Sunday, August 31, 2014

You Can't Take It With You

Oh, the joys of a well-made, genuinely funny comedy. Oh, the joys of a solid cast of Broadway stalwarts doing what they do. Oh, the joys of a sold-out theatre rocking with laughter. Oh, the joys of Kaufman and Hart's classic, You Can't Take It With You.

With the thinnest of plots,  Messrs. Kaufman and Hart fill three acts with comic bliss. Tony Kirby loves Alice Sycamore. Alice loves Tony. Tony's family is staid. Alice's is idiosyncratic. Alice's family has Tony's over for dinner. All hell breaks loose. There is never any doubt about where the show is going, but, oh, the fun of getting there. You Can't Take It With You has begot many progeny, but none can touch it for sheer joy.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

This is Our Youth

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

In 2014, a play written in 1996 and set in 1982 is making its Broadway debut. Still with me? The play is This is Our Youth, the first major work by Kenneth Lonergan, who went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for the smart and touching film You Can Count on Me and make the Pulitzer shortlist for The Waverly Gallery. Some might consider This is Our Youth a modern classic: the acclaimed, extended original run in New York is often cited as a breakthrough not just for Lonergan but its original star, Mark Ruffalo; a long-running London production featured the likes of Matt Damon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anna Paquin, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Chris Klein, to name just a few. Nearly twenty years after its premiere (and thirty years after it’s meant to take place), it’s on Broadway for the first time, in a production that’s billed as a “comedy” and coming direct from a well-received run at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. I suppose the question is, does the play stand the test of time?

My answer, in short, is no. This handsome but lifeless production, staged by Tony winner Anna D. Shapiro and featuring the Broadway debuts of Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, and Tavi Gevinson, shows that what was once perhaps an immediate and recognizable appraisal of the play’s title “youth” has become not much more than a creak-ridden museum piece. It doesn’t help, either, that one member of the central acting trio is severely miscast.

And I and Silence

What happens when people have no options? Specifically, what happens when a pair of women, best friends who met in prison, try to make good lives for themselves in a world that has little use for them? In Naomi Wallace's poetic, uneven, heartbreaking, awkwardly named And I and Silence, what happens is not pretty.

Trae Harris and Emily Skeggs
Photo: Matthew Murphy
Jamie is black and smart and unyielding; she was an accessory to a robbery. Dee is white and uneducated and explosive; she stabbed someone in self-defense. When they meet, they are 17 and 16. Dee wants so much to be friends with Jamie, after seeing her stand up to a guard, that she sneaks from the white section to the black and shrugs off Jamie's rejections until Jamie succumbs to her admiration and offers of friendship and candy.

They spend much of their time together practicing to be maids. Jamie has the knowledge, and she tutors Dee in dusting, shining silver, and even how to bend down. They test each other's ability to put up with mean bosses and ill treatment. They discuss how to deal with sexual harassment (leave, and always remember to take your bucket and brush).

Allow Me to (Re)Introduce Myself

Hi, everyone! I wanted to take a moment to introduce myself. Or, depending on your history with this blog, re-introduce myself. I’m Cameron Kelsall, and I’m the new (old) writer for Show Showdown. Those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while may remember me; I posted regularly as a contributing blogger here from 2009-2012. Prior to that, I was also a contributing writer for New Theater Corps, Channel 13’s companion blog to their wonderful program Theater Talk, and I maintained my own theatre-related blog, Theatre Snobbery, from 2006-2009.

I had to leave Show Showdown in 2012, when I moved to North Dakota for a teaching position. (Pro-tip: Don’t move to North Dakota for any reason. Just don’t do it.) After two years in the tundra, I recently moved back to NYC, and I am so happy that my fellow contributors have allowed me to resume sharing my opinions about my favorite subjects: live theatre and the arts. On a personal note, I am deeply honored to have this opportunity to continue the work of my dear friend Patrick Lee, who put his heart and soul into making this one of the best theatre blogs on the Internet.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Parade (New Hazlett Theater, Pittsburgh, PA)

Parade (book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown) is a musical about the 1913 Leo Frank case, which culminates in his lynching in 1915. A lot of people find entertainments about abominations of justice that culminate in brutal murders by angry mobs of morons to be sort of oxymoronic, which explains, at least in part, the chilly reception Parade got when it opened on Broadway in 2000, and closed after 39 previews and only 84 regular performances (the collapse of its chief producer, Livent, during its run, probably didn't help boost sales, either). Sure, it's possible to have a musical that is a smash hit and also a total downer--Cabaret and West Side Story are proof--but Parade came off as just a little too clinical, a little too two-dimensional, to stir the emotions of its audiences.

While this may be a central flaw in the musical, it's also one that I find particularly understandable. Leo Frank, after all, was unfairly accused of a murder, given an outrageously sham trial, and wrongly sentenced to death, basically because he was Jewish and unpopular. When the sentence was finally commuted to life in prison instead of death by hanging, he was promptly lynched by several upstanding members of the Marietta, Georgia, community (including a former governor of Georgia, several sheriffs, a judge, the mayor, and a general assemblyman who later formed the town's first Boy Scout troop). At their most basic, the events are so dreadful, so grotesque, so completely Kafkaesque, that I can understand the hesitancy among the creative team to flesh out the characters too deeply. Encouraging your audience to bond with a character who was, in reality, so terrifyingly doomed is its own fucked-up kind of torture. I would be willing to be that the creative team struggled mightily on this front.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Sunday at the Circus with the Bread and Puppet Theater

Photo: Me.

Bread and Puppet Theater, a politically radical puppet theater troupe, has been around since the early 1960s. In its first years, it was based in New York City, where, presumably, it fit in nicely with the many other socially conscious, and politically active fringe theater companies that had begun to crop up in the East and West Village as part of the mighty and influential Off Off Broadway movement. While most of the Off Off companies to emerge at the time were dedicated to using theater for social, cultural, and political change, Bread and Puppet set itself apart in ways that its name implies. First, it used puppets--graceful, beautiful, hand-made ones ranging from teeny-tiny ones to ones so enormous that they relied on several troupe members to lift, let alone operate. Second, it made a practice of serving its homemade sourdough rye bread to audiences after performances.
Robert Joyce papers, 1952-1973, Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University.
The emphasis on puppets emerged from founder Peter Schumann's interests in dance, music, and sculpture; the practice of serving bread to the audience emerged from the company's interest in creating a sense of community among its audience members, and in encouraging spectators to think of the arts as just as central to life as food is.

Bread and Puppet left New York City in the early 1970s to become theater-in-residence at Goddard College, an innovative, low-residency liberal arts college in rural Plainfield, Vermont that was, at the time, a hotbed of radical thinking and artistic innovation. Once their residency ended there, the troupe decided to stay in Vermont. In 1974, they set up shop at a farm in Glover, Vermont, where they remain.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Dragon's Breath

It's a great concept: "the story of a Young Adult paranormal romance writer who accidentally creates a dangerous cult." The cast includes the fabulous Lorinda Lisitza and Hannah Sloat. What could go wrong?

Lorinda Lisitza
Unfortunately, a lot. Michael C. O'Day's Dragon's Breath, awkwardly directed by Mikaela Kafka, offers unconvincing characters, a meandering plot, lame satire, and endless, pointless, dull exposition. There are moments that hint at an interesting, even thought-provoking play, but they are wasted in the empty noise.

The show begins with author Justine Drake doing a reading from her new novel, Dragon's Breath. We learn quickly that she is uncomfortable giving readings and that she longs for physical copies of her book, not just e-books. We learn these facts many times. As written, Justine is a major whiner who weirdly pays no attention to her online presence, even after being told that it will determine whether her book ever sees print.

The people who attend Justine's readings represent one satirical type each and are directed to be as cartoony as humanly (cartoonly?) possible. Only two exist in two dimensions rather than one (no one makes it to three): Rocco, a self-proclaimed dragon expert who picks at every sentence in Justine's books, and Laura, who perceives Dragon's Breath and its sequels to be the genuine word of the dragon gods. It is Laura who starts the cult.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Puppet Titus Andronicus

If ever a play merited skewering, it's Shakespeare's messy, pointless bloodbath, Titus Andronicus. The delightful Puppet Shakespeare Players skewer it with great glee, fabulous puppets, silly humor, clever satire, some genuinely moving acting, and lots and lots of Silly String.

The story of Titus Andronicus, a Roman general who has captured Tamara, Queen of the Goths, and blah, blah, blah, it doesn't really matter. Here's what does: Titus's family and Tamara's family are mortal enemies, and they express their animus with the ornate nastiness of a Roman tragedy crossed with a Quentin Tarantino movie, to which Puppet Titus Andronicus adds a large and welcome helping of Looney Tunes.

Puppet Titus plays fast and loose with plot, with is okay with me. It turns the first act into a song, theoretically a great idea, except that it is unintelligible and therefore a wasted opportunity. In most other ways, however, Puppet Titus makes the most of Shakespeare's worst.

The company is excellent, with Mindy Leanse the standout as poor, beleaguered Lavina. She can make you laugh and break your heart pretty much simultaneously. The three non-puppet performers--Adam Weppler as Titus, Sarah Villegas as Tamora, and Christopher Gebauer as Titus' brother--are quite effective. The puppeteers are wonderful: A.J. Coté, Tom Foran, Ross Hamman, Alex Offenkrantz, Shane Snider, and Drew Torkelson. Ryan Rinkel's direction keeps everything bopping along. And the puppets, designed by A.J. Coté, are fantastic.

Your life would be complete if you never saw Titus Andronicus. However, it would be missing something if you never saw Puppet Titus Andronicus.

(first row, press ticket)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Varekai: Cirque du Soleil

I am a big fan of Cirque du Soleil, so it pains me to write the following: Varekai is mediocre and even kind of boring.

Octavio Alegria
To be perfectly fair, I'd like to provide some context. Varekai is at Barclays Center. My friend and I got there 15 minutes before the doors opened. We were moved to different doors and different doors again, supposedly because the original doors were not being used. And then they were used. But that's a small inconvenience that I probably wouldn't have noticed if my nerves were not on edge from listening to the Barclays announcement be played again and again and again and again and again while we waited. Loudly. The announcement talked about restrictions on what you could bring in (food, drink, bottles, cans, fireworks, and weapons, in that order), their no-reentry policy, and so on. We heard it some 20 times, without even a few seconds between each playing. And did I mention it was loud? Really, really loud? And when we were let in, we were treated like people with prison records visiting a nuclear missle site.

The show itself began slowly, with forest creatures (I guess) slithering and sort of dancing. There was a lot of slithering and sort of dancing in the show. The non-acrobatic interludes were the dullest I've ever seen at Cirque du Soleil, by far. The clowns were largely annoying. The male clown did have a nice bit trying to sing a song in a, well, erratic spotlight. The female got bonked on the head and was treated as sexually desperate. At one point, her head exploded. He was presented as a sort of noble fool; she was presented as an idiot.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fosse (book review)

Bob Fosse was talented, driven, kind, nasty, dedicated, unfaithful, brilliant, limited, addicted, and unhappy. By all accounts, he was also charismatic, seductive, and a great lay. Since the reader doesn't get to sleep with him, he is a largely unpleasant companion for the 590 pages of Sam Wasson's exhaustive, repetitive, and annoying biography, Fosse. However, if you keep your bullshit detector turned to "high"--Wasson is fond of recreating conversations as though he was there; he thinks he knows what Fosse was thinking at any given moment; his interpretations of events are unconvincing--Fosse is worth reading. As for Fosse the man: hey, Gwen Verdon and Ann Reinking worshipped him, so who am I to judge?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

NYMF - Central Avenue Breakdown in Concert

I finally saw it! Well...heard/saw it.  Kind of.  Whatever.  It was a concert staging.

I first caught wind of Central Avenue Breakdown following its successful run at the 2011 New York Musial Theatre Festival (NYMF).  This show – with music/lyrics by Kevin Ray, book by Kevin Ray, Andrea Lepcio, and Dominic Taylor, and additional story by Suellen Vance – racked up four awards for excellence and the Daegu International Musical Festival Award.  It was also granted a revival run at the 2012 NYMF.  And, of course, I was out of country for that entire run.  So when I heard that the 2014 NYMF was holding a one-night only concert of the show, I was like, “[Insert expletive of choice], I gotta go.”

I wasn’t disappointed.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Long Shrift

With its even-handed, honest, and thought-provoking examination of the gray area between sex and rape, The Long Shrift has the makings of an excellent play. However, its execution is not up to its concept, and the result is a disappointment.

When the play opens, we see Henry and Sarah bickering as they move into an ugly apartment after selling their home to pay for their son Richard's legal bills. Richard is now serving ten years in prison for rape, and Henry is horrified by his growing realization that Sarah believes it is possible that Richard is guilty. In the second scene, years have passed, and Richard is home, hardened and bitter. Then Beth, his accuser, shows up, wanting to discuss what really happened on that long-ago night that exploded both of their lives into shards of pain.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Qualification of Douglas Evans

Derek Ahonen’s The Qualification of Douglas Evans, directed by James Kautz, is the second in the Amoralists' "two play repertory exploring man’s vicious cycles." (The other is Enter at Forest Lawn, reviewed here.) Ahonen is the extraordinary author of such amazing plays as The Bad and the Better, Happy in the Poorhouse, and The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side. His plays are distinguished by their passion, poetry, humor, and unique point of view. Usually.

Samantha Strelitz, Penny Bittone,
Derek Ahonen
Russ Rowland
The Qualification of Douglas Evans is passionate and poetic, but it is far from unique and almost totally lacks humor. The story of Douglas Evans (well-played by the author), a drunk playwright of dubious talent, The Qualification of Douglas Evans follows a familiar path to rock bottom as Evans alienates everyone in his life, including the women who inexplicably care about him. (I suspect that blondes who throw themselves at drunks exist much more frequently in the minds of men than in the reality of women, but I suppose I could be wrong. I hope not.) 

While The Qualification of Douglas Evans is largely unpleasant, unedifying, and kind of pointless, it doesn't lack redeeming features. The cast is excellent; in particular, Penny Bittone is impressively effective in his many roles, and Barbara Weetman breathes dimensionality into characters who could easily be flat and cliche in lesser hands. The writing has moments of ugly beauty, and the show is well-paced and involving until a series of ill-conceived blackouts toward the end. 

I love the Amoralists, and it gives me no pleasure to give them not one, but two, mediocre reviews. However, their "two play repertory exploring man’s vicious cycles" comes across more as a two play rep exploring edgy-male cliches and fantasies.

(press ticket; second row) 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Enter at Forest Lawn

The people in Mark Roberts' Enter at Forest Lawn, directed by Jay Stull, fall down, squat in frozen crouches, twitch like dying break dancers, sashay, and ooze disjointedly, respectively. They spew words, plot, lie, manipulate, fuck, abuse drugs, molest children, and commit acts of violence. Love is unknown here, as are friendship, loyalty, and morals.

Lemp, Roberts, Pilieci
Photo: Russ Rowland.
Welcome to a version of show biz that I suspect exists far more frequently in the minds of male playwrights striving to be edgy than in real-life Hollywood. And, while Roberts, Stull, and the excellent cast offer vivid language, smart pacing, and never-flagging energy, this show suffers from the opposite of the emperor's new clothes: the clothes are real, but there is no emperor.

Which is not to say that the show isn't worth seeing. This production, presented by the Amoralists as part of a "two-play repertory exploring man's vicious cycles," is polished, frequently entertaining, and never boring. And it is acted with the Amoralists' signature balls-to-the-wall commitment, with author Roberts effectively slimy as the producer whose multi-million-dollar deal is at risk; David Lanson, physically and emotionally tied in knots by his inability to choose morals over money; Sarah Lemp, quivering with nerves and fear; Matthew Pilieci, skin-crawlingly creepy; and Anna Stomberg channeling Annette Bening's performance in the Grifters as the up-and-coming producer who would fuck a hyena if it helped her career.

If I never saw another play about the evils of L.A., it would be fine with me, but this one ultimately made it worth my while.

(press ticket, fourth row)