Drama Queen: February 2009 Archives

kimmelroots.jpgThis week I'm macking on: The Roots as Jimmy Fallon's in-house band. Because not only does it mean The Roots will be playing live music on TV every night--which in itself qualifies Fallon for at least minor sainthood--but they'll be commuting to and from Philly every day to do it. That's right, because they'd rather live here than in New York. The haters can pile on all they want. I don't even care that Fallon tweeted that his first guest is "Justin Timberlane." As far as I'm concerned, the show hasn't even started yet and he's already done this fraught nation a solid by promising to send us off to sleep with pleasant dreams and dope beats.

This week I'm hating on: the death of the Rocky Mountain News. I spend a lot of time in Colorado's high country, a place that has about as much in common with Denver as Philly has in common with Shickshinny, which is to say not much. So it was bad enough when in January the Leadville Chronicle shut its doors for good, leaving only the Leadville Herald-Democrat to cover the goings-on in the country's highest (10,200 ft.) incorporated city. Whatever you think of the end of newspapers as we know them, this much is sure--the end of the Rocky Mountain News is one more nail in the coffin of regional diversity. Rightly or wrongly, the Denver Post is perceived as being written for the Front Range, with its suburban transplants and vacation home owners, while the Rocky Mountain News was for everyone else, kind of like the blue collar/white collar Inquirer/Daily News split but spread over more and arguably rougher acreage. With one voice there's no public debate. Lose the locus for an alternate opinion, and you also lose its organized power, influence and its own tangible historical record. 

The days of dueling newspapers are ending, and the sun is setting on the days of even one-paper towns. But that still doesn't make it any less of a loss.


February 27, 2009 2:08 PM |
Still wallowing through a really damn depressing news cycle here in Philly (and I guess everywhere else, too), when lo and behold, what should appear in my inbox but an e-mail from my unflaggingly positive colleague, Howard Shapiro, outlining all the theaters we cover. 

The bad news first: unfortunately, some of our coverage--basically anything over an hour's drive from the city--has been reduced. It appears we'll no longer cover regular Broadway openings, which is a shame (read: downright remiss) since as far as theater goes around these parts, Broadway's basically another one of our suburbs. However, we'll still be looking at New York productions when there's a local connection, which, considering the output of Pig Iron folks alone, ought to result in plenty of Amtrak mileage.

So that's that, and make of it what you will. (And, um, you know, if you really find yourself missing your Inquirer Broadway coverage, who am I to discourage you from letting people know?)

Ah, but you wanted the good news. Well, the good news is that despite everything--and I do mean everything short of an outright apocalypse--we've just added two new theaters to our regular coverage, and might yet add a third. Which brings the grand total of theaters covered by the Philadelphia Inquirer right now to 44. Of those, 34 have some sort of Actors' Equity agreement, and the rest are either Barrymore-eligible or mounted a noteworthy production in the past few years. Further, those 44 are at least a dozen or so more than what existed when I started this gig back when the biggest performance you could find on South Broad Street happened on New Year's Day and involved longshoremen in drag, glockenspiels and the public evacuation of numerous bodily fluids.

And get this: that's not even the end of it. Not included on the list are the often top-rate university productions we'll occasionally peek in on, the odd company that pops up mid-season to mount something ambitious, or--HELLO!--the two weeks of manic nonstop Live Arts Festival/Fringe action kicking off every season. 

Somehow our theaters are holding steady, and improbably, in this decimated and dessicated economic climate, like Wall-E's stray sprig of green, they're even growing. The newspaper, well, that's another story, but as long as we're still getting a paycheck, as Shapiro says, "the explosion of professional theater in this city will keep us busy as all get-out." Amen, brother.

February 26, 2009 12:34 PM |
I've been clamoring to get hyperlinks incorporated into my Inquirer reviews for a while, but I know everyone's short on time and long on work over there right now, so no hard feelings. Still, with today's announcement of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News' bankruptcy filing, I decided I'd take things into my own hands with today's review of Delaware Theatre Company's production of Copenhagen by being my own intern/dramaturg and making a few hyperlinks for you.

And if any play cries out for some helpful linkage, it's this one. Here's the review as it appears on Philly.com (please click the link; every visitor counts, you know). Keep this screen open, and when you get to the appropriate phrase over there, come back over here and click. Even better, set yourself up at the computer, newspaper in hand, and... Well, you get the idea. It's like those old children's books on tape that beeped when you were supposed to turn the page. Fun, right? No? Too bad. For us both.

(Below: Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr knocking back a few liquid particles in 1934.)


February 23, 2009 9:18 AM |
fractal21.gifThis week I'm macking on: those times when the universe's chaos organizes itself into a clear pattern. Every now and then it seems like the ether is sending a message: a particular phrase occurs in a string of productions; you think about someone you haven't seen in 30 years and there they are. Lately, for me, the message quite literally seems to be coming from the heavens. 

A decidedly angry Jewish theme has emerged that began when I discovered Heeb's fake Holocaust memoir contest. It continued in Chicago, where I watched a festival of this year's Oscar-nominated short films and one of the group--probably the one that will take the prize, Germany's Spielzeugland (Toyland)--really irritated the hell out of me, with its irresponsible Holocaust kitsch. (Just because a movie can jerk a tear doesn't mean it's worthwhile. I could beat you over the head and make you cry too, but should I get an award for it?) For the record, my vote goes to the Swiss entry Auf der Strecke (On the Line), which makes a similar point about collective guilt and secrecy, but using a completely different metaphor.

Anyway, next, Menachem Wecker interviewed me about Jews and theater and I got a little riled up, tonight I'm headed to Aaron Posner's adaptation of Chaim Potok's novel My Name Is Asher Lev, and tomorrow, it's Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. I thought the pattern might end in some anti-assimilation epiphany, but no, it appears that what this has all been leading up to is what I'm hating on.

So this week I'm hating on: Caryl Churchill's eight-minute play Seven Jewish Children, but not for the reason you might expect. I'm hating on the specter of censorship surrounding any hint of an imminent U.S. production (click link above for NY Times article about the play and its potential production at the Public Theater). Of course, the work is polarizing, it's meant to be. And of course it's not even-handed, Churchill's using it as a fundraiser for Medical Aid for Palestinians, though as the Times Online's Christopher Hart notes, 

"donating to Medical Aid for Palestinians seems a good idea. I just hope the supplies get through. Two weeks ago, the UN suspended all food aid to Gaza after 10 lorryloads of supplies, 3,500 blankets and 400 food boxes were stolen at gunpoint. By Hamas."

Maybe it's anti-Semitic, and it's definitely inflammatory. But is it, as the Spectator's Melanie Phillips suggests, an invocation of blood libel? That's just too facile a charge. To be perfectly honest, I've heard similar lines of dialogue delivered around my holiday dinner table by the most conservative members of my family. It's possible to be both Zionist and rational, but it's possible to be Zionist and irrational as well. And though I know I'm opening a firestorm by saying this, there's something in Churchill's dialogue that rings true. When she writes, as an Israeli mother talking about her young daughter,

"Tell her we're the iron fist now, tell her it's the fog of war, tell her we won't stop killing them till we're safe, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policeman, tell her I wouldn't care if we wiped them out, the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don't care if the world hates us, tell her we're better haters, tell her we're chosen people, tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? Tell her all I feel is happy it's not her."

she's channeling the frustrations of both Jews and Palestinians who have lived their entire lives under siege. They may not be universal sentiments, but they're ones that can no doubt be found on either side of the Gaza checkpoints, and, I'm guessing, wherever there are Arabs and Jews in large enough concentrations to feel an organized antipathy toward one another. The show could just as easily have been called Seven Palestinian Children, and showed Palestinian mothers expressing the same sentiments to their daughters. But it's not, and though it's unfortunate--no, scratch that, it's downright dangerous--that Churchill chose to pick a side, she gains credibility when pro-Israel activists (p.s., I consider myself a pro-Israel activist) try to intimidate the Public Theater into silence, rather than calling for constructive actions such as balanced post-show discussions or twinning Churchill's piece with a play that has an opposing perspective. 

Of course, there's the chance Churchill might veto a balanced slate. But that's where our free press and dauntless arts journalists can fill the void by informing the public whether the playwright is any more willing to compromise than her tyrannical characters. I, for one, would sure like to know.

Thanks to the Guardian's Charlotte Higgins for rounding up UK commentary on the issue.

February 20, 2009 8:18 AM | | Comments (1)
Topol-Tevye.jpgMenachem Wecker, of the arts/religion blog Iconia, interviewed me today about Jews, theater and sadistic seders. Click the link, pay him a visit and let me know what you think. I promise no one will squirt fake blood on you.

February 18, 2009 10:20 PM | | Comments (2)

You might have noticed that I didn't post a mack attack last week, and honestly, I've got a good excuse: I've been in Chicago for almost a week, enjoying an extended milestone birthday (none of your business) celebration. Of course, that celebration, when it didn't involve drinking or eating, involved lots of theater, most of which I chronicled in condensed form via Twitter, but here's a recap:

Couldn't hit town without partaking in a bit of the Goodman Theatre's "O'Neill in the 21st Century" festival, so I made the difficult decision to forego their heavy-hitter Desire Under the Elms, with Brian Denehy and Carla Gugino, for The Hypocrites' production of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape. Why? I guess I just like rooting for the underdog. And also, while a straightforward production of a straightforward play, with marquee names, has its place, I was really looking for Chicago to bring its A-game and impress the hell out of me with something new. 

Well, it did and it didn't. Props to the Goodman for committing to realizing up-and-comers The Hypocrites' singular vision. And by committing, I don't mean they tossed some money around. Apparently the Goodman tore out permanent fixtures to accommodate director Sean Graney, so good on them. But was it all worthwhile? Since I'm not reviewing the show in any official capacity, I'll just say that while Tom Burch's shipboard set design--reversing the house and staging the action on several tiers of what would normally be audience seating--was pretty ingenious, and Chris Sullivan's Yank gave a powerhouse of a performance, Graney's direction was all over the place, with cadres of disco dancers and cavorting bakers robbing the script and Graney's own ideas of their strength. However, I'm still wondering if bathing Yank in flour and dotting his nose with red icing was just what it looked like--an attempt to make him look like a clown--or a conscious answer to The Wooster Group's blackface Emperor Jones. Or both. Anyone?

Next up was Craig Wright's The Unseen, at the tiny A Red Orchid Theatre, birthplace of Tracy Letts' itchy, twitchy Bug. The play, a parable in which two prisoners at a secret correctional outpost attempt to remain sane after years of torture and isolation, doesn't sound like much of a treat. But I guess that all depends on your perspective. Wright's script and Dado's direction have their surprisingly funny moments; funny, as in, funny ha ha, not funny weird. I'm not saying that it's a riot by any means, or even that you'd have an unfettered chuckle. But still, under the circumstances, any funny at all is a feat. Which is the point, I guess, or one of them, anyway, that humanity somehow survives even under the most suffocating conditions. A fellow critic who loved a recent production of Wright's Orange Flower Water here in Philly attended a staged reading of Unseen and said he thought the writing was iffy. I could see how with the wrong cast that might be the case, but here it wasn't, certainly not in this company's capable, empathic production. 


I hit Second City, for their new mainstage show America: All Better, which, like most sketch comedy, was hit or miss. A cute running gag about mini-badass-hottie Rahm Emmanuel, some relationship skits, a few digs at postracialism, it's all good. But just good, not great.

Finally, I saw Art at Steppenwolf, because, well, I've never been there and felt a certain obligation to pay my respects. So that happened. 

Ok, I could have seen The Seafarer, but since the Arden Theatre is also producing it this season, I don't know, I felt kind of like I wanted to be loyal and give them the benefit of the first impression. So I'm provincial, sue me.

Anyway, I'd somehow never gotten around to seeing Yazmina Reza's three-ham-hander wank about a painting and everyone's feelings. And I know some of you out there must really enjoy it, because like Count Dracula, it refuses to die, and keeps returning to suck anything resembling real emotion out of a room. But I didn't enjoy it, not even with a two-thirds good cast, and a couple of cocktails beforehand to dull my natural edge. (I was off-duty, remember?) Sorry, I guess I'm just a bitch. And I'm not really sorry.

So thanks Chicago, for showing a gal a good time. After all, getting riled up about something I didn't like is still better than no theater at all, and a town that takes its theater as seriously as Chicago does--no sooner had I arrived than the League of Chicago Theatres' Communications Director Ben Thiem started following me on Twitter and offered to take me out--is better than most cities, period.

February 17, 2009 6:11 PM | | Comments (1)
fred.jpgToday I'm guest blogging about following Fred Durst on Twitter for Mark Blankenship's excellent pop culture blog The Critical Condition. Yes, that Fred Durst. Please visit me over there and let me know what you think. Also, as long as you're there, have a look around. He's made a helpful pre-Oscars video to help you sort out the Best Picture nominees, and another about the Silence of the Lambs that kind of defies any easy description other than "awesome."

As for Mr. Durst, he can hit me back with a follow any time. I'd totally RT him and promise never to dweet, twaunt or twease. Well, almost never.
February 10, 2009 7:22 AM |
south_park_guitar_queer-o.jpgThis week I'm macking on: This kid. For taking a South Park episode and bringing it to glorious life on the pages of the New York Times. In the Arts section. Only problem is, he can actually play some instruments, which seems pretty unfair. I mean, isn't the whole point of Guitar Hero that you can shred on guitar without having to actually know anything about the guitar? What a tool.

This week I'm hating on: Al Pacino as King Lear. I mean, really? Who's gonna play the Fool, Steve Buscemi? And what, James Gandolfini and Edie Falco are Albany and Goneril? And hey, wait a minute, didn't I review something like this last summer at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival? Yes, I did, and the whole "Gangland Lear" ended up being a pretty cool metaphor. Which means I might might actually be macking on Pacino, after all, which means...

This week I'm hating on: Will Ferrell. For being right. Read the first two paragraphs of Ben Brantley's review of Ferrell's new, sold-out Broadway show You're Welcome America. A Final Night with George W. Bush. Great punchline; all too true. 

February 6, 2009 4:00 PM |
Shark week? Forget about it. This right here is Drama Queen's ethnic controversy week, and it doesn't bite.

Today's controversy? Heeb, a Jewish arts, culture and politics magazine that dons its kippah somewhere between Grand Royal and Gawker, and is aimed squarely at the younger-than-me demographic, launched a Fake Holocaust Memoir Competition this week, that I dunno, maybe goes too far.

I'm okay with laughing at Israel's pot legalization movement when they use Holocaust survivors to up the guilt factor. I'd order a Kyketail with pride the next time I'm out after sundown on a Saturday night, even though they're gross and the editors spelled mohel wrong, and kike too, for that matter (though, okay, it's a transliteration anyway). I'm cool with them putting Courtney Love on the cover, even though no matter what she says she's as shiksafied as you can get without going to CCD or something (BTW, Courtney, if you read this, I've been a fan ever since Teenage Whore, and found you before I found Nirvana).

But it just smells wrong to set up the Holocaust as a joke and use this particular disgrace as a punchline. Going after Bernie Madoff and all he does to raise the profile of Shylock, Fagin and their legions of hook-nosed, greedy co-conspirators? Fine. Madoff deserves it, though it's funny that when Ken Lay had a documentary made about his shell game, no one dragged a thousand or so years of ethnic stereotypes into the frame. Going after Holocaust movie season? Sure. A trend that crass deserves no less, even if it's ultimately good for the Jews, which I doubt since it's coming from Hollywood, and I've heard some rumors about who runs that town.

The problem is that the contest seems like an idea that could be co-sponsored by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (probably shouldn't give him any ideas). Yes, one of the novelists giving evidence to deniers around the globe (and lately, the Vatican) is a complete phony, but the other one actually is a survivor--it just didn't go down the way he said it did, and to my mind, surviving the Holocaust gets you a lifetime pass on most transgressions, even if they involve making a fool of Oprah on national television. My issue is with Heeb, not with the fake memoirists, because if Jews don't treat the Holocaust like the untouchable horror it was, then who will? If we wink at civilian attempts to phony it up, aren't we validating the deniers? It's a misguided idea from any perspective--literary, historical, snarky--and one that is, I believe, unequivocally bad for the Jews.
February 3, 2009 11:02 PM |
Two more reviews in the paper today, Altar Boyz and the world premiere of Russell Davis' The Day of the Picnic.

Here's what I'm wondering: As I mentioned in the review, I believe The Day of the Picnic relies heavily on the stereotype of the "magic negro." (At left: Sidney Poitier in what has been labeled the sine qua non of magic negro films.) The Wooster Group recently caught a whole lot of flack--while getting great reviews from white people--for reviving their blackfaced Emperor Jones. And complicating things, Young Jean Lee, who usually writes about Asian-American stereotypes, wrote The Shipment for an African-American cast about African-American stereotypes, which was then reviewed--favorably--again, by a white reviewer. So when, if ever, is it okay for a non-African-American company or playwright to use these kinds of images? And if they're all right with white reviewers, but not with African-Americans, does that mean black steps back, or at this point in our culture are both perceptions equally valid?

If, as many would have you believe, we're now postracial, I guess you can make the assumption that plenty of us are familiar with the history of racism in this country, and have grown up learning African-American history right alongside European-American history, and perhaps, in a few school districts, some Asian-American history too. We've grown up in integrated communities, worked in integrated workplaces and socialized in an integrated fashion all our lives. 

So is it okay to go blackfaced if you're completely aware of all its implications? Or if you're co-opting them to make your own, separate point? After all, Wooster's Elizabeth LeCompte says in David Savrian's Breaking the Rules: The Wooster Group, "The blackface is not sociological. It's a theatrical metaphor." And is it okay to use the magic negro if you're a white playwright making a point about British colonialism in Africa? Or does a white critic--as most of us are--have an obligation to call attention to these issues in the first place? And hey, if the answer to any of these questions is yes or no, well then, who gets to make the rules?

Below: A theatrical metaphor from Spike Lee's Bamboozled.
February 3, 2009 3:00 PM | | Comments (3)

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This page is a archive of recent entries written by Drama Queen in February 2009.

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