jpgOn Christmas day, I finally opened my very favorite Chanukah present (aside from the "#1 Mom" keychain, of course): a copy of the 2009 Best American Comics, edited this year by Charles Burns. It's an annual tradition in our house, this presentation of the comic collection; in return my husband gets the "Dog-a-Day" calendar, which he actually requests. And though all year long he brings home pictures of English Bulldogs in sunglasses or Basset Hounds on sofas, I think my gift is truly the one that keeps on giving.

I haven't read very much in this year's anthology, but so far I've already learned two things: 1.) Evergreen State College is more than a punchline (It was considered freaky even by Bennington College standards), in fact, during Burns' scholarship it might have been ground zero for the mainstream explosion of American comics and 2.) some time in 2007, Dan Clowes wrote a strip about a fictional film critic named Justin Damiano.

The first item is probably news only to me, but just in case you didn't know it either, in one of those amazing feats of cosmic coalescence that end up altering the course of science, philosophy, and here, art, in the late 1970s Burns attended Evergreen with Lynda Barry and Matt Groening. By the way, Barry edited the 2008 collection, which was, in my opinion, far superior to that of her predecessor, Chris Ware, but on a par with that of his predecessor and the series' inaugural editor, Harvey Pekar.

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However, it's the second item that's most interesting to me, and not just because Clowes is the artist whose graphic novel Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron (warning: it's not exactly his most "accessible" work) made me a davening comics convert. "Justin M. Damiano" was originally included in a short-story collection called The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith to benefit 826NYC (founded by Dave Eggers). 

While the strip itself, a four-page foray into the life and lost love of an online movie reviewer/blogger, possesses plenty of Clowes-style alienation and self-delusion, its choice of critic as subject reveals even more about public perception of this monastic profession. 

Kidding. But not really. Clowes specializes in creating characters on the fringes whose disastrous attempts to press their noses against the windows of civil society always result in affirmation of their self-loathing and justification for their misanthropy. Sound like any critics you know? Of course not.

Still, it's pretty fascinating to check out reaction to Mr. Clowes' portrait of Mr. Damiano. The Guardian's film critic, Peter Bradshaw, calls him "flawed, vulnerable, human, committed to his craft," while just about every other blogger says things like the story is a "savage parody of self-important film bloggers," or the character is "self-absorbed," or he's "driven by a combination of loneliness and narcissism," or the strip is "a satirical look at internet geeks who think that anyone cares what they post on their review blogs." Ouch.

If anyone cares what I post on my blog, I also think "Justin M. Damiano" goes deeper than the non-film-critic critics would have you believe. Critics rest so uneasily on the periphery of art that making them its subject usually results in some kind of vicious, long-suppressed catharsis (click the link to Bradshaw's blog entry for proof). However, Clowes is a master of the peripheral, and that's why I can't believe Damiano is just another dart aimed to deflate critical puffery.

But then, as a theater critic/blogger, maybe, like Bradshaw, I've got too much in common with Damiano himself to clearly read Clowes' intentions. Or maybe I got that window all fogged up again. Either way, and for whatever it reveals about the critical temperament, I'll say this much: once again, Dan Clowes has proven himself a first-rate portraitist.

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December 27, 2009 3:20 PM | | Comments (2)
I know, it's been a long time, and I've missed you too. But it's not like I was just sitting around ignoring theater. In fact, I've been in graduate school working on a paper about classical performance reception theory and Lysistrata. Wanna see it? No? Fine, I wouldn't either.

Here's something I very much want to see: a gift guide for lovers of Philadelphia theater. Broadway bundles abound, and that's great, especially when they benefit fabulous organizations such as Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS

But giving one of these gifts is practically like giving your loved ones a backstage (or green room) pass to street cred, that street being the Avenue of the Arts, of course. Best part? When you've finished snapping up and doling out all the merchandise, your friends and relatives might just take the hint and get you a subscription of your very own for next season.  Even out-of-towners can get in on the action with a few of these, and perhaps sporting/owning some Philly swag might inspire others to get here and check out the theater scene (hint: September = awesome), which is still under the radar enough to have an entrant in the Under the Radar Festival, but appreciated enough on its home turf to make a hot ticket something of a commodity. 

1. Read all about it: The nation's oldest theater, the Walnut Street Theatre, just celebrated its 200th birthday and put out a pretty cool little tome about it. In fact, it's sits prominently placed in my guest bathroom today, and judging by how often I have to straighten things up in there, it sees much leisure-time riffling by visitors. Don't want to play favorites? Try Philadelphia Theaters, a Pictorial Architectural History, which traces all 200 years of our sawdust-coated, gaslit stages. The American Theatre Wing's (ATW) The Play That Changed My Life has both a great premise and a local connection; it includes a chapter by Philadelphia-born Pulitzer-winning playwright Charles Fuller. Finally, if, like me, you're annoyed that ATW cut journalists from its Tony voting ranks this year, then go on and support your local critics--we don't get paid enough anyway. Philadelphia Inquirer critic and University of the Arts professor Toby Zinman wrote Edward Albee last year, and though yeah, I know, it kills you to do something nice for a critic, American Theatre magazine gave it a great review, and they don't care what you think of her. Go on, maybe you'll learn something.

2. Someone still wants A Christmas Carol, right? Otherwise there wouldn't be an entire section in my paper devoted to places you can see it. Rose Valley's Hedgerow Theatre hosts tea parties before performances on the second Sunday of every month, and they don't cost anything extra, which is nice, because even though your kids/grandma might be having the time of their lives, you're probably thinking Hedgerow owes you big. Have a scone and consider the debt paid. Jews, however, generally don't care for Scrooge and his tsouris, so Hedgerow has wisely brought them an offering, and it's better than frankincense: a bus trip to New York to see The Addams Family musical. And no, a bus trip to New York doesn't defeat the whole purpose of Philly theater gifts, because lookit, for some reason Jews always want to take bus trips to New York, no matter what you try to tell them, so at least this way a local theater still gets to make a buck off them.

3. Screw Teams Jacob and Edward. Romance-minded adolescents and teens need to get with Team Romeo. The Arden Theatre offers a full-day Shakespeare workshop--yes, it includes stage combat--for kids in 6th through 12th grades. Philly heartthrob Evan Jonigkeit (he also recently finished a successful run as Dakin in the Arden's production of The History Boys), who just happens to play Romeo in the company's Romeo and Juliet later that afternoon, leads the workshop. Also included? A ticket to the show and all the raw materials for weeks of copious swooning, parries and ripostes at the dog, and sudden cries of "Alack the day!" No teens? That's okay, the Arden's date night package gets you a pair of Romeo and Juliet tickets and a $25 gift certificate to Serrano restaurant, and you can do your own swooning afterward, in private, where it won't annoy anyone.

4. You may have noticed that I think Pig Iron Theatre Company is pretty dope. Chances are, you do too, but even if you don't, there's no denying their steampunk-ish, Edward Gorey-esque, line-drawn, Trey Lyford-designed logo looks great. It's compelling on a t-shirt or tote bag without being too obvious, but recognizable enough to elicit appreciative nods when you're trolling the Piazza for hipster camaraderie. Best of all, they're both so cheap that if you stuff the bag with the t-shirt and toss in a copy of the company's indie-pop Lucia Joyce Cabaret CD, you will reap all the benefits of being cool and generous even if you're neither.
UPDATE: Apparently Sens. John McCain (You remember him, right? Old guy, has a thing for crazy backwoods ladies?) and Tom Coburn think Pig Iron is JUST LIKE SHAKESPEARE! Sort of, anyway. Like, because they both drain the public coffers (See items #25 and #26). But I guess that's even more reason to buy their stuff; get 'em off the dole and into your hearts.

4. Relive the glory days when every crappy play that didn't make it to Broadway met its maker right here, and a couple of decent ones lived to see another day. Yiddish theater's mammeleh Molly Picon in How to Be a Jewish Mother? Nah, never heard of it. Orson Welles' "Around the World," with music by Cole Porter? Why haven't I heard of it? Today, there are 38 Playbills available on EBay from these lost treasures. Tomorrow there might be more. Wait until the 7th day of Chanukah or the night before Christmas, and who knows? You might never learn how to be a Jewish mother. Not that that seemed to bother anyone who watched Ms. Picon when she was doing the teaching.

5. Go back to where it all began. Philly owes much of its theatrical genetic code to the Barrymore family (insert your own comment about our alcoholic actors here), as evidenced by our naming the city's theater awards ceremony after them. This item might not do much to enhance the family's reputation, but it sure would make a swell gift for someone. 

If all else fails, go to the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, get a few gift certificates, and let your friends/lovers/family to pick their own damn show. Just make sure they take you.

December 1, 2009 2:12 PM |

Me Elsewhere


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