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“The Cooping Theory” Brings Us to Poe’s Old Haunts

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It’s near impossible to read any of Edgar Allan Poe’s works without connecting their dark, unnerving despair with that of his own life. Orphaned at an early age, Poe’s adulthood was characterized by debt, failure, and the deaths of those closest to him, including his wife Virginia. Two years after Virginia’s death, Poe was found delirious and incoherent in the streets of Baltimore, wearing clothes that were not his own. He passed away a few days later. His death has been shrouded in gothic mystery and controversy, and the eerie circumstances surrounding it are reminiscent of those in his writings.

This is the launching point of Poseidon Theatre Company’s new immersive work, The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe? The year is 1949, a century after Poe’s death. Audience members are invited down to the speakeasy cellar of St. Mazie Bar and Supper Club in Brooklyn for a meeting of the Poe Society. During the hour-long dinner service (which was very tasty), the society’s three members introduce themselves to you. There’s Virginia (Caroline Banks), a scholar named after Poe’s wife. John (Jeffrey Robbs) is a psychologist financing the society and James (Gordon Palagi) is a skeptic whose opinions often get ignored.

Here’s largely where the immersive nature of the production comes into play. More Great Comet than Sleep No More, the actors interact with you and around you while you are seated, though they may pull you aside for a brief chat in the hallway. They also might give you an incensed stick to burn to purify the area. I’ve wondered in the past about what actually constitutes as ‘immersive,’ but PTC’s definition vividly appeals to all the senses.

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Gordon Palagi in “The Cooping Theory.” Photo by Johannes Oberman

The society has invited a medium (Dara Kramer) to call upon Poe’s ghost to solve the mystery of his death once and for all. The title refers to the society’s best working theory: a 19th century practice known as ‘cooping’ in which political gangs kidnapped strangers and forced them to vote multiple times at different stations under different aliases, often in disguise. The victims were often drugged and beaten if they did not comply.

 

The medium is successful at contacting Poe, but with complications, as supernatural events are wont to have. But what follows doesn’t ever manage to raise the stakes for any drama to unfold. At its best, The Cooping Theory is an homage to Poe’s writing and a meditation on the grief mirrored in his life and his works. There are beautiful recitations from “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” among others. But the story never develops fully to make us invested in the society’s mission. Their plot feels doomed from the start.

 

That the production does do well is setting a melancholic, though inviting atmosphere for us to relive Poe’s desperate final years. This is in large part due to the music and sound design by Conor Heffernan and Manuel “Cj” Pelayo. This is a gratifying part of the immersion of the play. Their lush, surrounding sounds helped move the events of the play forward. St. Mazie itself also works wonders in setting the feel of the play. The actors note that Poe himself passed through the one-time speakeasy, and it certainly feels it. The long, gloomy, candlelit corridor stretching back to the entrance makes a perfectly spooky entry point for the seance’s host.

 

The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe? is directed by Aaron Salazar and written by Nate Suggs and Samantha Lacey-Johnson. It plays at St. Mazie Bar and Supper Club. Tickets here.

LMezz Interviews Geoff Sobelle

Sara interviews Geoff Sobelle straight off the run of his solo show The Object Lesson at New York Theatre Workshop. The Object Lesson is a performance-installation about the objects we keep and the significance of objects in our lives. The audience is surrounded by storage boxes, which we are encouraged to rummage through. Sobelle combines storytelling, illusion, and movement to recover our most meaningful memories through all our stuff.

sobelle_geoff_object_lesson_2015-16_04_ppGeoff is the choreographer and a performer in Holoscenes, a free public art installation in Times Square June 1-3 from 6-11pm as part of the World Science Festival. His next show, Home, will be performed in New York in Fall 2017.

To the Rude, Old, White Man Who Ruined “The Antipodes” For Me on April 6

Sir?…Excuse me, sir? Can you hear me? Sir?

Oh, good. I see you put your hearing aids back in your ears.  I saw you in the first row, taking them out 45 minutes through the show, presumably so you could sleep undisturbed.

In the first row.

So you wouldn’t have to hear the actors… despite sitting in the first row.

Everyone saw you do that. At least, everyone on my side of the theater. The theater is set up so that one half of the audience is seated facing the other.

And you, sir, were seated in the first freaking row.

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We also saw you poke, pester, and complain to the woman seated next to you, presumably your wife–someone obliged to put up with your childish bullshit. She smiled at your snarky eye-rolls, your audible sighs and groans, your angry shrugs and leg-crossing. The person on your other side also seemed to patiently endure your immature antics. You likely felt it more important for them to hear your reckless displays of old-man annoyance than the dialogue on stage.

And to top it all off, during a quiet moment just 20 seconds before the play’s final line, you loudly stated, “This is Hell!” for the whole theater to hear. My mouth went wide. You were a mere two feet away from the actors. You made their bows very uncomfortable.

At no point did anyone in the audience tap you on the shoulder and ask you to be more respectful. At no point did the Signature Theater staff find your behavior worth noting. If you were a person of color, a 35 year old woman, or a teenager, your actions would have been met with more policing.  That, sir, to use the million dollar buzzword, is privilege.

When I arrived to my seat in the theater that evening, an elderly couple to my right was in the middle of a conversation about how young people have no theater etiquette. “It’s a shame,” the husband said. “No one teaches them how to behave anymore.” Woe to us, the lost generation! Alas, the under-30 audiences who just can’t seem to understand that live performance entails shutting your trap for 90 minutes and putting away your phones!

Never mind that every time a cell phone goes off during a performance, I can safely bet that the culprit’s a Blanche Devereaux look-alike with brightly-hued hair, or a large Rex Tillerson type with one of those snap phone cases attached to his belt. Never mind that I’ve seen middle school groups behave with more courtesy and enthusiasm than some season subscribers.  No, it’s the young ones who ruin it all.

Everyone was talking about your rude behavior on their way out of the theater, but to my surprise they didn’t condemn it. A group of friends nearly jumped at each other with big smiles and jaws dropped, recapping the awkward final moments of the show. I saw a chance to commiserate and quickly summed up my thoughts (a basic 10-second summary of this article). They replied, “Well I thought it was hilarious.”

It takes a village to ruin a curtain call.

Now look, sir. I know what it’s like to hate a show. You just happened to attend a play by the notoriously divisive Annie Baker. Her stuff’s not for everyone. But that’s the extent of my sympathy for you here. Unlike her longer plays, “The Antipodes” clocks in at a mere 90 minutes, so let’s not presume that it was a terrible test of your stamina. That shouldn’t matter. I’ve longed for many an hour of my life back, finding the dirt under my fingernails far more attractive than whatever plodding development was happening on stage.  But I’ve maintained a semblance of adult composure, at least until intermission when I wake myself up with some candy, or in worst cases, quietly leave the show.

If there are rules to spectatorship, and I want as few of them as possible, they would be: 1) respect the rest of the audience and 2) respect the actors. You got away with breaking both of these rules because your behavior was perceived as entertaining. Because you’re in a position of power to judge others and not turn that judgment on yourself. Because the staff and audience of the theater doesn’t see your presence in the theater as an anomaly or an intrusion.

I hope your future experiences at the theater are happier, for your sake and mine…and the actors’. In the mean time, I hope I’ll have something ready to say the next time some old, white person complains about my generation’s rude, undignified behavior.

Update: I’m shutting down comments after leaving them open for about a week. I started feeling like they were a bit repetitive and some were quite hateful. I took them seriously, even the hateful ones, and responded to them with as much seriousness and thought as I could muster.

She Loves Me Live: What Worked, What Didn’t, and Where to Go From Here

She Loves Me debuted live on the televisions, mobile screens, and hearts of aspiring theatergoers everywhere last week. And despite a few initial technical difficulties, we stalwart viewers trudged on, stuck on our couches in pajamas, with cartons of vanilla ice cream on hand for Act 2, because we really had nothing better to do on a Thursday night than see Laura Benanti hit that high B.

But as interest in live-streamed theater expands from the few pioneering theater companies in England to the Broadway stage, and as major television networks keep adding live musicals to their annual lineup, it’s important to discuss how a successful live performance translates to a successful film, and what that says about each medium’s ability to create engaging narratives. I’ve been working on this question for over a year now, and it would take a couple of subsequent posts to give the topic its due exploration. So for now, let’s talk about She Loves Me Live specifically, what worked and what didn’t, and what the BroadwayHD experiment can show us about the theater experience.

What Worked: The Ballads and Solos

Close-ups were made for moments like Amalia’s somber ballad “Will He Like Me?,” a song which didn’t move me much when I saw it on stage but gained power with a camera framing Laura Benanti’s hopeful, yet troubled expressions. It’s the first solo in the show sung by a character alone, and an intensely personal moment for Amalia, whose fantasies about her dear friend are starting to become real. Film can be the best medium for this: bringing out nuances of emotion, making the imaginative become real.

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Same goes for Amalia’s other solo reflections on her love life, “Dear Friend” and “Vanilla Ice Cream,” and Ilona’s “I Resolve.” The camera served to intensify the soul-searching power of these songs and make these women’s journey’s feel so much more intimate

What Didn’t: The Ensemble Pieces and Dances

Large ensemble songs and dances serve a different storytelling purpose. Rather than closing in on intimate character-centric moments, they tend to broaden the brush of the plot with spectacle, environment, relationships, and sometimes pure silliness. The only way for a camera to capture the hugeness of these moments is to cut to different angles of the stage. A wide shot of the entire stage just doesn’t work on film: it’s almost too overwhelming, too theatrical. Thus dance-heavy songs like “Romantic Atmosphere” and even Kodaly’s “Ilona” lose their punch (even if “Romantic Atmosphere” didn’t quite have much punch to begin with) in sacrifice to quick camera changes and ineffective angling. Somehow the human eye works differently watching a live performance in person than the camera’s eye. In person, we resist direction and close-ups, absorbing the entirety of the scene even if it’s a little at a time.

What Worked: The Realistic Performances

Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi are no strangers to television, and it certainly showed by how friendly the camera was to their performances. Benanti’s delivery always struck me as realistic and natural, which is really the preferred modus operandi for great film acting (you could argue that it’s also great for stage acting, but more on that later). Levi’s performance is more animated, but no less perfect for the camera. I’m sure you could find at least ten gif-able Zachary Levi expressions; he’s mastered the art of the manically uncomfortable smile.

Another performance that translated well to camera was Tom McGowan’s understated everyman Cipos. McGowan is a veteran television actor, and his lovable oafish just-trying-to-make-a-buck character feels like a the kind of small gem that needs the close-up framing of a tv screen to help him not be overshadowed by the larger personalities on stage.

What Didn’t: The Unrealistic Performances

Just to clarify: I don’t mean to separate the show’s performers into good or bad actors. Everyone in this cast does a fine job to be honest. But I think more theatrical styles of performance are better for the stage as opposed to film. Take Peter Bartlett’s hilarious turn as the Maître D’. Bartlett uses a lot of clown-like mannerisms and delivers his lines in exaggerated, breathy fashion. It’s fun to watch his meltdown on stage as he dramatically staggers across the stage in anxious anger and scowls for several seconds before recovering his volatile composure. But this extreme theatricality requires a suspension of disbelief, which is never something that translates well on camera.

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The same, I’d say, goes for Jane Krakowski as Ilona. Even though her performance isn’t as exaggerated as Bartlett, her deadpan delivery has a vaudevillian streak to it that emphasizes presence and charm over nuance of character. On stage, it’s thrilling. On camera, boring.

What Worked: Set Changes

David Rockwell won a Tony for Maraczek’s Faberge-egg of a set, and the video recording did a great job of framing each set change with the high-definition detail and beauty it deserves.

What Didn’t: Seasons Change

That cute bit where the passing of time is indicated by a stagehand throwing autumn leaves (and then winter snow) on the audience? Seemed sort of lame on television. Again, theatrics don’t translate well.

What Worked: It’s LIVE, People!

I loved seeing the shadows of the back of people’s heads as they watched the performance. It was a great reminder that this whole show was performed live in real time, interrupting the visual determination a camera can produce. It’s also a bit like the moments when cast members on Saturday Night Live slip up during a skit. We love those bits so much because they reveal a bit the reality behind the show. Seeing behind the process of how something is created helps us appreciate the craft that goes into it.

Speaking of slip ups, Laura Benanti dropping ice cream on her bed sheets should be instituted into every performance of the show from now on.

What Didn’t: Misuse of Pre-show, Post-show, and Intermission

Before the show, we got a nice, little interview with Jane Krakowski and the significance of the show on her career and family life. It was worth a soundbite or two. But really? We had a whole 15-minute intermission that could have been spent with more artist interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, discussion on the history of the show, maybe even a special guest or two. Instead we got Justin Guarini counting down the ways Broadway HD is better than seeing the real show. First off, I disagreed with nearly every single point. Second, for an organization who claims to supplement live theater attendance and not replace it, that was definitely not the way to express it. Let’s get a bit more creative with the way we use this precious, precious time, BroadwayHD. I can interview Laura Benanti for you if you want.

What Worked: People all around the country got to see a great work of theater. Broadway became accessible. A stunning show was preserved through technology. And I got to write about this stage-to-screen trend. Let’s do this again sometime, eh? Vanilla ice cream for all!

The Most Memorable Part of ‘Tuck Everlasting’

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Sarah Charles Lewis (center) as Winnie. Photo: Greg Mooney

“I could live like this forever!” is the refrain sung nearly all the major characters in Tuck Everlasting, a musical adaptation of the beloved children’s novel. Unfortunately, since last week’s announcement that the show would close on Sunday, this line comes with its share of irony. Tuck’s lifetime was sadly cut short.

The musical tells the story of the Tuck family who become immortal after drinking from a magical brook. They mostly live their lives independently to avoid suspicion, but reunite every decade in their hometown near the brook. A local 11-year old girl named Winnie befriends the youngest Tuck, Jesse, who then brings her home to meet the family.

Fast forward to the end of the show because, frankly, there’s not much worth discussing in between. The Tucks are forced out of town by a conflict with a carnival man who learns their secret. Before leaving, the Tucks tell Winnie to drink the magical brook water and become immortal when she turns 17 (when she is adult enough to possibly have an appropriate relationship with Jesse). At first Winnie seems intent on joining the Tucks forever, but suddenly her resolve disappears.

What follows is a ballet representing the rest of Winnie’s life. Different actresses playing Winnie at different ages come from behind the set and dance out key moments in Winnie’s life: her first love, her marriage, starting a family, and her tranquil old age. But every blessing in Winnie’s life seems to also bring  sadness; with each transition into adulthood, one of Winnie’s relatives pass away. Their deaths are indicated by the characters all holding hands, a somber change in music, and the dead relative releasing Winnie’s hand, with Winnie showing a slight struggle to let them go. The ballet is by far the most rewarding moment of the musical, juxtaposing the joys of life and the struggles of grief with far more nuance and emotion than the rest of the show’s narrative.

The ballet is also so starkly different from the rest of the musical’s more traditional structure. It marks a sudden shift in the priorities of the story. For most of the musical, we were dazzled by the adventures immortality could bring (vis a vis the Tucks) and seeing the central plot through the wondrous eyes of an 11 year old girl. But this story isn’t really about the Tucks. This is about Winnie and what effect this experience will have on her and her family. This is about the duality of life and death in our lives, and how our fears of one can either make us appreciate the other more, or paralyze us from enjoying anything.  If I had the magical brook steps away from my door, as Winnie does, I don’t think there’d be a day I wouldn’t debate going to it.

Perhaps this is precisely why Winnie doesn’t drink from the brook. As she grows up,  we see her so joyfully invested in the life around her, in her family and her town. Death is an inevitability for her, but it doesn’t have to control her. Immortality is only desired by those who fear that their life will not be enough to look back on. But Winnie is not like that. She too much in the throes of life to second-guess her decision at the brook.

 

The ‘Spring Awakening’ Kickstarter and the Politics of TONY Performances

Yesterday, Deaf West Theatre began a Kickstarter campaign to raise $200,000 to perform at this year’s Tony Awards. Their Broadway production of Spring Awakening garnered a Best Revival of a Musical nomination, as well as a nod for director Michael Arden. The show was critically acclaimed for adapting the original punk-rock musical for a deaf cast and for incorporating sign language into the spoken dialogue and choreography.  The cast also performed at the White House as part of a celebration of inclusion in the arts. The show closed in January after a limited run.

 

 

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Daniel Durant and the cast. Photo by Kevin Parry

The campaign has raised $45k towards its $200k goal, which Deaf West claims will be used to “to fly our cast back to New York, we have to get the costumes and instruments and props out of storage, we have to pay for rehearsal space since we don’t have a theatre…and the actual expense of performing on the broadcast!”

Performing at the Tony Awards means having a nation-wide platform for the latest shows appearing on Broadway. For a currently-running show, this is usually an unquestionably necessary marketing investment for a producer in the hopes of drawing in summer tourists. For a closed show, a Tony Awards performance could mean building hype towards a national tour and other future incarnations of the show, or simply a way to document the show’s successes in front of a (much) wider audience. Spring Awakening falls into the latter category, but already has announced  a national tour in 2017.  Deaf West, its producers, its cast (even those who may not be in the national tour),and creative team will certainly receive more attention from the broadcast.

Then, there’s the more artistic rationale for the broadcast. A televised performance would widely promote Spring Awakening’s message of inclusivity, acceptance, and integrity, especially towards people with disabilities. D.J. Kurs, artistic director of Deaf West, says, “There’s just one night a year that theater gets this platform. Our performance will be an undeniable statement to the world that theater is for everyone.” While this statement is not entirely true (Spring Awakening and other musicals have multiple opportunities nowadays to appeal to nationwide audiences, including performances on morning and late night shows and the livestream of its White House performance), a Tony performance would definitely be a testament to arts inclusion in a year full of discourse on diversity in theater.

But who should really foot this $200K bill? Many closed shows have tried to find funds for a Tony performance and failed. Honeymoon in Vegas, for example, settled on a reunion concert the days after the ceremony after receiving no nominations. Others somehow found the means to perform– Anyone remember that out-of-nowhere performance from Bring It On, co-written by some guy Lin-Manuel Miranda?

Yes, Deaf West is a nonprofit theater organization (as it emphasizes in the Kickstarter description), but the company and its producers will undoubtedly profit from nationwide attention. This isn’t a little-known, struggling theater company hoping for a boost in the right direction. This is a show with a launched tour, with one of the most successful Broadway producers backing its revival, with several nationwide performances under its belt, including one in front of the Obamas. Despite the honorable intentions of its inspiring cast and creative team, despite the advances the show has gained from its inclusive practices, we are dealing with a FOR-PROFIT Broadway show. Again, its producers WILL profit from this televised performance.

Producer Ken Davenport blogged about the campaign, stating “the financial books are just about buttoned up now.  We don’t have $200,000 to spend, no matter how important it is to all of us that this cast get the chance to appear on the show.  And honestly, even if we had the money, it wouldn’t be fiscally responsible for us Producers to ask our investors to foot this bill.”

This language is misleading and unethical.  Davenport is the leading investor of this show. He famously single-handedly decided to transport the show from L.A. to Broadway. He, his co-producers, and his pool of investors almost certainly can get the $200, 000 to spend. In fact, it’s their job to do so. And if they don’t, well, you lose out on an investment opportunity. For your tour, your production’s legacy, and your cast and creative team. It’s a bit like a corporation asking customers to donate food items for their underpaid actors. That’s an extreme comparison, but one similarly rooted in the language of capitalist venture. It places the burden of charity, and a certain guilt, on anyone other than the people who profit from the inequalities being perpetuated. Davenport’s not Sam Walton, and theatre doesn’t make nearly as much money as bully retailers, but Davenport has everything to gain from your support.

So please, keep your money. This Kickstarter promotes the facade of a grassroots campaign when really, it’s something more of a hoax.

 

 

 

 

When Successful Celebrities Play Struggling Artists

They say, “write what you know.” So lots of writers write about failure. They write about what keeps them going amidst failure. They affirm their passions and career through their characters, often thinly-veiled versions of themselves and their colleagues. And usually by the end of the play, there’s a success: the artist finds their voice, or the artist gets their play produced, or gets magically noticed by an industry leader. That glimmer of hope at the end makes the whole artistic journey worthwhile.

There are a number of theatrical works about novice writers or out-of-town actors trying their showbiz luck in the big city, and it’s no wonder why. In such an unstable and fickle industry, artists need all the optimism they can get. The one I tend to reflect on most is Jonathan Larsen’s Tick, Tick…Boom! It’s the ultimate musical about doing what you love: aspiring composer Jon (a stand-in for Larsen) is overcome with anxiety about his career and life choices as he approaches his 30th birthday. Jon nearly gives up his dream when, in the final moments of the show, he listens to a voicemail message left by an admiring Stephen Sondheim. Jon’s work finally gets the recognition it deserves, and he is now filled with hope for the future and gratitude for the challenges that led him to this point.

But Jon didn’t need a magical deus ex machina phone call from Sondheim to validate his career struggle. We already know that Jon aka Larsen is destined for success simply because we are seeing his show. His name is in the playbill. We can retroactively apply our knowledge of the artist’s success onto their work. So when Jon must decide to stay in New York, or move with his girlfriend and give up his theatrical pursuits, we’re rooting for him to stay because we know how the story ends.

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Pre-Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. in Tick, Tick…Boom! Photo by Joan Marcus

I first saw Tick, Tick…Boom! at City Center Encores with Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Jon. These were pre-Hamilton times, but even though Barack Obama and J.J. Abrams still didn’t know Lin’s name, we theater devotees certainly did. Miranda’s career has parallels to Larsen’s in many ways: both wrote great, era-defining musicals that were widely different from traditional Broadway fare. They both sky-rocketed to success and gained a vast following. And they’re both chums with Sondheim. Here again, the casting mirrored the actual story in ways that an audience with a working of the theater world could clearly see. Does this distance us from the very real struggles of an up-and-coming artist? Do we more easily dismiss their hardships because we know it’ll turn out alright?

And perhaps more importantly, what message does this give to aspiring artists in similar situations? Jon’s choice to stay in New York might seem like a strong step towards his destiny in retrospect, but in its own isolated moment, it might actually feel rather impractical and neglectful. But that’s not what the show, and many like it, allows us to see. And the playwright is only partially control of that effect–even if Larsen had left Jon’s fate unresolved, we’d still feel optimism about his career because we know that either a) Larsen’s success is Jon’s success, or b) that the famous star of the show has seen himself through the other side of failure.

On a side note, this is probably why I fell in love with the 2013 film, Inside Llewyn Davis —it’s a rare portrayal of a struggling artist who, through a mix of terrible luck and personal weaknesses, never seems to be able to translate his talents and passions into financial gain. Unlike Jon, his own meeting with a record producer shows just how superficial his industry is and how his journey might arrive to its destination.  Can you imagine if  superstar Justin Timberlake changed roles (he plays an up-and-coming musician) and played the title character, instead of a then relatively-unknown Oscar Isaac? The whole heart-wrenching experience would have felt like a contradiction.

I felt this distance again in Fully Committed, a one-man show starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson about a down-on-his-luck actor named Sam who makes ends meet taking reservations for an upscale NYC restaurant. Mentions of Sam’s professional disappointment are scattered throughout the play—a failed HBO pilot, a missed callback for a Shakespeare production, an intense rivalry with a fellow actor friend. It’s clear that Sam’s at his breaking point. Finally, Sam decides to take fate into his own hands, using his powers to secure tables for high-profile guests in order to bribe his way to a callback at Lincoln Center. By the end of the play, Sam’s acting career is back on steady ground, as have his confidence, assertiveness, and self-worth. The title “Fully Committed” refers to the terminology used to say a restaurant is completely book, but it also can refer to the ‘committing’ of a patient to an asylum, as well as to one’s ‘commitment’ to an endeavor. Confused and disappointed at the start, Sam can once again commit himself to his dreams.

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Jesse Tyler Ferguson in Fully Committed. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Ferguson began his own acting career in theater, and it’s not a stretch to assume that he was once an aspiring artist working hard at unfulfilling jobs to make ends meet. Now he’s a household name making sweet broadcast television dough. Does the fact that Sam is played by a personality who clearly made the right choice sticking it out overshadow the character’s own say in his decision? We’d really have to jump through some mental hoops to ignore the fact that here we have a character lamenting his acting career while literally on a Broadway stage in a one-man show. It seems like success is in the cards for poor Sam after all. Would we be comfortable considering the opposite?

Poems To Read Based on Your Favorite Musical

We’re winding down Poetry Month with recommendations specially tailored for you based on your favorite musical. You’re welcome.

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Matilda

  • Every song in Matilda is a wordsmith’s dream, full of puns and linguistic play. ee cummings is one of the most playful poets out there, working with format, syntax, and suggestion to create provocative and delightful pieces. Here’s Tom Hiddleston reading “May I Feel Said He.”
  • Harryette Mullen is another master wordsmith who explores the resonances and connotations of words in pop culture and politics. See “Elliptical” from her appropriately named book, “Sleeping with the Dictionary.”

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Passing Strange

  • James Baldwin would definitely identify with the young protagonist’s quest to live in a country that reflects his principles, and his struggle to stay true to himself. Baldwin explores the intersections of race, religion, and sexuality in his poems, essays, and novels. Check out “The giver”
  • Claude McKay is a prominent Harlem Renaissance writer whose work exposed the contradictions of the American Dream. Check out “America,” and basically everything else he’s written.
  • Rumi’s poetry is all about self-healing and finding authenticity in the noise of consciousness. See these selections.
  • Also, make sure to check out Muriel Rukeyser’s “Orgy” “…that’s right all three of them”

 

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Hamilton

  • Part of Hamilton’s genius is its blend of history and popular music, making the oft-treated history of American independence feel fresh, accessible, and even subversive. But Lin-Manuel’s not the first wordsmith to put politics and cultural sounds together. See poet/activist Amiri Baraka and Yusek Komunyakaa, both fascinating intellectuals concerned with race, American politics, and its effects on daily life.
  • Puerto Rican writer Martin Espada was a tenant lawyer working with largely immigrant communities. His poetry draws on themes of law and activism, historical Latin American rebellion, and what it means to exists on the fringes of society.
  • Make the Schyuler sisters proud with feminist poetry from Dominican author Julia Alvarez and Puerto Rican Julia de Burgos.

Company

  • On the precipice of marriage and adulthood? Gregory Corso’s “Marriage” probably won’t leave you feeling any wiser, but you’ll definitely get a laugh.

Avenue Q

  • Funny, accessible, sprinkled with deep musings on life? Billy Collins makes it happen.

Next to Normal

  • The Goodman family should really sit down together and read some Sylvia Plath, not only because of Plath’s own struggle with mental illness, but because so much of her writing deals with family problems and finding fortitude in ourselves.
  • Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is one of my personal favorites, a superbly structured meditation on loss that holds no emotional punches.
  • I hear a lot of Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead”  in many of Kitt’s and Yorkey’s lyrics, particularly in “I Miss the Mountains”

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Sunday in the Park With George

  • Seurat abandoned realism for his signature style of pointillism, preceding even more artistic experimentation in the early 20th century. Check out T.S. Eliot’s “The LoveSong of J Alfred Prufrock,” which is also rife with themes of masculinity, failed relationships, and artistry.
  • Painting complex images with simple dots is similar to what Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and Williams Carlos Williams do with perception in their condensed, haiku-like forms.

Sweeney Todd and/or A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

  • A penchant for the dark side, have you? Satisfy your taste for morbidity with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm
  • Edgar Lee Masters wrote a collection of prose/poems called The Spoon River Anthology. Each poem represents one person in the local cemetery. Cheery stuff.
  • Edwin Arlington Robinson had a similar approach to his poems “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy,” which whimsically recounts two men’s fateful demise.
  • For a more hopeful look at death, read William Cullen Bryant (what’s with the three-namers in this century?). His “Thanatopsis” got me through many a funeral.

Into the Woods

  • Sondheim’s not the first to love a good, dark, modern take on a classic fantasy. Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallott” is his most well-known, though I tend to go for “Ulysses” more often.
  • More takes on the Ulysses myth: Dorothy Parker’s “Penelope” and Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song.” Both entrancingly subversive from a woman’s POV.
  • Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a fantastic fairy tale poem about a young princess who competes for her father’s affection with a young, wild forest woman. It’s full of sexual (queer?) innuendo and lots of speculation.

Rent

  • “La Vie Boheme” is definitely inspired by Walt Whitman’s ode to Americana “Leaves of Grass,” which in turn inspired “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg.
  • Sonia Sanchez’s “Wounded in the House of a Friend” plays out a spat between two lovers. It’s passionate, often hilarious, like watching your favorite soap.
  • Claudia Rankine is writing extraordinary poetry defining the 21st century. First with a multimedia reflection on post-9/11 America “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely,” and recently with the much-lauded “Citizen,” a provocative book on race.

This list could go on indefinitely. Feel free to comment with more suggestions!

 

 

 

 

On David Tennant, ‘Richard II,’ and the Joy of Acting

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David Tennatn as Richard II at BAM. Photo by RSC

Sitting in his prison cell, the deposed king Richard II meditatively reflects on the nature of kingship and his sudden loss of power. He says,

Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king’d again…

Richard II is one of the great chameleon-like figures of Shakespeare’s works, ranking among other hard-to-pin-down royals like Hamlet and Richard III. He’s at once angelically majestic and humanly flawed. When surrounded by his subjects, he invokes divine right with the grace and poise of a saint, but behind closed doors he talks of looting his dying uncle’s property with malevolent glee. He can be warrior-like and masculine, witnessing the wars in Ireland himself, as well as effeminate, enjoying the luxuries of the finest Italian fashions, as well as the love of his cousin Aumerle. Richard can act esoteric and transcendent, seemingly a god among men. But he is simultaneously worldly and deeply flawed.

Richard is able to swiftly ‘play’ many ‘people’ as king, with the keen ability to judge what circumstances call for which ‘person.’ However, this protean strength eventually becomes his great weakness. The cause of his fall lies largely in the court’s suspicion of his inconsistency and his poor judgment. Richard missteps when he arbitrarily banishes two members of the court, then minimizes the sentence of one when the other can exited the scene. Likewise, he allows the court to see his conniving greed and disrespectful attitude at his uncle’s death. Though Richard’s changeability is sometimes to be admired, his followers and flatterers can be just as changeable—in their loyalties. Trust is a thing easily lost and hardly gained back, and people want to know where one stands, even if they themselves prefer to stand for nothing.

When news of his usurpation arrives, he swings wildly between anxious despair and stately calm within the span of a few lines. This is his great moment of decision—to pass the crown peaceably, or to demand his God-given right to it. Perhaps what Richard mourns in handing over the crown is precisely the power to transform, to embody all these selves in one, without worrying about the consequences. Richard invokes divine right constantly (the idea that the king’s place on the throne was sanctioned by God from birth), and divine right is the only ideological guarantee for kings to keep the throne and rule with stability. His usurpation means that Richard (and other kings) have no stability to fall back on. God, essentially, is dead, and fickle man has taken over. In his prison cell, sitting with his arms extended in chains and his flowing brown hair draping his shoulders, Richard’s image invokes the crucified Christ, sacrificed to the human whims of greed and power.

Richard’s transformative powers, however, aren’t nearly as enjoyable or judicious as David Tennant’s. Tennant, who played Richard II in 2013 in London’s Barbican Theater and make his American stage debut with its reprise at BAM, has built his career on an enormous range of roles and genres. Best known for his five-year stint on Doctor Who, Tennant is a regular with the Royal Shakespeare Company, starring in both comedies (Much Ado) and tragedies (Hamlet). He’s also played a superhero villain (Jessica Jones), a washed up Vegas performer (Fright Night), and a disillusioned detective (Broadchurch).

Part of the wonder of good acting is the actor’s ability to make something that has been so carefully plotted on paper seem fresh, spontaneous, and natural. Tennant is a master of this feat. His choices are always enjoyable, often unpredictable, but always deeply rooted in his character. Every gesture is deliberate and insightful. He delivers lines with a novelty and truthfulness, and he always bridges that amazing dialectic space between consistency and surprise. Judging from his interviews, Tennant also seems to be avidly aware of his characters’ places in pop culture and dramatic history. He has hosted and narrated various pieces on Shakespeare’s legacy, and the fact that he was a lifelong fan of Doctor Who before his casting is apparent in how he approaches the role. He is a critical reader, searching into the text for information the way a scholar would, sounding out its depths and applications. He’s the kind of person you’d be desperate to attend your book club. Truly, his excellent performances come from a sheer joy and deep investment in the world of his character.

His turn as Richard II shows yet another side to Tennant’s range. Walking swiftly onstage in the opening scene, as if magically propelled by his divine mission, with his look up to the heavens, Richard seems not of this earth. And yet, Richard is so humanly flawed and so deeply introspective in his moments of peril. Tennant is the perfect choice to bridge these two extremes, every scene illuminating the fascinating paradoxes of his character. Tennant has the magnificent ability to explore Richard’s ‘many people.’ And it’s a pleasure to watch.

Richard II plays at BAM as part of the “King and Country” cycle, featuring Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. Tickets through April 29.

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