Results tagged “theatre” from Drama Queen

Since it's making the rounds and I've received multiple queries asking what exactly went down, here's my take on the whole Media Theatre thing. And it was so calm around here for a while. 

Yes, Media artistic director Jesse Cline attempted to keep me from reviewing his production of Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical. He then took time during his opening night curtain call to say, "There is a critic here who will probably trash this show." (He was right, but not for the reasons he elaborated. He thinks I hate melodrama; I don't. However, I did leave the production thinking Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical is a load of thick and greasy schmaltz, minus the nutritional value.) He came out to my seat in the audience to continue the discussion, loudly, while jabbing an accusatory finger at my friend and colleague, Jim Rutter (who--poor guy--was also at my left hand when I reviewed Love Jerry). Finally, the company used quotes from my review, out of context, to promote the production in question. So it goes.

But that's not really why I feel compelled to comment on what happened in Mr. Cline's theater. Unless his board of directors feels otherwise, it's Mr. Cline's pulpit, and if he wants to use it for bullying purposes, fine. My editors felt it best to leave out any mention of the incident, and that's also fine. My record with this particular theater shows that despite similar previous antics on their part, I've always reviewed them without bias.

No, my complaint is with Broad Street Review editor Dan Rottenberg, who published a review of the show by Rutter, then insulted him for his conclusions, lack of credentials and professionalism. What Cline did was childish and unprofessional; what Rutter did was his job. If Rottenberg doesn't like the content of Rutter's review, it's his job as editor to return the review for a rewrite, and explain where Rutter's logic doesn't work; having written for Rottenberg once before, I can attest to his willingness to send a journalist back to the drawing board, and make a review better for it. But it's certainly not his job to use one of his writers' articles, an article he's supposedly vetted for its coherence and readiness for viewing, as a springboard for his own attack on that writer. An editor is supposed to have your back, not stab you in it.

Rutter is most certainly a professional, as is evidenced not only by Rottenberg's and others' willingness to pay him for his reviews, but by his own education, experience and acceptance into and participation in the National Endowment for the Arts' Fellowship in Theatre and Musical Theatre. Mr. Rottenberg, I return to the question posed by you and Mr. Cline: Considering Rutter's history of effort of behalf of your publication, why would you want to hurt him?
October 21, 2010 11:59 AM | | Comments (2)
Several of my colleagues--including this year's KCACTF winner Mark Costello--have already begun the two-week-long O'Neill Critics Institute (OCI), and I'm very excited to be headed up there in the morning. This year, from July 14-18, the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) hosts its national conference alongside the OCI, and I'll be speaking on a panel about theater criticism and new media. 

For me, it's been an interesting and frustrating e-year--interesting because there are so many more potential ways to disseminate arts coverage than there were even as recently as last year, and frustrating because instead of being mandatory, they're still overlooked by nearly every theater reviewing outlet in Philadelphia. While I'd like to see every print-based arts-covering journalist in this city get together with their bosses to discuss a multi-platform approach and create content wherein what appears online complements and/or supplements what appears on paper (including freelancers who, though we have largely replaced staffers, don't get the idea-tossing benefits of regular staff meetings), it hasn't happened yet. 

So here's what I can do something about: the comments section. Although the comments section is generally regarded as the exclusive province of trolls and there's a general rule that you don't feed them, this hasn't been my experience. Perhaps it's because the audience that cares enough to comment on theater is different (*cough* better *cough*) than the audience for stories about sports or politics. And while I occasionally get the reader who just plain calls me a hack WITHOUT USING A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE (note to you, dear reader: I am always specific in my critiques), there are far more people who leave a mini-review or call me out with a differing opinion. I also find that when I jump into the fray, it makes for a far livelier conversation with more commenters, and remains active far longer than the usual review.

I've gotten varying opinions on this practice from colleagues. Some say it's a great way to make the review come to life. Others say once a review appears, it's time to let readers do the talking. I've heard from readers grateful that I'm still engaged with the work, and still others who say it's just poor form to get down there in the muck. 

So what do you think? If you're a critic, do you like to engage in discussion with your readers? If you're a reader, do you want to hear from a critic, or would you rather continue the conversation on your own? 
July 13, 2010 4:18 PM | | Comments (7)

Yesterday, I had a conversation with my editor about the practice of reading scripts ahead of a performance--a performance I'm supposed to review. Lately, I've been trying to make that a regular practice, but also lately I've discovered I'm having trouble bottling a sense of spontaneity in my reviews. Coincidence?

My editor mentioned that another of our critics reads scripts only after seeing the staged production, so as to preserve an audience-eye element of surprise and discovery. Other critics say they always read a script beforehand because, they assert, as critics we're paid to know more about a production than the general public, and part of our research includes some analysis of the playwright's themes and intentions as they appear on the page, as well as tipping us off to any relevant ahead-of-time research.

Hysteria.jpgToday's review, of the Wilma Theater's production of Terry Johnson's Hysteria, begins with a direct comparison between the script and its staged counterpart. In this case, I felt the comparison was absolutely fair. After all, if a play jumps off the page, it ought to similarly jump off the stage. I discussed the issue some more with my editor, who concluded that reading the script beforehand might have caused me to cut the production some extra slack. So what to do?

Obviously, take it to Facebook and Twitter.

I got plenty of responses, some from critics, others from artists and all running the gamut from angry to measured to undecided. The split fell on both sides, with good reasons for both approaches.

On Facebook, Philadelphia artist/director/playwright Robert Smythe begged for an end to text-based reviewing and said, "You are reviewing a production: the sum of its parts. Theater is not a sporting event, where the rules are set before the start and the players are judged as to how well they can play within those rules. It is not the reviewer's job to mine the text for more than the artist found themselves."

On Twitter, Ottowa-based playwright/actor/director @SterlingLynch said reading a script beforehand is "often a good idea, so long as one doesn't 'decide' how the show should work in advance." @subfab who describes himself on the site as a "poet, savior, village idiot," says, "What is the first and most important impression a show should have? Experience or a script? IMHO theatre's should be experience." [BTW, for the uninitiated, IMHO stands for "in my humble opinion." And BTW, for "by the way."]

But what of Romeo and Juliet? Clearly, if you're a critic going to see that for the fourth or seventh or hundredth time, you've not only lost the element of surprise, but ought to be fired if you haven't read it. Same goes for Ibsen, or Chekov, or Beckett and whomever else would fill the pages of your personal anthology of great dramatists. And what of the lesser plays and musicals that happen to have hit town more than once? Why do they get the benefit of extended pre-curtain analysis? Sure, in some cases, say movement-based or improv-based shows, or work that inherently allows some flexibility, a script-based reading is innapropriate. But other than that? 

I'd be inclined to say why not get comfy with a script--not the night before, but maybe a week or so ahead of time so it has a chance to sink in--if only it weren't for that spontaneity issue. Thorny. 

I'm still undecided. How about you?

May 21, 2009 12:15 PM | | Comments (6)
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)
WT200810005724713V2.jpgJust back from Chicago and here I go again, hitting the road for more theater. This time I'm headed to Denver and environs, March 14-28, and being woefully ignorant of the theater scene out there (although its reputation is that it's building, if not cresting right now) I could use some recommendations. 

Is there a company or show I shouldn't miss in Denver, Boulder, Aspen, or somewhere in between? It's a big area, yes, but as long as I-70 stays open--which, of course, is never a guaranteee--I'm game. Let me know your favorites as well as the general strengths or weaknesses of theater out there. Are there particular growing pains that accompany a rising drama town such as Denver? How deep is the talent pool--are shows filled with locals or imports? Let me know; I'd love to blog about it. Also, I'll be back again in August during Boulder's Fringe Fest, so any advance notice on those can't-miss shows is much appreciated.

The last Colorado production I attended was a selection of highlights from Douglas Moore's and John LaTouche's classic American opera The Ballad of Baby Doe--a Colorado show if ever there was one--which, in its New York premiere, featured Beverly Sills in the title role. It's one of my favorites, and I had the privilege of watching this particular performance last summer at Leadville's Tabor Opera House, named after Baby Doe's husband, the silver king Horace Tabor, from the very box seats where the couple faced off against Horace's ex-wife, Augusta, across the street from Baby Doe's luxurious former apartments, and down the road from the decrepit mining cabin where she froze to death, alone and mad. Intrigued? Hers was an operatic tale, for sure, and its libretto is a thrilling ride through the western silver boom and bust years.

March 9, 2009 11:44 AM |
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)
InConflictGroup.JPGLast season, Temple University's theater department scored a major hit with In Conflict, an original production based on former Philadelphia Daily News writer Yvonne Latty's book of the same name. The show and its undergrad cast have since gone on to a stint at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival--where they won the "Fringe First" award--and are now Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theater, where they received an enthusiastic review from the New York Times' Ben Brantley. 

Brantley's review picked out several of the same passages that I did when I reviewed the show last year for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Here's my review. Feel free to compare and contrast. I believe the show has changed a bit since the premiere, but we both seemed to share the same impressions:

War in Their Own Words: Vets Speak on Life and Loss

by Wendy Rosenfield

Congratulations to Temple Theaters and director Douglas C. Wager for creating In Conflict, a collection of former Philadelphia Daily News writer Yvonne Latty's interviews with Iraq war veterans that first appeared in book form, and has now been adapted for the stage.

There are many triumphs in the piece, not the least of which is the sheer variety of vets and war experiences represented, 19 in total: a Vietnam-vet officer who "bleeds red, white and blue"; an unabashed liberal enlistee who says he was sent to Iraq to be a "bullet catcher"; a triple amputee who shyly admits, "I miss my body"; a lost 26-year-old who spits, "I gave up my soul - can't nobody give me a prosthetic soul." Each story is fascinating, heartbreaking, heroic or all three, with insights as original as the individuals who generously share them. It is remarkable that with such a wide range of voices, the same themes emerge in most of their testimonies. They want the Veterans Administration to help care for their wounds, both physical and psychic, but tragically, they have mostly been abandoned. They wonder why exactly they were sent to Iraq. They wonder if civilians even care that they've nearly died defending our right to order a hot latte.

If I have any quarrel with the show it's that it could be shortened by a few narratives - not because they're irrelevant or dull, but because by including so many, they risk losing their individual impact to a sense of overload. However, I also wouldn't want to be the one to choose whom to cut and whom to keep.

So why see this version of Iraq veterans' stories instead of staying home and ordering up HBO's? Because In Conflict's most arresting feature is the irony that suffuses the whole endeavor. Latty recalls, in one of the filmed segments that appear between monologues, the disorientation she felt upon entering Walter Reed Medical Center and seeing men and women, the same age as her Villanova students, wearing the same baseball caps with shredded brims, the same t-shirts that declared their affiliations, but all missing limbs or faces. It is a similar feeling watching these uniformly excellent Temple students reciting the soldiers' tales and adopting their mannerisms. Perhaps they're so good because essentially, they're playing themselves, inhabiting a parallel universe where their doppelgangers are, instead of runnng to Wawa for a Coke, driving a booby-trapped road into hostile territory for that same Coke.

Based on the book by Yvonne Latty, adapted and directed by Douglas C. Wager, scenery by Andrew Laine, costumes by Marian Cooper, sound by Christopher Cappello, lighting by J. Dominic Chacon, video by Warren Bass.

The Cast: Tim Chambers, Sam Paul, Suyeon Kim, Sean Lally, Tom Rader, Stan Sinyakov, Danielle Pinnock, Ethan Haymes, Damon Williams, Amanda Holston, Joy Notom

Today's review marks another first for Temple, a move into Center City Philadelphia. They didn't pick the greatest show for their in-town debut, but did a serviceable job with the production. Review here.


Below: The Official Trailer for In Conflict


September 30, 2008 8:40 PM | | Comments (1)
In this Sunday's New York Times "Week in Review" section, Charles Isherwood laments the city's paucity of Shakespeare offerings. I usually agree with Mr. Isherwood wholeheartedly and appreciate his championing of underdog (by which I mean non-revival, non-Disney) Manhattan productions. So it pains me to say this: boo freaking hoo, dude. 

A critic who complains about the lack of Shakespeare in the city that's supposed to be "America's theatrical epicenter" is either depressed by the lack of worthwhile new productions or needs to spend a week or two of quiet contemplation in the hinterlands. Or both. I won't presume to know which state of mind applies here, but I will say that someone needs to agitate for progress on the Broadway stage, not for Shakespeare.

I mean, I understand the satisfaction that comes with good Shakespeare. I've even blogged about it. Here in Philly we have an on-season Shakespeare festival as well as an off-season one. We've got a free Shakespeare in the park, a couple of houses that have been throwing in roughly a Shakespeare-a-year, and a few smaller outfits that produce offbeat versions of the classics. Surely, not all are created equal, but if it's Shakespeare you're looking for, you can reliably find him at any point during the season.

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And yes, Chicago and D.C. have Shakespeare companies, but even though Chicago's gaining steadily on New York's theatrical dominaton, it has neither the resources nor the cachet of Broadway. At least not yet. But if Broadway continues to nurture the same old safe retreads and turn its back on work that actually bolsters this country's theatrical tradition, well, finding a decent Merry Wives of Windsor will be the least of Mr. Isherwood's worries.  

Let the provinces whet their appetites on Shakespeare; it can only benefit New York. When you dine regularly on Kobe beef at home, you're less likely to accept a McDonald's patty when you go out. But you're probably not going to order Kobe again, either. You want something new and mouthwatering, and if you're served the same old Kobe filet, even if it's really good, you'll end up wondering why you didn't just stay home and make it yourself... It's sure a lot cheaper. 

I don't mean to pick on Isherwood. A dedicated Shakespeare company in New York City is not the worst idea ever, it's just misguided. Maybe it wouldn't be such a big deal if he suggested placing it in Brooklyn, or somewhere it had a chance to be more than an exercise in showing off one's Elizabethan chops. And perhaps also, I'm naive. I figure New York is what regional theater aspires to be; but maybe we've already caught up, and the ideal of New York's vanguard status is just vestigial at this point. 


August 10, 2008 6:51 PM |
Now here's something you don't see every day, an arts community rallying behind a laid-off critic. 

There have been so many layoffs lately it seems as though these things are becoming, if not unnoticed, then at least unremarkable. And really, you have to wonder who, besides other critics and desperate arts editors, would stand up for a critic anyway? Every enthusiast believes themselves capable of the job, hence the proliferation of user reviews and, of course, blogs. And the reviewed? They don't seem too fond of us either.

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But at least in beautiful Kansas City they understand the importance of informed critical opinion on the cultural climate and aren't willing to accept anything less than full-time attention. And brava/o to them. 

I'm certainly one of those to whom the job has been farmed out, and though I love what I do as much as any full-timer, it's not exactly a living. If I didn't have a husband whose profession makes it possible for me to indulge my passion part-time while still taking extended vacations, I'd probably be copy editing Gardasil pamphlets for Merck and availing myself of their excellent dental plan (though lately, even they have been laying people off). Getting rid of full-time positions narrows the field of reference inestimably, and if people are fine with having opinions fed to them through a very narrow and privileged straw, I can at least attempt to make up for some of that lost flavor, even if it makes me feel somewhat like a scab. After all, if no one fills in the gap, then what? 

Right. So praise the lord and pass the ammunition. 

Still, it's awfully gratifying to see that people outside the newsroom also care about critics' thinning ranks. I hope creative communities across the country take Kansas City as an example and rise up to resist the disappearance of their reflection in the aesthetic mirror. 

Maybe it's because in this desperate economy, things like this are also starting to occur, and arts professionals realize that as goes the critical voice and its commitment to making art a relevant topic of contemporary conversation, so goes art. Take a cue from Kansas City (who knew?) and demand that your media outlets--print, television, radio, online--consider arts news as important as sports and business news. I wish all those dancers, singers and musicians, as well as Paul Horsley, the best outcome for their "formal protest," and encourage them to see it through to fruition. The nation's arts writers could really use that backup right about now.
June 24, 2008 6:22 PM | | Comments (5)
Generally, I'm not a Tony watcher. Yeah, that's a kicker of a confession from a theater critic, particularly one who lives an hour and a half from the Lincoln Tunnel's dirty mouth, but I have my reasons. I'm alright with checking the next-day results, and religiously read NYTimes reviews, but as far as taking the time to plant myself in front of a tv for three hours to cheer on (or grumble about) productions I'll almost certainly never see, forget it. Though the Inquirer reviews Broadway, I don't (please, Howie, give my regards...), and as a parent, I have neither the free time nor the spare change. However, when my city's Barrymore Awards roll around, I'm chewing my fingernails down to the skin until the winners are announced. It's not that I don't care about the Tonys, it's just that generally, for my purposes, they're irrelevant.

But this year was different. Aside from looking forward to next season's Philly productions of The Seafarer and Rock and Roll, I was, for once, fully engaged.

There's change in the Broadway winds, and though I've seen exactly none of the contenders, couldn't wait for this year's ceremony. It was outsiders' night, and just the right tone for Broadway to drum up some outside-the boroughs excitement. 

Unfortunately, the Tony Awards' producers weren't in on the vibe. With Whoopi helming an abominable series of skits, the Tonys tried to prove their mass market viability rather than B-Way's rising credibility. The addition of Mario Lopez, the Little Mermaid's ridiculous costume--with its humiliating, scene-hogging tail--or Megan Mullaly's limited effort to divine some of Madeline Kahn's je ne sais quoi, it's little wonder this year's broadcast attracted its lowest audience ever. The Disneyfication of Broadway is what earned it its current lame reputation in the first place.



And yet. Things could have so easily gone the other way, with more of irreverent left-field contender Passing Strange (Stew tried, he really did, with those Groucho glasses and that how-did-I-get-here demeanor); Lin-Manuel Miranda's freestyling and and loose cannon ebullience; scenes from the Fringe-esque 39 Steps. 

And how about some acknowledgement that this was the year regional theater flexed its considerable muscle. Chicago graciously bestowed upon us a new, improved David Mamet by way of Edward Albee in the form of Tracy Letts, and when Letts swaggered up to the stage and thanked his producers because "they decided to produce an American play on Broadway with theater actors," it was a swoon-worthy moment. Yeah, he crossed over to film, but he came back, didn't he? 

Why wait until the thing was half over to break out Lily Tomlin, Xanadu and Liza? What were they thinking?  Still, the array of entertainment was a welcome peek into the tug-of-war for Broadway's soul, and the ephemeral nature of theater being what it is, it's awfully nice to get a taste of what's been going on all season. Since most viewers won't ever get to see Patti LuPone in Gypsy, at least we've been provided with a sample. And since most will never get to the current production of Grease, at least they'll know they're not missing anything. 

I don't get the Tonys' Hollywood inferiority complex, and hope that after this season's rejuvenating batch of productions, next year's ceremony won't feel so much like an also-ran to the Oscars. Let "theater actors" (cough, Patti LuPone, cough) host the show. Ditch the crap and bring even more of that stage magic to the stage. This was an exciting year, and it deserved a more exciting framework than this broadcast. Come on, Broadway, you've got a whole lot of writers working for you; next year, use them.
June 16, 2008 10:28 AM | | Comments (1)
user927.jpgLast night I saw User 927, a new play commissioned by Philly's Brat Productions, that before its opening garnered quite a bit of national press. Its central conceit derives from a 2006 news story about AOL's release of 650,000 of its members' search logs. The most notorious of these, its searcher anonymously coded as User 927, tracks three months of steadily escalating perversions that start innocently enough with "Yoko Ono" and end somewhere around "F*** Her Throat" (my asterisks). 

The actual production, which I review in Friday's Inquirer, didn't go so well, at least according to me. But Brat artistic director Michael Alltop was onto something. Unfortunately, playwright Katharine Clark Gray chose to couch the subject in a fairly conventional murder-mystery, a choice which quickly waters down the topic's potency, and leads me to wonder why Alltop didn't choose a more tech-savvy and unconventional writer. 

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In any case, there's a bit in the play about AOLStalker.com, a website that allows you to search all those released records for better or for worse (here's 927's actual log, but I warn you to give it a pass, because it's a real bummer of a read). Through AOL's records, the New York Times was able to sleuth out the names of two of the company's actual human members. Creepy. What have you searched for in the last three months that you might not want the New York Times to know about?

I know I'm a couple of years late to the site--even 927 knew about Numa Numa before me--but I'm guessing I'm not the only one.

What's so interesting about these logs is that some tell horror stories, some are dramas, others read like parody. They are, as Gray's characters explain, bits of "time travel," but they're more than that. User 927 is the most prurient example, but each seeker in their turn creates a deeply affecting portrait of their individual struggles, neuroses, passions, hobbies and defects. 

Once you start AOLStalking, just try to resist assigning features to a log's creator. User 30011 has light brown skin, is pretty, young, harried, with long layered black hair, a pink tank top and cut-off jean shorts, worrying about her kids and fanning herself in the Miami heat. User 1366195 is white but tan, athletic, with short black gelled hair, wearing a white t-shirt at the wooden desk in his bedroom, trying desperately to stay focused on finishing an Abraham Lincoln term paper. AOLStalkers even rate the users' records, from "Masterpiece" on down. There's probably enough material for a comedy--or tragedy--in that fact alone.

It's a digital version of Our Town, and all those voices unwittingly and unwillingly pulled through the ether are still waiting to have their proper say onstage. It was a great idea; maybe eventually it will also make great theater.

June 12, 2008 2:05 PM | | Comments (4)
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Spent all day yesterday baking in 10 hours of scorching 96 degree heat at The Roots Picnic here in Philly (Illadelph to Roots fans). For some, the Picnic was this summer's must-see music festival, with a bill featuring, of course, The Roots, and headlined by Gnarls Barkley, as well as newer acts like The Dap-Kings (Amy Winehouse's backup band) with Sharon Jones, Santogold, Deerhoof, The Cool Kids, and DJ Diplo, among others. 

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Extreme conditions are believed to trigger transcendence, and while at the concert, I had an epiphany. Before arriving, I expected one sort of crowd, and was surprised to find a completely different audience. Let me insert here that I based my assumptions upon many years of fairly segregated concertgoing. Diversity in live music, to my generation, was the inclusion of a token rapper like Ice-T on an early Lollapalooza tour. (However, he was included not as a rapper, but as "Body Count," his cringe-worthy attempt at a hardcore punk rock band.) 

I assumed this crowd would split maybe 80-20 along racial lines, with, for this hip-hop heavy bill, 80% being African-American, and 20% white/other. Well, it wasn't. In fact, it was flipped in the opposite direction. 

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But white kids co-opting a black music scene is nothing new. So, while I was surprised, I wasn't shocked. What really set off my epiphany was that the co-opting of musical forms was now mutual. The Cool Kids, backed by DJ Jazzy Jeff, unabashedly expressed their Beastie Boys idolatry. Santogold (who scratched at the last minute, but was listed on the bill) mixes her M.I.A. galang with Missing Persons-style new wave. The Roots' guitarist indulged in a full-on old-school guitar solo (FYI, their new album, Rising Down, was heavily influenced by a damn near inaccessible William T. Vollman treatise). Gnarls Barkley's odd mix matches hip-hop with a groovy '60s Mellotron aesthetic and soul crooning (lest we forget, the silent half of Gnarls, Danger Mouse, made his name by mashing up Jay-Z's Black album with The Beatles' White Album to create The Grey Album). And for most of the groups onstage, with this interracial mix of influences came an interracial mix of band members. It's also important to note that no one's politics got watered down; they instead became part of the mix.

It's a generational shift that, judging by the crowd's demographics, is probably fairly superficial, but shows a cultural give-and-take that bodes well. As we perch on the cusp of a possible Obama presidency, I'm guessing that shift has the potential to go deep.

So what does this have to do with theater? Well, attention must be paid, in programming, in outreach, in funding. There's a whole new aesthetic growing out there that should be nurtured from every angle. The repertory canon ought to include August Wilson right alongside Arthur Miller, and often does. But a whole generation of kids who grew up used to interracial families and international adoptions, celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. day and reading Toni Morrison in English class, aren't seeing their experiences reflected in the larger culture. Theaters are, for the most part, still operating under segregationist assumptions, sometimes alternating a "black" play with a "white" play, but not seeking out work that fills the spaces in between, let alone ventures into "Asian," or "Latino" territory. It's up to producers to find the next Passing Strange, plays and musicals that take racial, cultural and artistic cross-pollination as a given and run with it. 

Theater, with its ephemeral nature, might just be the medium to draw younger audiences away from their computers. You can't Netflix a play or find it on YouTube, at least not in the same way, which makes the old-fashioned theater, ironically, one of the few creative industries that doesn't have to suffer because of the internet. Build an exciting, relevant and un-self consciously inclusive ethos, and they will come.

Oh, and for the record, the concert was great.



June 8, 2008 8:27 PM | | Comments (2)
I had an experience this evening that was, perhaps, the most shocking of my theatergoing career. It had nothing to do with what was going on onstage. (Incidentally, that was Larry Loebell's new play, House, Divided, which had a few issues, but was otherwise a rather complex and interesting story. But I digress.)

In what might be the most startling display of audience misbehavior ever, a few moments after the play began, the woman next to me opened her bag, took out some string, and proceeded to FLOSS HER TEETH. ALL OF THEM. I'm quite sure everyone reading this blog has gritted their teeth (but not flossed them) while a show's climactic moment was deflated by someone's salsa ringtone, but this? 

Are people so divorced from the communal nature of theater that when forced to take in entertainment outside their homes, they just dissociate and go on as though padding around their living rooms in their underwear? Maybe this alienating effect is compounded by a steady diet of formerly private behavior turned shameless public display via blogging (ahem) and reality tv. Whatever, it's gross.

Do you have a comparable story? Could one possibly exist? If so, bring it. At this point, I believe anything's possible.

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May 28, 2008 9:45 PM | | Comments (15)
So this article in Variety says...

"British theaters will no longer be able to hoodwink potential audiences with out-of-context review quotes that seem to show the production is a hit, when the review actually conveys something different."

...and goes on to explain that theater operators who break this rule can be fined and sent to prison. Now, I'm all for truth in advertising, and have raised an eyebrow when shows I've panned excised a couple of neutral words and used them in promotional material. But hey, advertising is all about accentuating the positive, even if it means bending the truth ever so slightly in your product's favor.

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It's not like an evening at Starlight Express will give you cancer; though PTSD, maybe. It's also not as though the dramatic world operates in a conspiratorial information vacuum the way, say, cigarette companies once did. I'm flattered the Brits want to protect critics' intentions, and cheers to that, but good luck proving damages when there's a whole internet out there just bursting with opinions on every show that dares to hold an opening night.

Isn't it really an audience member's responsibility to do some research before they shell out $100 or its British equivalent for a seat to a lousy show? I am of the mind that if you can't take the time to read a review (and then decide independently whether or not you agree with said reviewer), but instead take an advertisement's word for a production's quality, then you get exactly what you deserve. You ever see those bumper stickers that proclaim, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it?" I'll just bet those are the same people who've been taken in one too many times by crafty poster designers, and are now calling for their imprisonment. Where's a good inquisitor when you need one?

 

May 27, 2008 3:58 PM | | Comments (5)
Last week in Manhattan, an organization founded by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, The Coalition of Theaters of Color, called a town meeting to discuss "the issue of sustainability" in small New York state African-American and Latino nonprofit theaters. An article in Backstage highlighted the meeting's focus on media and grantwriters' biases against these companies, and it brought me back to an issue that keeps popping up--why does urban-gospel-chitlin circuit-call-it-what-you-will-theater do so well?

Those for-profit touring companies helmed by Tyler Perry, Je'Caryous Johnson (I wrote this one) and David E. Talbert, among others, develop their own shows from scratch, sell out houses while advertising largely outside major media outlets, without reviews, and attract marquee names. Sure there are quality issues, and for-profits leave little room for experimentation, but on the flipside, if you're successful enough, you can ultimately do all the experimenting you'd like--or start your own nonprofit, for that matter. 

On Broadway, The Color Purple has turned a gorgeous profit for its creators, In the Heights is a Tony bonanza, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with its African-American cast, flourished despite mixed reviews. As a reviewer, I've already noticed a recent shift in typically white non-profit houses toward more diverse programming, and can't help but attribute this to their notice of Broadway's multi-culti success stories. Here in Philly, the Arden's production of August Wlson's The Piano Lesson was extended even though Delaware Theatre Company (just a half-hour outside the city) was set to open the same play the following week. 
So why can't minority-run non-profits catch the same kind of fire? 

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Could it be that the nonprofit model just doesn't serve people of color in the same way? If traditionally white channels aren't working, why keep using them? I participated in a roundtable discussion at USC in February where the subject came up, and used the example of the Jews' exclusion from banking and media. Once we stopped banging on their doors and built our own houses, we managed to do okay for ourselves. It's less an issue of "separate but equal" than "money talks." There's certainly a precedent in the African American community: look no farther than Madame C.J. Walker, who took her money and opened a theater that still operates today with a mandate to serve Indianapolis' African American community.

The Coalition would do well to look to the urban circuit's theater entrepreneurs for assistance with marketing and funding. There's may be an issue of snobbery on the part of non-profits toward what is viewed as a lowbrow entertainment, but guess what? Tyler Perry, who used to live in his car, isn't complaining about funding or bad reviews--which at this point, he receives almost as a matter of courtesy. 

I'm not suggesting that minority theaters ought to give up the fight against funding inequity and media biases. Obviously, it's a real, frustrating and intolerable situation. But I am suggesting that if things have gotten so bad that the issues the coalition is addressing aren't about programming or education, but about the continuation of their very existence, well, maybe it's time to look elsewhere for answers.
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May 26, 2008 12:18 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 |
Michael Feingold, in yesterday's Village Voice seconded my contention on this blog that musicals, rather than being the "beleaguered" form Ben Brantley described in the New York Times, are experiencing a second, breezier wind. Anyway, here it is. Ironic, too, that he should cite the Cameron Mackintosh extravaganza, when the big news from his corner is that he's allowed several U.S. houses (including Philly's Walnut Street Theatre) to mount Les Miz on the condition that they--gasp--ditch the turntable and offer Monsieur Valjean la liberte at last. Even Mr. Mackintosh, it seems, is ready for a change.
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May 21, 2008 11:42 AM | | Comments (1)
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)
Ok, so now we all know that Glory Days opened and closed in one, ahem, glorious day, and by all I seriously mean all. But on this, the day of Tony nominations, it's worth noting there's more to the story than Ben Brantley's power to shut down an entire Broadway enterprise. In fact, Mr. Brantley, in his review of the show, was surprisingly gentle, and noted:

"It's been a season of thinking small for the Broadway musical. Two front-runners for the Tony, "In the Heights" and "Passing Strange," are also intimate, personal shows imported from non-Broadway houses. I can see why the producers of "Glory Days" might have thought this was an auspicious moment for a big-time New York transfer ... I do find it heartening that a pair of enthusiastic and gifted young artists have fallen in love with that beleaguered form, the musical, as a means of self-expression."

However, I think he's completely wrong about "that beleaguered form." The musical is making a comeback, though not the kind fed by producers feverishly bent on re-animating '70s film comedies or '70s music, or regurgitating sure-thing revivals, but by the generation that grew up fetishizing Rent and Moulin Rouge. 
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The winds seem to have shifted with Avenue Q, the little show that could--and could while leaning heavily on irony and angst. But after last season's massive success of hormonal rocker Spring Awakening, the fact that Glory Days, a musical by 20-something recent college grads, made it to Broadway right alongside In the Heights, also written by a 20-something recent college grad, surely bodes well for those late bloomers still editing away in urban garrets around the nation. It took Stew a little longer than those other boys to create Passing Strange, but judging by today's nominations, it doesn't seem to have affected his accolades any. There's also the baby-faced team of Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, who wowed L.A. with their emo-musical about our seventh president, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. And what do all these brash new musicals have in common? None of them look or sound like a Broadway musical, several aren't even native New Yorkers, but together they all sound like a burgeoning movement.

These might be dark days for the big, bloated Broadway musical, but for the form itself? As they sing in that re-animated '70s film comedy Spamalot, "Keep him off the cart because he's not yet dead." 
 
May 13, 2008 3:41 PM |
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