If I were a performer, I wouldn’t read my reviews. All that crippling self-doubt and second-guessing? The conflicting, exaggerated demands of a short-sighted audience who just started thinking about my show a few hours ago, while I’ve been grappling with it for months? There’s a reason why comments section have a disable button.
And yet, constant audience review is precisely the motivating force behind the New York Neo-Futurists’ latest show, The Great American Drama, playing through February 5th at A.R.T. Theaters. Creator Connor Sampson and performers Nicole Hill, Katy-May Hudson, and Dan McCoy gathered nearly 500 surveys that gauged theatregoers’ ideal show. The survey asks participants to rank theatrical elements in order of importance, to state what would they pay to see, suggestions for making money as artists, and other questions to help make the best show possible. The performers try to satisfy as many of the audience’s demands as possible in 90 minutes (the timing’s definitely done right), attempting to create something that is crowd-pleasing in the purest sense of the word. At the end of the night, Sampson asks the audience and his co-stars whether the performance was a success. Audience members text a rating to an online poll, which gets projected on stage and gives the show a grade.
Leave Me Green’s depiction of a nontraditional family plagued by loss in New York City is a richly colorful one. Lisa DeHaas’s new play, directed by Jay Stull at the Gym at Judson, is a realistic and emotionally resonant picture of how one finds community in times of grief in the unlikeliest of places.
The central relationship of the play lies between Rebecca, a faded soap opera star now selling Manhattan real estate, and her son Gus, a thoughtful teenage boy with a penchant for music. They have lost their partner and mother Inez, killed in the Middle East while serving in the U.S. military’s IT management team. Rebecca (played by Charlotte Booker) has become an alcoholic and Gus (Oscar A. L. Cabrera) is in the uncomfortable position of caring for the his mother’s needs at the same time as dealing with his own grief. Rebecca is a negligent, if not neglectful, parent. By mid-morning, she already has alcohol on her breath and she struggles to complete simple tasks like setting a timer for the oven or remembering her keys. She masques her suffering with a happy-go-lucky attitude, losing sight of the fact that her son needs her support and structure in their time of need.
Gus finds human connection elsewhere. His neighbor Myron (Michael Gaines), an easygoing pot dealer across the hall, shares his passion for music and takes him under his wing. Myron, however, has an uneasy relationship with Rebecca, signaling a past kept hidden from Gus. Gus also meets Lia (Emma Meltzer) at Al-A-Teen, a support group for teenagers whose friends and family members suffer from addiction. Lia is a neurotic teenage girl with a history similar to Gus’s, and they become important supporters to each other.
By the middle of the play, the audience can pretty much map out the rest of the plot. Rebecca’s big reveal near the end is somewhat predictable, if not underwhelming. I was not clear on how her secret changed the character’s relationships, nor why it was kept such a secret in the first place. There are also a few scenes where lines intended for comic relief or relate-ability fell uncomfortably flat. For example, we enter a scene mid-conversation as Lia and Gus discuss menstruation. Lia shouts that she has to leave because “I’m totally bleeding!”
Leave Me Green’s cast is excellent– well-suited for their roles and able to imbue them with complexity and nuance. Charlotte Booker is exciting to watch as Rebecca. You could truly sense Rebecca’s faltering strength as she scatters the contents of her bag across the floor, looking for her keys, or laughing off Gus’s sincere attempts to communicate. Oscar A. L. Cabrera is also a trustworthy and empathetic hero for the play, play Gus with great sensitivity.
Another hallmark of the production is the set by Jessica Parks. The four corners of the stage represent each character’s unique realm. Rebecca’s kitchen and Myron’s living room face each other across the hall, with Gus’s bedroom downstage left and Lia’s meeting room just opposite. The four locations are distinct but connected, reminding us how each of these characters has something to gain by visiting the others’ corners of life.
Leave Me Green’s characters suffer alone but succeed when together. It’s a clear message for people forging their own families in times of need. As Lia says in a letter to her Al-A-Teen peers, “If we’re here, and afraid- at least we’re not afraid and alone.”
Leave Me Green plays at the Gym at Judson through April 11. Tickets here.
When the ladies of the Tim Tam Room are not playing human-Shimmy Machine or stripping down to their thongs and pasties, they’re hatching tantalizing plots and finding love, all in rhymed and metered verse. Eager to Lose feels like a romantic farce plucked from the 17th century, sprinkled with some contemporary language and cultural references, and heavily soaked in the sexy, frivolous, yet always classy world of burlesque.
Drama and confusion strike the Tim Tam Room when its owner and leading lady, Tansy (a real-life burlesque performer who bills herself as the young Elizabeth Taylor of burlesque) reveals that tonight will be her last performance. She has been offered to tour the country with her act alongside a 90’s television star (to tell you his identity would soil the fun). Tansy announces that she will leave the club to one of the two other performers, Trixie (Stacey Yen) or Glinda (Emily Walton). Trixie immediately begins plotting her victory over Glinda, setting everything in her path awry. Tansy’s departure also affects the club’s MC (John Behlmann), who realizes he has always loved Tansy. MC enlists the help of the club’s mute janitor Peeps (Richard Saudek) to help him win her love.
Eager to Lose maintains a consistent, exciting energy and uproarious humor throughout its 90-minute run time The show’s excellent cast always keeps us on our toes with their genre-bending talent and lively character portrayals. John Behlmann has been a favorite of mine since playing Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps at New World Stages, and his MC is endearing and energetic. Tansy, Stacey Yen, and Emily Walton are all wonderful, bringing charm, humor, and nuance to their roles both on and off the burlesque catwalk. Richard Saudek, however, is the unexpected breakout star of the show. His vaudeville-like performance, including a scene in which he charades for several minutes straight, was easily a hilarious favorite.
The most remarkable part of the show is the script by Matthew Lee-Erlbach, who effortlessly transitions between conventionally high and low theatrical forms. It follows in a growing trend of democratizing theater by mixing low-brow and high-brow entertainment (now you can play flipcup with Romeo and Juliet). Gender studies aficionados have studied the artistic resonances of burlesque and it has become a much less stigmatizing, more frequently found art-form as of late. Yet in juxtaposing burlesque with the style of verse that one immediately associates with Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Lee-Erlbach works them together as one story-arc, playing them off each other as a fruitful, productive relationship.
Eager to Lose plays at Ars Nova through November 2nd. Onward for tickets!
Big Fish is one of, if not the most anticipated musical of the season, and with good reason. While I wasn’t a big fan of the 2003 Tim Burton film, its fantastical, never subtle but often poignant plot about a man’s larger-than-life stories and his son’s refusal to accept them, even at his father’s deathbed, seems rife with great musical moments. For sure, this needed to be a musical that would outdo its predecessors in all ways. It would need great production value, it would ring true with observations on life and death, and it would have at its center a simple, yet emotionally fraught relationship between father and son.
Then it was announced that this father and son would be played by Norbert Leo Butz and Bobby Steggert, respectively, and well, it seemed like the heavens had finally shined down upon me and my Broadway fantasies.
Obviously, I set exceptionally high standards for this show and it shouldn’t come as a surprise when they’re nowhere near met. But, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one feeling let-down when by the end of intermission, which arrived at the end of an arduously long first act, I noticed more than a few empty seats in my area.
Now, I should state that the production was in late previews when I saw it, with about a week and a half before yesterday’s opening. So some things might have changed.
But what baffled me most was how the core of the show, the relationship between father and son, can be so dull and boring. Allow me to recap. Throughout Will Bloom’s life (Steggert), his father Ed (Butz) has told him stories about the wild adventures of his youth. The stories involve a bayou witch revealing to him the way he dies, his work at a traveling circus led by a werewolf ringleader, getting shot out of a canon across Alabama State, and saving the town from a friendless giant.
Now an adult, Will is about to get married and become a father himself while his father is suddenly diagnosed with cancer. He searches for the truth about his father’s legacy before he passes it onto his own children.
Sounds great, right? Sounds like tons of father-son arguments, some heated debates, some mysterious clues, right? Sounds like an enormously emotional journey for both father and son to go through together, with so much lifelong anxiety built since childhood, that the show’s happy ending will be one grand cathartic tearjerker, right?
It’s none of these. (Well, I did cry a little at the end, but I’m sure exhaustion was a part of it). Unlike the film’s father-son relationship, there are no hard feelings between the two. In fact, hardly does Steggert even raise his voice, which, honestly, is what Steggert does best. A show with Bobby Steggert in which Bobby Steggert doesn’t have a least one scene of screaming, crying, blubbering, angry frustration is not a show to me. This Will is bland. You would never know there was anything abnormal in this relationship. Even when Will actually gets off his newly-married-and-therefore-presumably-quaint-and-lazy butt and searches for what he assumes is his father’s mistress, he does so with calm, patience, and neatness. There’s nothing at stake in this relationship. The only time we see Will and Ed face each other in a tense way is in a dream sequence set in an old Western saloon, in which Will shows up in a really awful cowboy get-up and challenges his father in a dream duel. Not only did I find the dream sequence kind of embarassingly bad, it was also out-of-touch with the musical because WILL DOESN’T ACTUALLY CHALLENGE HIS FATHER TO MUCH OF ANYTHING. Which means that the ending, when son finally reconciles with his father’s storytelling in what would be a beautifully touching scene means very little. Because very little actually changes. A story needs some kind of dramatic tension if you actually want to resolve that dramatic tension.
Now, back to Ed Bloom. The show is largely a display of Ed’s stories, which means that there are plenty of costume changes, scene changes, and lots of production going into making everything look as real and fantastical as possible. The show succeeds on this front. All the costumes are excellent (much is being written about the witches who blend into trees), the sets are gorgeous (for the most part: sometimes the stage projections feel more like they came out of a video-game than a fairytale), and there’s a lot attention to detail in the show’s countless settings.
Norbert Leo Butz is a force of nature (might as well come out and say it) and what his character lacks in… well, character… he makes up for in raw energy. It’s pretty impossible to take your eyes off him, even amidst his lush surroundings. Yet, while his stories are fun and all, they fall flat because there is no character-focused motivation. We don’t actually learn anything from these tales besides “Oh, Ed Bloom is such a romantic!” or “Ed Bloom, your such a hero!” Actually I’m pretty sure that is the extent to the morals of these stories. One way we could be more invested in the stories is that we could have more doubts about their truthfulness. That tension between what’s fact and what’s fiction is something that would give insight into both Will’s and Ed’s personalities, as well as reflect on the effects of/motivations behind storytelling. Another way to give the stories more meaning is to have them perhaps mirror some of the issues Will or old Ed is dealing with, so that the past generation is in conversation with the present. Another way would be to amplify Will and Ed’s problems with the stories and with each other, with the effect of making us see Ed’s tales from both Ed’s optimistic standpoint and Will’s more cynical point of view.
But there’s none of that. No tensions. No motivations. No change. Hardly a character development. Poor Kate Baldwin gets to dress up like a school girl. All this accumulates into stagnant storytelling, making even Ed’s exciting feel tired, frivolous, and dispensable. Wow, is that how we’re supposed to get insight into Will’s cynical POV?
Now, if you’d like to see a musical number better than anything you’ll find in Big Fish and that is loosely linked to daffodils (as in, daffodils are mentioned twice in the whole song) watch this
Last year’s mind-blowing Venus in Fur turned me onto David Ives’s work and All in the Timing just happens to be an early and well-lauded example. My limited knowledge of Ives’s plays shows that his affinity for language is more than just the advantage of a wordsmith– it’s a deeply rooted fascination with its fickle and reproductive nature. In Venus in Fur, a play’s text brings together past and present in an eerie, karma-esque revisitation of gender relations.
All in the Timing, a collection of short plays, is a more overt examination of the nature of language. There’s it randomness– the idea that at any given point in time, what we say will produce ripple effects that we have no control over. See the first short play, ‘Sure Thing’, in which one potential couple’s conversation veers into an extraordinary amount of alternate directions. See also, ‘Universal Language,’ in which the arbitrary words of a made-up language somehow make sense to us, an English-speaking language, and actually results in a friendship/romance between two lonely speakers.
In many ways, there’s a sort of rejoicing in the fact that we do not control our own means of communications. There’s a sort of ease, a letting-go, that we can only do our best to say what we mean and ‘time’ it as best as possible. (I’ve been reading Sarah Blakewell’s Life of Montaigne and Montaigne’s skeptic ideas are growing on me.)
There’s also the idea that storytelling and language is innate without regard to the words you actually are using. In ‘Universal Language,’ love becomes the universal. Shakespeare, as well as some Marxist core principles, are recurring presences in the stories (among others). Does Ives mean to suggest that some things are innate, almost archetypal, even for the monkeys (Kafka, Swift, and Milton) in ‘Words, Words, Words.’ Would Hamlet have been a different story, held a different meaning, if it were produced by monkeys? Written in another time period? Under different conditions? Does it even matter?
The first act is full of these puzzling ideas, which takes place right along some excellent comedy. The second act was much less stirring and much more dependent on superficial gags and weird jokes about Philadelphia. Obviously, there were a still plenty of laughs. And I won’t hesitate to mention that “Variations on the Death of Trotsky” brought a tear or two (or three) to my eye.
Overall, I’m keeping my radar on for more of Ives works.
Just a quick nota bene: If y’all liked this, read Caryl Churchill’s Blue Heart, which examines problems of lying and language in ways similar to ‘Sure Thing’ and ‘Universal Language.’ Except, I might argue, a bit more powerfully.
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.