Friday, October 21, 2005

You say 'relic' like it's a bad thing

Goldoni, Carlo. Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters. Piccolo Teatro di Milano. Giorgio Strehler, dir. Freud Playhouse, UCLA. 10/21/05.

Ferruccio Soleri first played Arlecchino in 1960 and has been performing this play for 50 years. The production, directed by Giorgio Strehler, has existed more or less intact for even longer, although Soleri is credited with restaging it after Strehler died in 1997. The play itself was written by Goldoni in 1747. It was based on earlier Italian commedia dell'arte which in turn was strongly influenced by Roman Plautine comedy. It's a production with an awfully long history. Sometimes that makes it feel old, especially in that Soleri is 70 years old, so while he did a great job, one can assume he would have been a litle more spry in the role when he was younger.

This was actually a really fun show, in that commedia is a fun genre and this was a strong example of it. There were several ridiculous and hilarious moments and I found myself laughing out loud on occasion. It was, however, 3 hours long, which feels a little extreme for a comedy of mistaken identities and wacky antics. Occasionally it was a bit slow and probably could have been trimmed a bit. There were moments where it felt weird being in a dark theater watching a play that evoked the roots of commedia when it would have been performed in a bustling marketplace.

But overall, I had a great time. Stock characters, slapstick, pratfalls, and other commedia humor still makes for a great show. Soleri was quite agile and did a good job of holding the audience's attention regardless of his age.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A Play in Search of A Genius

Svich, Caridad. Iphigenia Crash Land Falls On The Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable). In Divine Fire: Eight Contemporary Plays Inspired by the Greeks. Ed. Caridad Svich. New York: Backstage Books, 2005.

More people should read this play. It's a play with a great title and a lot of potential. I want to see it, and I want to see it done well. I want a collaboration between Luis Alfaro and Francesca Lia Block, possibly with help from the Butchlalis de Panochtitlan. I believe this play could be amazingly brilliant, but I'm torn. It requires a brilliant video artist, a brilliant sound designer, and a director with vision and a decent urban glam rave sensibility. Plus, there should be an awareness of both queer politics and Latino/Chicano issues and culture.

Apparently they did it at 7 Stages in Atlanta, which I hear has a good queer contingent, so that gives me some hope. There are some pictures here.

Anyway, the play seems totally fascinating, but it's also kind of hard to visualize because projections and music play such important roles in the production. It is in many ways about atmosphere and surface and I'm not entirely sure about what's below the surface but I think it feels right to me. The play is making comments about sacrifice, teenage sexuality, indulgence, and celebrity but it's not saying anything didactically, so it's hard to think about the point below the story and to distinguish that from tone and mood. I need to think about it more. I also need to read Euripedes Iphigenia so I know where Svich is coming from.

But this comes in a series of recent plays in which queer Chicano/a playwrights adapt Greek tragedies. I'd love to see a festival reminiscent of the ancient Greek festival of Dionysus in which three tragedies and one comedy were presented in the span of a single day as a trilogy of related themes. I would put Luis Alfaro's Electricidad at noon under the heat of an LA sun and the powerlines pulsing. Sunset would fall at the end of Cherrie Moraga's Hungry Woman and the rave of Svich's Iphigenia Crash Land Falls... would lead us into the dark. It would be a strange, beautiful experience.

But back to Iphigenia. There are some confusing vaguenesses in just reading the script and I'm not sure what some of the elements really mean. It references maquilladoras and desaparacidos and features a dictador that could be Juan Peron, Hugo Chavez, or George W. Bush, leaving a director or reader to infer what to make of these references. In fact, it felt very topical in terms of Dubya wrangling rebellious Bush twins. The male lead is supposedly a "transgender rock star" but it's unclear whether that means he's a transman or an effeminate biological male. In fact, I'm not sure whether its transgendered politics are in the right place at all, which is a big issue. Is this campy crossdressing or trans awareness? Why do they need to be transgendered; what does it mean? I still have a lot of questions about this play, but I very much want to see it done and done well.

A Good Moment for Brecht

There's a lot of Brecht going on at the moment.

Caucasian Chalk Circle just closed at South Coast Rep.

Threepenny Opera is running at the Odyssey Theatre through Nov. 27.

Mother Courage opens on Oct. 29 at The Theatre at Boston Court.

Are L.A. Theater companies slowly becoming more politically aware? Are they using this for actual contemporary commentary? Will there be audiences? I'm kind of curious, though I hear that the Caucasian Chalk Circle was a little fluffy and uncritical. I'm most interested in Threepenny; Brecht is more fun with more music.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

More Psychotic

Futher thoughts on 4.48 Psychose, perhaps occasioned by the New York Times article preceeding its performance in Brooklyn.

First, Isabelle Huppert is indeed phenomenal. She manages to be riveting despite speaking for an hour and a half in a language I don't understand without moving. She also appears without makeup in this production, looking her age, tired, even a bit haggard, even though she remains one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen. Her physical, vocal, and facial expression remain extremely articulate, implying that language is almost unnecessary. She remains the strength and the weakness of this production; it could not be done with anyone else, and the minimalist intensity relies entirely on her skill and her fame in certain intellectual circles. Anyone who as not seen her films, for whom she herself is not part of the attraction of this play, who cannot appreciate her uncharacteristic vulnerability, will get much less out of the production.

Second, the fact that the play is in French is not the problem. The fact that the play is so incredibly minimalist that the audience has not even language to rely on makes it more difficult. But the problem is that this is a brilliant, beautifully-written text and the production in many ways foregrounds that text with Huppert's stunning articulation. The drawback is that this makes it feel like a French lesson; the words are clearly spoken but their meaning not fully grasped. Not understanding the words means that much of the mordant humor, the hope, the potential of Kane's text is lost in translation or lack thereof. This production means something so different when you hear the words but not all of their resonances, not the profound depth of their meanings. The very fact that I know and love the text of the play made it more frustrating for me that I couldn't understand all of the words.

Third, while I'm not sure seeing this play in French is the greatest thing ever, and perhaps I would have enjoyed it much more in English, I'm so incredibly glad that I saw this production. It gave me a feeling of insight into how the play itself worked and it was an extremely intense, emotional experience despite the language barrier. I learned that part of how Psychosis works is by putting the audience into almost a trance state, so you can feel the barrenness and desolation about which the character speaks. Emotional vulnerability not only of the actors but the audience is essential to the play. You have to make the audience brutally aware of their own embodiment, the act of sitting there watching, thinking, feeling. It has to be an experience of the self as much as of the play, which leaves me in an incredibly strange emotional state. It leaves me raw, emotional, introspective and that is the greatest contribution of the play.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Tough on the Psyche

Kane, Sarah. 4.48 Psychose. Starring Isabelle Huppert. UCLA Live. 10/5/05.

I didn't post a review of this when I first saw it. Partially because it took some time to think about, partially because the things I have to say about it are about as minimalist as the production itself. But then I read this blog post about the early press for the production when it gets to BAM in New York and I thought maybe it was worth saying something, however conflicted, about my experience at this production.

First of all, my thoughts fall somewhere in between The Playgoer's and the article to which he was responding. I agree with the premise that an informed audience is better than a suprised audiend. I found the idea, however, that fluent French was a requirement for "decent theatregoing Manhattanites" to be profoundly elitist and a bit disturbing. While a solid working knowledge of the "classical" languages would be lovely for all educated adults, it's not a feasible reality in this day and age. Would he be making the same comment about Arabic? Chinese? As a native Californian, I would have understood the play quite a bit better if it were entirely in Spanish because that's the more practical language to undestand in my life. Seeing theater in other languages is a difficult experience and a good thing to do, but it is reasonable to inform the predominantly English-speaking New York audience that a play originally written in English won't be performed in English. Warning the audience makes sense to me.

I also found the assertion that all problems would be solved if everyone would just bother "to read the play beforehand. When it's a classic, like a familiar Shakespeare, it's really no problem to at least follow where they are in the play. Such effort is called preparing. And perhaps what ticks me off is that is what is mocked most in McKinley's article." Now, I can't comment on McKinley's article (I refuse to pay to get it out of the NYTimes archive), but I know 4.48 Psychosis. I've read the play at least 3 times and seen the British Royal Court production twice. I know this play well and I love it. But reading it is a very different experience from seeing it. It's more of a poem than a narrative in which one can "follow where they are in the play" and without any movement whatsoever, there's not a lot of following to be done.

I personally was the recipient of one of these warning letters when I purchased my ticket to the production, and I must admit that I scoffed at it. I was amused at the idea that the audience had to be warned, but I also didn't realize that there wouldn't be consistent supertitles so I was glad to know. And my letter did include encouragement to read the play beforehand and an offer of the text online. Personally, I would much rather have an informed audience than the few people who didn't read the letter and therefore walked out 15 minutes into the show or even worse, boo'd at the end.

Now with all of this discussion, it makes it sound like it was a horrible production and I didn't enjoy it. That is very much not the case. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. And I'm not at all opposed to seeing plays in foreign languages that I don't understand. This one was strange and fascinating and gave me some good insights into a play I know and love.

The Surrealist Theater is Empty

all wear bowlers. dir. Aleksandra Wolska. The Kirk Douglas Theatre. 10/18/2005.

After all of my disappointment with the Center Theatre Group's season, I ended up seeing all wear bowlers at the Kirk Douglas with my parents this weekend. It was probably a mistake, since I feel so repulsed by Ritchie's programming, but director Wolska worked at my alma mater right before I got there, so I feel a personal connection that motivated me to see her work.

This piece was quite entertaining and flawlessly executed. Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle are extremely talented perfomers and the production itself was quite clever. It began with delightful clown routines and playful gestures, and by the end it was mildly terrifying and evoked existential dread. The perfomers all seem extremely well-educated, perfectly familiar with the Beckett, Magritte, and Laurel and Hardy upon whom they were building.

Unfortunately, the performance itself left me asking, "so what?" It was entertaining, but was there a point? They are clever and witty, but why should I care? It seemed to be all empty virtuosity that was tragically irrelevant. They certainly didn't manage to change my mind about Michael Richie's programming for CTG. And halfway through the play I was struck by the shocking revelation that Ritchie is completely evacuating the potential of the Kirk Douglas as a space in a shameful way. They are going to dedicate it almost entirely to children's theater and productions from elswhere and completely write it off. That's a tragic failure to live up to its potential and Gordon Davidson's plans.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

More on Pinter

I believe I can be a little more articulate on my feelings about Pinter - I was reacting in a hurry earlier. I am glad that a playwright won the Nobel Prize. I believe Pinter deserves quite a bit of recognition for what he has done. He's a fascinating playwright mostly because his plays have a great deal of depth that leaves room for actors' and directors' interpretation. However, his portrayals of women disturb me profoundly. They are all a combination of uptight frigid bitch and whore. Seriously, think of Ruth in The Homecoming or the woman in The Servant or Stella in The Collection. He's working out some serious sexual issues with women by turning them into these weird dark fantasy creatures. Even creepier that most of these women were played by Vivan Merchant, who was his wife. So if you can turn off all feminism and other forms of identity politics (Pinter's characters occasionally make really strange racist remarks where you don't know if Pinter is making fun of his characters or not and I believe almost all of his plays are all white) then sometimes you can enjoy how nasty the people are to each other, but I always have reservations. Pinter's plays aren't enjoyable, and generally they aren't really political either. Thinking about the implications generally upsets me. The thing he seems to be doing most with plays such as The Lover or The Homecoming is shattering middle class repressed sexuality, which is a good thing, but he seems to do it in such an anti-woman way that it disturbs me. Not that his men necessarily come off well, but the women always seem to be a bit of this same woman.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Whatever Happened to Crazy Joan?

Lypsinka. The Passion of the Crawford. The L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center's Lily Tomlin Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center. 10/14/05.

John Epperson as Lypsinka as Joan Crawford in The Passion of the Crawford. Well, if that isn't a giant mess of identities, I don't know what is! In many ways, I don't know what to make of this show. Now don't get me wrong; I thoroughly enjoyed it. I laughed out loud and I laughed often, but it wasn't quite what I expected. I anticipated a sort of collage show of Crawford's greatest and lowest moments and especially bits of Mommie Dearest. Instead, Lypsinka perfomed mostly excerpts from a live interview with Crawford (in front of a live audience), which provided an interesting object on which she could practice her art.

The performance became very much about Lyspinka's gestures and facial expressions, particularly the way in which she punctuated the pauses in Crawford's speech with tics and twitches and the way she reacted to the interviewer, who was played delightfully by Steve Cuiffo. My favorite moment was when she was reminiscing about the star system and said "but I don't live in the past." I wish I had an exact quote for this because it was very meta.

The interview was occasionally cut with interludes of Joan singing, which were extremely strange, and scenes from another interview in which the inteviewer visited Crawford's home at Christmas, suggesting the reality of Mommie Dearest. After the interview section, Lypsinka performed Crawford reading a strange children's poem, which was even weirder. This part was a little slow, and since the poem made very little sense, my mind kept wandering. In the end was a final breakdown, in which a bunch of very short clips of Joan were spliced together into a collage of insanity, which was kind of fun. I felt bad because I didn't necessarily get all the references, being most familiar with Crawford from Mildred Pierce and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, but a lot of the sections were actually bits from the earlier interview so that worked out OK.

Crawford is such an interesting person to impersonate because later in her career (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane) she became such a mockery of herself anyway. With her giant bushy eyebrows and broad shoulders, she looked like a drag queen herself. It was interesting to see the video montage at the beginning of the performance which included plenty of her earlier work and even some musicals, because I was suprised to be reminded that at one time she actually was a beautiful women. She says in the interview that she could never play an ingenue, but she was indeed actually a starlet and at one point she looked the part.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Reflections on Pinter, Nobel Laureate

Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize. Of course this is quite an honor, and playwrights, especially extremely political playwrights, are rare recipients. The New York Times makes a good point about Pinter seeming to be a political choice for the Nobel Committee - he's a vocal opponent of the Iraq war. In fact, he recently announced that he was retiring from playwriting in order to concentrate on political writing and poetry.

I've spent a fairly significant amount of time with Pinter's plays recently, and I have to say that I'm not entirely a giant fan of Pinter's writing. It is endlessly fascinating, mentally stimulating material with which to work, but I've never particularly enjoyed watching it. All his plays have the same rhythms, the same speech patterns, and a very similar set of mysterious incidents, so en masse they seem rather overwhelming and somewhat monotonous. And bad productions of Pinter are quite possibly the most miserable experience on the planet.

Pinter is certainly brilliant and quite deserving of theis phenomenal honor, even if he's not always for me.

Friday, October 07, 2005

John Fleck makes a great lesbian

Greenspan, David. She Stoops to Comedy. The Evidence Room. 10/7/05.

John Fleck is my hero. He's hilarious. He can make just about anything funny. And in this case, he played a lesbian with no costuming, no elaborate drag, no offensive sterotypes; it was wonderful. She Stoops to Comedy is a play about an actress, Alexandra Page, whose estranged girlfriend is heading off to Maine to do Shakespeare in a barn (haven't we all been there at some point?). In order to make sure the girlfriend doesn't fall in love with a costar (or various other possible motivations), Alex heads off to take the role of Orlando opposite the girlfriend's Rosalind in As You Like It. Cross-dressing without costume changes and complicated sexual tension ensues. I could watch John Fleck play a lesbian diva for all eternity. He was awesome and over the top, but entirely with voice and gesture - the play was quite sparse in terms of costumes and sets and Fleck looked like Fleck whether playing Alexandra Page or Harry Sampson.

The script itself was a bit too self-indulgently PoMo at times. There were moments where it dragged and some moments were extremely awkward. And the entire heterosexual director subplot was boring and extraneous. I don't even know what to make of the whole gay man "who needs another play about me?" section. I think I might have been offended by that. But on the upside, Shannon Holt played dual roles as a rival diva and a lighting designer/archeologist who also happened to be ex-lovers and had an amazing, hilarious scene together. While there were some problems, overall this production had some moments of brilliance that make it absolutely worth the trip. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Is one trial as good as another?

Lawrence, Jerome and Robert E. Lee. Inherit the Wind. New York; Bantam Books, 1960?

Inherit the Wind is a fictionalized version of the Scopes Monkey Trial. The names have been changed to protect the historically inaccurate, but there's no attempt the hide the fact that they're rehashing the trial. Clarence Darrow becomes Mr. Drummond and William Jennings Bryant becomes Matthew Harrison Brady; it doesn't take much sleuthing to find the similaritites. What is most interesting, however, is the fact that the play, written in 1955 about a trial that took place in 1925, says that its time is "Summer. Not too long ago." and that it takes place in "A small town." I'm not the first one to think that this great American Courtroom Drama was written with the McCarthy hearings in mind, nor that it's become strangely relevant once again as the Kansas City School Board battles over Intellligent Design. While it is supposedly creationism against evolution on the witness stand, in reality it is freedom of speech. But these are not the same issue. Inherit the Wind is about the right to disbelieve, to question, to think. It's not really about evolution, though of course that is in there as well. It's about learning. And in a way it says that it's better to be a believer than a cynic; Mr. Hornbeck the athiest newspaperman doesn't come off very well in the play. It's a play about great men battling over great ideas, in the fine tradition of Roman oratory, though of course it it Rachel whose soul is at stake and who, in the end, learns to question authority and think for herself.

But what does the title mean: "He that troubleth his own house Shall inherit the wind?" Both of these men are all wind, really, and in a way Matthew Harrison Brady is the tragic hero of the piece - we can tell because he dies at the end. The quote seems to say 'don't rock the boat' which is not exactly the point of the play.

Katherine of Arrogance, Kate the Cursed

Lombardo, Matthew. Tea at Five. Pasadena Playhouse. 10/2/2005.

For me, Tea at Five was a fascinating play that fell apart at the end. In this play, Kate Mulgrew played Katherine Hepburn, at her parents' beach house at Fenwick, Connecticut at two points in her life, 1938 and 1983. According to the program note, the play was written for Mulgrew based entirely on the fact that Lombardo noticed a resemblance between the two. And in many ways, the strength of the play was indeed the imersonation Mulgrew did. It came on strong at the beginning with a heavy accent. The first act in many ways was about Mulgrew posing to affect Hepburn's long, active, lounging look. This act takes place in 1938 as Hepburn retreats from Hollywood after several box office flops to wait to hear if she got the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. What a different movie that would have been! She talks about her relationships, her family, her stage carreer, and my personal favorite was her performance of the morbid calla lillies scene from The Lake, famous for Dorthy Parker's review that "Hepburn ran the gamut from A to B" and Hepburn's subsequent performance of the scene in Stage Door. This act was a little stilted at first, but quite fun once it got going. Mulgrew's technical imitation was excellent, if a little charicatured, and very clearly drawn from a lot of watching Hepburn's movies.

The second half, however, disturbed me a little. It a lot of ways it was the Hepburn I was most familiar with: old, fragile, a little shaky. It was Hepburn in 1983 and she seemed more sorry for herself than spunky. She did a some reminiscing about Spencer Tracy, basically saying that even if he mistreated and abused and never acknowledged her, it was good to have someone who needed her. It was a weird self-effacing depiction of Hepburn as tragic figure and way too psychological. The play seemed really focused on the men in Hepburn's life, the fact that she never got approval from her father and then looked for that mistreatment from Tracy. The whole thing creeped me out.

Honestly, I enjoyed Cate Blanchett as the Great Kate in The Aviator more, but I think that's because the part was more well-written, less stilted and actually showing more personality. I would love to see Mulgrew do Kate in a better vehicle, because I feel that this play was unfortunately not as well-written as it could be, though it was fun to see.