Results tagged “howard shapiro” from Drama Queen

Last night marked our li'l version of the Tony Awards, the 15th annual Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Philadelphia Theatre. I've attended a whole bunch of those ceremonies and watched them grow in scale alongside Philly's theater community. However, it's been a while, maybe a decade even, since I last sat through the awards. Because at $150 a ticket, for a couple who want to leave their kids with a babysitter and have dinner beforehand, well, that's a big Monday night out.

This year, I couldn't take it anymore. Still flushed from the theater love-fest that was this year's Live Arts/Fringe and emboldened by the season's running start, I gave in, ponied up and worked myself into a tight little LBD picked just for the occasion. 

As it turns out, I really only needed 75 cents.

So rushed was the event, so destitute of color or excitement--a means to an end (the after-party) whose end hardly justified the means--I would have been better off waiting to read Howie Shapiro's summary in this morning's Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Imagine, if you will, several hundred of the city's finest talents assembled in one house. Imagine next, this collection of epic attention whores (I mean that in the fondest sense) forced to rush through a list of names without description or context and a perfunctory series of 45-second thank-yous, no dance numbers, no dramatic scenes. What shows did the F. Otto Haas Emerging Artist nominees work on last season? What exactly did the Delaware Theatre Company do with the Ferris School for Boys (whatever that is) to win their Ted and Stevie Wolf Award for New Approaches to Collaboration? Just read about it in your program, dammit! There's no time for discussion! We've got to get to the pasta bar!

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Imagine now, you're at the pasta bar. Imagine this ballroom after-party with no dj, no band, not even a stinking microphone to enable a round of show tunes karaoke. Pasta and a couple of carving stations are fine, especially with an open wine bar, but then what? I mean, it's not like anyone would want to show off or anything, like they just won an award for THEATER or whatever. I've been to better bar mitzvahs, and I'm including the part where you sit in synagogue and listen to haftorah cantillated by a seventh grader.

Apparently, the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia's Barrymores mantra was "90 minutes." Well guess what? If they kept the bar open or held an intermission, no one would care about the event's length, or if they did, well, at least they'd be getting their money's worth. People might complain that the big song and dance numbers and dramatic scenes are out of context, but without them the whole event is out of context. 

From what I understand, this year marks the first Barrymores without an onstage sampler of  nominated shows. It's also the Theatre Alliance's first year using a grumbled-about new voting system that, among other changes, narrows the field of voters and ranks a show's elements on a scale of 1 to 100. That's a whole other issue, and really, I don't much care about it except that I think critics ought to comprise some part of the voting system. And also that I totally called Ian Merrill Peakes' win for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Play way back when I first reviewed the world premiere of Bruce Graham's Something Intangible. (Yesss!) 

I do, however, care that the Barrymore Awards are lagging behind Philadelphia's theater community at the very moment it's sprinting for the win. Sure, I appreciated Martha Graham Cracker's brief appearance, but I could see her at her cabaret every month for a lot longer, while spending a lot less. The Barrymores are supposed to be the culminating, galvanizing event of the season; here's hoping next year's ceremony makes an effort to match the talent it purports to honor.
October 6, 2009 12:31 PM | | Comments (2)
jamessugg.jpgHere's how talented last night's Obie Award winner James Sugg is: he got me a job as the Philadelphia Inquirer's theater critic without even knowing it. In fact, we've never even spoken face-to-face, but I should probably have thanked him a few years ago anyway. 

Sugg is a member of Philly's own polymorphous and occasionally perverse troupe Pig Iron Theatre Company. Pig Iron and its people have won much acclaim here and elsewhere, this, for Sugg's performance in Chekov Lizardbrain, being their second Obie (the first was for 2004's Hell Meets Henry Halfway), along with who knows how many other awards--Sugg already has 4 Barrymores of his own. The group's work is as eclectic as their multiple personalities. Dito Van Riegersberg often hosts cabarets as his much-beloved, hairy-Hedwigged, Bowie-channeling alter-ego, Martha Graham Cracker. Geoff Sobelle rocked both coasts with his critically hailed Buster Keaton homage All Wear Bowlers. As a collective, they've skewered Quinceaneras, turned Joan of Arc into a French clown, and revisited Measure for Measure in a morgue, with puppets. And if you're tempted to say, "Nice. Sounds pretentious," well, yeah, sometimes they are, but mostly they're not. Somehow they pull it off nearly every time and leave you basking in their awesomeness and ever-expanding potential. The company's dozen or so members come and go, and even when they're together don't always appear as expected. Sugg won his Obie as an actor, but he's just as comfortable behind an accordion, pen, or soundboard. 

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Sugg first showed up on the local stage in 1998 and astonished audiences as a sort of one-man-band in Gentlemen Volunteers, (At right: Dito Van Riegersberg and Gabriel Quinn Beauriedel) a musical-ish examination of World War I ambulance drivers, Ernest Hemingway included. But the reason I'm thanking him here is because at the 2006 Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival, he premiered an original musical work called The Sea. It's the story of a drowned sea captain and his lost daughter, and watching it was like sucking down a saltwater Waits and Weill cocktail from deep below decks. 

I wasn't working at the time, which meant I actually had to pay for my tickets, and yet I was still disappointed he wasn't selling recordings of the show. As in, I would have gladly shelled out for that, too.  Anyway, upon reading the next day's Philadelphia Inquirer review, I was shocked--Shocked!--to find the assigned reviewer considerably less impressed. That week, I called up the paper, asked if they were short a critic, e-mailed some clips, and got myself a new job. I hadn't realized how much I missed being moved by a piece of theater, and having the privilege of telling the city about it, until I found myself powerless in the face of unfair, unenlightened criticism (ok, it was neither unfair nor unenlightened, but I totally didn't agree with it). And yes, I get the irony here, but that's another discussion for another time.

So I'm declaring my love openly, for all to read: thanks Mr. Sugg, for being the kind of artist whose performances inspire action, and thanks Pig Iron, for keeping your work in Philly and giving us first dibs on everything you do. 

For more on James Sugg, read this article by my colleague Howard Shapiro, from today's Philadelphia Inquirer.



May 19, 2009 8:14 PM | | Comments (2)
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?)

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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 | | Comments (0)
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)
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