The Playgoer: September 2006

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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Panel today!

2pm. Be there.

Censorship Survey

"Jim's a colleague...But this looked like an act of political cowardice at a time when it's become very important for people to stand up for things and not cave into the fear."

-Berkely Rep A.D. Tony Taccone going on record on James Nicola and Rachel Corrie.

From a nicely comprehensive piece in the San Franciso Chronicle by Steven Winn using the "Idomoneo" controversy to reflect back on the spate of self-censorships from "Corrie" to "Corpus Christi" and more.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Who Needs Subscribers?

"Whenever I hear an artistic director say they'd love to do a play but their subscribers would hate it, I want say--get rid of your subscribers!"

Gregory Mosher said this at the kickoff panel for CUNY Prelude Wednesday, and defititely raised some eyebrows. Me, I was nodding all the way.

But contrary to those in the crowd who thought he meant liquidating people, there was important distinction he meant between subscribers and an audience, and the dangers of conflating the two, defining the latter only in terms of the former. To paraphrase him, something is deeply wrong with a system where theatre companies are doing less and less of the work they want to do, and are more and more beholden to what their subscribers will accept. Don't you have to wonder why you got into this business after a while?

The defense, of course, is why pick on people whose only crime is loving the theatre. But the target of the criticism is not the individual but what happens to the individual--and how the company sees that individual--once they become a subscriber.

Mosher cited as a particularly disheartening moment from his experience when he heard a man asking his wife as they took their season seats: "And what are we seeing tonight?" What wonderful blind faith in the magic of theatre, you say? Maybe. But in my experience these are the same people who write angry letters saying "My wife and I don't pay $300 a year for some awful play like this."

Theatres tell us they're dependent on subscription income. But that just empowers the cranky subscriber to hold disproportionate sway. If your business model depends on such factors...get another business model.

Food for thought, eh?

Allan Buchman

"We're dealing with a national censorship. Where it's most insiudiuous is where it's self-censorship, so you don't even allow yourself to think certain things, or consider certain things, because you don' think they will be received well either by your auidiences, or your board, or the media. That's starting to loosen up a litle bit because as MLK said, when we stop speaking out about things that matter, that's the begginning of the end of our life. So I think that right now we need to encourgae or amplify the voices of disconent."

- Allan Buchman, director of The Culture Project and its currently running Impact Festival, commenting on New York One's "On Stage," September 9, 2006.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

"An Almost Unanimous Round of Criticism" (Muhammad Axed III)

So says the NY Times' Mark Landler, who's really been zeroing in on the Deutsche Oper/Idomoneo controversy.

(You can listen to him give a digest of all this on a NYT.com interview.)

Landler's follow up article in the paper today tells of a special meeting the Interior Minister called with German Muslim leaders to smooth over any possible conflict:

Amid all the issues that divide Germany’s Muslims and non-Muslims — from women’s rights to the teaching of Islam in schools — there was one point on which the 30 participants in a landmark conference held here on Wednesday could agree, according to its organizer.

They would like to see the Deutsche Oper of Berlin reinstate the Mozart opera it canceled earlier this week after receiving an anonymous threat that the production — which features a scene with the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad — could put the opera house at risk.

The 30 representatives, drawn equally from the German government and Germany’s Muslim population, could even go see the opera together, said Wolfgang Schäuble, the interior minister, who organized...


This strikes me as really smart cultural politics, by the way. Acting switftly and transparently to achieve not only dialogue but consensus over what could become an even worse political football.

The basic headline out of today seems to be that Duetsche Oper will probably reverse and let the show go on, even if it takes a while. The artistic director who made the call has said she's open to discussions about it, and also kind of blames the police for issuing the warning without clearer guidance. Landler also claims she's getting sympathy for being new to Berlin and perhaps overreacting to any hint of urban terrorism and violence by ethnic minorities.

So this seems to be resolving for the good. Again, it's encouraging what good can come about when so many feel comfortable standing up for free expression even in the face of something deliberately provocative.

On the Landler interview, by the way, I must say, I'm struck by how, well, foreign the whole idea of revisionist/postmodern directing is treated. The interviewer asks: "I'm very curious about the tradition in Germany, in the history of revising of classical operas. Why do they do it?"

Landler's response: "I'm told it's an extremely common tradition, that it's now decades old, and that it is part of a German tradition of trying to be very avant garde, trying to find a very current relevance to clasical work...It also gives people who have strong political views an outlet to make political statements of one kind or another or religious statements." Okay, I shouldn't expect more theatrical sophistication from a man who's no doubt an excellent Frankurt bureau chief and probably a layman when it comes to the arts. And the explanation is basically right. But, while we all joke about how "Sprockets" and avant-garde those wacky German directors are, I'd like to see this kind of approach to staging classics (in both opera and theatre) acknowledged as something a little more common and widespread. You would never know from this conversation, for example, that Peter Sellars is an American director. That Shakespeare productions at such well known institutions as the Public routinely update and offer revisionist stagings of classics. That's because theatre is so marginalized in American intellectural culture that anything theatrically original is assumed to be happening only in Europe.

Still, I'm glad Landler addresses it at all, since understanding the nature of the modern director's role is essential to understanding how the Deutsche Oper didn't just decide to piss off Muslims one day.

A few last points:

1) still no thorough grounding of the "severed head of Muhammad" in the full context of the opera itself. For instance, Times readers will still not get a sense of the synopsis from reading the article.

2) This same Idomoneo premiered two years ago at the same theatre, with no public protests, from Christians, Muslims, nobody. Landler's reporting suggests it's only the German Pope's recent criticisms (made in Germany) about Islam that have motivated activists to stir up trouble--I mean, publicity--and make their idle threats

3) I'm well aware of the defense that management has a responsibility to protect its patrons from any danger like a bomb threat, and that it would be awful if they ignored the warning and then people died. But I think we do have to consider the consequences of cancelling performances at any hint of a "security risk." (Just think, for example, of the proverbial kid who knows he can get out of any exam by calling in that he'll blow up the school.) What's the solution? Hard to say, admittedly. Tempting to joke about future "caution" signs we'll see in our programs and above the stalls entrance: "This performance contains cigarette smoke, adult language, partial nudity, and the slight chance of suicide bombing."

But if we all take the risk of getting on the subway and going to the airport each day, is it fair to say we can risk going to a controversial piece of theatre? As long as I trusted the theatre would pay for extra security, for instance, I think I'm comfortable taking the chance. If not, I'll stay home.

I'm reminded of Ben Brantley's famous lede in his Corpus Christi review, by the way: "The excitement ends after the metal detectors." (Or words to that effect.)

Lastly: Yes, we live in an age of terrorism--but we also live in an age of activist politics where advocacy groups--of all fanatical religious persuasions--will stop at nothing in the name of getting media coverage. We should be on guard against both.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Muhammad Axed II




"We must take care that we do not retreat out of a fear of potentially violent radicals...Self-censorship out of fear is not tolerable.''
-Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany.

I think that's a pretty impressive statement for a head of state to make. Especially when you consider she's defending the right for a state-financed institution, the Deutsche Oper, to depict an onstage act being protested by a religious group. I'm more used to politicians either just running away and avoiding comment at all, or exploiting the moment in the cheapest possible way to score points for defending "values."

Of course, Merkel is a conservative. Reminding us that conservatives (small-c) used to believe in absolute individual liberties. And something the Rachel Corrie fracas revealed to us this year is how free speech has almost as much to fear from well-intentioned liberals afraid to offend.

So what about this latest Muhammad standoff?

The Times follows up to today with some more thorough reporting. I find it fascinating on so many levels. Not only are we faced with the "cartoons" question all over again. But the inflammatory act this time happens to be a piece of avant-garde directorial staging. "Eurotrash" directors have enough enemies as it is without having to throw in the Islamist death threats, right? You can imagine old-guard critics throwing in their lot with the supposedly would-be bombers, finding common ground in the realm of bad taste and wacky concepts.

But any theatre person should be very concerned about how this bit of "concept" is being appropriated as a political football. For starters: what is Idomeneo about and what's the overall approach in which the director has introduced not just Muhammad, but also Jesus, Buddha, and what seems the entire pantheon of world religions. (See photos) Not an irrelevant point in describing the concept accurately. (The Times article does refer to protests from Christian groups as well at the production's premiere. Wonder if they'll reemerge. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if James Dobson and Jerry Falwell find a way to piggyback onto this from across the ocean.)

At first glance, I imagine many today are saying: "What the hell is this crazy director sticking a beheaded Muhammad in the middle of a Mozart opera about ancient Greece anyway? Serves him right." Well, maybe director Hans Neuenfels is indulging in a bit of a stretch, but it's worth finding out more about both him and the production. For one thing, he's no, if you'll allow, Young Turk, but a 65-year-old veteran. Second, an understanding of the plot of Idomoneo is essential in understanding this controversy. Perhaps I should say "should be essential" since obviously no one will bother to look into that, because who cares about the actual art here, right?

I'll be honest and admit I had heard of but didn't know the opera (it ain't exactly Marriage of Figaro) so I looked it up and read the synopsis. The romantic plot is convoluted, but the main conflict is clear: What does man do when god asks him to kill? Here's it's Neptune commanding King Idomoneo of Crete. But call it Abraham and Isaac, call it the Crusades, call it Jihad. Where Neuenfels got into trouble--that is, tried to interpret this from a modern day perspective--is in the final "sacrifice" scene, where Idomoneo is about to chop off his own son's head in the public square, before the prince's beloved throws herself under the axe instead. Luckily he doesn't have to kill her because Neptune declares "Love has triumphed.' Or, in other words, just kidding. (Again, think Abraham and Isaac.)

Now I still haven't seen anyone describe how exactly Neuenfels staged this moment to moment, and where he introduces these Christian, Muslim and other gods to, it seems, stand in for Neptune. It would be helpful to know, for instance, if there even is a separate "Neptune" or whether these deities are basically substituted for him. (Specifically whether these actor/singers are singing the role(s) of Neptune's oracle and high priest(s). Also not clear is how he justifies cutting off their heads instead of the princess'. In the Times all we get is: "the king of Crete, Idomeneo, carries the heads of Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon on to the stage, placing each on a stool." But I sense there's more internal logic built up than that.

More revealing is Neuenfels official defense:

The scene devised by Mr. Neuenfels puts a sanguinary ending on an opera that, in the way Mozart wrote it, ends with King Idomeneo giving up his throne to appease the god of the sea, and blessing the romantic union of his son Idamante with the Greek princess Ilia.

The severed heads of the religious figures, Mr. Raue said, was meant by Mr. Neuenfels to make a point that "all the founders of religions were figures that didn't bring peace to the world."

I believe, by the way, that's the first time a director has had to use a lawyer to pitch his artistic concept... The point seems clear to me, though. Neuenfels intervenes into this text from another time to answer with what we have since thought about "angry gods", in the wake of world wars, the holocaust, and, yes, terrorism. It also brings something out already inherent, it seems, in the opera itself and whatever its classical source material was. Namely, a vision of religion and god worship as the cause of strife, not the solution. And so if it seems Neuenfels has his mortal hero turn some of the violence back on the gods that they encouraged him to unleash on his own kin, well good for him!

Hey, don't expect the pious to go for it. But last I checked the church doesn't run the theatre anymore. Or, to put it another way:

Andre Kraft, spokesman for Komische Oper, a more adventurous opera house where Mr. Neuenfels is engaged in another Mozart production, described the 65-year-old director as "a secularist who does not believe religion solves the problems of the world."
Another factor here seems to be that the new Deutsche Oper chief, Kirsten Harms, is new and this was so not the kind of problems she wanted to have on her first opening night. It's interesting how much she and the article quote the police authorities to confirm the threats and to endorse the decision to cancel--because that's just what Manhattan Theatre Club did when they initially ditched Corpus Christi. But do you think police are ever going to greenlight something that seems like maybe it might be dangerous? Who wants that responsibility. By delegating an artistic decision to the police, where does that lead us? If not a police state, then a culture policed by fear.

Bloggers Panel Saturday!

The annual "Prelude" festival at The Segal Center at the CUNY Graduate Center Theatre Program has already become a hot event for all things alternative in New York Theatre. I'm happy to say they saw fit this year to include a whole panel devoted to theatre bloggers!

In addition to yours truly, come meet the masterminds behind Superfluities, Parabasis, the new Performance Studies-oriented Obscene Jester, and possibly others as well. For a dose of MSM, we will be joined by Voice critic Alexis Soloski. And our moderator will be veteran Time Out theatre editor--and freshman blogger himself--David Cote.

So come heckle us, ask probing questions, or just nod affirmatively. Plus you get to see what we look like.

Details:

Saturday, September 30
2:00pm
Elebash Recital Hall
CUNY Graduate Center
365 5th Avenue (NE corner of 34th Street)
(for those who remember, the old B.Altman's department store)

Admission Free, $5 reservations possible on Smarttix.

Of course, the rest of Prelude is great, too, featuring peeks at the latest work by Target Margin, Mabou Mines, Will Eno, and blogger/playwright Jason Grote. The whole things runs Thursday-Saturday.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Muhammad Axed

A revisionist production of Mozart's Idomeneo is being yanked from the repertory at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin (a big deal) due to a scene purported to feature the beheading of Muhammad. Never mind the full context of the scene is described as: "King Idomeneo presents the severed heads not only of the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon [as stipulated in the libretto] but also of Muhammad, Jesus and Buddha."

And never mind I still can't figure out what constitutes, objectively, an "image of Muhammad". That's another story.

Yes, we sympathize with the responsibility the Deutsche Oper feels over the possibility of terror attacks against operagoers and artists. But were such threats made and how serious?

In a statement late Monday, the Deutsche Oper said it decided ''with great regret'' to cancel the production after Berlin security officials warned of an ''incalculable risk'' because of the scene.

It seems to have been a preemptive move. One that--ironically--has suddenly manufactured the kind of controversy they were afraid the production would spark. Go figure.

One consolation is how much sensible criticism there is in Germany among high political and cultural figures over the decision. From the AP (via NYT):

''That is crazy,'' Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told reporters in Washington, where he was holding meetings with U.S. officials. ''This is unacceptable.''...

[Then the pro-cancellation side is quoted.]

Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, however, said that ''with all understanding for the concern about the security of spectators and performers, I consider the decision of the director to be wrong.

''Our ideas about openness, tolerance and freedom must be lived on the offensive. Voluntary self-limitation gives those who fight against our values a confirmation in
advance that we will not stand behind them.''

Bernd Neumann, the federal government's top cultural official, said that ''problems cannot be solved by keeping silent.''

''When the concern over possible protests leads to self-censorship, then the democratic culture of free speech becomes endangered.''

Openness tolerance and freedom must be lived on the offensive. I like that.

Even a German Muslim spokesman has a rational take:

The leader of Germany's Islamic Council welcomed the decision, saying a depiction of Muhammad with a severed head ''could certainly offend Muslims.''

''Nevertheless, of course I think it is horrible that one has to be afraid,'' Ali Kizilkaya told Berlin's Radio Multikulti. ''That is not the right way to open dialogue.''


Kind of bizarro-world to have so many public officials--even Muslims--feel comfortable coming out against such panic-censorship.

(Hat tip, Chris S.)

Taking on the Taper

LA Times critic Charles McNulty did a thorough eviscerating in the Sunday paper of Michael Ritchie's tenure so far at the Center Theatre Group (the Mark Taper Forum, Ahmanson et al--LA's major nonprofit theatre complex).

It is a must-read because it's probably only the glitziest example of what's going wrong with so many nonprofit theatre institutions--big and small, regional and even right here in river city. (Ritchie, as McNulty points out, was also famous for cultivating a star factory mentality at Williamstown.)

Item: the sad decline in commitment to seeking out the best new plays. Sure the Center Group is doing some new plays. But who by? And how good?

Ritchie has expressed his distaste for the whole convoluted process [of new play development]. His approach, as he and his colleagues have informally characterized it, is to pick up the phone and ask a David Mamet if he has anything new-- a simplified, top-down administrative style that privileges enshrined over emerging artists. Is it any wonder theater audiences are growing grayer and grayer?
Of course, Ritchie's first controversial decision was in gutting the Taper's development lab devoted to nonwhite authors. (What clearer signal can a theatre send?) By connecting that decision with the safe reliance on "name" playwrights, McNulty paints a clear and damning picture of what's going on.

CTG's impressive legacy stems from being at the forefront of theatrical discovery. After all, it was under [founder Gordon] Davidson that Lanford Wilson, Tony Kushner, Anna Deavere Smith, Jon Robin Baitz, August Wilson and Lisa Loomer were all embraced relatively early in their careers.

The creative reaching out now--to writers such as Mamet, David Henry Hwang and actress-turned-playwright Lynn Redgrave--seems geared to familiar names. Certainly there would be no problem with more Mamet or Hwang if the programming showed more commitment to cultivating the next Mamet or Hwang.

The Taper built its reputation on little-known playwrights, but there's not much in the new season that can be characterized as a Ritchie discovery. The theater should be in the business of nurturing original material rather than shopping for it.

Amen.

Imagine the New York Times printing a 2,000-word piece by Ben Brantley criticizing the Public in this way?

Monday, September 25, 2006

GUEST REVIEW: The Persians

A new feature at Playgoer! From time to time, I may post reviews by (imagine) other people who have a particuarly interesting perspective on a notable performance in town, or elsewhere.

So today I'm happy to hand over the review box to my friend and colleague Robert Davis, a Greek theatre specialist and PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. We saw the recent Persians together, on tour from the National Theatre of Greece. Here's Robert's response. I may post a comment later.


The Persians
by Aeschylus
National Theatre of Greece
at City Center (closed)


Reviewed by Robert Davis

“Timelessness” is a word frequently used to describe Greek tragedy. Ironically, so is the word “timeliness.” It seems like every time there is a war on, Euripides’ Trojan Women and Hecuba become as popular as Shakespeare. Although Euripides wrote some of the most powerful plays about war, it is the tragedies of Aeschylus that have dominated the New York stage in the past two years. This trend perhaps reveals something about how New York sees the war; Euripides, popular during the intervention in Yugoslavia, deals with the atrocities of the victors while Aeschylus, in plays like The Seven Against Thebes and Persians, writes about the sorrows of loss.

Persians, written in 472 BC, is the earliest extant tragedy. Set in Susa, the tragedy dramatizes how the Persian citizenry and royalty react to news of the colossal defeat of their armed forces at Salamis, a naval battle that Aeschylus himself witnessed. In a remarkable feat of empathy, the tragedy humanizes the Persians, arch-enemies of Athens - the equivalent of writing a major tragedy about the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, with Osama bin-Laden or Mullah Omar as a protagonist. Despite Aeschylus’ liberality, his play never fails to exoticize and belittle the defeated Persians. Persians depicts the Persians, but it is about the Greeks.

The National Theatre of Greece’s Persians, which played at the City Center over the past two weeks, mined the play for every opportunity for Hellenic self-congratulation. The Persian messengers described the strength and vitality of the Athenian men to rousing patriotic underscoring, and the Ghost of Darius boomed his admiration of the Greeks from a perch on top of the metal ziggurat that filled the stage. Performed in modern Greek, one can hear how often the Persians refer to themselves as “barbaros,” or “barbarian” instead of “Persian,” or even “men.”

Persians is a difficult play to stage. Its static plot, full of Homeric catalogues of warriors and place-names, is a challenge for any modern audience. Recent productions, like the hip-hop musical The Seven (premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop, and playing at La Jolla this season), have tended to experiment with form National Theatre of Greece director and actress Lydia Koniordou has opted for the “cultural” approach to Greek tragedy, which produces the kind of show that constantly reminds you that you are watching an important work of the western canon.

In an age when a production of tragedy tends to skimp on the chorus, it was a relief to see a cast of twenty-four Persian elders (Aeschylus had twelve). The chorus chanted and sung some of their lines to simple, rhythmic music. All of this is carefully reminiscent of the original performance conditions, but missing several key factors that undermined the production. Intended for performance at the fourth-century theatre at Epidauros, which seats 14,000, Persians was crammed on to the City Center stage, which seats around 2,500. Both the Theatre of Dionysos in Athens and the theatre at Epidauros have the audience on three sides. The City Center’s proscenium stage hardly allows flexible staging. The chorus, who remained onstage throughout the play, could only move in two directions: away from the audience and back towards the audience, frequently getting caught in their own steps. Worst of all perhaps was the choral delivery. A Greek friend in the audience informed me afterwards that the choral delivery was so muddy that he had to read the surtitles. Perhaps not a problem in another piece, Persians is almost entirely choral dialogue.

Although the production suffered from an overall poor execution, it is hard to go wrong when raising the dead. While the Persians wait for the arrival of their defeated King Xerxes, they invoke the ghost of his father, Darius, who had also lost a war against the Greeks. After an extended summoning ritual, Darius’ ghost rises among clouds of smoke and dust from the top of the set. Ten feet tall and robed entirely in white, he was a figure to inspire awe (unless you sat above the mezzanine, where you could only see his feet). Ghosts are a rarity in Greek drama, and Koniordou staged it for all it was worth. Darius’ speeches, belted out with superb breath control by Yannis Kranas, are a great example of ancient stagecraft that remains eerie and satisfying to this day. It is unfortunate that our encounter with the dead was marred by Xerxes’ arrival.

According to the text, Xerxes should enter in tattered clothes, singing. In all of the extant Greek tragedies, Xerxes is the only male aristocratic who sings. Instead, Christos Loulis’ Xerxes enters with a heroic demeanor, bravely recounting his loss in Salamis. His costume was slightly disheveled and the manly voice of this Greek television star did not warble for a moment. All in all, this Xerxes was a stand-in for the entire production: manly, self-important, and in utterly the wrong theatre. The National Theatre has been bringing tragedy to New York for years. Let’s hope that they will eventually leave the City Center and move to a larger, outdoor space. At least then we would get a sense of the dynamics of the performance.

Thought of the Day

If only arts organizations put as much energy into putting on great and exciting art as into fundraising.

Case in point.

How much money raised by Development Departmets goes to pay for...the Development Department?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Bloggers' Picks

I unfortunately missed the boat on a coordinated Bloggers' Season Preview day yesterday. But I'm happy to link and refer you to just some my colleagues in the 'sphere for their well informed and often refreshing picks of what to look forward to in the coming months.

(Apologies for any omissions. I know I haven't kept up with everyone lately. Please do alert me or post your link in Comments.)

Matt Johnston, Theatre Conversation
George Hunka, Superfluities
Isaac Butler, Parabasis
Matthew Freeman
Joshua James
Adam Szymkowicz
James Comtois
Mark Armstrong, Mr Excitement.

Robert Earl Jones

The father of James Earl Jones died this week, at 96, and his obit is fascinating. Sparring partner to Joe Louis, WPA worker, and prolific New York stage actor well into his later years. Another of the great careers in the African American theatre, alas lived under the radar.

Robert Earl Jones, at 28 years old in 1938.

Friday, September 22, 2006

REVIEW: The Birthday Party

Allan Corduner in The Birthday Party
(photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The Birthday Party
by Harold Pinter
directed by Emily Mann
at the McCarter Theatre (Princeton, NJ)

In Act II of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, in the midst of the long awaited eponymous festivities, there is a chilling birthday toast. The speaker, Goldberg, is a supremely Pinteresque comedian of menace: hyper-articulate, charming, yet without any trace of what would commonly be called a soul. His identity and purpose in the world of the play is frustratingly indeterminate. Pinter enjoys giving him a dose of his native Jewish-Cockney East End, but for all we know, it could be an act. We are even given three different possibilities for his first name.

Goldberg has come to see Stanley, a resident of a two-bit boarding house at a dreadful seaside resort. Why? He doesn't say. Not even to Stanley. And now he has arranged this little gathering for just Stanley, two pathetic locals, and his own henchman to somehow ensnare his prey, we sense. His sudden launch into after-dinner platitudes at first disarms us, until it starts creeping us out with its studied hollowness:


GOLDBERG. ...(Taking the stage.) Well, I want to say first that I've never been so touched to the heart as by the toast we've just heard. How often, in this day and age, do you come across real, true warmth? Once in a lifetime. Until a few minutes ago, ladies and gentlemen, I, like all of you, was asking the same question. What's happened to the love, the bonhomie, the unashamed expression of affection of the day before yesterday, that our mums taught us in the nursery?
To take a leap into Pinter's more political dimension, this is the sentimentality of a fascist. We know by the end that these touchy-feely phrases come from the mouth of a gangster and a torturer. Your irony alert quickly goes on whenever a Pinter character utters words like "warmth" and "affection." In his world, never trust a man hiding behind purple prose.

The moment is made all the more purple in the sublimely dandified and delicate embodiment of Goldberg by the great Allan Corduner in a formidable production of this early Pinter masterpiece by Emily Mann at her McCarter Theatre in Princeton. Corduner, a veteran London stage actor and frequent collaborator with Mike Leigh, is a real casting coup and is giving a performance well worth a ride on New Jersey Transit. In fact, I'd venture that the entire Act III of this production makes for the most intense 35 minutes of theatre you're likely to see in the whole greater metropolitan area this fall. Mann and her cast present a compellingly unforced and clear reading of a tricky play that is not necessarily a natural fit for Americans.

(I must add, though, that I also fondly remember a 1988(?) production at Classic Stage with David Straitharin and Peter Riegert, directed by Carey Perloff. Why doesn't Riegert come back to the stage more often?)

Part of Mann's success is due to finding with her designers an almost timeless setting for this amazingly fresh 1958 script. Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes avoid nostalgic Brighton tackiness in favor of a more late-century sensibility which stays true to the characters even if it bends the period. The henchman McCann's leather jacket and the mini-skirt on Stanley's would-be girlfriend Lulu might not be authentic but ground the play in a recognizable lower class reality. And for Corduner's Goldberg, gone is the standard-issue hitman's black suit in favor of Saville Row blues and yellows and an elegant trimmed goatee. Just like his vulgar-accented fine phrases, Goldberg's appearance marks him as an enterprising climber, not just an mystical source of evil.

My only major problem with the production was Eugene Lee's huge and excessively live-in-able set. The stage of the McCarter's Berlind space might be cavernous, but handing the assignment to Lee (famous for his astounding lavish constructions for Ragtime, Hal Prince's Candide, and Saturday Night Live!) is not a way to make it seem smaller. The rooming house is supposed to be the dingiest of "digs"--apparently modeled on a cheap place Pinter had to stay in as a starving actor on tour. Lee's structure is cluttered and dusty, alright. But its cavernous kitchen, and airy living room don't exactly provide the necessary claustrophobia of Pinter's nightmare scenario. It's even a two-level job, though I suppose getting a glimpse of our mystery men on the upper landing sometimes does effectively add to the overall paranoia.

A slightly too comfortable air also pervades the general mise en scene of the first act. Mann's work with the actors is impressively precise, especially with the text. (To say this is a well spoken performance is not a backhanded compliment in a Pinter production.) But it takes a while, too long for my taste, for the tension to set in, for us to realize something is very, very wrong in this world. Perhaps this is because Barbara Bryne and James Stephens are so enjoyable as Meg and Petey, the keepers of the house, whose opening talking-past-each other dialogue can't help lull the audience into laughing at the oblivious routines of the old married couple. (Beckett as Brit-com?)

Bryne, incidentally, is essential to the production's success. She seems the genuine article as the batty old mum figure who dotes on Stanley. But obviously it involves much craft from this seasoned veteran. Randall Newsome makes for a unusually hulking and hunky McCann. In casting him, Mann seems to have intended something of a Laurel-and-Hardy pairing with Corduner's slighter Goldberg--the opposite of what productions might usually go for, but effective. They're brains and brawn personified.

This early work, Pinter's first full-length, holds up mightily well, and still holds the potential to deeply disturb. Its central scene of torture--where Goldberg and McCann take breaks between blows to pepper Stanley with a barrage of nonsequitors--no longer seems abstractly interesting as "Theatre of the Absurd," but straight out of the Bush Army Field Manual. (You expect them to start playing bad loud music next.) In the final moments, the two thugs walk their silenced and transformed victim out the door, loading him into a van to a secret-site, where his medical needs, we're assured, will be tended to by "Monty." "Don't let them tell you what to do," the powerless Petey shouts after Stanley. But it's too late. Petey and the clueless Meg sit down to breakfast as usual and patter on, as conformity, intimidation, and force win the day again.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Philly Space Unveiling

"When the company[Philadelphia Theatre Company], which specializes in new American plays, moves into the Symphony House condo building in October 2007, it will be the fourth new theater venue to open on, or just off, Broad Street since it was dubbed the Avenue of the Arts by the Rendell administration. While PTC won't have a free-standing building, as the Kimmel Center and the Academy of Music do, its 365-seat space on the corner of Lombard Street has been designed by Philadelphia's KieranTimberlake Associates to grab public attention. It will be the first and only one of the six venues on Philadelphia's theater row to give passersby a clear front-row seat on the lobby action."

- from a Philadelphia Inquirer architecture review of the newly announced plans for the "Suzanne Roberts Theatre" on Broad Street.

I don't think the answer to theatre's problems is more high-tech spaces appealing to the gentrification crowd....However, I cannot deny an admiration for any local government designating an "Avenue of the Arts." If only more of our declining cities saw the wisdom in using the arts, and theatre in particular, to revive their abandoned downtowns. Just because all the stores have closed from competition from mega-malls, doesn't mean you can't still have some culture.

But as for this particular piece of real estate, the mission indeed does seem pretty gentrifying on a few different levels:

The stage at the $22 million Suzanne Roberts Theatre will be outfitted with a traditional proscenium arch, a feature that will serve as the frame for a full curtain and will also camouflage the flyhouse that stores the lights, pulley ropes and scenery high above the stage.

Taken together, these design elements represent a significant departure from purely functional spaces like the Arden, and a return to a more formal kind of theater experience. Ever since Bertolt Brecht denounced stage gimmickry in the 1920s, many new theaters have been designed to downplay the make-believe. Stages became open platforms, leaving actors without the refuge of the wings or a curtain. Theater hardware was exposed, so that patrons saw exactly how all the tricks were done.

By contrast, the PTC stage includes 20-foot wings. By cocooning its main theater in voluptuous colors and fabrics, the PTC is signaling that it wants patrons to sink into their plush seats and suspend disbelief for the length of the performance.


Nice to see an architecture critic--Inga Saffron--fairly well versed in theatre, by the way.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Guardian on Arts Blogging

Many thanks to Maxie Szalwinska (aka Webloge) for mentioning Playgoer in her post at Guardian's Culture Vulture on theatre blogging. Naturally I have a vested interest in increased MSM awareness/coverage of arts blogs. But aside from that, I feel I can objectively say it's a pretty good thing, no?

We now have two UK papers devoting space to that (previously Clive Davis in the London Times) but little ink in NYC. The Guardian seems to be especially practicing what they preach by hatching something like Culture Vulture. How long before the Voice, Time Out, New York Mag develop equally rich blog-sections? (Forget about the Times, naturally.)

Playwrights in TV Land--II

Lots of questions (in Comments) after the last post on this over what exactly the terms of a standard New York playwright's contract are and how much "subsidiary rights" they really have to grant to a producing company. Once I can sort out all the terms of the debate myself I will try to inquire further with the Dramatists Guild for clarification. Meanwhile if anyone other than Joshua or The Anonymous Dissenter (no aspersions on either) care to weigh in, please do so here.

I'm glad this LA Times article provoked so much response. Anytime theatre artists talk openly about the economic circumstances they work under, it hopefully opens some eyes as to what it takes to be a practising actor/playwright/director in today's New York.

The playwrights interviewed here are obviously already "successful" in that they're now earning good money on television. But that doesn't mean they're already out of touch with what the average struggling dramatist has to go through. Their testimony proves that the New York Theatre cannot sustain the careers of playwrights as lauded as Warren Leight (who won a Tony for Side Man) and Diana Son (whose Off-Broadway Stop Kiss is probably done somewhere in the country every day).

And sustaining is what this is all about. I believe the health of the American theatre is directly related to the health of the theatre professions in America. This is the greatest difference between the theatre now and the theatre fifty years ago. There are potentially just as many great stage actors now as then--but there's a lot less supporting the profession now, and thus encouraging and keeping them on stage. Same with writers. The unions are doing their best. (Except for the playwrights, of course, who don't have one.) But when the sheer number of plays produced is down, and especially down on Broadway, there's not much they can do. Under the current system, it's only on Broadway that actors can win Tonys and command liveable wages. Usually only a Broadway production can give a new script by an unknown writer sufficient currency in regional theatre and with Sam French and Dramatists Play Service. (This is beginning to change, thankfully.)

In short, what the Warren Leight example teaches us (and, please, I'm not pointing to him as an example of pity--obviously he's more successful than most writers) is that one hit play does not a career make. Remember that when a writer like Leight can even earn a few hundred thousand off a play, that only begins to pay off the debts he/she has accrued over the pervious ten years of obscurity.

And it only gets a writer through maybe the next year or two if they don't put out another hit, which everyone expects to be just like the first.

Before we consider the playwright's problem solved when they get one $400,000 windfall, let's just remember we live in a world where people in business command salaries in the hundreds of thousands year after year for just showing up. (Not to mention hefty "parachute" and severance packages when they basically fail.)

So if it's fallen to TV to basically subsidize the American theatre--by paying actors and playwrights a liveable wage to keep practicing their craft--so be it. But keep in mind, this is what a true National Theatre or network of regional repertory theatres is supposed to do: provide steady employment. It's what the Federal Theatre Project sought to do by putting theatre artists to work, on anything, anywhere. That's the legacy of subsidized theatre we need most right now.

PS. Isaac gives a window onto the economic calculus of his own life as a freelance director that's equally instructive.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

"Maria" Madness

I suppose I can feel less guilty over my curiosity about Andrew Lloyd Webber's TV show if eminence grise Michael Billington can weigh in. At last, someone raises a key question: "Isn't there also a big difference between wowing a TV audience and filling a vast, 2,000-seat theatre like the Palladium?"

Funny that now there's some outrage over Lloyd Webber announcing that, of course, the winner is not going to do 8 shows a week and will have a "stand by". In other words...a professional actress? Which audiences will be the lucky ones...

A parting shot from Billington:

It also seems an apt comment on the philistine nature of television today that it sees theatre purely as a source of competitive individualism. When did you last see unadulterated Shakespeare on TV? Or for that matter a play by Ibsen or Chekhov? ... The real problem, I suggest, lies with the reductive vulgarity of a medium that has nothing but contempt for theatre.
And that's England he's talking about! So much for the grass being greener...

I'm (Frequent) Flyin'!

I couldn't muster much comment yesterday on Campbell Robertson's NYT piece yesterday on the first steps toward an already talked-about "frequent-flyer" style discount program on Broadway. This was already floated by the new Prez of the League of American Theaters & Producers, a former hotel chain mogul. Now the Nederlander Organization (owner of roughly a third of B'way houses) is trying to be first.

We'll see what happens. (So far, there's really no plan. This is just about testing response, I'm sure.) But I suspect it will be useless since in order to see one interesting show on Broadway you'll probably have to endure countless "Tarzans" and "All Shook Ups" to accumulate your chits.

Thanks to reader June for pointing me toward the always entertaining message board at All That Chat, for the voice of the people on this.

Ron Rosenbaum, "Shakespeare Wars"

John Simon resurfaces in the NY Sun today to review Ron Rosenbaum's The Shakespeare Wars. Rosenbaum, an independent cultural journalist, has been one of the most intrepid reporters on the Shakespeare beat. (I still am grateful to his exposé on the NYT/William Niederkorn disgrace, which seems to have finally put a stop to that.)

His book is not about the authorship controversy, but pretty much every other heated spat over interpretation, textual editions, and performances. Sounds like a good read.

As for that authorship thing, that'll have to wait until James Shapiro's next book taking on the conspiracy theorists. (He announced this on a recent Theatre Talk.) Man will get a lot of hatemail.

PS. Thanks to Adam Feldman (in Comments) for pointing us to his own

Monday, September 18, 2006

Playwrights in TV land

"'Playwrights have always written for film and TV,' says [Diana] Son. 'Bertolt Brecht and others would function at movie studios as staff writers, when movie studios had staff writers. It was steady, salaried work. And these days, only TV writing is steady, salaried work.'
"For a long time, the odds have been against making a living solely as a playwright. 'There's a touching naiveté on the part of the theatergoers about the possibility of making a living as a playwright, as though you write for TV as the icing on the cake,' Son says. 'People think it's the difference between making, say, $60,000 and $80,000 a year, when really it's the difference between making, say, $8,000 a year and $400,000 a year.' "

Just one of the thought provoking insights quoted in Jan Breslauer's interesting LA Times piece on playwrights in Hollywood. Not in the movies, but on the writing staffs of our better television shows.

It's no accident that TV drama is in something of a renassance. (Isaac, for instance, is not alone in considering "The Wire" some of the best American contemporary drama in any medium.) I would argue that the smart recruitment of good playwrights has had a lot to do with this. Theatre-nurtured writers have been the genesis behind "Six Feet Under" and "Weeds," and dominate the staffs of "Sopranos," "CSI," and, of course, "Law and Order." (All the "Law and Orders.")

A case is made by some in the piece that some of this phenomenon is thanks to Aaron Sorkin, whose cult hit "Sports Night" and, then, bona fide hit, "West Wing," convinced TV execs that-- gee--writing mattered.

(Of course, Sorkin gets a lot less gratitude from those West Wing writers he allegedly mooched credit from, and, in one case, an Emmy.)

At a time when the fate of "the new American play" is in question on New York stages, it's Hollywood, ironically, that has come to the rescue--for some of the lucky ones, that is.

Aside from the financial subsistence, another benefit, according to Son, is a relatively writer-centric power structure.

"...the head writer is the boss, which is incomparable to the screenwriter, unless the screenwriter is also the director," says Son. "The head writer/showrunner has their hand in casting, scheduling, salaries, everything. The head writer is also executive producer. It's an extremely powerful position."

Of course, there are still plenty of notes from the suits, plenty of compromise and forced collaboration, as Breslauer's article makes clear. But playwrights are benefitting from an ascendancy of The Writer over the producer--resulting in the new figure of the Writer-Producer.

Here's some testimony from Warren Leight. The Warren Leight, remember, who once won a Tony for "Side Man":

Playwrights are not salaried, do not receive benefits and do not have a strong union, as do screenwriters. And even if a playwright does land one of the few and far between most coveted opportunities for production and has a hit, their pay isn't what you'd expect."If you get Manhattan Theatre Club or the Roundabout, they take 40% off all your future income, plus 10% for the agent, and sometimes the director gets a percentage too," says Leight, referring to two prominent nonprofits operating on Broadway.

"One or two episodes of 'Law & Order' is about what I made off 'Side Man,' " he continues, referring to his Tony Award-winning drama, which was widely produced, including at the Pasadena Playhouse.So for the generation of writers now in their late 30s, 40s and 50s, there were pioneers who brought in other playwrights. "To me it's like the dark ages for playwriting, and it's a little bit like getting playwrights to safe ground," says Leight. "I view this as a monastery during the Dark Ages."


The Dark Ages, eh. Let's hope there's light at the end of it.

Cincinatti as Arts Capital?

"Cincinnati has the nation's fifth oldest symphony orchestra, the second oldest opera company, a Tony Award-winning Playhouse in the Park, the Aronoff Center for Broadway shows, a Shakespeare company, ballet, galleries, museums, a Contemporary Arts Center designed by signature architect Zaha Hadid, two impressive sports stadiums, the Freedom Center and the Banks on the way.
"Last year, arts, culture and entertainment activities brought more than 10 million people to the city center, according to a study by Downtown Cincinnati Inc.
"Yet, Cincinnati is struggling to determine what its identity should be. So far, city leaders have not adopted the idea that arts can define the character of a city. It has never created an image for Cincinnati as an arts and culture town."

From Sunday's Cincinatti Enquirer. (Hat tip: ArtsJournal)

What catches my attention is not only the chance to champion more arts centers throughout the country, but just the prominence of the word "old" here (the "fifth oldest symphony orchestra," "the second oldest opera company"). Here "old" doesn't connote bad, of course, but prompts sad reflection on how the arts in the US have not always been NYC-centric. The nation was once teeming with numerous cultural metropoli. But how long will the truly great legacy of, say, a Cleveland Symphony Orchestra persist into the 21st century? Such institutions will survive, if at all, as the reserve of an ever more stratified wealthy class in neglected and emptied post-industrial urban wastelands. A leisure activity alonsgide the golf course.

Wait, what am I saying--is New York headed in any different direction?

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Broadway on the cheap

Ben Sisario's NYT piece yesterday reporting on his adventures in getting Broadway ticket discounts is amusing but barely scratches the surface. It's arguable that what keeps Broadway running is the fact that a majority of the audience is not paying full price. And it's not just TKTS. Sisario recounts joining TDF. But there's also countless mailing lists you can get on that send you 2 or 3 discount offers a day. (Unfortunately they're usually for "Tarzan" or "Drumstruck"!) Theatermania, Playbill, you name it. All the major theatre sites have them, even elaborate "Audience Extra"-style membership plans.

Of course, I'd like to see the Times run an article one day showing how you can see many of the great theatre companies of the world at BAM for under $30. Or subscribe to one of our local non-profit companies, see the work of some of our foremost actors, playwrights, and directors for around $150 a whole season.

But who's profit margin would that help?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Opera/Theatre

From Playbill.com:

[Bartlett] Sher will shepherd a new production of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia and [Jack]O'Brien will pilot Il Trittico by Puccini. They're only two of the many talents from the theatre world whom the Met's new general manager Peter Gelb has coaxed into the heretofore staid and steady world of New York's greatest opera house.

Also expected to collect a paycheck from the Met in coming seasons: directors Mary Zimmerman, Richard Eyre and Nicholas Hytner; actresses Kristin Chenoweth and Audra McDonald; choreographer Mark Morris; and, as part of joint commissioning venture between the Met and LCT, composers Adam Geuttel, Jeanine Tesori, Michael John LaChiusa and playwrights Tony Kushner and John Guare.


In Europe it's routine for directors to flow freely between theatre and opera. My impression is that many American directors do plenty of Opera gigs, but in smaller houses or abroad. So this is a welcome step for our premiere opera house to finally engage our premiere theatre directors, and not just keep hiring the same old traffic directors who teach everyone how to stay out of Pavorotti's way.

Ok, that's unfair to most of the Met's directors, I'm sure. In fact, many inventive European directors have become familiar names there, like Jonathan Miller. But it's about time they drew on the great resource of American theatre artists, which only strengthens their development and might help nurture an American opera aesthetic.

Also, this move can help remind us that opera is theatre. It is the music-drama. Perhaps American theatre people haven't been as involved in opera as Europeans because we don't have as much of a native operatic tradition, and repertory. American theatre artists deserve to be stretched and especially directors deserve to work on the great operatic-dramatic works on a large scale.

I'm frankly less interested in what John Guare and Kristin Chenoweth can contribute to the form, but hey, the more the merrier.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Summer Smokiness?

The astute Mr. Excitement notices something about today's Ben Brantley rave of Hartford Stage's "Summer and Smoke" that totally escaped me. It's the second review the Times has published of the production in one week. Apparently the first one (by Anita Gates) wasn't good enough?

This is hardly scandalous and I suspect no sinister motives. Many of us often call for a return to the days of a paper publishing multiple reviews from different perspectives. Also--to don my pro-regional theatre awareness hat--we should be grateful the Times is going out to Hartford at all, let alone twice!

But I do agree with Mark that something does seem a wee bit fishy about the sequence. One has to wonder about the clout of Hartford Stage's press rep's. Or of whatever silent partners they may have providing enhancement funds for a possible B'way transfer.

ADDENDUM: For what it's worth, the Times does label Brantley's piece today not as a review but "Critic's Notebook." An acknowledgement of something, at least.

UPDATE (9/18): Much Ado About Nothing? Mr. Excitement gets clarification from Hartford Stage, and sounds like our conspircacy theories got the best of us. So read for yourself. Personally, I find the most revealing news to come out of this is the Times does do regular "regional" reviewing after all! But what you can't tell from the website (where all reviews are together under "Theatre") is how in the print edition they're relegated to the "metro" sections under Connecticut and NJ. What's up with that?

My hunch is that the print-version of the "Arts" section is aimed at a "national" audience. (i.e. So it'll be the same in any airport or hotel across the country.) But ironically, productions outside of NYC are supposedly of less "national" interest than New York shows. Yes, we know why, but just ponder the logic of that...

Life imitates Lysistrata?

A "strike of crossed legs" in Colombia. Aristophanes would be proud.

Hat tip: Sullivan.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Kennedy Center honors

It's hard to begrudge any award for artists. But the annual Kennedy Center honors have always been really just a lame attempt at an American knighthood. It's not surprising, then, that so many of the honorees turn out to be British or European (from Sir Paul McCartney to Luciano Pavarotti). Any artist who makes some contribution, I suppose, to culture here qualifies.

Each year they (and who are "they" anyway here?*) try to honor one artist in each genre, so this year the theatre nod goes to...Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber. The man certainly has helped generate lots of income for American theatre artists (and, more to the point, investors) on Broadway and on tour. His shows dominated the 80s on both shores and no doubt have already influenced a coming generation of aspiring writers of bad sung-through rock- (mock-?) Puccini musicals. But does the man need yet another title?

It's also a bit of a stretch to call him, as does Jacqueline Trescott in her Washington Post story,
a "musical theater innovator." I wonder how else the Kennedy Center will justify this award in their official citation. (I also can't wait for the closeup capturing the serene glow on Laura Bush's face as a children's choir, no doubt, sing "Memories.") So far we have this:

Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman, the New York investor, said, "Andrew Lloyd Webber has led a seismic change in our musical theater, becoming the most popular theater composer in the world..."

To be fair, "popularity" seems all that the Kennedy Center awards care to be about. Like knighthood, I suppose, the point is to make the country feel good and play it safe.

As for that "seismic change"...I'm sure many would like to have a go at what that has meant for the theatre. I would also advise Schwarzman to change the tense of that "has led" to the strictly past tense.

In case you're wondering, the other awardees are...
Dolly Parton
Smokey Robinson
Zubin Mehta
and Steven Spielberg

More on the official website here. Check out the Lord Webber official bio, where--I kid you not--the phrase "stuff of musical genius" is used.

*Ah. According to the Post: "The honorees are selected by the center's artistic committee, which includes Renee Fleming, Nathan Lane, Audra McDonald, Liam Neeson, Kevin Spacey and Dave Brubeck. The committee, along with previous honorees, made the decision with the center's board and George Stevens Jr., who created the Honors in 1978 with Nick Vanoff."

boo hoo

The Guardian's Michael Billington, describes "one of the most bizarre nights of my theatregoing life"--and that's saying something from this lion of a critic who you'd think has seen it all. But apparently no production in recent British history has been booed and jeered as much as a certain Three Sisters at the Edinburgh Festival this summer.

It began when, during an obviously sotto voce prelude, a loud voice from the stalls trumpeted "We can't hear you." Even when the volume was turned up, people sidled out, ostentatiously snored or muttered darkly during an admittedly interminable first half.

But it was during Chekhov's wonderful last act that disaster struck. Almost every line became a potential minefield. Masha only had to say "Isn't it awful?" or "I'm going out of my mind" for a torrent of jeering, derisive, mocking laughter to issue from the stalls.


Sounds like something out of the 19th century, doesn't it?

But, then again, when we read about such behavior in historical contexts we sometimes say, "Well at least they were engaged back then They cared about the theatre!" That explains the annoying rudeness you can still witness among opera snobs, who still let it all out.

So Billington ends up offering a kind of mischievous defense of booing.

Obviously spectators have a right to protest. They have, after all, paid their money...
But what should a dissatisfied customer do? A friend of mine who loathed the current RSC Tempest sat down and wrote a letter of instant protest to the company boss, Michael Boyd. That's one answer. Another solution is to leave at the interval. A third possibility, constantly deployed in opera houses, is to save your anger till the curtain call and boo your heart out. Any of those options seems to me preferable to that of sending up the actors on every line, which is what happened in Edinburgh.

The argument against that is simple. The actors are simply carrying out a concept determined by the director. To jeer at the performers themselves strikes me as rude and cruel; which is why I always dislike the courtly mockery of coarse actors at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Love's Labour's Lost. As one of the victims says in the latter play, "This is not gentle, this is not humble." And the sound I heard in Edinburgh on Tuesday night was similarly that of contemptuous arrogance.

Which is why I think booing is the best bet. Even that isn't a pleasant sound. And there is something depressing about the way any production at the Coliseum or Covent Garden that mildly deviates from the norm is always greeted on the first night by a torrent of booing. But at least booing focuses the discontent.


So does blogging.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Reality TV bows to AEA

Mr. Excitement points to what finally seems a resolution of how NBC's upcoming "You're the One We Want" will handle the whole question of both theatre and television union rules for professional actors.

This is the show of course where director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall will agree to let the tv-watching public choose her two leads.

Ok, I guess that's not necessarily worse than a producer forcing, say, Julia Roberts on you.

Culture Project's Allan Buchman

In case you missed it amidst the Sunday Fall Preview bruhaha, the Magazine ran a nice profile of Allan Buchman, the political theatre impressario behind the Culture Project. While I don't get excited about everything produced there, I admire Buchman for what he has accomplished, and for, frankly, promoting political theatre by getting such articles published about him.

Jesse Green serves up a good read, playing the emotional life story angle. But do I also sense a tinge of "who is this interloper?"

But for traditional theater types, Buchman can seem ominous. What is he suggesting about other theaters when he says Culture Project only happens to be a theater? Are other theaters less noble? When he insists on doing work that’s topical, what is he suggesting about classical work? That it’s reactionary? Buchman has tried to make clear that he’s not judging anyone else’s choices; he’s merely doing something different. But his radical commitment to content over form can nevertheless be disturbing to those who love the forms. It can seem anti-art. His ascetic style, too, can be read as a comment on the cushy emoluments other theater people expect as a reward for surviving in an impossible business. It’s hard to imagine another producer who would abandon a Lotus Elan sports car on a Village street with its keys inside, just to rid himself of a worldly distraction. Admittedly, Buchman later regretted it and bought another, but that one was destroyed when a garage lift collapsed. He now has no car.

The idea of "Anti-art", of course, has a long distinguished heritage. (Ask the MOMA.) But is Green referring to Dadaism...or just anti-commerce?

As for "classical work," it should be noted the Culture Project has hosted productions of Pericles and Much Ado (by Aquila Theatre) as well well as Steven Berkoff's "Shakespeare's Villains." So I don't get the logic of the comment.

David Cote joins the Blogosphere!

Yes, the theatre editor of Time Out New York is getting back to his fringe roots and mixing it up with us blogs. As he says in his opening post, David Cote has been a great reader and supporter of sites like this for a while, so I'm sure I speak for many in welcoming him enthusiastically.

He now joins Terry Teachout as the only other full-time MSM critic to explore the medium. Not to mention prominent freelancers Rob Kendt and, now, George Hunka.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Stuff Still Happening

Am I the only one sensing a trend in staged readings of "Stuff Happens" all over the place? Remember, it first appeared in NYC as a reading (at New York Theatre Workshop) while it was waiting for a full production commitment here. Note the Public resurrected it as a reading last week, at the Delacorte. (Anyone know how that went?)

Now I read of a little event at a Cape Cod company, featuring some names of note. And I think I've heard of at least one other?

Whatever the play's merits as truly great political theatre, it will be interesting to see if it becomes an effective device this election season to put up quick and cheap presentations of the play to rally the faithful.

Censorship in Spain?

An anti-Franco play about Lorca has been cancelled at the Teatro Espanol, a state theatre in Madrid. However, it seems vague so far who is really responsible. Reuters claims the playwright Pepe Rubianes "called off" the opening himself after claiming to receive death threats from rightist groups.

From the Reuters story it also seems clear that the opposition to the play is based not just on its content but on previous comments Rubianes has made comparing the current Spanish government to the Taliban in its respect for free speech.

More will probably emerge. Meanwhile it's fascinating--but not surprising--to see how raw the Civil War still is there. They're only thirty years into a post-Franco world, after all.

(The story is also summed up in the Times' Arts, Briefly.)

Tim Robbins on Isherwood

From yesterday's Arts & Leisure letters:

To the Editor:
Re “A Play of Ideas Can Make a Difference. Discuss” by Charles Isherwood [Sept. 3]:
For the record, my antiwar play “Embedded” opened at the Public Theater in March 2004, two years before the New York premiere of David Hare’s “Stuff Happens.” “Embedded” played for four sold-out months with virtually no critical support. There is a hunger in audiences for socially relevant theater. It is not easy, however, to persuade producers to invest in shows that critics attend “with wariness or a sense of duty, as if lining up for a vaccination.”

Tim Robbins

Manhattan

I have to say I was not an admirer of Embedded. I thought it was too obvious, crude, and bloated to function as effective incisive satire.

Yet the man has a point...it was first. And it did draw audiences, despite the critical pans. He--and the Public--do deserve some credit for staging a protest against the Iraq war when Bush was still polling well and before the 2004 elections.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Arts & Liesure Fall Preview

NYT taps George Hunka to compile The Big List for not just the fall but the year. After you read his witty capsules, you will consider yourself informed.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Whither Political Theatre: DC chapter

And we thought New York had a problem with political theatre.

Washington Post's Peter Marks surveys the scene in the nation's capitol and finds a surprisingly spotty interest.

Then again, should it surprise us that such a square, "company town" (especially when dominated in all three branches by a philistine Republican administration) isn't chomping at the bit for public performances that challenge the orthodoxy of the talking points of the day. And certainly there is an "alternative" theatre scene in DC (with Wooly Mammoth and Studio Theatre heading the pack). But of the two major nonprofit institutions, The Shakespeare Theatre only does classics (albeit sometimes in a politically slanted production) and Arena seems to be settling into a Roundabout-style complacency. David Hare's story about Stuff Happens being passed on certainly sounds like Arena: "I've had responses from certain unnamed Washington theaters that said, 'Oh, we're always asked to do these kinds of plays.' "

(No matter what you think of Stuff Happens, shouldn't the ultimate Washington insider play be done there??? Or is everyone there all too familiar with the material now and can't face being faced with their own failure.)

Interesting that Marks also focuses on Ari Roth's Theatre J (J for Jewish). Roth was a panelist at the New York Theatre Workshop "Corrie" damage control events back in April, where he displayed a welcome honesty and engagement with controversy. However, Marks leads with how Roth passed on "Corrie" the play because "it wasn't right for a Jewish theatre." Fair enough, I suppose. The only Jewish characters are offstage enemies. And Roth expressed reservations about the play's one-sidedness at NYTW. But clearly it addresses one of the Jewish issues of the day, no? Also, the article later recounts how successful Roth was co-producing the DC premiere of "Homebody/Kabul." Where are the Jews in that??? (Unless you count Kushner.) The difference, of course, is that "Homebody" actually makes audiences feel good about fighting bad Arabs like the Taliban. "Corrie"prompts Jews to ask more difficult questions.

What's especially good about the article is that Marks does not take the Isherwood approach and muse all Jerry Seinfeld-esque about "What's the deal with political theatre???" His tone takes for granted that social engagement in the theatre is important, and so why don't we have more of it, especially at the very seat of power.

Interesting case studies abound. Here's just one:

"Most people have a subconscious threshold for their overtly political intake," observes Jeremy Skidmore, artistic director of Theater Alliance and one of a cadre of young directors making an ever deeper impression on Washington's theater scene. In the spring, he booked two political plays back to back: Lee Blessing's "Two Rooms," about hostage-taking in Beirut, and Colleen Wagner's "The Monument," a Canadian play about a victim of war crimes who turns the tables on her tormentor.
Skidmore says he will never make that mistake again.

Ticket sales dropped for the second play, despite good reviews. "By the time 'The Monument' opened, I was getting e-mails from regulars saying, 'Sorry we can't come see this, because we have had enough.' " Some of the correspondents were people involved in humanitarian causes.

"They spend all their days on human rights issues," Skidmore explains. "Spending their nights was really hard for them."

Not many people enjoy taking their work home with them. It's been said that Washingtonians don't like taking it to the theater either.


Just that first line should give us all pause.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Weidman to Weiss: Oops

Playwright and Dramatists Guild prez John Weidman has apologized to controversial Chicago Sun-Times crit Hedy Weiss for misunderstanding the circusmstances of her non-review review of a musical workshop.

In a letter to the paper that appeared yesterday he wrote:

Before writing the letter, I confirmed with what I believed to be an entirely reliable source that Weiss had been told by the producers of Stages 2006 that they did not want these presentations to be reviewed. This is not something I deduced. It is something I was told, directly and unequivocally. It now turns out that what I was told was untrue. That Weiss believed that the managers of Stages 2006 would be neither surprised nor distressed if she reviewed the eight presentations in question is now clear.

I asserted otherwise. For that I apologize.


But Weidman is not backpedalling on his basic argument.
Having said that, I will add this. That Weiss' decision to review a workshop presentation of eight new works-in-progress, to base those reviews on having seen, in some cases, no more than a fragment of the presentations, and to publish those reviews in one of the most influential newspapers in the country, remains irresponsible and unprofessional. Writers must be allowed to evaluate their work in a environment protected from critical appraisal, and professional critics should be expected to review an entire work, not just a few minutes of one.

And so the debate shall continue, no doubt. But at least theatre companies will be a little more careful about what to expect when inviting press.

BTW, didn't John Simon routinely walk out on shows and brag about it in the review?

Gotta Knock a "Gimmick"

" John Doyle, the Tony Award-winning director of last season's gripping "Sweeney Todd," is taking another stab at Stephen Sondheim with a revival of "Company."
As in "Sweeney," the actors will play all the musical instruments.
Doyle may not be a darling of orchestrators or the musicians' union, but critics love him: "Company" received some terrific notices in Cincinnati, where it ran last spring.
But how much longer will audiences go for the gimmick?
His revival of Jerry Herman's "Mack and Mabel," with another all-actor band, flopped in London this year. And while "Sweeney Todd" finished in the black, it closed a lot sooner than it should have."

- Michael Riedel, today's Post

Sorry, Michael. To anyone whose diet goes regularly beyond Broadway, ensemble theatre is no "gimmick."

I agree, though, that this Sweeney may have proved to "arty" and dark to play more than a year on B'way. (In other words, it fulfilled Sondheim's vision for the show.)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

What Happened to Arts at Ground Zero?

I'm sorry but Ray Nagin was right about the embarassing "hole in the ground" still sitting there in lower Manhattan--a tribute not to the victims of 9/11 but to the greed and pettiness of real estate moguls and a city & state government beholden to them.

Rob Kendt has an interesting piece in today's Times that addresses the confusing consequences all the "development" in the area has had for theatre companies once promised space.

For arts organizations, progress at the World Trade Center site has so far resembled a Beckett play: waiting and disappointment, followed by more waiting and disappointment. Opposition from victims’ relatives and political fighting have meant that none of the dreamed-of cultural projects has broken ground. And now that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation has been disbanded, arts groups are more worried than ever that the planned performing arts center and $7 million worth of federal arts grants will remain on paper.

Kendt focuses on one intrepid company, 3-Legged Dog. Read all about 'em.

Some insightful quotes Rob gets:
“The experimental arts in New York are in dire jeopardy right now,” [3-Legged Dog's Kevin] Cunningham said... "What’s alarming is that if the experimental tradition dies in New York, where it’s been rampant since the 20’s, we’re going to lose our identity even more than we already have,’’ Mr. Cunningham said. “I’m not talking about the Disneyfication of Times Square. I’m talking about a core thing that brings new brains to the city.’’

And from Tom Healy, president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council...
“If as a city we thought about investing public dollars in a corridor of new explorations, incubators of new cultural activity, that’s a far wider investment than the $50 million that’s supposedly been put aside for a major concert hall,” he said. “What 3LD represents is a more organic way of making the arts part of rebuilding downtown.”

What most arts org's need is not fifty million dollars but fifty thousand. And that $50 mil could be split up into a thousand of those.

Christopher Shinn's "Dying City"

As announced in Arts, Briefly today, Lincoln Center has taken on the New York premiere of friend-of-Playgoer Christopher Shinn's new play "Dying City," which will become one of the first American plays on a New York stage to address the consequences of the current Iraq war.

London's Royal Court beat us to it by giving the world premiere back in the spring. Here's a sampling one of some of the many enthusiastic reviews. (Including one from our friend Webloge.)

Congrats, Chris!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Met at the Movies

This just posted to NYTimes.com:

The Metropolitan Opera announced today that it would begin broadcasting live performances into movie theaters across the United States, Canada and Britain, rubbing shoulders with professional wrestling and rock concerts.

The broadcasts are part of a strategy by the Met’s new general manager, Peter Gelb, to widen the house’s appeal by branching out into new media. The house also said today that it was opening up its vast archive of historic radio broadcast performances for streaming and downloading.

“I think what I’m doing is exactly what the Met engaged me to do, which is build bridges to a broader public,” Mr. Gelb said. “The thrust of our plan is to make the Met more available. This is not about dumbing down the Met, it’s just making it accessible.”

Wow. My first take is, this is potentially big. And a welcome, bold move by a huge elite arts institution. I'm all for preserving the magic of live performance, sure. But this could result in interesting exposure of the artform to those who would never afford, or care. Plus, you can dress casually and eat popcorn.

Imagine if the Public booked some screens to "closed-circuit" Mother Courage...

ADDENDUM:
It seems like a seemingly impossible deal was reached with the unions on this.

From Crain's New York Business:

Met in deals to show operas on a global stage
by Miriam Kreinin Souccar

The Metropolitan Opera has signed agreements with its unions and a number of media partners that will allow its productions to be seen live around the world.

The Met has partnered with National CineMedia in the United States, Cineplex Entertainment in Canada, and Odeon/UCI in Europe.

Beginning Dec. 30, the Met will transmit six Saturday matinees live in high definition into several hundred movie theaters throughout North America and Europe.

The operas include the new English-language adaptation of Julie Taymor's “Magic Flute” and the world premiere of Tan Dun's “The First Emperor."

The flurry of distribution deals were made possible because of new agreements signed between the Met and its orchestra, Local 802; its chorus and ballet, AGMA; and its stagehands, Local One. With the new union contracts, workers will exchange substantial upfront payments for a new revenue-sharing model, which gives the Met more flexibility to try new types of distribution.

"The unions have kindly granted us control over the creation and distribution of our electronic content," says Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager. "This is a unique opportunity to raise our profile and grow our audience. Opera will now enter the digital era."

Following 30-day windows, the productions will air on PBS in the U.S. and a variety of television systems in other countries.

The Met will also present live performances on its Web site and make its archive of 1,500 radio broadcasts available as part of an audio on-demand service.

©2006 Crain Communications Inc.


At least this will be an affordable way to finally see Taymor's "Magic Flute" (other than on my computer, or my small tv, I guess). I await further word on whether they'll broadcast the real one or the 90-minute family-friendly version the Met is packaging for the holidays.

Colm Feore

Backstage blogger Jeffrey Sweet gives a nice tribute to Canadian (though Boston-born) classical actor Colm Feore, currently starring in three roles at Stratford, Ontario.

Feore first came to my attention (and most other non-Canadian theatre lovers) in his wonderful multilayered portrayal of Glenn Gould on film. Since then, to know him is to delight in him. He even can be caught poking fun at his old Stratford bosses in his hilarious guest spot on season two of Slings and Arrows.

Sweeney's Final Bow

I enjoyed Backstage's pithy summary of what must have been a moving last performance of "Sweeney Todd" this Sunday. It ran almost a year, but still a premature closing in my book.

Cheap Seats

To those who say the whole problem with theatre apathy is the high ticket prices, I'm happy to report I just bought a BAM fall subscription to four shows for $135. And that's for two tickets to each show! And that includes a $7 service charge for phone orders.

What cheap fare will I be seeing for $16 a seat?

Ibsen's The Wild Duck by the National Theatre of Norway
Twelfth Night directed by the great, great Declan Donnellan
La Tempête, a multi-media reimagining of Shakespeare by Montreal's "4D Art"
Hedda Gabler directed by Thomas Ostermeier, the German director who brought us a stunningly modern Doll's House two years ago.

Yes, we all hate at least some of the stuff we see at BAM. But is anyone else in NYC offering the classic repertory on such a serious scale with such impressive artists? And for as low as $16???

There's lots more, too. Single tickets are now on sale this week, too, if you can only take so much. And much better seats are available in even the $20-30 range. But it definitely pays to subscribe.

I swear I get no kickback from BAM for saying this. But after more than a decade of doing this, it still strikes me as the best theatre value around, even with the occasional misfire. Not to mention the value of seeing some of the best artists from abroad and getting a sense of what's going on in theatre outside of our little bubble here. It almost makes up for my depressing lack of travelling lately.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Pinter on TV

Thanks to George Hunka for pointing us over the weekend to a recent Harold Pinter interview on BBC. Definitely Pinter in a lighter vein, "up close and personal" and all, but a must for fans.

Best bits: his reminiscences of Beckett (about halfway through) and, at the very end, a reading he does (with Rupert Graves) of his new play! Don't get excited, it's only 90 seconds long. But if you ever wondered what a Pinteresque cell phone conversation would sound like, check it out.

(Aren't all cell phone calls Pinteresque, you ask?)

We Were Right about Kenneth Tomlinson

Turns out the man Bush nominated to run PBS is such a corrupt hack, the Republican Senate won't even renew him as head of Voice of America.

All I can say is--whew, that was a close one.

The latest from Reuters, here.

Isherwood "does" politics

What to say about Charles Isherwood's Sunday essay about "political theatre" (or some strange idea of it). Obviously he ends up saying "the right thing" (that, yes, theatre should take on political issues after all) but his way of getting there smacks of...well something. Maybe it's the way the very premise presumes an implied reader who I find really annoying! I'm afraid in this case, it's some imagine NY Times subscriber who is "serious" about culture and "the world"--yet just can't bring him/herself to like plays where messy looking people break the fourth wall and make us feel guilty for being white Americans. Politics is fine for this spectator when couched in the classy Brit-wit of a Shaw or David Hare, or even the gabby giddiness of a Kushner.

So I don't know whether to applaud Isherwood for his honesty on statements like this or just take it as a reinforcement that he's part of the problem:

The reasons for audiences’ resistance to this kind of theater are not hard to discover. Look into your own heart, regular theatergoer. I’ll admit that I sometimes approach the genre with wariness or a sense of duty, as if lining up for a vaccination against apathy to social or political causes. Publicly avowing an interest in the latest piece of earnest theatrical journalism, but privately deciding that you’re not really in the mood just tonight, is hardly unnatural. (I still haven’t seen “An Inconvenient Truth,” by the way. Anyone know if it’s still playing?)
What I object to is not the resistence to art as chore. True art is not a chore. Rather, I resist the assumption that any piece of theatre not geared to entertain must, by definition, be a chore. Homework. Yes, I'm afraid, the NY Times has just gotten a step closer to dismissing the intellectual quotient in theatre.

In that vein, he continues:

For most of us — virtually all of us — theaters are, above all, places of entertainment. It would be a perverse person indeed who would trip with glee into a theater presenting a play with the word “Guantánamo” in the title, overjoyed at an opportunity to relish the spectacle of human suffering and reckon with troubling questions of injustice.

That quasi-journalistic aspect of much contemporary political theater doesn’t help either. If asked, most theatergoers would say they don’t want to go to the theater to be told what they already know, or can acquire elsewhere. But for the socially conscious theatergoer (and who would lay claim to being a socially unconscious one?), the medicinal element in this genre can be more of a draw than a drawback.

It gives us the pleasant sensation of having received a moral booster-shot or undergone a cleansing fast that flushes out all the cultural toxins we ingest when we scoot off to guilty-pleasure movies like “The Devil Wears Prada” or obsessively watch “Project Runway.”

First of all, note the fashion references. Brantley, too, it should be noted began at the Style section. Both Times critics seem to be in a virtual contest to see who can outdo the other in trashy pop culture references. (Isherwood memorably made his whole Macbeth review this summer about "Brangelina" somehow.) It's weird (and revealing) to me that the binary Isherwood sets up to illustrate political vs entertaining is "Guantanamo" vs. fashion industry propaganda. "Guilty pleasure" is not the issue here. Spoon-fed consumerism and celebration of shallowness is.

As for that "who would lay claim to being a socially unconscious one"... I take it this resentment is aimed at those who tell us we must see everything at the Culture Project or else we're not "political". Why bother with such a strawman. Take shows one at a time. Call out the lame ones as lame (I wasn't a fan of either "Guantanamo" or "Exonerated") and criticize them precisely for not contributing to the political conversation.

My biggest problem with the piece though is contained in this section:
In recent seasons, the Culture Project has presented long runs of “Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” and “The Exonerated,” about wrongly convicted
prisoners saved from death row: neither a joyous topic. Other recent successes in the genre include Heather Raffo’s solo show “Nine Parts of Desire,” about the plight of women in Iraq, and “In the Continuum,” Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter’s docudrama about women and AIDS in the United States and Zimbabwe.
Political theatre is not necessarily a "genre" unto itself. In fact, if you take the examples in this paragraph along with plays he cites throughout the article (as diverse as "Henry V," Hochhuth's "The Deputy", and "Stuff Happens") you realize these are all very different kinds of plays. And very different kinds of theatre experiences. They don't deserve to be all lumped together under the umbrella of "unpleasant" downtown exercises in confrontation--or as he elsewhere calls them, plays that "make us feel virtuous." At its best "Mother Courage," for instance, should not make anyone in the audience feel "virtuous."

Again, what's at stake here is how we talk about theatre that does not choose "entertainment" as its primary goal. I'm really not sure at the end of this what Isherwood is saying about that. I do know he sure seems to be apologizing a lot. Apologizing for defending the right of theatre to be political. "Yet aside from making us feel virtuous," he ventures, "political theater can be a source of real solace too." Or how about this: "If I may indulge in a Hallmark card-ish image, going to see plays that tackle some of the same issues can be like reading the paper while holding someone’s hand." Just who is Charles Isherwood afraid will snicker at him for getting all gushy?

When it's considered "Hallmark" to assert that the theatre is a public forum and focus for public debate, we got trouble my friends.

PS. Interesting, different takes on this from George and Isaac. (And Scott Walters.)