August 29, 2009

Turning on the Ghost Light

I'm playing hooky for a week. So, just as theaters do when they’re temporarily empty, I’m turning on the ghost light. I’ll be back around Labor Day and hope to see you then.

August 26, 2009

"The Bacche" in the Park Is Less than Divine

In ancient Greek mythology, Dionysus is the god of theater, wine and ecstatic pleasure. In other words, my kind of guy. The Bacchae—the final play by the Greek playwright Euripides—tells the story of how the often-temperamental god avenges himself when the city of Thebes refuses to pay him the homage he believes he deserves. I reveled in Alan Cumming’s flamboyant portrayal of the deity in the National Theatre of Scotland’s captivating production of the play at last summer’s Lincoln Center Festival (click here to read my review). And I was eager to see what the avant-garde director JoAnne Akalaitis would do with it for the Shakespeare in the Park production that opened at the Delacorte Theater on Monday night. As it turned out, she hasn’t done nearly enough.

The main job of a director is to develop a vision for a play and get all the people involved in the show—the actors, designers and, in this case, the noted composer Philip Glass—to share that vision and bring it alive on stage. And as the classicist Simon Goldhill points out in his book “How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today,” the degree of difficulty rises when the play is a Greek drama since that gives the director the extra burden of finding a way to pull in the chorus that comments on the action in Greek plays and the gods who populate them so that those elements are also in harmony with the guiding vision. But everyone involved in the Akalaitis production seems to be dancing to his or her own lyre.

Jonathan Groff, who made a name for himself in Spring Awakening and last summer’s park production of Hair, is adorable. But just being cute doesn’t cut it when you’re playing Dionysus. If you’re going to be a god, then you’ve gotta be godly. The idea seems to be to have him portray the character as a rock star—Groff is costumed in torn jeans and a leather jacket—but, as my friend Jesse observed, he desperately needs some Mick Jagger-style swagger, the kind of menace that makes rock stars so divinely seductive.

Similarly Joan Macintoh fails to convey the anguish of Queen Agave who discovers, in true Greek-tragedy style, that she has unknowingly committed an horrendous murder. Anthony Mackie does a little better as Pentheus, the sanctimonious ruler of Thebes. But having found one strong note—how dogmatic the character is—he plays it over and over again.
Older actors like George Bartenieff as the patriarch Cadmus and André De Shields as the blind prophet Teiresias do slightly better. But you know something is wrong when bottom-of-the- Playbill characters like the Herdsman (Steven Rishard) and the Messenger (Rocco Sisto) are the standouts. It’s true that their speeches about terrible deeds are vivid in Nicholas Rudall’s translation but the audience the night Jesse and I saw the show just seemed grateful to have actors onstage who expressed some genuine emotion.

One of the show’s draws was supposed to be the original music composed by Glass, who is also Akalaitis’ former husband (click here to read a New York Times story about them). His score turns out to be more melodic than I had expected but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the show. Nor really does David Neumann’s synchronized choreography for the Chorus—12 women of different ages, ethnicities, shapes and dancing abilities.

The designers go their own way too. John Conklin’s set resembles a miniature sports arena complete with metal bleachers and a wading pool. I got that it's supposed to evoke the amphitheaters in which Greek plays were performed but the Delacorte itself already does that and watching characters run and up down the bleachers or splash in the water for no apparent reason got tired fast. I have no idea what Kaye Voyce is trying to evoke with the costumes. Groff and Mackie are in modern dress, Bartenieff and De Shields are done up like vaudevillians and the all-female Chorus look like refugees from a Vegas version of The King and I.

“How bad was that?” asked the young, Brad Pitt-look-a-like who struck up a conversation with Jesse and me as we walked out of the park. He told us he was an actor and he had the arrogant aura that would have made for a good Dionysus. I’m not sure what the god himself would have thought of the production. There is something almost mystical about seeing any show on a beautiful night in the park. And the ushers were allowing people to carry plastic cups of wine to their seats. But as for the ecstatic pleasure, he would have to look elsewhere.

August 22, 2009

Forgoing the Fringe

I could blame it on the fact that I live on the Upper West Side and most of the shows for the New York International Fringe Festival are all the way downtown. Or I could fess up to the fact that while I can appreciate simple staging (shout out to David Cromer’s Our Town) I have an admittedly snobbish preference for shows with more polished production values. Or I could even invoke the tropical weather that has caused my favorite activity this past week to be lolling on the terrace—a glass of crisp rosé in one hand, my new Kindle in the other (I’ve been having a dandy time clicking through “Supporting Player," Richard Seff’s memoir of being an actor and agent in the Golden Age of Broadway during the 1950s and 1960s and I wish more theater-related books were available for downloading).

But the truth of the matter is that we're one week into the Fringe Festival and I haven't seen any of its shows because there are simply too many of them for me. Deciding which ones to see is too much of a crapshoot: with snake eyes likely to be more common than boxcars. So I’ve contented myself with reports and reviews about the festival. The invaluable has reviews—or previews
of all 201 shows (click here to read them). The New York Times chimed in yesterday, focusing mainly, although not solely, on a 75-minute revival of the 1967 musical How Now, Dow Jones (click here for that). But if you’re still trying to decide what to see, then your best bet might be the list the helpful folks at Critic-O-Meter have put together, grading the most talked-about shows of the festival (click here to check it out).

So go (there's a whole week left) enjoy yourself (tickets are generally around $15) and if you don’t run into me at any of them, know that I’ll be toasting your adventurousness.

August 19, 2009

The Shame of "The Columbine Project"

Nine years have passed since Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project created The Laramie Project, the groundbreaking documentary play about the homophobia-inspired murder of Matthew Shepard. Using published news reports and personal interviews with some 200 townspeople in Laramie Wyoming, the piece was a moving meditation on the murder’s effect on the community in which the young gay college student lived and died. Kaufman and the company went back to Laramie last year for an update and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later is scheduled be presented as a staged reading on Oct. 12 at theaters across the country, including Alice Tully Hall here in New York.

That is good news. What isn’t is the proliferation of imitations The Laramie Project has spawned. Many would-be playwrights now seem to think all they need to do is find a calamity, patch together excerpts from news reports about the event and slap the word “Project” in their title. But it takes more than that to make a play, at least a meaningful one. A few, like The Amish Project, the one-woman show about the slaughter of five girls in an Amish schoolhouse that emerged from last year’s Fringe Festival, do achieve their own grace, finding a way to turn tragedy into art. But others are like The Columbine Project, the new play about the 1999 massacre at a Colorado high school in which 15 people died, including the two students who committed the attack. The only word I can think of for the latter is exploitative.

I take no pleasure from beating up on a small show and I know that small productions have to make do with less. But that’s where creative stagecraft and imaginative storytelling come in. The Columbine Project lacks both. Playwright Paul Storiale serves as his own director and lets himself down by staging scene after scene with actors just walking on, standing in the middle of the stage, shouting some dialog and then walking off.

Actors are valiant creatures and a couple of the 19-member-cast—most notably, Rya Meyers as the devout Christian student who was the shooters’ first victim and Marquerite Wiseman as the mother of the sole African-American student killed—do manage to sneak a little life into their characters. But it’s not enough. Josh Iacovelli, who is listed in the program as responsible for “set adaptation” didn’t even try. The curtain that serves as the backdrop for a table and a few chairs kept splitting open to reveal offstage actors who shouldn't have been seen at that moment. My class did a better job with the set for the spring play when I was in 6th grade. And I went to a school in a poor neighborhood.

Of course I’ve seen poorly written, poorly directed, poorly acted and poorly designed shows before. What so upset me about this one is that in my all years of theatergoing, it is one of the very few times when I didn't applaud at the end of a show. I simply couldn't do it because I felt ashamed as I sat in the Actors Temple Theatre, where The Columbine Project is currently running. I felt as though I were complicit in a violation of the memory of the people who suffered that day and of the professionalism of the theater people who once worshipped at the Temple. They—and I
deserve better.

August 15, 2009

“Summer Shorts 3” Falls Short

The Summer Shorts Festival of New American Short Plays is the theatrical equivalent of grazing. Playwrights—some of them quite well known—serve up small one-act morsels for theatergoers to sample. If you don’t like one at least you know it won’t last longer than 30 minutes and there’s always the hope that the next one will be more to your taste. Or at least that’s how I felt as my husband K and I showed up at the 59E59 Theaters to see Summer Shorts 3, the third installment of this seasonal showcase.

As usual, the festival is divided into two programs of four plays each. K and I had been particularly interested in seeing Series A because it includes a piece by Nancy Giles, who in addition to acting and doing voice over work is a regular—and often witty—commentator on the CBS show “Sunday Morning,” which is a favorite part of our weekend routine. Plus the grouping had a piece by Neil LaBute, who is almost always worth seeing. But before the first hour was over, I was checking my watch and wondering if I should restrict all future theatergoing to revivals.

Giles kicked off the evening with a performance piece called Things My Afro Taught Me. This had great potential since hair has always been a potent means of expression—aesthetic, political, and social—for black people. But Giles doesn't seem to have anything to add to that conversation and instead, plays it safe with rambling stories about
surviving bad haircuts and envying the way white girls flick their hair. Giles wrote the material and performs it and no director is listed in the program. It’s clear she could have used some help with styling her Afro.

At least Giles is likable. The next playlet, Death by Chocolate by John Augustine, doesn't even have that going for it. A collection of sophomoric jokes about a widow whose husband has died after choking on candy, it made me feel embarrassed for the actors—Sherry Anderson, Mary Joy and Aaron Paternoster—and annoyed at the festival’s selection committee. Augustine specializes in short plays but it's hard to believe that this was one of the best new short plays that came across the committee members' desks. Or if it is, then I really have to get serious about that revivals-only vow.

Things picked up a bit after intermission with the arrival of the LaBute play, A Second of Pleasure, a Cheeveresque rumination on love about a couple going away for a summer weekend. There are surprises—both in the way the story develops and in the way the emotional punch of the piece sneaks up on you. A large part of the credit goes to the deft performances by Margaret Colin, who I’m always happy to see on a stage, and Victor Slezak, who I’m now eager to see more of.

But the evening’s final offering, The Eternal Anniversary—a chamber musical with turn-of-the-20th-century costumes, and a fussy set—had me checking my watch again. Bill Connington’s book about a couple celebrating a 20th anniversary is less clever than it gives itself credit for being. And the music by composer Skip Kennon, who played it on a small upright piano that was wedged between the stage and the first row of the audience, is pleasant but predictable and unmemorable, although the singers—Robert W. DuSold and Leenya Rideout—did well enough by them.

So all in all, this year’s Shorts fell short for me. Of course, that’s a risk you run with grazing: sometimes you end up feeling hungry for more substantial fare.

August 12, 2009

The Hot Topics of "A Lifetime Burning"

The theater community has been abuzz for weeks about a study a Princeton grad student did showing how hard it is for women to get produced on Broadway or by the big off-Broadway companies. So the prescient decision by Primary Stages to celebrate its 25th anniversary by dedicating its entire season to female playwrights should be hailed as a welcomed attempt to level the playing field. And I hope it doesn't sound ungrateful to say I'd be even happier if Primary Stages and other producers—off-Broadway and on—would just put on good works written by female and minority playwrights in the normal course of doing business and not to fulfill a thematic requirement or to expiate past sins.

Even so, I’m happy—for me and for you—to be able to say that despite my reservations, I had a good time at A Lifetime Burning, the new play by Cusi Cram that made its world premiere at Primary Stages last night. Cram's association with the company dates ba
ck 10 years and she currently teaches playwriting workshops at its school but this is the first time the company has produced one of her plays (click here to see a video interview with her).

A Lifetime Burning is one of the new generation of boulevard comedies that concern themselves with the travails of the people we used to call yuppies. As with any genre, some of these works are better than others. Cram's isn’t perfect but it swims in the deep end of the pool.

The play was inspired by the case of Margaret Seltzer, who wro
te a memoir about growing up as a Native American foster child in South-Central Los Angeles where she became an acolyte of, and drug runner for, the infamous Bloods street gang. Just before the book came out, Seltzer’s sister revealed that the author was white and actually grew up in an intact and affluent family. A Lifetime Burning further complicates the situation by giving the fictional fibber (a trust fund baby of Irish heritage who pretends to be poor and part Inca) a bipolar disorder, a relationship with a younger Hispanic man she meets while volunteering as a GED tutor and a high strung-sister with issues of her own and a love affair with her cell phone.

There is serious stuff beneath the jokes. Cram makes a good faith effort to examine the distorted ways in which class, race, and family baggage affect how we define ourselves and how others define us. But her ambitious play leans too heavily on awkward plot devices (the sisters get drunk and so they get truthful, the writer’s tough British editor makes house calls) that threaten to push A Lifetime Burning into sitcom territory.

What pulls it back is Cram’s very funny dialog and the very appealing cast that delivers her lines. Jennifer Westfeldt (best known for her role as the title character in the 2001 movie “Kissing Jessica Stein”) is charming as the writer, Raúl Castillo avoids all the usua
l street-kid clichés as the boyfriend, and Isabel Keating steals all of her scenes as the editor—a miniature bull terrier with a sharp bite. Christina Kirk, who plays the sister, was the only one who didn’t quite work for me. Although I confess I may have been unfairly distracted by the actress’s small lisp.

I don’t know if Primary Stages is also going out of its ways to find female designers this season but Kris Stone scores with a set that is exactly the kind of superficial chic you’d expect to find in the home of a person desperate to maintain the right facade. And Theresa Squire’s costumes are just as smart—and great looking. With the exception, again, of Kirk’s character, who is dressed so dowdily that it almost looks as though the actress had been out running errands and got to the theater too late to change.

Smartest of all is director Pam MacKinnon who brings the disparate pieces of the 90-minute play together so neatly that you almost don’t notice its rough patches (would a high school dropout who struggles with the concept of antonyms really make quips about his cerebral cortex?). In fact, the whole show is so smartly done that I’d like to think the good folks at Primary Stages would have put it on even if they hadn’t had a gender quota to fill.

August 8, 2009

"Dreyfus in Rehearsal" Performs Poorly

Summer can be a challenge for theater lovers like me. We’ve already seen the Broadway shows that have survived the traditional post-Tonys melt. And the big off-Broadway companies tend to shift into vacation mode, serving up the theatrical equivalent of whatever doesn’t require too much time in the kitchen.

So that means we’re left to the mercies of the smaller companies and the summer festivals. Sometimes we luck out as I did with the late spring holdovers Next Fall (which closes tonight) and The Temperamentals (which you’ve still got a chance to see before it closes on Aug. 23). More often, we don’t have much luck at all. The recent revival of Dreyfus in Rehearsal fell in the boggy middle. It’s interesting enough that I’m glad I saw it. But not enough so that I’d urge a friend to seek it out.

Indeed, the most interesting thing about the play is its back story. In 1974, Jean-Claude Grumberg, a French Jew whose Romanian-born father was deported and died in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote a bittersweet comedy about a Jewish amateur theater group putting on a play about the Dreyfus Affair.

The setting is Vilna, Poland, the time is 1931 and most members of the troupe find it difficult to connect to the anti-Semitism that caused the French Army to falsely accuse the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus of treason 40 years earlier or to acknowledge the growing racial intolerance in their own time. Dreyfus in Rehearsal won France’s Prix du Syndicat de la critique for the best play of the year.

Later that fall, Garson Kanin (most famous for writing Born Yesterday, directing the original production of Funny Girl, co-writing the Tracy-Hepburn movies “Adam’s Rib” and “Pat and Mike” and having great marriages with Ruth Gordon until her death in 1985 and Marian Seldes until his death 1999) adapted the play for Broadway. The cast included Gordon, Sam Levene and a young Tovah Feldshuh. But something got lost in translation. It closed after just 12 performances.

This year’s revival was even less successful. It opened at the Beckett Theater on Sunday and closed last night, after just six performances. Dreyfus in Rehearsals draws broad stereotypes and both the director and the actors colored nicely within those lines. And there was poignancy at the end when, after an attack by some gentile thugs, the troupe dispersed to other cities and the audience could guess the fate of its various members by where they went. Still, I left feeling as though the play—and its jokes—might have been more at home at a community theater in Sun City.

But maybe not even there. For Dreyfus in Rehearsal reminded me—in setting and tone—of To Be or Not To Be, the poorly-received remake of the Ernst Lubitsch movie about a Polish theater troupe during World War II that Manhattan Theatre Club put on last fall, and The Singing Forest, Craig Lucas’ ill-conceived farce at the Public Theater this past spring. With the exception of Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler”, theatergoers just don’t seem ready to joke about the Holocaust. Or maybe it’s simply that if a show wants us to laugh to keep from crying about that horrendous time, then it’s got to be really, really funny.

August 5, 2009

"Burn the Floor" Only Singes

“Do you watch “‘Dancing With the Stars’?” the man behind me asked his date as we all sat in the Longacre Theatre waiting for Burn the Floor, the first show of the new Broadway season, to start. Your answer to his question and how you feel about other TV dance competition shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “America’s Best Dance Crew” may determine your response to this stage dance extravaganza.

“Dancing with the Stars” is, of course, the hit ABC show that pairs celebrities of all ages, body types and terpsichorean abilities with professional ballroom dancers to perform routines that range from the cha-cha to the Viennese waltz, with stops along the way for, among other styles, disco, the foxtrot and the tango. Burn the Floor amps up the volume by doing away with the bumbling amateurs and staffing the show only with young, lithe and surefooted pros.

The show started back in 1997 as part of a birthday celebration when Elton John turned 50 and over the past decade it has grown into a traveling show that has performed in some 30 countries. Between them, the current 20 dancers, recruited from four continents, have won over 100 titles in ballroom competitions around the world (click here to read an L.A. Times story about the show’s origins).

Like their TV counterparts, the stage show's female dancers wear bare-backed dresses with lots of peek-a-boo fringe and fuck-me pumps, while the men wear tight, hip-hugging pants and open-chest shirts or none at all. To say they look hot is as redundant as saying that ice is cold. The Australian choreographer Jason
Gilkison who directs the show gives them all kinds of fancy footwork, legs lifts and spins to perform. And they do his dances with such fervor that their sweat rains on the people sitting in the first two rows.

I just wish their hard work had been given a better showcase. For Burn the Floor has no plot, just one dance number after another. Fast dances like the jive and dramatic ones like the paso doble are fun to watch at first but after a while, they start looking the same—hip shakes, chest shimmies, Tony Manero-style poses. The waltzes are more elegant but they stop the show cold. And I don’t mean that in an Elaine Stritch-stops-the-show way. A few of the dances attempt to tell a story—but it’s basically the same tale: guys and gals quarrel with or are betrayed by a lover. A male and female singer alternate on several of the numbers and they perform well enough but are backed up by canned music, augmented with a four-member onstage band that includes two percussionists.

However you may feel about the TV dance shows, they compel you to care about their dancers by showing them struggling to master steps in the rehearsal studio and sharing personal tidbits about their lives (impoverished childhoods, ailing relatives). And, of course, on T
V—and in real ballroom competitions—there’s the contest to draw you in and encourage you to choose your favorites and cheer them on to the next round. But the Burn the Floor dancers are largely anonymous, identifiable only by physical attributes—the tall one, the one with the red hair, the one with the tattoo on his arm, the one with the jewel in her navel—that aren’t enough to inspire rooting interest. The fact that the program lists the dance styles (samba, rumba, jive, etc.) instead of the dancers’ names is telling.

There are two exceptions to that anonymity: Karina Smirnoff and Maks
im Chmerkovskiy, two of the pros from “Dancing with the Stars” and a real-life couple, are guest-starring in the show. The audience at the performance I attended roared with delight when they appeared. The couple only gets a few moments alone onstage and spends the rest of the time mixed in with the others in the ensemble but after all the seasons on TV, Karina and Maks have develop the kind of command-the-eye presence you want to see on a stage and that you have a right to expect for a top ticket of $111.50. Alas, they are only performing for the first three weeks of the show’s scheduled 12-week run so you’d better hurry if you want to catch them before they leave on Aug.16.
[Update: Just hours after I posted this entry, news came that Katrina and Maks will be succeeded by So "You Think You Can Dances"' Anya Garnis and Pasha Kovale, which should bring out even more young folks.]

I like dance shows. I have watched “Dancing with the Stars” and I am crazy about “So You Think You Can Dance,” even in this somewhat lackluster season that ends tomorrow night. But I couldn't warm up to Burn The Floor. Although I did marvel at the dancers’ technique and energy and got a kick out of the Tina Turner homage towards the end of the second act (the show might have worked better in one). Every week, the “Dancing with the Stars” judges rate the competing couples on a scale of one to 10. I give this show a 6.

August 1, 2009

Beyond the Bright Lights of Broadway

There’s nothing like seeing a show on Broadway. Of course, that’s not the only place to experience theater. Or the only way to express love for it. That’s been brought home to me in several ways this summer.

The first came when my blogger pal Esther at Gratuitous Violins suggested I read “The Stuff of Dreams” by Leah Hager Cohen. It’s a book about a community theater group outside of Boston called the Arlington Friends of the Drama and its struggles to remain relevant after 75 years, to reach out to more diverse members and audiences and to put on an ambitious prod
uction of M. Butterfly. The folks in the company all have day jobs but they love theater as much as anyone hitting a mark on a Broadway stage. And some of them are just as talented but gave up their Broadway dreams for one reason or another. Yet they haven’t given up their passion for theater and so they find a way, in the midst of work and family obligations, to put on plays. Their commitment to the craft is inspiring and the book also made me eager to see David Henry Hwang’s remarkable play again.

My other epiphanette came when a colleague from work invited me to her wedding last month. She married a playwright and the place was filled with joyous indie theater folks, including the indefatigable blogger Parabasis, who writes about and makes plays in New York’s downtown theater scene. Then, as I auditioned podcasts for my recent entry about the best ones to add to your playlist, I kept hearing about all kinds of off-off-Broadway productions that reminded me of all the varieties of theater availabl
e in New York. Some of those shows will be part of the New York International Fringe Festival that starts on Aug. 14 and others will be in the New York Musical Theatre Festival that will run from Sept. 28 to Oct. 18. Ticket prices for shows at both festivals, generally under $20 bucks, are priced to attract the widest possible audience.

Smart shows and talents have come out of both these annual events but catching the next Urinetown (which debuted at the Fringe) or [title of show] (which got its start at NYMF) isn’t the only reason to see these productions. Sitting in one of those festival audiences, sharing the joy of live theater with people who are driven to make it and others who have turned out to cheer it on, is a chance to reinvigorate your membership in the community of theater lovers. And you don’t have to live in New York to do that. The theater community isn’t bound by geography but by a shared allegiance to the art form. So wherever you are, go exercise your citizenship and see a show.