Results tagged “new paradise laboratories” from Drama Queen

There are still a few days left in the 2009 Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival, but what with the Jewish new year and other obligations, including the start of the regular theater season, I've had to cash out early. Good news is, this year--the festival's lucky 13th--paid out a jackpot. Bad news is, the house is in big trouble.

So first, about the good news. Of the 18 shows I viewed and/or reviewed, there was nary a pair of snake eyes in the bunch. Even better, though not for me, it sounds like I missed or am about to miss roughly 10 more don't-miss events. Even better than that, some of the world premieres--and not just the bussed-in ones, but shows by Philly-based companies--received national and international attention. My own experiences varied from being friended by a number of Facebook chimeras, then fed some sort of pill by one of my chimerical "friends" during the show (which, btw, turned out to be a Sweettart; Danh Marks, I want my money back) to being led, blindfolded and barefoot, onto the floor where I was ultimately buried alive while listening to Samuel Beckett, to getting dumped in public. It was a very good year. 

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Both of the festival's arms, comissioned (Live Arts) and indie (Fringe), stepped up, as did audiences who sold out performances in droves. Additionally, patrons at the Festival Bar (which, due to dueling official/unofficial cabaret entertainments was a source of contention in past years) seem to have forgiven and forgotten; last year's echo chamber became this year's throng. Most encouraging, however, was that the place was packed with all those young audiences the big houses so desperately seek. One Philly expat, in town with his show, looked around awestruck and declared, "This is a very, very sexy bar." Damn right it was, and made more so by the fact that it was composed entirely of theater and dance patrons and performers discussing the day's festival menu. 

[Above left, playwright/performer Greg Giovanni and I help bring sexy back. Well, he does anyway. That's an awful picture of me.]

No more excuses brick and mortar companies, I hope you did your shopping and found some inspiration or talent worthy of development. The butts are there; make them want to fill your seats.

And so we've arrived at the bad news. Due to Philadelphia's budget crisis, the Mayor's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy is in danger of closing on October 2. Philly's creative economy is one of the city's few success stories these days, and for it to continue to flourish it needs the mayor's full, organized support. Let Pennsylvania's officials know that closing this office is not only counterproductive--considering all the money and tax dollars brought in by the arts and their audiences--but downright self-destructive. Go here to state your case.

Finally, in case you were wondering, yes, I was working. The results (and my reviews of Live/Arts Fringe shows) are here, here, herehere, and here

September 17, 2009 12:29 PM | | Comments (1)
Life on Facebook can get pretty weird. Suddenly guys you dumped 20 years ago are commenting on your family vacation photos, while people you can't recall ever talking to when you saw them every day now give you the thumbs up several times a week. This summer, New Paradise Laboratories is making Facebook even weirder.

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NPL will present Fatebook here in Philly at September's Live Arts Festival. But in keeping with the show's theme--the blurring of online and real life--characters who will populate the performance are now on Facebook and Twitter and available for friending or following. Actually, the process began about a year ago when NPL posted the cast's audition videos on YouTube. Me? I friended them all, the Mormon missionary, the Canadian Zamboni driver, the beauty queen. I also went from resenting the effort, to maintaining mild suspicion, to looking for their status updates, and yes, interacting just the slightest bit. Sure it's strange trading quips with a fictional character, but considering that some of my mellowest friends are deeply engaged in a Facebook game called Mafia Wars, which causes them to post sentences saying, "I need illegal transaction records and an untraceable cellphone," maybe a whole lot of us are fictional characters online. The fictional June Summer McCarthy's current update reads, "If you can pretend some aspect of yourself isn't real, then it's not real... Right?"" To which the equally fictional Julia Zelda Taylor responds, "What's real?" Indeed.

The real question though, isn't just whether or not social media has become a means of fictionalizing ourselves (though that's a good one), but whether NPL artistic director Whit McLaughlin is, with Fatebook, expanding the very definition of live performance. Most theater companies use sites such as Facebook and Twitter to promote their performances or show backstage videos. NPL uses these sites as the performance itself, and for some reason it seems more immediate, closer to the meaning of live performance than, for example, an opera simulcast live from the Met to your local cinema. Somehow--perhaps due to its interactive nature--with a Facebook-based performance, there are several less degrees of separation. 

If these are fictional characters posting in real time, is it live theater whether or not the whole thing culminates in an actual humans-congregating-in-one-place experience? Aren't humans already congregating in one place when all of the characters' "friends" read their status updates, watch their videos and respond to their messages?  

Thus far the cast averages around 100 friends each (the women are slightly more popular; read into that what you will) and I'm curious to see how many of their friends and followers will attend the festival performance and how many are along solely for the virtual ride. Are you following? Will you be at the show?... That is, in person... That is, physically in the same room and within touching distance of the performers? Weigh in.

Below: Darren Bobich, Zamboni jockey. Or not.
July 22, 2009 11:58 AM | | Comments (3)
I know I'm late checking in this week, and I apologize. Again. But hey, at least I showed up for dessert. 

This week I'm macking on what I'm also hating on: Theater about technology. So many playwrights use an old-fashioned linear narrative to tell an internet-based tale, a method that has so little to do with the actual use of the internet that it's almost infuriating. Okay, sometimes it's actually infuriating. But when techno-drama's done right, it makes you feel like you're surfing the crest of a rogue wave, allowed to see higher, farther and deeper than any human ought to be allowed. And that's a beautiful thing.

This reflection all came about because I saw Theatre Exile's production of Carlos Murillo's Dark Play last night and though I'm not reviewing it (you'll have to wait a day or so for Toby Zinman's assessment), I can't help but weigh in, since it deals with the same technological issues Brat Productions' User 927 tried to wrestle into submission earlier in the season. (My review of that play is here.) What's so interesting to me about these two plays is the way they attempt to capture the mercurial nature of the internet, which is essentially missing the point. Like mercury, the internet shape-shifts almost as soon as it's touched, let alone committed to old-fashioned paper. Remember chat rooms? Remember AOL, from the days when people used to pay for e-mail? Both plays do, and both playwrights are alarmed by the internet's most notorious episodes (waiting for the production about this next), and use them as the vehicle for Victorian-style cautionary tales. But the internet's a slippery creature, and a year or so after their respective premieres, both plays already read like time capsules. 

During an interview today on a totally different subject, New Paradise Laboratories' Whit MacLaughlin--whose Fatebook, a performance about, yes, Facebook, is slated to premiere at the 2009 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival--summed up everything wrong with this type of drama. "People tend to gravitate toward the hysterical, but people were probably hysterical when Gutenberg printed the first bible." Exactly. Hysteria is generally only worthwhile when viewed in hindsight. It's why Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible without a role for Joe McCarthy, but plenty of room for the inhabitants of Salem, Mass. 

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So how ironic is it that the production I've seen that best expresses the banality of internet evil and its detached menace was Wooster Group's Hamlet? That's right, Shakespeare, once again, bitch slaps his pretenders and proves his enduring relevance (sorry Mr. Tynan, I know how you hated that term). He's really the only logical match for the internet, Godzilla to its Mothra, and he's the only playwright who could survive being refurbished from an analog relic into a prophet of the digital age. 

Rather than spelling out technology's cold front for an audience, Wooster chooses the more elegant route. Their actors' eyes never meet, so busy are they tracking the multitude of screens and monitors surrounding them. It's the dramatic equivalent of teenagers who sit side-by-side texting one another. Hamlet's questions of identity were sent centuries ago, long before middle-aged men were IM-propositioning teenagers by pretending to be their peers. To be or not to be? That has always been the question, but online, it's even tougher to answer. Instead of picking a side, the best contemporary tech-based theater will function as an elastic exchange of information, adaptable, fluid, and impervious to hysteria.
November 20, 2008 11:00 PM |
A bit late, I know, but I was very busy in synagogue yesterday atoning for all the mean things I've written about perfectly nice people during the past year. 

This week I'm macking on: journalists who drag theater out of its complacent spot as William Shakespeare's publicity machine, and into the bright light of contemporary affairs. The New York Times' Patricia Cohen wrote a chilling feature this week about the nosediving economy's effect on Broadway. The Stranger's Brendan Kiley published a hotly discussed column on how theater can fix itself (and though I might only agree with about half of his 10 fixes, the simplest--beer, babysitting, brash new works--would go a hell of a long way toward putting those coveted young butts in the seats, and keeping the old ones coming back for more). Ellis Henican keeps inviting me on his radio show to look at the election through a dramatic lens. And I'm sure there are plenty more examples I've missed that you're welcome to post below. Anything, anything journalists can do to give theater a makeover so it's no longer regarded as film's boring, uncool older sister (Ugh, that farthingale? So 500 years ago.) is a welcome change. I know it's great, you know it's great, the challenge is getting people to talk about theater as much as they talk about television and film. 

Obviously, it's a tougher goal since you have to actually leave the house to be part of the conversation, but if you can convince enough people they're missing enough of a cultural moment by staying home, or even better, can get inside their homes with a creative, interactive online presence surrounding each show (A good start? See New Paradise Laboratories' posting of auditions for its upcoming show Fatebook, a la The Real World, on its YouTube channel) and then offer them something extraordinary to discuss on their way out the door (and again, back online), you've elevated the entire sociological food chain. Nice work.

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This week I'm hating on: Oliver Stone, who gives you one more reason to spend your hard-earned entertainment dollars at a live, rather than filmed, performance. Why? Because, in the tradition of World Trade Center which was released around the five year anniversary of the attacks, his new film, W., couldn't possibly be released at a worse time. No one wants to see this now, because we've been living it for the last eight years. The right won't be interested because, well, it's Oliver Stone, and the left won't be interested because the wounds aren't just fresh, they're suppurating. Stone is such a pompous jerk that I imagine he thought he'd be doing the left a favor by helping to influence the election. Wrong and wrong. All Stone will have achieved with this film, no matter how good it is, is to remind everyone on both sides of the aisle the reason "liberal" became a dirty word (so self-righteous, so annoying). The worst part is that Josh Brolin, a genius of understated acting, might have turned in a career-making performance with this one, to say nothing of how much fun it would be to watch Richard Dreyfuss tackle the Darth Vader role (Hey, Cheney's the one who joked that his wife said the comparison 'humanized' him). 

Sure, with its epic, dynastic subject, it might be a great movie. In seven or so years. When we're in the midst of President Obama's second term, we're all driving American-made magnetic air cars and laughing about the days when we thought the nation was headed for bankruptcy and war with Iran. Boy, that was a time.

Below: Fatebook audition of "Katizzle Applebizzle from the 'hood of Minnetonka."

October 10, 2008 10:53 AM |
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 |
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