The Playgoer: February 2006

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Tuesday, February 28, 2006


While we await more official statements, backtracking, and gossip from the fallout of NYTW's announcement to cancel a play for perceived anti-Israel views, let us also consider the following...

Whatever the provocations of the play, it relays the testimony of an American activist protesting one of the most brutal military face-offs in the Gaza conflict. Without knowing more about the script, to me it seems there should be enough room here for some criticism of the Sharon government without crossing "sensitivity" lines. But as Nicola himself puts it (highlighted by Cashmere in the "comments" below): "we were more worried that those who had never encountered her writing, never encountered the piece, would be using this as an opportunity to position their arguments." So I guess the specific content of the play is irrelevant. (And, hey, not knowing the script makes me even more qualified to comment!)

Second, keep in mind a mass rebellion of subscribers is not necessary to make a nonprofit company shiver. It takes just one big donor, one prominent board member to object. One wonders if the very idea of a woman denoucing Israeli militarism and supporting Palestinian statehood from the stage of NYTW would be enough to rub some v.i.p. the wrong way. Or, being that board is made up of nothing if not good businessmen, someone advised a little caution and "risk management."

Also, think about this...London-based conservative critic/blogger Clive Davis asserts: "My Name Is Rachel Corrie is a painfully mediocre piece of agit-prop"--presumably based on seeing the Royal Court premiere in London. Now he may have his own political biases in the matter. But this does throw into focus the question of why NYTW decided to program this piece to begin with. Either they belived wholeheartedly in its value (message included) or... At this point I have to wonder about the Alan Rickman factor. The lugubrious-voiced and wildly successful thespian isn't the first type one would imagine mentoring and co-directing this activist barebones piece. But there you are. And it is hard not to imagine NYTW being...impressed by such an association.

So as a Blog with no journalistic ethic to stop me from recklessly it possible Mr. Nicola signed onto the piece sight unseen, dazzled by just the catchphrase "Harry Potter's Alan Rickman presents new Political Play!" (And with just one actor, it's cheap at that!)

Rickman's side of the story?

"I can only guess at the pressures of funding an independent theatre company in New York, but calling this production "postponed" does not disguise the fact that it has been cancelled," Mr Rickman said in a statement. "This is censorship born out of fear, and the New York Theatre Workshop, the Royal Court, New York audiences - all of us are the losers."
See more on the Brit background and perspective here.

And finally--"Jew York City" or not, if such a play cannot happen here, where else will there be the freedom of discourse for this? And please don't say Syria.

(As a mildly self-disliking half-Jew, Playgoer reserves the right to employ any phrases and/or rhetoric that could possibly be construed as anti-semitic. So there.)

Censorship comes to Downtown

What are we to make of New York Theatre Workshop's cancelling of a seemingly anti-Israel one-woman show? (Which even the celebrity involvement of Alan Rickman couldn't save!)

That the play, My Name Is Rachel Corrie, was originally produced by London's Royal Court says something--and not that the British theatre hates Jews. It says they believe in the very idea and possibility of a political theatre. Such commitment entails staging something, giving voice to a play that just might piss people off--including yourself!--if you still believe in it as provocative and powerfult theatre. When NYTW head James Nicola whines, "It seemed as though if we proceeded, we would be taking a stand we didn't want to take," he pretty much misses the point, doesn't he? I mean this is New York Theatre Workshop for chrissakes. How sad.

If Culture Project is smart they'll swipe it up and make a huge hit out of it while the once- alternative NYTW continues to twiddle its thumbs for a year, waiting for their alarmist subscribers to calm down.

Quote of the Day

"The minor dramatist leads the literary life, and dwells in the world of imagination instead of in the world of politics, business, law, and the platform agitations by which social questions are ventilated. He therefore remains, as a rule, astonishingly ignorant of real life. He may be clever, imaginative, sympathetic, humorous, and observant of such manners as he has any clue to; but he has hardly any wit or knowledge of the world."

-George Bernard Shaw, 1895.

Eerily resonant words in the wake of the very "clever" Mr. Marmalade and Heddatron.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Arts & Leisure Watch 2/26/06

What to say about the NYT's overexcited "Spring Theatre Season Preview." First: who knew theatre had a "spring season"? I would more accurately translate this as: that time of year when tourists come back and Broadway needs more free promotion. Hence, enter New York Times.

Yes, the calendar matters to Broadway, certainly. Spring means not just tourists but Tonys. Which explains the cluster of big commercial openings between March and May, coinciding with increased media attention accompanying said awards. So the term "spring season" can only be read as a purely capitalist category.

The cover page feature on "the true powers of Broadway" is typical of the bias here. I am definitely interested in learning more about the roles played in commercial theatre by labor unions, casting agents, etc. But the degree to which the entire analysis here is only about "the biz" is frankly nauseating. In Variety, fine. But it counts as neither arts nor leisure.

Imagine an alternative cover story: a big posed photo of all the Artistic Directors of the city's major nonprofits (Public, Lincoln Center, Manhattan Theatre Club, Atlantic, Playwrights Horizons, Roundabout, New York Theatre Workshop, even BAM) with "roundtable" discussion or breakdown of each's profile and play selections. Now that would be a true "season preview." Since those theatres plan what most theatre people consider to be the actual theatre season. In my memory the Times has never published such a piece.

Think of it: of the little that is of artistic note on Broadway, most of it comes from these theatres first! If not, then from London--check, already covered extensively by NYT. Otherwise, the random commercial ventures booked into Times Square theatres in no way constitute a "season" anymore.

The profit margin bias is even more explicit in the cool graphic taking us inside the books of Bug, the Tracy Letts thriller that was an Off-Broadway hit last year. Of course, it turns out not to have been a "hit" in the sense of making money, so in that way this is elucidating. But I'm floored by the failure of this piece to make clear the distinction between a commercial Off Broadway production and a similarly-sized nonprofit one. It would be an interesting comparison to line up the expenses of each kind playing in the same size 199-seat theatre. (The different union rules that may apply, any offsets of grant money, etc.) Again, such vitally important questions are outside of the purview of "Arts and Leisure." In fact, it seems the very term "not-for-profit" is not even in the lexicon over there.

Funny enough, the only article in this mega-spread to allude to the non-prof's at all is by... a playwright! You may notice a trend in all the theatre companies Allan Katz spoofs in his droll satire. Namely, they're all companies.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Quote of the Day

"The lesson theater people are drawing from the failure of "Q" and the success of "Mamma Mia!" is that the Vegas audience only buys what it knows and likes. When you're in Vegas, you take your chances with the slot machines, not with the price of theater tickets."

-Michael Riedel's postmortem on the Vegas Avenue Q. I leave the unpacking of the gambling metaphor to you, dear reader.

REVIEW: Heddatron

by Elizabeth Meriwether
directed by Alex Timbers, for Les Freres Corbusier

Those poor Ibsen men these days. First Lee Breuer literally dwarfs them under an amazon Nora (the celebrated Mabou Mines "midget Doll's House" a couple of seasons ago). Now Les Freres Corbusier have cast all the supporting characters in Hedda Gabler with clunky 50's sci-fi robots. What's going on in contemporary Ibsen performance? True, star actresses for years have hijacked these plays as diva vehicles and stolen the show away from their supposedly mighty male onstage oppressors. But are we so uninterested in the ensemble nature of these plays, the battle between worthy and equal opponents, that we need to keep diminishing or dehumanizing their presence?

To be fair, I should clarify what Heddatron is not. It is not a high-concept production of Hedda Gabler. Unfortunately, it is not much of an interpretation or gloss of it either, which one might hope for given the obsession on display with this classic and its author. Elizabeth Meriwether's script offers us a modern day counterpart to Hedda, Jane, a much more average American housewife (with none of Hedda's dynamism) but apparently suffers analogous angst. (Her husband is only mildly nerdy and her daughter very charming. What's the problem?) Meriwether offers her no active way out, like the desperate measures Hedda seeks. Instead she is passively carted off. And that's where the robots come in. It's a genuinely hilarious scene (after much otherwise strained humor) with their monotonous mecha voices droning desperate come-on lines to seduce her. Then, seeing Jane is absorbed in reading Ibsen (for inspiration?), they whisk her off to... a Central American rainforest, of course, where they "force her to perform...Hedda Gabler!" As torture? As courtship? And why the rainforest, again?

Of course, one catches on at some point with Les Freres one is not supposed to ask why and question their wacky surrealism. Among the other threads of the play I can barely begin to explain: video cut-aways to furtive interviews with a scientist exposing the government's secret Robot conspiracy (the creatures we see are presumably the result of the experiment gone awry?); Jane's husband's "guns 'n' ammo" brother who hires yet another videographer to interview him all the time (any excuse for multi-media display for Les Freres) and who then goes all Rambo to save Jane from the bots; and then there's Ibsen himself, back in 1890, fighting with his shrewish wife, hitting on the maid, and duking it out with badboy Strindberg. Just describing all this leaves me little room for proper evaluation. In typical grab-all downtown "devised theatre" style, it's a big messy stew. ( I feel like we should bring back the term "kitchen sink" drama--only to refer to a writer throwing in everything but said appliance.) If you love undergraduate-level historical name-dropping, the Ibsen stuff is all in good fun. But I was disappointed the insights never rose above the obvious or sophomoric. Although Ryan Karels' Strindberg-in-heat is an inspired caricature of bohemian testosterone.

Except for a surprisingly "nice" family-values resolution (as if we're going to care at the end about any of the characters' contrived troubles) the tone throughout is too hip to want to be taken intellectually seriously, of course. And yet so silly you really cannot stop asking the "whys"--as in, why am I watching? When the mini-coup de theatre comes--the robot Hedda--it is a sight to behold (see above). And some laughs are gotten from the (mis)application of Ibsen's dialogue to the accidents and particulars of the scene out of context. And, hey, robots in funny hats. Need I say more. But the scene lasts all of ten minutes. Probably this was the moment the entire play was built around. Too bad Meriwether and director Timbers could not trust their vision to expand it with a longer attention span, instead of getting distracted by their own eclecticism.

Epilogue: I'm looking forward to writing a lot more about Ibsen in the coming weeks, with Cate Blanchett's Hedda and an Off-Off staging of Bergman's "Nora" adaptation. We'll see how (and if) these disparate play off each other....Henrik is back, baby!

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Look upon Shakespeare?

Is this the face that launched a thousand bad summer festivals?

Read about this exciting--even if dubious--discovery here.
(A Times article about Shakespeare not by William Niederkorn! Progress?)
UPDATE: BBC has more nerdy sleuthing here, for the intrepid.


Charles Isherwood's response to a play getting cute with cats? Revenge. It's a review I bet people will be talking about, for better or worse.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


"The reason theater people are having a good time at Harris' expense is that she represents a type of producer who has come to dominate Broadway: the dilettante who doesn't really know what she's doing but who, because she's got the money, gets to play at being a producer. These dilettantes are deeply, deeply resented by the professionals who really run the theater — those producers, managers, press agents and ad executives who got where they are not because they married well (or divorced even better) but because of their hard work, tenacity and talent."

- from Michael Riedel's follow up to his scoop Friday on that Paris Hilton of much-for-profit theatre, Dede Harris. If you can read between Riedel's lines here, there are some sharp barbs indeed at some very successful and influential individuals on Broadway and off.

Even as schadenfreude gossip, I recommend the whole column as a mini-exposee of what has happened to the art of producing for the commercial theatre. The days of Kermit Bloomgarden and Hal Prince are long behind us.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Mr. Mamet's Latest Opus

Yes, a cartoon. The man does know about hunting after all... (Courtesy of Huffington Post--there are more!)

At least, better he spends his time on this than a tv cop show? (on that, more here)

Hmm, someone once wrote a play called All Men Are Whores but I can't remember who...

Monday, February 20, 2006

Bad Ideas for Musicals, Vol. XXII

"SIDD A New MusicalBased on the novel Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.

SIDD chronicles the extraordinary spiritual journey of a man's life, from his youthful wanderings in his home village through his encounter with the Holy Buddha, his many years living amidst the glamour, jazz and corruption of the City, and finally his enlightenment as a ferryman on the River. With a tuneful and soulful score drawing on diverse influences from Richard Rodgers to reggae, SIDD will engage you, entertain you and ultimately uplift you."

See for yourself at (Not to be confused with Sid! The Musical about your uncle Sid.)

Saturday, February 18, 2006

SF Dispatch II

Ok, I'm back in NYC now, but just to round out my playgoing journal from last weekend...

My hosts from Staged Readings took me to a first preview(!) of the new play at the notable Magic Theatre, a small company going back to the 60s and most famously associated with the young (and now older) Sam Shepard. Keeping their mission of new plays alive, they are launching an ambitious 3-play "rep" for the next two months. You'll probably be hearing more about this in the press, since the new artistic director, Chris Smith, is shrewdly arranging weekends where people--press or other regional companies--can come see all three, "Louisville-style."

So first up was by Steven Sater, and it's called Nero: Another Golden Rome. My first question to my friend Karen on the way to the theatre was: "It's not really about Rome, is it?" Well, two and half long hours later, I could confirm that it indeed is. Very much so. At first I was intrigued by Melpomene Katakalos's "circus maximus" of a set--an open stage full of ladders and lanterns, a fun-looking playpen for some antiquity-style decadence. But once I got an earful of Sater's dense prose-poetry, fun didn't seem anywhere in sight. I consider myself a fairly educated guy. And if someone says a play is a "history lesson" I often line right up for a ticket! But Sater's Nero is neither history nor modern political allegory. He seems genuinely preoccupied with these particular characters (Nero, his mom-from-hell Agrippina, prettyboy stepbrother Brittanicus, and tutor the old poet Seneca). This is the kind of work one feels unqualified to judge without reading. Then again, what does that say about it as a play?

Now I don't want to abuse the hospitality extended in allowing me to peek in at a first preview and for all I know Mr Sater's text may be a work in progress. (I believe it opens tonight, so you can check the bay area papers the next two days to see more "official" responses.) And for what it's worth, the Magic's production of this shapeless piece seemed in rather fine shape for a first night. All that ran through my head, though, was one word: "Why?" Why tell this story now? What do Nero & co. uniquely offer us today that other characters don't? Sater seems to relish in the overfed and narcissistic (yes, ol' Narcissus is a character, too) hangover of this mighty empire about to burn. But there seems no judgment in the text against that. Is it too busy enjoying decadence to make us think about it?

Oh, did I mention the chief draw of the play was "music by Duncan Sheik"? This artsy-pop meister is also collaborating with Sater on a musical of Wedekind's Spring Awakening at the Atlantic Theatre Company later this spring. I don't know what to hope for from that, but Sheik's contribution here is limited to just some cabaret interludes. Music in no way infuses this play, which is a shame since its only chance at making a connection would be through creating an entrancing sensorama, something Beth Miles's direction (in previews, at least) barely hinted at. I did enjoy, though, the giddily eerie tap dance brought upon Brittanicus when he succumbs to Nero's poison.

A funny coincidence for me personally was that last weekend I also happened to be studying Racine's Brittanicus. Of course, that 17th century French poet is notorious today for his static rhyming alexandrine couplets, declaimed by stiff toga-draped classical heroes. Who knew a hip contemporary writer could create something less exciting! At least Racine wrote in an idiom of his own age and, by making the characters timeless, explored in a distilled form the depths of love, courage, and fear. Sater's "update", by aiming for something vaguely classical in sound yet sexily modern in dress, ends up as opaque as a faded Roman fresco.

Friday, February 17, 2006

And now for something completely different...

Ok, it's Friday, so let's get tawdry. New York Post style.

We all know actors are supposed to be whores, but what does that make producers? Well one of our hipper younger female producers has been paying tribute to the days of the old men's club "casting couch, to miserable and embarassing effect on today's front page of the tabloid. She's now being sued for sexual harrassment by many actors.

Some highlights from Michael Riedel's shamefully fun scoop:

Dede Harris, the Tony Award-winning producer of "Hairspray," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "A Raisin in the Sun," failed to disclose allegations of past sexual harassment to the co-producers of her current off Broadway play, "Dog Sees God," they charge in court papers....

Her conduct, the suit says, has "caused one or more cast members" to leave the show. The actors are not named in the suit, but in recent weeks, Ian Somerhalder ("Lost"), Eliza Dushku ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") and America Ferrera ("Real Women Have Curves") have all left "Dog Sees God." Two production sources said the breast Harris allegedly "grabbed" was Ferrera's.

"Dog Sees God," a satire about the "Peanuts" characters created by Charles Schulz, opened to poor reviews at the Century Theater in December and has been struggling to stay open ever since. In their suit, Stern and his partners say that during a game of "Truth or Dare" with the cast, Harris "directed one or more of the male DSG ['Dog Sees God'] cast members to 'feel her up.' "
As for the poor dramatist of the suddenly sympathetic oddity of a play involved...
Bert V. Royal, who wrote the play and says he "had a lot of differences with Dede" during rehearsals, says the experience has been "upsetting" for him and his cast.
"I'm writing screenplays now," he said, "and I probably won't write another play. I was really scared of Hollywood, but frankly they've been a lot nicer to work with."
The actors seem to emerge the wisest of the bunch, though:
The dispute has gotten so ugly, the cast has banned all producers from the theater.
Thankfully for Harris, at least one non-teenage celebrity actor, though, seems to have taken her advances in stride:
The suit also claims that Harris "sexually harassed" Gabriel Byrne when he starred in "The Exonerated." A source who knows both Harris and Byrne says the producer was often "overly flirtatious" with the actor, but that the two are on friendly terms.
Long live the commercial theatre! And let's hope Harris is up for another Tony real soon.

Quote of the Day

"We call it Eurotrash...We go to hear people sing. We don't go for any production."

- a Metropolitan Opera patron (quoted here) responding to the company's announcement this week it was commissioning more new composers and directors. And I thought Euro-bashing was confined to the corridors of the Defense Department.

Also said: "It'll be fun for the critics to review once, but will you want to see it every three years after?" At issue here is the Met's "repertory"--i.e. a collection of 20 year old stagings which are now only perfunctorily rehearsed and, of course, rigged so that any top name star can fly in at a moment's notice and "plug into" the show. Franco Zefferelli has directed most of these it seems, and they will no doubt go on for years after he dies! (Many of the late John Dexter's productions have done just that.)

Imagine if theatre were like that? I hear that Stanislavski's staging of Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird is still in rep at the Moscow Art Theatre. And I'd love to see that--but such would clearly by a "museum" experience. That's what we call dead art. And for those of us who think opera is theatre--and sorry, Met groupies, by that I mean a "production" of some sort--that means it's not just about "the singers" but all that's going on on stage. Such as, the story?

Funny that the New York cultural elite is more conservative and fuddy duddy than any in Europe, where it all began. The reactionary fear here may be over the rumors of crazy "directors theatre" gone amok in European opera houses. Yes, there have been excesses. But at least over there they consider opera/theatre a living art form, engaging the current generation.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

RSC Mega-Shakes Fest

The complete line-up (for now) of the Royal Shakespeare's immense year-long international Shakespeare Festival begins on the man's birthday, April 23, in his birthplace, Stratfor-on-Avon. As with all marketing behemoths, no use in assessing the mission as a whole. Just enjoy it peacemeal for some of the interesting productions brought together under this huge umbrella.

Details here.

"Q" Quits

After falling for the hype that Las Vegas was poised to become a bona fide rival to Broadway in commercial musical theatre... Playgoer must eat his hat, alas. Steve Wynn is pulling the plug on the transplanted "Avenue Q" after five unimpressive months. (Story here and here.)

Let me be clear, I was never gaga over "Q" itself, nor over Vegas as a city (never been). But I was fascinated at the prospect of Broadway having a rival and of professional commercial theatre being less associated with New York exclusively. (Thus shedding more light, perhaps, on the non-commercial, non-profit work here.) It was a worthy experiment--not just for Mr. Wynn's investment bucks--but for taking the temperature of the national "mainstream" theatregoing audience.... And, as is apparent from the reports, it's not even clear if the show's closing stems from the its own shortcomings. The theatre was too big to fill twelve times a week, it seems, and word-of-mouth less of a factor with such a transitory audience.

I suspect, though, it fell victim to that perennial question Joe and Jane Sixpack ask when lured to go to the theatre: "Who's in it?" Puppets won't cut it on the strip. And maybe "Spamalot" (Wynn's next) won't either without stars.... But enough with the business advice. Are there lessons here for those of us who care for the artform? Or is sneaking theatre (even as watered down as "Q" but still somewhat "serious') into the entertainment marketplace as a trojan horse just a bankrupt idea from the start.

Of course, the playwrights out there might object to anything like "Q," "Spamalot" (Wynn's next), or even the wildly Vegas-successful "Cirque de Soleil" being called theatre in the first place. I maintain, though, they certainly are.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Back Thursday

Just back from SF and catching up on life. So, sorry, no posts expected till Thursday 2/16.

But do tune in then. Reviews coming: Part II of San Francisco Dispatch, Steven Sater's "Nero" at the Magic; "The Seven" at New York Theatre Workshop; and, at long last... "Abigail's Party."

Meanwhile, as a coda to my trip, here's a report on the current debate over a proposed "San Francisco Department of Arts and Culture". As the Europeans might say: what took you so long?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

San Francisco Dispatch

Here in San Francisco, I was taken by my friends at Staged Readings to a new smallish company called the SF Playhouse, housed in a converted loft space just off the main thoroughfare of the touristy Union Square area. From the moment you walk into the lobby after climbing one short flight of stairs, you're greeted by an open atmosphere, a casual salon-gallery setting, where the audience is happy to chat and drink before filing into the comfy 99-seat auditorium. That people are allowed and encouraged to bring their wine or coffee with them, only spread the good feeling further. (A tactic other theatres have noticed in reaching out to new audiences.) It was a welcoming setting for the reception of a new play.

The current offering is Mystery Plays by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, an increasingly visible young playwright, being showcased later this season by Manhattan Theatre Club, among other places. Having followed some of his early works in workshops I'd seen, I've been intrigued in what he brings to the contemporary stage from the underrepresented sci-fi/comic-book aesthetic. Unfortunately, Mystery Plays is not his best work--overwritten, over-narrated, and not trusting the simplicity of its own promising Twilight Zone premises. (The work was apparently done previously in NY by Second Stage.) But still, even as my interest in the proceedings waned, I looked around and noticed a 75% capacity house, a mixed-generation audience engaged with the play, decent actors working in an attractive space (no postage-stamp stage here, and fitted with up to date tech) I was encouraged. Even just steps away from the lure of Victoria's Secret and Nieman Marcus, was some serious contemporary theatre reaching an audience. Given a fresh environment in a welcoming venue, it can thrive anywhere....Perhaps, in NYC the real estate alone would price anyone out. But I wonder if such a comfy space will emerge soon in Williamsburg, Brooklyn or Astoria, Queens?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Recommended reading

Off to San Francisco for academic business and (hopefully) theatregoing. So probably light blogging till Tuesday.

Meanwhile, two articles I recommend from across the pond:

- Ever wonder what happened to prompters? London Times went in search of the increasingly extinct species. Interesting questions this, er... prompts. Are actors just better now at learning lines? Does naturalistic mumbling help cover better? Or how about this theory from a one quoted professor: "Plays aren’t so much about words any more."

- Also, playwright Mark Ravenhill's amusingly mean take on the international theatre circuit. His dig at Peter Brook is especially funny. And I say that as a fan. Of Brook, that is, not Ravenhill, whose plays I don't know.

The Cartoons

I found interesting NYT art critic Michael Kimmelman's take today on the Mohammed cartoons, examining the larger context of how art in so many examples can incite such violence. (I also agree, though, with much of Andrew Sullivan's skewering and shaming of him, too, for letting the protestors off the hook.) Kimmelman focuses largely on just the visual arts, but does reference other genres, including Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi (which he can't even bother to mention by name!). He's right to ask:

Over art? These are made-up pictures. The photographs from Abu Ghraib were documents of real events, but they didn't provoke such widespread violence. What's going on?
In fact, though, it may be naive to suppose the "provocation" of such violence comes from the art alone in these cases. Sullivan today also cites blogger Omar at "Iraq the Model" reminding us of all of some essential context to this outburst:
You know that those cartoons were published for the 1st time months ago and we here in the Middle East. [...] I think the reactions were planned to be exaggerated this time by some Middle Eastern regimes and are not mere public reaction. And I think Syria and Iran have the motives to trigger such reactions in order to get away from the pressures applied by the international community on those regimes.
In other words, these kind of "outrages" are so often manufactured. Not that the participants are not outrages over something. But I wonder how many of these demonstrators have even seen the comics they're burning. Not that that would change their minds. But the position has been pre-set, as if from above. The marching orders have been given, "we're having a protest." We know how this works all too well on these very shores. From Corpus Christi to the Brooklyn Museum "Sensation" to Last Temptation of Christ to Satanic Verses... the pattern is recognizable:

1) Work of art is released/announced with at first no controversy.
2) Some organization or powerful individual "spokesman"--who has not read or seen the work in question--holds a press conference or issues a release denouncing "religious bigotry." (Often accompanied by some unseemly remark about "Imagine if this were the Jews, the Blacks, etc...").
3) Pile-on ensues. As the controversy becomes a media story, the call goes out to all like-minded advocacy groups: "you will get on television if you protest this." Everyone imaginable is forced to comment and take a side. "Crossfire" (when it was on) has a field day. And most public figures, who don't care a whit about art, take the path of least resistance and side with "people of faith." Who wants to be on the side of blasphemy.
4) The presenters/publishers of the work shit their pants (more over loss of sales than loss of life) and either cancel, postpone, or rush the work into quick release to minimize damage.

A question that gets lost in all this, of course, is: what made the work so purportedly "offensive" in the first place. Especially since the opponents always protest a description and almost never engage with the specifics of the work itself. Thus, Chris Ofili's incendiary painting was widely characterized as "the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung", as opposed to what any rational person (a "virgin viewer") would see prima facia: a stylized representation of an African woman surrounded and adorned by (not "smeared" over her face, for instance) clumps of slightly smelly but indeterminate earthy substance. McNally's Corpus Christi was clearly not meant as a demonization of a perverted Jesus "sodomizing his disciples," but a quite hagiographic modern retelling of the Gospels as an allegory of tolerance and universal love. (And obviously McNally doesn't consider a "gay Jesus" a bad person!) That both Ofili and McNally are Catholics, of course, was considered irrelevant by all sides. Ditto Scorsese and Last Temptation, in which a 5-second cutaway of Jesus imagining sex with Mary Magdalene was exploited and exploded into a supposed cinematic hate crime.

I am deliberately not focusing on the difference between violent and "peaceful" outrage, which is obviously important if you're, say, Salman Rushdie. I'm frankly more interested in how so many commentators (including Kimmelman) take comfort in how our own artistic free-speech battles in the West are supposedly at least "civilized" somehow and even quaint ("comically tame," Kimmelman now calls the Ofili faceoff). Yes, I'd rather be an artist in American than Afghanistan. Duh. (Or Denmark, sadly.) But let's not understate the violent intentions of the scoundrels in this country for whom defense of "faith" is a refuge in their pursuit of power, public influence, and media saturation. Let's not forget--Manhattan Theatre Club had to install metal detectors for the entire run of Corpus Christi. I remember opening day of Last Temptation at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York stunned by the security guards standing and facing us from each side of the enormous screen the entire showing.

The fundamentalists here who have made a profession of demagoguery and in making political footballs out of artists' work (also as a way to deny them funding and livelihood, remember) may not need to fireball the arts literally. But they do their share of damage, much of it out of the same playbook we're witnessing now overseas.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Dueling Heddas

Yes, it will be Cate Blanchett against the machine this season. She at BAM. And those naughty Freres Corbusier will be downtown at HERE arts center with their Heddatron. (Okay Hedda's still human, the others are the robots.) Read about it here, as reported by Voice hip-crit Alexis Soloski (in a welcome visit to Arts & Leisure). Check out the "Audio Slide Show", too!

If Cate weren't so good, the obvious joke, of course, would be "who could tell the difference." But I'll refrain.

Marowitz & Director Copyright

In case you missed it Sunday, Arts & Leisure published one letter in response to last week's big "director copyright" article. It was by Charles Marowitz--director, author, and 60s classical-experimentalist. I had the pleasure of meeting Marowitz at the Stanislavski conference I just attended in Toronto a few weeks ago, where he spoke on the subject of his new book, Michael Chekhov--nephew to the Chekhov and a great actor and important acting teacher in his own right. I look forward to reading how this insanely inventive rebel actor from the Moscow Art Theatre forged a whole new approach to acting training only to end up playing bit wacky-old-man parts in Hollywood (most notably, Hitchcock's "Spellbound".)

Marowitz has also joined the blogosphere, at the site, where you can read theatre and movie essays, as well as this illuminating recollection of his years working with Peter Brook.

(On the link to the A&L letters page, by the way, do scroll down to read the responses to an embarrassingly clueless Times piece on the creepy cult of these "What the Bleep" films. Yet again, proof the Times arts section has given up journalism in favor of glossy practically unedited press releases.)

Monday, February 06, 2006

Photo of the Day

Mary Zimmerman's Pericles. At the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

Read about that and more in Isherwood's Chicago roundup in "Arts & Leisure."

Yes, Virginia, there is a city with a diverse vibrant theatre scene, of companies big and small, where people--ordinary people--buy tickets!

(Too bad Isherwood focuses on the big over the small, though....)

Saturday, February 04, 2006

REVIEW: Mr. Marmalade

Mr. Marmalade
by Noah Haidle
at the Roundabout Theatre Company (closed)

No point in beating a dead play. But Mr. Marmalade should have been spotted as dead-on-arrival by the Roundabout, who bizarrely decided to devote one of its precious few slots for new writing to this extended MAD TV skit. I have discovered that reciting the concept to others ("5-year-old girl has dysfunctional relationship with abusive-yuppie imaginary friend") actually intrigues them. So maybe Roundabout was sold on the "pitch." That, or more likely, the pr-halo emanating from young Haidle, yet another anointed recent Julliard grad. (Or was it the opportunity to cast in the leading role the neglectable minor celebrity name of Six Feet Under's Michael C. Hall as the title character.)

The flavor of Haidle's Juilliard prof, Christopher Durang, is all over Marmalade--but Durang employs ridiculous exaggerated situations to satiric effect. And also to genuine laughter. The comic inventiveness of Haidle's script goes no further than having his toddler characters play doctor with each other. For twenty minutes. It's annoying enough to watch adult actors play kiddies. But grown-ups playing children "playing grown-up"...the pleasures are limited. The "joke" is supposed to blossom when the action descends into more and more sordid depravity for its characters. When the girl ends up--in her very "real" fantasy world--barefoot in the kitchen nursing her baby while daddy Marmalade drinks beer in front of the TV and hurls obscenities at her...what's the point? Is it just cute to see childhood fantasies so deflowered? When South Park indulges in the same kind of sick inversions, it somehow retains the edge of satire or at least parody. Haidle, however, seems typical of the new generation of successful playwrights for shutting out all consciousness of the outside world, and indulging in some concept just because it personally amuses them. (Yes, I'm saying today's touted new plays have less depth than South Park.) Needless to say, Haidle's cred as an enfant terrible iconoclast of cherished innocence is totally dashed by his obligatory happy ending and cheap "healing" talk at the curtain.

So apparently there's some serious point behind all this. I learned from a special talkback (which the Roundabout now calls "Celebrity Discussions"! Whatever happened to "Meet the Artists"?) that Haidle only wrote the play because his actress-girlfriend wanted to wear a tutu onstage. This was meant to promote the show? The actors on the panel elucidated to us that the grating intermissionless 1hr 40 minutes we just sat through was really a cautionary tale of the exploitation of the media! (At least I was right about the abuse part.) You see, there was a big TV set center stage which the characters occasionally plopped down in front of. The Mr. Marmalade character--with his attache case, cell phone, and other status-accoutrements--apparently represents that decadent culture from Hollywood to which, no doubt, Mr Haidle will soon be repairing. Needless to say, this concept was underdeveloped in the onstage proceedings.

Michael Greif's funhouse-style direction, while showing himself off well, didn't help things. The shrillness of the "child" performances and the garish playroom of a set only overcompensated for what the whole endeavor clearly lacked--the true perspective of a child. Haidle shows no grasp of either the complex innocence of such a protagonist, neither does he lend the girl the latent maturity and wisdom of an adult. What we get is something in between--oh wait, that's called adolescent, isn't it?

Friday, February 03, 2006

Quote of the Day

"It's not true that young people don't like classical music. Young people don't like recital halls."

-Richard S. Weinert, of Concert Artists Guild, quoted in Anne Midgette's NYT piece from Wednesday on high culture in "low" venues. For music read theatre?

MTC breaks the curse!

...of the Biltmore, that is. Looks like with Rabbit Hole they finally have a hit, thanks to Mr. Brantley.

Personally I can do without a weeper by the author of Fuddy Meers. But Daniel Sullivan is probably, along with Scott Elliott, the best director of hardcore naturalism around. Cynthia Nixon and John Slattery are fine photogenic actors. Never underestimate the appeal of a play that is said to have "heart".... In short, we're looking at the sudden front-runner for this year's Tony. For people that care about such things, of course.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Dolan on Wasserstein

"Who will fill her shoes, as a popular, commercially succesful woman playwright unafraid to at least address feminism by name, as well as by concept and conceit, courageous enough to look at women's lives and insist that they be the universal to which other human beings can relate and aspire, empathize and identify?...Many other women playwrights write as well or better than Wendy Wasserstein, with perhaps more nuance, more complexity, more daring forms and contents. But who will gain the power to tell some of our stories on Broadway, as she's done so consistently all these years? Who will replace her as a public humorist, as someone to be counted on to laugh at our foibles as human beings from the perspective of women in a way that Broadway audiences can find accessible, as well as maybe provoking and just a little bit challenging?"

-And for Jill Dolan to concede someone is even "a little bit challenging" already means pretty challenging. Read her here for this overall very mixed and honest assessment by a "radical" feminist of a "liberal" one. Plenty of critique here, yes. But also a tribute to the qualities that stand out now as really significant about Wasserstein's success.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Awake and Sing

As an Odets connoisseur, I am very excited by the announcement of the casting (as announced in Playbill) of the upcoming Lincoln Center production of Awake and Sing. Mark Ruffalo as tough guy Moe, that dynamo Zoe Wanamaker as Bessie (that Jewish mother from hell), and ol' method-veteran Ben Gazzara as grandpa Jacob, the conscience of the play. Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose and the genial Ned Eisenberg round it out nicely. To top it off, Bart Sher is a really, really fine director, as evinced not only in the hit Light in the Piazza, but in his stagings of Cymbeline and Granville-Barker's Waste for Theatre for a New Audience.

This is a play so shrouded in both legend and cliche, that it begs to be rediscovered for the moving, finely observed testament it is. Of course, as a family drama, its appeal is "universal"--but its real power lies in how directly and bluntly it captures the Jewish-American experience and the pressures of materialism in a time of economic distress. It also is arguably the font of all American stage naturalism that came after. In the right hands--in which it seems to be--it may be the sleeper hit of the season, reminding us of a time when theatre was about the real lives of average people.

More details here.