Drama Queen: May 2008 Archives

Well, not Hitler exactly, but the Chapman brothers' defacement of his artwork

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Those brothers grim, Jake and Dinos, bought a bunch of the Fuhrer's watercolors a while back, causing shivers to run down the spines of horrified citizens everywhere. Turns out they had nothing to fear.

The men's work displays an obsession with organized death--they've had their way with Goya, and created a sculpture called Hell--detailed with other work in the video below--which featured dioramas filled with miniature representations of many, many imaginative torments. Their recent, and similarly-themed (though much-differently executed) show Little Death Machines was dismissively reviewed by Ken Johnson in today's New York Times as a one-note gimmick, but if they're only capable of one note, I'll eagerly listen. At least until I can't stand it anymore. 

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Unlike Tom Sachs' ill-conceived consumerism/Holocaust debacle of a few years back (He just missed the green revolution by thismuch. Could've been a visionary with that rationalization!), the Chapmans apply meticulous method to their love affair with madness. 

The Hitler doodles add another note to their oeuvre anyway, one of post-Holocaust glee. The Chapmans don't just dance on his grave, they hold a rave on it. The chemical sunsets and floating hearts surrounding Hitler's pedestrian architectural facades are ominous, but only after you've had a chance to laugh out loud at them. By destroying the watercolors' value as Fuhrer-created art and subverting them into Chapman-based art, the boys have triumphed over evil at least this once. 

Why should Banksy get all the ironic graffitti love? Here's to vandalism with a purpose.

 
May 30, 2008 1:41 PM | | Comments (1)
I had an experience this evening that was, perhaps, the most shocking of my theatergoing career. It had nothing to do with what was going on onstage. (Incidentally, that was Larry Loebell's new play, House, Divided, which had a few issues, but was otherwise a rather complex and interesting story. But I digress.)

In what might be the most startling display of audience misbehavior ever, a few moments after the play began, the woman next to me opened her bag, took out some string, and proceeded to FLOSS HER TEETH. ALL OF THEM. I'm quite sure everyone reading this blog has gritted their teeth (but not flossed them) while a show's climactic moment was deflated by someone's salsa ringtone, but this? 

Are people so divorced from the communal nature of theater that when forced to take in entertainment outside their homes, they just dissociate and go on as though padding around their living rooms in their underwear? Maybe this alienating effect is compounded by a steady diet of formerly private behavior turned shameless public display via blogging (ahem) and reality tv. Whatever, it's gross.

Do you have a comparable story? Could one possibly exist? If so, bring it. At this point, I believe anything's possible.

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May 28, 2008 9:45 PM | | Comments (15)
So this article in Variety says...

"British theaters will no longer be able to hoodwink potential audiences with out-of-context review quotes that seem to show the production is a hit, when the review actually conveys something different."

...and goes on to explain that theater operators who break this rule can be fined and sent to prison. Now, I'm all for truth in advertising, and have raised an eyebrow when shows I've panned excised a couple of neutral words and used them in promotional material. But hey, advertising is all about accentuating the positive, even if it means bending the truth ever so slightly in your product's favor.

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It's not like an evening at Starlight Express will give you cancer; though PTSD, maybe. It's also not as though the dramatic world operates in a conspiratorial information vacuum the way, say, cigarette companies once did. I'm flattered the Brits want to protect critics' intentions, and cheers to that, but good luck proving damages when there's a whole internet out there just bursting with opinions on every show that dares to hold an opening night.

Isn't it really an audience member's responsibility to do some research before they shell out $100 or its British equivalent for a seat to a lousy show? I am of the mind that if you can't take the time to read a review (and then decide independently whether or not you agree with said reviewer), but instead take an advertisement's word for a production's quality, then you get exactly what you deserve. You ever see those bumper stickers that proclaim, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it?" I'll just bet those are the same people who've been taken in one too many times by crafty poster designers, and are now calling for their imprisonment. Where's a good inquisitor when you need one?

 

May 27, 2008 3:58 PM | | Comments (5)
Last week in Manhattan, an organization founded by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, The Coalition of Theaters of Color, called a town meeting to discuss "the issue of sustainability" in small New York state African-American and Latino nonprofit theaters. An article in Backstage highlighted the meeting's focus on media and grantwriters' biases against these companies, and it brought me back to an issue that keeps popping up--why does urban-gospel-chitlin circuit-call-it-what-you-will-theater do so well?

Those for-profit touring companies helmed by Tyler Perry, Je'Caryous Johnson (I wrote this one) and David E. Talbert, among others, develop their own shows from scratch, sell out houses while advertising largely outside major media outlets, without reviews, and attract marquee names. Sure there are quality issues, and for-profits leave little room for experimentation, but on the flipside, if you're successful enough, you can ultimately do all the experimenting you'd like--or start your own nonprofit, for that matter. 

On Broadway, The Color Purple has turned a gorgeous profit for its creators, In the Heights is a Tony bonanza, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with its African-American cast, flourished despite mixed reviews. As a reviewer, I've already noticed a recent shift in typically white non-profit houses toward more diverse programming, and can't help but attribute this to their notice of Broadway's multi-culti success stories. Here in Philly, the Arden's production of August Wlson's The Piano Lesson was extended even though Delaware Theatre Company (just a half-hour outside the city) was set to open the same play the following week. 
So why can't minority-run non-profits catch the same kind of fire? 

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Could it be that the nonprofit model just doesn't serve people of color in the same way? If traditionally white channels aren't working, why keep using them? I participated in a roundtable discussion at USC in February where the subject came up, and used the example of the Jews' exclusion from banking and media. Once we stopped banging on their doors and built our own houses, we managed to do okay for ourselves. It's less an issue of "separate but equal" than "money talks." There's certainly a precedent in the African American community: look no farther than Madame C.J. Walker, who took her money and opened a theater that still operates today with a mandate to serve Indianapolis' African American community.

The Coalition would do well to look to the urban circuit's theater entrepreneurs for assistance with marketing and funding. There's may be an issue of snobbery on the part of non-profits toward what is viewed as a lowbrow entertainment, but guess what? Tyler Perry, who used to live in his car, isn't complaining about funding or bad reviews--which at this point, he receives almost as a matter of courtesy. 

I'm not suggesting that minority theaters ought to give up the fight against funding inequity and media biases. Obviously, it's a real, frustrating and intolerable situation. But I am suggesting that if things have gotten so bad that the issues the coalition is addressing aren't about programming or education, but about the continuation of their very existence, well, maybe it's time to look elsewhere for answers.
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May 26, 2008 12:18 PM | | Comments (1)
I wouldn't normally post a review, but it is Bill Irwin, and it is a world premiere, and he did a solid for my beloved Philly, so here it is, with links to help you through the local (and other) references.


Thumbnail image for images.jpegBill Irwin stars in glorious guide to glee

By Wendy Rosenfield
For The Inquirer
Bill Irwin is a very nervous clown. In The Happiness Lecture, his new production with Philadelphia Theatre Company (he previously won a Barrymore for Trumbo), Irwin tosses about in bed during the wee hours, stalked by a creepy team of black-hooded ninjas.

Finally, he flicks on the television to watch its nerve-rackingly narcissistic lineup. There's Irwin vs. Irwin on a talk show; Irwin in a leotard and legwarmers doing aerobics; Irwin in his real-life role as Sesame Street's Mr. Noodle; and finally, weatherman Irwin gesticulating wildly while behind him a map of the United States explodes into flames. These days, it's not easy being funny.

The Happiness Lecture evolved from Irwin's reading, in 2006, of a John Lanchester review in the New Yorker of books analyzing the science and history of happiness. In the article, two prehistoric men - carefree Ig and high-strung Og - illustrate the Darwinian utility of worry. As Irwin explains during the show's sole extended narrative, "Joy is maladaptive."

As staged, Ig and Og make a clumsy metaphor for Irwin's otherwise glorious meditation on the nature of laughter and identity. After all, his point is apparent in a series of frantic vignettes - the addition of a literal happiness lecture is just too precious, and weakens the piece, particularly since some of its conclusions - the world's Ogs are more fruitful than its Igs? Does he know about Flavor Flav? - aren't quite so conclusive.

Ironically, Irwin is on far firmer ground when examining the fraught human psyche. Torn between his real and virtual selves (which also appear in the form of puppets), and struggling with technology, he says with a sigh, "I'm not familiar with this generation of equipment. We old-timers know the old stuff is most dependable."

He then steps into a steamer trunk and pretends to walk down a flight of stairs until he disappears, garnering, as predicted, a huge laugh.

Irwin alone is a national treasure (in addition to his Barrymore, he's been the subject of a PBS special, collected a Tony Award, and won Guggenheim, MacArthur and Fulbright fellowships), but his ode to old-fashioned joy is also a surprise homage to Philly's next generation of talent.

New Paradise Laboratories' Lee Ann Etzold is our docent on a tour of performance art, suggesting helpfully, "If you think you may be watching performance art, you probably are." Resident 1812 Productions funny woman Jennifer Childs dons a red nose and floppy shoes to demand a narrative. The guy tossing away his ninja hood to complain about Irwin's puppets is Aaron Cromie, one of the city's premier puppeteers. Soundman-about-town Jorge Cousineau's moody hip-hop audio contributes dimension to the production, while his video design adds magic.

The whole meta-enterprise plays like fringe theater for grown-ups, and that's a good thing. Whenever pretension rears its bloated head, it is immediately deflated with a good-natured wink. The fourth wall is consistently demolished. The issues Irwin tackles are universal, but have the pensive veneer of a few years' experience behind them.

And through it all, our rubber-kneed guide assumes the weight of the world, just so we can keep on laughing. There's plenty to worry about - always was, and always will be - but happily for both us and for Mr. Irwin, there also will always be people willing to sacrifice their security for the frivolity of laughter.

The Happiness Lecture
Through June 15 at Philadelphia Theatre Company, 480 S. Broad St. Tickets: $46 to $58. Information: 215-985-0420 or www.PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.



May 24, 2008 8:17 AM | | Comments (0)
Let us now praise great moments in criticism. Stephen Holden's New York Times review of "Broadway's Greatest Showstoppers," itself contains this showstopping bit of critique:

You haven't really heard "Bring Him Home," the corny, tear-jerking aria from "Les Misérables," until you've savored the grand operatic treatment given it by the tenor J. Mark McVey, sobbing as the strings sighed behind him; it was the aural equivalent of a thick lobster bisque made with heavy cream.

 Nicely done, sir. It calls to mind Jay McInerney's evocative wine/Beatles comparisons in Food and Wine magazine, and does the whole profession proud. 

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I can taste that Les Miserables viscosity all the way from here.

May 22, 2008 7:01 PM | | Comments (2)
Michael Feingold, in yesterday's Village Voice seconded my contention on this blog that musicals, rather than being the "beleaguered" form Ben Brantley described in the New York Times, are experiencing a second, breezier wind. Anyway, here it is. Ironic, too, that he should cite the Cameron Mackintosh extravaganza, when the big news from his corner is that he's allowed several U.S. houses (including Philly's Walnut Street Theatre) to mount Les Miz on the condition that they--gasp--ditch the turntable and offer Monsieur Valjean la liberte at last. Even Mr. Mackintosh, it seems, is ready for a change.
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May 21, 2008 11:42 AM | | Comments (1)
This year seems to mark another breakout era for Philly theater. The last one I can recall happened somewhere around the middle of the Ed Rendell-mayored 1990s, with a burst of building along Broad Street, which was just beginning to cozy up to its new moniker, "The Avenue of the Arts." Now there's a second wave of theaters popping up, failing economy be damned. The newly opened Suzanne Roberts Theater will host Bill Irwin's The Happiness Lecture on Wed. night (click for a New York Times feature on the show; I'll post my review on Friday), the Kimmel Center is already looking to expand, the Live Arts Fringe festival turns nearly every crumbling edifice in the city into a venue for a couple of weeks, leaving a magical trail of condos wherever it lands, and there are even murmurings of new houses opening in a far-flung transitioning neighborhood called Fishtown

In addition, two of the four theaters nominated by the American Theatre Critics' Association for this year's regional Tony award were Philly houses (the Arden and Philadelphia Theatre Company). My Inquirer colleague Howard Shapiro just wrote a great feature on the phenomenon that made the front page--and how glorious it is to see theater qualifying as news.

Mind you, I'm not even getting into the Philadelphia Museum of Art's recent and upcoming expansions, the Please Touch Museum's new home, or The Roots and Santogold, to name a couple of locally-bred musical spitfires burning up ITunes. Happy days are here again!
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So, to what do we owe this cultural cornucopia? I posit it's all a result of the excellent public-private partnerships Philly enjoys, a perfect storm of arts-loving foundations, a network of cultural alliances willing to take the lead in fostering new initiatives instead of simply serving as figureheads, real-estate prices that allow artists to live and raise their children in a humane manner, and a new art-friendly mayor, Michael Nutter, who has lifted hopes that the city will restore its John Street-shuttered Office of Arts and Culture--a campaign promise he has yet to fulfill. 

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(Then-Mayor Street's priorities: setting up camp during a workday to be one of the first in line to receive an IPhone.) 

This month, The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance announced an $11.5 million effort to double audience participation in the area over the next four years, and judging by last year's report on the economic benefits of our robust arts scene, I'm guessing that despite our other civic woes, Philly is on the right track to become a model for the nation's cities. That's right, our fat, ugly asses are looking pretty good right about now. 

In the middle of a national recession, Philly's arts are thriving and growing, which just goes to show their importance for the success of a city, and how crucial it is that government--local, state and federal--supports this growth and acknowledges the wide-ranging, quantifiable benefits the arts bestow directly upon its citizens.

May 20, 2008 8:36 AM | | Comments (3)
I think it's appropriate, as Israel's 60th birthday--and the Palestinians' "Naqba" or "Catastrophe Day"--approaches (May 18th, if you're wondering), to weigh in on the discussion sparked by this month's American Theatre Magazine about cultural sanctions against Israel

Just so you know, I am pro-Israel (though not blindly so) and anti-sanction (vehemently so). I also find it interesting that not a single Jewish or Israeli interwiewee, no matter their position on the occupation, was pro-sanction. Some of these Israelis are so far left they're practically knee-deep in the Mediterranean. And the fact that so many Palestinian artists (though a few were anti-sanction as well) think a boycott is a good idea and parallel to South African sanctions during apartheid, is pretty darn appalling. In Israel refugee battles refugee, each side with its own powerful international defenders. Don't think for a minute U.S. support of Israel is any more powerful than the support Palestinians receive from the rest of the Arab and Muslim world. The territories are not under apartheid, and to the detriment of all peaceful Palestinians, if their borders were wide open, Israelis would be dodging Hamas-, Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade-, Al Qaeda- and Hezbollah-funded bombs at every turn.

It's worthwhile noting that Israel is just about the only Middle Eastern nation where a cultural boycott would be effective... Because it's just about the only Middle Eastern country where culture isn't dictated by governmental or religious law. Sure you might ruffle the payess of some ultra-orthodox Jews by mounting West Side Story on shabbos, but try it in Saudi Arabia, or worse, if you're female, try attending that production on your own in a country where romantic liaisons are carried on like this, and see where it gets you. How about in Yemen? Or Turkey? Or Iran? Or Syria? Mount a pro-Palestinian production in Israel and you'll get protesters, but audiences too. Mount a pro-Israel production anywhere in the region besides Israel and you might end up with a fatwa on your head. Don't believe me? Does the resounding regional success of an Egyptian 30-part televised version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion ring any bells?

Why shut out your allies, the Jewish left and Jewish artists, and shut down one of the only avenues for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, one of the last true avenues for the exchange of ideas between two warring peoples? How counterproductive can you get? And to what end? The boycott calls for Israel to "end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands." Which, to the Palestinians' elected government of Hamas at least, means an end to Israel. It also requires Israel to abide by UN Resolution 194, which gives the UN control over Jerusalem. Good luck with that. 

The artistic boycott of Israel is a fool's errand not because it asserts the autonomy of Palestinians, but because it ignores the autonomy of Israelis. Art is about picking up the rocks and shining a light on what crawls beneath them, not smashing the rocks down to destroy what dares to breathe there. Both sides have made terrible, terrible mistakes during their 60-years of hostilities. Palestinians and Israelis ought to be calling not for a boycott of the arts, but an entrenchment, a continuous and devoted artistic effort that examines pluralism, separatism, nihilism, whatever, just so long as their creative borders, at least, are left wide open.
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May 16, 2008 5:30 PM | | Comments (1)
Separate but equal literature festivals IN THE SAME TOWN, yet oblivious of one another, illustrate the need for communication, not division, between Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals and artists. Can there be any clearer example of why a boycott would be even more disastrous to this already disastrous situation?

May 16, 2008 1:11 PM | | Comments (2)
Ok, so now we all know that Glory Days opened and closed in one, ahem, glorious day, and by all I seriously mean all. But on this, the day of Tony nominations, it's worth noting there's more to the story than Ben Brantley's power to shut down an entire Broadway enterprise. In fact, Mr. Brantley, in his review of the show, was surprisingly gentle, and noted:

"It's been a season of thinking small for the Broadway musical. Two front-runners for the Tony, "In the Heights" and "Passing Strange," are also intimate, personal shows imported from non-Broadway houses. I can see why the producers of "Glory Days" might have thought this was an auspicious moment for a big-time New York transfer ... I do find it heartening that a pair of enthusiastic and gifted young artists have fallen in love with that beleaguered form, the musical, as a means of self-expression."

However, I think he's completely wrong about "that beleaguered form." The musical is making a comeback, though not the kind fed by producers feverishly bent on re-animating '70s film comedies or '70s music, or regurgitating sure-thing revivals, but by the generation that grew up fetishizing Rent and Moulin Rouge. 
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The winds seem to have shifted with Avenue Q, the little show that could--and could while leaning heavily on irony and angst. But after last season's massive success of hormonal rocker Spring Awakening, the fact that Glory Days, a musical by 20-something recent college grads, made it to Broadway right alongside In the Heights, also written by a 20-something recent college grad, surely bodes well for those late bloomers still editing away in urban garrets around the nation. It took Stew a little longer than those other boys to create Passing Strange, but judging by today's nominations, it doesn't seem to have affected his accolades any. There's also the baby-faced team of Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, who wowed L.A. with their emo-musical about our seventh president, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. And what do all these brash new musicals have in common? None of them look or sound like a Broadway musical, several aren't even native New Yorkers, but together they all sound like a burgeoning movement.

These might be dark days for the big, bloated Broadway musical, but for the form itself? As they sing in that re-animated '70s film comedy Spamalot, "Keep him off the cart because he's not yet dead." 
 
May 13, 2008 3:41 PM | | Comments (0)
If you're just joining me for the first time, welcome. You've happened on a conversation already in progress, so here's the lowdown: I blogged on my former site, Philly Drama Queen, about Ann Hulbert's New York Times Magazine piece on arts education. Then, I blogged some more (please see previous entry) about the issue.  I'll wait here until you've caught up.

Ok, now catch your breath, hold my hand, and prepare to be depressed...
After poking around a bit more on the NAEP's website, one thing quickly became clear: the government definitely considers the arts to be the country cousins of math, reading and science. Next year, the NAEP plans to 

"administer the assessment to over 1,000,000 students in more than 19,000 public and private schools in each state and the nation."

This testing, whatever you think of it, has been and will be conducted in fourth and eighth grades annually, and in 12th grade for reading and math (this last on a volunteer basis). 

In comparison, the arts were last assessed in 1997, with a sample of roughly 7,000 eighth graders, and covered music, theater and visual arts. Though a dance test was developed, it was dropped due to "the lack of a suitable national sample," a statement which speaks volumes.
 
The test was somehow revived this year, but seems to have lost its theater component in the intervening decade. Judging by the 1997 results of schools' own reporting--74% of students received no theater instruction--one can only assume that under No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on funding the three R's at the expense of everything else, the situation has only worsened.

So though schools were tested on their ability to nurture creative thought about visual art and music, the NAEP only processes these results as national scores, leaving states to shrug off responsibility and continue allowing their arts programs to disappear. Remember in Truth or Dare, that Madonna documentary, where Warren Beatty asks her, "Why do anything if it's off-camera?" 
madonna9_180_240.jpgWell it's sort of like that. Why bother teaching something if no one's testing it? It doesn't get you any more money even if your students enjoy it, and in fact, if they enjoy it too much, that might reduce their math and English scores, which will, in turn, reduce funding. 

Wanna know the next time NAEP will test the arts? 2016. Maybe by then they can get rid of music, too.

May 11, 2008 2:06 PM | | Comments (4)

I received an e-mail today from Morgan Saxby, an account executive at a pr company that, I'm guessing, represents the NAEP. He corrected a comment I made in my "Put Art Back on the Charts" post that asserted, 

Arts education ought to be appreciated in its own right, and not just for its potential to raise a school's NAEP results.

Actually, the NAEP, in Mr. Saxby's words,

does not find results for individual schools.  NAEP finds national results, state results (for math, reading, writing, and science), and on a trial basis, district-level results for a handful of urban areas. 

So, sorry for the misstatement, but that's not really the interesting part, anyway. He goes on to say that the NAEP is preparing a report on the arts that will be released next year. The last time this was done was in 1997, and only eighth graders were assessed. It's a pretty fascinating bit of reading, and raises any number of questions about what exactly is or isn't quantifiable. It's also kind of horrifying to read that 74% of these students received no theater instruction. (What are those middle school drama types supposed to do during their free time if they can't rehearse for a class play? Just keep getting beat up?) I still remember my eighth grade musical experience:  Perfectly Frank, a tribute to the music of Frank Loesser, which introduced me to Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and most important, Lots and Lots of Applause. A belated thank you, Mr. Goltz.

I'm wondering if the 2008 test will be performed across the board, in only certain schools, if raising its scores will become a mandatory part of No Child Left Behind (of course, if there's a Dem in the White House come November, hopefully NCLB won't really be an issue) or if the results are just for our own edification.

Of course, I'd love to have answers for you today, but I'm on a tight deadline this week with a big feature due to my editor (look for it in Sunday's Image section of the Philadelphia Inquirer). So I'll speak with Mr. Saxby and get back to you with some more details ASAP. In the meantime, poke around the report, and hey, while you're at it, try out some of the sample questions. I'd love to know how creative professionals or arts afficionados perform when put to the test. Literally.

May 5, 2008 4:45 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page is a archive of recent entries written by Drama Queen in May 2008.

Drama Queen: January 2008 is the previous archive.

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