The Playgoer: October 2006

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Jill Dolan

The noted theatre scholar and critic Jill Dolan (currently at UT Austin), offers some thoughts on activist arts blogging in marking the anniversary of her own very worthwhile Feminist Spectator:

I blog to keep honing my feminist critical skills. I blog to feel myself part of a larger community of readers/spectators/viewers who care about culture and what it means to our everyday lives, as well as to the possibilities of our futures. I blog to work out my own confusion and to chart my own emotions when I’m stirred by cultural productions that affect me strongly.

I blog to reach people with whom I’d like to have a dialogue. I blog to be part of a public sphere I can’t see but can feel on some intimate, ineffable level, the way I feel myself part of something larger than myself when I’m physically present at the theatre. I blog to retain the sense of community that’s necessary before I can believe in social change. I blog because talking about the arts makes life rich and meaningful; writing about it lets me hold onto those feelings just a little longer.

Gilman obit

“I don’t think of myself as a critic or teacher either, but simply — and at the obvious risk of disingenuousness — as someone who teaches, writes drama criticism (and other things) and feels that the American compulsion to take your identity from your profession, with its corollary of only one trade to a practitioner, may be a convenience to society but is burdensome and constricting to yourself.”

-Richard Gilman, the late homme de theatre (how's that for avoiding pigeon-holing?) as quoted in Ben Brantley's colorful obit in today's NYT.

"Empty Space" Goes Dark

Seattle's Empty Space theatre company, founded out of the 60s/Peter Brook idealism its name recalls, is shutting down.

This, after just moving to a new space and forging a new partnership with a university, a model that many have hoped would save small theate companies.

There are no cure-alls.

Reviewing Ethics, cont.

Okay well some folks think a critic has no business writing plays--or at least getting them reviewed and covered by the press. Or is it that a playwright has no business writing reviews???

Please see said Comments (#5) for my own riposte to these objections. In short I have no problem standing by George Hunka's right to write plays as well as earn a living as a freelance reviewer. And I don't think that should stop his plays from being covered and, hence, get audiences.

Let me draw people's attention to an example of how the Times handled this kind of situation before, when they reviewed a Fringe show by their own Neil Genzlinger two years ago. (If you're having trouble accessing the archives, the date is 8/26/04. The show was an adaptation of "The Last Detail.") The review was written by one Jonathan Mandell, who according to the Times archives, seems to have done many staff writer assignments, including theatre reviewing from 1999-2004, and his review includes the following standard-disclaimer line: "The stage version, adapted by Neil Genzlinger, a writer and editor at The New York Times..."

Now I will note that this review of Genzlinger's show is indeed the last byline Mandell seems to have had in the paper. Oops? Is George paying the price for Genzlinger's folly?

Whatever fallout there may or may not have been from this piece, I think Mandell's review does the job just fine. It identifies Genzlinger's affiliation. The review is clearly independently minded and decidedly mixed. But I suppose in hindsight it would have been even better for the Times to go completely outside the rotation and hire someone "special," whose name didn't regularly appear on the Arts page.

And that's probably what they should have done instead of assigning Rob Kendt to George's show, even though my impression of Kendt is as an experienced and thoroughly professional journalist of at least standard integrity. (We've corresponded about blog matters, but otherwise don't know each other.) But his name has appeared more than once in the Arts section of late (not sure, but roughly as many times as George's?) so I suppose no matter how many disclaimers he put in, some might raise concerns.

But that's the Arts Desk's responsibility, not the playwright or the reviewer. What's unfortunate here is that if they had anticipated the "conflict of interest" issue earlier (which anyone who knows these names could have) George could have still gotten his show reviewed. And I think that would have been fine.

Monday, October 30, 2006

NYT Disses Bloggers Kendt, Hunka?

As you may recall, Superfluities blogger George Hunka had a play on this month, "In Public." Hunka has also been freelancing as a reviewer for the Times for much of this year. The Times agreed to still send someone to review his show, someone not a full time staffer, as per understood policy when reviewing their own. They chose Rob Kendt, who has also freelanced for them on occasion. Kendt, as it happens, also blogs.

Kendt went to the show and wrote it up. Positively, as it turns out. But the Times decided not to run it after all, citing "conflict of interest."

Isaac Butler, who directed "In Public," and is also a blogger, has now gone public with this story and written a letter to the Times. So you can see more details there, as well as his well reasoned complaint. As Isaac points out, it's important to note that Hunka and Kendt may have written for the same paper, and may each blog, but never met before the night Kendt went to his show.

It is indeed weird that the Times didn't seem to figure out Kendt and Hunka were "colleagues" until after assigning Kendt to the show. Unless they mean--could they???--colleagues in the blogosphere. But that would be acknowledging blogs now, wouldn't it.

Richard Gilman

We mourn the passing of Richard Gilman, an influential critic, an invaluable scholar of Modern Drama, and one of the major documenters of the more adventurous theatre of the 60s and 70s from his perches at Newsweek, New Republic, Commonweal, and the Yale School of Drama.

"Idomoneo" a Go

Just to follow up on last month's Idomoneo--Muhammed controversy, the Berlin police now confirm it's safe enough to let the show go on.

some more "Corrie" roundup

John Lahr comes out with what is probably the most highbrow praise yet for the play, calling it "riveting" and other good stuff while still recognizing its limitations.

Meanwhile, for a sample of the opposite reaction, see Philadelphia's Jewish Exponent. An op-ed there savages both Corrie the person and the play, the latter of which he erroneously states:

[F]or left-wing activists like acclaimed British actor Alan Rickman and former Guardian editor Katherine Viner, Corrie's life and death was perfect fodder for a work designed to further the cause for which she gave her life: the delegitimization of the State of Israel.
For the record, of the many controversial things about the play, "delegitimization of the State of Israel" is nowhere on the table in the text or the production, just as it has nothing to do with the issue of the occupied territories. But those who want to infer and fan flames will infer and fan away, I suppose. The Exponent's proper review of the play is equally unfriendly politically, and a thumbs-down, but treats it as more inncuous as anything else.

It is indeed pretty notable that such nasty low-circulation articles as this has, so far, been the extent of the Great Zionist Protest once expected by New York Theatre Workshop. Most conspicuously silent, of course, is ADL. They've clearly decided to sit this one out, concentrating instead on Borat and another free-speech imbroglio surrounding the professor Tony Judt.

"Sister Act" The Musical"?

Yes, that "Sister Act."

Variety's Frank Rizzo takes us inside how a team of nonprofit theatres sell their souls--I mean, seek "enhancement" and "commercial partnerships."

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Off Broadway → On Broadway

“It’s easier now to raise $2 million to do a play on Broadway than it is to raise $700,000 to do a play Off Broadway.”

Roy Gabay, producer of The Little Dog Laughed.

From Campbell Robertson's very smart Sunday Times survey of three shows attempting the move this fall from nonprofit to maybe-profit: Dog, Spring Awakening, and Grey Gardens.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

NBC Blocks Dixie Chicks Flick

Sorry to keep going off topic, but in this story about yet another seemingly anti-Bush film being denied advertising space, I just had to comment on this pseudo-rationale by NBC reagarding the Dixie Chicks movie:

NBC acknowledged that it had rejected the ads for fairness reasons, since Mr. Bush couldn’t be expected to buy response ads, as he would in a political campaign.

Huh??? Again, when did this become the standard for accepting advertisements? Does NBC not air any Coke ads until Pepsi has a chance to respond? Even in political campaigns, does this mean, one candidate never can outspend the other and offset the "fairness" balance?

More to the point: It seems to me the president doesn't need a 30-second ad on NBC to respond to a limited-release indie flick because he has... the Presidency! Like he needs a commercial? Does this mean even if you were just a rich citizen who wanted to buy 30 seconds of advertising to criticize the war, or the estate tax repeal, you wouldn't be allowed to by NBC unless they checked with the White House first?

But why even get into the logic. Like the NPR shutting out of "Death of a President" it's just bullshit. And while I do think media outlets should be entitled to reject ads they find objectionable, CNN, NBC and NPR in these cases are purely being chicken. They just don't want to have to deal with the email campaigns that the obsessive-right can unleash on "the liberal media." Even though--as Frank Rich demonstrated in a column a few years ago about the Janet Jackson joke--it's really just a handful of nuts hitting "send" a million times.

And if this doesn't disturb you yet, just ask yourself this question: what happens to our political discourse and the arts if anyone who produces a film, or a play, that takes on the president, finds themself unable to advertise their product?

Guardian Gaga for Blogs

I'm very happy for Maxine Szalwinska, formerly of Webloge and an early Playgoer supporter, for getting her own new and improved blog on The Guardian. So she can now be found here, covering the London fringe.

It's all part of an impressively revamped version of what was already an impressive web & blog presence for the Guardian, especially on the arts. Check it out the theatre page in particular.

Friday, October 27, 2006

How much does an actor make?

Reading this interesting news of a payraise for English actors prompted me to finally go trolling around the American Equity website to see if the salary info from the standard contracts is easily accessible online. It is.

There are many, many different kinds of contracts--different regions, venue sizes, profit/nonprofit, etc. But here are the figures (the minimums) for just the three kinds of theatre presentations I myself end up seeing the most.

-Broadway: The generic sounding "Production Agreement" says $1465 a week.

-Commercial Off Broadway: Depends on the number of seats in the theatre.

$506 (100 - 199 seats)
$592 (200 - 250 seats)
$689 (251 - 299 seats)
$792 (300 - 350 seats)
$890 (351 - 499 seats)
-League of Resident Theatres (LORT)
The LORT theatres are basically our professional "regional theatres." But it also includes most of NYC's professional nonprofit companies (those not operating on "Showcase" code). I say "most" since the exceptions--Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Company, and Lincoln Center Theatre--each have their own individual LORT riders(!) which are so byzantine I can't even get into them. Let's just say the actors at those places make closer to Broadway levels.

But as for the rest, here are salary minimums according to the LORT catagories of theatres, which is determined by average weekly ticket sales:
$816 LORT A ($110,000.00+)
$769 LORT B ($110,000.00+)
$714 LORT B ($70,000.00-$109,999.99)
$663 LORT C ($45,000.00 to $69,999.99)
$536 LORT D ($44,999.99 and below)
So, what do I conclude from all this? Not sure yet. But if you start multiplying these figures by 52--and then ask yourself how many actors work 52 weeks a year--you may learn something...

The Twyla/Dylan Fiasco

Eric Grode breaks with the pack in his non-pan of The Times They Are A-Changin'. A great example of how to appreciate an ambitious bomb. (Yes, I say "ambitious" knowing full well such a bad idea as this show could only be hatched in a desperate B'way producer's head. But from what I've read, Twyla Tharp seems to have taken a genuine stab at it.)

Kudos also to The Sun for reviving the old tradition of running two reviews of the same show side by side, the other by their rock critic.

Dissed by Disney

Michael Riedel follows up on more troubles over at Mary Poppins. (This week: the set won't work.)

But more interesting than the backstage gossip is the backstory of the continuing tension between Disney and Old Broadway (in the sense of "Old Europe"). In particular, Disney has not gotten over the slight of the shunning of Tarzan at the Tonys. (Because obviously the quality of the show is beyond question.) And just to make things even more 8th Grade...

If "Mary Poppins" takes off - not a sure a thing yet, even though it has the largest advance ($18 million) of any show this season - the black eye from "Tarzan" will fade, and Disney can reclaim its place as Broadway's pre-eminent creator of mega-hits. But don't expect it to make nicey-nice with the theater community. In fact, the company isn't even throwing an opening-night party for "Mary Poppins." There will be a lavish dinner for the cast, but all those Broadway snipers will have to buy their own dinners after the performance.

I'm surprised, though, that Riedel doesn't mention one big things Disney did to get The Establishment pissed at them: They refused to join the American League of Theaters and Producers--specifically its bargainning unit. In other words, Disney corporate HQ made clear from the start it would deal with unions its own way. And that wasn't a help to the League during times like the Musicians Strike of '03.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

State of "Theatre Journalism"?

I've excerpted this from a piece on classical music by Bay Area critic and musician Robert Commanday--but with all references to music replaced by theatre terms. See if it still rings true:

The great newspaper disappearing act is having a horrendous effect on the responsiveness, awareness, and involvement of the public. This is happening in [theatre] as in other areas, but not just because of the reduction in reviews. While reviewing [theatrical] performances is fundamental to the [theatre] critic's job, it's just part of it. The field is more properly described as [theatre] journalism, because it incorporates many functions besides reviewing. [Theatre] journalists write advance pieces to arouse public interest in coming events, cover [theatre] news in the local community and around the world, and produce columns or "think pieces" that discuss issues relevant to music and its institutions.

This last, the "think piece," has taken the biggest hit. You likely will look in vain for a [theatre] essay in the weekend paper. If a Sunday [theatre] article is to be found, it will be an exception and probably an advance or "puff piece," meaning a celebrity interview....The think piece, in contrast, can be on any musical subject — a significant [play], [playwright], or [theatre company]; an issue or controversy; an unusual or provocative upcoming event or a notable [theatre artist] involved in it — so long as it is a thoughtful discussion involving interpretation, history, or analysis. It is not an article that is essentially a recycling of publicity material.

Then there's the decline of investigative [theatre] journalism, the hard news that [theatre] critics should be responsible for. It was the first to go, and it has all but disappeared. When you read the obituary of a [company] and learn about its bankruptcy, that is usually when you first discover that the [company] had been in trouble for a long time. The reporting on those facts should have occurred long before, but in fact the coverage of the ineptness of the [Artistic Director] and the incompetence and inattention of the board never appeared.

Well, just when I would say "Hence, bloggers!", Commanday turns skeptical about the internet as a cure-all:
The indifference of publishers and editors, coupled with the digital revolution, has changed all that. Will the Internet and blogs make the difference? It doesn't seem likely, first because information read on the computer screen does not engage and hold the attention as closely as printed material; second because in traversing a newspaper, many readers become drawn to stories they had not been looking for, stories they may not click to on a Web publication. I would like to think that a good percentage of audience members would regularly take the extra step to go to the Internet to check out the review of what they had just heard in the concert hall or opera house, especially when the newspaper doesn't cover it. That may happen in time...but for most people it's not an automatic or habitual response yet, not the way turning to the appropriate page of the newspaper used to be.

Fair points. Blog readers--and internet surfers in general--are a pretty self-selecting group. Then again, I wonder if these different habits Commanday describes are generational. It would appear that Googling is already a more commonplace way to look up information on current events and happenings about town that "traversing a newspaper." At least for those under 50.

For the full--and undistorted--version of Commonday's argument, see his SF Classical Voice.

Live by The Times, Die by the Times

Okay, Butley is hardly "dead", and may yet enjoy a long and hearty run.

But while browsing Ben Brantley's unenthusiastic notice this morning, I seem to recall seeing this production reviewed before--3 years ago at the Huntington Theatre in Boston. Well, indeed, the Times did travel there to cover it, and raved! But that was Bruce Weber.

Obviously, director Nicholas Martin (the Huntington's AD) was hoping for a transfer all along, given the "attached" star Nathan Lane. It took three years, but probably it was the confidence of that original Times review that kept the dream alive--despite the fact no one here cares about Simon Gray's 1971 British musings anymore. (You're worried about new English plays taking up room on Broadway?)

Well Brantley just pulled a switcheroo on them.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Broadway Tourism

The foreigners are back... according to the eagerly anticipated (in some circles) League of American Theaters and Producers survey.

Variety has the skinny:

According to a demographic report by the League of American Theaters & Producers, tourists bought 57% of the record 12 million tickets sold during the season. And it's tourists who keep all those long-running tuners going, ringing in 63% of sales at shows that have run 16 months or longer.

With Broadway upping its global presence over the past several years -- thanks in part to popular international incarnations of Rialto offerings such as "The Phantom of the Opera," "The Lion King" and "Chicago," not to mention recent pic adaptations -- the international tourism biz also has surged back from its post-9/11 low.

Foreigners bought 1.32 million Rialto tickets during the 2005-06 season, up a bit from the prior season and on par with a pre-9/11 record hit during the 1999-2000 season.


But, surprsingly, New Yorkers are starting to show up at the theatre, too...
Purchases by residents of New York City (totaling 2.3 million) and its suburbs (2.9 million) were both higher than tallies posted in the 2004-05 season. Last season's jam-packed theatrical slate provided more attractions than usual for Gothamites, who tend to check out a new production earlier than auds from farther afield.
Why do I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that most of these 5 million tickets were for Jersey Boys? (Or at least the 2.9 mil "suburban" sales...)

The most revealing trend?

Twenty-seven percent of theatergoers bought tickets on the day of the performance, the highest proportion in six years, while 32% bought tickets more than one month in advance, the lowest percentage since 2001.

In many cases, the trend toward last-minute sales makes it more difficult for producers to get a long-range sense of a show's financial outlook.


Of course, the "advance" is what producing theatre is all about now. Whether you're Disney or downtown, where they call it "subscriptions," of course. But what to do when audiences--especially younger audiences--are becoming more spontaneous?

"Extreme Subject Matter"

From today's Arts, Briefly:

CNN has rejected advertising for “Death of a President,” and National Public Radio will not accept sponsorship announcements for the fake documentary, the film’s distributor said yesterday. The movie, directed and co-written by Gabriel Range, features a fictional assassination of President Bush. The distributor, Newmarket Films, said it had been told that CNN “has decided not to take the ads because of the extreme nature of the movie’s subject matter”; NPR, it said, cited a similar reason. Chris Ball, a founder of Newmarket, said, “To refuse to accept ads for a movie is tantamount to saying it shouldn’t be seen, and this runs counter to everything we are supposed to believe in as a free society.” Some large theater chains have refused to show the film, which opens nationwide on Friday.
"Extreme subject matter"? That's the new standard?

Look, I'm fine with broadcast companies having the right to pick and choose advertising. (I myself am beginning to experiment with Blogads, which will give me such veto power.) But own it, for god's sake. We all know there's been plenty of more ideologically "extreme" products advertised on both CNN and NPR. Why don't they just come out and say, "We don't believe anyone should make a film about the assisination of the current president. We don't think such a story should be told."

Or, to be more truthful, they should just say: "We don't want to be boycotted and picketed by the truckloads of Karl Rove and James Dobson's armies who will demand we drop all advertisements for said film."

And by the way--NPR??? I could sorta understand a tv network not wanting to broadcast the movie's controversial CGI-generated images of Bush being shot. But, first, I believe the 'R' in NPR stands for radio. And, second, they don't even have ads! So, what they're saying is, they won't even risk having one of their announcers intone in that smug monotone something as innocuous as, Car Talk today is brought to you by Death of a President, the controversial independent film for people who really, really hate Bush. Not like that would be you, or anything...

I'm not an NPR member. But if you are, let them know how you feel.

PS: In the Reuters story, NPR elaborates further:
"The movie is fairly likely to generate significant controversy and we'll cover it as a news story," said spokeswoman Andi Sporkin. "To take a sponsorship spot would raise questions and cause confusion" among listeners.

So, let's get this straight: NPR never accepts sponsorship from any product their news division may cover?

Funny, their own ethics guidelines, seem to already have a perfectly reasonable rule in place to do so...
4. If NPR reports on an organization or individual who funds us, we will disclose that relationship on air if the subject of the report is directly related to the thrust of the grant we received.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"Corrie" running strong

"It caused a stir last spring when London's Royal Court, the theater where the show preemed, publicly accused Off Broadway's New York Theater Workshop of deciding against presenting the show due to concerns it might anger the Jewish community.
But no such ruckus has dogged the commercial incarnation that opened Oct. 15. Rumors of demonstrations never materialized, although activists have handed out leaflets outside the theater at many performances."

-Gordon Cox of Variety reporting on the extended and uneventful run of My Name is Rachel Corrie. Cox's excellent reporting on this story bodes well for what seems a revamped and revitalized Variety theatre page. Welcome!

Indeed, the night I went there were just a couple of people silently handing out flyers--a combination of debunking International Solidarity Organization and asking us to mourn Israeli victims of violence ("the other Rachels"). Basically the kind of internet stuff that freaked out New York Theater Workshop in the first place!

According to Cox, Alan Rickman himself plans on doing regular talkbacks, on Tuesdays. The show's website, though, shows two other especially interesting panels tonight and in two weeks:

Tuesday, Oct. 24 Dan Harris and Alisa Solomon

Tuesday, Nov. 7 David Hare, Tony Kushner and Robert O'Hara. Moderator: Gregory Mosher

Someone has mentioned that such talkbacks won't quite satisfy the call for balance, context, etc. since all the participants seem favorable to the play and/or its vews. Still, I admire Alan Rickman for going out there and giving those with political objections a chance to put him on the spot...Or maybe he's counting on there mostly be Muggles questions.

Note: The show does offer $25 (cash) rush tickets 2 hours before each show, so one of these Tuesdays may be the best time to go, if you are so inclined.

Havel-fest

The Sun's Eric Grode takes us inside the big Vaclev Havel tribute going on in town, including presentations of 18 of his plays!

Some Plugs

  • At the Public tonight, former CSC A.D. Barry Edelstein is directing a reading of Joshua Sobol's "iWitness" as part of their Arab-Israeli festival. Edelstein directed a full production of the controversial Israeli play (using the example of dissident WWII German soldiers as a parallel to dissent within the current IDF) in LA earlier this year.

  • Kafka has been adapted to the stage many times, but Christine Simpson's The Great Conjurer takes an original approach, seamlessly blending the work and the life. But hey, don't trust me--see Aaron Riccio's rave.

  • And don't miss the chance to see what George Hunka is up to when not blogging or serving as the downtown man for the Times. His play "In Public" is a clever adultery comedy with plenty of delightfully squirm-worthy moments between men and women. And if one blogger's work isn't enough enticement, it's directed (very well) by this guy!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Smokin'

...is not allowed on stage in Denver, as in many other towns.

But one company is going to court to change that.

The Curious Theatre Company...backed by two other troupes, is seeking an exemption for live performances, citing the First Amendment right to free expression, and what it terms vague wording in the new law. In the meantime, the suit will ask for an immediate injunction that would prevent law enforcement from issuing any fines for smoking during live performances until the matter is heard by a judge.

"Smoking can be pivotal to character and plot development," said artistic director Chip Walton. "We have both an ethical and a legal obligation to present the play as written and to honor the intent of the playwright."


Hey, I'm all for smoking on stage. But...free expression?

And I'm racking my brains to think of a play where a lit and puffed cigarette is "pivotal" to the plot. Anyone?

Public's "Arab/Israeli Festival"

Back in the summer, at a Summer Play Festival panel discussion, Oskar Eustis announced that to piggyback on, or complement, the commercial production of My Name is Rachel Corrie he was going to present at the Public a series of readings of other new plays dealing with the Middle East and other hot political issues. Well, the "Arab/Israeli Festival" is here, and Kate Taylor wrote it up in Friday's Sun.

Its timing is not coincidental. As the Public's artistic director, Oskar Eustis, explained in an interview, he decided to organize the festival, part of the Public's New Work Now! series, as a direct response to the debate surrounding "Rachel Corrie."

"It was clear, when ‘Rachel Corrie' was postponed and the tempest erupted around it, that there was a combination of silence and ignorance about the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the American theater. And I thought it was frankly embarrassing," Mr. Eustis said.


Indeed.

But lest anyone fear Eustis is throwing in his hat with those "shrill" bloggers...
While others speculated about the reasons for NYTW artistic director James Nicola's decision to postpone the play, Mr. Eustis preferred to take positive action. "I thought, rather than get into the sort of ridiculous mudslinging," he said,"let's try and actually talk about this in the theater and see what happens."

I'd like to think bloggers would also liked to have talked about this, in a theatre. If we had a theatre, that is. Since we didn't, I guess we should have just piped down and let the grownups talk.

Most interesting about the festival is Eustis' invitation to NYTW to effectively collaborate on the festival, providing them with a few slots along with other companies. (NYTW is using the slots to collaborate with the Arab-American company Nibras.) In his careful balancing act, though, Eustis continues to make clear his disagreement with Jim Nicola:
Mr. Eustis also invited other artistic directors, including Mr. Nicola, to participate in the festival. Saying he believes Mr. Nicola made a mistake in canceling the play –– "and I wish he'd just apologize and get it over with" ––Mr. Eustis said it also "would have been a tragedy if, as a result of this, Jim had gotten ostracized."

Taylor even gets Nicola to comment just one more time on the whole mess:
(Asked in an interview if he saw the festival as a way to redeem himself after the public relations disaster of the "Rachel Corrie" cancellation, Mr. Nicola said, "No, I wouldn't look at it that way.")

Anyway, it's an interesting line-up of plays, so check it out. Of particular note are two dissident Israeli plays whose titles I recognize: Joshua Sobol's iWitness and Motte Lerner's The Murder of Isaac. Since most of these will probably never be produced in New York, this may be your only chance to see up front political theatre on these issues.

Broadway, She Wrote

Many worry about nonprofit theatres chasing too hard after that possible Broadway transfer and picking material based on that prospect.

Well, Primary Stages has skipped the middle man--the middle man being themselves!--and are now taking Terrence McNally's Deuce off their subscription schedule at the little 59E59 and instead going directly to Broadway, without passing go. The difference? Scoring Angela Lansbury.

Riedel has the scoop.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

yet more "Corrie" roundup

Negative:

Mixed:
Positive:
  • John Heilpern, NY Observer.
  • Philip Weiss--who penned the big Nation exposé on the controversy back in April--follows up on his Observer blog.
  • And the prize for most surprising positive review goes to...Ted Merwin of Jewish Week!

Ensler V Brooks II

I missed it, but turns out Eve Ensler did indeed respond to David Brooks' senseless blaming of her for the Mark Foley scandal:

October 8, 2006

To the Editor:

For David Brooks to conflate the story of a character in a play with a real man with real power in the House is a stretch (''A Tear in Our Fabric,'' column, Oct. 5). The function of art is to provoke questions, challenge social assumptions and try to get us beyond the black-and-white world of moral judgment. Mr. Brooks is concerned that my play ''The Vagina Monologues'' is embraced by audiences around the world. I have to believe it's because it reveals the complexity of women and is based on their own life stories. The play has crossed partisan lines, and 90 national borders. It has been able to build a movement to end violence and predation against women and girls around the world. If playwrights, elected officials and journalists have anything in common, it's their responsibility to expose the truth, even if it endangers their power or ideology. ''The Vagina Monologues'' has done its job. I wish the Republican leaders would do theirs.

Eve Ensler
New York, Oct. 6, 2006

Personally, I wish she had taken on more directly Brooks' interpretation of the offending scene in her play. And perhaps she had. (Times letters are edited for space.) But I'm glad she responded and that Brooks' deranged argument has not gained traction.

Pinter-Krapp


In case you missed it, enjoy Alan Cowell's moving Saturday NYT feature describing the theatre event of the moment in London, the ailing Harold Pinter performing Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape.

Friday, October 20, 2006

REVIEW: My Name is Rachel Corrie

My Name is Rachel Corrie
co-edited by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner
starring Megan Dodds
at the Minetta Lane Theatre

Now having seen it, I have many responses to My Name is Rachel Corrie in performance. So, rather than synthesize them into one cohesive and easily digestible review, I offer...

9 Theses on My Name is Rachel Corrie

1) While it is a collection of a non-playwright’s journals, My Name Is Rachel Corrie is very deliberately constructed as a play by its “co-editors” Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner. It even has two acts—even though they’re not demarcated in the script and the intermissionless 90 minutes would seem to tell the audience otherwise. The first act introduces us to the character of Rachel, seen in the bedroom of her childhood home, as an early 20s college student and budding activist in Olympia, Washington. She tells us about Olympia, about the photos on her wall, about her impatience with her parents. She is everygirl. The state of Israel is barely mentioned at all in this first 20 pages of a 52-page monologue.

I imagine this is the most surprising aspect of the play to those coming to with expectations fueled by the controversy. “What’s so controversial?” many find themselves asking—especially for the first 45 minutes.

2) As they have constantly stated, Rickman and Viner’s guiding principle for the play was to portray Rachel as a human being, not as a mouthpiece for a political position. But obviously her politics have defined her as a human being—both to the world and, even, to herself, it now seems. The interest the play takes in her, then, is as an idealist. I think what has made it both appealing and frustrating to all who encounter it—reading or seeing, London or New York—is the abstractness with which this idealism is presented for much of the evening.

This is also how the play skirts the more controversial elements of Rachel’s chosen cause. No passages are included, for instance, where Rachel explains, why Palestine? as opposed to, say, Dafur? The play would have us believe Rachel only wanted to do good and help people, anywhere. Surely there must have been something that got her involved specifically in this issue, and in the International Solidarity Movement. But that is left out. She is presented as an accidental heroine, who might as well have spun a globe a stopped her finger on Gaza.

I also assume that if she self-identified as an international human rights activist, her diaries and emails must be virulently anti-Bush. Barely a trace of that makes it into the play. We know what side she’s on, obviously, but the character of Rachel comes off here as effectively nonpartisan. After all, that would make her less “universal,” wouldn’t it.

3) I sense a kind of 60s nostalgia at work in this project. It explains why Rickman—presumably a man formed in that politically idealistic era—would have taken on this consuming project based merely on reading some excerpts of Rachel’s journals printed in the Guardian one day. I suspect what caught his attention was not diatribes against Israel, but such heartfelt pleas as this eloquent passage which he positions at the play's climax:


It is my own selfishness and will to optimism that wants to believe that even people with a great deal of privilege don’t just sit idly by and watch. What we [Americans] are paying for here [Israel] is truly evil… I’m really scared, and questioning my fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature. This has to stop. I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop.
These words are powerful in performance, especially as annunciated by the mature (she’s at least ten years older than the real Rachel) and classically trained Megan Dodds with all the force of “Saint Joan.” And it is probably the moment audiences can most poignantly “relate” to--not necessarily in being equally idealistic themselves, but even in wishing to be. And if they don't share the utopian idealism themselves, they may recognize this impulse from their own children.

4) One of the most theatrically notable things about the play may is that it is the first high-profile staging of the voice of a new generation of American leftist activists, who are not the urban proles or recent immigrants of previous eras’ rallies and walkouts. We’re not in the land of Waiting for Lefty, Sticks and Bones or even Angels in America anymore. Instead these are the white suburban middle class children of hippies, who turn their idealistic dreams out onto the world more than domestic politics. My Name is Rachel Corrie documents and pays tribute to this demographic—a demographic the producers would be smart to woo to the play with cheaper ticket prices and possibly late night performances.

5) Amidst all the absractions, the best parts of My Name is Rachel Corrie are the most concrete. The meticulous detailing in Part Two of Rachel’s observations of daily life in Gaza. “60,000 people from Rafah worked in Israel two years ago,” she says, referring to the period before the latest intifada. “Now only 600 can go there for jobs. Of these 600, many have moved, because the three checkpoints make a 40-minute drive into a 12-hour impassable journey.” We hear what it’s like living day to day with her Palestinian host family; she sleeps on the floor with their children, enjoying Hollywood horror movies with them on tv. “Do you think I’m hanging out with Hamas fighters?” is her answer to her mother’s fears she’s getting involved with terrorism.

When it’s laying out this information so baldly as reportage, MNIRC hints at a Brechtian political theatre. But at its core, the play exemplifies just the opposite kind—what Brecht would call the “Aristotelian” theatre of empathy, which focuses us on an abstract, emotional, sense of individual “humanity” rather than specific historical and social circumstances surrounding the individual. In short: Palestinians are people, too. Sounds trite—but at its best, MNIRC reminds us why that sentiment is so vital to our sense of justice. For instance: some still accuse Rachel—and the play—of either dishonesty or naivety for ignoring the network of underground tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt into the occupied territories—but are they really saying, therefore, there are no "innocent" Palestinians? These tunnels—which, yes, do exist—are supposed to end all argument on this subject, it seems. But by demanding that we think for just a moment of at least some residents of occupied Gaza who may really just be trying to get to work everyday and feed their families, the play achieves one of the noblest goals of empathy-theatre: to shine a light on a far off corner of the world so you can put yourself in the shoes of someone whose race, religion, or nationality previously identified them in our culture as sub-human. In other words, “evildoers.” When such empathy is established, then the horrors of what Rachel condemns as “collective punishment” of a people (expressly forbidden by the Geneva Conventions and the U.N.) come home in a way that brings together the personal and political.

6) But all of this is simply narrated from the stage, not enacted. It is demonstrated through anecdote and vocal outrage, but not presented for us to see. Nor, of course, are we hearing this from the voices of the oppressed, but from this white American intermediary, an interpreter. So the very format and mission of the play—to give us “Rachel’s words” and no more—ultimately limits the emotional—and political—impact of the story she tried to tell, the facts she wanted to get out.

It’s a familiar Hollywood tactic for championing the cause of oppressed people considered too “other.” Funny enough, it was especially prominent in 80s films by other liberal Brits like Richard Attenborough and Alan Parker. Mississippi Burning wasn’t about black civil rights activists, but about the white FBI agents nobly hunting down their killers. Cry Freedom wasn’t about Denzel’s Steve Biko, but Kevin Kline with a British accent trying to save him. And if you can strain your memories to recall Parker’s dud Welcome to the Paradise, the plight of interned Japanese-Americans is reflected through the heroic struggle of…Dennis Quaid!

For a liberal white US/UK audience, Rachel is our “way in”, our "eyes and ears." A voice we can trust, because we like her. Would the same audience as readily trust a Palestinian narrator? Especially since the logic of collective punishment—in short, the “tunnels” argument—tells us there are none in Gaza untainted by terrorism?

7) By trading in the “Aristotelian” My Name is Rachel Corrie both gains in achieving sympathy for its martyred heroine and loses in political efficaciousness. Brecht would have hated this play beacuse its ending points the audience in no clear direction for possible action. I think Rickman and Viner want us to come out inspired that one person could make a difference. But does ending the play with the bulldozer inspire others to take up her cause?

(Vengeance against the state of Israel is certainly not encouraged. The argument that the Sharon government covered up its complicity in her death does not work its way on stage.)

So, it is a sad play. Which is a large part of its appeal. A moving personal story.

But this feeling of sadness seems more likely to instill fatalism in its audience than a constructive call to action.

This is why this is ultimately not at all a “dangerous” play.

8) On the other hand…

I can’t deny that the few passages Rickman and Viner select that do explicitly critique Israeli policy do create some refreshing political frisson in the auditorium.

The first such moment occurs about 20 minutes in. Rachel is on the phone with her mother, coaching her on how to talk to the press about her own activities:

Please think about your language when you talk to them. I think it was smart that you’re way of using the word “terrorism” and if you talk about the cycle of violence, or “an eye for an eye” you could be perpetuating the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a balanced conflict, instead of a largely unarmed people against the fourth most powerful military in the world.
We’re just not used to hearing this position articulated so directly and unapologetically in our public discourse. Not on cable news. (Except perhaps as a two-minute hate.) And certainly not in the mainstream theatre.

(Incidentally, this speech actually got applause on opening night! But maybe it was prompted by the sentence that immediately follows and concludes the above excerpt: "These are the kind of things it's important to think about before talking to reporters." So it may have been received more as a jab at the media.)

By the way, there are really only a handful of such confrontational passages in the play. I reckon all of them together would run less than 10 minutes. Like all great censorship fights in the theatre, the fight is over a play’s small moments, not overall argument.

But these 10 minutes are by far the most compelling and, yes, exciting moments in the whole piece. Not because you’ll necessary nod along with them. But it’s just always dramatically powerful when someone violates a taboo on stage.

And you can’t totally discount the play’s value as political theatre when such dissident views (and, yes, even in liberal New York they are stilll dissident) are baldly stated from a public stage, even if couched in all kinds of protective layers of sympathy and sentiment.

9) In sum…

My Name is Rachel Corrie spends a little too much time trying to normalize and humanize its heroine, instead of trusting her to speak through her bolder actions. Part One does get stuck in “All American Girl” mode, where Rachel’s everyday observations about growing up seem not only commonplace, but also frankly trivial compared to what we know is coming. I found myself caring a lot less about Olympia, Washington (especially a weird “Dairy Queen” digression in the midst of the Gaza story) than about her clear desire for danger and for championing the unpopular. I also ended up more interested in her Palestinian host family at one point than in her. I don’t think the problem is the documentary format. A more compelling script could probably have been culled from the same materials, if it dared to explore what was most different about Rachel, not most typical. (Typically American, typically idealistic, etc)

However, by the end I could see the payoff in the arc Rickman and Viner have constructed by beginning the way they do. Rachel’s bravery at the end is all the more impressive and moving given her modest beginnings. As an “innocents abroad” narrative, it arouses some pity and terror ultimately when the journey of self-discovery turns suddenly--very suddenly--into tragedy.

(In a recent look inside the play's process, Viner writes: "at the beginning of the play, Rachel could be any American teenager—and by the end, she could only be Rachel Corrie.")

As for Megan Dodds, she is a forceful, eminently watchable, and downright charming actress. Rickman’s casting of her reflects a deliberate shaping of the character (the fictional/dramatic Rachel) as the “innocent abroad.” A standard “old Europe” view of Americans, after all. Dodds’ thin but statuesque physique, her blonde haired, wide- and blue-eyed spark capture what the world has always thought of as the good American. Vibrant, optimistic and unspoiled, she is the American the world used to like, before Bush came along.

You can fault Rickman’s strategy of so privileging personal likeability in the character while still admiring Dodds’ talent and skill in pulling that off. And, as I’ve said, she knows how to unleash the more strident political energy and intelligence when called for.

Despite the many reservations detailed above, I would still have no problem recommending My Name Is Rachel Corrie if it were a $20 ticket at, say, The Culture Project. At a quick 90 minutes, it offers plenty to think about, a strong central performance, and engages the world. But at $65, though, I don’t know what audiences will enter hoping to get out of it. As an entertainment, it’s dramaturgically slight and doesn’t consistently enough hold one’s intellectual or emotional interest.

This is why I sincerely hope the producers—now confident enough to extend the play’s run through the end of the year—will see the wisdom of actively reaching out to Rachel’s ideal audience, the college students and young activists (especially young women) who are most likely to see something of themselves in her journey. Because of things like $65 tickets, our theatre so rarely addresses the young today. If this is a play for anyone it is for them, not the traditional subscribers, board members, and other gatekeepers of the current theatrical culture.

"Corrie" extends

I've been curious how well My Name is Rachel Corrie is actually doing at the box office, after the largely respectful but middling reviews.

Well, the producers have just extended the run five more weeks, till December 30. Word of mouth must be enthusiastic, especially at $65 a seat. ($45 in the small balcony.)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

"Contextomy"

Times Tech columnist David Pogue--himself once a would-be Broadway composer and musical director--blogs about how the new "Chorus Line" print ads takes misquoting Brantley to new levels. Just like the "Drowsy Chaperone" campaign, but worse.

One of his commenters informs us the practice already has its own name: “Contextomy.”

The New Victory Gardens















Well, I know where I'm going on my next trip to Chicago.

Victory Gardens--one of the standard bearers of the Chicago off-Loop scene, nurturing many playwrights over the last few decades, has moved into the beautiful historic Biograph movie theatre. Yes, where Dillinger was shot!

The Tribune's Chris Jones tells the story of how this little-company-that-could built up their fortunes while holding onto their identity and commitment to new writing. One of the compromises they'll have to make to fill the new space, though, is branching beyond loyalty to their stable of regular playwrights.

Oh, and they're still keeping their old space as a development lab and rental venue for smaller companies.

Notably, the Biograph renovation has been brought on-line without Victory Gardens selling off the old digs, even though such a move would have brought in several million dollars in one-time capital."That was my fear and, of course, our temptation," McVay says. "But if we'd done that, we'd have lost those theaters. You know it would have become a sports bar or something. We are a developmental theater. And we need that building to fulfill our mission."

I couldn't help thinking while reading... could this be the anti-MTC?

Everyone Hates Borat

From today's Arts,Briefly:

Representing Gypsy interests, a German organization has filed suit to prevent the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen from showing his new film in Germany, Reuters reported. “We are accusing him of defamation and inciting violence against Sinti and Roma,” said Marko D. Knudsen, chairman of the European Center for Antiziganism Research. Antiziganism refers to hostility to Gypsies. The group said it had complained to prosecutors about the violence and discrimination against Gypsies in the film, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” In the satire, scheduled to open in Germany on Nov. 2, Mr. Cohen portrays Borat Sagdiyev, a fictional Kazakh television journalist who travels to the United States to report on American life. Prosecutors in Hamburg plan to investigate the complaint before deciding whether to take action.
What this neglects to mention is that the character of Borat is an idiot. His "beat the Gypsy" dance is intentionally embarassing and delightfully cringe-worthy.

Note this is exactly the complaint lodged by the ADL. Yes, Borat hates Jews, too. That's why we laugh at him.

Censorship--by definition--never gets the joke.

Then again, it's not exactly in an activist group's interest to get the joke, is it? Anything to get yourself in the papers...

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

more "Corrie" roundup

Confounding some expectations...

David Cote, Time Out (negative!)

Elysa Gardner, USA Today (positive!)

My own review, Friday morning. Promise.

Photo of the Day

photo: Liz Lauren
Stacy Keach as King Lear at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

Without even getting into the idiosyncratic particulars of Bob Falls' Lear, I find this image powerful on its own. Only the recongizability of modern urban "homelessness" can really capture the heath scene anymore, I feel.

I recommend Charles Isherwood's vivid account of the production. Falls' vision for the play does seem bold and compelling, whatever the complaints of excess.
Shock tactics, yes. But one of Mr. Falls’s aims is to reawaken our revulsion at the violence in this relentlessly dark tragedy. You could argue that this isn’t necessary in a play that famously features an onstage eyeball-gouging. Yet even in most modern dress productions that brutal act has an otherworldly horror; here it is underscored as part of the larger pattern of brutal violence pervading the play. Mr. Falls’s attention to the gruesome specifics of violation rips the distancing trimmings off Shakespeare’s bleak vision of humanity destroying itself; each shaft of a knife, each shot of a gun tells.

Mary Poppins: Too Edgy???

Michael Riedel reports today on what appears to be the confrontational show on Broadway!

...[T]here is one production number, a holdover from London, that's still scaring the kids and baffling their parents. Called "Temper, Temper," it occurs just before the end of the first act. Mary Poppins has temporarily deserted her petulant charges, Jane and Michael Banks, leaving them alone in their nursery. Suddenly, a sinister red hand pokes out from the window of a doll house. A gigantic, evil-looking rag doll then emerges from the doll house, ready to exact revenge on Jane and Michael for abusing their toys. Soon all of the toys, looking as if they were designed by zombie horror movie-maker George Romero and acting like graduates of the John Wayne Gacy School of Clowning, come to life. Jane and Michael are put on trial and condemned for their sins against the toys.

On Saturday night, one little girl in the audience was so frightened, she crawled into her mother's lap. Another mother put her arm around her daughter and asked: "Are you all right?" The audience seemed a bit stunned by the number, unable to adjust to the sudden change in the tone of the show. The reaction was the same at the Sunday matinee, production sources say.

Ticket brokers and group sales agents, who are driving a lot of the show's business right now, aren't pleased. The last thing they want is word that "Mary Poppins" is scaring kids. Cast members, too, think the "Temper, Temper" number should go, grumbling that they can tell from the stage it's making the audience uncomfortable.

Welcome to Times Square in the Age of Disney, Cameron Mackintosh!

Happily, though, Sir Cameron is sticking to his guns:
...[S]ources say "Temper, Temper" won't be cut - for contractual reasons. Years ago, Mackintosh secured the rights to "Mary Poppins" from author P.L. Travers by promising her that the stage production would be closer in tone to her books than the the saccharin Disney film. He also promised to use characters and incidents from the books that were not in the movie.

The concept of "Temper, Temper," one production source says, is "deeply rooted" in the producer's commitment to P.L Travers and her estate." He also believes the number serves an important dramatic function.

Says a production source: "He likes it. So it stays. Period."

Good for him. Let's scare those kiddies silly. Or is the parents (you know the ones shelling out $100) that are the scaredy cats...

And here we were debating if "Rachel Corrie" was too hot for New York...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Cleveland Critic KO'd?

On the heels of the Hedy Weiss fracas in Chicago, Michael Bloom--the Artistic Director of no less an establishment than the Cleveland Playhouse--has kicked it up a notch. Literally. It would seem he attempted a few weeks ago to take down the lead critic for the Plain Dealer!

Or so the story goes, by way of Denver Post's John Moore...

Accounts vary, but they begin with Plain Dealer critic Tony Brown's tough review of "Rabbit Hole," and end days later in a physical confrontation with artistic director Michael Bloom. In between, Bloom called out Brown's ability as a critic in a nasty public curtain speech. He encouraged a letter-writing campaign to his newspaper.

Brown (could there be a better last name for a writer in Cleveland?) had been tipped that this public spanking was coming, so he bought a ticket. He then tried to slip out quietly before the show was to begin, but Bloom, also exiting, spotted him crossing the lobby rotunda. Witnesses say Bloom grabbed Brown's hand as if to shake it but then crushed it, yelling, "How long do you think you can get away with these personal attacks, you little (expletive)?" As Brown turned to leave, witnesses say, Bloom swiped Brown across his back, slightly staggering him.


Here's Brown's original Rabbit Hole review, so see for yourself how hard you would punch him.

Personally, if I were Brown I'd blame whatever editor decided to start the headline with, "Predictably directed..."

And here's the Plain Dealer's own Ted Diadiun with a more thorough account and commentary on the whole mishigas. Including the gem: "Bloom, calling the incident 'unfortunate,' declined to dissect it but described his parting gesture as a 'pat' on the back." Bloom indeed has waged a major campaign with his own subscribers, and they have been writing into the paper defending him.

It's all kinda notable--that is, juicy--given the Playhouse is a pretty major company and Bloom a widely known director in the regional circuit.

Meanwhile, Moore takes the occasion to reflect--even though Brown obviously did not transgress--on some good guidelines for civil criticism:

There is no universal rule book for criticism, no how-to manual. My guidelines: Be true to your visceral emotional response, good or bad. State your case and back it up. Be a catalyst for discussion. Encourage dialogue. Don't be personal. Never try to be funny at the expense of someone's feelings.

Of course criticism is no place for grudges or vendettas or misuse of power. Every show at every theater must be a clean slate. Conversely I think it is the responsibility of any critic, especially one at a major metro newspaper, to use his influence and access to help build up the community he serves in any way that does not compromise his ability to also objectively evaluate theater.

That means speaking to classes, moderating forums, and most of all - seeing as many plays as possible, and writing about them honestly. Then let the readers decide.


I can't say I've obeyed all these commandments myself... but the spirit seems right.

Pinter Watch

According to today's Arts, Briefly the revival of Pinter's Old Times floated by the Roundabout for later in the season--to have reunited Alan Rickman and Linday Duncan--isn't happening.

So now the Broadway packaging of Daniel Sullivan's production of The Homecoming...is.

Meanwhile the old man himself is busy playing the quintessential old man in someone else's play, Krapp's Last Tape.

ADL vs... Borat!

A thoughtful and worthwhile essay by Justin Davidson in NY Newsday over the weekend, surveying all of our favorite recent clashes between theatre, art and political sensitivity. From Corrie to Muhammed to McNally.

But to take just the most humorous example:

Those courtly rituals - the mutual exchange of grievances, the protestations of having been misunderstood, the polite boycott - have begun to seem so quaint. The Anti-Defamation League recently issued a contorted statement simultaneously applauding and warning against comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's forthcoming satirical movie, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan."The ADL acknowledges that Borat is a "farcical anti-Semitic character," but worries "that one serious pitfall is that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry." What's really funny is the notion that an ADL press release would have any effect on such humorless Jew-haters.

The full release can be found here, by the way. And it's just as silly as you'd think, though it's careful to absolve Ali G--I mean, Cohen--himself.

By the way, note how ADL is completely staying out of the "Corrie" thing. For now. Interesting how both the producers and the potential opponents are shying away from any fight and have clearly decided to wish the controversy away now.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Variety on "Corrie"

First off, kudos to Variety for finally revamping their online "Legit" page. Now it can fully join the list of must-read theatre sites in the MSM. Much more readable now, and actually some free-access content!

Such as...

David Rooney's review of Corrie:

All of this makes the play more insightful as personal than political drama. It's hard to imagine anyone being untouched by this story of a girl full of hope and ideals being sucked into a world of horrors. But Rickman and Viner's elegant cut-and-paste job gives us only Corrie's voice when others are needed. It's telling that the most heartbreaking part of the piece is not Corrie's writing but an email from her father, expressing his pride and fear, and wishing he could stick his daughter's head in the sand.

It's worth noting that the production began unassumingly in the tiny upstairs studio at London's Royal Court and without the New York Theater Workshop fuss, might have crossed the Atlantic unencumbered by the weight of attendant controversy. The fragile, often penetrating play has been done a disservice by the noise that surrounds it.
Also, an informative feature by Gordon Cox, going behind the scenes into the obstacles faced by the producers for this commercial Off Broadway run.
[Producer Dena] Hammerstein says they encountered a few obstacles to assembling their team of producers and creatives. "Some people chose not to work with us on this," she says.
Plus:
"If you don't appeal to Jewish theatergoers, you've lost a huge chunk of your audience in New York," says one producer not associated with the production.
Nevertheless:
Early sales indicators for "Corrie" seem to dispel any worries about the show's prospects: The production currently has the largest advance ever recorded at the Minetta Lane Theater. And, since it's a solo show with a limited Off Broadway run, the financial risk involved isn't enormous.
True, one actor. But she has a two-show-a-week stand by, and a second understudy to boot. And as has become all too apparent Off Broadway lately, there's no such thing as a cheap show. In short--they could not have gone in on this for the profit. However, the $45-65 tickets show they may be commercially "stupid," as it were, in taking on such a show...but not crazy.

Or is the saying, crazy not stupid???

POSTSCRIPT: I think it's kind of notable that the Sunday Times, which routinely does features on whatever prominent show is opening, did nothing on Corrie this weekend, and instead did a big Stoppard spread and, basically, a human interest story on a deaf actor in a downtown Sam Shepard revival. Hey, sounds like an interesting actor and nice they're covering downtown. But to totally avoid the main theatre story of the week? Do they assume everyone's heard all they need to hear already? I would venture that NY Times readers--that is, people who get their theatre coverage exclusively from the Times--have heard relatively little about Corrie lately.

"Corrie" roundup

My own response to follow soon. Meanwhile, here's what the pro's are saying...

Frank Scheck, NY Post:
"Corrie doesn't emerge as a particularly fascinating figure, and her commentaries on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while clearly personal and heartfelt, add little to our understanding of it. It's easy to see why its creators were drawn to the story, but their decision to have the character tell her story in her own words is self-defeating."

Joe Dziemianowicz, NY Daily News:"It's a gripping performance that pulls you deep into Corrie's experience for much of the evening. But not all of it. Diary entries and letters don't always make for the most compelling theater. As a result, the monologue inevitably rambles."... Then again: "If you like your plays political, this one is for you."

Surpsingly, the closest to a rave comes from Eric Grode of the NY Sun, showing admirable independence from his paper's famed far-right editorial biases.

"...a bracing new solo play," says Grode. "Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner have assembled Corrie's letters, e-mails, and journal entries into a vibrant if occasionally slack showcase for the superb actress Megan Dodds. The absence of contextualizing material may constrain its vision, but [Rickman & Viner] plunge us with empathic precision into the principled, vehement, exposed heart of a woman who left Olympia, Wash., 'to witness how awful we can allow the world to be,' and who never came back."

Grode also adds a few remarks on the controversy: "NYTW, which has shown considerable political and aesthetic bravery in the past, and undoubtedly will again, handled the situation ineptly and received a deserved black eye from the artistic community."

You think a "NY Sun" quote in the ad might actually go some way toward reassuring nervous jews? I recommend they use it.

One More: Some unusually harsh words from Newsday's Linda Winer:
"Rachel's story is important, but her words alone are not interesting enough to hold the stage. Since a British documentary...already exists, we question the urgency that her parents, Rickman and co-editor Katharine Viner felt at making Rachel into a drama. Before her death in Gaza, she e-mailed her parents: 'Please let me know if you have any idea what I could do with the rest of my life.' Obviously, no one would have chosen Martyrdom. We see now that they need not had chosen theater."

PPS. And here's the A.P.'s Michael Kuchwara, arguably one of the most widely-read theatre critics in the country, being a wire service writer. He basically agrees with Brantley on faulting Dodd's performance.

Corrie Times Review

The Brantley weighs in.

Mixed.

On balance, positive:

The play, directed by Mr. Rickman, is not an animated recruiting poster for Palestinian activists. Its deeper fascination lies in its invigoratingly detailed portrait of a passionate political idealist in search of a constructive outlet. And its inevitable sentimental power is in its presentation of a blazing young life that you realize is on the verge of being snuffed out.

But then:
It is all the more surprising, then, to discover that for long stretches “Rachel Corrie” feels dramatically flat, even listless.

His main criticism semes to be of Megan Dodd's performance, surprisingly.

Not a "money" review. But quotable.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Voice "Corrie" Review

Another early review, from Alexis Soloski in the Village Voice.

In a nutshell:

Nicola ought to have trusted his audience more. Corrie certainly fails to provide a balanced view of the conflict--in her rubric, Israelis are antagonistic, Palestinians cuddly--but it is very much one woman's view of the situation. This woman, however bright and articulate, is not the most dependable narrator. Self-described as "scattered and deviant and too loud," she's the sort of Pacific Northwest creature who can say with perfect conviction, "The salmon talked me in to a lifestyle change." Killed at 23, she was still only a budding writer and thinker; her emails from the Middle East vacillate, winningly and irritatingly, between the naive and the astute. So, consequently, does the play, resulting in a slight, though moving theatrical work. However poignant and precocious her juvenilia, it doesn't substitute for the dramatic arc of a full life.

Friday, October 13, 2006

John Simon on "Corrie"

Bloomberg goes early with his review!

Not as negative as you'd think...

MTC Woes

Here's Eric Grode's lede today in the Sun for his "Losing Louie" review:

It's far too early to say with any confidence that "Losing Louie" will be the worst play of the season. Given Manhattan Theatre Club's woeful track record at its Biltmore Theatre space ("After the Night and the Music," "Drowning Crow," a tin-eared revival of "Absurd Person Singular"), Simon Mendes da Costa's numbing exercise in familial hostility may even see some inhouse competition before the year is out. But it sets the bar mighty low.
Now I'm not saying this represents any consensus on the show yet. (So far, Isherwood is also sour, but Barnes in the Post is tolerant.) And I'm really trying not to pass judgment on this play without seeing it.

But one has to ask--does Manhattan Theatre Club really hope to lick the "Biltmore curse" with this obscure London hit that no one here was demanding to see? By all means, fail with something that advances The American Theatre, or gives a chance to a promising young writer. (In this way "Drowning Crow" was at least a more noble failure.) But sacrifice your shaky finances and declining reputation on this?

I don't believe I'm the only blogger to receive anonymous harangues lately, warning of MTC's internal chaos, labor troubles, and overall imminent demise (at least of its leadership). Who knows what's really going on, and obviously it must be stressful, since they've taken on a huge expense with this massive Broadway house...Whatever the future holds for them, at least their mistakes can serve as an object lesson, a cautionary tale for nonprofits. Namely, beware of trying to make hits. Beware mortgaging your whole enterprise for the sake of Broadway approval. Maybe these play selections reflect the passionate personal tastes of the MTC team. Maybe they would proudly admit no one's going to make a hit with a "Drowning Crow" or "Losing Louie," or revivals of moderately successful Ayckbourn and Donald Margulies plays from the 80s. But in that case--why buy up the expensive real estate and advertising of the Broadway arena if you have nothing to realistically contribute to it?

MTC has had a long history of nurturing playwrights and usually small plays in small productions that, sometimes, later transferred to commercial success. (Proof, Doubt, Love Valor Compassion, Fuddy Meers.) That niche was very valuable to the NY scene. And even their revivals would serve a purpose, if lovingly and intimately done in their smaller spaces.

But there's nothing sadder than seeing someone try to be commercial who just has no instinct for it. The Roundabout has already cornered the market in selling out gloriously. Why compete?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Kushner on Corrie

From Playbill (promoting Caroline, or Change at London's National):

Asked about the New York Theatre Workshop’s cancellation of the controversial play My Name Is Rachel Corrie, which is about to recieve its New York premiere at Off-Bropadway’s Minetta Lane Theatre on Oct. 15, Kushner said, “I think it was appalling what happened. They behaved terribly in making the decision in the first place and even worse, once they made the mistake by not saying 'We made a mistake.'"

Kushner added, “This [NYTW is] a great theatre, and Jimmy Nicola who runs it is a great producer and enormously brave. We did Homebody/Kabul a month after 9/11 and he didn’t hesitate for a second about to it. [The Rachel Corrie play] is uncharacteristic of him, and I think what he and they should have done is say, 'We got panicked and freaked out and we’re really sorry and we will do the play if they let us have it back and if they won’t, we apologize.' "

The easy answer at this point would be "let bygones be bygones" and "let's move on." But good for Kushner for continuing to comment honestly and with balance.

Where's the "Outrage"? (Corrie in NY)

It's worth noting that My Name is Rachel Corrie has now been playing in New York for one week. And there have been no protests and no pickets. Oh, I imagine the producer's have probably received at least some small amount of hate mail. But after, say, six performances with 300 people at each, not a peep.

I'm not being naive. When the show officially opens on Sunday night, reviews and press coverage will be out there prompting response of its own. Frankly, I'm sure people mostly don't even know about it.

But it does seem to belie those old fears that the play would instigate an instant brawl.

One early press clipping actually comes from the New York "Jewish Week" with an admirably fair piece addressing both the show and the controversy. Notice this very important explanation for the lack of hubbub so far:

The current production, however, has not received any protest from anyone in the Jewish community. A possible reason for the discrepancy between the first, cancelled production and the current one, said a source close to the production, may lie in the differences between the two productions’ economic models. While the New York Theater Workshop is a nonprofit, depending for its existence on the support of committed patrons, the current production is a strictly commercial endeavor put on by the James Hammerstein Productions company.

Comparing the two “is like comparing apples and oranges,” said the source. “The New York Theatre Workshop has board members. It has subscribers. It has people who donate money. The current production is commercial.” Therefore, while the Workshop has long-term relationships with a variety of patrons to consider, the current production is a short-term enterprise, offering a production in high demand.


There you have it. Free speech is safer in the outright commercial arena than in the arts-friendly socialism-lite of nonprofit. Of course, it isn't socialism at all but some deceptive holdover from Victorian philanthropy and charity.

As Greg Mosher said: "If you can't do the work you want to do because of your subscribers...get rid of your subscribers." I believe ass-backwards is the phrase.

Interesting, by the way, that the specualtion in the article, by "a source close to the production," has to be off the record. I guess the producers really, really want to avoid being dragged into any kind of fight with NYTW and so are trying to avoid criticism. Either that, or their strategy is to try to fly under the radar and avoid referencing the controversy altogether. Note that their ads conspicuously do not boast "Banned on East 4th Street!"

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Shaw Festival 06: Day 3

I rounded out my tour at the Shaw Festival not with more GBS but with two literary adaptations and a musical reading. Again, the broad mission of the Festival--"plays by Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, and...plays about the period of Shaw’s [immense] lifetime" covers a lot of ground.

The reading was of the 1954 curiosity The Golden Apple by Jerome Moross and John La Touche. It's a retelling of the Illiad and Odyssey legends transposed to small town America c.1900. (So, "Troy" meets "Our Town.") What's interesting is how it's actually really about The War--not the Spanish-American of the play's setting, but the Good War itself that the play's audience just lived through. The storyline of Odysseus and his all-American soldier boys going off to foreign cities (in this case, the town next door) where they're exposed to the temptations of looser values, clearly comments on the recent adventures of the GI. Penelope, of course, stands in for the women keeping the home fires burning....The most delightfully topical moment in the piece, though, comes with the gleefully out-of-place song "The Scientist", mocking the end of innocence of a rural era about to be overtaken by 20th century technology, and the troubles that may ensue. In the context of the setting, the cautions seem quaint. But when the refrain, comes, the toe-tapping chorus "We're doomed, doomed, doomed/ Oh we're doomed, doomed, doomed"--you can imagine what's meant. It's an H-Bomb Rag.

La Touche is one of musical theatre's most beloved neglected lyricists, and this is a major work of his. While the score is meant to be completely sung-through, the Shaw crew had to admit in their program notes that they just didn't have time to learn all the music, and so spoke many of the lyrics as verse couplets. Not what was intended, of course, but it did highlight what a strange and ambitious project this was--a completely through-composed folk opera merging classical mythology with Americana. It originated Off Broadway, actually, one of the early sparks of the whole downtown movement. The Shaw reading approached it rather conventionally in style, but by presenting it with care and integrity, shed light on yet another worthy corner of the repertory.

The two adaptations offered an instructive contrast. One was the already very well established The Heiress, the 1947 Broadway hit by the husband-wife team of Ruth and Augustus Goetz based on Henry James' Washington Square. The other was a premiere stage adaptation of The Invisible Man by Anglo-Canadian playwright Michael O'Brien. The latter made total sense for the Shaw Fest, given the close relationship between Shaw and H.G. Wells (fellow Fabians). But this script, sorry to say, seems an object lesson in where literary adaptation can go wrong. With all the wandering episodic sprawl of a screenplay but little of the thrills a movie thriller can offer, it was thoroughly untheatrical. The production by Neil Munro (a Shaw associate who did the fine Rosmersholm this season) magnified these weaknesses by crowding the stage with way too many characters cramped into tiny "rooms" in an awkward and dimly lit two-level set for much of the show. The whole project suffered from being both overliteral and "faithful" in this regard and also needlessly meddling in O'Brien's "improvements" to the plot, adding--imagine!--a love story and weak psychologizing of the hero, via flashback, to humanize Wells' more enigmatic genius. (In short--the guy never got over being jilted by a girl in med school in favor of his more boringly successful friend. Hence he turns invisible and seeks world domination, right?)

These half-hearted attempts at seriousness are a shame, since the best reason to do The Invisible Man at all would be to have fun with it. Allen Cole's almost tongue-in-cheek melodrama-suspense music has the right idea. And, with the help of consulting magicians, a few good "invisible" tricks are pulled off. A few. The assignment would seem to require much more imaginative showmanship and dazzle today. (If I wanted to make some real money off this idea I would hire Simon McBurney or Robert Lepage, and take it to Vegas.) But even so, the limitation with this material ends up being quite literally "now you see him, now you don't." O'Brien and Munro seemed to settle on making it into some adventure-romance, but the play was weighted down with too much plotting and stage traffic for us to enjoy the ride.

The Heiress comes from that older school of dramaturgy which taught us you can take virtually any plot in the world and cram it into one living room and no more than ten characters. (Look at the old Baldertson-Dean Dracula sometime. It's what the Bela Lugosi movie is based on.) But for this material, it works amazingly, amazingly well. So much so, I'm sure many people just assume this is the play James originally wrote! I've never read Washington Square, so for all I know it's a book that lends itself particularly well to this treatment, being a domestic story built around a father-daughter relationship. But I'm sure James takes the story to all those far afield offstage places mentioned (Europe, California) and throws in countless walk-on personages. So wise and subtle choices were clearly made by the Goetzes, as well as, reportedly, their original director/producer, the savvy showman Jed Harris. What I admire about the script today is what an aggressive adaptation it must be, taking James' expansive prose by the horns and making a real piece of theatre of it.

Of course, it's just one particular kind of piece of theatre--a naturalistic Well Made Play. But here, too, form fits content like a lace glove. The 1850 bourgeois setting is of the very age of Scribe, Dumas and early realism. Moreover, the Goetzes recognized that in the silently suffering Catherine and her stern father lay two great meaty roles. So their script effectively clears the brush of novelistic texture to let actors fully inhabit those roles, and present them unmediated to the audience. This is an actors' play, an idea the Shaw cast does fine justice, too. Tara Rosling--speaking in a suppressed high voice, her every gesture hesitant--gives what at first seems a mannered performance, especially in a small house like the festival's 300-seat Royal George. But her commitment to it grew on me, in an almost (bear with me) Brechtian way of showing me the character. And Catherine's predicament as an exceptionally shy, cloistered, lonely, and emotinally abused woman certainly calls for something other than the girl next door.

The standout performance, though, was Michael Ball as the father. Again, a juicy part, to be sure, the unfeeling Dickensian bourgeois father from hell. But in a welcome contrast from the lordly British actors who haunt the role (Basil Rathbone on Broadway, Ralph Richardson in the movie), Ball presents a surprisingly unimposing figure and thin voice. His Dr. Sloper is a stout little man whose coldness toward his daughter clearly comes from awkwardness and lazy emotional detachment, not evil. Here's a man who's too busy with his ambitious medical practice and his indulgence in cigars to notice his daughter's plight. Hardly a humorless schoolmaster, you could even see him enjoying some laughs with other rich doctors at the club. He's even a bit nerdy, having loved only one woman in his life and lost her to childbirth. (Hence more reason to resent Catherine.) Even his accent gave him away as an unextraordinary man. In place of the Shakespearean tones of a Richardson, for instance (or even Philip Bosco in the recent B'way revival), you hear a flat Canadian tone--which oddly enough struck me as more "authentically" 1850 New York than contemporary BBC English. His home in Washington Square may be the sign of true wealth, but everything about the doctor's bearing gives him away as just another bourgeois. Which is central to the play, since his cruelty to his daughter stems from an overprotectiveness of his property--both the material wealth and Catherine herself.

All this I'm saying only based on Ball's performance, mind you. But such was the richness of his performance, quiet and undemonstrative as it was, that I read into it a whole novel. The tragically fraught dynamic thus created between this taciturn man and his inwardly expressive daughter became the drama. The highly specific character choices made this familiar and famous story far from a cliche or a chestnut.

(The Heiress may prove that the Well Made Play still packs a punch. But it was still tempting for me to imagine in the days afterward what an alternative Washington Square adaptation might look like. What, for instance, would it look like if subjected to the kind of "literariness" practised by Brecht? It's actually just the kind story Brecht would have relished--sexuality as financial negotiation, people as property. He would probably keep uprooting us out of Washington Square--to the Klondikes where the suitor loses all his money in speculation and gambling; to the Paris medical conference the father attends to attend to the real needs of the medical profession... Once you glimpse such possibilties, and how good they could be, you realize the living room is never the only way to go. But the fact that The Heiress so effectively convinces you it is, is a testament to the craftsmanship.

For yet more variations on literary adaptation, see Isaac's recent tributes to Elevator Repair Service's quite anti-dramatic interpretation of The Great Gatsby.)

The Shaw, In Summation...

I came away from Niagara once again convinced of the payoff of a large repertory system, and mournful that we don't really have one. When you have three stages and can do three plays on each, each with three month runs, the options of your artistic programs just increase exponentially. Sure, the Shaw did the patched together stage version of High Society in order to sell Cole Porter. But, hey, I just ignored it and went to Rosmersholm. For the actors, though, it must be kind of cool to do both!

It's also hard not to be impressed with the overall strength of the acting company. Few standout, "star" performances. Perhaps not even much great acting going on. But it is a deep bench they have. I find in an typical New York production, it's not surprising to find wildly uneven acting onstage. (Great star, embarassing extras--or vice versa!) The cohesiveness and consistency of a rep company really helps plays like Too True To Be Good, where it's the author who's the star.

Part of the company's strength must come from the sheer drilling and challenge of doing many difficult plays season after season. And for three-month runs. Of course, that's not a run of 8-show weeks. But when you think about it: maybe plays were not meant to be performed eight times a week. It's only capitalism that has made it the norm.

Finally, I'd like to say the large Shaw staff and personnel are invariably courteous and helpful, and make for a very hospitable environment. Niagara-on-the-Lake is quite an expensive little town. But if you should chose to shell out the bucks (at only a $1/$1.25 exhange rate) you'll be well treated. Otherwise, it's only an hour's drive from Buffalo!

And, finally finally, a special commendation for the Shaw's extensive program notes for every production, clearly a commitment from the top. They are both accessible and serious, aiming at a high level of understanding, often pairing a scholar's essay with more quickly digestible director's notes and production history. The facy that not one of the major NYC institutions has comparable dramaturgy in their programs is scandalous. But that's for another post...

In case you're interested in advance planning, the Shaw 2007 season is already announced.