Saturday, April 29, 2006

Avante-garde but Accessible

Wilson, Robert, dir. The Black Rider. The Ahmanson Theatre. Los Angeles, CA. 4/28/06.

I really enjoyed The Black Rider, which was a "musical fable" based on a German folk tale with libretto by William S. Burroughs, music by Tom Waits, and direction and design by Robert Wilson. This is a fascinating combination of three very interesting and actually fairly distinct sensibilities. The resulting production was not exactly an opera, but more than a traditional piece of theater, and certainly not what one would expect from musical theater. It was what one would expect from Robert Wilson, famous for theatrical experiences such as Einstein on the Beach except relatively short (under 3 hours with 1 intermission) and honestly rather weirdly pleasant.

The feeling of the show was dark, but playful; it was very German, and it makes perfect sense that two of the leads (Matt McGrath as Wilhelm and Vance Avery as Pegleg) had both played the Emcee in Cabaret on Broadway. The leads (McGrath, Avery, and Mary Margaret O'Hara as Kathchen) were extremely skilled and did an excellent job at expressing Wilson's movement and Waits' music. I especially enjoyed McGrath in Wilhelm's dance at the crossroads, a beautiful moment in Act II.

The interesting thing about this show is that Act I and Act II were profoundly different, especially in pacing. Act I was relatively narrative and mostly clear, with songs frequently advancing the plot and a story progressing in a recognizable manner. Act II was more expressive, with much less happening in terms of action and more in visual spectacle and feeling. It was like one slowed down extended moment emphasizing the climax of the piece. The pacing for Act II seemed deliberately much slower, and more like what I expected from Robert Wilson. Looking back, I find the contrast between the two acts fascinating and delightful, an excellent choice for this strange piece of theater.

My overall opinion of this is that it has the advantages of Robert Wilson's work with a minimalization of the drawbacks; it's avante-garde and visually stunning but less maddeningly slow than some of his other work. It has a clear plot and sense of action, but it uses actors' bodies and visual spectacle as important instruments of the storytelling. If Robert Wilson, German Expressionism, or Avante-garde are ideas that appeal to you, I would recommend this piece. I certainly wouldn't take my mother, but I would take all my goth or hipster friends. It's an important theatrical experience, and while it's not for everyone, it is fascinating and well-done.

You might also be interested in the LA Times review, which I found quite informative.

UPDATE: Metroblogging LA also has a review up from someone who is less of a theater nerd, which some people might find useful in deciding whether or not to see this piece.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Lesbian Booksignings!

Two fun and exciting upcoming lesbian booksignings at Book Soup:

Thursday, May 25th, 7pm
Sarah Schulman presents and signs Empathy
The award-winning author of After Delores writes a novel that probes the
questions of sexual identity, self-renewal, and transformation. An office
temp's journey of self-discovery culminates when she meets another woman. (Arsenal Pulp)

Thursday, June 8th, 7pm
Alison Bechdel presents and signs Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
This breakout book by Alison Bechdel takes its place alongside the
unnerving, memorable, darkly funny family memoirs of Augusten Burroughs
and Mary Karr. It"s a father-daughter tale pitch-perfectly illustrated
with Bechdel"s sweetly gothic drawings and like Marjane Satrapi's
Persepolis, a story exhilaratingly suited to the graphic memoir form.
(Houghton Mifflin)

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Reasons to wish I were in NY

Besides the fact that many of my friends seem to be moving there:

Vaginal Davis is performing and hosting a Bricktops Manhattan as part of the Where Art and Life Collide series of events. How great does this sound:

Saturday, April 29, 7pm
Bricktops Club will take the streets of downtown Manhattan in full costume, parading as speakeasy characters of 1920s in broad daylight. At 7pm Failed Dwarfstar's Beatrice Glow and Bricktopschildren will be throwing a welcome party for Bricktops hostess Vaginal Cream Davis in the Soho boutique, Burrow. Come costumed...or else ready to be transformed, do the Charleston to live music, and sip some Bootlegged goodies!
Burrow, 31 Crosby St., between Grand and Broome

Thursday, May 4, 10:00 PM
Vaginal Davis will host a one night only revival of this 1920’s themed showstopper extravaganza of old-timey glamour as “Bricktops Takes Manhattan,” with salons, shacks and speakeasy installations built by Future Art Stars from the NYU Steinhardt Department of Art and Art Professions in collaboration with Obie and Bessie award winning set designer Michael Casselli. Produced by Earl Dax Presents, with performances by the DJ Billy Miller of Straight to Hell, John Blue, Jennifer Miller, Julie Atlas Muz, and Surprise Guests.
Siberia, 356 West 40th Street, $10

I'd also love to see Lisa Kron(formerly of the Five Lesbian Brothers)'s The Well before it closes. I hear (via Playgoer) that it's not doing well at filling a Broadway-size house and thus affordable tickets can be obtained. Which is sad, but also reason that those who can should go see it.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Church Lady Drag

Go To Church. The Cavern Club Theater. 4/16/06.

I was pretty excited to be spending Easter going to what I believed was a church-themed drag show in the basement of a Mexican restaurant with some of the people I've come to consider almost family. It felt queer and appropriate and subversive and wonderful. It was also a great warm-up for our upcoming Backyard Drag show whose theme was to be "High Church."

Sadly, "Go To Church" didn't live up to the appropriateness of the situation. It was more performance art than drag, which isn't necessarily a bad thing in my mind; the real disappointment was that after the first number, it rather lost its theme. It included several numbers and skits that had very little to do with church, including an interesting but inexplicable rendition of "Paper Roses" and an actually pretty funny talk show piece called "Two Jans and a Janet" featuring Selene Luna and the only cross-dressing of the night by Robbie D. The two of them made a great pair, but this closing bit went on a little too long. For the most part, the show felt like one big inside joke and some of the bits were funny but several of them seemed as if they were just filling up time. As this was their first of a series of performances, it felt a bit under-reheased and thrown together. Their next performance will feature drag queen Jackie Beat who I've heard is excellent and thus the show might get better, but personally I was disappointed. I rather suspect each of the performers has done and could do better work. I would have been happy if they had just managed to keep it all church-themed.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Al Pacino Show

Oscar Wilde's Salome. The Wadsworth Theatre. Brentwood, CA. 4/20/06.

It seems that when this production was in New York, it was publicized as Oscar Wilde's Salome: The Reading. Somehow, the subtitle was dropped in LA publicity and thus I was suprised to see music stands and folding chairs on stage at the Wadsworth. I'm not sure minimalism does credit to Wilde's opulent poetry in Salome (the text of which is available here if you're interested), though the reading does place emphasis on the language and the acting. With nothing else to look at on stage, Al Pacino as Herod and Jessica Chastain as Salome embraced the challenge of commanding the audience's full attention and bringing life to to an extremely lush script almost entirely though personal charisma.

In this particular version, Al Pacino as Herod very clearly stole the show. His spectacular portrayal of a proud and dissolute king kept the audience engaged through long speeches in which all he did was list possessions or boast of his power. He is very clearly a masterful actor who made this role his own, and I feel fortunate to have witnessed his skill in person.

Jessica Chastain in many ways had a much more challenging job in interpreting the role of Salome, and though she was beautiful and compelling in the role, there were moments when the reading style of the performance held her back. To be denied the horror of seeing her kiss Jokanaan's lifeless head made the end of the play strange and abrupt, making her seem more childish and less passionate. Similarly, relying entirely on text instead of connection or touch between the actors made her passion for Jokanaan and her rejection by him seem awkward and superficial. The stilted lack of interaction between the actors did, however, throw into relief the moment in which Salome danced. She stepped out of the reading style and took possesion of the stage and the audience's gaze in a dance that quickly passed from a fairly traditional-seeming (not that I'm an expert) belly dance to a bare-breasted modern frenzy. The dance and certainly her body were compelling, though I think that as the centerpiece of the show, it should have lasted a little longer and transitioned more slowly from sexy to insane.

Overall, it was an interesting but odd production that showcased good acting, but perhaps did not do justice to the spirit of Wilde's text.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

My Lukewarm Reaction to the Ahmanson's New Season

CTG announced their lineup for next season. The LA Times reports it here. As the Times indicates, it's rather deficient on new and exciting work. The shows are mostly Broadway imports, including Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf complete with stars Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin and Doubt starring Cherry Jones. I'm a little ambivalent about the whole thing. It's nice, and very convenient, to have some of the most exciting things from Broadway come to LA mostly intact, but it's not exactly inspiring to just be the second or third stop for shows that have already played in New York and London. As our largest and most expensive local theater, I'd like to see the Ahmanson do some new and exciting work, but it matters much more to me what they schedule for the Taper and the Kirk Douglas. I haven't attended either of those smaller theaters this season, mostly because I was so disappointed in Michael Ritchie's decimation of Gordan Davidson's tradition of developing new work, often by queers and people of color, in favor of programming "classics" such as The Cherry Orchard or relying on the names of famous playwrights (David Mamet) and actors (Alfred Molina, Laurence Fishburne) to sell the shows.

In terms of the Ahmanson's season, it actually looks rather inticing, if not really inspiring. The season consists of two classics (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Twelve Angry Men), two of last year's biggest new works from Broadway (Doubt and Light in the Piazza), a new (if not terribly original-sounding) musical (Berry Gordy's Aint No Mountain High Enough), and Matthew Bourne's Edward Scissorhands, which I really do want to see. Though it would be nice to see the Ahmanson do more that's original and exciting, this is a solid season to which I would at least consider subscribing. At least there aren't any holes in the season this time. The whole thing is very commercial, clearly designed to appeal (almost exclusively) to middle-class, middle-aged white people who pay attention to what's on Broadway but don't travel there, and who can affort to go to the Ahmanson. There's absolutely nothing reflective of or particularly relevant to LA or its population, but these are mildly intereting shows that I would rather like to see.

On the Margins

Violet Blue posted today that Patrick Califia recently suffered from a heart attack. A friend reports that he is recovering, but facing terrible medical bills without insurance.

An article by Califia was one of the first things I read in grad school, and I have been extremely grateful for all of his work that I have discovered since. Public Sex is one of my favorite books, a brilliant combination of scholarship and passion in clear, intelligent essays. His erotica manages to push my buttons perfectly, no matter the gender, sexuality, or species of its subjects. I would gladly encourage you to rush out and buy any or all of his books, depending on your taste (tell me if you want a review or recommendation).

But more importantly, this is a reminder that many of my favorite writers and performers are working without a net. There are no health insurance providers and often no retirement accounts, savings or middle-class families to fall back on for performance artists, freelance writers, and sex radicals. Peggy Shaw references her uninsured status in Menopausal Gentleman, and Susie Bright asks for donations so that she can afford to give some of her writing time away for free on her blog. These people provide work of great value in this world, and in doing so are uncared for by our system. Califia deserves whatever people can give him to help ease his pain and provide for his ongoing medical care. Califia's LiveJournal page and his website provide information on how to donate via PayPal or postal mail. Please, do what you can to support him and other other writers and performers working on the margins of regular employment, steady paychecks, and health insurance. Do it so that hopefully they can worry less about money and instead spend their time experiencing life and writing about it, sharing with us as much of their work as possible.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Theater at its Best

Miller, Arthur. All My Sons. The Geffen Playhouse. 3/12/06.

I'm not actually a huge Arthur Miller fan. I understand why he's important and I respect his skill as a writer, but I've never really loved his work. I've read Death of a Salesman and The Crucible a million times each, and I saw The Ride Down Mt. Morgan on Broadway, but in general, I wouldn't exactly rush out to see an Arthur Miller play. I'm more likely to write it off as heavy-handed American Realism, obsessed with fathers and sons and the suffering of the straight, white, middle-class American male. While all these assumptions aren't entirely false, they fail to encompass my experience this evening.

All My Sons at the Geffen was extemely well-crafted in every aspect of the production, and as such it was a truly wonderful experience at the theater. It actually energized me, making me want to see more theater, and left me a bit stunned at the skill of playwright, director, cast, and everyone else involved. A significant portion of what made this play so great for me had a lot to do with a fabulous cast, headed by Len Cariou (Sweeney Todd on Broadway), Laurie Metcalf (original member of the Steppenwolf and most famous as the sister from Rosanne), and Neil Patrick Harris (Rent, Assassins, and of course Doogie Howser). Harris blew me away; his character was the conscience of the play and he appeared from his entrance as both a good, decent guy and a reasonably complex character so that his morality was believable. This man is a truly skilled actor, and I should remember to see anything else in which he performs whenever I have the chance. Len Cariou as the flawed patriarch did an excellent job at seeming lovable even as his morally corrupt actions were exposed. In this, only the second performance, he seemed to be grasping for lines at several points especially in the first act, but he made this stumbling sound more like character-appropriate senility than the mistake that I assume it was. Laurie Metcalf as the mother gave a compelling and nuanced performance that kept the play from being carried away entirely by fathers and sons. Amy Sloan rounded out the main characters of the play with compelling strength and practicality and held her own among these luminaries.

When I say that this play was well-crafted, I mean that everything seems to have been done with skill, passion, committment and energy. Not only the acting, which was fabulous from leads Harris, Metcalf and Cariou to little Sterling Beaumon as the neighbor kid, but even the sets (by Robert Blackman) and the costumes (by David Mickelsen) were extremely well-done with excellent attention to detail. The high-waisted '50s pants caught my attention, as did the full facades of neighboring houses that extended the realism into the wings. Excellent pacing drove to a rapid conclusion that left me a little shocked, but greatful for not having been dragged slowly through Miller's moralizing. Artistic Director Randall Arney deserves credit at the helm of an outstanding production. I highly recommend it, as both classic and timely, but mostly as excellent theater.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Drag for the whole family

Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance. Ahmanson Theater. 4/6/06.

Dame Edna is the giga-star (that much more than a mega-star) drag persona of Barry Humphries. She's a hilarous comedian with fabulously glittery costumes, and I laughed outrageously throughout the show. The performance was well-written, well-paced (it was nearly 3 hours long, but the time flew by!), and funny thoughout. Dame Edna performed songs and dances and fabulous audience interaction, which is not easy in a venue as large as the Ahmanson. It was quite nice to be in the back and thus know that we were safe from being called on by the Dame herself. It's a wonderful show and anyone who goes is sure to laugh until they hurt. I was especially impressed by the full costume change for the curtain call and the animatronic flowers, both of which were hilarious. So go to the show; you'll love it, I'm sure.

I couldn't help thinking throughout the show, however, that this was drag for straight people. It was safe, middle-class, all white, and not very political. Edna performed couples counseling, choosing a nice married couple out of the audience to drag on stage and embarrass. Humphries' bio carefully mentions his wife and children. It's all of the fun and camp and sequins of a drag show without those pesky homosexuals. While extremely queer and fabulous performers like Lypsinka are performing to half-full houses in tiny venues and Vaginal Davis is semi-homeless when she's here in LA, I felt a little guilty that my money was going to support Dame Edna. I felt as if I should instead spend my time and money at The Cavern Club Theater and Backyard Drag supporting local queer performers. And where are the fabulous, famous drag kings, btw?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Film Noir Festival!

This week and next (April 7-16), the Egyptian and the Aero Theaters will be conducting the 8th Annual Festival of Film Noir. They will be showing some famous noir films such as The Damned Don't Cry and some obscure and newly restored films such as Angel's Flight. They especially focus on films set and shot in LA. Some personal highlights include:

The Damned Don't Cry (1950), Saturday, April 8, starring Joan Crawford.

Ruby Gentry (1952), Saturday, April 8, directed by King Vidor. With Charlton Heston and Karl Malden. Tagline: "The story of Ruby Gentry, who wrecked a whole town - man by man...sin by sin."

Beyond the Forest (1949), Saturday, April 8, directed by King Vidor, starring Bette Davis.

Don't Bother to Knock (1952), Sunday, April 9, starring Marilyn Monroe and Anne Bancroft.

No Man of Her Own (1950), Saturday, April 15, starring Barbara Stanwyck.

Most of the showings are double features, so you get a whole evening of double-crosses, murder, and femmes fatales. The full calendar is here. So, anyone want to go to a movie (or two) with me? This might very well be my plan for Saturday night.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Children's Musical Round-up

Dr. Dolittle. Orange County Performing Arts Center. 3/23/06.
Honk! Laguna Playhouse. 3/31/06.

These are two familiar stories made into musicals best suited for children, but fun nonetheless. Dr. Dolittle is most memorable for Tommy Tune's performance; he's an extremely skilled entertainer and he carries a musical with a tenuous plot and little else to speak for it. At over 60, Tune's tap-dancing is wonderfully skillful; I would gladly have clamored for more and more. The sets and costumes were also well done (by Kenneth Foy and Ann Hould-Ward respectively) and extremely fun and colorful. Talented twelve-year-old tap-dancer Aaron Burr (yes, really) as Chee-Chee the Monkey also had a delightful tap dancing scene and a charismatic, playful performance throughout the show. Dee Hoty as the leading lady in the show did an admirable job in a role that wasn't thoroughly fleshed-out. The main problem with the show, however, was that its plot was rather tenuous, better for children with short attention spans and little care for continuity, than adults that may want to think about the show even a little.

Honk! had slightly more substance but not a great deal. It's the story of the Ugly Duckling, adapted into a children's musical, including several roles for children. The Laguna Playhouse used it as an opportunity to showcase the students in their conservatory program as chicks, ducklings, and froglets (including some pretty impressive dancing) while hiring adults to take the major roles. This show was also cute and has a little more substance to keep the parents interested. The sets by Wally Huntoon created an adorable larger-than-life watercolor farm. My major complaint here was the costumes, which looked quite low-budget including a few too many sweatpants and tennis shoes for my taste. In the costumer's defense, there were an awful lot of characters to outfit in this production with what was, I'm sure, a tiny budget, and certainly some costumes were better than others. I just don't think sweats are ever really the right choice, and especially with the goslings I had a lot of trouble figuring out what animal the characters were supposed to be.

Both of these productions were light and fun and good for children, but I wouldn't rush out as an adult to either of them. Do bring your kids, though; teach them the magic of theater while they're young and start a tradition of theatrical attendance now.