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 Circledoesn’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.
We round off our UTR coverage with the most unique and most ambitious play of the the 2013 lineup: Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times Marathon, a ten-hour play comprised of four episodes taken verbatim from one director’s phone call conversation with a cast member to recount her life story. And yes, it starts with day one.
Life and Times is truly a celebration of the everyday, mundane life. The first energetic, musical episode retracing the subject’s first 6 (ish) years of life, is just simply exuberant. It rejoices in the trivial details and reminiscences of childhood, whether it be the calming energy of a father, the tauntings of a brother, playing hooky from swim lessons, or a mean substitute teacher who causes one to wet one’s pants. What is it about one person’s personal, small experiences, which may seem so unimportant or too subjective to be inconsequential, that makes everyone suddenly moved to connect and remember their own memories, even if they are vastly different from those of the subject? It doesn’t make sense. But it happens in Life and Times. Never do you resentfully wish that someone with a more interesting life was interviewed, some kind of celebrity or something. Interesting is not at stake here. Neither is celebrity. We’re here to see the greatness, the adventure, in the everyday.
When we say verbatim, we mean verbatim. Every “um,” “erm,” “so,” “like,” etc. is reproduced, even emphasized at times. Sometimes an “um” is given its own note, harmony, and crescendo. It’s all part of the poetry of our subject’s (and our own) speech. It’s fantastic. I love my “ums” and “likes” now! In many ways, the marathon is also a case study in theatrical adaptation and conventions. I’d like to hear if some people felt like there were two voices in the piece- that of the woman on the phone generously telling her life story (imagined in our heads from reading the captions) and that of the artists. For me, the woman on the phone speaks quickly, nervously, a distance of years between her and her memories. The artists speak immediately, affectionately, deliberately, and slowly. The difference between the two illuminates what we do when do make a narrative out of someone’s real-life experiences.
I also endorse captioned performances like those in Life and Times for EVERY SHOW EVER becauseimnotagoodlistener
Episodes 1 and 2 are balanced in their joy and sincerity, striking a genuine chord with the audience. Episodes 3 and 4, on the other hand, are much messier (starkly different from the careful musical performances of 1 and 2). It feels a lot less fluid, a lot less reflective, and a lot more tedious. Yes, the “murder mystery” Agatha Christie-style shtick is fun and lends itself well to the subject’s more confessional teenage years. But the same plodding mood, the same melodramatic parodies for 2 and a half hours? Perhaps throw in some more genre-benders for 3 & 4, you know, instead of waiting for 5 and 6? Maybe some farce, some social manners, some Arthur Miller, some Harold Pinter, some Sam Beckett? You’ve got all of theater history to choose from.
Also, I hate to say this, but just because we’re taking the subject’s conversation verbatim doesn’t mean we must include ALL of it, or even do it chronologically. I could not wait to hear our subject’s memories on some more mature experiences-her first heartbreak, her first interview, maybe even her work as an artist. Alas, episode 4 ends at age 18. Word on the street is that Nature Theater plans to make over a dozen episodes to bring forth all the pieces of their subject’s memories. Because editing is nowhere to be found on their mission statement.
So um Life and Times attempts to capture the idiosyncrasies of, like, human speech… and turn oral storytelling into, um, a theatrical event.And it’s brilliant. UTR’s plays experiment with the idea of what theatre is and can be. This production is one of the main events of the Under the Radar Festival, and for good reason. Life and Times is huge both in length and in concept. The four episodes of Life and Times currently span about ten hours as a marathon (with more to come). And it’s mission to relate a telephone conversation to the audience–verbatim–is no easy task. The crafting of dialogue in the theatre is a language of its own. It has to establish the dramatic conflict and drive the story.
At first, Life and Times doesn’t seem to have any narrative arc, as the novelty of the “real speech” takes time getting used to. The cast doesn’t shy away from the inconsistent vulgarities of human speech–they revel in them. But in those “mistakes” come brilliance. The hesitation before an embarrassing childhood memory. The nervous laughter hiding the fear of an abusive father. The unexpected interruptions where she wonders–and we all wonder–if our stories are actually worth being told.The constant musicality of Episodes 1 and 2 were welcome, as they help give the narrative an emotional life. I was also taken with the “anti-choreography” of awkward limbs and grace-less plies that illustrated everything from solitude to sexual desire. Episodes 3 and 4 can use more development, as the English cozy mystery genre sometimes muted the actors’ performances.
Life and Times was my first experience with marathon theatre, and it was a fun one. The intermissions were accompanied by a dinner and dessert break (featuring awesome salted brownies). It made me think of the possibilities of theatre being an all-day event, where the audience could respond even more to the stories brought to them. I also wondered if the company members could utilize those intermissions in a more creative way, particularly with the ensemble members. Even after almost half-a-day of Life and Times, I still wanted more, and I look forward to future episodes, wacky genres, and “ums.”
Part art installation, part short film, and part one woman show, 2 Dimensional Life of Her is an exciting piece that challenges our concept of theatre. The space itself looks like a paper wonderland: huge pieces of paper line the walls, and a blank canvas is propped up on an easel. A paper cut-out of a woman stands on a chair. Shredded pieces of paper litter the stage floor.
It begins with the image of a woman (Fleur Elise Noble) projected onto the paper cut-out. The first surprise is when the woman begins to move. The next surprise is when the woman leaves the cut-out, her footsteps echoing throughout the theatre. She proceeds to clean the huge pieces of paper, revealing even more surprises and scenes that are scrubbed, torn, or scribbled into existence. Filmed drawings and puppetry give the visual life of the scenes, while clear sound effects make them heard. 2 Dimensional Life of Her follows the woman as she finds her paper cut-out and engages with her artistic creations.
2 Dimensional Life of Her has some of the best multimedia I have ever seen. Noble, who created the concept and design, deftly handles all aspects of the piece, from her rebellious puppets to the interplay of the filmed images and happenings on stage. I especially enjoyed her use of contrast with light and darkness.
But the real magic happens when Noble herself enters the stage and directly addresses her creations—and the audience. This is when theatre happens, as she creates a human connection between herself and her art. Until her entrance, the piece felt more like an art exhibition or a film viewing rather than a theatrical experience. One instance of this ambivalence occurs when a group of puppets “enter” the paper backdrop, armed with a movie camera. They have a conversation illustrated with text bubbles:
“Is this a movie?”
“No, it appears we have an audience!”
“They’re in the way.”
The artwork doesn’t know what it is yet, but I would love to see what happens when the artist comes to a more definitive creation.
A visit to a a family-style fusion restaurant leaves the narrator of this one-woman show obsessed with the question of whether it is possible to have a “neutral” narrative in America? “Neutral” in this context means free from any experience filtered through the lens of race or gender. She searches for the answer to this question for an indeterminate amount of time looking for one person who can claim to have a neutral life.
I don’t think I’m quite spoiling anything by saying that she finds none. No one can be freed of their circumstances, nor do we perhaps want them to be. Anyone with a “neutral” narrative is really just an empty shell of a person with no stake in their actions, waiting to be filled by outer forces, whether it be an over-demanding job, a love interest, or hey, an obsession with whether America has a “neutral” history. By the end of the show, we realize that our narrator is completely devoid of any self. While she is represented in this production by a young, black, professional, black woman (an excellent April Matthis), she could really be anyone. There is no mention of her race or gender, no reference to where she comes from or what defines her, not even her name. The monologue could just as easily been played by a white middle aged male. Her emptiness functions as the bare stage for our discussion on race and gender.
Overall, the show brings great insight into the function of race and gender in contemporary America. Some of the writing felt a little misguided, like the few opening spewing cliches about “change” and what a fickle force of nature it is– I don’t see “change” as a dominant theme of the play, nor something marginally explored. The ending, however, is jarring, demanding the audience to assess to what extent we produce assumptions of “neutrality” in our lives.
It’s a BIG week here at Letters From the Mezz. We started 2013 off right by booking tickets to some of the best theater of the season, starting off with the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater. This festival collects the best, new theater from around the world and puts it on display every mid-January. Kate and I got press tickets (Yes, PRESS tickets! We’re legit!) to several of the plays in the festival so that we can keep y’all up to date with our ever-evolving art form.
C’est Du Chinois is one of UTR’s first offerings. One of its attractions is its genre-defying structure. Part Mandarin lesson, part family narrative, part language observation, part reflection on the modern immigrant, it’s a play that, well, is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Maybe I was misrepresenting the play by calling it “part Mandarin lesson.” Essentially, it’s ALL Mandarin lesson. As the play starts, one of the Public’s ushers call forward the Lao/Yu family, who nervously scuttle on stage carrying several large picnic bags. A lot of them. The family is comprised of a man and his mother, the man’s wife and her father, and their teenage son. The only English spoken in the entire play comes from the random audience member chosen to read aloud an introduction to the Lao/Yu family. We learn that the Lao/Yu family are recent immigrants to New York and have lived here for about 8 months. They are selling their “Ni-hao” DVDs, which teach Mandarin. What we are about to watch is just a taste of what is contained in the DVDs.
Thus, the lesson begin. The first half of the show is largely an acquirement of some basic Mandarin vocabulary. Don’t worry, the lessons are lively and often humorous. Plus, those large picnic bags are full of props, including dozens (maybe hundreds) of beer cans and Hershey bars, used to signify the Mandarin word for “a lot”/”very,” and also quite an appropriate symbol for American acculturation. What you should be worrying about is remembering what you’ve learned. It’ll be important when we get to some of the more personal matters of the family.
We learn, for example, that the grandfather used to be a professional actor and is now a gambling addict. That his daughter is has just found out that she is pregnant, and is the only one unhappy about it. That her mother-in-law is thrilled about the baby, but not too happy about her daughter-in-law. In many ways, while we are acquiring the language to understand the family’s relationships, they are also acquiring the language to express their malcontent. For example, one of the first words we learn is the word for “New York” and “very good.” Nearly every character has his/her turn at expressing something along the lines of “New York is VERY good!” (double-thumbs-up gesture included). By the end of the play, however, we’ve learn the words for fear, anger, and tears. Now, the teenage son corrects the illusions of the play’s beginnings, throwing off the veil of the family’s difficult immigrant experience.
We watch this family acquire the expression to reveal their experiences, just as we have acquired the language to understand them. While their expression is simple, their frustrations, fears, and disillusions are resonant. Perhaps this is why the play’s ending is one of the most uncomfortable endings I’ve ever sat through. The family throw off their personal experiences for the sake of selling their DVDs, setting up a stand right at the exit of the theater so that each theatregoer must pass under their stoic yet so desperate glare as they leave the theater. They stand by as everyone in the audience looks around, waiting for some kind of signal that the play is over. No bows? No clean “the end”? Nope. Out you awkwardly.
I love how this technique, as well as the play’s muddled opening, blurs the boundaries of the play’s reality. They reminds us that these character’s experiences are not confined to the construction of the play, but rather surround us. Some audience members bought the DVD for a price of $5.99. I really wonder if they got what they paid for.
So I know it’s been a while since Kate and I have posted much of anything. I blame the wackiest finals month ever and the fact that I actually took the holidays seriously this year. HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean that Kate and I haven’t been getting our fill of best of culture — high, low, and deranged. We’ve got some catching up to do…
One of my goals of the fall Off-Broadway season was to catch Giant at the Public Theater. I knew very little about this musical. In fact, I didn’t even know it was originally an ultra-famous movie starring Elizabeth Taylor. Heck, all I knew was it had something to do with Texas. (Oh, and that Bobby Steggert was in the cast… God help me if I don’t know where Bobby is performing at all times…) I eventually learned that it was the BIGGEST musical ever performed at the Public and the theatre world was getting its underwear in a bunch just talking about it.
Giant follows two generations of a powerful cattle-herding family, beginning in the 1920’s and stretching past World War II. Wealthy cattleman, large-estate owning, country-bred, land-lover “Bick” Benedict (Brian D’Arcy James) fall for East Coast rich girl, cosmopolitan, well-read, and semi-Socialist Leslie Lynnton (Kate Baldwin). Go figure! They marry in the matter of days and Bick brings Leslie back home to run his estate. But beware the weird pervert/outcast, worker guy who feels entitled to the same wealth as Bick and sets his sights on making life as difficult as possible for them! The first act is largely about Leslie growing used to country living and coming to terms with Bick’s other “lover” — no, it’s not a cow– Texas.
Over the hurricane break, I caught up on my reading. And as the oncoming storm threatened to take over the city, I officially finished the entirety of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ published plays.
He is beyond awesome. Here’s why:
1) He is a master of the English language. His prose is exciting, raw, and poetic. His dialogue is a perfect blend of the beautiful and obscene. Want to see it in action? Read Boochie’s monologue in Den of Thieves.
2) The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.
3) Oh, you wanted me to elaborate? Okay, this play is one of my favorites. Ever. Last Days imagines that Judas’ case of betrayal is finally put to trial, with Sigmund Freud, Mother Teresa, and many other witnesses–biblical and otherwise–testifying and appearing in flashbacks. Last Days is the ultimate dramatization of justice. Judas’ final scene with a certain savior is so poignant it hurts. Andrew Lloyd Webber, read ’em and weep.
4) Guirgis reinvigorates life into the contemporary American play. You won’t find too many overwrought scenes taking place in living rooms in his plays. Guirgis places his characters in motels, funeral homes, basements, bars, correctional facilities, hospitals, and the afterlife (and there are a few living rooms, too). He creates fully realized worlds and isn’t afraid to populate his plays with larger casts of characters. Guirgis’ delicate balance of tragicomedy makes him able to tell a story with brilliant humor and heartbreaking depth. When you’re in a Guirgis play, there is never a dull moment.
5) His New York is for the natives, a refreshing take from all the white twenty-something newcomer to the city narratives. From the displaced-by-Disney Times Square denizens of In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings to the grieving, fractured Harlem community in Our Lady of 121st Street to the Bronx hospital workers in The Little Flower of East Orange, Guirgis’ diverse cast of characters occupy a very real, very special part of New York City.
6) Speaking of diverse, Guirgis is not afraid of protecting the integrity of his plays–even when it’s controversial. When a certain theatre not far from New York City cast young white twenty-somethings to play Puerto Rican thirty-somethings in a seemingly case of cronyism in one of Guirgis’ plays, Guirgis responded on his Facebook page with “headshaking anger.” In an author’s note to the Dramatists Play Service edition of The Motherf@*ker With The Hat, Guirgis wrote,
“This play and all my plays have the best chance to come to life fully when they are cast as MULTI-ETHNICALLY as possible… please strive to cast the play overall in a manner that reflects the beautiful melting pot that is New York City and the setting of this play. And all that being said, the play is now yours, and these characters authentically belong to whoever has the heart and emotional generosity to claim them.”
Guirgis not only sheds light on a very troubling aspect of contemporary theatre, but offers hope for the future. And it’s f@*king amazing.
The musical adaptation of Fun Home, a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel that I reviewed a few months ago, is one of the most anticipated new works heading to the Broadway stage. Bechdel’s novel is a truly an incredible literary experience that uses its multi-genre form in ways very few writers have achieved (but more on that later). Bechdel has gained quite a following, both for Fun Home and for her work as a lesbian cartoonist. Seeing the Fun Home world on stage would definitely be something to look forward to. Performances sold out far in advance and I was only able to get tickets à la Cancellation Line.
NB- The performance of Fun Home that I saw last night was part of the Public Lab series at the Public Theatre. It is being revised on a daily basis. So tonight’s show will likely include revisions that I did not. And tomorrow night’s show. And the next. And the next. Until November 4th. So please keep in mind that mine was a singular experience and is in no way indicative of the play’s progress.
It was only a matter of time before this Scottish actor had to tackle this piece. And with his guests stints in Sleep No More, he’s had plenty of practice. Running July 5-14 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.
Into the Woods at the Delacorte
The Public Theater is pulling no punches with its 50th Anniversary season at the Delacorte Theater. This Woods features film stars and theatre greats including Amy Adams, Donna Murphy, and Dennis O’Hare. But I’m most looking forward to Ivan Hernandez’s turn as Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf. Yum. Previews begin July 23.
Sweet Charity in Harlem
A classic musical gets a new twist, as the New Haarlem Arts Theatre reinvisons Cy Coleman’s Sweet Charity as a Latina narrative. Previews begin July 26.
This year’s TONY Award winning plays almost make up for an unexciting year in musical theatre, and also showed that comedy can be just as revolutionary an experience as drama. There’s the giddily energetic Peter and the Starcatcher which will leave you feeling like a kid again. Though the show’s hilarious scene-stealer, Christian Borle, is leaving the show June 30, it will be interesting to see how his replacement, Matthew Saldivar, dons the ‘stache. Another show to keep on your radar is One Man, Two Guvnors, which will be the funniest thing you’ve seen in ages, I promise. And lastly, this year’s winner for Best New Play, Clybourne Park, is a bit slow getting started, but once matters switching from living room drama to racially charged discourse, it’s edge-of-your-seat explosive and riotously funny. Cheap morning rush tickets are available for all three shows.
The statement that Too Much Light Makes the Baby Blind is not new to Off Broadway this year is only half-correct, because, in fact, it’s new every week! TMLMBB tries to perform all 30 plays (written by the cast) in 60 minutes in a race against the clock with audience members choosing the order in which they are performed. The plays range from humorous to poignant and the downright absurd. Then, after every performance a die is rolled and the sum equals the numbers of plays that will be changed for the following week. Make it an ongoing favorite!