The Playgoer: October 2011

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Monday, October 31, 2011

Some Pinter

Three years after the man's death, they're still finding new stuff by Harold Pinter. Well, old stuff, really, but previously unpublished. The Guardian last week reprinted a 1960 comedy sketch, "Umbrellas," with intro and commentary by critic/Pinter-man, Michael Billington.

So, without further ado...

Two gentlemen in deckchairs on the terrace of a large hotel. Wearing shorts and sunglasses. Sunbathing. They do not move throughout the exchange
A: The weather's too much for me today.
B: Well, you're damn lucky you've got your umbrella.
A: I'm never without it, old boy.
B: I think I'd do well to follow your example.
A: Yes, you would. Means the world to me. I never find myself at a loss. You understand what I mean?
B: You're a shrewd fellow, I'll say that for you.
A: My house is full of umbrellas.
B: You can't have too many.
A: You've never said a truer word, old boy.
B: I haven't got one to bless myself with.
A: Well, I can forsee [sic] a time you'll regret it.
B: I think the time's come, old boy.
A: You can't be too careful, old boy.
B: Well, you've got your feet firmly planted on the earth, there's no doubt about that.
A: I certainly feel secure, old boy.
B: Yes, you know where you stand, all right. You can't take that away from you.
A: You'll find they're a true friend to you, umbrellas.
B: Maybe I'll buy one.
A: Don't come to me. It would be like tearing my heart out, to part with any of mine.
B: You find them handy, eh?
A: Yes ... Oh, yes. When it's raining, particularly.
© The estate of Harold Pinter 2011
Love that suddenly sentimental "tearing my heart out"--pure Pinter.

Okay, maybe not why he won the Nobel. But, beats SNL at least.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Who's Writing the Reviews?

David Cote offers a primer on who the big critics are--all around the country.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Marat/Sade: Still Alienating After All These Years

The Royal Shakespeare Company is having something of a succès de scandale with playwright/director Anthony ("in yer face") Nielson's new modern-dress production of Marat/Sade at their spiffy new Stratford digs:
At one preview show, 80 theatregoers left the show at the interval....A review in the Financial Times called it "comprehensively perverse", adding that it constantly challenges "both dramatic conventions and audience composure". Some of the more shocking scenes include a gang rape and a character being tortured with a Taser.
RSC's response to the walkouts: simply to advertise that the play "is not suitable for younger audiences. Recommended minimum age 16 +."

Nice to see a company stand behind a director, even if it means those many tourist families in Stratford can't bring the kiddies.

I haven't seen it, of course, so maybe it's brilliant, maybe it's crap. But there's something to be said for reminding audiences why an old play was once shocking.

More production photos here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Broadway Ghosts

One of my favorite Sunday Times features is actually in the Real Estate section.  No, not listings. It's Christopher Gray's "Streetscapes" column, a kind of weekly excavation of old buildings, gone buildings, and other curiosities of NYC history.

This photo, a column earlier this month, is especially approppros in light of the splendid new revival of Sondheim's Follies. The image above is of the half-demolished Helen Hayes Theater (not the current Helen Hayes Theater) in 1982. The Hayes (on 46th between Broadway and 8th Avenue) and an adjoining house, the Morosco, were leveled that year, but not without a spirited fight from the New York theatre community, who came out in large protests.

(The occasion for Gray's column, by the way, was a recent auction of surviving slabs and other detritus from the Hayes demolition.)

Follies, you may recall, is set in an old Broadway theatre about to be demolished, haunted by the ghosts of Ziegfelds past. In fact, legend has it the inspiration for that 1971 show came from a Life magazine photo of aging star Gloria Swanson  in the wreckage of the then-recently demolished Roxy Theatre (see below).

And where is the current revival of Follies playing? At the Marquis Theatre. Part of the Marriott Marquis hotel--the very building the Hayes and Morosco were torn down to make way for.

Ghosts, indeed....

Friday, October 21, 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Oxfordians

I'm pleased naturally with the multiplicity of comments on my last post on the anti-Shakespeare movie, Anonymous.  And I can't help notice that those who--for some reason, in this day and age--have sworn to defend the good name of Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford, have been doing their Googling and ended up at my site to spread their propaganda and say bad things about debunker-debunker James Shapiro wherever they can.

Welcome to my blog, folks! Nice to meet you.

Just glancing at your comments, though, I see the same old lazy debating points that have never convinced me before and still don't. So I'm inviting you to step up your game and really show me why I should take your arguments seriously. You probably don't think I have an open mind, but one thing I do respect is evidence. So while I have always been perfectly satisfied that the plays of William Shakespeare were written by the guy who everyone in his own time said wrote them (namely, one William Shakespeare)... I'd like to think I'm objective enough as a scholar and theatre historian to at least evaluate your evidence fairly.

So here is my challenge to you, Oxfordians: show us what you got.  Tell us what you think is the ONE most decisive piece of evidence that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford wrote these plays. Not that he could have. But that he absolutely did and is the only person who could have.

Notice: I did not say tell us why you think William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon didn't write what's credited to him. Because even if you somehow could prove that negative, that doesn't mean De Vere did write them, does it? So you must argue in the affirmative, not the negative.

Some take your best shot, conspiracy theorists. I'll take on each comment point by point and promise to grant credence to anything I find actually credible. And if it's not credible to me, I'll tell you exactly why in rational argument. Not just because I'm some stupid Bard-idolator, ok?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Shakespeare Conspiracy Action Flick Hits the Screens...and the Schools

The Shakespeare-denying swashbuckler Anonymous, certainly Hollywood's oddest premise for an action flick in ages, is about to open wide and thankfully some scholars are getting out there to stop the bullshit.

James Shapiro continues his crusade against such pseudo-academic misinformation in yesterday's Times, drawing attention to the potential wide reach of the film's message beyond the cinema:

Roland Emmerich's film “Anonymous,” which opens next week, “presents a compelling portrait of Edward de Vere as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays.” That’s according to the lesson plans that Sony Pictures has been distributing to literature and history teachers in the hope of convincing students that Shakespeare was a fraud. A documentary by First Folio Pictures (of which Mr. Emmerich is president) will also be part of this campaign.  So much for “Hey, it’s just a movie!” 
Daily Beast's Chris Lee has more:
The studio (Sony) plans to concurrently release Last Will. & Testament, a documentary about the authorship debate, through First Folio Pictures (a production shingle whose president is none other than Roland Emmerich) and has been providing materials to educators that encourage teachers to “make this thought-provoking new film part of your class plan.” 
Yes, and make your class part of our subsidiary box office profits!
A corporate spokesman for Sony responded to a request for information about the scope of its marketing push into schools with a statement: “The objective for our Anonymous program, as stated in the classroom literature, is ‘to encourage critical thinking by challenging students to examine the theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works and to formulate their own opinions.’ The study guide does not state that Edward de Vere is the writer of Shakespeare’s work, but it does pose the authorship question which has been debated by [wackjobs] [armchair historians] scholars for decades."
In other words..."teach the controversy."

Remember this next time you hear about "privatizing" education.

Last word goes to Prof. Simon Schama:
None of [the controversy] would matter very much were there not something repellent at the heart of the theory, and that something is the toad, snobbery—the engine that drives the Oxfordian case against the son of the Stratford glover John Shakespeare. John was indeed illiterate. But his son was not, as we know incontrovertibly from no fewer than six surviving signatures in Shakespeare’s own flowing hand, the first from 1612, when he was giving evidence in a domestic lawsuit.
The Earl of Oxford was learned and, by reports, witty. But publicity -materials for Anonymous say that Shakespeare by comparison went to a mere "village school" and so could hardly have compared with the cultural richness imbibed by Oxford. The hell he couldn’t! Stratford was no "village," and the "grammar school," which means elementary education in America, was in fact a cradle of serious classical learning in Elizabethan England. By the time he was 13 or so, Shakespeare would have read (in Latin) works by Terence, Plautus, Virgil, Erasmus, Cicero, and probably Plutarch and Livy too. One of the great stories of the age was what such schooling did for boys of humble birth.
Yes, it's called Renaissance Humanism. Look it up.

Just to be clear, I am not very disturbed that some Hollywood schlockmeisters want to attempt some highbrow genre picture. Movies spread all kinds of nutty theories (from JFK to The DaVinci Code) and we've survived.  But I'm with Shapiro on the schools thing. Again, not that I blame Sony for trying. But beware if desperate and/or gullible teachers or principals take them up on their revisionist product placement scheme.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Capturing a Performance

 Frank Langella in the Roundabout's Man and Boy
photo: Sara Krulwich, NY Times

Another Krulwich gem.

The perfect caption for this might actually be this from Michael Feingold's review in the Village Voice:
The particular pleasure of [Langella's] performances comes from the precision with which he applies his old-stager's technique to the specifics of his role. A showy actor by instinct, he has the discipline to hold his innate flamboyance in check until the character has some justification for behaving flamboyantly. The fun of watching him leap for these glittery tidbits—a silent seizure of gleeful triumph here, a sudden upsurge of fury there—is balanced by the elegant way he weaves them into the overall texture, binding them together with a smiling, soft-spoken charm.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Nano Play?

So who ruled that all plays must be 2 to 3 hours, anyway?

As cultural consumption increasingly focuses on smaller and smaller forms of entertainment--IPod-able songs, YouTube vids, E-reader short stories--is it time to exploit theatre's own longstanding short-form traditions?

The Guardian's Alexandra Coghlan makes a worthy opening move in such an argument, reminding us that the one-act has a great history in the modern theatre--from Chekhov to Beckett, from Tennessee Williams to Sarah Kane. The main problem such works have had in getting performed (outside of school directing class exercises) is chiefly financial--how do you charge full price for less than a "full" evening's out. Or at least 90 minutes.

But isn't it funny that such arbitrary--and now arguably outmoded--measures of leisure time have determined what is "acceptable" dramatic form.  Sure, we are seeing theatres challenging this more and more lately, as contemporary playwrights appear to be gravitating to the shorter forms. But you know they must hear from their subscribers when they bring them all the way downtown for just 75 minutes of theatre?

So here's a thought: some clever company must come up with a new way to market the one-act. Not as the usual "omnibus" evening of two or three long ones that still satisfy the 90-minute/2-hour threshold (a la Broadway's Relatively Speaking. But something more like a cabaret, maybe even allowing for staggered audience coming-and-going, where folks can pay a cover, sit, have a drink, and watch a few scenes, hear some music, maybe some some stand-up. Maybe they stay for their 2-3 hours' worth. Or maybe just 45 minutes?

I mean, we've got to do something with all those things playwrights write for those 10-Minute Play contests!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Is Arts Funding Going to Those Who Need It?

A philanthropy watchdog group reports that "billions of dollars in arts funding is serving a mostly wealthy, white audience that is shrinking while only a small chunk of money goes to emerging art groups that serve poorer communities that are more ethnically diverse."

What else is new, I know. Still, the numbers are instructive:

According to the study, the largest arts organizations with budgets exceeding $5 million represent only 2 percent of the nonprofit arts and culture sector. Yet those groups received 55 percent of foundation funding for the arts in 2009. Only 10 percent of arts funding was explicitly meant to benefit underserved populations. 
Or to put it another way:
"It is a problem because it means that – in the arts – philanthropy is using its tax-exempt status primarily to benefit wealthier, more privileged institutions and populations," wrote the report's author, Holly Sidford.
The philanthropy class looking after their own kind, maybe?

This brings up an eternal debate in such levels of funding: Do we fund simply our perceptions of "the best" art? (aka, the Rocco Thesis?) Do we prioritize the art that serves the most people--or the small pockets of forgotten and underserved communities? Is arts funding primarily for entertaining audiences or for engaging (and employing) artists?

I'm a bit torn because in a European "State Theatre" model, of course the priority is to build up formidable institutions producing the finest work at the highest level. But does the vast size and diversity of our nation merit a different approach?

Another quandary is raised by the different roles played by public and private funding. In the article, Kennedy Center boss Michael Kaiser says, "The biggest issue for arts organizations of color is that they have been overly reliant on foundation and government funding," and that they "really need more individual donors, not just foundation donors."

But hold on a sec, Mike: Isn't what you're really saying is that it's a lot easier for Kennedy Center to rope in those big private donors and foundations (because they're your friends and neighbors) than it is for, say, El Museo del Barrio? In that case--one may well ask--why is Kennedy Center getting any of that scarce government funding at all? Why don't you guys rely on the rich people and the rest will get the public funds--making it truly "public" funding after all.

Or to put it another way... Maybe you shouldn't take public money if the public can't afford to come to your offerings. (I mean, what's the Roundabout and MTC doing charging $100 Broadway prices, right?)

Friday, October 07, 2011

Adam and Ish

Times critic Charles Isherwood today finally addresses the long obvious, barely under the surface tension between him and playwright Adam Rapp, whose work he has consistently, um...disliked. And so he is now taking the seemingly unprecedented step of offering to recuse himself from any future Rapp reviews.

Contrary to popular myth, drama critics don’t salivate at the chance to savage a playwright’s work. It’s still less appealing to continue doing so, year in and year out. Who wants to be cast as the playground bully who won’t leave the poor kid alone? I have passed on reviewing a couple of Mr. Rapp’s plays during my tenure at the Times. Caryn James called “American Sligo” “keenly observed and wonderfully acted and directed (by the playwright).” His new play, like many of his works, provoked wildly diverse responses from critics, ranging from unqualified enthusiasm to unbridled dismay (mine).
But aside from that hope-springing-eternal thing, I have felt I should keep reviewing Mr. Rapp’s work because he is produced at some of New York’s most prestigious not-for-profit Off Broadway companies, and often attracts significant acting talent....

For similar reasons, however, one could argue – and one is! — that perhaps it’s time to allow Mr. Rapp’s writing to be assessed by a critic who responds more naturally or sympathetically to his aesthetic. Criticism is, after all, a subjective form of writing. There is no right answer. And since the artistic staff at some of the city’s major theaters – and a deep roster of acting talent – obviously appreciates something in Mr. Rapp’s writing that I continually do not, perhaps it would be in everyone’s best interests to let another writer weigh in on Mr. Rapp’s future work. The Times is fortunate enough to have a pretty deep roster of critics.

Obviously a critic would not want to recuse him or herself from writing about any and all artists whose work he or she doesn’t care for.....But Mr. Rapp’s stupendously fertile output – and the by-now obvious discordance between our ideas of what constitutes a compelling work of theater – make him a singular case. 
I well remember Isherwood's review of Rapp's big "uptown" debut at Playwrights Horizons in 2007 (Essential Self Defense) which sharply exposed the uptown/downtown fissure in the New York theatre community. Specifically I'm thinking of the line where Ish mocked the playwright and his style as more befitting "funky bars in Williamsburg, Brooklyn." (Yes, NYT had to make sure readers did not think "Mr. Rapp" was some tricorner-hatted denizen of Colonial Williamsburg.) Although I didn't see the play myself, I sensed even then that Isherwood was simply on the wrong "beat" as a critic. And that unless the paper wants to deliberately send to downtown plays a representative of the New York Times class, as a kind of ambassador or travel-writer to pass on recommendations to readers about "native" theatrical fare, they might indeed provide a greater service by sending someone who is at least....well, more hip to the jive. Someone who can translate the natives' language, as it were.

Anyway, kidding aside, I actually find Isherwood's honesty refreshing and admirable for a critic and think he's essentially right. Although, ideally, he wouldn't have to step down from the Rapp beat if the Times had a more interesting approach to reviewing, like having multiple critics weigh in on the same show. But barring that, they should take him up on his offer. I mean, after all, it's not like they have the classical music critic review Beyoncé.

(PS. Nice NYT shoutout above to Stagegrade!)

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Billy Elliot and the Changing Broadway Economics

"When you’re grossing $700,000 a week, which is not bad, and losing money, there is a problem.”

-Billy Elliot lead producer Eric Fellner on why he's decided to quit while he's ahead and close the show in January.

Riedel also adds for the record that in spite of its weekly operating costs of $800K the show did recoup its $18 million capital investment in its first 14 months, and will end up with about $6 mil in the black. So I guess in this economy a 30% return on anything is cause for celebration.

Billy is a pretty big production to mount, granted. (Large cast, complicated set.) But note that the box office "break-even" threshold is approaching $1 million a week.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Who Knew: Riots at "Newsies"!

Ok,  not quite riots.

Three women and six teenage girls were escorted from the theater during intermission of "Newsies" on Thursday night, after patrons complained about a scuffle and general "unruly" behavior, a theater spokesman said today.
"There was an altercation, something about poking another patron in the back," the Paper Mill’s Shayne Miller said. "They were being rowdy and loud, talking on their cell phones in the theater." Several patrons complained the group was drinking.