Results tagged “1812 Productions” from Drama Queen

This week I'm macking on: The output of feature articles on new play producing organizations in Philadelphia. A couple of weeks back, I wrote this piece on PlayPenn for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Now, the Philadelphia Weekly's J. Cooper Robb is covering 1812 Productions' embrace of new work by local playwrights, and the Philadelphia City Paper's Mark Kofta is covering the Philadelphia Theatre Workshop's PlayShop Festival, also a showcase for Philly dramatists. And that's not even the whole picture. I've said before, this is a pretty exciting time to be working in and around Philadelphia theaters; it's even more exciting that now a whole lot of other folks are saying it too.

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This week I'm hating on: All the the calls for a boycott of the Israeli Batsheva Dance Company's performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which opened March 4 (review here). The protest is called "Dancing on the Graves of Gaza," with a tagline that reads, 

"1,300 dead, 5,000 wounded, and 50,000 left homeless, this is no time for dancing."

Of course, if you've arrived here through ArtsJournal's portal, you're probably already convinced that there's probably no better time for dancing in Israel and the Palestinian territories than now. You have to be either a complete fundamentalist or a complete fool not to recognize the importance of the arts during a time of national strife--whether they are used for healing, protesting, exploring, or simply uplifting the spirits of the dispirited. Even more frustrating than the Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel's (PACBI) enthusiasm for this wrongheaded action is news that Batsheva Artistic Director Ohad Naharin has said publicly that he "opposes the violence in Israel." In recent performances, along with examining Middle East politics through movement, the company used music by Israeli Arab composer Habib Allah Jamil. Talk about a missed opportunity.

Meanwhile, Michelle J. Kinnucan, in a widely circulated article on the topic, calls Batsheva "an Israeli apartheid dance troupe," condemns Naharin for having served in the Israeli army (military service is compulsory for all citizens in Israel), and proceeds to make the inflammatory assertion that punishment for resisting service is far more lenient in Israel than, "in Germany in the 1930s, say." Yeah, I guess it would be.

Reaction to Batsheva's performance isn't an exact parallel to reaction over Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children, since that play takes an obvious anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian stance. But they do have this much in common: both suffer from attacks by the ignorant and implacable, and foes on both sides would do well to ruminate over Naharin's idealistic, yet inspiring statement:

"We do what we do out of love, out of passion, because we are crazy, not because we have a role or because we are supposed to lead anyone, but through dance and art, we can show people that new solutions and new ideas can be better than old ideas and old solutions."

March 5, 2009 9:19 PM | | Comments (0)
mickey-mouse-arrest_791131c.jpgThis 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.

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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.

December 19, 2008 8:33 AM | | Comments (3)
It's been a hell of a long week both personally and professionally, so I apologize to my regular and faithful readers for not posting more. I'll try to hit you back next week. 

In the meantime, this week I'm macking on: Philadelphia's steadily growing reputation as a hotspot for new play development. If you missed it, this New York Times feature hardly has enough room to mention all the opportunities available to playwrights here. It mentions many of our best beloved artists as well, people whose names--based on their steady and consistent output alone--certainly deserve to be circulating on the national stage, and on national stages. Bruce Graham, Michael Hollinger, Jennifer Childs, Geoff Sobelle, all outstanding Philly playwrights, and only a fraction of the total. In addition, so many of our established houses are dedicated to incorporating new work that just about every major company and some of the minors include at least one piece making in its world debut on a local stage.

This unique environment is thrilling for critics as well. I'm happy to review The Music Man or Chazz Palminteri's touring production of A Bronx Tale, as I did this week (click either to see the reviews), because they're known entities and easy writeups. But nothing will quite put you on your game and make you contend with the weight of your words like reviewing a brand new production. At that point, it's all you, baby, and you stand or fall on your own merits. As a critic, all you can do is hope that you're not the writer history remembers as the one who almost sunk our next Beckett. It's an exciting and terrifying environment in which to write, and one that probably comes closest to mimicking the opening night excitement and terror felt by those whom we critique. The way I figure it, that's only fair, and it ought to be a more frequent part of every critic's experience, though far too often, it's only a tiny portion.

This week I'm hating on: The way life keeps getting in the way of my theatergoing. I had to cut a deal with my husband last month: no more going to shows that I'm not reviewing and no more features. Of course, I've worked out a complex system of justifications to get around that, like: no more than two shows a week, and if I go to more than that it's only because I'm reviewing three or so that week, but if I don't have any reviews, then only two. And I'll only do features if my editor asks me. Or if I have a really great idea.

No, my husband's not a total a*hole. He's actually a really great guy who never shied away from a dirty diaper, helps coach our son's soccer team, and takes our daughter to horse shows even though he's really, really allergic to horses. It's just that the theater critic's schedule (out at night and writing every weekend) is not conducive to family life, at least not if you take either theater or family seriously. I'm guessing that's why there are so few mothers of young children in this gig, and it's certainly why I took a five year sabbatical from the job after our second child was born. Also, with the news industry being the way it is, and most critic spots going freelance and paying a pittance, this isn't the job of a primary breadwinner, and yet its importance and the necessity of being an expert on the topic of what's going on in theater in your town if you're writing about theater in your town hasn't lessened any. I don't know the answer, but I can certainly take up your time bitching about it here. Thanks. I feel better already.
November 14, 2008 11:36 AM | | Comments (2)
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)
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