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‘Bum Phillips’ Opera at LaMama Finds the Epic in American Football

The subjects of operas are usually tragic lovers or epic heroes– people with over-the-top expectations and desires. They’re people who win big, and sometimes fail bigger.  People like Orpheus and Eurydice. Like Madame Butterfly and Don Juan. Like Bum Phillips and Earl Campbell.

Whether you’re a football fan or not, you’ve got to admit that football is one of the most high-stakes, grandiose narratives in American history. Like the backdrop for some mythic battle, it’s got heated rivalries, crucial strategies, and larger-than-life characters who embody the game’s heart and energy. People like Bum, coach of the Houston Oilers from 1975-1980. Need more convincing that football is basically opera?

Photographer: Cory Torpie Gary Ramsey as Bum Phillips (center) and cast members of Monk Parrots’ World Premiere of Bum Phillips All-American Opera.
Photographer: Cory Torpie
Gary Ramsey as Bum Phillips (center) and cast members of Monk Parrots’ World Premiere of Bum Phillips All-American Opera.

Now, I think I can safely say among friends that I didn’t know who Bum Phillips was before receiving information about the opera. And no matter how many times my brother explains it to me, I only have a weak knowledge of how a football game actually works. In the case of Bum Phillips the opera, the former hindered my comprehension more than the latter. I suspect that creator Luke Leonard expected NYC theater audiences to come into the show with little to no experience with football. While there are some excellently choreographed scenes of football plays, they’re pretty watered down. Besides, commentary from operatic ABC sportcasters and the nifty scoreboard hanging above the stage is more than enough to help understand the game.

On the other hand, I think audience was expected to come in with a working knowledge of Bum Phillips’ career and life because not much is really revealed. We get a short, insubstantial glimpse into Bum’s birth in Texas and his deployment to the war, skip a decade or two until he gets hired by the NFL, and hardly get any mention of his marriage and family. Personal information is sparse, and his career accomplishments are only mentioned in a rather roundabout way.

Informative biopic this is not. I’m still not clear on what Bum Phillips’ specific contributions to the NFL actually were and why his legacy is important. I would have liked to see more of both his successes and his failures. But what I can tell you about Bum just from watching this opera, however, is that he was certainly a figure for the American people. He was successful as a coach not because he was ruthless or power-hungry. Rather, he treated his players like a family and dedicated himself to the game with hard work, passion, and modesty. And while he never did win the Super Bowl ring that he longs for in the opera’s opening, his happiness was achieved through his selfless love of the game.

This may all seem like a idealized portrait, and I feel the opera could have risked humanizing Bum a little more in making a more realistic character. But Bum’s energy and hopeful nature is infectious, especially as it is embodied by Gary Ramsey. Ramsey’s charisma, talent, and range pay tribute to Bum while also making him feel like a fully realized character. The music, from Peter Stopschinski also shines. It can re-create the halting, exciting, rhythm of a football game, as well as the domestic despair of a mother whose son is sent to war.

Bum Phillips plays through March 30 at La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theatre. Tickets here.

There’s also going to be a livestream of Sunday’s show sponsored by HowlRound Theatre Commons. More info here.

The Third Policeman at La Mama

Nomad Theatrical Company pays homage to Flann O’Brien’s absurdist classic, The Third Policeman, with this entertaining adaptation.  The Third Policeman oddly experienced a bit of a revival when it was featured on an episode of Lost and was said to have inspired part of the show’s style and plot. I am not exactly sure where I first heard of Flann O’Brien, whom some count among Irish Modernist masters like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, but my copy of The Third Policeman had been sitting on my exponentially-growing to-read pile so several months. Nomad’s adaptation finally had me moving it to the top of my list– evidence that Nomad’s goal of reinvigorating the novel for new audiences.

Mathers in puppet form, with Grant Neale on far right (Photo by Theo Cote)

The story follows an unnamed narrator who robs and kills an old man in the middle of the night. When the stolen money goes missing, the narrator seeks the help of some local policemen to find it. These policemen are comical, larger-than-life figures who spend their days stealing bicycles from the townspeople and conducting metaphysical science experiments. Their observations on life are both perfectly absurd and logical; their findings border between fantasy and reality.

Reading The Third Policeman feels a bit like being initiated into a cult. There are weird, mysterious things that only other readers could identify with and laugh at. For example, a perfectly scientific explanation of why we must all be afraid of bicycles. Part of what makes the book so memorable is how underneath the humor, there is an aura of mystery and doubt.

Nomad’s adaptation approaches the story with much of the plot still intact and chooses a far quainter tone. Traditional Irish melodies open the show and play throughout. Artistic director Grant Neale also has chosen to use puppets and manually projected images throughout the play. Much of the puppetwork by Ralph Lee was excellent. The puppets are diverse in style and use, each fitting its character memorably. They were delightful to watch and follow. The projected background was much less engaging, sometimes even obtrusive, and did little to forward the show’s tone or characters. I found myself enjoying the show’s script and acting, but missing some of the original unique gravity.

 

The Third Policeman plays through December 15 at La Mama Club. Tickets sold here.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Classic Stage Company

Because Dr. Emmett Brown is a communist, of course.

This has been an AH-mazing year for Brecht on the Off-Broadway Stage. Leading the pack was La Mama’s production of The Good Person of Szechwan. I am in no way exaggerating that Good Person was one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. Catch it when it comes to the Public Theater’s Fall 2013 season if you know what’s best for you.

For Caucasian Chalk Circle to follow up La Mama’s act means it needed to meet public expectations for innovative staging, great musical numbers, diverse talent that showcases Brecht’s knack for combining joyous hilarity with utter sadness, and vibrant direction that mixes fun with social consciousness.

Thankfully, Chalk Circle serves up just such a production. And the thanks doesn’t just go to the show’s poster child (poster-elder?) Christopher Lloyd– I’ll get to Mr. Lloyd and his awesome self in just a minute.

The play masterfully mixes the sentimental and the abstract, comedy and tragedy, potent storytelling and meta-narrative. Throw in a dash of some rather unique musical numbers and imaginative staging– I can barely think of anything this production does wrong.

Now, Chalk Circle doesn’t have the kitschy pizzazz that made Szechwan a success with audiences. But it is also a rather very different kind of story.  Grusha, a palace maid, saves a baby Prince in a turbulent time of Revolution. She raises the child as her own, making many sacrifices along the way to keep the child’s identity a secret. Once the monarchy is restored, however, Grusha is found out and taken to trial. Since Brecht is Brecht, there’s a whole play within a play structure, which the CSC company makes hilarious use of. Grusha, like Shen Te, is a simple yet heartbreaking character that audiences can truly root for. There’s also an interesting motif of motherhood in both plays… was Brecht possibly drawn to motherhood as a contrast to the paternalistic society and alienating economy he worked through? Hm.

The cast plays several parts, all excellently, and there is truly an ensemble quality to the piece. Christopher Lloyd doesn’t so much steal the show as merely astound us with his physical agility, resounding voice, and frank acting. Lloyd actually switches characters mid-play, and the difference between the rickety, low-voiced Singer and his confident, bombastic, vulgar Judge is a credit to his talent (and makes for the best Act I closing line that I have probably ever seen).

So now that I’m a total Brecht nut, I can fully endorse both Chalk Circle AND Szechwan when it makes its way to the Public this fall.

The Good Person of Szechwan at La Mama

Okay, okay. So lemme just start by saying that I had a semester-long love affair with Good Person and that Bertolt Brecht is a rather scatter-brained, unorganized, ridiculous playwright WHO SHAPED THE WAY I THINK ABOUT THEATER IN EVERY WAY SHAPE AND FORM.

Now, Brecht is tricky. Because if you read his theory and essays on the theater, his basic aim is to completely alienate his audience from the play. This gist of it is that the audience should never be sucked into the “reality” of the play. To use some more culturally charged vocabulary, we must resist molding the audience member into a passive consumer of media, ideas, or representations of reality. Rather, audiences must continuously be reminded of the construction of the play and be estranged from it. No catharsis here, buddy. Brecht terms his vision of the theater, “epic theater.” Some ways of doing this are:

a) making the technicals of the theater (costumes, scenery, scene changes, etc.) transparent to the audience instead of the traditional art of making the theater as realist as possible

b) foregoing the concept of a traditional hero or protagonist and making every character one that you critique and feel quite moved AGAINST

c) letting the audience judge for themselves what the “moral” of the play is, usually rather explicitly with a finale courtroom scene that addresses the audience as jury.

All of this, Brecht argues, makes a ACTIVE theatregoer who responds to what they see on stage and apply it to the real world. Y’know, instead of leaving it all in happystageland.

La Mama’s new production of The Good Person of Szechuan was really just experiment, folksy theater at its finest. Exciting, entrancing musical numbers. Hilarious comedic acting. Relevance to modern day society. Ideas and conflicts that will leave you and your friends talking more than just a few minutes over dinner. I, unfortunately, went alone, which resulted in an awkward moment when the lights came up at intermission and I was staring at my neighbor with a huge smile on my face because I was so darn happy!

If anything, one could accuse this Good Person of being too entertaining, of sweeping us off our feet, if we want to make Brecht into some kind of grumpy, aesthetic alien man. Which he’s not. So you do the math.

In Good Person, the gods appear in China on a quest to find as many “good” people as possible. They are given lodging by a prostitute named Shen Te. As a reward, the gods give Shen Te enough money to leave her prostitution days behind her and buy a tobacco shop to make an honest living. Because she is know for her kindness and charity, the new shopkeeper is assailed by figures from her past and the poor of the community, who take advantage of her and leave her worse off than she started. Not to mention a love interest who, don’t ya know, is using her for her newfound status.

Shen Te’s solution is to cross-dress as her ‘cousin’ Shui Ta, who lays down the law and gets rid of the vagabonds and manipulators in Shen Te’s shop. Eventually, Shui Ta gains enough power to use the poor of the community as factory laborers. Shui Ta’s factory becomes very successful, but partly because of his cruel treatment and the low wages of his workers.

How can a good person exist in a system where one must always fend for oneself? How can we do good for ourselves without harming the welfare of others?

When the gods are confronted with this dilemma, they state that they do not meddle in the business affairs of men. Afterall, what does business have to do with morality?

What? Did I hear you say that this parable-esque story is ripe with tons of relevant ideas and interesting, complex discussions about class, gender, and morality?

And can we just talk about how incredible Taylor Mac is? Just a flawless human being with grace and beauty enough to pull off a baby bump in 6 inch heels while belting ballad. His cross-gender portrayal of Shen Te/Shui Ta always supercedes parody. Instead he fills her with genuine struggle and conflict. I couldn’t help feeling that despite the bald head, the drag makeup and costume, the outline of his genitals against his slip, and the awkward baby bump, there was no disputing the fact that Shen Te was absolutely beautiful in her struggle for goodness.

 

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