The Playgoer: September 2007

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sheik vs Franzen

Rocker Duncan Sheik answers back in print to Jonathan Franzen's skewering of his alleged watering down of Spring Awakening. (A spat I first covered here.) In a letter to the editor to NY Magazine--where Franzen, in an interview a few weeks ago, elaborated on the critique laid out in the preface to his new translation of the original Wedekind play--Sheik rails:

The dexterity [Franzen] displays in simultaneously riding our coattails and stabbing us in the back certainly proves him quite the limber ‘populist.’ Though his apparent conflation of Chloë Sevigny and Avril Lavigne drew a chuckle, it serves less as a critique of the musical than as evidence that, very much like all the adult characters in Spring Awakening, Mr. Franzen is hopelessly out of touch, mired in his own self-interest, and just doesn’t get it. His confusion about pop culture aside, I’m delighted it’s now a matter of public record that not only is Franzen a world-class curmudgeon, but he’s a baldly opportunistic one at that.

For the Avril/Chloe stuff, see Franzen's original NY Mag quotes--where any "stabbing" is pretty front-on, I'd say, not concealed.


All this "opportunism," "riding coattails" and "stabbing in the back"--I mean, it's not as if anyone needs Sheik and his colleagues' permission to translate a modern German classic, do they?


Franzen's response to the response?

It is Mr. Sheik’s and Mr. Sater’s production that is riding on the coattails of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening. Whether the musical also stabs the play in the back is up to theatergoers to decide.

Let's see if it ends there.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Shakespeare Express or Local?

If you can't get enough of both Bardolatry and Anglophilia for one day, check out this "Tube Map" of Shakespearean characters.

Directions?

with Titus Andronicus, Tamora, Queen of the Goths and mother of the sons in the pie, marks a triple intersection where Villains, Mothers and Strong and Difficult Women meet.

B'way Gets a Reprieve?

According to Riedel today, the Great White Way may get through next week without a labor crisis.

Broadway producers looked over the precipice - and decided to step back. All that tough talk last week about locking out the stagehands has quieted down. The producers are still planning to put their final offer on the table this weekend, but they've agreed to negotiate at least through the first week of October.
Who's to say after that, though.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

"Small" Theatre Budgets

The semi-pro Bailiwick Theatre of Chicago, in a fundraising email, gives a peek inside the expenses of perhaps a typical small urban semi-pro company.

A donation of $2500 pays the phone bill and rent for just one week

Gas to heat us through the winter is $5000

A donation of $20 pays one actor for one performance. Over 200 performers each played an average of 15 shows last year here at Bailiwick

A donation of $1000 pays for a director; $300 for a designer

A donation of $500 can pay for a set in the Studio.

$25,000 will buy us the new lighting equipment we need so desperately

$1,500 is our monthly electric bill.
Keep in mind, Chicago rents are actually cheaper than NYC and other large cities.

Chris Jones blogs

Welcome to the blogosphere, Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones. Impressive that the Trib seems ahead of the curve on giving their lead reviewer a daily blog of his own. We'll see if this becomes a trend...

Among recent postings, reports on troubles at Chi-town's celebrated African American company Congo Square and coverage of the Goodman's production of Sara Ruhl's triptych Passion Play.

I found this lede to his linked review of the new Steppenwolf Crucible surprisingly intriguing:

Anna D. Shapiro’s arresting, impassioned, full-throttle Steppenwolf Theatre Company revival of “The Crucible” is not so much a revisionist take on Arthur Miller’s familiar 1953 allegory as an expansion and intensification of an iconic drama dulled over time by its constant classroom presence. Forget the schoolroom stupor. You’ll be snapped immediately awake by these highly theatrical manifestations of hysteria.

This is by no means a crude or overwrought show. But in apparent directorial intent, at least, it’s a “Crucible” ramped up and underscored for the age of the “Jesus Camp,” the disturbing 2006 documentary wherein teens flail and wail at the direction of their elders and in front of a camera. It’s a “Crucible” for an era of globally warmed religious fire, wherein city streets routinely fill with chanting mobs demanding spiritual vengeance that does not succumb to logic. It’s a “Crucible” that wants to shoot a warning shot at fear-mongering in the name of national security.

There may be post-McCarthy life in the old play yet.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Does Theatre Have a Future on TV?

Yesterday--in the midst of responding to my post on the Innovative Theatre Awards, specifically my characterization of the Tonys as increasingly "irrelevant" artistically--David Cote goaded me in Comments with a question:

I'm curious, though, Playgoer: What could you envision as a televised event that could significantly represent the hugely varied, multidisciplinary and inherently local/far-flung multiverse of American theater to the public?
This may not really address David's question, but the answer, I'd say, is not yet another awards show. The best thing television could do for theatre is simply to show plays.

Remember PBS's American Playhouse? Imagine a weekly (or even monthly) broadcast of a good production of either a new or old American play. Or, now, theatre piece, from a collaborative ensemble like the Wooster Group.(American Playhouse featured classics like All My Sons as well as then-new plays like "Blue Window" and "Painting Churches.")

PBS has retained some theatre programming with their "Stage on Screen" series, but it's very infrequent and if it's not importing (the UK "Beckett on Film" series) it's serving as a commercial for Roundabout Theatre Company, televising popular productions like The Women and Man Who Came to Dinner. Yet PBS has maintained much more regular schedules of opera, classical music and dance. (Most of it on another promotional series, "Live from Lincoln Center"--which has included theatre presentations like "Light in the Piazza.")

It's interesting that HBO has taken up the mantle in recent years, often enlisting Mike Nichols to do so (Angels in America, Wit). But these are clearly films based on plays. For all the drawbacks evident in seeing a theatrical performance on video (with or without an audience, on a stage or in a studio) there's something very valuable about capturing it. Especially in plays and theatre pieces that may not "open up" well and are tailor made for the real-time and unit-set space of the stage. Plus, it is a way to record for posterity some of the fine performances by American stage actors who otherwise don't work much in film. (Note, for instance, that Emma Thompson's "Wit" is the performance of record now, not Kathleen Chalfant's.)

Next February, ABC will air the P.Diddy "Raisin in the Sun"in a production more or less derived from the Broadway one. (Phylicia Rashad is repeating her role and Kenny Leon is directing.) I bet it will be huge. Note ABC has also rolled out a series of old musicals over the last decade from Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella" to "Annie."

So will theatre ultimately find a home in the wider-access world of network tv (or what's left of it)? Or will it be cable that comes to the rescue? Whether HBO--who has the money and creative ambition to throw at it . Or will the ever-multiplying "niche channels" finally result in a whole theatre station, if not a really good arts network?

Or will we just have to wait for that day when everything is broadcast over our tv screens? Whan websites can store digitized videos of entire performances. BBC already does it for their Complete Shakespeare series. So--as the old saying goes--we have the technology.

B'way Lockout Update

Interesting nugget from Campbell Robertson's NYT piece today on the looming Broadway lockout of the stagehand union.

“Young Frankenstein,” is playing in a nonleague theater [i.e. the Hilton], and would probably open no matter what. Likewise, Disney’s New Amsterdam theater and the four nonprofit Broadway theaters [Roundabout's American Airlines & Studio54, Lincoln Center Beaumont, and MTC's Biltmore] would not be included in a lockout.
The deadline for a deal remains September 30, this Sunday.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Threepenny: The Movie

Mackie's Back: Rudolf Forster in Pabst's 1931 "3 Penny Opera"

Two illuminating reviews of the Criterion Collection's brand new release of the classic 1931 Threepenny Opera film by G.W. Pabst. Long derided by Brecht purists (in fact sued by Brecht himself) as a butchering of the play, it seems time for a new look. Especially in light of what is said to be an amazing restoration of the print itself, revealing a much more visually complex film that many of us thought.

Says Dave Kehr, reviewing it for the Times today:

With the images restored to a digital approximation of their original clarity and depth, it seems quite a different movie.

The film takes place not in a real world but in an almost cubist approximation of one. A labyrinth of shop fronts, storehouses, narrow streets and crooked alleys, where the billboards are in English but the protest placards are in German, was built inside a mammoth studio. It represents the London waterfront where Weill and Brecht’s politically charged revision of John Gay’s 18th-century satire takes place.

Another rave review from Gary Giddins in the Sun says this re-release "forces a reassessment."

As Giddins rightly points out, many of the features of the heavily revised script resemble changes Brecht himself made to Dreigroschenoper in a film "treatment" (which for some reason he called "The Bruise") and in his "Threepenny Novel." While he claimed Pabst ruined the play's politics, the film actually augments all the plot threads satirizing banking that Brecht started injecting into the play text with his 1931 revisions. (Hence the whole ending of the film doesn't resemble the play at all: Polly and Macheath live happily ever after as crooked bankers.)

However, the film is decidedly unfaithful to the integrity of Kurt Weill's score in that it retains only about half of it. (And some songs that are left are reassigned, like the constantly tossed around "Pirate Jenny.") But the fact that the remaining songs are recorded in such stellar performances--like "Pirate Jenny" by a young Lenya, the opening "Moritat" (or "Mack the Knife") by the original Streetsinger, Ernst Busch.

The Criterion set also includes the French-language version Pabst directed on the same set with a different cast (standard practice in those days) and a documentary with commentary by Eric Bentley and others.

I know I'm looking forward to it. If you want to buy it, just click on the Amazon link to the right.

NY Innovative Theatre Awards

It may not have been a three-hour unwatched CBS special, but the new Tonys of Off-Off Broadway, the NY Innovative Theatre Awards, were handed out last night.

And the winners were...

Outstanding Ensemble Boo Killebrew, Julia Lowrie Henderson, Ryan Purcell, Max Rosenak, Phillip Taratula and Daniel Walker Stowell
6969, CollaborationTown, A Theatre Company Inc.


Outstanding Solo Performance Mike Houston
The Ledge, Eavesdrop

Outstanding Actor in a Featured Role Joe Plummer
As You Like It, Poortom Productions

Outstanding Actress in a Featured Role Boo Killebrew
6969, CollaborationTown, A Theatre Company Inc.

Outstanding Actor in a Leading Role Max Rosenak
6969, CollaborationTown, A Theatre Company Inc.

Outstanding Actress in a Leading Role Susan Louise O'Connor
The Silent Concerto, Packawallop Productions, Inc.

Outstanding Choreography/Movement Dan Safer
Dancing Vs the Rat Experiment, La MaMa ETC in association with Witness Relocation

Outstanding Director Daniel Talbott
Rules of the Universe, Rising Phoenix Repertory

Outstanding Lighting Design Peter Hoerburger
The Present Perfect, The Operating Theater

Outstanding Costume Design David Withrow
Bug Boy Blues, The Looking Glass Theatre
[not "Lookingglass" of Chicago, btw]

Outstanding Set Design George Allison
Picasso at the Lapin Agile, T. Schreiber Studio

Outstanding Sound Design Ryan Maeker & Tim Schellenbaum
Dancing Vs the Rat Experiment, La MaMa ETC in association with Witness Relocation

Outstanding Original Music Leanne Darling
The Landlord, Toy Box Theatre Company

Outstanding Original Full Length Script Saviana Stanescu
Waxing West, East Coast Artists

Outstanding Original Short Script Daniel Reitz
Rules of the Universe, Rising Phoenix Repertory

Outstanding Production of a Performance Art Piece Dancing Vs the Rat Experiment
La MaMa ETC in association with Witness Relocation

Outstanding Production of a Musical Urinetown
The Musical, The Gallery Players

Outstanding Production of a Play Bouffon Glass Menajoree
Ten Directions
[I don't know about "outstanding" but I reviewed it rather favorably here]

Some info about the awards:

They're judged by a combination of outside adjudicators, artists nominated by the various "registered" shows considered (though they don't judge their own shows), and audience votes.

What counts as Off-Off Broadway, at least for these awards is:

  1. Productions must complete 8 performances during the season. (Our "seasons" run from June 1 to May 31 each year. For shows that have performances over two seasons, if the final performance occurs after June 7, or the second Sunday of June (whichever comes first), the show will be considered in the later season.)
  2. At least eight of the production's performances must fall on eight separate days within a 30-day window.
  3. Total production budget must be less than $40,000 (between $0 and $40,000).
  4. Ticket price must be $30 or less (between "Free" and $30).
  5. Performances must be in Brooklyn, Manhattan or Queens (all theatres must be within walking distance (12 blocks) of public transportation or else transportation must be provided)
  6. Producers must be based within the five boroughs of New York City.
Overall, an interesting alternative to both the irrelevant Tonys and more expansive OBIE 's (which cover both Off- and Off-Off, some with budgets well over $40,000.) Yes, awards should not be overvalued. But if it helps to promote work being done on this level, more power to 'em.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Marcel Marceau

From the NYT obit, some things I didn't know.

After the war Mr. Marceau attended the acting school run by Charles Dullin at the School of Dramatic Art in the Sarah Bernhardt Theater in Paris. He planned to become a speaking actor, but he studied under Etienne Decroux, a master of miming, who had taught the noted mime Jean-Louis Barrault. Mr. Barrault invited Mr. Marceau to join his theater company, and the rest was silence.
(Barrault, of course, was not just a mime but all around one of the most notable French stage actors of the 20th century. His image as a mime was cemented in the film, Les Enfants du Paradis.)

And how about this, from the funnyman's personal life:
Marcel Marceau was born Marcel Mangel, of Jewish parents in Strasbourg, France, on March 22, 1923. His father, a butcher, was deported to a concentration camp by the Germans in 1944 and never returned. Marcel moved to Paris, with a new surname and false identification papers. Until the liberation of Paris, he worked in the Resistance, hiding Jewish children from the Gestapo and the French police, who helped round up Jews for deportation.
Let us mourn. But, ok, you can add your own mime joke here as well.

Lone Star Lost

Lone Star Love is over and the fat man hasn't even sung yet.

The would-have-been Broadway opening in December of this Texas-style musical of Merry Wives of Windsor with Randy Quaid as Falstaff seemed another case of misguided producers with apparently a ton of money to waste.

Not only had the show piffled Off Broadway at the old Houseman theatre three seasons ago (with the estimable and more stage-seasoned Jay O. Sanders starring) but it goes way, way back:

An adaptation of the Bard's "Merry Wives of Windsor" that updates the setting to post-Civil War Texas, "Lone Star Love" started out as a play in the 1970s, was turned into a musical in 1988 at Houston's Alley Theater, and was retooled for an Off Broadway run in 2004.
Not to discourage anyone out there from still working on that script you started forty years ago, but... Seems to me nothing ever good comes to a show that takes this long to gestate.

And as if that wasn't enough warning, there was also Randy Quaid's wife to deal with!

A New Business Model for Political Theatre?

"Generally, by the time somebody buys a ticket nowadays to a political piece, they're the wrong audience....They haven't been there to be challenged or to be converted. They're already immersed in the issue."

-Brian Freeland, co-director of a new political theatre company in Denver, Countdown to Zero.

The name isn't prophetic, by the way. It's just their mission to produce ten plays (counting down from #10) and then fold.

Also, it's running as a commercial enterprise. Why?

"I'm trying to avoid having to immerse in the nonprofit or the board or this long-term organizational structure."
Their opening play is My Name is Rachel Corrie.

Rocky Mountain News' Lisa Bornstein has the story.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Clock Ticking for B'way Stagehand Strike

According to Crain's NY Business, a lockout and shutdown of Broadway shows is not getting any less likely for next week, as the September 30 deadline fast approaches...

Both sides are making preparations to weather it out. Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees has "accumulated a $4 million emergency fund." Not surprising, it's what unions do.

But did you know the League of American Theatres and Producers does the same for its members?

The league has a $20 million reserve to help cover members’ losses in the case of a shutdown
Those members, remember, are the producers. Actors and directors will have to look to their own unions for "strike pay."

BBC Questions Ethics of Theatrical Reality TV

How quaint. The BBC actually conducted an internal investigation over charges that, get this, their "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria" (which spawned our own "You're the One That I Want" of course) "could be 'considered commercial advertising' for Lloyd Webber and that the role of the show’s judges was 'often primarily about the success of the coming West End production and the need to fill seats.'" Shocked, shocked, I tell you.

Well no fear, Lord Lloyd Webber, you're cleared of all charges of collusion and hijacking of the stat-owned BBC for your own commercial purposes under the guise of "reality entertainment."

A lot of the concerns apparently focused on David Ian--ALW's onetime producing partner who went on to "mastermind" the Grease project here.

However, the committee admitted it was concerned about the inclusion of Ian, the West End production’s co-producer, in the programme and said: “The committee acknowledged that he provided a wealth of experience, but felt that his experience was not unique and that, while his presence did not breach guidelines, it would have been better for the programme to have had only Andrew Lloyd Webber as a representative of the West End production”.

The committee also said it had been concerned about the “editorial justification” of various comments made throughout the series, including Ian’s statement in the second show that one of his “big concerns” was selling tickets and that he was “thinking with my wallet”.

"Experience is not unique" seems a polite way of putting....who is this guy???

Of course, the Grease show on the utterly private commercial entity known as NBC faced no such conflict of interest. We've become so numb to the fact that everything on our public airwaves is nothing but advertising for products, this question seems totally, totally foreign.

Meanwhile, Grease on Broadway manages to hold at a steady mid-to-high 80's capacity despite some of the worst reviews on record. David Ian is laughing all the way to the bank.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Playwrights Horizons Line-up

In programming the 2007–2008 calendar, Sanford has taken a considerable risk. In its 35 years, Playwrights Horizons has developed last- ing affiliations with many of the theater's luminaries—Christopher Durang, Richard Nelson, A.R. Gurney, James Lapine, William Finn, etc. Nearly every season, these names grace the Playwrights Horizons 42nd Street marquee. Nearly every season, that is, except this one. For the first time in decades, Playwrights Horizons has devoted its entire schedule to early-career writers, with a particular emphasis on female dramatists.
In case you missed it last week, check out Alexis Soloski's sit-down with Playwrights AD Tim Sanford and profiles of the 4 writers he's staking the season on: Kate Fodor, Sarah Treem, Jordan Harrison, and Sarah Ruhl.

Okay, I guess Ruhl doesn't necessarily count as underexposed anymore...

REVIEW: Have You Seen Steve Steven

Don't Let Strangers in Your House: Matthew Maher as a Grating Outdoorsman
photo:Richard Termine


Have You Seen Steve Steven

by Ann Marie Healy
Presented by 13P, at the East 14th St Theatre.


Well I certainly don't agree with Mr. Isherwood that this new 13P play by Ann Marie Healy is a juvenile waste of time. While I would agree the last 20 minutes or so make no sense at all--and is thus kind of a let-down--I can't deny I was engaged, and, yes, often surprised, by this at least unpredictable and breezy 70 minute-work.

No cookie-cutter script this, Have You Seen Steve Steven starts out in what is in one way familiar territory--a middle class suburban living room, focusing on a teenager's strained relations with her parents. On the other hand, the tacky McMansion trappings of the setting and the protruding Minnesota accents do provide some refreshing specifics to what in so many other plays is generic.

Also, right from the outset, the relationship established between the young protagonist, Kathleen (Stephanie Wright Thompson) and the audience takes us intimately into her state of mind skillfully, without recourse to monologue or asides. The discomfort of Kathleen and two other kids brought over by family friends for an achingly banal dinner party is made silently palpable by Anne Kauffman's subtle direction. The non-English speaking foreign exchange student is an old trope by now, but as played by ghoulish and stick-figured Jocelyn Kuritsky, this character's foreignness becomes as frightening as it is hilarious.

And I say frightening because Healy's gamble here is to ever so gradually morph a quirky family comedy into a modern-day Brothers Grimm fairy tale. The little steps by which that happens are truly chilling. Many of them involve the mythically named Hank Mountain (Matthew Maher) a mysterious "neighbor" who shows up at the front door unannounced, sure enough bedecked in full Paul Bunyon gear--except for the sun goggles oddly perched on his disturbingly too-cute poofball hat. Maher's high-pitched unwavering voice and reassuring donchya-know accent--the lingua franca of the play's adults--make almost everything he does unbearably creepy. (Maher also manages to communicate flickers of true menace by simply dropping the frozen smile from his face at chosen moments.) And when Hank's cohort, a little old lady with a tray of brownies, enters, we know we're not in Minnesota anymore, but the old gingerbread house of lore.

Which brings us to that ending... While its deliberate obscurity gets infuriating at times (I guess I can see what made Isherwood so clearly angry!) I can't deny I remained on the edge of my seat in curiosity. As Healy morphs out of Brothers Grimm into David Lynch territory, you might even get excited at the prospect of such a hybrid. In the end I just think she doesn't pull it off. The aesthetic stakes are raised so high by that point that it's a situation where a playwright has to deliver. Steve Steven, however, just kinda fades out on this note of weirdness.

But it's not easy to forget. And in yet another intensely crafted and strongly acted production by Kaufmann (who last year brilliantly helmed two other haunting new plays, The Thugs and God's Ear) the play's best elements are allowed to shine. Despite--or perhaps because of its flaws it ends up making a very strong case for the merits of the whole 13P enterprise. This is a script that you can just tell would never make it out of development hell. In readings it would amuse but then just befuddle. Only in the hands of an expert director and a fully professional cast can all its unspoken assets impress. And only after seeing it done to the hilt this way can audiences--and perhaps the author--see what might best be revised.

Here's hoping Healy is encouraged by this fine production to either take this script further, or just get on with the next one.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Politicians: Self-Hating Arts Lovers?

Politicians, it seems, go to arts events with all the fanfare of a married man entering a bondage-wear shop in Soho. But when it comes to sports, their spin doctors are working overtime to alert us to their attendance.

Politicians worry, I suppose, that an enjoyment of the arts will mark them out as elitist. And yet, statistics tell us, far more of us are attending live performances than are going to football matches. The audience at an event like [Royal National Theatre's] Rafta, Rafta - mainly female, racially diverse - must be the sort of people who will decide the outcome of the next election. The days of the trade union block vote and the mass culture of the working-class football match are long dead, and yet they still seem to haunt politicians of all parties when it comes to their publicised leisure time.

-London playwright Mark Ravenhill on UK pols' fear of being caught doing anything artsy.

Relevant here, y'think?

In this context, I must say you gotta appreciate Bill Clinton holding a democratic fund raiser at The Iceman Cometh!

REVIEW: A New Television... (Village Voice)



For the Voice this week, I had to review a new pseudo-absurdist comedy called A New Television Arrives, Finally. The premise reminded me of this Python classic. I'd rather spend 90 minutes watching this 20 times in a row than sitting through the play.

(The play, by the way, opted against the cardboard tv-frame. Pity, I say.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Top 10 Plays

... plays produced in LORT theatres 2006-2007, that is. According to TCG. (And reported by Playbill.)

So, in order of popularity (i.e. number of productions) the winners are:

I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright (13)

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh (12)

The Santaland Diaries adapted by Joe Mantello from David Sedaris (11)

Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson (9)

Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage (9)

Moonlight and Magnolias by Ron Hutchison (8)

Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire (8)

Tartuffe by Molière (7)

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher (7)

The Underpants, adapted by Steve Martin from Carl Sternheim (7)


So, what do we learn. One, that almost nothing has happened in playwriting for the last two or three years. That Rabbit Hole is here to stay. That Steve Martin may never win NY theatre cred, but he's become a bankable middlebrow fave. That people still love that old Morrie guy.

That a small Off Broadway success like Moonlight and Magnolias really can rake in some royalties. That Santaland Diaries must be what theatres turn to when they really, really can't stand Christmas Carol any more. (And that Joe Mantello just keeps getting richer!)

And that no matter how impossibly brilliant your one actor has to be for I Am My Own Wife, you still do the show because you still only need to pay...one actor.

And--on the good side--that Tartuffe only gets more and more relevant.

TCG rules, by the way, exclude not only Shakespeare productions, understandable, but also anything called "Christmas Carol." What does that tell you.

Theatre History in a Pornhouse


Ever noticed a lovely looking old theatre hiding behind this Times Square porn theatre? Some did manage to survive Disneyfication. Until now, that is.

Running up 8th Avenue on my way to or from some more "respectable" fare, I must say my eye always wanders west to the pathetic looking "Playpen" between 43rd & 44th.* If you can get past the gaudy outdated neon marquee, you notice such surprisingly refined antiquity features as romanesque columns, an elegant little white arch, and mini-pediments above the now boarded windows. Many times, as my sights rise above the emporium's faded temptations of the flesh, I have thought, what a beautiful little home this could make for one of our wandering Off Broadway companies. A palace for classics! A repertory for Princess Theatre-era musicals!

I always assumed this place must have had some different history before Playpen, and I was right. Turns out it was a vaudeville house and movie theatre dating back 90 years.

And now someone's got other plans for it:

It opened in 1916 as a vaudeville theater called the Ideal and closed a few weeks ago as the Playpen, a seedy porno emporium on the ragged rim of Times Square. It now faces the wrecking ball despite a last-minute attempt to rescue it.

With few theaters dating from the early 20th century still in existence, one of Gotham's oldest "shouldn't be sacrificed for the sake of progress," said Michael Perlman, a self-appointed preservationist who wants to keep the building's Beaux Art facade — with its curved central arch, pilasters, statues and other ornate features — by incorporating it into a new building, or moving it to another location.

This is a "culturally and architecturally significant structure, and we hope to preserve this gem for future generations," he said.
The wonderful site Forgotten-NY.com has a nice photo-spread, including a close up of what seems to be a little cameo window with an invented Muse of Cinema!

Yet another poignant metaphor of how tearing down relics of our urban "seediness" destroys many jewels of our heritage as well.

*Sorry, I originally had the streets wrong. Now corrected.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Cameron Mackintosh Drills a Hole to China

I guess the man has run out of cities who haven't seen Cats. Et al.

Mackintosh will stage a Chinese version of “Les Miz” at the National Grand Theater near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in November 2008.
Wow. I guess the fomenting revolution imagery (awkward!) is canceled out by the red flag. Indeed...
The show was deemed acceptable because the Victor Hugo novel is popular in China and its message about revolution politically correct.
So that settles that.

More here.

The Community Theatre Beat

This is not a gig for the weak of heart. It's for the eternal optimist, the dead-end journalist who doesn't believe in dead ends. It's for the tolerant, the cheerful, the brave and gratuitously creative. It's a job for someone who doesn't have a lot to do on weekends.
-Baltimore-area critic John Barry, in a hilarious and touching mini-memoir on criticism in the trenches--i.e. community theatre.

I've long been fascinated by the status of community theatre in America. As a child spoiled by Broadway and BAM, of course, ten years ago I would have snickered at the mere words. But when I was stationed in Syracuse I was struck by how the local community theatre commanded equal attention and audience loyalty (nay, more loyalty) than the professional company for which I worked. But after the initial shock, it made total sense. We were jobbing in Equity actors from New York, they were showcasing local actors known and beloved by their neighbors. The difference in "quality" so evident to a seasoned professional playgoer becomes less important when what you value in theatre is the social bonding and local tradition.

Plus, it's a lot cheaper. Especially if you want to take your family. Hence we decided to drop our "Christmas Carol" when the "amateurs" across the street were outselling us.

Mr. Barry here strikes a more pessimistic note, and perhaps he's right. I wouldn't be surprised if the whole life of community theatre is in flux right now--but who knows it might end up stronger. Either way, the strength and popularity of community theatre is probably as good a bellweather as any for the state of theatre in general across our nation. For ultimately it's the urge to do theatre--at any level, for any audience--that keeps the art alive. If it fails at the cheapest and most local level, then pray for its survival at the "top."

Anyway, read Barry for some hilarious stories about frankly awful productions and impossible to find venues. Also there's these poignant words:
Then there are the shoebox theatres trying to squeeze out a little applause from people willing to watch. That population — people who like to watch plays just for the hell of it — is admittedly getting older and smaller. Now, in a world where it's constantly pounded in our heads that there's someone more interesting going on somewhere else, people need to be told why they're doing it and what they're going to get out of it. In Baltimore's community theatre, that's not always clear. There aren't any big names, and no one's breaking new ground. It's not guerilla theatre, and it's not fringe theatre. It's exclusive, durable, conservative, filled with core actors and playwrights who are a little jealous of their turf and a little grumpy with people who wonder why they don't take a few more risks. You can't blame them: They've created a small comfort zone in a city where theatre is underfunded, overlooked, and loved by a shrinking crowd of advocates. Whenever I try to play Frank Rich with them, there's one question I can't get out of my head: Does the world need one more unread reviewer telling unseen actors to stick to their day jobs?
Indeed. The critic can perform many functions. Being a "cheerleader" for Broadway is totally unnecessary. But when the stakes are totally different, why not.

Actually, ideally, shouldn't commuity theatre reviewers just be on an explicitly different beat? Announcing clearly separate standards? In so many towns the same critics cover both. What think you?

Keep in mind that in many towns the term "community theatre" is interchangeable with any "nonprofessional" theatre. For instance, I often like to think of any nonequity production in NYC as essentially our "community theatre". How would that look as a listing category in our local papers...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Sleuthing Out "Sleuth"

“Is that your car?”

“On the left, right.”

“Yes, that’s my car on the right. My car is bigger than yours.”

From the opening scene of the upcoming Ken Branagh film, Sleuth, screenplay by Anthony Schaffer Harold Pinter. As quoted by Roger Ebert, who reports, enthusiastically, from the Toronto Film Fest screening.

Yes, Roger lives!

(Hat tip to Rob K for the link.)

Says the big E:

Talking to Branagh, Caine and Law on Tuesday afternoon, I got the statistics: Only one line (“It’s a game!”) from the original screenplay is used in Pinter’s. Pinter did not see the movie, read the screenplay once, sat down and wrote the original situation as a screenplay by Harold Pinter. And what Branagh and his actors have made is a Pinter film, transposing the outline of the original material into an altogether quirkier, weirder, diabolical result.

Stagehand Showdown

"I think the old-timers in the room have a sense of where things are. But all the corporate producers and trust-fund babies - who don't even bother to learn the names of the people who work on their shows - have no idea what's going on with the stagehands."

So says an anonymous stagehand-source to Michael Riedel in today's column--bearish on the hopes for avoiding a Big B'way Strike next month. Check it out. Especially the part where someone from Spring Awakening panics and pleads that said tuner is "too important to close."

Also catch at the bottom, the backstage gossip on Claire Danes' Eliza Doolittle. Why is that not a surprise. Did anyone realize what a huge part that is? And it takes more than a funny accent...

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Showcase/CaseStudy

Time Out's Raven Snook sings another variation of the Showcase Blues, profiling East River Commedia's Paul Bargetto. His League of Independent Theatre--which he co-chairs with John Clancy and John Pinckard--is part of the Coalition for Code Reform in addition to proposing remedies of their own.

Beef #1: "New York’s showcase code [which allows union actors to work for next to nothing] treats failure and success the same way.” Read on.

"Access Roundabout"

One of the beneficial repercussions of the Signature's successful cheap ticketing via subsidy innovation is other theatre companies see both the need for investment in future audiences and the pr value.

So now even the behemoth Roundabout is getting in on the act. Albeit on a very, very limited scale. Hiptix (for ages 35 and under) prices have been lowered to $20 from $35. And for each 1st preview at the Broadway venues (American Airlines & Studio 54) 100 balcony seats will go for $10. But only at that first preview. (And not day of, so they're already sold out for Pygmalian & the Ritz.)

Perhaps more promising there, though, is a new play series in a new blackbox space in the 46th St Laura Pels theatre. "Roundabout Underground" (get it? they're below street level) will feature new plays in surprisingly long runs, and all tickets $20 all the time.

A good step. I hope the plays are worth it.

More Gatz

So much for my Gatz "exclusive". Alexis also made the trip to Philly.

I'm glad, though, because she gets at something I couldn't put my finger on, but did notice:

The Great Gatsby is a novel of ambition, of desire. Like Fitzgerald, [director John] Collins doesn't permit those ambitions to be achieved or those desires fulfilled. In a poignant passage describing Gatsby and Daisy out for an evening stroll, Fitzgerald writes, "He knew that when he kissed this girl and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of god. . . . Then he kissed her." But Gatz doesn't make Gatsby's mistake—it resists and delays that consummation, refusing to allow the stage action to ever entirely replace the novel Shepherd holds. Just when we might become carried away, might give ourselves over to the figures before us, a secretary enters with a stack of documents or a telephone rings. With a jolt we find ourselves transported back to the office, suddenly conscious that the tinsel and shimmer exist in our mind alone, that only a dreary workplace greets our eyes. Instead of giving us the comfort of a mimetic fantasy, ERS implicates us in a singularly imaginative act, not dissimilar to the one young Jimmy Gatz attempted when he remolded himself Jay Gatsby.
Yes, there was an admirable restraint from dramatizing/enacting everything in the novel--which is a temptation when you're including every F.Scottin' word! So Collins shows a lot of well-judged discretion.

This also gets at something else about Gatz that may be obvious to others (especially in Chicago), that it is really a very highwire act of good ol' "Readers Theatre." Where the text itself is foregrounded and the performance can alternately illustrate or comment on it. Mary Zimmerman has developed her own stylish offshoot of that, of course. There's also a San Francisco company called Word for Word that also takes an "all the words" approach to literary adaptation.

I do think future theatre historians will look back on this stretch of time and pronounce "literary adaptation" in all its forms, a major impulse in late 20th/early 21st century US theatre.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Obama on B'way!

...for a fundraiser, that is.

Yep, his campaign is renting the New Amsterdam September 24, says Variety.

And check out the Broadway and downtown A-listers in his camp:

Before a speech by Obama, event will open with a half-hour presentation of songs and snippets from classic American stage works, performed by creatives with heavy legit credentials. George C. Wolfe ("Angels in America") directs a group of thesps that includes Christine Ebersole, Jeffrey Wright, Phylicia Rashad and Marcia Gay Harden. Texts are compiled by critic John Lahr, scribe Marsha Norman and producer Jack Viertel.

[...]

Obama supporter Margo Lion ("Hairspray") presents the event, along with fellow Broadway producers Roger Berlind, Rocco Landesman, Scott Sanders and Tom Schumacher [aka Disney].

Nice to see politics on our stages in some form, at least.

But don't expect to see it: "Tickets start at $250 and top out at $2,300." Then again, maybe it'll show up on TKTS.

Battle of the Gulls

Too bad Anton's copyright has expired. Looks like NYC will see three Seagulls this season.

First, RSC (on Lear's off-nights). Then CSC (with Diane Wiest). And now we hear word that spring will bring the much praised Royal Court staging from last year, starring Kristin Scott Thomas.

Personally I must say this is my least favorite Chekhov to sit through. I think because I dread that last scene if the acting isn't good.

37 ARTS: A Tale of Two Buildings

Interesting contrast between two articles appearing today in two NYC newspapers reporting on developments at the relatively new 37 ARTS complex (on W. 37th St. between 10th and nowhere) which houses both the Off-Broadway 37 Arts Theatre, home recently to commercial runs of In the Heights and Hurlyburly, and the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the dancer's playground of rehearsal and workshop space, leased out to small companies.

The Times tells of plans for a large new 299-seat space for the Wooster Group within the Baryshnikov space. Yay!

On the other hand, Michael Riedel in the Post reports simultaneously of financial chaos in the building, driven mostly by the string of unintentionally non-profit productions in the utterly commercial 499-seat venue downstairs. Claims MR: "A state-of-the-art off-Broadway theater owned and operated by two of Broadway's top producers is riddled with debt and faces possible foreclosure and bankruptcy, The Post has learned."

As for Misha, he must have come down off that New York Times high when reading:

Caught in the middle is Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose nonprofit dance foundation is housed in the building's top three floors. Baryshnikov's company is facing liens of nearly $4 million, the documents show.
Hey, great news about the Wooster Group, to be sure. Let's just hope their space is not reduced to Shakespeare in the Parking Lot by the time they move in...

And yes, you can file this under "Death of Commercial Off Broadway, continued..."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

More Franzen

New York Mag does a promo interview for the novelist's Spring Awakening translation, out this week.

Why brought this project on?

Fifty dollars made me do it in 1986 for the Swarthmore College theater department. It was a memorable production. It sat in a drawer for twenty years, and when the musical came along I remembered it. I knew it was a good translation, better than anything else out there.
So, okay, maybe he is cashing in on the musical. But he also seems genuinely motivated to argue against the musical. Besides, how much cash would the publisher really shell out for a play? (Let alone a translation of a play!)

As for the musical...
what happened to the play is, I think, it became dishonest on the road to being that musical. The real way to any theatergoer’s heart is to tell some kind of truth about their experience, not flatter them with some kind of pleasant lie they’d like to tell themselves. It turns it into a kind of self-righteous Avril Sévigné…[A follow-up e-mail confirmed that, in fact, he meant pop star Avril Lavigne.]
Well pop culture just ain't the guy's thing. (Google turns up nothing on any Avril Sévigné!) But he's right about the other stuff.

He also acknowledges "four good musical numbers" in the show, admits to loving Drowsy Chaperone, and hating Embedded. I'm just glad there's a respected literary figure who admits going to the theatre!

Murder of a Director

Sad, alarming news about Uzbek/former Soviet director Mark Weil A glimpse of various dangers theatre makers face around the world...

The stabbing death of Mark Weil, a prominent theater director in Uzbekistan, is stirring up grief and shock in Seattle, where he lived part of the time.

Weil, who founded the innovative Ilkhom Theatre more than 30 years ago, was attacked in front of his apartment building in the capital, Tashkent, late Thursday night, spokeswoman Oksana Khrupun said.

Weil, 55, died on the operating table at a hospital.

His last words were unintentionally theatrical. He reportedly said, "I'm opening the season tomorrow, whatever happens," Khrupun said.

The show did go on. The company performed Aeschylus' "The Oresteia" in Weil's honor Friday.

Ilkhom, which Weil founded in 1976, was the first independent theater in the former Soviet Union. Long before perestroika in the late 1980s, Ilkhom gained popularity but also faced censorship and criticism for staging productions that pushed accepted political and social boundaries.

[...]

Actors at Ilkhom said Weil was taken to the hospital by neighbors, who described seeing two young men in baseball caps waiting for the director in front of his building.

Weil was not robbed, and he said he did not know his assailants, according to the actors, who refused to speculate on a motive for his killing.

Online and media speculation on the motive has ranged from an anti-Semitic attack to one by religious fanatics displeased by some homoerotic work by the company.

Homosexuality, punishable by up to two years in jail, is a taboo topic in Uzbekistan.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Simon vs Brantley

Yes, from Charlie Rose, 6/1/2001. First half-hour is just season wrap-up and Tony predictions, but the fun starts around 33:00, when John faults Ben for liking too many "homosexual plays." Like Edward Albee.

Hat tip to Rocco, for clueing us into this YouTube treasure trove of Charlie's theatre interviews.

Sound seems very faint on this clip, so pump it up!

Showcase Code Debate

...rages on over at Parabasis.

My Voice primer article here, if you still need to catch up.

REVIEW: Gatz
















Over Labor Day weekend, at leisure and away from the distractions of home and work, might very well be the best way to immerse yourself in Gatz, Elevator Repair Service's marathon 7-hour staging of the entire Great Gatsby. That's what I did last weekend, catching this rare fugitive production at the Philadelphia Live Arts fest, the closest it will come to NYC for quite a while, as long as the Fitzgerald estate blocks it from coming near a potential (but not really likely) more conventional adaptation on B'way. (Jason Zinoman first documented this battle of the Gatsby's in the Times last year.)

It was well worth it.

Especially at $35 a ticket for the whole event. When and if it ever comes to the Public or NYTW (who ERS claims are both committed to it) you can bet on at least $50 each for "Part 1" and "Part 2." In Philly we even got a free dinner buffet! (No West Egg highballs included, unfortunately. Come to think of it some coffee would have been nice, too....)

While the idea of Gatsby acted out in a modern day office by average worker bees may smack of "directors theatre" to some, the revelation of Gatz is the acting of the ERS ensemble. As director John Collins certainly makes many bold choices. But the highlight of the event may very well be just watching (and hearing) such an engaging cast so totally inhabit great writing. The "concept" may distance all it wants--but ultimately the actors' absorption in their characters flesh out Fitzgerald's meaty prose so satisfyingly, you almost forget their used-surplus office furnishings and outlet-mall wardrobes (designed with good humor by Colleen Werthmann).

But of course one must begin any discussion of Gatz with that setting, or even just the set. Daring to be not just drab but ugly, Louisa Thompson's design of random mismatching chairs and tables, fake-wood wall paneling, and scattered outdated equipment (including one malfunctioning green-screen computer) instantly calls to mind less a place of commerce than an autoshop. While the production adroitly avoids any "period" altogether, visually we're really circa 1983, it seems--or at least a workplace that hasn't had an upgrade, or a cleaning, since then.

(Caveat lector: as I divulge more and more information about the production, I am not taking care to avoid spoilers, since most of you probably, sadly, will never see Gatz. So consider yourself alerted.)

The sprouting out of Fitzgerald's tale of Jazz Age grandeur from this utterly earthbound and downright depressing everyday environment is a glaring juxtaposition that gives Gatz much of its unceasing tension and fascination.

The classic novel is introduced into this world at the beginning in the body of a generic dog-eared paperback that one drone (Scott Shepherd) finds stuffed under a Rolodex lid. Now it's not always easy to buy the premise that begins to be established here--namely, that as he begins to read the book aloud from page 1, others in the office continue to arrive and go about their business. But questions of "do they hear him?" or "isn't this guy supposed to be working!" soon become immaterial. Spectators soon have to make even more mental adjustments when, about 20 minutes (or 10 pages) in, office-mates begin chiming in with the dialogue of other characters in the novel--off book! Call it internal fantasy, call it a loose construct, but as Gatz sets out defining its own "rules" in its first hour or so, it becomes more and more "convincing" on its own theatrical level.

This is not a "concept" that seeks necessarily to undermine, negate, or mock the text. In fact the mission of Gatz is a textual fidelity of the highest order--but, unlike more conventional "adaptations" there is no desire here to match text to a preconceived notion of its visual counterpart. And if you've seen the 1970s film version of the novel (and more recent mini-series) you know that the temptation of all that Roaring Twenties sultry eye-candy can easily end up a distraction from the core of the book, which was written within that period about itself, not as later hyped-up nostalgia. (One could say Gatz restores the novel as forever contemporary.) Here, the Jazz Age is quite simply a state of mind, and all the tuxedos, flapper dresses, and mass-Charlestons normally considered de rigeur for the story, merely superfluous.

With Fitzgerald's 182 pages as its score, Gatz unfolds as a massive symphony of fully embodied words. But make no mistake, the action is suited to the word, the word to the action, even if obliquely. The office phones keep ringing, but as if on cue from Fitzgerald. (And lo and behold fictional characters are on the other end! Either that or very confused customers.) The paper-pushing of office routine persists, but the props become interchangeable with those referenced in the novel, even when there's no visual resemblance. (A nondescript ragdoll, for instance, becomes very multipurpose.) But as we progress further and further into the book, the office does increasingly seem to disappear--especially through Mark Barton's very expressive lighting which does not feel constrained to observe the confines of the office at all. Barton's palette is downright cinematic in its fluidity at times--especially in the beautifully staged set-piece of the pathetic Plaza Hotel argument late in the book, rendered in almost film noir tones.

But no matter how teasingly "real" the staging becomes at times, there is one constant distancing element--and that is the book itself. That ragged paperback in Scott Shepherd's hand keeps reminding us that he is never totally "Nick Carroway" but always... well that nameless office guy. (The ERS programme tellingly lists the cast only in alphabetical order, refusing to "identify" anyone with any of the novel's characters, even though the character assignments to these actors on stage are consistent.) Aside from the functional purpose (we presume!) the book-in-hand serves our "narrator" so that Mr. Shepherd doesn't have to learn a seven-hour monologue*, the visibility of that book on stage is the constant reminder and calling to attention of the play's "literariness"--in a way that even Brecht, who was fond of that term, would appreciate. The words are literally forever disembodied from the actors, even as they work to embody them. Given that framework, the two sole exceptions become seismic moments--one where Shepherd hands the book to a colleague to read an extended character-monologue, the other toward the end, when he shockingly puts the book down and speaks seemingly extempore what is essentially the book's lengthy epilogue. Here Shepherd the actor, his anonymous office figure, the character of Nick, and the pen of Fitzgerald himself all merge eerily to wonderful theatrical effect.

[*Wow, the ERS website claims Shepherd really does know the whole book by heart!]
While the set and the presence of the book constantly defamiliarize the story and highlight the theatricality of everything, director Collins and the ensemble also pull off some simply great scenes bringing some of the novel’s episodes to vibrant stage life. The lack of naturalistic parameters allows for some heightened behavior, sure, but it perfectly matches the frenzied tone of some of the writing, and some of the characters. Something magical happens early on, when Tom drags Nick into the city for an impromptu party at the pièd-a-terre he’s set up for his mistress, the ill-fated mechanic’s wife, Mrs. Wilson (played with scary but believable desperate abandon by Laurena Allan). Crammed into a small corner of the “office” around the one comfy couch (loveseat size) the actors, perfectly in tune with the ongoing narration, become more and more manic in their silly revelry, constantly pawing and tripping over each other as the effects of booze, horniness, and pure aggression intensify. (See above right photo.) By conjuring up the feeling of giddy junkies from any age, the energy emanating from their performances here nails the mania of the “Roaring Twenties” (at least as Fitzgerald describes it) better than any Hollywood art designer ever could.

Another scene that stands out for its originality is the big reunion scene of Gatsby and Daisy. Gatz plays it at the tempo of a romantic farce—which at some level it is. In Fitzgerald, Gatsby is meticulous to the point of insanity about the conditions of the meeting and in dictatorial in how he enlists Nick to effectively do his wooing. The comedy achieved here (in what might strike some as at the expense of an almost sacred literary moment) highlights Gatsby losing his usual cool, reverting to a lovesick schoolboy, and reminds us how ultimately ridiculous and insurmountable his dreams of Daisy really are.

As I hope you can see, the staging concept does not preclude clearly defined "characters" from emerging on stage amidst all this, and the cast excels at bringing new life to familiar High School English-Class names. Of all the office workers, Gatsby himself turns out to be, of course, the reader's boss--a nice surprise when the eponymous one finally "enters" the novel quite a ways in. Jim Fletcher, a veteran of the uninflected Richard Maxwell style, is an eerily perfect casting choice, but maybe one that could only come off in this unusual production. Tall, balding, and square-jawed, with an almost military bearing (and an uncanny resemblance to a young Gerald Ford) he is more the strong silent type, than the charm-oozing Robert Redford portrayal, for example. The long stretches of Gatz where Shepherd/Carroway must narrate pages and pages about Gatsby while Fletcher just sits there next to him, silently staring out into space, capture perfectly the title character’s essential inscrutability. There’s something a bit rough-trade even about Fletcher—and the traces of a street accent—that make totally credible Gatsby’s implied life as a kind of gangster. But his taciturn, almost forced elegance also gives away this is a man who can pass for class, but doesn’t fit. (One of the surprise bonuses of the extreme textual fidelity is the costuming of Gatsby for the entire Part 2 in the funny “pink suit” that Fitzgerald stipulates for some of the late scenes. It’s something Redford would never have been allowed to wear, but is a wonderful touch of awkward gaudiness yet endearing sensitivity in the character.) Much of the allure of The Great Gatsby as a book is how much a cipher its titular character is, and Fletcher renders that onstage about as much as is possible for an actor while still being highly specific and utterly compelling to watch.

Gatz is such an ensemble effort that singling out performances only goes so far in describing it. Still, I must record the indelible impression left by bulging, baggy eyes of Robert Cucuzza, who makes Tom Buchanan into a kind of demonic clown, dangerously unstable in his deep-seated insecurities about class and masculinity. (In the frame of the office life of the piece, Cucuzza/Buchanan is a kind of tyrannical facilities manager or security guard, with a belt full of keys.) The affable and sporty Susie Sokol manages to make that famously little princess of literature Jordan Baker likeable, as Jordan and Nick’s relationship emerges as much more complex and even-handed as I ever realized from the novel. Annie McNamara mines her usual closet of endearing comic cuckoos for many of the novel’s walk-on women and Vin Knight lends a nice dose of 1920’s wan effeteness to some of Fitzgerald’s catalog of loser hangers-on. Meanwhile, Ben Williams sits there quietly downstage right, very much in the “office”, at a desk, manning a computer that really is the sound system for the show. (As with lights, Williams' sound design is quite sophisticated and atmospheric.) That he manages quite a few effective supporting roles while doing so (like a thuggish gatekeeper who shuts Nick out with the press of a cue-button on his console) demonstrates again the depth of talents of the ERS ensemble.

Of course the performance that is the glue holding all this together is Shepherd’s. He is the book, after all. And the totally self-effacing, calm way he takes us through it page by page not only suits the calm exterior of the character of Nick, but also skillfully takes the audience in his hand as narrator/performer without ever forcing any of the language, so comfortably does he inhabit Nick/Fitzgerald’s voice. At the end, I sensed Shepherd’s own voice (a trace of a Southern drawl?) surfacing, as if he was taking more and more ownership of the words and the character. The transformation of “guy in office” to “Nick Carroway” had become complete (especially when he puts the book down). A nice dramatization of the power of literature, eh?

Maybe this is why the whole office frame/concept gradually disappears as the day wears on. When Mr. Gatz (Gatsby’s father) enters in the final hour, he is played not by one of the original office mates but an older man with seemingly no other “real world” identity who wanders on from the aisle. By this point, with “Gatsby”/boss apparently really dead, are we now in a different “reality” altogether?

(I have a strong hunch, by the way, that the grey-bearded “Ross Fletcher” playing Mr. Gatz is not unrelated to Jim Fletcher. Perhaps another trick on our perception of layers of reality here, even if only inside knowledge to the cast…)

I can’t deny I was disappointed at the very, very end that director Collins and ERS just faded out without "closing the frame" of the office framing device by somehow returning to or referencing it. Yet it also became clear by the end that the concept of the setting has really just served the goal of performing this story with a minimum of "culinary" distraction in a rough theatre style. And rather than “directors theatre” it’s the actors who have been driving it all seven-plus hours, carrying us along in their valiant boat, beating against tides, on the kind of intense meditative journey that is sadly a luxury in today’s theatre.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Shakespeare & "Reasonable Doubts"

Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance are certainly two of my most favorite Shakespearean actors. But shall we trust them as historians?

Some of Britain's most distinguished Shakespearean actors have reopened the debate over whether William Shakespeare, a 16th century commoner raised in an illiterate household in Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote the plays that bear his name.

Acclaimed actor Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, the former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theater in London, unveiled a "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt" on the authorship of Shakespeare's work Saturday.

The "doubts" are classic ones. So nothing new, but worth refuting yet again.
The document says there are no records that any William Shakespeare received payment or secured patronage for writing. And it adds that although documents exist for Shakespeare, all are nonliterary. It also points to his detailed will, in which Shakespeare famously left his wife "my second best bed with the furniture," as containing no clearly Shakespearean turn of phrase and mentioning no books, plays or poems.

Yes, if you were a great playwright, wouldn't your checkbook be more alliterative? Your customer service accounts have better story arcs?
It argues there are few connections between Shakespeare's life and his alleged works, but they do show a strong familiarity with the lives of the upper classes and a confident grasp of obscure details from places like Italy.

Which I take to mean that Romeo and Juliet and Taming of the Shrew are not plays about love but about the author's summer trip to Italy. And as far as the "upper classes" go, I guess Mistress Quickly & co. be damned, eh? (And don't tell me "Sir" John Falstaff represents only "noblemen.")

One thing about that phrase "reasonable doubt." It gives away how lawerly the whole "authorship" issue is, and explains why it is not a pursuit of actual literary historians but a weekend hobby of lawyers. Sure, in a court planting "reasonable doubt" in a jury's mind is all it takes. But I'm afraid in the face of a huge paper trail of linking "that man from Stratford" to the plays--and no documents explicitly linking any other "candidate" (and I don't mean "code") to any one title--it takes a little more than poking "reasonable doubt" holes to overturn history. Sorry counselors, the burden of proof is on you in this case.

One way to bear that burden of proof, of course, would be to actually prove authorship the way grown-ups do--by linking specific authors historically to specific texts. It's not enough to show that if your man could have written one of the plays, he therefore wrote them all. (Not even real Shakespeare scholars claim the case for WS on each and every play is airtight.) It's also not enough to argue that in some fantasy world Edward de Vere could have had the knowledge and/or life experience to write Hamlet. Just imagine how many potential authors, by those standards, there are for R & J. (Been in love and been to Italy? You too could have written a masterpiece. Better yet if you killed yourself.)... So instead of publishing a mere "declaration" how about putting your money where your mouth is, guys? How about publishing a nice big coffee table book of "The Complete Works of Edward de Vere." Where--like any reputable Complete Shakespeare--you have to write an intro for each and every play showing the paper trail connecting the author to the play. Hmm, that would be harder, wouldn't it.

Anyway, I still look forward to Jacobi and Rylances next performances. If this what they need for motivation in their rehearsal process, so be it. But, good gentlemen, please keep it out of the classroom.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Why Stop at $450 a ticket?

"The $450 top ticket price for the new Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein is shocking in this regard: Why so little?"

-NY Observer's John Heilpern, taking the "modest proposal" approach to the economic obscenity of Young Frankenstein.

To wit: "
Mel Brooks isn’t scalping the public. He’s legitimizing a shady illegitimate business by offering a public service."

Despite the boast of these "Premium" prices, Brooks & co. are still bashful about releasing their box office receipts, which will reportedly be kept under wraps. If I hadn't learned about theatrical accounting from "The Producers," I'd say something funny was going on...

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Arthur Miller's "Secret"

I've refrained from commenting so far on the recent Vanity Fair piece "exposing" the existence Arthur Miller's purportedly abandoned Downs-Syndrome son. (Jason Zinoman also had a follow-up last week in the Times.) Frankly, I don't know what kind of response anyone can have that isn't highly personal. As far as shedding light on his work goes, it's become routine to comb through all an artist's biographical scraps looking for hidden secrets that put the work in a new light. But somehow I'm more comfortable about that approach when it's more in the past. Right now, it just feels like gossip, albeit true gossip.

The righteousness of Miller's plays has long turned people off, so it will probably be those same people who hold against him as a playwright his later decision (later than his major plays, that is) to have this son raised outside of the family in a special institution. For others, Miller's appeal was never in his moralizing but his sheer confronting of huge political conflicts at just the right time. And for exploring all the ugliness and guilt that connects the personal and political--especially in the father/son relationship.

Christopher Bigsby--the leading Miller scholar and biographer and, to be fair, a real champion of the man he became very close to--had a thoughtful take in the Guardian last week, offering a useful balance to the VF sensationalism:

The logic of these pieces is that Daniel [the son] was like a figure out of Jane Eyre - a guilty secret. He was, after all, it has been pointed out, not referred to in his autobiography, Timebends, seemingly left out of the family narrative.

In fact, you will find little in Timebends about any of his children. He had no sympathy for the notion that fame places an obligation on anyone to reveal details about their family. It is true that he did himself draw on family members in his art, musing at times on the legitimacy of doing so, but his life was the well from which he drew.

[...]

Daniel was not a secret. I had long recorded conversations with both Inge [Inge Morath, Miller's third wife and Daniel's mother] and Arthur about him and their decision in 2001. This was not the act of two people who wished to expunge him from the record. Neither, they insisted to me, regretted their decision, though another generation might have found it more difficult to grasp. Daniel was plainly the source both of pain and pride but it seemed to them both that they would not have been equipped to help him and that he had flourished in a way he would not have done had he ended up alone with them in the family home. It would, Inge told me, have been impossible to give him the kind of life he deserved.

And if the decision was wrong (though quite who would have been able to adjudicate is difficult to know) is it, anyway, so difficult to envisage that it is possible to be morally confident in the public world and unsure in private? Arthur Miller's work is precisely about such flawed men and women. In The Crucible a courageous public stance is taken by a man whose private behaviour is fallible. After the Fall is in part about a series of wrong choices. What are Willy Loman and Eddie Carbone, in Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge, if not men struggling to do right while unsure what form right action might take?

I totally understand people reading the VF article and thinking "Yuk, what a cold and pompous man." But to attempt to reevaluate the plays based on this particular bit of news strikes me as just not very sound criticism. As Bigsby points out, it shouldn't be news to any attentive theatre lover that Miller's plays have always been about guilt and moral failing. (If not as a father, certainly as a husband--adultery is always the original sin in Miller-land.) And I for one will always be glad Miller refused to name names before HUAC regardless of how many skeletons may lurk in his closet.

The particular feeling of violating privacy is poignant in this case since no one in Miller's family has brought this grievance. His daughter, the screenwriter-director Rebeca Miller--Daniel's sister--practically refuses to comment in the VF story. And when a glossy gossip rag like Vanity Fair holds itself up as the outside arbiter of morals peering into others' souls...well, as someone once said, "attention must be paid."

But, hey, truth will out, I suppose. And famous artists will never be able to contain what posterity makes of even the most intimate aspects of their life and work.

Matt Freeman, by the way, also had some good thoughts on this--as a playwright--in a blog exchange to which I contributed some additional comments.

Showcase Footnotes

If you're at all invested in acting, directing, or producing Off Off Broadway and you were on a lovely long Labor Day vacation last week and missed your weekly Village Voice... then you may want to check out my mini-feature there about the calls for reform of the Equity Showcase Code.

As I said last week, there was much I couldn't fit into the word-count constraints that is still very interesting and relevant to the debate. Such as...

Some of the more successful companies I reference who used to put on amazingly good productions under the restrictions of the code--namely Soho Rep and Transport Group--are indeed "graduating" and moving up to the new & improved AEA "transition" contract, which gives a small company three years to upgrade to "Letter of Agreement" status. Or else. (That's right, they can't go back down to Code after that. Hence the risk.) Soho got some ink earlier this summer over this triumphant move to proper "Off Broadway" (not quite) but it was interesting to hear from them directly all the calculations and risks this entails.

I hesitated over whether to use as my two chief examples theatres who were moving off the code. But I'm content to say they're the ol' exception that proves the rule. I also found many other "exceptions" of prominent companies who go on and off the Code depending on their season or the budgets or earning prospects of particular shows. New Georges, for instance, produced the downtown hit Dead City, on their Seasonal Code for '05-'06, when they could handle the required two shows. But last season they put everything into the equally praised God's Ear, and so mounted that one production on an AEA "mini contract", the lowest level of contract that still allows you to return to Code status later.

Another point I heard raised again and again (mostly by actors) was the AEA "insurance weeks" factor. In other words: Equity requires its member to work a certain number of weeks--in paid, professional legit productions--to be eligible for health benefits that year. Currently Showcase productions do not count towards that. (It is at least partially tied to the fact that non-code "contract" productions pay into that insurance fund in addition to salaries.)... How is this relevant to Showcase Code reform? Well it's on the actors' minds. Partially because AEA just raised (I believe, doubled?) the number of weeks required! Some say it could be a bargaining chip in any discussions with Equity. (Not that AEA is interested in "bargaining" right now.) My sense is that many Equity actors would be more willing to work in more Showcase productions for longer, even without salary, if it could add to their insurance weeks.

(I get the feeling for many Equity actors, the thinking is do the "Law & Order" work for the cash, do theatre for the insurance.)

Understanding AEA's thinking on the Code is predicated on grasping their point that any "code" is a basically concession of theirs. Charity. It's not a proper "contract"--formed after years of negotiation between employees and big employers, like League of American Theatres & Producers, League of Resident Theatres, Disney, etc. (AEA spells out the distinction clearly here.) A Showcase producer or company is by their definition not an employer because they don't pay a salary. Paying transportation or a fee doesn't count. Hence the line from the official Seasonal Code rules I quote in the Voice piece:

This Code is based on the premise that Funded Non-Profit Seasonal Showcase Theatres are subsidized by Actors as well as by endowments. At no payment level set forth in this Code does a theatre pay an Actor at a rate approaching what Equity deems to be an appropriate minimum level of compensation. Therefore, all services rendered by any Equity Member under this Code are subsidies to the theatre.
In other words, Showcases exist by the grace of Equity...

As frustrating as that position is, I do feel it's a solid argument, though. And I do agree that most of the fantastic downtown theatre we see is indeed "subsidized" by the actors who effectively volunteer their time and talent. (Obviously producers, playwrights, and directors are volunteering also, but they don't have a union urging them not to.) This acknowledgment and gratitude I feel is due the actors is one of the main purposes that motivated me writing the article in the first place.

I was impressed with how widely it was taken as a given on the producer/director side, though, that of course the actors should be paid. Many companies do manage a fee--anywhere between $50 a week to $1500 for the run. And the "favored nations" strictures of AEA mandate that no one on a Code production can be paid more than the union actors, including directors...A key selling point for reform I hear is that allowing productions to earn more (through longer runs. higher ticket ceilings) will lead to actors being paid more--not to producers pocketing the cash for themselves.

Lastly, there's the argument that since AEA's other Code agreement, the Los Angeles 99-Seat Theatre Plan allows much more latitude with length of run and rehearsal time, such flexibility should be transferable to NYC. But Equity says they're apples and oranges since theatre needs more support in La-La Land due to the eclipse of the film/tv industry. So I don't know if that point will gain traction.

One more factor I just don't have time to get into--but is interesting and important--is the increasing prominence of fringe-type festivals as basically a separate category of production. And also the increased need of ensembles for extended rehearsal and development processes that technically the current code does not allow for beyond a few compressed weeks.

I want to acknowledge, finally, my debt to the two previous print articles on this subject--one in Backstage back in May (link expired) and the Brooklyn Rail this summer.

And one last outtake: AEA's statement to me that not only was the code not a contract and therefore literally non-negotiable but “Nor will we negotiate in the media.”

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Critics be Damned: "Grease" a Hit, despite Lameness

From Variety:

Despite the downbeat reviews, "Grease" ($892,270) was up by $73,000 and played to full houses last week, with the average sum paid for each ticket climbing to $103.08."
Read it and weep, cynics.

REVIEW: "Boxcar" (Village Voice)

My review of a new play at Repertorio Español, Boxcar, in today's Voice.

While I had mixed feelings about this particular play (about illegal immigration, by the way) I am always glad to pay a visit to Repertorio, one NY's most prominent and lasting Spanish-language theatres. In a city that once accommodated theatres in Yiddish, Italian, German, and many other tongues, it's nice that some of this polyglot spirit survives.

Moreover, Repertorio can do some nice work. Rene Buch--the AD, who came from Cuba to study at Yale Drama in the 50s and founded the company in 1968-- brings some classical flair to that tiny little space on East 27th. (The historic Grammercy Arts theatre.) I still remember fondly his "Life is a Dream" which is probably still in the rep there. (Yes, it's a one of the last real "rep" companies in that way.) It's a pocket-stage with limited production values, but to hear Calderon in his own language (headsets provided, if necessary) is worth it at their cheap prices. They do lots of Lorca, too.

Quotewhore VJ?

Among the rave reviews for Legally Blonde, did you notice this fine critic on the marquee?

"A Hit! One of those rare star-is-born experiences!"
-Kurt Loder, MTV
Well thanks to that, and some other interest from the aging teenage network, the show--as Riedel reports today--will be broadcast on MTV next month.

That's right, move over PBS...

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Soprano Actor's Theatre Venture Whacked?

Thus just in on NYTimes.com Metro section blog:

The police bomb squad is investigating the explosion of a pipe bomb at 1:10 a.m. outside a four-story building in Chelsea that houses a nonprofit theater studio founded by Michael Imperioli, the “Sopranos” star, officials said today. No one was injured....The ground floor of the building [257 West 29th Street] is occupied by Studio Dante, a theater space run by Mr. Imperioli and his wife, Victoria
Given the lack of human tragedy here, can I safely say this is the most explosive drama yet to emerge from Studio Dante?

To think of how over the years theatres from MTC and New York Theatre Workshop have feared getting bombed over controversial work...this is what it takes?

Franzen-Awakening Fracas

Speaking of NY Post's Page Six, looks like yesterday they ran their own item on the skewering critique Jonathan Franzen offers in his forthcoming translation of Spring Awakening of the current musical's interpretation, first reported and quoted right here at length last Thursday.

I guess the Post, like me, probably got their own advance copy of the book last week. Otherwise, I wonder where they got the quotes from...

I have also noticed on my hit-count stats a lot of visits from a site called "The Guilty Ones" ("A Spring Awakening Community"). Welcome Duncan Sheik fanclubs!

If the Broadway team hadn't heard from either site, they got the news from the Post when asked for a comment:

The Broadway producers and Sheik declined to comment for Page Six. But an insider at the show ripped into Franzen's blast as flagrantly hypocritical:

"He's simply doing a translation. Why does he then have to criticize our play? He probably wouldn't have even had the opportunity to do the translation if it hadn't been for the great success of the show."

Well, maybe a point there about the musical creating new interest in the play--and new published versions. But conveniently ignores Franzen's clear "restorative" intent in doing the translation in the first place. If someone wanted to just cash in on the musical, they'd dig up some old sanitized public domain edition, instead of commissioning a prominent successful novelist.

PS. Just to make this not just a "what's up with Jonathen Franzen" issue, I want to point to again the fine dissent by Shawn-Marie Garrett earlier this year in HOTReview, referred to us by a Commenter.

Addendum: Looking more closely at the Post piece, I see that not all the Franzen quotes appeared on Playgoer. (I elipsed around some of those.) And I have no doubt the Post wouldn't print anything from a book on hearsay and only after getting their hands on a three-dimensional copy.

Also, about that last "response" quote, note that it's attributed to "an insider at the show" but after establishing that neither Duncan Sheik nor any producer would comment. Who does that leave? Steven Sater is mentioned further up in the item, and then not ruled out. Or, Michael Mayer, anyone?