The Playgoer: December 2007

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Quote of the Day

"Just watch out, you devil, we will meet in my next play."

-The late Ingmar Bergman, channeling August Strindberg.

As quoted by Michael Riedel in his tribute to just some of the many theatre luminaries we lost in 2007.

Happy New Year! My vacation's fine so far, how's yours?

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Some Round-Ups

Things will probably slow down here at Playgoer between now and New Years as I take some downtime. But meanwhile, in lieu of my own year-end round-up, I'll leave you with some others'!

There's the Times, of course. (Both Brantley and Isherwood.) Also Eric Grode in the Sun. And Mr. McCarter in NY Magazine.

Feel free to post links to others'. Or give us your Best and/or Worst of '07!

As for my own lists, I may indulge this year (or in January), if for nothing else but the opportunity to finally write about some shows I never mentioned here.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Holiday Cheer

I've recycled my O'Reilly inspired holiday rant from last year over on Huffington Post, where I've been trying out some cross-posting lately.

(So far, doesn't seem like a lot of theatre hungry readers there, so I haven't done much. But if you want to stay tuned, please sign up there as a "fan of this blogger" to get notification of whenever I post there.)

Meanwhile, Happy Saturnalia!

First Baseball, Now Broadway!

"Admission. I took steroids when I wrote 'The Odd Couple.' It made me write faster and funnier. I hit some jokes out of the theater. I admit it now. They'll probably take away my Tony Award. God, what a fool I was."

-Neil Simon. As told to Page Six.

Maybe we should launch an investigation next into alcohol-enhanced performance by our leading theatre artists. That would be a lot of revoked Tonys and Pulitzers, I'm afraid...


(No, Page Six is not all I'm reading these days. But I do admit to end-of-year fatigue and holiday onslaught. Thanks to all who have sent me interesting articles and news items. I look forward to some good reading soon.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Seattle's Best

...theatre, that is.

The Times' Misha Berson unveils the paper's "Footlight Awards." I like their Obie-like inclusiveness and creative categories.

If you're a Seattleite(?), then you may want to check up on your former faves and/or colleagues.

Crane/Crane

Apparently a Mr. Larry Myers, in addition to being a Hollywood gossip columnist is also a playwright. According to Page Six, his latest project may be just a bit too highbrow, though.

a fan asked him if his new play, "Stephen Crane & Dangerous Women," was about "the 'Hogan's Heroes' guy who did home porno flicks." Myers replied: "That was Bob Crane. Think 'Red Badge of Courage.' "
Of course, that story (Bob's, that is) has already been splendidly dramatized by Paul Schraeder in his film Auto Focus, which in addition to many other squirm-inducing moments includes the most accurately pathetic depiction of dinner theatre, ever.

Other than Kevin Kline's unforgettable Willy Loman refilling drinks routine in "Soapdish."*

But I digress...

*Correction: Yes, it's "SoapDISH," not "Soapbox." Obvious Freudian slip. And yes, it's a bad movie, but great scene, nonetheless.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Quote of the Day

"Fuck the press," he told me, leaning slowly forward. "That is exactly what I felt then, even more so what I feel now." He paused. "They can just go fuck themselves," he said.
-Mr. Pinter. As told to John Lahr.

Gotta love the "he paused."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Lahr on Pinter

I leaned against a wall rereading “The Homecoming,” which was what I’d come to discuss with Pinter... The paperback copy of the play that I held in my hands had been purchased during the Broadway début, at the Music Box, under the sensational direction of Peter Hall, in 1967. I’d seen the show on a Tuesday, bought the play at intermission, and returned to the Wednesday matinée to notate the blocking.

“The Homecoming” changed my life. Before the play, I thought words were just vessels of meaning; after it, I saw them as weapons of defense. Before, I thought theatre was about the spoken; after, I understood the eloquence of the unspoken. The position of a chair, the length of a pause, the choice of a gesture, I realized, could convey volumes. In 1967, I didn’t know quite what I’d seen; I knew only that the play’s spectacular combination of mystery and rigor had taught me something new about life, about language, about the nature of dramatic storytelling. Pinter had taken the narration out of theatre: “The Homecoming” offered no explanations, no theory, no truths, no through line, no certainties of any kind.

From John Lahr's mega New Yorker Pinter profile, Mostly an analysis (and, of course, plugging) of The Homecoming, as a play. (Not a review of the current production.) Strike that--he does critique the current production after all! At the end.

Print it out for some nice holiday downtime reading.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

REVIEW: Baby Jesus One Act Jubilee

In this week's Voice, my trip to Williamsburg, for the Brick Theatre's one-act fest, the Baby Jesus Jubilee.

I'm sorry I could only go to one of the two programmes. And that I missed the one Matt Freeman's play is in! So go check either one out yourself.

I'd like to add that space did not allow me to praise all the many fun performances of the evening, so let me just add especially that everyone in the Marc Spitz play--Ian W. Hill (who also directed), Alyssa Simon, and Aaron Baker--were all hilarious, and helped make that sketch a highlight.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Humana Festival Plays

Courtesy of the Louisville Courier-Journal, here are the six full-length plays chosen for the upcoming Actors Theatre of Louisville "Humana Festival."

Headline:No Jane Martin this year.

Enjoy!

"Great Falls" (opens Feb. 27 in the Bingham Theatre) -- Lee Blessing, 59, is best-known for his 1986 play, "A Walk in the Woods," about an American and a Russian nuclear-arms negotiator. It was a finalist for a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Blessing's new play isn't about avoiding global apocalypse, but audiences can expect universal themes involving the human condition in this story of a man and his stepdaughter who are trying to rebuild their lives. New York director Lucie Tiberghien, who was involved in the development of the play, will direct.

"This Beautiful City" (opens March 7 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium) -- Written by Steven Cosson, 39, and Jim Lewis, 50, this play with original music examines the difficulty evangelical Christians and non-evangelicals have finding common ground.

The Civilians spent months interviewing residents in Colorado Springs, Colo., the home of the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family. During that time, a scandal arose involving evangelical pastor Ted Haggard, who admitted to having sex with a male prostitute. The play evolved into a work about faith and how a community steers through such a crisis.

The play, which will be directed by Cosson, was developed in a workshop at the Sundance Institute. After its premiere at the Humana Festival, the show will go to The Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C.

"Becky Shaw" (opens March 2 in the Bingham Theatre) -- After her breakout success at the 2004 Humana Festival, Gina Gionfriddo landed a job as a writer-producer on NBC's "Law and Order." Her play "After Ashley" was produced off-Broadway with Kieran Culkin, who won a 2005 Obie Award for his performance.

In her new, dark comedy, a newlywed couple's attempt at matchmaking takes them into strange territory. Masterson said he commissioned Gionfriddo to write a play because "I love her work, and I want to see her continue to write for the theater."

The play will be directed by Peter Dubois, associate artistic director of The Public Theatre in New York.

"Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom" (opens March 20 in the Victor Jory Theatre) -- "This is a comedy, but it is truly scary. The hair on the back of your neck stands up kind of scary," Masterson said of this play by Jennifer Haley, a Los Angeles playwright in her 30s.

In a subdivision with identical houses, teenagers become addicted to an online video game of horror. Their parents are clueless about the children's activities and how blurred the line between reality and virtual existence has become. "It's a really sharp piece of writing," Masterson said.

Kip Fagan, co-founder of Printer's Devil Theatre in Seattle, will direct.

"the breaks" (opens March 11 in the Bingham Theatre) -- Dancer and poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph, 32, of New York City, was named one of America's Top Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences by Smithsonian magazine.

This new work by Joseph, a Stanford University resident artist, tells a personal story about being a multicultural person in a multicultural world. Joseph intertwines film, theater and dance in his narrative about hip-hop culture. Masterson predicts "the breaks" will have a long life after its Humana Festival debut.

The production will be directed by Michael John Garces, who provided imaginative direction to last year's Humana hit, "dark play or stories for boys" by Carlos Murillo.

"All Hail Hurricane Gordo" (opens March 15 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium) -- The lives of two brothers go haywire when they take in a female houseguest in this new work by Dartmouth graduate Carly Mensch, 24, of Harrison, N.Y. Masterson said the play is "smart and interesting" and Mensch "has a real gift" for playwriting.

The play will be directed by Actors' associate director Sean Daniels. After its Louisville premiere, the play will be staged at the Cleveland Playhouse.

"Game On" (opens March 21 in the Bingham Theatre) -- This anthology looks at sports in America and what society's obsessions with sports tell us about ourselves. The contributing playwrights are Yale School of Drama graduate Zakiyyah Alexander; Rolin Jones, a Pulitzer finalist for his play "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" and a writer for the Showtime cable TV show "Weeds"; Alice Tuan, who wrote this year's Humana play "Batch"; Daryl Watson, co-creator of the Disney show "Johnny and the Sprites"; Marisa Wegrzyn, resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists; and Ken Weitzman, whose full-length play "The As If Body Loop" was presented at this year's Humana Festival.

The 10-minute plays will be announced later.

Monday, December 17, 2007

John Doyle's "Mahagonny" on PBS













So I went through all this trouble back in February to check out John Doyle's production of the Brecht/Weill Mahagonny at the LA Opera and never even wrote about it!

Now that it's going to be on PBS tonight I guess time's running out for me to prove I was there and that I didn't just watch it on TV. So at the risk of being a spoiler, here's a sneak peak at what you'll see if you watch it. And what I thought about it...

(Speaking of sneak peaks, PBS has a video excerpt for you.)

The first question on everyone's mind at the time was whether Doyle's gambit of casting musical theatre stars Audra MacDonald and Patti LuPone (yes, that's her above right) would succeed in such a demanding operatic score. But it should also be remembered that while Weill did want Mahagonny performed in opera houses, both he and Brecht insisted that theatre-trained actors were preferable than classical opera singers to bring out the character of the music and lyrics.

MacDonald's voice easily satisfied the opera buffs, I think. Not surprisingly, in case anyone's forgotten, hers is a naturally beautiful classical soprano voice. And despite what people now assume from Lotte Lenya's later recordings, the role of "Jenny" (not to be confused with Threepenny Opera "Jenny") was written for a soprano. When Lenya was a soprano, that is.

So MacDonald was perfectly fine, musically. It was just as an actress that I felt she was miscast. As the ruthless whore, she certainly wasn't too virginal.Plenty of sass. Just not enough bite. Something soft about her instead of hard. Which made Jenny just too "beautiful" overall. Director Doyle played into this trap in what I felt was his biggest misstep--staging the famous "crane duet" with Jimmy as a genuine moment of intimacy (albeit splayed out on a pool table) instead of following Brecht's clear stage directions to place them on opposite sides of the stage making no contact. It's hard for modern Broadway folks not to give into the temptaton to romanticize Brecht/Weill--partially because those guys practically dare you to do so! (At your own peril, of course.)

LuPone, vocally, was probably not up to filling that enormous barn known as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. (I was in the top balcony.) But she sure communicated every inch of the Widow Begbig's petty materialism with her "don't' fuck with me" physicality and tawdry taste in clothes. (See photo.)

My main curiosity in the production, though, was to see Doyle's vision of the town of Mahagonny itself--the place where everything is allowed, except going broke. The shorthand description of his concept would be Mahagonny as Vegas. And the design evoked that beautifully. The desert motifs (already in the text), the chilling hollow neon everywhere. It actually felt right to me, even though perhaps too technological, which can distract from the raw human cruelty at work in the story.

Doyle embraced technology in many places. In the finale he digitized the closing placard slogans of the marching song on a running "crawl" above the stage. Most conspicuously the trial scene, which became a kind of Court TV spectacular, with live projections on the back wall of the key players. (I for one was glad in my nose-bleed seats, since I finally got to see faces!) Such mass-media allusions sort of missed the mark since Mahagonny's isolation--as an island of sin, a lawless no man's land--is essential to the narrative. But the moment had its satiric punch.

(Speaking of the end, there's also a little bit involving this mysterious "flag" that keeps showing up. I suspect it's a war-dead reference, but I'll wait till I see it up close on TV.)

And punch is what Doyle succeeded in delivering, which is not easy with this unwieldy opera/theatre hybrid. These techno-moments were indeed jarring. Perhaps not "alienating", but they indeed made Mahagonny strange again. The piece was at once made strange, and therefore fresh.

What saved this from gimmickry (aside from the fact there just wasn't enough of it to become a gimmick--most of the staging is pretty straightforward, as in all traditional opera houses) was Doyle's undoubtable understanding of the play. My favorite moments were these haunting tableaus, where all these dazed denizens of Mahagonny (in their trademark John Doyle black suits, white shirts and ties--little 50s conformists) just sit there staring into space, waiting out the hurricane. The visual underscored perfectly the sense of utter spiritual emptiness in the music and eerily captured the hangover that always ensues after economic gluttony.

If Mahagonny is one of those things you always meant to see or read but never did, this is your chance. So check it out. Or DVR it. It's free! And it's on tv.

And after you've watched it--tell us what you thought!

(Word is, I think it may come to NY City Opera soon, too.)

"Geezer Gate"

No, I don't usually link to Cindy Adams. But here's a rather amusing story. In the vein of the senior citizen audience "shout outs" we've been chatting about lately.

It was Wednesday night. It was Geezer gate. It was Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner's "Cyrano de Bergerac." Rich ard Rodgers Theatre. The respectful audience, as befits this celebrated revival, remained properly hushed. Not a candy wrapper crinkled, not a sneezer wheezed. But in Row Q sat a little bald old man. His heart was obviously in the right place, but his eardrums weren't. Poor guy couldn't hear a "wherefore art thou" from a "whithersoever goest thee," and from the stage those "prithees" all knocked together with their "mayhaps."

Finally, mustering up nerve, the gent actually cupped his hands and shouted through the packed house, "Speak up louder!" Kevin Kline never faltered. In character, right in the middle of his scene, he adlibbed, "Methinks I hear ghosts in the theater." The audience broke up. They applauded. And the play moved right along. But from then on, the speech level didst indeed kick up a notch.

Yeah, that Kevin Kline. What an untrained slouch.

Plus I'm sure that show is miked to the gills.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Outing David Henry Hwang's Boogeyman

You may have noticed in the NYT review of David Henry Hwang's "Yellow Face" Ben Brantley's own squirmishness over handling the delicate issue in the play of an unnamed Times reporter (billed officially as "Name Omitted on Advice of Counsel") Hwang accuses of slandering his father with atomic spying charges.

Well Kate Taylor at the Sun has done the simple legwork of digging up who he's talking about:

The second act of "Yellow Face" describes a government investigation in which Mr. Hwang's father, Henry Hwang, was involved in the late 1990s. A front-page story in the Times on May 12, 1999, reported that federal officials were investigating the source of tens of millions of dollars that had been transferred from the Central Bank of China into a California bank founded by Henry Hwang. David Henry Hwang was mentioned in the story, because he for a time sat on the bank's board. No charges were ever brought in the case.

[...]

The May 12, 1999, story was written by two investigative reporters, Tim Golden and Jeff Gerth. Mr. Hwang, for his purposes, conflated them. In the interview within the play, the character of Mr. Hwang refers to other stories the unnamed reporter has covered: the unauthorized sale of satellite technology to China, the investigation into political contributions by Asian-Americans, Wen Ho Lee, Whitewater — all of which Mr. Gerth either broke or participated in covering. But Mr. Gerth, reached by phone and informed about the scenario in the play, said he'd never spoken to Mr. Hwang. Mr. Golden, who was the lead reporter on the California bank story, said he had a vague memory of calling Mr. Hwang and having a brief conversation, in which Mr. Hwang declined to talk about the issues involving the bank. But nothing like what happens in the play's interview scene — in which the reporter as much as confesses to thinking that Asian-Americans have divided loyalties — occurred.

Golden--and Taylor's piece--present evidence that Hwang may at the very least be exaggerating such a bias in the reporting of this particular case. Without having seen the play, it's hard for me to say how far, though, he stretches the truth for clearly dramatic--and satiric--purposes.

Strange, with this and the charges of "revisionism" against The Farnsworth Invention, we're hearing a lot about playwrights' responsibilities to historical facts. I think this is a more pressing issue in mass-media events when millions of people may be presented with a "docudrama" expecting reportage. But with its limited audience, shouldn't theatre artists be granted even more imaginative leeway? It's one thing to slander someone by name from the public stage, but Hwang's play seems to clearly present itself as a fantasy--based on fact, yes, but his subjective memories and impressions of the facts.

Friday, December 14, 2007

"Garrett Eisler, Time Out New York" can't be trusted!

After giving the new Playwrights Horizons show "Doris to Darlene" what I thought was a pretty middling review this week, imagine my surprise to open my Friday Times this morning to see I had actually loved it! Or at least said, "A Terrific Cast."

Well, fair use, I guess. And at least they had the decency not to add an exclamation point. I did indeed use those words and thought the cast was...well, on the whole at least pretty damn fine. (As a word choice, "terrific" now strikes me as a lazy and/or rushed default.)

Such is the risk one takes when publishing as a print critic.

But one of the nice things about having a blog is the ability to follow up, to "contextualize" the appropriation of my words by advertisers. In short to set the record straight, lest anyone see this flawed play based on my "endorsement." (Which I doubt, anyway, being at the very bottom of the ad. They milked much better sounding quotes out of Isherwood's even less favorable notice.)

So here's my original review again in full. I can't even really say, "in full," though, at 260 words. So, to briefly expand, I though Jordan Harrison's play had a neat idea at its core that I would love to read an essay or an article about--the haunting of pop music by operatic forbearers, as well as the ecstasy engendered by both. But I just didn't think there was a play there. Yeah, it was on stage (and nicely staged by Les Waters). But as Harrison's incessant narration-style indicates, he really just wants to stand on stage and tell you the story himself. Most of the characters are stick figures. (Including the title character(s) I may add.) The only one of the three storylines that feels like drama is the contemporary high school one--which could have worked just fine without cutaways to the historical past. I greatly enjoyed Michael Crane's rendition of a self-aggrandizing hipster record-mogul (aka Phil Spector) but the scenes about Doris/Dorene where sketches at best, whose one central idea wore out pretty quickly. (The later course of their marriage and divorce couldn't have interested me less.)

Moreover, this plot fails to even put over Harrison's whole originating idea; as Isherwood rightly points out, we never even hear the Liebestod in Darlene's pop song. (At least he didn't. And I sure didn't.) So I feel that the music (including the disappointingly short-shrifted Kristin Childs ersatz girl-group songs) was a big letdown.

The only musical magic happens when Tom Nellis delivers a raw and simple a capella 11:00 number of above mentioned Wagner aria.

As I say in my TONY review: the play has "much going for it." What I should have added was: "...but not enough to justify Playwrights Horizons' $65 admittance fee."

So here's some free advice for Adam Feldman and those others in the New York Drama Critics Circle considering some remedy for the rampant contextomies performed on their reviews by marketing departments. Set up a blog! A kind of FactCheck.org for theatre reviews. For every theatre ad, set up links to all the original reviews, so ticket buyers can see for themselves the full context of the pull-quotes.

As I've noted before, the practice is as old as the republic itself. But thanks to these here internets, critics can maybe take back control--just a little control--over their own words.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Pinter File

Pintermaniacs take note: the British Library will now house the man's personal archives.

Highlights of the archive include an affectionate run of letters from Samuel Beckett, letters and hand-written manuscripts revealing Pinter's close collaboration with director Joseph Losey, and an exchange of letters with poet Philip Larkin.
Yup, nothing off limits. Except Sleuth.

Just kidding. I never even got to see it! Anyone want to defend it???

And has anyone seen the new Homecoming yet? I was supposed to get "educator" comps but the they never offered me replacements after the strike. Maybe they're worried Pinter is too "educational" to start with.

New Huntington A.D.

After the departure of Nicholas Martin, Boston's Huntington Theatre seems to have quickly settled on a successor: Peter DuBois late of the Public. He's 37.

PS. For local color, check out the Globe story, as well as blogger Mirror up to Nature.

Brantley Slept While Broadway Struck

I DVR'd an episode of New York 1's "New York Times Close-Up" last weekend when I saw Ben Brantley was making a brief appearance. The show is basically a weekly infomercial for NYT, hosted by veteran "Urban Affairs Correspondent" Sam Roberts.

When I finally caught up with it last night, I was struck by Roberts' first question. And the answer.

Roberts: What does a theatre critic do when there's a Broadway strike?

Brantley: I went to a lot of movies. I went to my house upstate. And I found myself sleeping ten hours a day because it had been a really hard pressed schedule for a while.
Well, so much for expanding non-Broadway theatre coverage during the strike. Hey, I don't blame Brantley for catching some z's. But what kind of editor just puts your chief critic on vacation during the strike?

The kind who thinks there's no theatre outside of Broadway, that's who.

Speaking of theatrical ignorance, get a load of this question of Roberts', regarding Conor McPherson's booze-fest The Seafarer.
Roberts: (after Brantley's gushing encomium to the play) What do they drink on the stage? Presumably not alcohol?
Isn't this a kind of...dumb question?

I mean, unless he's a budding properties master looking for advice on how to concoct authentic looking whiskey for his next production of Long Day's Journey. But you'd be suprised how many laymen are willing to entertain the notion that the onstage liquor is not food-colored water but somehow the real thing, and that actors can presumably down the hard stuff night after night , for hours, without crashing into the scenery and missing their cues.

Now of course, we know some have. But imagine thinking that's expected!

By the way, any props peeps out there who want to share your secret for faux-whiskey, please share!

(And email to Sam Roberts)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

REVIEW: From Doris to Darlene (Time Out)

My review in Time Out today: Jordan Harrison's From Doris to Darlene. At Playwrights Horizons.

For me this play prompted the question: are some ideas--no matter how interesting--just impossible to dramatize?

I'd also like to say that my favorite moment in the play was when the Phil Spector character lit up and some old guy in the 5th row said at full voice: "I sure hope he puts out that cigarette!"

Onstage smoking bans--they're real, folks, and they're coming.

Addendum: Damn! Rob Kendt--who was sitting behind me that night--beat me to it. He also offers a different take on what was said, the gender of the speaker, and even on the play itself! As with all things, there is no one truth...

Live by Idol, Die by Idol

Fantasia has gone from Broadway's darling to its most conspicuous no-show...

Since summer, the occasional star of "The Color Purple" has missed nearly 50 performances, production sources say. Following a three-week vacation caused by the strike, she dropped last Friday's performance, causing pandemonium in the lobby of the Broadway Theatre.

An 8-year-old girl sobbed uncontrollably when she heard Fantasia was not going to be in the show.

"It was very sad," my lobby spy reports. "Her mother was trying to explain to her that Fantasia was sick, but the girl didn't understand and just kept crying."

Riedel has all the teary dirt. And since accepted B'way procedure for any star attraction is to refund tix when said star can't be delivered, Color Purple risks dipping a little more into the red each time.

(I think she's leaving soon anyway, no?)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bill Camp

I'm very glad Time Out ran this Helen Shaw profile last week of the usually unsung Bill Camp, whose performance as Alceste in the Ivo van Hove Misanthrope was the kind of stuff awards are made for.

I first saw Camp as the star leading man in the ART company about ten years ago--playing Prince Hal and Henry V in consecutive seasons for director Ron Daniels. Unfortunately when he left Cambridge and came to NY, he became just another struggling classical actor--despite starring in Macbeth and Measure for Measure for Theatre for a New Audience. More recently, he was also one of the best things about "Coram Boy."

I suppose it's also true--though rubbing it in a bit--to say he became Mr. Liz Marvel! (Who was memorably his Lady Macbeth back in that '99 production.)

Among the sorry revelations in the article is that he almost gave it all up. But welcome back, Bill. You're better than ever.

Edifice Complexes

I admit to going a bit ga-ga myself over the Guthrie and other swanky new theatre buildings. And I do believe some nice seats and a tolerable bathroom go a long way toward making theatregoing a positive experience again for those who've abandoned it.


But thankfully Lyn Gardner at the Guardian is always there for a reality check. Let's not get carried away with the brick and mortar, she cautions, and let's remember to put our increasingly spare resources into what goes on the stage, not the mere materials it's built of. "The theatre as a building has only been with us over the last 400 years or so," she reminds us, adding:

New models such as the National Theatre of Scotland, a "theatre without walls", which utilise found spaces such as airports and woodland glades alongside traditional theatres are sign-posting a way forward, and organisations such as the Barbican and its Bite seasons are thinking ahead in recognising that its own theatres are not necessarily the most appropriate place for some shows. Why shouldn't commercial theatre be similarly forward-thinking and look beyond the current spaces available, most of which were built with a traditional three-act play in mind and are now only suitable for musicals.

A colder funding climate is not the time to start getting nostalgic about buildings even if they have been knocking around for a couple of hundred years. If we have to make choices between putting public money into bricks and mortar or into making art and nurturing the next generation of artists, I know where I want it to go. We can scrape by without buildings, but British theatre will be lost without tomorrow's theatre makers.

Nothing gets out the checkbooks quicker than a shiny model of some space-age performing arts complex--with lots of naming opportunities, of course. But let's not let fundraising become its own raison d'etre.

BTW: Regarding the Isherwood link above (which I liked!) check out the response from Michael Kahn, the AD of the theatre mocked for its donor fetishizing.

"Givenik"

If you're going to go ahead and pay hundreds of dollars for B'way tickets, then might as well funnel some of it to charity.

That's the apparent thinking behind Givenik, a ticket site where you can earmark 5% of your purchase to the cause of your choice (from a list of choices.)

Now it is run by none other than Jujamcyn Theaters. But I guess they're out for any sales they can get, post-strike.

Strike *Officially* Over

The union ratified the new negotiated contract.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Wooster Group: We Perform, You Decide

So I just got a fundraising mailing from the Wooster Group--yes, that is a Yule Log on their website-- offering me the chance to not only become a contributor but--once I do so--vote for their next project!

So much for the autonomous avant-garde.

Anyway, in case you're interested, the choices are:

True West
Trouble in Tahiti
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
A Streetcar Named Desire
The New Fischerspooner Show [???]
Branagh's Hamlet
or,
Other

So you can send in your $ to Wooster, or just tell us right here what you'd like them to be doing.

Or whether you think they should be artists and make up their own damned minds!

BTW: The "Branagh's Hamlet" thing I can only assume is an offshoot of the current Hamlet (aka Burton's Hamlet) which does feature a very funny cameo from the Branagh film in the form of Charlton Heston. I also believe the lead acto Scott Shepherd was also quoted as saying he originally wanted to include as much Branagh as Burton since he hated the film so much.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Jack O'Brien Transfers Self to B'way

Full time, now. He will officially retire as Artistic Director of San Diego's Old Globe January 1st.

O'Brien is one of the most successful--and lets face it, talented and accomplished--American directors. But his use of the Old Globe as a Broadway factory, I think, will be a mixed legacy. Broadway, for one, should be grateful he provided a nonprofit alternative to the out-of-town tryout of yore, using taxpayer and philanthropic subsidy to develop such needed works as Hairspray and The Grinch.*

But on the other hand you can't deny he's been a power player, and helped make a certain class of regional theatre respectable again in NYC--as not only a generator of new work, but an employer and incubator of talent both onstage and off.

Maybe someone out there closer to the San Diego scene can verify how much of a change this will even be, with O'Brien spending most of his time out east lately anyway. (Could he have even attended one Old Globe board meeting during his "Coast of Utopia" season?) Hence, he already a couple of years ago appointed an associate AD--Jerry Patch--to oversee a lot of the job.

Meanwhile, expect to see more of his work soon at a Lincoln Center Theatre production near you...

*Correction: Thanks to Rob Kendt for reminding me that we can't blame Jack for Cry-Baby. That was LaJolla.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Good News for "Springer", Bad News for Censors

It has taken a court of law in the UK to rule that Jerry Springer The Musical--one of the most original and least seen of modern American musicals--is "not blasphemous."

From Playbill.com's John Nathan:

A Christian evangelical group has failed in an attempt to brand the controversial musical Jerry Springer – the Opera as legally blasphemous.

In a High Court ruling, two judges refused the group Christian Voice permission to prosecute theatre producer Jonathan Thoday and Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC who aired the musical in 2005.

Christian Voice, one of the Christian pressure groups who attempted to prevent the U.K. touring version of the show, had described the musical as "offensive, spiteful, systematic mockery and wilful denigration of Christian belief."

In the ruling judges Lord Justice Hughes and Mr. Justice Collins said, "As a whole [Jerry Springer – the Opera] was not and could not reasonably be regarded as aimed at, or an attack on, Christianity or what Christians held sacred."

NYC finally sees a concert version of it in January, at Carnegie Hall.

Osage Countin' the Money!

The rave NYT review of Tracy Letts' August:Osage County has made it a bona fide boffo Broadway hit!

Biz for Steppenwolf Theater's production of "August," which opened Tuesday at the Imperial Theater, is unusually high for a straight play, a legit genre that tends to attract smaller auds than razzle-dazzle tuners.

"It's a huge number for a play," said Philip J. Smith, prexy of the Shubert Org, which owns the Imperial along with 15 other Rialto houses. "It's almost like a musical."

In Smith's estimation, the last time a Broadway play achieved a similarly boffo post-opening figure was the original 1984 production of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing," starring Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close, which wrapped around $200,000 the day after the show opened.

This may yet prove that the power of the NY Times to make or break a show may not be dead after all, when it comes to plays. After the raves for Well and Journey's End did no good, one couldn't be blamed for wondering.

It helps that August, reportedly, is a play with genuinely popular appeal and has the word of mouth of not being too arty. Charles Isherwood's previous review (of the Chicago production) caught the ire of David Cote for its seemingly faint praise. But note the Ish now says: "It is, flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years."

I myself still haven't seen the play so can't weigh in. But now I'm pissed that because it's doing so "well" I won't be seeing it! So much for a post-strike discount...

This is why I do not bemoan the demise of "the straight play" on Broadway--better it be done at a price I can afford! What's healthier for The American Drama: to live on as a tourist attraction for $100+ a ticket? Or play to people who care about theatre?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Blogging Revolution or Revulsion?

Nathan Huang

I try to stay away from inside-blogging topics. But, hey, not when I'm mentioned!

Time Out's cover-story this week (see graphic) is basically a virtual roundtable with both MSM critics and bloggers (including yours truly) reacting to various questions along the lines of "is everyone a critic" and "will newspapers still exist in 20 years"?

They wouldn't have been the questions I would ask, but some good quotes come out of it all the same. (No, and not just the ones from or about me! Of which there are not nearly enough, I might add.)

First, my hat off to my friend Tweed for stating the obvious:
Every emergent form of media is based upon and inextricable from forms before it. Oral to written culture, handwritten manuscripts to the printing press, analog to digital: They’re all cut from the same cloth. If anything, the Internet is a giant boost for criticism: Readership explodes exponentially, in numbers, demographics and geographies, and although it “dilutes” the field a bit, that doesn’t compare to the amazing benefits Internet culture provides.
No doubt, some pillars of the community railed against printing presses, taking "authority" away from the scribes--who literally had to sweat over every precious word, damnit, so you know they're "qualified." I imagine the phrase "don't believe everything you read in print" started circulating soon afterwards. Quills are expensive, typeface cheap.

The other side of the spectrum is voiced by TONY film critic David Fear:
[S]uddenly anybody can just say, “The Phantom Menace is awesome!,” and that’s given the same weight as the opinion of someone who’s been evaluating movies professionally for 50 years, the sense of authority is gone.
Talk about Fear-mongering! Ok, I like his reviews in TONY, and he seems otherwise to be a blogosphere supporter. But I'm getting tired of this common strawman. Who does give "weight" to the "Phantom Menace is awesome" guy??? (Especially in that particular case.) And who would even be aware of a case like that except some friend of his already surfing his fan-blog. (Or George Lucas.)

This does raise an interesting question (untouched upon in the TONY piece) about the future not of criticism but of "pull quotes"--perhaps the format in which most legit criticism is actually read. (Think: we keep seeing Gene Shalit's name in every ad, but when was the last time you read, or even watched, an actual "review" by him?) I do imagine the day's not far off (or already here?) when "'Phantom Menace is Awesome!'--Joe Dude's Blog" actually makes it to a print-ad.

The effect of that, though, will be not to make criticism meaningless, but pull-quotes meaningless. Which is probably a good thing.

Finally, I must admit to blushing at the following anti-blog admonition in the spread from the Post's Linda Stasi:
The Internet should come with a warning label: Beware any blog that has the words musings, thoughts and ramblings in it. This is as clear a sign of the bad, boring amateur writer as deer poop is for a hunter.
Uh-oh. Scroll up to that "About Me" in my upper right margin...

I guess when the Stasi is onto you, time to go underground. And clean up my deer poop.

ADDENDUM: For readers less familiar with this blog, I realize I should add, for full disclosure, that I am occasionally a Time Out contributor, as well.

PS. I've also changed the Time Out link itself to take you into the text of the piece itself, rather than the menu. Hopefully easier and less daunting to navigate that way...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

How Good is Burton's "Sweeney"?

According to Terry Teachout, at least--pretty, pretty good.

What I can say is that it is--without exception, and by a considerable margin--the best film ever to have been made from a Broadway musical.
And that's all he feels free to put in the blog, before press moratorium is up!

Post-Strike Box Office

For a lot of fledgling new shows, not so hot.

Funny, I expected a slew of discounts for the more obscure titles. And so did the professionals!

“Frankly, there are going to be a lot of wild discounts going on for the next few weeks,” said Chris Boneau, a Broadway press agent. (Quoted in NYT)
A week later, that turns out not to be the case. Outside of an All-Seats $25 offer for the first night back of Chicago, the big shows are doing just fine.

But you'd think if the property is a 100-year-old never produced play, with no stars, and an uninviting title, they'd be paying us to fill their seats. Think again:

``Is He Dead?'' is the title of a never-produced Mark Twain comedy opening on Broadway on Sunday.

It's also a fair question to ask about the show's box- office vigor, given the release late yesterday of ticket sales for 33 Broadway shows since a stagehands strike was settled on Nov. 28.

"Is He Dead?'' grossed $52,353 over four performances, according to figures from the League of American Theatres and Producers. An average of 260 people bought tickets for each show, in a theater that seats 922. That's only 28 percent of capacity.

Bloomberg's Philip Boroff goes on to list Conor McPherson's widely praised Seafarer as a similar case.

I know producers must think there's nothing to gain from cutting prices ($55 is considered a "steal" from many of the email-ads I get). They figure what's the point of filling the house if you'll never turn a profit.

Well consider this, all you non-famous "straight" plays out there--you're gonna lose your investment anyway, odds are. Might as well get the word out that you just may be doing good work.

I think if either of the above mentioned shows offered all seats at $25 Tuesday-Thursday night, for even just one week, their long-term buzz would grow exponentially.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Strike Post-Mortem

Some interesting tidbits trickling out in various post-strike articles I've been catching up with.

First Campbell Robertson sums up pretty credibly what spun it out of control:

After months of negotiations, league officials were genuinely surprised to find
that the union wasn’t giving in on a range of points, even on rules the league
thought were plainly unreasonable.

Unreasonable to who, again?

Again, the League also never recognized how ape-shit a union will go when you say you're going to roll back conditions that have been in the contract for nearly 100 years, and that your organization has renewed again and again.

They also underestimated union solidarity from the actors--who know they're next.
When the strike began, the first on Broadway in the union’s 121-year history,
the league also expected to see fault lines between Local 1 and the other
Broadway unions, but these lines never really materialized. The new director of
Actors’ Equity Association, John P. Connolly, turned out to be a stalwart
defender of Local 1, giving fiery speeches at news conferences.
The League let Connolly know, by the way, what fun he's in for next year, when the AEA contract comes up for renewal.
In an open letter to the actors’ union during the strike, league officials said, “Before the recent vitriol aimed at us by Equity, we had no expectation that next summer’s production contract negotiation would be difficult in any respect.”

Meanwhile, the Sun's Kate Taylor takes up the question of, why doesn't this happen over in London? Turns out they have an interesting solution over there:
[E]ach West End theater is required to permanently employ at least four stagehands. They then hire additional stagehands for the load-in and run of a show....

On the other hand, once a Broadway show closes, all the stagehands working on it are immediately unemployed.

Perhaps this sensible alternative model came out of more fruitful, creative, and respectful labor negotiations.

Oh, and one other factor:
A spokesman for Local One, the Broadway stagehands' union, Bruce Cohen, noted that the British unions and their employers also don't have to negotiate about health care, since Britain has national health care.
Oh, what problems would "evil socialized medicine" not solve!

Finally some "final thoughts" of my own:

- Note how easily so many assumed that because a stagehand might not be fully put to use on one day of a load-in that therefore he must be earning six figures a year doing nothing. I sincerely doubt, need I say, that is the case with anyone. Yet there it was spread all over the press.

- I think the big picture that's been missed throughout is why the old contract allowed for so much so-called "featherbedding." (In other words, let's not assume along with Charlotte St. Martin that her predecessors at the League of American Theatres and Producers were either labor-loving pinkos or crack-addicted incompetents.) My guess is that the old contracts assumed most Broadway shows were big shows and would require big load-ins. Hence, in the days when Broadway meant big, you didn't hear as many "featherbedding" complaints since...they actually used all those stagehands! Now the shows have progressively shrunk in every way (Bronx Tale anyone?) but the contract remained the same.

The League is right that the rising economic costs of real estate, marketing, and other union demands, make profit more difficult on the old super-size budgets. And indeed, despite their claims the stagehands were doing nothing to compromise, these negotiations have ended up acknowledging the changing landscape and giving them more flexibility. But if they're asking unions to adjust to a much smaller Broadway, it's only fair to provide a much more gradual transition for the average day-laborers and their families. Instead of just all at once downsizing them.

-I believe I heard someone on say on NY1's On Stage this past weekend that while the old contract did not mandate load-in minimums for non-musical plays, the new contract--as a concession--does! I don't know about you, but what I take out of that is the news that you can't blame the stagehand union for keeping serious drama away from Broadway. That's not what this was about. In fact, the League seemed content to give that away as a bargaining chip. Why? Because they don't plan on producing any more plays.

Seriously folks, what it really means is today's business savvy producer is relying now on only one formula: the small to midsize musical. Small enough to cut the stagehand costs, but large enough to fill the house. Ol' Wedekind's Spring Awakening may be having all kinds of unintended consequences...

-And finally, here's the number one reason I'm glad there was a strike: to remind people that people who work in the theatre really work. They're not minstrels for our amusement. They're not doing it as a hobby, like community theatre. Whether working on stage or off, this is their livelihood and if we want a theatre in this town (and this country) we better look after it as a profession. Like any other profession.

When auto or transit workers strike, sure there's grumbling and anti-labor rhetoric. But for play-people, I sense a more shocked outrage. How dare these men be picketing on the street instead of enchanting my children, and my aunt from Indiana. The Times ran a letter to the editor that said something like: Good going stagehands, you ruined the restaurant industry. But you know, restaurant workers have unions, too. And we recognize their right to strike. (Don't we?)

I suppose an analagous group of employees not "allowed" to strike are teachers. Indeed, an important civic job. But without the power to strike, are we content to let them be exploited with no leverage?

So as we enter what is promising to be a harball decade for Broadway labor negotiations (as has widely been reported, the League has a long-term, course-resetting agenda here) I hope everyone in the press or in real life who loves the theatre will remember that the people who make those magical nights on stage happen--they're employees. Just like--probably--you.

Godot as Protest

photo: Lee Celano
Perhaps you've read the Sunday Times piece (see photo) on Classical Theatre of Harlem's Godot in New Orleans. But how about the Mother Jones article?
"Any empty lot or street corner in New Orleans could serve as the setting for Godot," says Paul Chan, the artist behind the project.
Gee, will theatre be embraced by the activist political left once again?

PS Since I missed the original Harlem production, I do hope this bodes well for a remounting...?

Lazy Criticism

Here's a nice rant from dance critic/blogger Alexandra Tomalonis. I confess to knowing little about dance--it's a real blind spot for me, which is inexcusable as a critic of "performance"--but I find much, shall we say, relevance in what she's saying to theatre and, for that matter, all arts criticism.

Worth quoting at length. Context is the a recent ballet opening in Phoenix and the review in the main paper there.

Richard Nilsen, the Arizona Republic's arts critic, spent most of his review telling us not how the company presented the crown of Romantic Ballet, not how this or that dancer compared with famous dancers in "Giselle's" personal pantheon, not even what the production looked like, but that "Giselle" should no longer be danced: "a relic of an extinct zeitgeist, and one we are well rid of."

Well, that's that. The Kymer Rouge approach to arts criticism: if it's old, or you don't understand it, smash it. Nilsen, of course, is more than welcome to detest "Giselle" or find it boring, but usually when a critic is in such a pickle, he squares his shoulders and writes about what's onstage. The audience doesn't want to read, "I've been watching 'Nutcracker' for 20 years and if I see one more party scene I'm going to scream," and if someone is forced to write a review of "Sleeping Beauty" who hasn't thought of it as anything more than a fairy tale she thrilled to when she was three, she might take an hour or so to read about the ballet and find out why it's considered a masterpiece.

I don't fault Nilsen for the review. He explains his point of view very clearly and bends over backwards to be fair to the dancers. I fault the editors who do not seem to understand the responsibilities of a newspaper to its readers and the arts. Once upon a time, newspapers in large cities had dance — and music, and art, and literary — critics who knew their subjects thoroughly. Once upon a time, an editor working on a review that took so much space to object to the existence of a work rather than explaining, analyzing, or commenting upon the production or the performance would have pointed this out, and guided the writer. Once upon a time, an editor, even a weekend editor, would have known that "Giselle" wasn't an odd, obscure little ballet that a whimsical artistic director had misguidedly inflicted upon the public, but a masterpiece that is currently in the repertory of every major ballet company in the world.

Bashing "Giselle" for its existence is on a par with giving the same treatment to "Hamlet" or "Faust" (Oh, come on. Does anyone really sell his soul to the Devil these days?) Complaining about mime in ballet is like complaining about recitative in opera (They should cut the monotone stuff and stick to the hit tunes.)

....Someone new to ballet who saw the production will look in vain in this review for guidance as to what the ballet is about or how it was danced in any detail, and someone who was thinking about going to the ballet might be discouraged. Classical ballet is relatively new to Phoenix, and newspapers once took that into account, understanding that it was part of their mission to educate readers. The Arizona Republic ran a preview piece: Giant canine will take center stage for"Giselle" which may have brought a few dog lovers to the ballet, but didn't explain transcendentalism, or why a work of art whose premise is that love can outlast death might possibly still be relevant.

And so such a review matters to Phoenix, which is one of the largest cities in America now, and one trying to attract residents by building world class performing arts companies. How will a ballet company, a symphony, an opera company, and/or serious theater troupes grow in such an atmosphere? Reading dance criticism today (in many cities, not merely Phoenix) one sees that editors know little about the arts, and seem to care less. Many reviews are of the level one could read in smaller American newspapers in the 1940s and 1950s, when there really wasn't much ballet in America and one could forgive a critic for not having seen much. There were no videos, no DVDs, and very little to read. Some of those old reviews were superficial, or slightly off-kilter (often written by music critics, pressed into service for the once-yearly ballet performance by a touring company), but for the most part the writers understood the context of the works, and the art form, they were writing about. Otherwise, criticism is piffle — not the "sentimental piffle" that this review called "Giselle," but just plain piffle.

Monday, December 03, 2007

UrineCourt!

Ah, remember the Urinetown story? The one where the NY production team sued not one, but two alleged copycat semi-pro stagings in the Midwest?

Well, a year, and no doubt many lawyer hours, later, at least one of the suits has been settled:

Chicago team, including director Tom Mullen, has agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to members of the Broadway version of "Urinetown," which was staged by helmer John Rando, choreographer John Carrafa, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and set designer Scott Pask, among others.

Creative copyright watchers, take note: the "precedent" value here is still unclear, especially since it's a settlement, I guess, rather than a ruling.

New York side of the dispute had the support of directors' union the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, which aimed to use the case to boost its longstanding argument for the establishment of a director's copyright on certain staging choices.

The Dramatists Guild of America, which has taken a stance against such a copyright to protect revenues for its member scribes, swiftly touted an excerpt from a Department of Justice intervention in Mullen v. SSDC, et. al, which states "the Register denies that stage direction, as presented to the Copyright Office for registration, is copyrightable subject matter."

We haven't seen the last of these disputes, I can assure you. I believe it's in everyone's interest for director copyright to get on the books somehow, just so there's clarity and less chance of such protracted litigation.