Results tagged “inquirer” from Drama Queen

Here's what I've noticed lately in Philadelphia theater, and you can tell me if you've seen the same thing in your town: children's theater rocks. I'm working on a feature on the subject, and can't really get too far into it without tipping my hand, but damn. 

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I remember the days when taking your kids to see a show meant some slapped together summary of a fairytale that usually ended in a bunch of people skipping through the aisles in plushie suits, singing something inane about love and friendship. I'm sure there are companies around Philly still milking that same cash cow, but in the past few years the bar for family theater has been raised so high that the shows are often worth seeing without going to the trouble of bearing/bringing a kid.

Today's review of Cinderella, this year's incarnation of People's Light and Theatre's annual holiday panto, takes notice of this new trend. Because not only wasn't the panto all that panto-like (it was structured more like a vaudeville show), it also engaged the talents of some of the area's most creative theater minds and brought in an unapologetic Fringe sensibility while simultaneously tipping a bowler to other successful and cutting-edge Philadelphia artists

And what better audience for the avant-garde, for surrealism, for the marriage of drama and technology than children? Kids are completely non-linear thinkers (at least until their innate absurdism gets instructed out of them), and willing to swallow whatever they're given as long as it provides an interesting flavor--otherwise, they'll spit it right back out at you, and never taste what you're offering again. They're the roughest critics and the most loyal customers, and if you win them over, you're not only helping yourself, you're shaping the future of the arts.

The long-term result of companies throwing major resources behind family programming is a generation that grows up with a lifelong appreciation for challenging theater. The short term result is, of course, money in the bank during rough economic times, since--aside from the packed school, birthday and scout audiences--most parents will justify taking their kids to a play, if not themselves. But it's pretty sweet that in this genre at least, making money and making substantial, worthwhile art aren't at odds.



November 25, 2008 12:48 PM | | Comments (3)
Can I have a do-over?

Last time I was on here, I was complaining about social media. Well now I have seen the light, and it's fueled by an alternative energy called democracy.

All night, during the election mayhem, I was glued to Twitter and Facebook, as news and opinions poured in from around the world. And not from pundits (or "pundints," as Sarah Palin--Godspeed--used to say when she wasn't saying "nucular") but from citizens taking part in the democratic process in real time. This time, while official commentators buzzed in the background or provided fodder for snark, the leveling power of Web 2.0 communication was so overwhelming I almost wept from the sheer enormity of its implications--and this was before Obama's acceptance speech.

br_s01-19.jpgOn Twitter, the Election 2008 feed whipped by so fast you could hardly make it to anyone's 140th character, let alone the 100th. I was tipped off to businesses giving away everything from coffee and doughnuts to vibrators (that giveaway continues until 11/11), and got my schadenfreude on by reporting to my 125 followers that the Fox Newsroom needed a Prozac IV drip, stat. I learned when Tina Fey was readying her shot glass, but I also learned how complete strangers and non-celebrities were reacting to the excitement moment by moment; meanwhile, detached from our earthly cares, the Mars Phoenix sent out a poignant goodbye from its frozen planet. Back on Facebook, a friend messaged me from France to say Paris was burning with hope. It was crazy and beautiful, in an election that lit a clean-burning coalfire under the rump of the body politic.

And the arts? Where do they fit in? Well, I'll tell you this much, before the Phillies and politics took over the feeds, I was tweeting links to my reviews, features and blog posts, and every time I did, I'd see a big and immediate jump in traffic to those sites. Mind you, some of these visitors were from Philly, where they could easily find links to the Inquirer's website and current reviews on their own, but didn't... Until I mentioned it to them. And the out-of-towners, who wouldn't otherwise read Philly reviews? Well, they did.

While personal pr is a part of why I'm constantly working the updates, it only comprises about a third of my motivation.( I don't have a clue how to make money off this thing, though I'm sure there's a way--I'm taking recommendations, BTW--but the site is young enough that programmers are falling all over themselves to create accessories to enhance tweeters' experience.) No, the other two-thirds belong to the thrill of being a part of something nascent but already integral, a new, wired American presidency and populace, ready to receive data from the masses, and willing--no, hungry--to listen. Don't let the sneezing pandas and angry cats win, no matter how cute they are. Who better but artists and lovers of the arts to ensure that arts coverage remains a critical component of 21st century media?


November 4, 2008 2:00 PM | | Comments (1)
One of the best things about being a reviewer is watching new talent grow. The worst? Losing them. Every once in a while an actor comes along who makes you think, "Okay, I'll be watching him/her a whole lot over the next few years--if they stay." As every regional theater hub besides, maybe, Chicago can attest (and probably Chicago too), that's the problem with not being New York or L.A. 

If you ask some of the fine actors who have made Philly their home why they stayed, they all give the same reasons: there's enough quality work to be had, and they can buy a house and raise a family here on an actor's pay. Not too shabby.

But who can blame the ones that go? Actors don't get into this because they have dreams of becoming Philly-famous. There are some exciting new faces in Philadelphia theater this year--as local drama schools have been turning out top shelf talent at a rate I haven't seen before--but since raising a family and buying an affordable house probably isn't at the top of their list of priorities just yet, who knows if they plan to stick around?

I, for one, will cross my fingers and hope that if they leave, they don't drown in the CSI franchise's lower depths. And if they stay? Well, Fishtown and the Italian Market are a whole lot cheaper than Brooklyn, a Barrymore is a lot more accessible than a Tony, and If you take SEPTA to Trenton and pick up NJ Transit, it's like, what, 20 bucks total to get to Penn Station? I'm just saying.

This season, there have been a couple of young'uns who made my job really, really easy. Here's one of them in my review of Magnetic North from Monday's Inquirer
October 29, 2008 8:59 AM | | Comments (6)
Over the weekend, I made my first reviewing visit to Princeton's McCarter Theatre in almost a decade. I'd missed the place and had only good memories of their world premiere of The Old Settler, and a phenomenal Hedda Gabler from back in the (childless) day. Too bad this visit wasn't as successful. 

For their production of Talley's Folly, it was remarkable to see how, with a can't-fail physical structure in place, they'd somehow built it all on sand. Theater doesn't rise or fall on its static elements, though they can certainly nudge a production into the positive or negative column; it's all about the life onstage.

October 20, 2008 8:59 AM | | Comments (0)
The 2008 Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival is over, but my extracurricular work--sorting out what I've seen and divining new ideas, trends and rising stars from the pack--continues. Rather than summarize the whole experience, click on the word cloud below. It's composed of all my festival reviews and is almost as chaotic as the fringing experience itself (who knew "balls," and "blood," would figure so prominently)? 

Want more? Here are links to every review in the cloud (bonus: they're attached to reviews from my Philadelphia Inquirer colleagues).

If that's still not enough, well, fine, I'll summarize anyway.

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For me, the most exciting moments at this year's Philly Live Arts/Fringe were those that took theater out of the theater. Viennese artists Matsune + Subal opened Store, a social experiment wherein two performance artists set up shop on South Street, a busy, exhaust-choked urban thoroughfare that was once where "all the hippies meet," (it's not nearly as nice as it sounds on this link, but you do get a bit of historical flavor and some Dead Milkmen trivia) and is now home to an array of condom stores, tattoo parlors, bars, and--considering those volatile ingredients--a heavy police presence. So it was nothing short of astonishing to watch as everyone from hoochies to hipsters fell under  the Matsune + Subal spell, purchasing ridiculous mini performances from a menu and laughing out loud as the pair ran through traffic with a plastic sheet fluttering behind them a la Christo, or posed as a .75 cent "Cheap Copy" of a grinning Buddha.

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England's Rotozaza brought Etiquette, a two-person event, in which you and a friend are the two people, and the table in front of you is the stage. This link shows a video of the project's New York incarnation, but here in Philly, the setting was vastly different. It took place at the Last Drop Cafe, a local java joint that's been cultivating an air of pretentiousness since grunge, and whose grimy interior was perfectly suited to the piece. While a woman's voice (via recorded message, played through a pair of headphones) directed me to perform tasks, a man directed my husband, who sat opposite me at a cafe table filled with tiny props--a ball of clay, piece of chalk, glass of water with an eyedropper perched on its rim. We performed bits from Godard and Ibsen, and though I announced loudly "I am a prostitute," no one around seemed to care. It was a somnambulistic experience, being inside this hyper-dramatic event complete with a thrashing storm, that appeared to have no impact on its surroundings. 

Anyway, these, to me were examples of the essence of a perfect Fringe fest, productions that blurred the lines between performer and audience, performance and perception. There were several others equally exciting, but the real point here is that the Fringe is not the time to mount a conventional production of a standard old play. Unless you're adding a radical new spin (Oedipus at FDR's olly-popping skateboarders, for example), save yourself the agony, save it for your regular season and make room for artists whose work expands the form and offers us a reflection of our present and a glimpse into the future. 

Jerome Bel says it best:
 
September 18, 2008 2:14 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)
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)
Wendy Rosenfield is a freelance arts and lifestyle features writer and theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She was previously chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly...

January 27, 2008 4:33 PM | | Comments (0)
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