Friday, November 20, 2015

What's Playing at the Roxy?*

In which the author begins to dissect his recent trip to New York

As I start writing this, I’m sitting in my hotel room in New York, fully aware of three things: 

1)    I really should be in bed, since I have to pack up tomorrow morning. 
2)    I am going to have one hell of a time packing everything. 
3)    I really should be working on the work assignment I have that I hope to deal with on the plane tomorrow.

While I’m fully aware that I have what has been described as a negative approach to things, I prefer to think of it as both contrarian and snobbish (see here for my previous post on that issue). Yet, despite that rep (which could be easily proven incorrect by doing one of those stupid “here are the words I use most on Facebook” word clouds – something that just reeks to me of intrusive marketing), I found myself having a great time at eight of the ten shows (or ten of twelve, if one counts seeing Colbert and a cabaret show), and even the two misfires weren’t that bad – well, China Doll was, but that’s something to be dealt with later.

While I’m going to deal with this trip on a broader level later in the year (something I know you’ll all be waiting for … ), I wanted to do a post-mortem on what I saw.

When I plan a trip to New York, I’m lucky enough that I can usually schedule it for a long enough period that I can see pretty much everything I want to. In this case, that meant arriving on a Tuesday and leaving on the Thursday of the next week, giving me the opportunity to take advantage of three matinee/two-for-one days.

The festivities began with Stephan Karam’s The Humans. I’d seen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet a few years ago, so I was interested in seeing this follow-up. It’s a very good production of a very interesting script; that is as much about the Thanksgiving dinner that is its center as the previous play was about being Lebanese-American. The family dynamics are incisive and sharply observed, and it’ll probably get produced all over the country once designers work out how to re-invent its two-story set.

Because set designers need challenges, don't they?

Wednesday matinee: Robert Askins’s Hand to God. Another one that deserves a long shelf-life, but good luck to the actors who’ll be cast in the central role that combines puppetry with playing off one’s self with possible demonic possession and a bunch of swearing and simulated sex. Of particular interest was Bob Saget, new to the cast as a straight-laced pastor, but really quite good, but who paled – as most actors would – in comparison to Stephen Boyer’s work as the lead.

The next show was David Mamet’s China Doll, which I was starting to write about, but quickly realized that it’s going to take a whole post in itself to deal with – and that’s for next time. Suffice it to say that, when we heard about this one, we jumped at the chance to go. Granted, Mamet hasn’t written a good play since the ‘80s and Pacino isn’t what he once was, but still, the possibilities were there – especially since the notoriously phallocentric Mamet was actually allowing a woman – Pam MacKinnon – to direct. It’s a perfect example, though, of how Broadway in the 21st century isn’t what it was even 20 years ago.

This is not a still photo. This is a live feed of the action.

Friday: Hamilton. We planned the trip around when we could get tickets. Now, unlike many folks, I wanted to go in cold. I had heard a little of the score (it’s next to impossible to avoid), and knew the basics of the conceit and approach. Now, while I kinda wish I’d exposed myself to the cast album (please note: not a soundtrack … ), I was floored. It was that rare occasion where, going in, my expectations were high, and the product not only met them, they left them in the dust. It’s an utterly phenomenal show and I can’t say enough good things about it. Everything you’ve heard? All true.

I was a little iffy about the next three shows; two because of my growing Anglothropism (that is to say, not buying into the idea that, just because a show has a London pedigree, it’s going to be good), and the third because it’s a dumb musical comedy. All three were brilliant though, starting with Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, directed by Ivo Van Hove (whose production of Hedda Gabler – a play I really dislike – was staggeringly good). This is an amazing production, played as the Greek tragedy Miller alluded to, muscular, tough, and no-holds-barred. The production offers on-stage seating, and I was no more than a couple of feet from the actors, so it was even more intense.

 Yeah. It's that kind of show.

The second of the three was by John O'Farrell, Karey Kirkpatrick, and Wayne Kirkpatrick’s musical Something Rotten!, which is that rarest of creatures – an original musical that opened directly on Broadway. I was leery, but had been told (by my wife, no less) that it was hysterically funny – and it is. It’s everything “a Broadway musical comedy” should be: smart, funny, and lively; full of allusions to other musicals and cast with actors who really know how to land the material.

The last of this troika was Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, a “future history” play set during the early days of the reign of the next British monarch, written (mostly) in iambic pentameter and blank verse and doing all it can to take on Shakespeare at his own game. It’s a risk, but pays off mightily, with a towering central performance by Tim Pigott-Smith, but the rest of the cast comes close to matching him. A riveting afternoon.

Next was a pair of disappointments, lacking for similar reasons. The first was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, which I was looking forward to. The director, Bartlett Sher, showed an astonishing ability to wring every ounce of drama out of South Pacific, turning a war horse into a thoroughbred, and I had hopes he’d be able to repeat that magic here. While the production itself is everything one might hope – fine performances, beautiful sets and staging – the show itself just can’t match the production. I don’t expect there could be a better version of the show, but – for better or worse – its dramaturgy is locked into the early ‘50s, and musicals just aren’t written that way anymore. (Where I want numbers that delve into psychology, I got “hit tunes,” and characters who have – justifiably – been speaking in pidgin English all evening suddenly become fluently poetic when singing).

The second was Simon Stephens’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which, despite its many admirable qualities and intentions, just didn’t work for me. It’s an outstanding production, but that was the problem. It’s so overwhelming and facile that it covers up that there’s not much of a play underneath. I can’t imagine how another production of it – that doesn’t have a mammoth budget – will be able to tell the story.

Finally, I like to end my trips with something that will leave me with a glow of some sort; usually – but not necessarily – something uplifting, so I decided on Craig Lucas’s adaptation of An American in Paris, with a score by George and Ira Gershwin. From almost the opening moments, the show packed a particular punch. Given the still-fresh attacks on Paris, its start – detailing the German occupation of France and its aftermath (something the show was criticized for when it opened) – set things in a context that give it an immediacy and power that was shocking. The show itself is, well, lovely. One expects a dancy musical full of tap and “Broadway” dancing, and one gets an evening of breathtaking ballet (okay; there is one tap number … ). It’s moving and human in all the best ways – and couldn’t have been a better finale to my trip.

Boy, howdy

Next time: the dullness that was China Doll.

(*Nothing, actually. The Roxy was a movie theatre, anyway, and was torn down in 1960.)

Friday, November 6, 2015

Who Needs a National Theatre?

In which the author decries institutional theatre.

A few days ago, I was one of the many thousands who have been trooping to movie theatres to see a broadcast of Benedict Cumberbatch in the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet. I’ll begin this by saying that I’m generally a fan of Mr. Cumberbatch’s (the film of August: Osage County excepted; but, other than Margo Martindale, no one got out of that movie alive) and was highly looking forward to it.

My take on the overall reaction is that it’s been generally favorable, with reservations. That was pretty much my reaction. It was intelligent, reasonably well-spoken, and coherent, but not very gripping. (I’ll mention here that my wife loved it and found it “muscular” and though it clarified many of the knottier aspects of the text, so the opinions expressed herein are my own.)

What it lacked for me, though, was any sense of danger or even visceral excitement. In my mind, if Hamlet is anything, it’s everything. It’s a meditation on mortality. It’s a revenge story. It’s a comedy, a tragedy, a ghost story, an examination of the thought process. You name it, it’s got it. There’s so much in it that the one thing it shouldn’t be is routine. It’s not just another play; it’s the play. It’s the role. There’s got to be a reason to do it.

Unfortunately, the production I saw was just kinda there, trapped in a concept that had something to so with a big house and a lot of dirt. (Seriously, I felt sorry for the stage crew that had to lug all that dirt on stage at intermission and then clean it all up at the end of the evening.) It felt like the director had a big star and the huge budget that came with him and decided to spend all of it on her set rather than trying to tell her story in a gripping manner.
I’ve explained before about how tired I am of plays from London being broadcast on American movie screens. I’ve got nothing against the Brits per se, but I am tired of them being cast as Americans (I mean, how many more crappy accents do I need to hear?) and seeing their shows held up perfect exemplars of theatrical excellence. (“They have Training!”)

But the specific problem with this Hamlet, to me, was that, since the National is subsidized and paid for by the government, while it may not be swimming in money, it has so much that it can waste it on elephantine sets representing Elsinore.

The program cover. A shiny dime to anyone who can explain its relevance to the production.

Every so often, we hear calls for an American National Theatre. There have been numerous attempts to create one over the decades, probably as early as Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Rep in the ‘20s and ‘30s, Ellis Rabb’s APA-Phoenix in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre in the ‘90s and ‘00s. The problem with this plan is that it almost always centers around New York (there was some talk of creating a company at the Kennedy Center in Washington, but it didn’t last and was a rarity). That talk makes sense in that the center of commercial American theatre is indeed those 15 or so blocks in midtown Manhattan, but it also assumes that that’s the only place anything worthwhile is being done and that only work with a commercial focus is worthy. (One might also add parenthetically that it also seems to be the only place Equity actors who want to work in the Bay Area come from.)

This theory is, of course, arrant nonsense. One would be hard pressed to find a corner of the country where interesting and vital work isn’t being done. Seattle, Portland, Ashland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego – and that’s just part of the west coast and leaves out Denver, Chicago, Dallas, DC, Boston, Cleveland, Florida, Louisville, Minneapolis, and on and on and on and on. Any of these cities is producing work that can stand with anything done anyplace on the globe, but, of course, most of the country will never see or hear of it because it doesn’t come with the imprimatur of having a London or New York pedigree.

It makes sense for the Brits to put an English national theatre in London. The capitol is the center of the U.K.’s entertainment industry. TV, radio, film, and theatre are all headquartered there. But how would we justify placing an American national theatre in just one city? I suppose it would be possible to emulate the Federal Theatre of the New Deal era and have multiple locations and troupes, but the whole point of theatre is to be in that room with those people while they tell a story. Even screening productions in movie theatres wouldn’t be a solution, because, for all our pretenses, it’s really just another movie at that point. This is especially true if the production is recorded rather than live. Those actors are going to do the exact same things in the exact same way for eternity. The spontaneity and reaction to the audience that are at the heart of the art don’t exist. It doesn’t matter if the theatre is full or empty; the performances and production are frozen and will not change.

I remember in 1976, Christopher Durang and Mel Marvin’s A History of the American Film (which, I might add, is a very funny show that someone ought to revive – although, frankly, Americans’ knowledge of classic film isn’t as strong now as it was then, so most of the references would be lost) had three simultaneous premiere productions, in Los Angeles (where I saw it), Hartford, and DC. Was one of these more official than the other two? Despite doing the same script at the same time – even if they somehow each had the same design and same director (which they didn’t) – each was different because of the unique casts, venues, and regional receptions. There was no way to centralize the productions, and there never will be. Even a tour, which might be the best/only solution, would have variations from venue to venue.

The "Salad Bowl" number from A History of the American Film

But the larger point, even if we could figure out a reasonable solution to the problem, was embodied for me in Hamlet and other shows I’ve seen at the National (either in person or on screen). They can be well done – really well done – but they’re safe and don’t take any risks. I don’t know if it’s that they don’t want to upset their government sponsors or don’t feel any pressure, but it never feels like there’s an imperative behind it. They’re nice to look at and intelligent, but they’re antiseptic.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I had no prejudice against the production because it had a big star in it. As I said, I him and actually applaud him for doing it. And there’s nothing wrong with big names in plays. I couldn’t have enjoyed Kevin Spacey or Nathan Lane in their own productions of The Iceman Cometh or Peter Falk and Joe Mantegna and Peter Falk in Glengarry Glen Ross, Harold Pinter in (yes, in) Old Times, or Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot any more if I’d tried.

The shows I’ve loved the most in my life – Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil production of Richard II, Mary Zimmerman’s Metamophoses, José Quintero’s The Iceman Cometh, Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and Ghost Quartet, even Casey Nicholaw’s The Drowsy Chaperone – were big and bold and personal and even messy in places, but there was a recognizable artistic sensibility behind them. They were shows that had to be done. 

Mr. Malloy in Natasha and Pierre

When I was in college, I remember overhearing the faculty planning the shows they’d be doing the next year. There was no excitement about the choices; it was more like “Well, we haven’t done a Moliere for a while … ” or “Do you want to do a Shakespeare this year?” “Naw, how about an Ibsen?” “Yeah. I guess … ”

If that kind of listless programming is the cost of creating a national theatre that doesn’t take enough chances to endanger its funding, I’ll take regional theatres that at least try something different.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Let’s Talk About Shakespeare, Shall We?

In Which the Author Saves His Outrage for More Important Matters

Okay, even though I said in our last meeting that I wasn’t going to talk about this whole “Let’s Update Shakespeare” thing, I guess the time has come to do so.

In what may strike some of my constant readers as surprising, this plan doesn’t bother me in the least.

I do think that, in its current form, it’s incredibly stupid and yet another step down to the road a complete illiterate society – particularly in regard to cultural literacy – but it’s hardly worth getting outraged over.

(Sidenote: In 2006, I was in Los Angeles for … something … and spent a pleasant evening at the Arclight Cinemas. On the program? Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. I’m sure many – if not most – of you have seen it by now, so I won’t bother to recap the plot. Suffice it to say, it was that rare movie that, when I came out of it, had altered my perceptions of the world in which I live. From that day to this, everywhere I look, I see evidence of its predictions coming true.)

But I digress …

Part of this dumbing down (if I may call it that) is the way media companies insist on repackaging, rebooting, and remaking old properties, movies, TV shows, comics – whatever. Inevitably, when one of these projects is announced, folks all around the Internet get their proverbial knickers in a proverbial twist and bitch about how something they loved in their childhood is about to be irretrievably ruined. While it usually is (has any remake ever worked?), I don’t understand why people get themselves upset by it.

I’ll admit I used to get upset about this stuff myself until I had the epiphany that, while the new version was inevitably going to suck, the original was still around and unlikely to go away, so the inferior version could be happily ignored. (Just today, I saw some outrage over remakes of both Mary Poppins and The Wild Bunch. Reasonable minds can disagree over whether these were done correctly the first time (hint: one was, one is not so good), but why get upset over the idea at all?

Interestingly, I think the theatre is the only place where “reboots” are not only encouraged, but the norm. While we all want to do new work, more often than not, we’re working on a script that someone else has done somewhere else. With very, very rare exceptions, multiple movies or television shows are not shot from the same scripts; nor are books or comics redone from the same texts; they’re just reprinted. But how often do we do productions from an existing script? And how many times does that script get done in the same area over and over? I think there must have been about 20 Addams Familys, Chicagos, August: Osage Countys, and Glengarry Glen Rosses over the past year – each of them presenting the same characters speaking the same words. If something like that happened on multiple television networks or at the movies, people would be astounded, but when it comes to plays, we don’t even blink.

Let's see Terry Crews do some damn Shakespeare!

This is particularly true for poor old Shakespeare. The canon is relatively small (36? 37 plays?), so you’re going to see the same plays over and over (and in some cases, over and over and over and over; nothing against the folks who want to do them, but I really don’t need to see Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet or a couple of others again; I’ve seen them, I got them, I’m done with them).

Because of the limited tunestack and the multiple productions of them, it’s only logical that directors are going to screw around with them in terms of setting, “concept,” textual cuts, and even scene order. As much Shakespeare as I’ve seen (and it’s a lot), I can count on the fingers of one hand the ones that didn’t cut the text. (I’d offer a link to that tired Onion article about “Director does Shakespeare production in setting author intended;” but you’ve all seen it … ). Why do we do it? Two reasons. One, they can be pretty damn long (even when done well), and there’s stuff that just doesn’t translate from 17th century England. (Especially the clowns. My gosh; is there anything less funny than a Shakespearean clown?)

Even with that, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen any production of any Shakespeare play that I didn’t zone out of at least once. It happens. But that – and one other reason I’ll deal with in a minute – has never been a barrier. To say the most obvious thing ever, as long as the actors know the intentions of what they’re saying are, you don’t need to understand every word. Sit back and they’ll get you through it.

So it’s not just that the language doesn’t need translating, though, it’s that, in many cases, the people who’ve been hired to do it shouldn’t be allowed to write a grocery list, let alone rewrite Shakespeare. (I’m not going to mention names, but suffice it to say when I saw some of the names either writing or dramaturging, I rolled these tired old eyes at the usual suspects.)

Will gets the news

 Lemme give you a for instance. NPR covered the story and cited this translation by Kenneth Cavender from Timon of Athens.

The original:

Slaves and fools,
Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench
And minister in their steads. To general filths
Convert o’ the instant, green virginity,
Do’t in your parents eyes. Bankrupts, hold fast; rather
Than render back, out with your knives
And cut your trusters’ throats! Bound servants, steal;
Large handed robbers your grave masters are
And pill by law.

Cavender’s improvement:

And clowns, kick the grizzled old senators
Out of their offices and legislate in their place ...
Innocent virgins, turn sluttish now – why wait? –
And do it while your parents watch ... Bankrupt?
Keep your money, and if your creditors demand
Payment, pick up a knife and cut their throats.
Workers, steal – your bosses are crooks

In fine suits, bandits raking in their loot,
Legalized pirates.

I can only speak for myself here, but I find the original perfectly comprehensible. Granted, I had to read it more than once and have read and acted in a lot of Shakespeare on my own, but I understand what it’s saying – as would any actor who’s playing the role and who should be able to convey the meaning. The “translation” is easier for a modern American audience to understand, but loses everything in terms of poetry and flow of language. Basically, it sucks.

In spite of my antipathy toward the project, I totally understand the motivation behind it. The variety of voices, genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds of the writers is only to be welcomed in terms of telling the stories, but where I think Ashland went wrong was in not going far enough. The writers are limited to keeping the originals as intact as possible while clearing up only occasional moments of potential confusion. If there’s anything we know about Shakespeare, though (and we know quite a lot – and more than enough to tell the Oxfordians to shut the hell up because Shakespeare wrote the damn plays), is that he did nothing so much as steal plots and characters from other writers and (mostly) improve them.

Given the choice of seeing someone ruin Timon of Athens by making it more “accessible” or seeing someone take the plot and ideas and make something new out of it – I know which option I’d take. The original is always going to be there, so why not take a damn chance?

Friday, October 9, 2015

In Defense of Snobbery

In which the author endorses the idea of liking some things and disparaging others.

My name is Dave, and I’m a snob.

And so are you.

Last Sunday, The New York Times featured a column by its main film reviewer, A.O. Scott, on the subject of film snobbery. It turns out the word “snob” has an interesting (to me, anyway*) history. It started out as a term for a shoemaker, but, according to Scott, quoting the Oxford English Dictionary, “’in time the word came to describe someone with an exaggerated respect for high social position or wealth who looks down on those regarded as socially inferior.’ A pretender. A poser. A wannabe. An arriviste.

Scott goes on: “In this country, the meaning that has long dominated has to do less with wealth or station than with taste, and the word’s trajectory has almost completely reversed. Americans are in general a little squeamish about money and class - worshiping one while pretending the other doesn’t exist - and more comfortable with hierarchies and distinctions that seem strictly cultural. A snob over here is someone who looks contemptuously down, convinced above all of his or her elevated powers of discernment.”

 This guy.

Now, anyone who knows me, or follows me on Facebook (that is, those who haven’t gotten fed up and hidden me …) knows I have opinions. Lots of them. I like to think I express as many positives as negatives, but the general consensus seems to be “oh, you hate everything.”  That I don’t is beside the matter.

Those opinions are based on an aesthetic I’ve formed over the decades. This is good. That is bad. I don’t expect people to always agree with them (even if I’ve frequently said that everyone agrees with me eventually; it’s just a matter of when … ), but I hold them dearly, cherish them, let them keep me warm on a cold winter’s night. To take Shakespeare out of context, they’re an ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own.

(Parenthetically, I suppose I might have written this time about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s stupid plan to adapt Shakespeare’s plays into modern English. Given some of the people chosen to do the work, it’s even more ill-considered than I would have thought initially. I actually know some of them personally, and am amazed they can string two sentences together, let alone be chosen to improve the Bard. But, as always, I digress – and am showing my snobbish discernment … )

My point, though, is that, as we go through our lives and become exposed to more and more media – be they books, movies, plays, television programs, whatever – we develop tastes that lead us to prefer some of them and disparage others.

Now, I’m not saying that all of those preferences are good. There are plenty of TV shows, books, and movies that I’ll devote time to even as I know they’re inferior (and not even in an ironic hate-watching sense). I’m a sucker for movies where stuff blows up or that involve intricate capers (if one of the Ocean’s movies is on, I have to watch it) and most comic book movies. I know they’re junk food, but will still ingest a lot of them (they’re the artistic equivalent of hot dogs – which I hasten to add, I also love). Sometimes you just need them.
Bad as they might be, I’ve assigned them some merit, or I wouldn’t spend time on them. I admit I prefer to spend my time with stuff that I know is worthwhile, but you can’t always have that, can you?

Be still, my heart.

My point is, though, that because I’ve established a value system that rates some things as good and worth watching and some as bad and still worth watching, and some that I can dismiss out of hand as being awful (or seeming to be) in advance, I can be considered a snob. And so can anyone who’s decided not to see or read something because they know in advance that it’s going to be terrible. (To invert the disclaimer in the financial advisor commercials, past results are indications of future performances.)

It’s like senses of humor. During my last show, one night in the dressing room, most of the rest of cast spent a good chunk of time reenacting “great moments” from Billy Madison. Now, not having liked anything I’ve ever seen Adam Sandler do, I’ve avoided all his film work, and based on the excerpts, I’ve been more than justified. But every Sandler movie I’ve ignored is someone’s all-time favorite. (We’ll ignore the fact that these people are idiots.)

But for every movie you love, every book you venerate, every television show you cannot miss, every joke you think is hilarious and have taken the time to rate as essential, there’s someone who absolutely can’t stand it. And every actor, author, and comedian you wish would be wiped off the face of the Earth without a trace is a person who someone else would be devastated to lose.

My point is that we should just own up to the fact that we’re all snobs; that we all have things that we venerate and things we look down on as being unworthy. Oddly, though, while there’s never any way we can all agree on the former (I know there are plenty of people who hate Stephen Sondheim, Michelle Obama, and Martin Scorsese), there are plenty of people (the Kardashians, the dentist who shot the lion) we can all agree to dislike.

So, yeah. I’m a snob. And proud of it. And you are and should embrace it as well.

(*Just noting that, if you reacted with a “he thinks that’s interesting,” it’s evidence of your own snobbery. Just sayin’.)