A CLR Theater Blog
September 20th, 2012 at 9:02 am
Laurie Anderson in her Studio in New York.
Her performance of DIRTDAY! was presented by Cal Performances.
Photo: Lucie Jansch
Laurie Anderson, now 63 years old, brought her violin, allied musical accoutrements and minimalist set pieces to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium on September 18, where out of the contradictions manifest in scientific investigation, Tibetan cult mysteries, and lessons she has learned from a dog’s life, she spun a web of comedic intrigue.
Appearing in a loose-fitting white shirt and tie, black slacks and white shoes, and sporting a scruffy do that was its own hybrid—punk plus low maintenance—she, herself, especially when she tucks her violin into the crook of her neck as if it were her heart—evokes something sculptural and pleasantly exotic. She is Electronica Untamed and also Electronica Informed—by a classical education in music, philosophy and science.
The porridge-like sounds that result from the mix of her violin and the Tide music program she supplements it with, eventually refine themselves into a clean and nearly virtuosic blend. Scattered around her are cupcake-sized floor lights. They soften the space and distract the eye from the tech clutter Anderson manipulates to bring her show to its climax.
A quote from Darwin is her opening gambit: “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” Twisting Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory, she says that maybe he really meant survival of the strongest, flirting with a trope of Social Darwinism that the evolutionary theorist did not intend as the takeaway from his arduous research. But according to Anderson, there was the peacock, and even if the peacock wasn’t the fittest, he was indeed the finest, and so became the man of the evolutionary hour, thumbing his tail at all that Darwin stood for. She moves from this apostasy to muse about other narcissistic outcroppings staring up at us from the underside of the Universe. Here’s one: What if Earth is not the only planet possessing a population and culture? And why do we insist on calling it Earth, anyway, when it is mostly dirt? Why not Planet Dirt? The way Anderson sees it, it has become more of a battleground than a playground—why not call it by the lowly name it has earned? And on it goes, examining the Talmudic-like loopholes that have Israelis raising pigs on wooden platforms because it is not kosher to raise them on Israeli soil.
She returns to the USA and its recent passage of the U.S. Defense Authorization Act, which allows for indefinite detention of U.S. citizens deemed terrorists or terrorist threats by the government or military. She cites Paul Revere and his cry, “The British are coming!” Didn’t mostly everyone responding to the cry view themselves as British to begin with? So who exactly was it that was coming? She sidesteps the class implications of the first American Revolution. It was the British monarchy coming in the form of its proxy mercenaries to beat back the bourgeois revolution of now-American colonialists. That’s who it was! Instead of making clear the relationship of forces at work, she quips, “Ever since then, ‘we’ have been waiting for an enemy to show up, and if none did, it seems that ‘we’ are predisposed to manufacture one. Maybe the enemy is ourselves.” she proposes, luxuriating in the homo-seditionist overtones of her observation, but again confabulating those who rule with those who are ruled, a common confusion, not to mention one of many annoying obstacles to the advancement of class consciousness.
Anderson’s discourse turns to memories, dreams and their “tangled interpretations.” This fantastic voyage leads to Wall Street and its commoditization of everything, even things that don’t exist. “They buy and sell futures,” she says incredulously, “things they predict will some day come about but don’t exist now.” The capitalists’ dreams are so outsized that she is put in mind of SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome], where one theory says that babies dream of their past life in the womb where they didn’t breathe, and in some uber-Stanislovsky commitment to realism, simply stop breathing and die. The idea that we are asleep half of our lives and that she has therefore been asleep for 21 years, terrifies her. Continuing in the vein of tangled interpretations, Anderson says of the elections, “The best story gets our vote, whether it is true or not. We are going to go for the biggest, bushiest and most colorful tale.”
That the earth’s centrifugal force doesn’t send us flying off of it fascinates Anderson. “It spins around in space as if it’s trying to get rid of us. The good news,” she says, as if she is sharing an epiphany, “is that we have so many regrets that we have [plenty of material for] country music.” According to Anderson, everyone ends up with the wrong person, and that is what makes the juke box spin.”
Photo: Lucie Jansch
There is a sequence about her now-deceased dog Lula Belle that is unabashedly calculated to snag those who participate in the high profile Cult of the Dog that we see practiced widely in the San Francisco Bay Area, side by side with those who embrace the homilies of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Her dog took piano lessons, and she screens video of Lula Belle’s interpretations. She lampoons some of the Tibetan beliefs, at the same time seeming to endorse them in spite of her earlier salute to science. She clearly relishes feasting at the banquet of her own contradictions, and thereby distancing any audience member who is so presumptuous as to claim her for his or her camp.
Her finale has us, on the one hand, viewing New York from above, as a world of “glass and light.” On the other hand, she relates the story of her visit to a tent city in the woods of Lakewood, New Jersey. It is a Junkman’s Obbligato of the real state of the union, not to mention the real estate of the union, a place where The Now is also the future, tendered by homeless women who make little birdhouse tent city souvenirs out of scraps of wood to sell to women from neighboring towns who live in actual homes.
The full-house audience at Zellerbach roars its approval, and she honors them with a haunting violin solo that (almost) rights the Planet Dirt back on its axis as we exit.
September 5th, 2012 at 10:07 pm
John Lithgow will star in The Magistrate by Arthur Wing Pinero.
Illustration © Gerald Scarfe
The upcoming season at the National Theatre has a certain amount of “the mixture as before” in it. But it’s a pretty tasty mixture, and blended together right nice. From a rich and varied programme, a few particularly stand out. First off, Alan Bennett has written another play for them. People seems to be about an attic sale in a decaying stately home, which is enough to get any Bennett fan salivating. One of the most immediately attractive things about his last for the National, The Habit of Art, was the wild proliferation of stuff. He must be a joy to design for – last time the lodgings of W.H. Auden in his old Oxford college, and this time a mouldering pile somewhere in the heart of the British countryside. The poster has a sofa, empty portrait frames and open drawers – you can see the point being made about the absence of people, but there’s also a slight hint of Holbein’s The Ambassadors, that carefully composed jumble whose precise meaning scholars are still arguing over. And a mouldering country house promises plenty of Bennett exploring Britishness (whatever that is) in run-down institutions, via the line which runs through The History Boys all the way back to Forty Years On. The dialogue quoted in the advert has his customary bite:
– How’re you doing?
– Not sure
– Well, why don’t you get on the mobile to your dick and find out?
Speaking of Forty Years On, Bennett is also collaborating with George Fenton (who wrote the music for that early and excoriating vision of a tatty English school) on a short piece called Hymn: a memoir of music in childhood. A quick thirty minutes of music and musing, it’ll probably be worth a look, and is paired as a double bill with Cocktail Sticks “an oratorio without music that revisits some of the themes and conversations of Alan Bennett’s memoir”. Personally I tend to edge away from Bennett in autobiographical mood, on the stage at least – it doesn’t leave him enough room to say much more than how things were in one particular case. He says that accurately and even hauntingly, but it’s too cosy and slips too easily into Alan the National Treasure, unthreatening and nicely wistful. This piece is apparently only based on the memoir, and has fictional characters, but I’ll take even odds that it won’t have the grim reversals which made Talking Heads more than a set of character studies of good honest folk oop North.
The Effect is another appetising prospect. It’s a Lucy Prebble play described as “a clinical romance” which “explores questions of sanity, neurology and the limits of medicine”, and is directed by Rupert Goold, who staged Earthquakes in London at the National earlier in the year. I didn’t manage to see ENRON by Prebble, but heard from a friend that it managed a very difficult feat, staging details of the financial crisis without making it preachy, explainy or A Personal Human Drama. (It involved lots of shiny boxes and a light sabre fight with fluorescent lights, from the excited account I received.) If anyone can get neurology and medicine up on a stage alongside a love story, giving both equal weight, it may well be Lucy Prebble.
Arthur Wing Pinero is another British talent getting a lot of attention at the moment, though sadly he is somewhat too dead to enjoy it. He lived from the 1850s to the 1930s, and seems to be having a bit of a revival at the moment. His farce Dandy Dick is currently on tour, his nostalgic piece about the Victorian theatre Trelawny of the Wells is opening at the Donmar next season, and his “problem play” about the treatment of women The Second Mrs. Tanqueray is about to open at The Rose in Kingston. The National are adding to the wave with a version of another farce, The Magistrate. The Rose’s publicity material calls Pinero “more probing than Oscar Wilde and more accessible than Ibsen”, which frankly makes everyone involved in the comparison come off looking slightly shoddy. He is striking, though, as a figure of who links the self-consciously radical upstarts of the 1890s New Theatre (George Bernard Shaw and his cronies) with the unashamedly entertaining mid-century comedians like Dion Boucicault (whose London Assurance was a success at the National and on tour last year.) Trelawny of the Wells, whose name refers to the old-fashioned playhouse Sadler’s Wells, is partly a myth of origin for the modern theatre, in which a young actress (in love with a man of good family) finds herself trapped between being too lively for “society” but too refined for the Wells and its company. The invention of more realistic drama and her marriage to said young man cement the dawning of a new era in the British theatre, whilst looking back fondly at the old days of the Wells.
This is more than an interesting fact of theatre history because the National Theatre is itself the product of this period. It wasn’t actually founded until 1963, but all through the late nineteenth century the progressive strand of British theatre involved calls for a National Theatre to be founded, to nurture non-commercial work which could do more for the country than simply entertain it with comic stereotypes, dancing girls and sensational murders. Those in favour of a National Theatre were often leftists, sometimes feminists, often attracted by gritty realistic drama about social problems, and might well also be interested in staging Shakespeare in an “authentic” manner. High-minded, arty types with a burning belief that Art had a Mission. In other words, the National Theatre was a project espoused by those who thought Boucicault’s work was ruining British culture, and who would probably have regarded Pinero’s as little better. Though his most famous play, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray grazes social critique, it’s basically an exemplary tale about the ghastly fate which awaits a “fallen woman”. Certainly the plot of The Magistrate – with its young man-about-town whom everyone thinks is fourteen years old, a stepfather out on a secret binge and police chasing in and out of a hotel – is unlikely to set an audience pondering social problems.
Historical ironies aside, the appearance of the likes of Pinero and Boucicault at the National is rather cheering. It suggests that we’re rediscovering a part of theatrical history, from the mid and late nineteenth century, which has too often been banished, or only offered as the murky background against which Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw reacted. The Victorians have much more to offer us than their high-minded avant-garde and if the National itself can embrace the exuberant and occasionally inane products of the Victorian commercial theatre, we’re likely to get a rounder and livelier vision of our theatrical past.
September 5th, 2012 at 12:07 pm
Where a production goes after a run at The New York International Fringe Festival depends on many variables. Already 19 entries have been selected for the Fringe Encore series in September (two of which, Pulp Shakespeare and Pieces, were reviewed here). For details see www.SohoPlayhouse.com. Beyond that, only time will tell which shows will garner the luck, timing, financial backing and connections necessary transfer to a major venue. In the meantime we Fringe attendees enjoy compiling our personal wish lists. Here, in addition to the shows praised in previous columns, is a critic’s lineup of productions that show promise.
The Importance of Doing Art
Written by Susannah Dalton
Directed by Jose Ignacio Vivero
Tom Morf and Nick O’Neil in The Importance of Doing Art.
Photo by Angela Cardenas
Susannah Dalton’s satirical romp is endearing, sexy, and spot-on about art world pretension. Regular guy Jack (Tom Morf) notices that there is one type of male that always seems to have women eating out of his hand, despite a lack of looks or money. Who are these mysterious sexual sorcerers? Artists, of course! Roping his reluctant friend Sam (Nick O’Neil) into the ruse, Jack poses as a rising aesthete. Sure enough, intellectual posturing turns out to be catnip to photographer Rita (Sarah Hendricks) and artist’s representative Vanisha (Dalton), and soon the guys are having more sex than they can handle. The scheme threatens to backfire, though, when the fellows realize they might one day have show this mysterious “art project” they claim to be working on. Of course the women aren’t who they say they are either, and as gallery bigwigs get involved, bluffs are called, loyalties tested, and art – yet again – redefined. Jose Ignacio Vivero draws effervescent performances from a likeable cast, and bolsters the comedy with visual wit. Importance isn’t quite as tight as it needs to be, and its comic momentum stalls in a few spots. But with a bit of fine tuning, this timely farce could go places.
Written by Georg Buchner
Adapted by Elizabeth Chaney
Directed by Alkis Papoutsis
Kevin Kash as Woyzeck and David Dakota Sanchez as the Drum Major in Dark Hollow.
Ahead of its time, Georg Buchner’s 19th Century murder ballad gained popularity as the archetype of the Sympathetic Monster became a mainstay of modern storytelling. Here, the harrowing tale of a guileless soldier driven mad by social injustices and personal betrayals is reset in rural 1930’s America. Director Alkis Papoutsis is a master logician, and nimbly orchestrates the 17- member cast, complex cues and period props without a single glitch. His narrative choices, however, are sometimes puzzling. Some scenes are delivered in a heightened, theatrical style, bordering on caricature. Others beats are handled with stark realism, which is far more effective in provoking both empathy and goosebumps in the audience. Still, Dark Hollow’s inconsistencies are outweighed by its strengths, which include strong performances, a superb live bluegrass band, and adapter Elizabeth Chaney’s sensitive ear for the poetry of regional speech.
After the Circuit
Written by Josh Billig
Directed by Matthew Singletary
Scene from After the Circuit.
Photo: Jonathon Musser
The Great Depression also provides the backdrop for Josh Billig’s well-made dramedy about a struggling family of entertainers. Once part of a promising vaudeville comedy team, Theo Segal (Sam Hicks), finds himself unable to get his career back on track. His twin brother and comedy partner Alex, has recently died of a drug overdose, and without him Theo’s just no good. Neither is Alex’s widow Betsy (Kay Capasso) a former chorus girl who shares a cramped tenement with Theo and his brambly wife Sarah (Sarah Sirota). Tension runs high in this hardscrabble household, not least because a recent miscarriage has left Sarah depressed and angry. Despite Theo’s objections she walks out, not sure when, or if, she’ll be back. Left to their own devices, Theo and Betsy bicker incessantly—until they hit on an ingenious scheme. Blending laughs with sex appeal, the two hit the circuit with a sensational new act that promises to turn their fortunes around. Even success proves troubling though, as the duo’s budding chemistry threatens to derail any hopes Sarah has of resurrecting the marriage. Pressed into maturity, Theo finds he’ll need more than just a sense of humor to straighten this situation out. Under Matthew Singletary’s confident direction, a committed ensemble embodies the wit, ingenuity and weary courage that carried a troubled generation forward through tough times.
Written by Shuji Terayama
Music by Makoto Honda
Directed by Saori Aoki
Scene from Hanafuda Denki.
Like its eponymous playing cards, this opulent production (winner of a Fringe 2012 Overall Excellence Award for design) offers a banquet of colorful imagery to accompany its phantasmagorical story. Presiding over a Tokyo funeral parlor, deceased Danjuro (Kazuhiko Satomi), treats death like a game show. Instead of prizes, moribund contestants gamble to win the demise that best suits them. Of course, Danjuro wins every time: his ghostly village grows with each new arrival. But he’s not so skillful at controlling his rebellious daughter Karuta (Kanami Sakai) who has fallen in love – gasp! – with a living boy. This is a big taboo in netherworld culture. And to make matters worse, Karuta’s boyfriend Kitaro (cross-dressed Hiroko Ito), is known on the streets as a master thief. Danjuro and his wife (cross-dressed and heavily bearded IWAO) try to marry Karuta off to an eligible dead guy. Undaunted, Kitaro plots to penetrate the world of the dead, sabotage the wedding and steal Karuta’s heart. Has the wily Danjuro finally met his match? Let the games begin! Having toured since 2011, this engagingly ghoulish musical is among the most polished of the year’s entries. Whether Ryuzanji Company will enjoy an extended stay in the West is not yet known, but residents of British Columbia will have a chance to see Hanafuda Denki at the upcoming Vancouver and Victoria Fringe Festivals. See these websites for details:
ERRATA: Reader feedback has informed me that the names of two participants were misspelled in my recent review of In the Ebb. Apologies to actor Stewart Steinberg and sound designer Ien DeNio. Corrections have been made.
August 31st, 2012 at 5:52 pm
There were four of us – George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency. We were sitting in my room, smoking, and talking about how bad we were – bad from a medical point of view I mean, of course.
So begins one of the most famous comic novels in English. Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat is up there with The Pickwick Papers and Tristram Shandy for influence if not for style, and is much more frequently read than either of them. The decision of those three young men (and the dog) to cure their imaginary maladies by rowing up and down the Thames launches a series of misadventures including the time Harris fought an army of swans, the contretemps with the maze at Hampton Court and the regrettable incident with the defiant tin of pineapple. At the time it was either hailed or condemned as part of a new wave of writing by the “clerks”, smart young men whose education and interests were decidedly middle-class, though in retrospect it can look like the last flowering of the late nineteenth century, glad to be done with its strictures but yearning to believe in its idealism.
The novel has also launched a wave of adaptations over the years. Two amongst the handful I’ve enjoyed stick in the mind: Tom Stoppard’s TV version which used the three young men’s trip to illustrate the final drowsy peace of Edwardian England before the horror and dislocation of 1914. Mucking about in English history, enamoured and mischievous at the same time, there’s more than a hint in Stoppard’s Three Men In A Boat of his later plays like Arcadia and The Invention of Love (the latter actually weaves Jerome and his companions into the life and death of the poet A.E. Housman). Rodney Bewes’ one-man show of the novel won him the Stella Artois prize at Edinburgh, and I saw it as a fourteen year-old, enchanted by the show and by the sight of Bewes holding court in the bar afterwards, still in his boating blazer with a pewter tankard of beer in his hand. He brought more of the blokeish feel of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads to the show: less of the last long doomed summer and more of the lads’ weekend away1. Both tapped into different aspects of a book which seems to welcome adaptation, possibly because it’s such a mish-mash of jumbled-up elements. Or possibly because it’s a sort of adaptation of itself, having been intended as a guide to boating on the Thames which was overbalanced (I won’t say capsized) by the comic passages.
So The Original Theatre Company have an attractive prospect: a favourite old work which has a ready-made audience, but which accommodates adaptation well. Their version is full of terrific ideas, but never quite provides the pay-off. It was a great notion to reframe the story as a speech by J himself at a meeting of a local branch of the Royal Geographical Society in the back room of a pub. This allows Alastair Whatley (as J) to play up the sentimental and historical stuff whilst his companions Christopher Brandon (George) and Tom Hackney (Harris) can nick his cue-cards and throw them into the audience when they get bored. The addition of Nellie the dignified Edwardian pianist (Sue Appleby, who also MDs the show) brings in some music-hall songs and tuneful interludes of an occasionally anachronistic character, such as the Wild West card game.
It’s full of cracking ideas, but it never quite fulfils its promise. The “physical theatre” of the programme largely consists of stamping on each other’s toes, running about the stage and building a boat out of packing cases, umbrellas and the table. Unfortunately the result still looks like a pile of packing cases, umbrellas and the table. The most effective moment of this kind – the train carriage improvised from rocking suitcases back and forward and miming windows – is too obviously similar to the sequence in The 39 Steps, which is still running up in the West End. The plentiful jokes about “the magic of theatre” and the illusion breaking down would have been fine in a show which ran at full-tilt, but they felt a bit apologetic when the first half had failed to really build up a head of steam. Christopher Brandon’s flexible and mock-melancholy countenance – allied with his singing voice – is the best thing in the show, and Tom Hackney plays the thick-headed Harris with some brio. There are laughs to be had, but this feels more like a sketch than a fully-fledged work.
1 Though he has pretty good claim to know whereof he speaks when he speak of messing about on the river, being a member of the London Rowing Club and Freeman of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames.
August 23rd, 2012 at 1:38 pm
Two dramas feature vibrant
protagonists reexamining their marriages.
June and Nancy
Writer: Michelle Ramoni
Director: Kate Holland
The Kraine Theater
85 East 4th Street New York, NY 10003
In the Ebb
Writer: Camilla Ammirati
Director: Jessica Ammirati
HERE Mainstage Theatre
145 Sixth Avenue
New York, NY 10012
Given the Festival’s stringent load-in-load-out requirement, it’s no wonder many Fringe participants choose solo shows and improv comedy over traditional forms of drama. Yet every year, a few determined companies attempt the near-impossible, and there are several provocative entries currently on offer in the scripted, multi-character category. Two of the standouts, Michelle Ramoni’s June and Nancy and Camilla Ammirati’s In the Ebb take place in very different times and places, but they share a common theme. Both stories include searching, imaginative female protagonists who struggle to discover themselves as they question the stability of their marriages.
Michelle Ramoni as June in June and Nancy.
June and Nancy is set in prosperous post-War Manhattan, and part of the show’s eroticism comes from its stylish retro costumes and jazz soundtrack. The wider world is changing, but June (Michelle Ramoni), and her husband Marty (Jeffrey Coyne) still try to lead a conventional life. He’s the breadwinner, while June keeps house, volunteers at the Museum of Modern Art, and attends dinners with Marty’s clients. The couple has attempted to raise a family, but a series miscarriages have left their parental longings unfulfilled. Similarly, June’s artistic career has yet to bear fruit. After months of preparation, her first gallery show was a complete bust. In the resulting marital malaise, Marty struggles with impotence while June numbs her sadness with alcohol and is often on the brink of tears. Into this fraught situation walks self-possessed lithographer Nancy (Gabrielle Maisels), whose black slacks and sensuously windblown hairdo represent a very different image of womanhood than June is used to. Nancy becomes a frequent visitor to the museum, and the two women move from gazing at paintings to drinking in bars, to falling so profoundly in love they cannot keep their hands off each other. Just as their relationship is blossoming, though, unexpected changes take place that pull June back towards home. Torn between two worlds, she seeks the help of her best friend, Jerry (Peter Daniel Straus) who is himself struggling with the closet. But ultimately June is forced to listen to her own long-stifled inner voice.
Same-sex extramarital affairs have been dramatized before, but Ramoni’s smart dialogue and humanistic embrace of her characters brings a freshness to the genre. There is no stereotyping here, and June’s strained conversations with Marty are as delicately written as her blissful, stolen moments with Nancy. Under Kate Holland’s direction, the actors authentically embody both the socially proscribed exteriors and visceral inner drives of repressed 1950’s Americans. Ramoni, in particular, vibrates with such intense vulnerability that parts of June and Nancy are almost too heartbreaking to endure. Both as a performer and writer, hers is a talent to watch.
Crawford M. Collins plays “The Waterlogged Woman” in The Ebb.
A more modern internal conflict drives the restless souls who populate Camilla Ammirati’s two haunting, imagistic one acts. In St. James in the Field of Stars, Alicia (Leah Gabriel) looks back on her younger self (Crawford M. Collins) as she recalls the vagabond days of her youth. After the traumatic drowning death of her father, Alicia feels the need to escape the confines of her small town and a strained relationship with her mother (Mary Goggin). Wherever she travels, though, she perpetually gravitates to the sea, always choosing locations where the menace and beauty of the ocean is a constant presence. In a coastal town in Scotland, she soaks up the poetry of local speech and song, and bonds with wryly funny Anna (Lisa Crosby Wipperling), and jovial fisherman Iain (Michael Komala). But when a call comes from Joel (Montgomery Sutton), an old friend of Alicia’s, the prospect of a sojourn in Spain becomes extremely tempting. Suspecting (correctly) that her mother is behind this, Alicia nonetheless accepts Joel’s offer. Here, in a world of glittering stars, and cathedral spires, and warm nights by the shore, she is at last ready to open her heart again. Though the ensuing experience is bittersweet, Alicia emerges with a stronger sense of self, ready to begin the new journey that awaits her back home.
Less a sequel than a thematic continuation, The Ebb also features the ocean as a character—this time in a more literal rendition. Emily (Gabriel) seems to have it all: a loving husband (Sutton) a promising career, lovable in-laws (Goggin and Stewart Steinberg) and a house by the beach. And yet she spends her days more terrified than content, especially when a “Waterlogged Woman” (Collins) crawls up from the sea and bedevils her with dark premonitions. Is Emily, like her mother, becoming mentally unglued? Or is she merely exhibiting a healthy fear of intimacy’s undertow – the letting go that love demands of all us? The Ebb moves at a taut pace to its startling, and edifying, conclusion.
Both in the sprawling St. James and the tighter Ebb Ammirati’s language moves fluidly from naturalism to poetic invention. Due to the verbal dexterity of its characters, much of In the Ebb also manages to be extremely funny even as it peers into the abyss. The cast rises to the challenge of embodying the complex phrasing and ever-changing physical reality of her novelistic approach. Director Jessica Ammirati imaginatively visualizes the story’s shifting moods and varied settings, creating a series of haunting tableaus that mirror the dark lyricism of the text. She is aided by Sam Gordon’s fluid lighting, Ien DeNio’s sound design, and Phillip Roebuck’s atmospheric music.
August 21st, 2012 at 8:33 am
Her Majesty’s Secret Players
Writers: Ben Tallen, Aaron Greer, Brian Watson-Jones, and Jordan Monsell
Director: Jordan Monsell
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
New York, NY 10014
Writer: Chris Phillips
Director: Brian Zimmer
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
New York, NY 10014
East Coasters rarely think of Los Angeles as a great theater town. But, as two ambitious entries in this year’s New York International Fringe Festival prove, there’s a talent pool out there that has much more to offer than just good looks and cry-on-cue naturalism.
Justin Woodford as Gertrude, Aaron Lyons as Vincenzio de la Vega, Liza de Weerd as Jody, and Brian Weiss as Lancelot in a scene from Her Majesty’s Secret Players production of Pulp Shakespeare.
Photo by Brian Weiss
In the superbly acted Pulp Shakespeare, Her Majesty’s Secret Players reset the Quentin Tarantino’s Gen X classic in Elizabethan London. In lesser hands, this kind of mash-up might be merely silly: a sketch found on Mad TV or Saturday Night Live. Building a full length play around this concept, though, requires a more sophisticated sense of humor. Thankfully, director Jordan Monsell knows- and trusts- his audience and allows the laughs to arise organically from our knowledge of the source material. The meticulously constructed script (which seems to have begun as an internet phenomenon), rises to the challenge of translating Tarantino’s playfully verbose gangsterese into iambic pentameter. Thus, John Travolta’s ledendary exchange with Samuel L. Jackson:
Vincent: And you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Jules: They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with cheese?
Vincent: No man, they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what the f**k a Quarter Pounder is.
Jules: Then what do they call it?
Vincent: They call it a Royale with cheese.
Vincent: And know’st thou what the French name cottage pie?
Julius: Say they not cottage pie, in their own tongue?
Vincent: But nay, their tongues, for speech and taste alike
Are strange to ours, with their own history: Gaul knoweth not a
cottage from a house.
Julius: What say they then, pray?
Vincent: Hachis Parmentier.
Accordingly, killings are carried out with swords and daggers in lieu of firearms and Kelly Bailey’s richly detailed period costumes exchange mod fashions for ruffs and bodices. Even The Tornadoes’ iconic surf rock soundtrack is re-imagined as a renaissance gavotte.
There is, of course, plenty of fun to be had in anticipating how the authors will bard-ify each well-known beat of Tarantino’s excursion into the heart of hipness. But what really gives the material its irresistible charm is the commitment and charisma of the thirteen-member cast. Never winking to the audience or breaking character, the actors deliver the text with the same fierce passion and vocal precision as they would straight Shakespeare. Although PULP runs a little long, the ingenuity of its premise and the beauty of its execution make it one of the highlights of this year’s Fringe. These Players will not remain secret for long.
A different kind of violence permeates the atmosphere of Chris Phillips’s PIECES. When a high-powered Hollywood mogul turns up dead, his body dismembered and strewn about Beverly Hills, young Shane Holloway (Chris Salvatore) finds himself facing a possible death sentence. Both Shane and the murder victim, Stephen, are openly gay, and the likelihood of selecting an unbiased jury seems slim. In addition, the inevitable media circus could cast the gay community in negative light just when important rights are finally being won. Both district attorney Mary Hamilton (Nina Millin) and public defender Rory Dennis (Jonathan Gibson) agree that it’s better for the case not to go to trial. Shane is encouraged to plead guilty, take the lightest sentence he can get, and let the scandal pass out of the news cycle as quickly as possible. As Rory interviews Shane, though, a more complicated picture emerges. Did Stephen, wealthy and powerful, abuse Shane and the other young men who stayed rent-free in his mansion in return for sex? Is the sole eyewitness, dapper studio exec Jonathan Nielsen (Paolo Andino), telling the whole truth?
This premise has the makings of a good sociological murder mystery in the tradition of Richard Price’s Clockers or Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play (Phillips openly acknowledges Fuller’s influence). Unfortunately, the sleuthing and legal aspects of the play are given the short shrift, as Rory’s personal agenda takes center stage. According to him, gay men present a united front for political reasons but behind the facade their world is brutally stratified. Those with beauty, money or power -even the ones who donate to all the right causes- ruthlessly ostracize the nerdier types. This Labute-esque thesis is interesting up to a point, but loses momentum as Rory becomes more interested in bloviating than determining what happened on the night of the murder. Likewise, Rory’s lover, New York-based journalist Nick Goff (Joe Briggs), ends up functioning mostly as a sounding board. Nick’s vaunted hard-nosed reporting extends to abrasively questioning Mary, but he makes little effort to dig up the real story.
Still, Pieces gives its actors plenty of material to work with, and director Brian Zimmer’s draws strong performances from the ensemble. Gibson makes the bombastic Rory oddly loveable, and his scenes with Briggs are tender and convincing. Andino layers his portrayal of the secretive Nielsen with psychological complexity, while Salvatore finds the volumes of emotion behind Shane’s laconic dialogue. Millin does an enjoyable as turn Rory’s lovingly exasperated best friend. The actors are at their best in the few scenes that emphasize subtext over soapbox, and Phillips would do well to place more faith in their ability to tell a story through inflection and body language rather than exposition. There is a lot here to like, and if the superfluous pieces of PIECES could be trimmed away, a tighter draft might better serve its timely subject and intriguing cast of characters.
June 15th, 2012 at 10:47 pm
Ben Vereen is perhaps the most well known “triple threat” actor, dancer and singer, of his generation. In 1977, he starred as Chicken George in the TV series Roots, has headed the Broadway casts of Hair, Pippin, and Wicked, and appeared in numerous TV shows and films. He has shared the stage with such luminaries as Liza Minelli and Lena Horne, and is currently touring nightclubs in the U.S. and Australia. I was able to sit down with Vereen for an interview this week while he is in town performing Steppin’ Out Live at the Rrazz Room in San Francisco. We had been classmates and friends at the High School of Performing Arts over 40 years ago, and so this was a very special occasion for the both of us.
You give your everything when you perform. How do you prepare for a show?
I warm up not only physically, but spiritually. I do my stretches, and all the physical warming up for my voice, but I do the spiritual warm up for quieting my mind, allowing that which is within to come out. I still get nervous, but it’s not something I push away: I welcome it; to me it’s my desire to serve, to do a good job for those who come. I let it embrace me, because I realize that it is your inner being letting you know that it is ready, but it still feels like nerves!
When your career was just about to hit its peak, you learned that your parents were not your biological parents. How did that alter your life?
An identity crisis set in. Who was I? Where was I from? If I wasn’t who I had thought I was, who was I? Why was I abandoned? Why wasn’t I loved? Have I been lied to? If so, by whom? What is the truth? What is truth? What is real? Then those questions and doubts open doors to all sorts of dysfunctional behavior, and I went through a lot of those doors looking for myself, and something greater than myself kept me alive and kept me going until I found the truth.
Why was what kept you alive something “greater”?
Because my mental scope of humanity was telling me to give up, and so I was looking at the higher power, not necessarily as God, Buddha, or Allah, but as the creative force that keeps up going, the power that constantly comes up with ways for us to create a life within our life. Once you arrive at that point, then there’s a choice: to create or destroy.
You use the metaphor “doors,” but what were those doors concretely in your life?
Drugs, alcohol, and a promiscuous life style allowed me to hide and put up a mask to others and the public, and not show the pain of feeling that I was on the outside looking in, when I was so wanting to fit in and be normal, and behind the mask there was destruction and confusion. The only event in my life that felt real was the death of my daughter, Naja. It cut through all the falsehoods straight to my heart, and that wound will always be there. I learned to live with it. If you looked closely at my mask, it was a little off center. Her death forced me to find my center and settled me in. I arrived at the conclusion that I wouldn’t settle for anything less than to be treated as the worthy human being I am. I tell those I know that they are kings and queens because I think all of us deserve to think of ourselves as kings and queens– because we are!
Your audiences seem to feel very comfortable and at home with you. What would it surprise them to know about you?
I share a lot with my audiences. Most of them know about my addictive behavior and the accident that nearly caused me to lose my life, because I’ve been honest with them. But there are shadows, and I guess a part of me is opening up to release those shadows. On stage I can be pretty honest, but they might be shocked at some of the things that I have done. Maybe not. Maybe I underestimate their capacity.
We know that Sammy Davis, Jr. was a mentor, and a big influence in your life. What other individuals had a big impact on how you perform, and what lessons did you take away from knowing and working with them?
Dr. Rachel Yocum, the director of the Dance Department at New York’s High School of Performing Arts was a mentor. When Benjamin Raskin, my Junior High School principal, insisted that I try out for PA and said “You should audition,” first of all I didn’t know about auditions, but I went. I had had no serious training, and made up my own steps. I felt I didn’t do well at the audition. I compared myself to others there such as Winston Hemsley. But they accepted me into the school and she said come this way, and fought for me to stay in school, because I didn’t have the grades.
Another dancer there, Tony Catanzaro, who was a year ahead of me, taught me how to dance. He stayed with me from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. after school had closed , showing me Norman Walker’s choreography, and as a result, I was chosen to participate in a senior-level lecture demonstration led by our Modern Dance teacher, David Wood. Then there was Bernice Johnson and Michael Peters. We would go out to Bernice’s studio on Long Island to take classes in African dance.. I worked with Juliet Prowse, Arthur Mitchell, and Carmen de Lavallade, Talley Beatty, and Donald Mckayle. I’ve watched Frank Sinatra, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Sly, Gregory Hines, and many, many others. I took away a sense of the value of work, a work ethic. I’d watch Sammy from the wings, and how he worked with the audience, his devotion to them. When I worked with Leslie Uggams, I saw that she didn’t connect well with the audience, and I stopped the show, and began working with her to do that. Tom O’Horgan broke the fourth wall, walking over chairs. Vinnette Carroll took the actors into the audience to let them know that we are all one, and when you come to the theater it becomes my living room and I want to serve the best meal I’ve got because you deserve it.
Celebrity can lift an artist onto a higher plateau, but it can also anchor him or her to an insular life. What has been the impact of celebrity on your life?
Until I learned to embrace it, I thought I had to insulate myself, and you really can’t insulate yourself. When I was trying to get sober, I’d always go into rehab under an alias, until I finally admitted that I had the disease of alcoholism. Celebrity is a strange animal. When you hide from it, it becomes a clamor and that clamor can push you into defective behaviors, especially if you don’t have a home life, forcing you into a kind of seclusion. It can really get nuts out here, because people pull on you, pull on you, and you, or at least, I, need a higher source of inspiration to carry on.
Here’s a funny story: When I was in high school and going to dance classes, a guy came up to me and said, “Would you give me your autograph? You’ll be famous some day.” He was an autograph collector. Many years later, as I was walking out the stage door after a performance of Pippin, there he was looking for an autograph. He didn’t recognize me from the dance class days, but I recognized him and I told him, “You already have my autograph.” I see a lot of celebrities reject the public. I worked with a young lady in a show a few years ago, and she wouldn’t acknowledge those who came to see her. I told her, “These are the people who will come see you again, buy your CDs, your DVDs. They are your life and career. You’ve got to know your boundaries, but you also have to let your fans in.” I love my public, and if I’m walking down the street and someone wants to take a picture with me, I’m happy to do it. After all, they’ve taken the time to come to my show. Gilda Matthews sent me t-shirts that say “Spread the love,” and I think we should, we don’t have to hoard love any more than we’d hoard water; there’s enough for everyone.
You have had a career that is the envy of many young, talented people. If it were possible to have had a career not connected to the performing arts, what would it have been?
Somewhere in service. The closest would be teaching or ministry, not religious, but spiritual. I would like to have done something like Glide Memorial Church, or the Agape church in L.A. that serves the people, and I probably will day one day. I go to speak to people in rehab, and in prisons.
What do you think about the recent statistics that came to light in a New Yorker article that there are more Black people in prison today in the United States than there were slaves during slavery?
What happened after the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X? We let society beat us instead of taking control. One Black man elected to office can’t change that. We have to mobilize, be in the streets, visible. We used to do that. I gave a speech at Boys High in Brooklyn on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. I said that it seems like since Martin and Malcolm were killed, the Black population has taken some kind of pill like Valium, or a sedative. We’re no longer on the front lines. Instead of government serving us, it is telling us more and more what we can and cannot do. We must unite, and I’m not talking about Democrat and Republican, I’m talking about the human race, it’s about brother and sister helping one another. Those who have, have, and want more, but we all have an equal right to the wealth we created together.
Ben Vereen will be appearing at the Rrazz Room at the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason Street, in San Francisco through Sunday. For more information, call 415 394-1189.
June 11th, 2012 at 12:35 pm
Jean Rigby (Forester’s Wife) and Lucy Crowe (Vixen Sharp Ears) in The Cunning Little Vixen, Glyndebourne Opera House
Photograph: Tristram Kenton
We’re still at the point where talking about live broadcasts from venues like La Scala, Glyndebourne and the National Theatre involves reviewing the medium as much as the performance.1 Broadcasts like this version of The Cunning Little Vixen, or The Turn of the Screw, sit at the centre of a long-standing argument about the status of live performance. On one side, Peggy Phelan insists that art with live bodies connects us with what is most essential about us as humans, that it can even go some way towards healing the fractured and alienated conditions of modern life. On the other, Philip Auslander argues that our culture is so mediated and networked that even live performance is inevitably viewed through the frame we use to watch TV or locate rock-stars on the huge video screens at concerts.
Performance theory aside, it’s also impossible to ignore the fact that these broadcasts aren’t happening in a vacuum.2 The emphasis on “the live experience” has increased as live theatre and live performance have ceased to be the major ways we consume drama and music. (Film writing’s stress on “the proper cinema experience” in the face of DVDs and online streaming might make theatre specialists feels solidarity or schadenfreude, depending on the time of day and the funding cycle.) In other words, the extra cachet of a production at Glyndebourne, of actually being there, is partly dependent on how many people won’t/ can’t be there. If these broadcasts were successful enough that they became the normal way of consuming opera, the audience actually present in the auditorium would find themselves demoted to the status of “studio audience”, packed in to provide applause cues for the intended spectators at home.
Glyndebourne’s live stream walks this line carefully, providing a sound feed from the auditorium for quite a while before the performance, so you can hear the chatter and tuning-up. (A little difficult to enthuse about how cool it is to hear these noises spilling out of your laptop speakers without undercutting the point by admitting that it would be better to be there. But it is exciting.) The interval feed is equally ambiguous: it switches from the stage to a camera high up on the flagpole above the gardens, which for this performance were covered in a gentle drizzle. Pure English pastoral, with the opera-goers wandering tinily around the lawns, framed by the trees and fields beyond. The camera gives you a privileged view of the whole scene, but also hints at how you can only enjoy the vista like this because you aren’t part of it.
The production itself is absolutely stunning. Janácek’s loose, cinematic construction is deftly handled by Melly Still, with Vladimir Jurowski bringing great feeling from the score without a hint of schmaltz. Maxine Doyle’s choreography is fluid and witty, whilst the costumes (by Dinah Collins) are punky and allusive. The whole piece plays with the connections between the animal and human world, and between our world and the past, without drawing heavy-handed analogies. It is a pleasure to follow Lucy Crowe’s Vixen through her journey, and she sings the role with guts and gusto. It has not been an altogether popular production, not least with the huffy Glyndebourne reactionaries who have found plenty to be affronted about in this raunchy, grotty vision of Janácek’s world. I was totally enthralled.
[The Cunning Little Vixen is available to stream online until 22nd June.]
1 If you don’t feel that “we” are at any such point, and think it’s a lot of tedious jaw which gets in the way of the show, skip the next three paragraphs whilst “we” pontificate about the interesting cultural moment “we” find “ourselves” in.
2 Well, apart from that regrettable Magic Flute populated by household appliances, that really was director’s opera gone too far, sweetie.
June 3rd, 2012 at 8:23 am
Eve Best stars in the Old Vic’s production of The Duchess of Malfi.
In the 90s Susan Bennett described The Duchess of Malfi as the play of choice for theatres wishing to put on a Renaissance work which wasn’t by Shakespeare, and the last twenty years have seen the numbers of productions explode. This dense, eccentric seventeenth-century revenge play has seen become some sort of touchstone in recent years: it’s in the classroom, the lecture hall and the theatre more and more each year1. It has an older woman marrying her employee in secret, her incestuously-inclined brother who believes he has become a werewolf and a Cardinal who murders his mistress with a poisoned Bible and then sees demons in the fishponds. What’s not to enthuse about?
It wasn’t surprising that Kevin Spacey scheduled The Duchess of Malfi for the Old Vic this summer, but Jamie Lloyd’s production was something of a surprise. Graceful, well-executed and fluent, it was also curiously distant. The savagery, weirdness and chaos of the play were all kept behind the proscenium – a tone symbolised by the cutting of the madmen’s dance in the fourth act so we only heard their cries briefly and decorously piped in. Lloyd seemed to have decided the play was a timeless classic of the Renaissance theatre, and set out to give a demonstration of that idea without demanding that Malfi have anything urgent or shocking to say at this particular moment. It may be that Webster’s astonishing success has rendered him mostly harmless.
The set, designed by Soutra Gilmour, presented us with a set of walkways, passages and staircases which helped the general impression of intricate claustrophobia. Scenes on the floor level were frequently overlooked by characters above in the galleries, giving a powerful sense of the close life of the court. The panels which made up the balconies were decorated with stylized foliage punched out of the metal, a touch which hinted at the sterile, formalised patterns life at Malfi was trapped within. The opening sequence – a stately and sinister dance with candles – reinforced the impression of a world governed by an obscure but threatening order.
That order became less obscure as the play progressed, and we saw a few rosaries and crucifixes. I don’t deny there’s a powerful strain of anti-Catholicism in The Duchess of Malfi2, but bringing out the cowls-and-crucifixes paraphernalia every time becomes a bit wearing. If The Da Vinci Code accomplished anything, it was to show how dumb Anglo-Protestant no-Popery frothing looks when stripped down to its essentials, and frankly it doesn’t become more intellectually credible when it’s used as set dressing on the London stage. You don’t have to hold any brief for Catholicism (let alone the Vatican) to wonder whether the gothic trappings trotted out in Malfi productions have more in common with the sectarian riots and minority-baiting which stained a lot of British history than they do with the free-thinking anti-clericalism tradition of Voltaire. Actually the Old Vic went fairly light on using Catholicism to give its audience a cheap frisson – none of what one scholar of Early Modern drama has called “the usual crucifix and sodomy stuff” – but the incense and cowled figures which infested the stage from time to time could have wandered out of any Victorian gothic novel clutching its smelling salts and panting about sinister Continentals.
Eve Best played the Duchess as a woman in sight of middle age, sure of her own desires but uncertain how vulnerable she might become if she revealed them. A self-deprecating laugh kept appearing to assure the men around her that she was sort of joking, to take the edge off her evident need to communicate honestly in an environment stifled with pretence and deception. She didn’t leave out the more formal speeches, but played them hesitantly, like a woman trying to find her way round the role of Duchess. We saw flashes of her in other roles which seemed to suit this Duchess better: as a lover wryly aware of the gap in emotional maturity between herself and the man she nonetheless adored, as the sister who slapped Duke Ferdinand’s face when he insulted her too far, or as the friend and supporter of her waiting woman Cariola. (This last came out notably in the Duchess’ last orders to Cariola. The line – an instruction to give her son some cough medicine and see her daughter says her prayers – are usually read as underlining the Duchess’ maternal instincts, but Best played them as a task suddenly invented to distract Cariola and stop her realizing that she will be murdered too as soon as the Duchess is dead.)
Antonio, the Duchess’ younger husband, was played puzzlingly by Tom Bateman. Either Bateman hadn’t got the hang of the acoustics of the Old Vic, or he had decided Antonio would make most sense as an over-grown schoolboy with an emotional range between “good-chap-hearty-stuff” and “doom-has-come-upon-me”. Either way any nuance in the character was drowned in the shouting and flinging himself around Gilmour’s set. The Duchess’ murderous brothers were a suitably ill-matched pair, though Finbar Lynch’s ruthless Cardinal was more successful than Harry Lloyd’s rather querulous and over-done Duke Ferdinand. Mark Bonnar took on Bosola, which has been regarded as the play’s male lead for about the last hundred years. This sardonic spy, who was once a brilliant philosophy student before poverty led him to become a hitman for the Cardinal, has an easy appeal for the post-Pulp Fiction theatre. Bonnar really filled the role, holding the audience from the start, and was the only person on stage who could alienate their sympathy from the Duchess at any point. Despite some excellent supporting performance – such as Iris Roberts’ Julia and Madeline Appiah’s Cariola – the production was an intricate struggle between these two, both desperate, both emotionally hungry and both hating the role life had cast them in.
1 There have been enough “What’s with all the Duchess of Malfis?” articles, that I wondered last year whether it might be worth trying a “What’s with all the ‘What’s with all the Duchess of Malfis?’ articles?” article. And as soon as I can be sure we’ve punctuated the title correctly, I might have a go.
2 Deny it? I can bore about it for hours, particularly if you consider the anti-Spanish feeling in London at the time of the play’s first printing in 1623 …
February 15th, 2012 at 10:27 am
Caroline Head (Diane Fletcher) David Osmond (Michael Brown) and Sara Crowe (Olivia Brown) in Less than Kind.
Photo: Alastair Muir
Terence Rattigan was a dead playwright walking for about half of his career. Between the 30s and the 50s he’d written some of the classic studies in English class-consciousness and repression: The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, Separate Tables, before his reputation was blown out of the water by the arrival of the Angry Young Men. After John Osborne had set his hero striding about the stage and slagging off the Establishment’s pusillanimity in Look Back in Anger, careful and tightly-plotted parables which suggested that something was wrong in our England didn’t really cut it anymore. My copy of the Penguin Dictionary of the Theatre calls him “British playwright, whose well-constructed plays demonstrate the author’s command of stagecraft”, which is kicking a fellow when he is both down and dead, if you ask me.
Recently, however, he’s having a bit of a boom. Long confined to school syllabi and worthy TV dramas, Rattigan is back on the stage, buoyed up the by centenary of his birth in 2011. The National Theatre restaged After the Dance last year, the Theatre Royal Haymarket scooped some awards with Flare Path, and Less Than Kind saw its first production since it was written in 1944. The programme makes much of this “lost play” angle, though it’s really just the first draft of a more successful play which Rattigan felt had been ruined in development by egotistical stars. Still, Less Than Kind is a thoroughly enjoyable piece. Standing further back from Rattigan than his contemporaries, we can find his over-plotting ironic rather than contrived and his humour charming rather than complacent.
The set-up is intriguing. The scene opens with what looks like “An Inspector Calls model, No.3 variant” set: a smart flat with part of the wall carved away and a bomb-blasted building looming above it. A woman in pyjamas is on the telephone, cajoling a famous novelist and a cabinet minister into coming to her dinner party. We discover that her seventeen year-old son is coming back from Canada today, and that she’s wondering how to explain to him that since his father died she’s been living at the expense of a politician who can’t divorce his wife because of the scandal…and suddenly it clicks. The Hamlet reference in the title is for real, confirmed when the son arrives back and takes an instant dislike (aided by his socialist convictions) to the wealthy industrialist-turned-minister who is living in sin with his mother. It’s Rattigan’s attempt to take the basic Hamlet situation and write a play which is both funnier (more jokes and stronger sense of the ludicrous in life) and more serious (more realistic and less willing to solve everything with corpses.)
If you’ll allow him the chutzpah, it’s much more fun than it sounds. David Osmond is superb as the idealistic son: irritatingly patronizing, admirably ardent for reform and amusingly bothered about sex. Rattigan gives his mother more space than Gertrude is allowed in the original play, and Sara Crowe takes full advantage of the room to build a powerful character. She comes out as the play’s real hero: pragmatic, ironic and more aware than the men how little their choices will affect their destinies. James Wilby is better at the light passages than the emotional ones, but he picks up nimbly on Rattigan’s more genial and sincere version of Claudius. The one problem comes in the resolution, which feels a lot like (I won’t spoil the plot) mankind being reconciled with itself by realizing how vapid and cheap most women are. If the show knows that we won’t stand for endings like that these days, Adrian Brown’s direction needs to distance us from the characters, which didn’t really happen. The whole thing is definitely worth an outing to see.
February 10th, 2012 at 11:26 am
Matthew Cottle and Frances Grey in Neighbourhood Watch.
Photo: Karl Andre Photography
When people are arguing over whether you’ve had more lifetime success than any other playwright in history, the answer doesn’t really matter. You’ve won already. Unless he’s worried that Lope de Vega is somehow badmouthing him to his mates back in the Spanish Golden Age, I think Alan Ayckbourn has pretty much established bragging rights. Though he doesn’t seem to be resting on his laurels. Neighbourhood Watch, his seventy-fifth play, is vintage stuff: funny, bleak and appallingly accurate.
Starting with a speech to open a memorial garden, the play immediately loops back to a couple moving into an English suburb. Matthew Cottle and Eileen Battye play play the brother and sister perfectly, with the right dose of likeability, obsessing over side-tables and jokes which they don’t realize have fallen flat. The cheerful, politely Christian pair are eager to see the best in everyone: they rather worry about the high fences around the gardens and the uncharitable talk about “the kids from That Estate” down the road. As the first act movement develops, there is trespassing, threats of lawsuits, misunderstandings and vandalism until the plot turns on one line: “Right everybody, you heard my brother. Tea first, then war!”
Ayckbourn’s genius is in blending the comic and serious, the familiar and the outré. As a suburban housing development descends into martial law, there are some broad brushstrokes – “You know the procedure. If you want to make a complaint, you must submit it to the Morality Subcommittee in writing within ten days”… “The pillory is a problem: some of these anorexic teenage girls just slip out and walk away. Makes a mockery of the whole thing” – but they’re always set within an entirely convincing world of neighbourhood meetings and cups of tea. The affair between Cottle’s increasingly power-hungry do-gooder and Frances Grey’s local temptress works both as a mock-epic love affair between a troubled siren and The Leader, and as a suburban carrying-on complete with grimy net curtains. Amy Loughton as the music teacher is superbly suited to Ayckbourn’s style, switching in a minute between effusive unworldly Mozart nerd and a woman whose life has been shaped by a relentless catalogue of male abuse. Her reveal speech held the entire audience silent and horrified without ever stepping over into “theatrical” or showy. What’s so haunting about Ayckbourn at his best is the way these two perspectives both make perfect sense of the facts: the homely is also the horrible, the laughable is also the grotesque.
The same applies to those ghastly ideas “theme” and “relevance”. Neighbourhood Watch never feels like an “issue” play, but the London riots, the increasingly draconian Law and Order rhetoric from the Conservative-led government, and a series of police shootings make it exceptionally timely. Ayckbourn plays hilariously with the suppressed violence and fury which underwrite the huge sales of tabloid papers which tell Middle England every day that the yobs are at their garden gate, the welfare scum are taking their taxes and the police are too scared to do anything about it. It’s funny. But it’s also pretty ugly.
January 27th, 2012 at 11:35 am
Michael Sheen in Ian Rickson’s Hamlet at the Young Vic.
Photograph: Simon Annand
“That was creepy,” said my sister, “I’ve been round actual deserted asylums, and that was creepy by comparison.” To enter the Young Vic’s production of Hamlet, we were directed round to the back of the theatre, and in through a back door into a series of narrow passages decked out as an old-fashioned psychiatric hospital. We squeezed past noticeboards with the gym schedule (a lot of fencing practice in this institution…), watched people moving around on a CCTV screen and were ordered to keep moving by an irritated orderly. She was right. You could see the techniques they were using, recognise the little references to lines in the play (a platter of salami and chicken legs for the “funeral baked meats”, etc) and even think it was a rather watered-down version of the immersive theatre experiences staged by outfits like Punchdrunk. But we were still slightly on-tilt as we came out into the auditorium.
This Hamlet is set in a psychiatric hospital, with the hero struggling to deal with the apparent murder of his father by the usurping doctor Claudius, whilst the patients and orderlies alike are bothered by rumours of a giant figure who stalks through the place at night. At the beginning it seems most of this could be explicable – it’s a portrait of a troubled young man who responds to his father’s death by dressing up in his coat and constructing elaborate revenge fantasies. As the show goes on, however, we’re drawn further and further into Hamlet’s world. Places and times get blurred, the floor of the gymnasium opens up to reveal a giant sandpit, and dead people walk accusingly across the stage.
This setting produces a stylistic imperative: here we have the apotheosis of Awkward Shakespeare. I mean that as a good thing. The characters in their various states of turmoil seem incapable of the easy turn-taking which “normal” conversation and verse-speaking both usually require. We’re kept on edge by jerks in the poetic machinery as characters forget the word they want, or speak past each other, or can’t work out where the other person wants them to come in. Or, even more poignantly, a speech comes out like a carefully memorised lesson from someone who’s learnt to say the right thing to doctors and keep their head down. I’ve never seen a Hamlet where the admonition to speak “trippingly on the tongue” has been put in practice more variously or more effectively. The programme boasts voice work by Patsy Rodenburg and special thanks to Cicely Berry, so aside from anything else this show is a masterclass by two giants of Shakespearean voice.
The psychiatric setting also forces – or helps – the production into a particular vision of the play. In some ways this is quite an old-fashioned take, with Hamlet framed as a study of a mind in disintegration. Unlike, for example, David Tennant and Patrick Stewart’s performances at Hamlet and Claudius in Stratford in 2010, where the emphasis on plot and balance between the roles made it feel more like a political thriller. The shifting narrative at the young Vic makes us wonder how much is inside the hero’s head and how much is in the world, but that means everything is focused through our reading of the star. Though what a star. Michael Sheen is absolutely terrific, giving a nuanced and impassioned performance. He is mesmerising every minute he’s on stage.
Nonetheless, this setting of Hamlet asks us to strap ourselves in and follow the prince on his own terms, which flattens some of the other roles. Polonius comes out strongly, with Michael Gould building unexpected pathos and sympathy for the hesitant, eager-to-please courtier. But Benedict Wong’s Laertes is relegated to a foil1 who appears shoutily now and then when needed. Most botheringly, we only get Hamlet’s view of Ophelia and Gertrude. Vinette Robinson’s intense performance doesn’t get to do more than evoke pity for the hero’s castoff girlfriend, whilst Sally Dexter’s queen is kept obedient by a prescription drug habit which Claudius feeds. This take on Gertrude in particular is letting Hamlet have his own way too much: his mother’s troubling sexuality and agency is safely coded into an addiction which explains away the actions her son doesn’t like, instead of facing us with a mature woman who makes conscious choices. That said, this is a frightening and engrossing production, and should be seen!
1 Thank you, thank you. I’m here all week. Tip your subeditor.
December 16th, 2011 at 12:35 pm
James Corden in Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors
[Photo Credit: Johan Persson]
Richard Bean (author of The English Game) and James Corden (co-writer and star of Gavin and Stacey), are two guys with a remarkable track record for explaining English manhood to itself. A combination described by some1 as “bloke-theatre nirvana” back when One Man, Two Guvnors was first mooted at the National Theatre. Bean adapting Carlo Goldoni’s eighteenth-century farce Servant of Two Masters, with Corden in the title role, seemed to promise an ironic modern look at masculinity in crisis. That is not what it delivered. But we were laughing so hard we could barely breathe, let alone remember what we’d been expecting when we came in.
For this show is funny. I mean, it is really funny. Not the kind of funny you might associate with a National Theatre adaptation of an eighteenth-century Italian play. It’s splutteringly, potato-throwingly, unreasonably hilarious. It’s the sort of show that you try to explain to your friends by getting up and rushing round the table, waving your arms and gurning, whilst searching for the gesture to indicate “enormous tartan trousers”. James Corden, swathed in clashing checks, is a terrific modern version of Harlequin from the Commedia del Arte – as he says at the beginning of the second half “Anyone pick that up? Talk about it in the interval? Maybe to impress a date, over a glass of wine? No? Good, nice to know we haven’t got any total dicks in tonight.” But he is also Billy Bunter, Toad of Toad Hall, even Uncle Monty: a disgraceful, uncontainable and very English presence on the stage. Michael Billington wrote that this play would be a huge success if Corden can hold off the film offers, but the way he throws his body around the Adelphi, it may be his chiropractor rather than his agent who coaxes him away.
Bean has planted the show in the early 60s amongst small-time London crooks. There’s a father in debt, an overeager thespian boyfriend, a dead gangster’s twin, a posh boy with a deathwish and a dolly bird who cooks the books. The characters are all writ large and writ from the British Bummper Book Of Villains Was Like In Them Days. But where another writer might have whipped up some queasy “Kraystalgia”, harking back to that favourite English Neverland when sociopathic thugs had “standards”, Bean slings these types around the plot with a joyous recognition that it was never like this and never could be. The cast follow him into the game with crazy gusto, and he gives them plenty to do: the physical gags are uproarious, the speeches splendidly overwrought and at the centre is the big lad in the mismatched check, wondering what he’s got himself into. The musical interludes, written by Grant Olding and performed by pitch-perfect retro outfit The Craze, take the madness even further. Want to see a geezer in a fez performing a rock n roll solo on a xylophone? A bloke in a pith helmet playing a collection of motor horns? Well, why didn’t you say, step this way, there’s this show you might want to have a gander at…
1It may have been me. But the friend I was having dinner with repeated it in a scornful and incredulous voice, so technically she said it too.
December 16th, 2011 at 11:53 am
Comedian Ross Noble
The beginning was the best bit, though several subsequent bits were also excellent, and around the end it got particularly cheery. Doing the announcement off-stage, Ross Noble became entranced by the possibilities of the black sheet which provides the stage wings at Cranleigh Arts Centre. For a solid twenty minutes all we could see was a piece of fabric flapping in the near-darkness whilst a disembodied Geordie voice echoed around the room. It showcased all of Noble’s best points: the delight in the ludicrous, the ideas tripping over each other to get out and the revelling in how foolish he may look to an audience. And of course The Voice. This is the man of whom Ruby Wax once demanded “I’m sorry, is that talking English over there?” (“Have you never heard a Geordie accent before?” “Not from something that looks like it hasn’t brushed its hair in a year or two, no.”) but it certainly is English and he delivers it with rhythmic relish. All three comedians on the bill use their voices to terrific effect, from Noble’s tumbling Northern hoots, through Henry Packer’s clipped and slightly tetchy Home Counties vowels, to Hannah Gadsby’s Tasmanian creaks and swerves.
That’s a good thing, because their show was all about style. There weren’t a huge number of new ideas on offer: Packer joked about how inconvenient autocorrect is when you’re texting, Gadsby remarked on how chauvinistic men seem to find the idea of lesbians curiously interesting, and Noble went off about how disappointed the inventors of the past would have been by all the pornography on the Internet. I could tell you the times and places when I first heard comedians doing routines about those subjects, but it would rather miss the point. You don’t go to this lot for surprising thoughts or intellectual wrangles – that’s Richard Herring or Eddie Izzard’s territory. What you do ask – and what they supplied – is a performance. Packer strides across the floor explaining what he finds “irksome”, Gadsby acts out awkward conversations with her family, and Noble’s absolute best moments come when he is visibly wrestling with a new thought in front of the audience.
Somehow, and rather unfairly, this means that the more obviously scripted sequences in the evening come across a little flat at times. After the vertiginous moments of drama, where man battles curtain in a moving enactment of the human struggle, anecdotes about old films and school exams don’t quite have the same impact. Added to which, Noble does tend to expand verbally in person to fill the available time. Anyone who went expecting hours of the surreal brilliance which can be seen in five minute bursts on QI was disappointed. I’m not the first critic to feel that Noble is a bit self-indulgent at times, and could do with some rigorous self-editing, but maybe you only get the unexpected shifts into sheer hilarity if you keep it all on a long rein. But it’s worth it for those bits, and then some.
December 9th, 2011 at 12:26 pm
Amanda Donohoe with Daniel Casey
There’s a feeling you get about ten minutes into a Noel Coward play. The lights have come up, the set has been admired, the opening salvoes exchanged and then – whether it’s Hay Fever, Present Laughter or Private Lives – you realize that we’re in here for the duration. It’s like a moment of mild claustrophobia. This is all the room we’re getting. There are brittle witticisms to be flung and emotional permutations to be worked through, and until that has all happened no-one is going anywhere. Even in a good production, it can feel faintly daunting. Elegance is a definite virtue, but it’s not the same as being digestible. The Church of All Saints on Turl Street is elegant, but I wouldn’t want to choke that down with a swift half of bitter and a packet of nuts.
So it’s fun to see Christopher Luscombe’s version of Star Quality (adapted from an unproduced Coward play and a short story) and watch authentically Cowardian1 material handled in a more fluid style. You don’t have to be Bert Brecht these days to leave the back wall blank, whip the furniture on and off a bit lively-like, and set a couple of scenes running at the same time on one stage. Luscombe is not provoking a critical attitude towards the operations of late stage capitalism in the entertainment industry. He is, however, provoking a few good laughs and a saucy bit of business with a sarong and a breakfast tray.
The show revolves around the production of a play, and the battles between Sincere Young Playwright (Bob Soul), Theatre Diva (Amanda Donohoe) and Smooth Director (Ray Malcolm). It’s about how writers and performers misunderstand each other, about what “theatre” really is, about trying to put the indescribable into words, and about how personal deception makes for artistic truth. Or it’s a great big gossipy bitch-fest about mid-twentieth century show folk. (It may be the former, it’s definitely the latter.) I got just enough of the references to real people at the time (Binkie Beaumont, check; George Rylands, check) to give me a sense that this all could have happened, more or less like this, in a rehearsal room back then. There’s no plot to speak of, just a lot of thesps doing their various things. It’s not the most shattering achievement in all drama, but if you like Coward it’s great fun to get a glimpse of the milieu in which his other plays were built, to see the “very ageing bodies of the time their bad form and budget pressures”.
Star Quality manages to catch the audience in an intriguing bind. If you poke away at the piece, demanding it have something to say, you come dangerously close to the would-be Angry Young Man playwright who stumbles around inside the theatrical world. If you simply admit to being charmed by its gossipy flair, you’re also him, but in the moments when he’s dazzled rather than disgruntled. A lot of people won’t go with it – I can’t blame them, but I did.
Star Quality Preview