The Playgoer: July 2011

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Today's Krulwich

Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark
photo: Sara Krulwich, New York Times

Makes the show look exciting, huh?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Theatre as a Foreign Language

Laura Barnett in the Guardian testifies to the occasional benefits of seeing theatre in a foreign language--i.e. a language you don't understand--and without simultaneous translation.

Because I wasn't focusing so much on the words, I was much more aware of the production as a whole – the white-box set, the dancers writhing away in the background – and of the actors' incredible physicality. In shifting my attention away from the language, the experience of watching the play became even more intense.

The same thing happened at the next show I saw: Bloed & Rozen (Blood and Roses), a new piece about Joan of Arc and her friendship with the bloodthirsty French nobleman Gilles de Rais, from the experimental Belgian director Guy Cassiers. It was two and a half hours long, and performed entirely in Flemish, with French surtitles. I had expected to be bored out of my mind, but was actually spellbound – again, because in freeing myself of the need to understand every word, I felt much more attuned to the show's entrancing use of film and music, and to the actors' every nuance of movement and expression.
I totally agree.  Some of the most formative experiences I've had at the theatre have been Ingmar Bergman's traveling productions with his Swedish company at BAM. When it was a classic play (usually Shakespeare or Ibsen) I would make a point of reviewing the text in advance so I was at least up on the plot and characters. Then I would forego the headphone translation, or spare myself the neck-twisting ardor of reading surtitles, and just sit back and take it all in. With a master director at work and a troupe of finely drilled actors, the real essence of the theatrical event is communicated visually, physically, and aurally.  For example, the sheer sound and expressiveness of great stage actors' voices. Unfair, perhaps, but I'm afraid no English-speaking actor playing Leontes in Winter's Tale will ever be able to move me as much as Börje Ahlstedt when, upon touching the wife he thought dead for years, he said, from the depth of his diaphragm, "She is warm." Hearing just the sound of that heartbreaking wonder in his voice, not the words, was a rare treat.

Another revelatory night was watching my only Russian-language Chekhov production, when the Sovremennik Co. came to Broadway(!) back in the 90s to do Three Sisters for a week. I know this sounds infantile to say, since I don't know any Russian, but listening to the play in its original tongue was! It had a totally different musicality that I was used to hearing in this play.  I realized how misleading so many of our uptight or flat-naturalistic translations are. Listening to the Sovermennik actors was like listening to opera.  Wow, I thought, Chekhov's characters are really, really expressive!

Basically it's the best way to see a director at work, for all the reasons Barnett describes above. You really start noticing the variety of tools of stage expression beyond (not instead of ) the spoken text. Which is why it should be mandatory for all aspiring directors to make foreign-language productions required viewing when possible. Perhaps directing one or two would be a cool exercise as well.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Earl of Oxford: Kicking Ass and Taking Pseudonyms

'Swounds!  Get a load of the latest action flick from Hollywood action/disaster-flick director Roland ("Independence Day") Emmerich:

The film, penned by John Orloff, stars Tony Award winner Vanessa Redgrave (Long Day's Journey Into Night) and West End actor Rhys Ifans (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Under Milk Wood, Volpone) in a story centered around the true author behind the works of William Shakespeare.

Redgrave portrays Queen Elizabeth I during the Essex Rebellion. Ifans plays Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who is not only the incestuous lover of the Queen, but also the man behind the classic works.
I'm sorry-- the what of the Queen???

Yes, one of my favorite "Oxfordian" theories is that de Vere was either the son and/or lover of Elizabeth I.

You'd think it would be hard enough just to prove he wrote Shakespeare's plays, wouldn't you?  Ah, but that's only if one is limited by "proof."

Shakespeare-debunker debunker James Shapiro had at the film in LA Times recently.

I hardly think the Oxfordian cause is aided, by the way, by the support of Justice Antonin Scalia. Nor by NPR's Renee Montagne-- yet another reason not to listen to the super-lame and culturally retarded "Morning Edition."

PS. The only good that may come of the film (opening this October) is the fake Globe Theatre they built and are now auctioning off to enterprising troupes. Or bored millionaires with big back yards.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Theatre of Murdochism

Lee Tracy, The Front Page, 1928 
As we take in the morass of sleaze unearthed every day by the ongoing NewsCorps scandal in the UK, it's good to remember there's some ripping good plays that document the tabloid-ethic at its worst.

First there's David Hare and Howard Brenton's satire of Murdoch himself, Pravda. (Note the ironic, Cold War era title.) Written back in 1985 and premiered at the National (with a legendary star turn by Anthony Hopkins I would kill to go back in time to see), the play tells how South African media magnate "Lambert Le Roux" intimidates politicians and spins the news with Orwellian manipulations of language.

Joe Penhall's more recent Dumb Show (premiered at the Royal Court in 2004) gets more into the tabloid tactics we're reading about now, as two Machiavellian reporters perform a sting operation to ensnare a gullible, pathetic, old TV comic into a scandal.

And here in the US we have our own classic, Hecht and MacArthur's The Front Page from 1928.  Known best today in its 1940 film remake, His Girl Friday, the original play is actually rarely seen on stage. (As brilliant a screwball comedy as it is, Friday is actually a rather cleaned-up version of the play.)  One reason may be its sometimes shocking crudeness and cynicism.  Set in the press room of the Chicago Criminal Courts on the eve of a politically motivated hanging, the stage is populated by ruthless reporters who would make today's "hackers" look like Peabody winners. One of my favorite scenes--and probably one of the first to be cut in production today--is when one of the guys is on the phone getting breaking news of what at first strikes him (and his overhearing colleagues) as a delicious domestic violence story--until you see a sudden disappointment on his face. "Oh. Niggers," he says before hanging up, and the others on stage lose interest as well. After all, they do write for family newspapers. (It's one of those great moments that dares a director to see how repulsive you can  make your cast to the audience.)

Veteran Chicago reporter Jim Warren has a nice tribute to Front Page (and Pravda) in his Chicago News Coop column today. Meanwhile... any other journo-dramas you can think of?

Thursday, July 21, 2011


"Twenty wigs, fifteen hairpieces, fifteen beards, five pairs of sideburns, two joke beards, one set of eyebrows and twenty liters of blood."

-Prop storage for the Royal Shakespeare Company's current NYC tour.

I do hope that's fake blood.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

NY Gay Marriage Comes to Avenue Q

New York State's new Gay Marriage law will change countless lives in the NYC theatre community for the better.

But perhaps none more so than these two troopers:

AVENUE Q's same-sex puppets Rod and Ricky to wed!

Rod and Ricky, the same-sex puppets from the Tony Award-winning musical AVENUE Q, are engaged to be married and will tie the knot on Sunday, July 24, 2011 -- the first day same-sex couples can be legally married in the State of New York -- it has been announced by the show's producers.
The two grooms expect to join countless other men and women who will line  up at City Hall in New York City on July 24 to exchange vows on this landmark day.  After saying "I do," the happy couple -- show biz troupers that they are -- will race back to the theater district for the 3 p.m. matinee performance of AVENUE Q at New World Stages (340 W. 50 St.) in Manhattan.

Having met and fallen in love on stage 3,267 times since AVENUE Q opened on Broadway in 2003 before transferring to New World Stages two years ago, Rod and Ricky and the countless fans who love them are thrilled that they can celebrate their love and finally make their union official with the passage of the historic same-sex marriage law last month.

The couple, who with their fellow cast members perform AVENUE Q eight times a week, has yet to determine when and where they might take a quick honeymoon trip on their one day-off from the show.  Nor have they determined yet where they will be registered for wedding gifts.

About their upcoming wedding, Rod says, "To have this finally happen for us -- especially so soon after Will and Kate -- is unbelievable to me.  I realize there are a lot of broken hearts out there now that Ricky and I are off the market -- step back, all you chorus boys! -- but I've known since Day One that Ricky is the husband for me.  He's the furry fellow I want to spend my life with both on and off the stage."
Talk about "showmance"!

(Press Release from Sam Rudy Media Relations)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Quote of the Day

"Lev Tolstoy sincerely loved Chekhov, but did not like his plays. He told Chekhov once, 'A playwright should take the theater-goer by the hand, and lead him in the direction he wants him to go. And where can I follow your character? To the couch in the living-room and back—because your character has no other place to go.'"

-excerpt from a new collection of firsthand Chekhov reminiscences, Memories of Chekhov

(The storyteller adds: "They both—Tolstoy and Chekhov—laughed at these words.")

Monday, July 18, 2011


That's how much £9,000 is when converted into US dollars.

£9,000 is the figure that the London drama schools are appearing to raise their annual tuition to, in the wake of the economic crisis and decreased government arts funding. (I'm having trouble determining this, but it appears some leading schools--like RADA and LAMDA--are essentially private or "independent," while others, like Central, are now housed within a public state university.)

It's certainly a big rise relative to what they're used to over there. RADA for instance advertises less than half that much for its 2010-2011 year. So this £9,000 (aka $14,000) is unheard of, unprecedented, and definitely a big deal. And definitely more than most beginning actors can afford or should be asked to pay.

But now let's look at our own leading schools--all private, of course. NYU's MFA acting program: $22,300. Yale Drama: $26,250. Juilliard: $33,600(!)

Yes, not everyone pays that, like in the UK, and there are various scholarships, etc.

But, blimey, that's quite a difference!  And that's assuming the quality of training is the same...

And at least some of the representatives of the UK schools themselves are honest enough to admit the ugliness of this:

Geoffrey Colman, head of acting at Central School of Speech and Drama, said he felt there was a “sad inevitability” about the fact that most of the leading drama schools had decided to charge £9,000, and said action had to be taken to prevent drama schools from becoming “a repository for the privileged”.

He added: “Higher education institutions are really going to have to examine the way they teach the subject. Alas, this is a subject that is very high cost. It is not something that can be done a couple of hours a week. It needs time. “I see this charge as a provocation for drama schools to address the widening participation remit as fully and as passionately as they do training itself. We cannot just be a repository for the privileged.”
Yes, the issue of access must now become as important as what these schools teach.  Because without the access, what they'll be teaching is "Acting as a Hobby for Independently Wealthy."

Stop the madness. If they don't, then young actors will really have to consider other paths to the profession. And hopefully the industry will follow them there.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Donald Lyons, We Hardly Knew Ye

I vaguely remember the name of critic Donald Lyons being quoted on various show ads in the 90s. Alas the former NY Post reviewer he has just passed away at 73, but he turns out to have quite an unusual background for the standard middle-aged twentieth-century mainstream newspaper critic:

The critic's slumping, rumpled figure betrayed nothing that would hint at Mr. Lyons' previous life as a member of artist Andy Warhol's circle at the fabled Factory in Chelsea. He, in fact, had roles in two of Warhol's highly eccentric, experiment films, "Space" (1965) and, more famously, "Chelsea Girls" (1966), and contributed articles to the Warhol-founded magazine Interview. Patti Smith, in her memoir, "Just Kids," credited Lyons with inspiring her to become a musician after the two visited the famed Max's Kansas City, a Factory haunt, to hear the Velvet Underground.
Even odder was that, before the Post, he reviewed at even more right-wing outlets like WSJ and New Criterion!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Broadway Musical

Producer Ken Davenport does the math:

  • In the 1950s, 69% of all new musicals opening on Broadway had cast sizes greater than 30.
  • In the 1960s, 67% had cast sizes greater than 30.
  • In the 1970s, 31% (!)
  • In the 1980s, 24%
  • In the 1990s, 38%
  • In the 2000s, 27%
Nothing we didn't already sense, of course. But the numbers--and the steep fall off circa 1970--are striking. Especially when you consider that those higher percentages in olden days are out of already larger number of shows being produced.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Theatre and the Opera Can be Friends

"Fiorello La Guardia called the New York City Opera 'The People's Opera.' The People's Opera and The Public Theater make sense together. Free Shakespeare in the Park is one of our great civic traditions, and to combine Shakespeare, with opera, outdoors, in the center of the greatest city in the world, for free, will make a beautiful sound."

- Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, announcing a joint venture to present Shakespeare-based operas in the Public's Central Park DelacorteTheatre beginning Fall 2012.

Nice example of making opportunity out of crisis--in this case NYC Opera's departure from Lincoln Center and subsequent homelessness.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

What's New in Self-Producing

A new website, Kickstarter, helps people raise money for "creative" projects. No "charities" or "causes" allowed--but it doesn't appear to rule out nonprofit 501(c)(3) endeavors under certain circumstances.

It appears to be a kind of social networking site that allows you to solicit direct contributions (of all sizes, small and large) but not as charitable donations. You must offer something in return--e.g. free stuff, extra access, parties, etc.

I'm only just discovering it, but the main advantage would seem to be--the potential for building mass "micro-donor" support while also publicizing your project on a high profile web "platform."

I notice some FringeNYC shows are already using it and here are some more theatrical projects nation-wide.

Any of you out there looked into this yet?  Upsides and downsides?

In related news, has been promoting this book about how to start a theatre company in today's impoverished and overcrowded urban markets--featuring a weeklong Q & A with the author and readers.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A New Wilde?

King's Head Theatre in London is staging what they're claiming to be the premiere of a "lost" Oscar Wilde play, Constance.

Sounds exciting, but we should approach with caution. The text's provenance is complicated to say least:

Wilde outlined the plot for Constance, which shares its name with his wife, in a letter to actor-manager George Alexander in 1894. But it is believed he started writing the play only after his release from prison in 1897, when the exiled Wilde sold "exclusive rights" to the story to various different people. 

Wilde's manuscript ended up with the American actress Cora Brown Potter, before passing to French writer Guillot de Saix following her death. He and colleague Henri de Briel put together a French translation, which appeared in a French literary magazine in 1954. At the time Wilde's son, Vyvyan Holland, said the play seemed to be his father's.

According to the author and theatre critic Charles Osborne, who translated the French version back into English, de Briel was suspected of collaborating with the Germans during the Second World War, and members of the resistance probably destroyed Wilde's original text.
Damn you, French Resistance Fighters!

(Funny, this would be the second Wilde play known to us only in translation from French--Salome was the first.)

Constance appears to be more in Wilde's "melodrama" mode than in his outright comic, Earnest mode. (And, lest we forget, Earnest is Wilde's only play that resembles Earnest.) The plot actually seems similar to that of An Ideal Husband, but more from the wife's point of view.

More importantly, though, this would be the only play Wilde wrote after his legal ordeals and imprisonment. So even more reason why we should not be surprised if it's not so funny.

Friday, July 08, 2011


-Somehow in these cash-strapped times, Rocco's NEA has come up with a whole $30K (!) to help fund a new "Open Captioning Initiative" to help TDF install English- (not foreign-) language surtitles in some theaters. Believe it or not, the target audience is not just the deaf, but even those with "mild hearing loss." My questions are: Are the days of the screeching headphones over?  And will this put deaf-signers/interpreters out of work? And are U.S. audiences now just in general too hard of hearing to enjoy an unamplified theatrical performance?
-Seattle's Intiman still hopes to resurrect itself, and is counting on better ties with local artists to do so.

-Oregon Shakes Fail: In other Northwest news, Oregon Shakespeare Festival has had to move performances to a nearby park due to structural damage (bad beams) to their permanent outdoor indoor Ashland theatre.

-Speaking of U.S. Shakespeare fests, Denver Post's John Moore suggests most of them (or their audiences) are so weary (or wary?) of the Bard that "only 37 percent of the productions offered by the 10 leading Shakespeare festivals in North America were written by their namesake" and are steadily substituting a whole different kind of verse drama, like "Menopause the Musical" and "Elvis: The Early Years." (I guess "the late years" would be too Falstaffian?)

-And for those who do still care about Shakespeare, here's even more about how to build a traveling Elizabethan playhouse in your own backyard--or Park Avenue Armory, if you have one.  (I'm surprised Oregon Shakes doesn't put in an order for a delivery.) Also, a video: 

Setting The Stage: Royal Shakespeare Company in New York from The Greene Space @ WNYC & WQXR on Vimeo.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Press Release of the Day

"The dead rabbits used for the performances in Britain were part of a scene illustrating the contrast between court and countryside, where life was harsher and people hunted and prepared their own food, and were sourced locally from game-keepers as part of a farming control program. The RSC and the RSPCA (UK equivalent of the ASPCA) were satisfied that the rabbits used in the British performances were sourced responsibly and killed humanely. It has not been possible to source rabbits in the same way in New York."

-Royal Shakespeare Company, bowing to New Yorkers' objections over the onstage skinning of actual dead rabbits in their current tour of As You Like It .

As they are in New York City, though, they may want to call upon these Dead Rabbits.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

BAM in the 'Hood

As if to placate critics of the behemoth Atlantic Yards gentrification project, Bruce Ratner announces he'll include a "cultural programming" in the big Barclay's Center sports arena to be curated by BAM.

Funny he didn't ask The Civilians, eh?

Still, some interesting possibilities in the arena space. They say it's a "flexible seating" venue that can accommodate smaller shows, but I wouldn't mind seeing what, say, Robert Wilson could do with the full arena.

Meanwhile, Fort Greene continues to morph into the "BAM Cultural District" with the long-delayed groundbreaking of Theatre For A New Audience's shiny new theatre--to be launched in 2013, they say, with a new Julie Taymor production.

On the one hand, the BAM expansion is not being welcomed by all in this neighborhood--a modest residential area that has seen in the last decade seen luxury high-rises and other unaffordable properties take up space.

On the other hand, I am glad to see some theatrical gravitational pull towards Brooklyn--Off Broadway's natural home in the 21st Century. Despite the ugliness of that arena...

Official Rendering of Barclays Center

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Theatre Bullies

Maybe it's different in these United States, but in the UK, the theatre profession turns out to be worse than a high school locker room:
Bullying at work is more common in the arts than in any other employment sector, according to new research. Two in five respondents to a survey of theatres and arts centres in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland revealed they had suffered bullying in the workplace. This is the highest reported incidence in any single employment sector in the country - with a higher proportion of cases than those recorded by researchers conducting similar surveys within the police, the army and the National Health Service.
The research is published in a new book by arts consultant Anne-Marie Quigg, entitled Bullying in the Arts - Vocation, Exploitation and Abuse of Power....She explained the research figures focused on people working off-stage, in so-called non-creative roles, but she feared the figure for bullying among performers and artists could be even higher and was hoping to carry out further research.
At first I thought it's the divas. (Another reminder to be nice to your dresser. If you have one.) But then this:
The demographic breakdown of the survey results showed that “the individual most likely to be bullied would be a young, white woman working in a box office in London, outside the West End”.
Maybe it's the customers!

Thoughts? Anecdotes? Gripes?

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Weekend Reading

To get you through the fireworks and barbeque...

-How do you build a traveling Elizabethan playhouse in the Park Avenue Armory? Take a sneak peak at the RSC's summer home in NYC.

-Two more detailed post-mortems of "Spidey 1.0." Very thorough.

-Speaking of troubled Broadway musicals, check out the story behind the 1946 flop Sweet Bye and Bye by no less a pedigree than Vernon Duke, Ogden Nash, S.J. Perelman and...Al Hirschfeld! (It didn't even make it to Broadway but has now been recorded.) Features probably greatest one sentence plot description ever: "The story, a farce, is set in 2076 and tells of a nebbish who, as the result of a time capsule from the 1939 World's Fair, inherits a candy cartel."

-And, finally, Tim Robbins goes to jail.  No, don't get too excited--he directs California inmates in Tartuffe! At least he did until the budget cuts eviscerated arts in the prisons. Still, the power of commedia, eh?