The Playgoer: July 2005

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Sunday, July 31, 2005


Playgoer has already been barraged with questions (okay, two) about the bemusing Julia Roberts announcement in Friday's Times. What can one say? I actually feel we should stop pretending to be shocked when a producer asks a movie star to star in a play. What it says about the theatre when such stars accept such offers, though, may be a more interesting question. Good news for the theatre maybe? Certainly good news for Richard Greenberg fans that probably more folks will now see this decade-old play of his in one month on Broadway than in all its countless productions so far.

I'm personally not a fan of this play. Greenberg is a considerable writer, but here his logorreah gets the best of him. And, as a three-hander chamber piece, it will just disappear in a thousand-seat house. (So the play may in fact be killed with kindness... Again, who said Broadway must be the savior to new plays!) And consider this--the time-bending script will actually call upon Roberts to play not just one, but two characters. (A woman and her own mother, if I remember?) So whatever benefit of the doubt we may give her in translating her screen charm to stage...let's say range has never been "America's Sweetheart's" strong suit. Plus, there are unfortunately two other (male) characters in the play with equally large parts! Couldn't her agent have found her a better vehicle?

"Arts & Leisure" watch

Yes, an occasional update on the wacky travails and editorial decisions over at the Sunday Times theatre page...

Hmm, with all the potentially interesting theatre subjects (the visiting luminary directors at Lincoln Center Festival, the upcoming season) why not do a serious profile of a big Broadway vanity-musical which is already a laughing stock. That's right a Lenon puff piece. And it's long! Will they eat it when the reviews come out? Hardly. They probably figure people would still rather read about a Beatle than the theatre any day...

(Sidenote: In the photo, is that Jann Wenner sitting next to Yoko? If so, no wonder his mouth is agape. Read Michael Reidel on why.)

Friday, July 29, 2005


Arlecchino (Servant of Two Masters)
by Carlo Goldoni
directed by Giorgio Strehler
re-staged by Ferruccio Soleri
at the Lincoln Center Festival (closed)

The New York Times better figure out what it thinks of commedia dell’arte, especially as it relates to Giorgio Strehler’s famous production for the Piccolo Teatro di Milano of The Servant of Two Masters (aka Arlecchino). First Margo Jefferson, in her infamous “primer” for the uninitiated lumps it together with the avant-garde. Then Charles Isherwood pays the backhanded compliment of making Homer Simpson jokes. What neither seems to grasp is that, in this production at least, commedia is not just popular, but populist theatre. It is also not at all elitist, pace Jefferson—but when appropriated by as revolutionary a director as Strehler was, it can be an utterly serious medium for joyful theatricality.

That something more than pratfalls is going on should be evident to any observant playgoer within the first ten minutes. Goldoni’s play is performed within multiple “frames” of theatrical context. The stage setting consists of a small raised platform (probably no more than 250 square feet) surrounded by an airy eighteenth-century courtyard. As introduced to us, silhouetted beautifully through a simple white draw-curtain, the cast is not just Goldoni’s dramatis personae, but a troupe of players from another era. And since there is more “offstage” space than “on,” what we see is not just a play but their machinery—mulling about, making sound effects, preparing props and costumes. The clincher in this concept is the prominent positioning of a white-haired “prompter” (who the program tells us is Piccolo Teatro’s real prompter!) who is consulted often and strategically interrupts the proceedings—usually when the fictitious “actors” lose their lines amid too much genuine emotion. (Fulfilling Strehler’s alienating aesthetic, the prompter device allows us to be teased with sentimentality only to have it cut off with a reminder of artificiality.) Sometimes the prompter helps, too, by encouraging us to indulge a hammy actor with applause, for instance.

Strehler continues breaking his own elegantly crafted frame throughout. The players argue with the prompter, leading to a string of “ad-libs,” during which the projected translation titles have to stop, of course, since we are no longer in Goldoni’s play! Sometimes the actors interrupt each other. The Pantalone even tries to direct: “Piu moderno!” we hear from the side, to which the performer usually responds by starting over surprisingly (and hilariously) melodramatic. The three “old men” (the Pantalone, Dottore, and the innkeeper Brighella) are also fond of slipping into Verdi trios mid-scene. Is the “reality” of the setting the 19th century? or 1947, Strehler’s original premiere of the work? But, then, with the audience constantly acknowledged, how are we not also in 2005 at Lincoln Center, New York! Such mindgames are all built into the experience.

Nowhere is the transparency of theatrical machinery more celebrated than in the play’s climactic tour-de-force dinner scene in Act II, where the title character must fool both masters in serving them each an “exclusive” dinner in the same hotel. While Arlecchino darts back and forth on the tiny platform, his fellow clowns are visible to the sides, at the ready with all the intricate food-props of this showpiece. (Yes, it is presented as a showpiece. No attempt at integration or illusion here.) We see all the handoffs of plates; we watch Arlecchino towel off his wet hands between each “trick”; and tossed bread shamelessly sails through slits of the painted backdrop, piercing what little pictorial representation there is. It is a perfect Bergsonian cuckoo-clock, yet never the kind of slick mechanization we’re used to, say, in modern French farce. It was more like a sporting event, actually, a gymnastics display where we applaud each feat and eagerly await the next. (And for a Brechtian like Strehler, the sports analogy is a compliment.) The “roughness” of it all—actor Ferrucio Soleri’s casual and effortless gliding through the moves—allowed even for the mistakes. (A few plates were dropped—but that's no big deal here).

The 75-year-old Soleri is a marvel, of course. (He reportedly sweats through three Harlequin costumes a night—one for each act.) Having played the role for over forty years now (handed down by Strehler’s original actor before him), he is a link to the past the likes of which we rarely see on American stages. Soleri has now taken over the direction of the show, and to someone like me who has never seen previous incarnations of it, it’s impossible to judge how much is Strehler and how much Soleri. It definitely does not feel like a “remount”—there is nothing quaint or “museum piece” about it. While some of the business and adlibs may be new, one senses a loyalty to the spirit of Strehler, which is, of course, embedded into the very construction and concept of the production. We see why a strident Brechtian would embrace the commedia form—which is neither to pander or alienate the masses, by the way. This production for him was clearly one more step in his de-bourgeoisification of the theatre, stripping away the architecture of our (still) 19th-century trappings: the 4th wall, the suspension of disbelief, the privileging of spoken/literary text. Populist more than popular, the structure of political theatre was here even if not explicitly the content. (Though servant girl Smeraldina’s short diatribe against the double standards held for men and women, addressed flush to the audience away from her scene partner, came startlingly close.) The spirit of Strehler’s spiritual comrade, Dario Fo, was clearly in the house.

And, finally, we can’t forget sheer beauty either. In a deceptively simple production (the “rough” play-within-play frame) Strehler transforms the final scene into something out of a Mozart opera—all candlelit and white-dressed. And, vanishing with a whimper, not a bang, Soleri, in Arlecchino’s “curtain speech,” snuffs out the antique footlights one-by-one, in a gesture breathtaking in its simplicity. Unlike the botched dinner for Arlecchino’s masters, our meal is served expertly and with dense richness. It is not dessert.

Other reviews: NY Times (Isherwood); V. Voice (Feingold)

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Spamalot in Vegas

I don't know why I'm so fascinated by the growing prospects of theatre in Las Vegas. Sure, we're still just talking Broadway musicals and it's all about one crazy billionaire, Steve Wynn. The implications for non-profits, for art may be nil. But I sense something brewing, as if the gravitational force of all live entertainment is moving west. An overstatement for now, sure. But stay tuned...

Meanwhile, read here how Wynn has just agreed to build another theatre--this one for a sit-down of Spamalot. For a projected ten-year run. Unlike his exclusive deal for Avenue Q , Spamalot will also have a national tour--but not anywhere on the West Coast, including California! So all of Idle & Nichols' Hollywood friends will have to go to Vegas to see it. Remember, we're not talking Boy From Oz here. This is Avenue Q & Spamalot: two of the most theatrically respected commercial shows. (And Q, started in the non-profits, remember.)

That Wynn is crazy like a fox, I say...

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Le Dernier Caravansérail
directed by Ariane Mnouchkine, performed by Théâtre de Soleil
at the
Lincoln Center Festival

The two installments of Ariane Mnouchkine’s Le Dernier Caravansérail consist of a total of 42 scenes. There are some consistent characters, but no steady progression of any one plot. The episodes go back and forth in time, and from one end of the world to the other. Like the refugees who are the piece’s dramatic characters and real-life subjects, the audience, too, is constantly dislocated and unmoored from our conventional theatrical bearings. Furthering the estrangement (at least in the Lincoln Center presentation) many of the languages spoken onstage are unfamiliar to most Western ticket-buyers, and even the projected translation-titles are sporadic and often illegible.

If these sound like faults—and you can’t imagine sitting through six hours of them—then maybe Dernier Caravansérail is not for you. Or maybe it is, so you can experience the amazement of how engaging it is in spite of its flouting of our usual conventions. Words, individuals, geographic locations in Dernier become a deliberate blur. Hence, a conventional synopsis does no good in describing it. Instead I will offer some selected impressions of Mnouchkine’s astounding theatrical impressionism:

- The Sea: Part I is entitled “Le Fleuve Cruel”, an image powerfully realized in the opening scenes of both parts. Mnouchkine takes the primitive rough-theatre trick of waving a sheet to represent the sea and blows it up into horrifying proportions. The entire company, it seems, fans out to the edges of the sizeable stage, grabbing hold of enormous swaths of silken grey tarps, as wind machines from below and thunderous sound effects from above all create a tempest before our eyes out of nothing. Then we watch people try to cross from one side of the stage to the other in a wicker basket on pulleys, which is helpless against the violent “waves,” so loud we can barely hear their screamed "dialogue." (Mnouchkine often seems to take advantage of the subtitles to drown out human speech altogether with noise.) There is nothing cute about the children’s theatre technique employed here. When one man falls out of the basket and is seen drifting upstage, we are terrified.

- A Fence: What better to represent the “borders” between the safe and the unsafe world, between “us” (the leisure-taking audience) and the endangered characters we spectate than a barbed wire fence. (Ours is a century "woven with barbed wire," writes Helene Cixous in the program.) Mnouchkine employs this visual set piece in one of the storylines as a stark downstage frame, with the actors behind it, always trying to break through to “the other side.” This fence--an oppressive "fourth wall" in many ways--specifically locates us in northern France, along the train tracks of the “Chunnel” leading to England. Ruthless smugglers cut open the wire and push through those desperate enough to pay in cash, servitude, or prostitution. But the image is universal. The ferocity—and agility—with which Mnouchkine’s actors cling to, mount, and rattle this precarious prop says more about the characters’ dire straits than any soliloquy ever could.

- Wheels: Almost no one touches the ground in this epic of mobility and transience. The action is played out on small platforms which are wheeled out (pageant-wagon style) for each scene. The small structures built on these represent homes, offices, even a patch of earth, and actors are forced into tight enclosures. These shacks on wheels induce constant claustrophobia, as well as a kind of violating voyeurism when we are literally spying through small windows, which allow us to see only segments of the actors’ bodies. “Outside” these islands await other ensemble members with little dollies, ready to transport actors in and out of the scene. The cumulative effect (and Dernier Caravanserail itself is one big cumulative effect) is the sensation of constant “floating” in this “cruel river”. The uprooting of these people, the lack of anything grounded or stable is always palpable. The elegant gliding of people and places is balanced by the real human energy going into moving them all (no fancy turntables here) and then the frenetic running around of actors between scenes, as they hurry across the large expanse of the stage; they are at once actors rushing to take their place and characters in search of a place.

- Machines: In age when we are used to being dazzled by stage technology, Mnouchkine deliberately reserves such tactics for her chilling depictions of “The West.” A television screen pops up in the front of one of the more sleek platform sets: a flourescent-lit immigration office in Melbourne is interrogating an Iraqi asylum seeker, whose presence is only on screen, the way the Australian officials see him. Typical of the play’s depiction of the West’s efforts to alleviate the refugee crisis, the only connection across this cultural divide is via satellite. Another platform takes us inside a cargo bay at DeGaulle Airport, where an African immigrant, resisting the efforts to force her on a plane is beaten into submission, seemingly to death. Like some of the greatest scenes in the production, there is no intelligible dialogue at all, all voices drowned out by the exaggerated blasting of jet engines and exhaust fumes (the airport from hell?); and we watch everything through plastic sheeting. The most menacing—and spectacular—flaunting of Western technology comes in the opening of Part II, on another cruel river, as a flimsy skiff—a haunting little visual tableau recalling the “Raft of the Medusa”—is intercepted by Australian border guards descending from the sky, machine-men in black helmets and goggles, dangling unnaturally from the air as their artificially amplified voices intone over the roar of helicopters, “You are illegally in these waters! You must turn back!” A one-sided depiction? Don’t borders have to be enforced? Perhaps. But it is an incredibly effective retelling of this all-too-common confrontation from the "boat people’s" point of view.

Mnouchkine’s goal is expressly political—to educate us about the terror people live through today as they try to escape such repressive or volatile places as Iran, Afghanistan, and Chechnya. And to implore us to take action to help, to reform our “asylum” policies; maybe we will think twice before turning away those rafts of “huddled masses” at our shores if we know what they sacrificed to get here. It is for this reason Dernier Caravanserail is unforgivingly bleak, and hard to watch. An air of menace constantly hangs over the proceedings, as if something awful is always about to happen—and frequently it does. (When an Afghan man returns to his little shack late in the play, it spins around to reveal the dangling corpse of his intended, pinned to the back by the Taliban.) No redeeming “triumph of the human spirit” moments, this is not "Hotel Rwanda."

But to look for any bite-sized "message of the play" in such a sprawling documentary pageant such as this would be fruitless--and belittling of Mnouchkine's achievement. So much of the power derives from an implicit assertion that the pain of these people is theatrically unknowable. Identification becomes impossible through the wire fences, language barriers and fracured narratives. Interspersed throughout are "real" voices speaking to us in recorded voiceover and projected writing on the wall, recounting just some of the horrors and some of the dreams from the people represented on stage--to draw attention to the distance between the play and the reality. (Hence the theatrical machinery of the play, what little there is, is always manifest.) That Dernier Caravansérail is theatrical is both its limitation, then, and its magic.

Other reviews: NY Times; New York Magazine; New Yorker (John Lahr); V. Voice (for an insightful negative review); NY Post (for a cheap negative review)

(For a fuller synopsis, an account of the project’s genesis, and more on just who Mnouchkine is, read McNulty’s informative profile of the director in the Voice. The Times was apparently too busy interviewing Corey Feldman and Elizabeth Berkely this summer...)

Friday, July 22, 2005


Twelfth Night
presented by the Aquila Theatre Company

Those familiar with that idiosyncratic Brit-expat classical company, Aquila, know to expect both impeccably well spoken text and juvenile physical hijinx. It's an odd marriage, their aesthetic. Even an occasional fan like myself must admit the relentless in-your-face energy of their performances can often be... well, annoying. Maybe it's a result of developing their productions through extensive school tours across the country (for which they've received a huge NEA grant); Aquila provides surely the most literate kid shows around. But by the time their productions settle for a more professional run in New York for the summer, it's hard not to feel some of their strained gags and crude visual aids are better suited the cultural level of a high school gymnasium. (Hence no surprise they were a hit at the White House this spring.)

Aquila's new installment, Twelfth Night, surprisingly disappointed me for not being annoying enough, though. After they gave even Othello a circus treatment last year (complete with audience participation and an inexplicable soccer-hooligan musical interlude), this ribald comedy seems tame in comparison. Has Aquila mellowed? Only the company clown, rubber-faced Luis Butelli, as Feste, conjures the usual silliness. (And I must say he's one of the least annoying Festes I've seen!) Conceptually, the production even hints at being structured around his character, with Feste as omnipresent puppetmaster and helping hand. Promising idea. Some of the more somber proceedings aim at touching the play's melancholy --but, of course, Aquila can't go there for long before trouncing out the usual pop-techno synth score of resident actor/composer Anthony Cochrane (doubling as Sir Toby Belch) to which actors constantly bounce around to between scenes. As Aquila regulars, Butelli, Cochrane, and Lisa Carter (as Olivia) are always a pleasure to watch and listen to (though Carter and Cochrane seemed a bit on auto-pilot Thursday night); but, as usual, the ensemble sags with the casting of less accomplished apprentices in key roles--such as, oh, Viola. (Lindsay Taylor is perfectly ok, and even shows some poetic gift--but she just doesn't have the inner size to carry the play.)

Normally, Aquila directors Robert Richmond and Peter Meineck can at least be counted on for some badboy, rollicking, irreverent fun. When they're at their best--their Comedy of Errors, for example--they really make you feel like one of the "lads." But by playing Twelfth Night straight, they only reveal an impatience to deal with what's left of the more subtle emotional layers of this less slapsticky play.

Other reviews: NY Times; V. Voice

Wednesday, July 20, 2005


Glengarry Glen Ross
by David Mamet starring Alan Alda & Liev Schreiber,
directed by Joe Mantello

on Broadway, at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre

The first, memorable, line from David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross begins: "John...John...John." It is not: "John...(applause)...John." But this being Broadway, and the speaker being immediately identifiable as a television celebrity--here, Alan Alda--the conditioned response sets in. It was at this moment--mere seconds after the lights came up--that I had a saddening, even if obvious, revelation: Broadway has now become irrevocably inhospitable to serious drama.

A good production of Mamet's play might certainly be entertaining, even crowd-pleasing and laugh-out-lout funny. But it is still, at its core, a deadly serious and unforgiving piece of work, a display of animal behavior so exploitative in its preying on weakness that it could be likened to a nature documentary--"When Real Estate Agents Attack". But the current hooting, hollering, and applause-happy audiences filling the coffers at the newly named "Jacobs " Theatre (formerly the Royale, but appropriately rechristened after a Shubert mogul) are seeing their own play, not the one Mamet wrote. His play is a clinical examination of how capitalism steals our souls and our language. What's being performed in the Jacobs, more than anything else, is the titillation of hearing actors yell "fuck" in a crowded theatre.

So is this just a problem of reception? Or is Joe Mantello's ultra-competent production also culpable? Mantello, the consummate "actor's director," has clearly devoted much to character work. His Glengarry I would sum up as a day in the life of a bunch of losers. Everyone has his moment, his vulnerability... and his applause-cuing exit line. Jeffrey Tambor's Aaranow is a perfect example; a fleshy dolt who is almost cute in his passivity. The character's silence is rendered as "goodness"--as opposed to a quiet, calculating mind of his own.

I think any understanding of this play has to begin with the premise that these characters are not just losers--but crooks. Mantello succeeds so much in making us invest emotionally in their personal stakes that we lose the bigger perspective (and irony) of how the more desperately they fight to survive, the harder they have to "screw" their victims (i.e. the customers). Case in point: Alda's Levene. Feingold (in the Voice) was inspired in complimenting him as "Dickensian." It is indeed a wonderfully rich and full portrait of a nebbishy second-rater; Alda may be tall, but he plays a great "little guy". Problem is, you forget that when he celebrates his big sale, he's gloating over bilking an old couple out of $80,000 for swampland. (The audience also just loves it when he sticks it to his boss, young Williamson. The Broadway ticket-buyer demographics certainly work in Alda's favor.)

Liev Schreiber (as Roma) is the only actor on stage in a Mamet play--and I don't just mean the put-on Chicago accent and sleazy mustache. Incredibly detailed physically (just his vain adjustment of cufflinks is an essay in character), he constantly wavers oh so subtly between charming and chilling. So while he does get all of Roma's many laughs--and the audience's constant affirmation--his manipulation of his "mark," Lingk (a subdued Tom Wopat), is so perfectly professional that we never once suspect Roma of any secret affection for the man, yet he never "winks" his villainy either.

It's unseemly of me to harp on my fellow playgoers, I know, for allowing themselves to assimilate the play as boulevard entertainment--especially at a hundred bucks a pop. (At that price, who wants a play that questions the ethics of the broker who sold you the seats? or the motives of the umpteen producer names above the title?) But here we have an American play as close to a modern classic as we have. Doesn't it deserve a really gutsy, shocking staging that reminds us the American theatre can still be about something?

Other reviews (still available): NY Times ; Village Voice ; NY Magazine (J. Simon) ; NY Post


I was lying there naked, and they decided to kick me and step on me, just like these visions you see in Iraq.
-Suzanne Somers inveighing against the NY critics for not appreciating her one-woman show, The Girl in the Thunderbird. (as quoted by Michael Reidel). Yes, that Suzanne Somers.

Reidel adds, "It's significant, Somers believes, that the one decent review she got was from
Linda Winer of Newsday, the only woman among New York's top theater critics." Might be a fair point, one that Winer herself has drawn attention to about her lone support of other female dramatists. But I hope Reidel realizes that while the NY Sun's Helen Shaw may be young (as is the Sun itself) the sisterhood is growing. (And, for the record, she didn't seem to like Suzanne either.)

All I can say is-- Don't worry, Suzanne, there's always the Tonys. As long as no more than three other celebrities don't do similar vanity projects, you're guaranteed a shot at Special Theatrical Event!

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

A Kinder, Gentler Criticism?

I have just recently added American Theatre magazine to the blog roll, now that I see how good their website has become. Personally I tire of the magazine's orthodox hipness at times, but I suppose it is essential reading for those in the profession. Also, you can't match the regional coverage in any other national magazine or major newspaper.

This month, as always, features an editorial ("The Eye of the Critic") from TCG front-man Ben Cameron, this time on critics! He floats some familiar calls for healing between those who review and those who make theatre, and why not applaud the spirit of that. But, in this context, respecting the critical enterprise always ends up translating as neutering it. Case in point:

Might the role of the critic be as a convener for conversation, rather than an arbiter of public taste—a mediator rather than a judge? Can the critic frame the issues rather than provide the answers?
Uh, no. That might be the role of a an alternate universe. But, face it, the "role" of criticism--by definition!--is, perish the thought, "judgment." I agree that the media and the press in general can do a lot more in their arts coverage to "convene" such virtual conversations, and give readers something to balance against an individual review. Hell, I'm even for publishing two or three reviews side by side! (Ok, maybe that hasn't happened on this blog, but still...) But the business of criticism is criticism. Not cheerleading, not town-meeting mediator. There are others to do that. For instance...Dramaturgs! (How about a TCG fellowship to hire some, Ben?)

Look, any critic who considers him or herself an "arbiter of public taste" is an egomaniac and a bore. But the theatre only benefits from the circulation of very personal assessments that are informed by thorough theatrical knowledge, experience and enthusiasm. So put the pressure instead on arts editors to hire reviewers who bring something valuable to their decidedly judgmental tracts--as opposed to the glib stylists and upgraded lifestyle columnists who populate many of the nation's (and this city's) drama desks.

I do recommend reading Cameron's entire argument, since my quotation is only a sliver. So follow the link and tell me if I'm wrong.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Who's got family values now, eh?

Buried at the end of today's Times piece (in Business, not Arts, of course) on Hollywood's genuflecting before the religious right is this revealing data:

The researchers found that "when it comes to popular movies and popular shows, tastes don't differ at all" between religious and nonreligious, said Joseph Helfgot, president of MarketCast. "What you find is that people with conservative religious doctrine are the most likely to see movies rated R for violence. If you compared it to liberals, it's a third more."

It's funny when the Family Research Council and the like with a straight face accuse liberals for fueling the market for violence and sleaze in our entertainment, which we supposedly enjoy in between sips of our white wine.


Terence McNally has a new play premiering in San Francisco this fall. It's title: Crucifixion. What's it about? According to a press release quoted in, "a high profile TV producer who is violently murdered by a Jesuit priest."

Expect another kulturkampf. While the mass media cares not a jot about the theatre and new plays, the religious right will use the airwaves to (pardon me) resurrect Corpus Cristi and destroy not just McNally, but what they perceive as the liberal-queer conspiracy of theatre as an enterprise. Especially if any state or federal grant money is involved. You heard it here first...

(Thank God--again, pardon--for SF's New Conservatory Theatre Center for having the guts to produce it.)

Saturday, July 16, 2005


Orson's Shadow
by Austin Pendleton
Off-Broadway, at the Barrow Street Theatre

A character in Orson's Shadow (the title one, in fact) laments at one point, "The worst part of being a living genius is you only live to disappoint." Austin Pendleton's nifty conceit in his play is to take two geniuses from the theatrical past--when they were living--and explore their one collaboration as a case study in disappointment itself.

As for the outline of the story, in the words of one of the titular character's many uncompleted films...It's All True: in 1960 London, a young critic, Kenneth Tynan, has brought together an unlikely pair of two personal heroes to star (Laurence Olivier) and direct (Orson Welles) in the "new" Ionesco, Rhinoceros. It's a quixotic effort to salvage each man's stagnating career. But the production is doomed--as Pendleton makes no secret of in his amusing deployment of the curse of the Scottish play throughout. Nobody involved cares a fig for the absurdist script; Olivier is distracted by his failing marriage to one actress (Vivien Leigh) and his burgeoning affair with another (Joan Plowright); Welles's mind can't get off the money he needs to raise to complete old projects and finance new ones.

The "shadow" of the title looms large indeed over the proceedings. It is not just the rotund one of Welles, but that of celebrity, of expectation, and of youth. Ken Marks's "Larry" embodies these themes in his very appearance--not of a dashing prince, but the grey-sideburned "banker" he became by the time he ran the National Theatre. Delightfully neurotic and spineless, with mid-life crisis written all over him, Marks (a recent cast replacement) constantly reminds us of the gap between public and private personas, between on-stage and off-. Jess Still's assured "Orson" may convey fewer levels, but certainly provides the requisite voice, presence, and gruffness called for. This is Welles at only 45, but already washed up, already binging on steaks, trying desperate to look forward not back. And the melancholy is palpable in Stills' delivery of that Falstaffian line immortalized by Welles and here adopted by Pendleton as a moving motif for the play: "We have heard the chimes at midnight."

The play is enjoyable on many levels: gossip, a love letter to acting, a meditation on the nature of fame. That the first act buckles a bit under the load of tons of exposition is understandable given the long and fascinating careers of the players (plus the fact audiences can't be assumed to know them anymore!). But when Pendleton finally gets Welles and Olivier together after intermission to rehearse Rhinoceros, he's liberated from biographical fact into theatre history fantasy. Watching Larry bumble through his Ionesco scene while Orson alternately chows down and throws chairs is great fun for any buff, and Pendleton (a veteran actor himself) knows how to write this kind of scene "from the inside." The subplots involving Olivier's love triangle and Tynan's oncoming emphysema I didn't find as satisfying, but they are, in a way, necessary to fill out a play based only on a footnote.

Orson's Shadow is very funny at times, and very sad. It is both romantic about the theatre and utterly real about its loneliness and its ephemerality. Whatever its shortcomings, I just can't resist a gushy, "quote whore" of an appeal--If you love the theatre, you must see this play! (And I mean it.)

Other reviews: NY Times;NY Post;Village Voice

Friday, July 15, 2005

The "National Theatre" Pipedream

Time Out New York's cover story a few weeks back on "How to Fix Broadway" is finally available online. Worth reading, if only for arguing with and provoking one's own thoughts.

While TONY has generally been a good booster of non-Broadway & downtown theatre here, the very premise of this feature reveals these otherwise fine theatre writers are captive to the Broadway mentality. I mean--"why fix Broadway?" would seem a more apt topic to me. Devote whatever resources such reformists would muster toward the health of the theatre producers who are already contributing to the artform, not looking for a return on a real estate investment.
Case in point: yet another call for a National Theatre on Broadway (setting aside a house, enlisting stars with theatre chops, etc). The TONY writers constantly invoke the model of the Royal National in London. But they ignore the fact Olivier and his co-founders completely avoided the West End and set themselves up on the South Bank as a clear alternative. Tony Randall had this dream and, of course, fell short because he realized his National Actors Theatre would have to survive and compete as just another non-profit company--but paying Broadway-rate union wages and real estate! (And it took Roundabout and Lincoln Center literally decades to develop a successful business model for that.)

When will we in the New York Theatre Community acknowledge we have a national theatre already. It just is, inconveniently, not located in one place. First, of course, there's the whole LORT network ("League of Resident Theatres") of 75 professional regional companies throughout the "nation". The New York-based actors, directors, and designers who depend on this circuit for much of its employment certainly consider it our national theatre. (It's the media that remains so myopic and B'way-obsessed.) But, ok, let's stick with New York for the moment. How would any imagined "National Theatre" in reality be much different from what Lincoln Center and the Roundabout already are doing? In fact, if you lump together those two along with Manhattan Theatre Club (at least in their better days) and the Public-- there you have it, no?* Classics, new work, American, foreign, hot directors. Are we totally satisfied with these existing theatres? No. But why set up another boring, safe institution. How about supporting what we have?

*(I mention the bigees, as something comparable to Broadway. The other NYC Lorts do fine work Off-Broadway, of course).

Personally I find the TONY guys' idealism way ahead of the economics. And the urging for Broadway producers to raid more downtown plays? Nice way to kill some young careers, guys, forcing their avant-garde work before tourists who couldn't get into Phantom, and closing the show within a week, when it can't book 90% capacity.... But hey, read for yourself, and tell me which prescriptions you think have merit.

"Lennon" schadenfreude continues...

Yes, for pure guilty-pleasure gossip, see Michael Reidel's dish today on Yoko--er, I mean Lennon: The Musical.

John Simon, continued

Thanks to Richard, a reader, for prompting me to follow up on whatever happened to John Simon's Bloomberg stint, i.e. why we can't find him anywhere on the site.
Well, I'm glad to report I received this prompt response from the "Bloomberg Website Feedback Team ":

Hello: John Simon writes for Bloomberg Professional service. Bloomberg Pro is a leased-fee based service accessed by clients.
So John Simon now writes theatre reviews for investment bankers only? Weird gig.

UPDATE 7/18: Oops. Scooped by Talkin' Broadway's All That Chat. Simon's column has now just debuted, actually, and seems to be open access (?). Simon fans can now bookmark the Bloomberg "Culture" page...

Thursday, July 14, 2005


An amusing yet thought-provoking take on current trends in "the intermission question" from Rupert Christiansen in the London Telegraph. (Courtesy, ArtsJournal.) I personally agree a milestone of sorts has been reached with the triumph of the 90-minute "one-act". The future of the intermission is an open question, and one ripe for reinvention.

Update (7/15)--apparently the "shortee" play has stirred some considerable debate across the pond lately. Do check out the cool links in the comments from reader Webloge, a Brit-based theatre blogger. (Thanks 'loge!)

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Review Roundup: Shakespeare in the Park

To help you decide whether "the wait" is worth it this summer, here's the dailies on the new As You Like It in Central Park.

NY Times

NY Post

NY Sun (surprisingly, free access today!)

Five Thing I Didn't Know About Christopher Fry

Only five, you say?
Christopher Fry is the kind of name you find now on used bookstore Drama shelves in dog-eared editions with titles of such strange poetic aspiration as The Lady's Not For Burning or A Phoenix Too Frequent. In the 50s and 60s he represented the peak of a middlebrow theatrical ideal--vaguely classical, literary, engaged more with the past than the present--which has not really waned since, even if the reception of his plays has.
Well, turns out he was still alive! Until a couple of weeks ago, that is, when he died at 97. The Times carried this surprise obit, penned by expert London critic Benedict Nightingale (who probably filed this when he was on the Times a decade ago!). It's an interesting read, reminding us we're not so far removed from a playwright born in 1907.
Unfortunately I'm too late to link the article for free. (Here's the search info), but here's some things I learned...
- Fry did the main draft for the Ben-Hur screenplay
- he was a Quaker
- his reputation wasn't made until 1950
- he was the main English tranlslator of many of Jean Anouilh's for a while
- his full name was Christopher Fry Harris

So, ok you Fry acolytes, out there--weigh in!

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


Border/Clash: A Litany of Desires by and starring Staceyann Chin at the Culture Project

An Afro-Chinese Jamaican Lesbian, Staceyann Chin embodies the clashing borders of her solo show's title. Her restless kineticism, the tautness of her lean angular weapon of a body (a " girl with arms and abandonment issues," she calls herself), the deep fire of her Caribbean-accented tongue all explode with the energy of those repressed at the margins for too long. As she first showed in her bits for Def Poetry Jam, Chin lays bare her deepest intimacies with a stridency that is as confrontational as it is confessional. She doesn't beg for your sympathy, she demands it.
The production by Rob Urbinati is surprisingly slick for downtown, almost to a fault; with tons of precision sound and light cues, and richly colored visuals, we're far from the rough-hewn keepin' it real bare bones of Def Jam and the Nuyorican poets cafe (where Chin, as she recounts, got her start). I'm not sure Chin's stories are theatrical enough to hold up under such intense decoration--it's her energy and constant act of resistance that's the show. The first half consists of reminiscences of her fractured childhood in Jamaica, which--despite her unique identity crises--still consist mostly of familiar girl-to-woman rites hardly unique to the West Indies. (An intense face-off against a potential gang rape is the chilling exception.)
Then, midway through, Chin starts relying on her intense spoken-word skills, sometimes just lifting passages from her repertoire wholesale. I remember how impressed I was by Def Poetry as some of the best verse-speaking I've heard on Broadway lately. (The supposed Shakespeareans at the Public could learn something from these "slammers".) Chin certainly has the chops to mesmerize an audience. But the slam form still strikes me as limited for theatre--it's all self-expression without reflection, let alone irony. Chin's best moments, surprisingly, come in recounting a bizarro-world appearance on CNN--because she actually reveals doubt and vulnerability (over capitulating to the establishment in exchange for making her grandmother proud).
By the end one has to wonder if her subtitle is well-chosen; my Oxford American Dictionary defines litany as: "a long monotonous recital." At 90 minutes, the recital isn't that long at least, and Chin's palpable "desire" is definitely contagious.

Other reviews: Village Voice (6/21); NY Times (6/21) ; NY Post (6/27)

RSC "Complete Shakespeare" (unreduced)

The Royal Shakespeare Company is pulling out the big guns... all the plays in one year. (And all the sonnets, even.) Desperate? Perhaps. But some of the lineup is indeed impressive--especially (wisely) some international imports from Peter Steinn, our own Theatre For A New Audience, and an Iraqi Richard III! .... So far announced: McKellan in Lear, Patrick Stewart reprising his Prospero, and, from the States, F. Murray Abraham's Shylock. Then there's things like this:
Timon Of Athens staged as a management–training course in a local hotel, by the homeless people’s theatre company Cardboard Citizens.
Read about here in Playbill, or go to the RSC directly and start booking your trip!

Monday, July 11, 2005


by Sabooge
Soho Thinktank "Ice Factory" Festival (July 6-9)

The name of the Montreal-based company "Sabooge" is an anglicized corruption of a French physical theatre tenet: ca bouge, i.e. "it moves." How tempting to say the troupe's work in general is a similar bastardization of their mâitre, the late Jacques Lecoq, but I will resist. In truth, their piece Fathom provided some arresting images and a couple of impressive physical performances. But I was disappointed in the downright sloppiness of the bodily articulation in many of the actors. Theatrical mime need not always dazzle, like a circus act, but one expects more than lazy vague gestures pantomiming tea sipping and the like. They seem to be a company possessed of more inspiration than proficiency.
Like many "devised theatre" plays--collaborative efforts where no single playwright is credited--the script of Fathom is at once ambitious in scope and glaringly lacking in compelling dialogue. Stuffing in such stimulating historical subjects as Darwinism, colonialism, and phrenology, this fantasy about the exploitation of a boy in 19th century Tasmania who can breathe underwater shows its research on its sleeve. In the absence of a real writer to craft it all (and actors seemingly more trainined for movement than for speech) Sabooge is better off communicating through their carefully crafted images, abetted by adventurous sound and lighting design.
Helen Shaw in the NY Sun went apeshit over this. I guess we're so starved for any taste of the Lecoq-ian aesthetic between visits from such expert practitioners as Simon McBurney's Theatre de Complicité . Based on Fathom, I'd say Sabooge is still Complicité-lite. But it served as an introduction to the style.

Theatre for Dummies (aka The New York Times)

Yes, this past weekend revealed the new Times arts policy that its theatre pages are now for people who hate theatre.

Need I even mention the "up close and personal" with Corey Feldman (yes, Corey Feldman) on the prized Sunday page? (I link only so you can believe it. Please don't read it.) The show he's in--a pop-opera greek-tragedy spoof of Fatal Attraction--might not be worthless. But don't expect to read much about that here. Jason Zinoman is usually a very knowledgeable and decent theatre reporter/critic, but has clearly been asked to check his brain for this assignment, for which he indulges the imagined reader's hunger for Michael Jackson and "Surreal Life" dish. It makes Isherwood's eerily similar tribute to Elizabeth "Don't Call me Showgirl" Berkeley (from a few Sundays back) seem like a Kenneth Tynan New Yorker profile in comparison.

Let me clarify something at this point: for the Times to profile a genuine movie star who happens to be appearing in a play would be an understandable capitulation to the economics of theatre and of theatre journalism. To lavish such valuable "real estate" on people barely qualified for reality tv must be a desperate ploy to lure readers of People and US Weekly who are turned off by anything to do with "culture". (I do not mean to prejudge the quality of either Berkeley's or Feldman's actual performance. But, hey, the Times isn't saying much about that either, notice.)

Now think back to Friday... Margo Jefferson's "Primer" on Avant-Garde Theatre. This is fascinating and insulting on so many levels I hardly know where to begin. No one has ever looked to the Times, anyway, for definitive coverage of the downtown scene or experimental artists. Perhaps this article is even a tacit admission of that. But the piece manages to be both enormously condescending and embarrassingly unknowledgable. First, it seems to be stuck in about 1965; "Don't look for a straightforward storyline" reads Rule #1, as if this is Life magazine telling us about that Godot play. Jefferson's examples of "the latest" in the avant-garde are not that much more up to date: Spalding Gray is dead, Laurie Anderson hasn't done a live New York show in years, and Karen Finley may still be prolific, but her groundbreaking chocolate-covered controversy was in 1990(!). Needless to say, Jefferson's commentary about even these artists (who, presumably, she knows better than more current practitioners) is surprisingly unspecific and unhelpful, given her stated purpose in writing.

Keep in mind Jefferson is officially the Times's avant-garde correspondent! (This after she was dismissed from her 2nd-string theatre beat for a series of baffling and ill-informed reviews. I always felt, with her notices, like I was reading the prose of a talented 10th-grader rush through the conclusion of her term paper.)

The article must be read to be fully appreciated for the inanity and vagueness of its arguments. (Is Jefferson's inarticulate, conversational golly-gee style an affectation or just masking real blind spots?) But what makes it even more disturbing is that the article is a barely-veiled free advertisement for the upcoming Lincoln Center Festival. Not only did it start on Page One of the "Weekend" section, but continued as a full-page spread within, including graphics and purchasing guide. (The price of full-page Friday arts advertising in the paper, by the way, is stratospheric.) Of course, since Jefferson can't speak first-hand of any productions of Georgio Strehler and Ariane Mnouchkine (or even Robert Wilson, apparently, about whom she says "His visual mastery can overwhelm his theatricality"--huh?) we get no useful guide to approaching their work at all. So instead we get her ramblings of whatever she has seen downtown over the last few decade (was DJ Spooky's riff on Birth of a Nation even considered "theatre"?), none of which is relevant to the specific festival offerings at all.

Some of the theatre events at the Lincoln Center Festival are indeed worth talking up--but wouldn't the Times reader be better served by them telling us, for instance, a little about who these directors are and what's the context of their work? Spare us all (informed and "novice" alike) the talking-down-to here, which doesn't really get more nuanced than this admonition about approaching Merce Cunningham (another young rebel!): "If you feel dizzy and disoriented at first, go with it."

(Note: I won't lump together with these nadirs Jonathan Kalb's Sunday piece on Mnouchkine and other "marathon" plays. The topic itself is typical Times--let's group theatre together based on running time!--but at least Kalb, as always, makes for some serious reading. If only he and Jefferson could have switched assignments.)

Friday, July 08, 2005

impact on the London theatre

If you're curious about how the London theatre community has reacted to the bombing (in short, they went dark last night), read Michael Reidel's report.


The Skin Game
by John Galsworthy
Mint Theater Company
(seen in previews)

"War is capitalism with the gloves off," an old "unreconstructed" teacher of mine used to say. And such bare-knuckled (see title) class-conflict is exactly the subject of Galsworthy's 1921 drama, posing as a potboiler about zoning rights between two country neighbors. The deeper meaning at first seems to be lost on the Mint Theatre's production team when we are greeted with a front curtain painting of "England's mountains green" and music out of a Miss Marple series. The set soon revealed by said curtain is another letdown; instead of the "stone and cigar-leaf brown" called for by Galsworthy for his Hillcrists' ancient country estate designer Vicki Davis gives us a bright and airy "Better Homes" cover. To see the gout-ridden old Mr Hillcrist decked out in such a natty tan suit and blue shirt confirms the immediate suspicion that the Mint has prettified a decidedly unpretty story. Galsworthy's characters have arrived at a boxing match, only to have a garden party break out.

But after intermission, director Eleanor Reissa finally finds the right tone (in a brooding and firelit boudoir scene). And for the seemingly impossible to cast role of Hornblower--the ill- mannered, Northern-accented social-climbing entrepreneur--Mint has found the compelling James Gale, who plays the melodramatic stakes (rightly) to the hilt. Only Gale and Diana LaMar as the lowborn "woman with a past," capture Galsworthy's severe and morbid spirit. The choice show-off role of "The Auctioneer" is wasted on Nick Berg Barnes, who goes for sensitivity instead of the slick capitalist cog he is written as; the scene still plays well enough, but Reissa again underestimates Galsworthy's ruthlessness.

Despite similarities in theme to The Cherry Orchard, Galsworthy lacks Chekhov's warmth, humor, and subtlety, and the play is not a lost masterpiece. For many, the only interest in reviving it would be for the Masterpiece Theatre/Merchant-Ivory faithful, who are just happy for the accents, tea service, and shrubbery. But for the historically curious playgoer, there is still much to chew on here, and this ultimately competent, if timid, production serves up just enough of it undiluted to make for some satisfying food for thought.

Other reviews:
NY Times
NY Sun (7/11, pay only)

(Correction 7/11: In my initial post of this review, I incorrectly identified the actors playing Chloe and the Auctioneer. The names are now corrected. I apologize to those I wrongly named-- and to those I rightly named, as well, for that matter.)

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Leak

Sorry, political sidenote...

So let me get this straight: The White House exposes an undercover agent in a vendetta against a critical editorial, then the only person who goes to jail over it is a (liberal?) New York Times reporter for, presumably, protecting a Republican?

How could this have turned out better for them?

Friday, July 01, 2005

on vacation

Enjoy the long weekend. Light to no blogging for me, probably. Meanwhile, here are the links to the site's reviews so far, should you want to catch up, or even see some theatre this weekend! (Streetcar and Cherry Orchard close on Sunday the 3rd.)

Check in Tuesday the 4th for all new posts.

A Streetcar Named Desire (5/13)
The Pillowman (5/25)
Spamalot (5/31)
The Maids (6/2)
Score (6/3)
Who's Afriad of Virginia Woolf (6/15)
The Cherry Orchard (6/16)
Hecuba (6/29)

Berliner Ensemble update

Of all papers, it's fallen to the Daily News to report to us the reappointment of Claus Peymann as head of the Berliner Ensemble. Great glimpse of the differences between American and European models of theatre institutions (what we call "non-profit theatre," or what they call "theatre"). "Money quote":

The city of Berlin has contributed $12.6 million annually to the theater in the past two years. Peymann has consistently filled the theater's seats.
Anyone know how much the city of New York gives in grant money to all its nonprofit theatre companies? I bet it's not 12 million. If anyone out there can prove me wrong, I'll be relieved.

"Theatre Facts 2004": a very good year?

Would you be surprised to learn that "the average theatre" today is "in a better position than it was in 2003"? Well, for documentation, try leafing through that annual tome from the Theatre Communications Guild, "Theatre Facts," now available for download from the TCG website. For those not wishing to spend their July 4th weekend poring over audience studies and budget reports, here's a summary in Backstage.
Though not for the mathematically challenged, this is quite an amazing snapshot of the 198 regional non-profits who are basically keeping serious theatre alive in this country. While the report apparently delivers some much needed good news about solvency and in-the-blackness, Backstage neatly sums up how mixed these figures can be:

At its most fundamental level, the report makes it clear that while nonprofit regional theatre's overall outlook is improving, it would still be premature to pop the champagne cork. Whereas "Theatre Facts 2003" totaled up 170,000 performances that attracted more than 34 million patrons, for example, "Theatre Facts 2004" found not only a slight slackening in total performances (down to 169,000), but a much more dramatic drop in attendance (down to 32.1 million)
So that's two million fewer people attending a non-profit theatre in '04. Not to be gloomy, but at such a rate... well, you do the math.