Friday, April 16, 2010

In The Political Wake

The Wake. Lisa Kron. dir. Leigh Silverman. Kirk Douglas Theater. 4/15/10.

Lisa Kron's new play, The Wake might be a truly great play. I don't think it's quite there yet. I wasn't completely seduced. But I'm totally interested in a second date.

The Wake is a soaring attempt to map the political on the personal, to discuss the politics of the last ten years from a point of view that is both embraces and indicts American liberalism and exactly the people Kron expects to find in her theater audiences. I don't completely buy it, but there are some absolutely stunning, true, painful moments along the way.

The story focuses (too much, if you ask me) on Ellen, played by Heidi Schreck, who was both the center point and the weak point in the play (probably through no fault of the actor's, who handled a ton of complicated dialogue with aplomb, if not charm). I just spent way too much of the play hating how utterly solipsistic she was. I think her privileged self-centeredness is an important point, but that it needs to be revealed more slowly; her astounding lack of awareness of anyone around her should only be completely understood in Act II, and before then she needs to show some redeeming qualities rather than just an egomaniacal tendency to lecture. As an audience member who believed immediately that Ellen was intended to be a representative of the play's audience, I wanted at least some sense of the good to entice me into accepting Kron's more difficult assessments.

Where the play really sings is in the group scenes. The ensemble of this play is truly excellent, and when all the characters get talking, they all have such great depth and humanity and differentiation to their interactions that I don't know how anyone could help but fall in love with them. Carson Elrod as Ellen's partner, Danny, and Andrea Frankle as his lesbian sister, Kayla were absolutely delightful, real, wonderful characters and Dierdre O'Connell as Judy as an older, acerbic, out-of-place houseguest and worldly foreign aid worker brightened the play up considerably and counteracted Ellen delightfully. I would have loved them to be more clearly developed in relationship to the play's political allegory. Why can't they all be developed as equal representations of failures and blind spots in the American character?

Where the play falls apart for me is in the burden it places on Ellen and the parallels it makes between the personal and the political for her. She spends far too much time talking directly to the audience, explaining revelations that should be made in conversations between characters. If I were in charge, I would eliminate all of these monologues except maybe the very first and trim all of Ellen's text. She's supposed to be talky, but I think that can be communicated more clearly and efficiently than it is. Some of these rants are smart, but none of them are entirely necessary. The play spends way too much time telling us that Ellen is smart and complicated when far too often what we see of her is one-note and simplistic, though verbose. I can accept intellectually that that is the point, but I find it profoundly unpleasant to have to sit through it. I would take away some of that, but spend a little more time working up the relationships between the political current events timeline and the personal events in the play. I liked very much in the end how Ellen in conversation with Judy jumped back and forth between relationships and politics, and I would have liked to see more hints of that during the rest of the play. The politics were generally represented by news clips and projections, which were very good, but didn't always work as well as I wanted them to as representations of the personal relationships. Perhaps they needed to be juxtaposed more closely, but I didn't always see which parallels the play wanted me to make. This is especially true in discussing the projection of American politics in the long term, which was actually smart and yet didn't clearly map to the personal/political allegory of the characters. Basically, it felt like Ellen was too static of a character and didn't really grow or change even in what should have been powerful revelations about herself and her belief. That may be true about us as a country, but it's pretty difficult for telling a story.

While it isn't by any means a perfect play and I definitely feel that it needs some cuts, The Wake is an unqualified success in that I left the theater thinking and talking about the play, and the politics. It reflects beautifully, if pessimistically, on where we are now, although the answers about what to do about it are disturbingly absent. I'm excited to hear about how it will grow and change at Berkeley Rep and the Public Theater. I'm so glad I got to see it first, and I hope that CTG will offer more exciting new plays (especially those by women!) like this.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Not-So-Noir New Musical

Nightmare Alley. The Geffen Playhouse. 4/12/10.

I feel guilty reviewing the shows I see at the Geffen, since I ended up with tickets for the first preview (hey, it's all I can afford) and at that stage, the productions often show signs of being not quite ready for prime time with flubbed lines and occasional acting failures. The cast of Nightmare Alley, however, seemed well-prepared and professional and deserves nothing but applause for their performances. The worst side-effect of the preview that I noticed was that the actors were over-mic'd so that their powerful voices were loud enough to be cringe-worthy from where I was in the back of the balcony. This show was excellently cast with talented performers who had lovely voices and handled the music beautifully. In fact, I loved the cast and most of the music. Larry Cedar was especially charming as Pete, the surprisingly spry drunken old carny who haunts the main character (Stan, played forcefully by James Barbour).

While the performances were great and the music enjoyable, the plot of the show decidedly needs work. The musical departs significantly from the 1947 Tyrone Power film, but I haven't read the book, so perhaps it remains true to that plot. Unfortunately, several of the plot points don't work particularly well as they stand in the musical at the moment. That gritty, dark nightmare sensibility is desperately missing in a show that otherwise has a lot of potential.

I like the choice to emphasize the carnival as being in the 1930s dust bowl and the sense of desperation and poverty barely contrasted with the hustle and artifice of a dingy sideshow provide a lot of evocative opportunity, of which the production fails to take full advantage. The carnival needs to be established early on (preferably with a strong opening production number, which this show lacked) as a combination of nightmare and promise. As an audience member, I need to feel the desperation and cynicism and fascination of the carnival as a "Nightmare Alley." Instead, the show opens with Zeena the fortune-teller (played by Mary Gordon Murray) moralizing about fate and choosing your path in a way that seems to shut down rather than compel the audience's engagement and imagination.

There was also an odd sense of referencing the Wizard of Oz, with Cedar as very Ray Bolger-esque, Glendening first appearing in the funnel hat of the the tin man, and Michael McCarty having some of the vaudeville spirit of the Bert Lahr's cowardly lion, but I thought these references did a disservice to the show, because the last thing we need from our leading man, who should be charming and ambitious and manipulative, is an association with the wide-eyed innocence of Judy Garland's Dorothy Gale. Stan should be at home in the carnival from the first, not as disoriented as Dorothy arriving in Oz, and while the moment of recognition of the allusions was fun, it took me out of the spirit of the show.

The show makes several similar unfortunate choices that imply the need for a bit of a re-write, but this is a musical that I want to fix, not dismiss. It has a lot of potential, but it doesn't yet capture the grittiness and desperation that it needs to make it work. Go see it for the music by Jonathan Brielle and some really strong performances, particularly by Sarah Glendening as the spirited ingenue and Cedar in several roles. Cedar's duet with Mary Gordon Murray, "I Get By," was my favorite number in the show by far. I was also happy to run across Melody Butiu, a local actress who I've seen in many excellent performances, as one of four severely underutilized chorusgirls/backup singers who need a more compelling role in the show. While I'm not an expert, their costumes suggested 1940s pinup rather than 1930s carnival worker to me and I would have rather seen them more clearly integrated into the scenes in which they performed. With a stronger opening and some plot and character revisions, this could be a really fun, dark musical, but it's not quite there yet.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

On My Radar

It's been forever since I've done this, but here are some events the internet should know more about:

The Wake, by Lisa Kron: Lisa Kron, one of the 5 Lesbian Brothers, though perhaps more famous for her Tony-nominated play, The Well, is back with a new work about politics, elections, and a burgeoning lesbian relationship. That's all I really know, except all the news and reviews are excellent. It's at the Kirk Douglas through April 18 and I MUST GO.

Circle X is currently doing Sheila Callaghan's Lascivious Something at Inside the Ford. It's set in Greece in the Reagan '80s and I'm totally curious. The title is wonderfully decadent. Plus, support woman playwrights!

Exploring Metaculture with Devil Bunny
Thursday, April 8, 2010
6:00 pm - 10:00 pm, Dodd Hall - Room 147

Join Devil Bunny in Bondage, AKA Gigi Otálvaro-Hormillosa, for an evening of performance, writing and video works, featuring a diverse cast of characters such as extraterrestrial, feminist heroes, cinematic gorillas in pink-ray, ethnotopic inverted minstrels, and supernatural mestizas that exist along various points of the time-space-culture continuum. The evening will end with an artist talk and Q & A.

And if I were in San Francisco:

APRIL 23rd-25th

intersection for the arts

Adelina Anthony writes: I'm excited to be one of the performers in "La Semilla Caminante/The Traveling Seed: A Multimedia Performance Work." It is a journey where indigenous myth resurfaces through contemporary story-telling. It is a story of travel, crossing river and ocean, and coming home to where we started. Created by ground-breaking artist activists Celia Hererra-Rodriguez, Cherríe Moraga & Alleluia Panis. (Tix $5-$15)