A Tempest from Korea

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , , , on November 23, 2014 by travsd

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How fortunate we were to get to see Mokwha Repertory Company’s adaptation of The Tempest during its brief three-day run at La MaMa. The South Korea based company specializing in bringing traditional Korean folk and theatrical techniques and aesthetics to modern (often Western) works and audiences. Their version of The Tempest, adapted and directed by artistic director Tae-Suk Oh merges Shakespeare’s late play with a tale from Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, set in 5th century Korea. The spine of the plot and breakdown of the scenes is essentially Shakespeare’s; things like names and the addition of some specific magical creatures seem to have come from the Korean folktale.

Having only gotten three hours of sleep the night before, my main worry when we walked into the theatre last night was whether I’d be able to stay awake. That proved not to be a problem. From the very first second the production grabbed my attention and held it without flagging until the very last of several well-deserved curtain calls. Directors and actors within the sound of my hearing: I urge you if at all possible (and if there are any tickets left) to go see the 4pm matinee today, the final performance. I feel like this show has doubled my entire storehouse of staging and character solutions. So much on view was so RIGHT, and yet accomplished in a manner I’d never encountered before. The titular storm, orchestrated by Prospero (Youngkwang Song) on loud, thundering drums, was enacted by the dancing company waving bolts of white fabric. Fire: a similar dance with red fans. Woodland creatures and mythological beasts: uncanny mask work, with the ingenious solution of orienting some of the masks on the back of the head so the actor could quickly shift identities. One of the more monstrous Calibans I’ve sever seen: a two headed creature (Seungyeol Lee and Seungbae Lee), sporting a pair of tiny doll hands.

And this is one of the few productions of any high comedy I’ve ever seen where the young lover characters (Yeonju Jung and Bonghyun Kim) were more funny, interesting and worth watching than the clowns. This is because the director has seen fit to express a core thematic element that I think most directors take for granted and so gloss over: that the young people are YOUNG (vital, full of life, innocent and good) thus giving strong motivation to Prospero to nurture and encourage them; for they are the only hope for for the future of a world that has been so cruel to him. Ferdinand and Miranda flit and frolic throughout the space with the wide-eyed energy of fawns, an openness (especially in the case of Miranda) that is often humorous. And Ferdinand is so full of vitality that several times in the show he breaks into a spontaneous hand-stand.

So this version of The Tempest is not just funny and original, but it “gets it right” on the fundamentals in a way that modern-day productions of Shakespeare seldom do. Or as the Mad Marchioness put it so perfectly: “We’ve learned two lessons: 1) Don’t be boring, and 2) Do the play.

This version of The Tempest is the second installment of a three part series being presented at La MaMa. For more on the overall project see my article here: http://thevillager.com/2014/10/23/a-tempest-trilogy-galvanized-by-sandys-tide/

More on the show is here: http://lamama.org/the-tempest/

Tomorrow on TCM: Comedies of Joe E. Brown

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , on November 23, 2014 by travsd

Actor Joe E. Brown

Tomorrow on Turner Classic Movies, a day long tribute to the great comedian Joe E. Brown (for a full bio on Brown, read my post here).

Best known today for his late turns in films like Some Like It Hot (1959) and Show Boat (1951), Brown was one of Hollywood’s top comedy stars of the 1930s. He made so many comedies during that decade, that despite the fact that I have seen eleven of them, only one of those is represented in the list below. Tomorrow will be a chance to double my exposure to him. And that will STILL leave a long list of his movies I won’t have seen.

Rarely has there been a comedian so prolific during the talking era who has gone on to being so forgotten in the present day. It’s a head scratcher: not only was Brown screamingly hilarious, but he was a decent actor. But most of his starring vehicles were assembly line product, far from classics. But it’s worth watching them just to get close to Brown’s talent. Tomorrow they’ll be showing these (times indicated are Eastern Standard Time):

6am: 11 Men and a Girl (1930)

7:15am: Top Speed (1930)

8:30am: Broadminded (1931)

9:45am: Going Wild (1931)

11am: Local Boy Makes Good (1931)

12:15pm: Sit Tight (1931)

1:45pm: Fireman, Save My Child (1932)

3pm: Six Day Bike Rider (1934)

4:15pm: A Very Honorable Guy (1934)

5:30pm: Earthworm Tractors (1936)

6:45pm: Polo Joe (1936)

For more on comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Charley Chase in “All Wet”

Posted in Charley Chase, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , on November 23, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the one reel Charley Chase comedy All Wet (1924), directed by Leo McCarey. This is one of the series of Hal Roach comedies in which Chase portrays a character named “Jimmy Jump”. Jimmy gets a telegram about a litter of pups which he needs to go retrieve. The entirety of the film is about his struggles to get to the train station.  The film’s memorable (indeed, notorious) set piece occurs when he stops his car in order to tow someone who’s stuck in the mud, does so and then gets stuck in the mud himself. Then he gets someone to push him out of the mire; the push sends his car into a water puddle at least six feet deep. A tow truck pulls the axle off his car. And then Charley dives into the water to retrieve the car, precipitating many underwater scenes, as though he were at the bottom of the sea. Chase later revived this sequence for his better known talking short Fallen Arches (1933).

For more on comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Kathy Biehl Reports on the Big Uke Rumble!

Posted in Contemporary Variety, Music with tags , , on November 22, 2014 by travsd

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When Uke Rumble VII was going on a few days ago I was occupied several blocks away seeing Filler (look for the review here in a few days). Fortunately, the multi-talented Kathy Biehl was able to attend the ukelicious festivities and she was gracious enough to file this report: 

The spirit of vaudeville is alive on New York’s Lower East Side. Who would have thought that the vehicle would be the tiny ukulele?

Consider the evidence: Men in bow ties and dapper hats. Old timey acoustic instruments and music to match. Exotic, scantily clad dancers. Rapid-fire comedy. Astonishing wigs. Contests with prizes. Add disco-ball starlight and thoroughly modern wackiness, and the result was Uke Rumble VII at Parkside Lounge Nov. 19, 2014.

The event is a semi-annual exercise in musicianship, good humor and whimsy, overseen and organized by duo Bespoke, Joe Silver, who transfers crack guitar chops to an amplified ukulele ax, and singer/actress/mischief-maker Suzanne Savoy.

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The latest iteration followed the Rumble’s tradition of variety, loving homages, set changes in three minutes max, and a small but packed and audibly appreciative room. Hooting, singing, tabletop drumming and hollering abounded. No fruit was tossed, but a bag of clementines did make the rounds to reward audience members who’d identified the star of My Mother, The Car (the theme song of which led off Bespoke’s set, complete with effects-pedal ah-oogahs.)

Apart from the ringleaders, the thrust remained, as usual acoustic. The Rumble kicked off with David Logan Rankin’s original songs, backed by fiercely strummed 12-string. Gentle sounds from the 20s and 30s followed, courtesy of the time machine that is the Buck and a Quarter Quartet . The name is a suggestion only; the age-diverse quartet numbered seven (yep) that evening, combining guitars, upright bass, banjo, violin and the occasional sax and lap xylophone duet. Their sweet, lilting numbers had the audience swaying and, at times, hand-dancing (guilty!); a standout was a playful early 30s ditty “Mating Time;” they claim it’s never been recorded, and their light, loving rendition argues for them to fill that void.

Third-generation New Jersey Italian TJ Del Reno cleansed the palate with a well-structured, consistently hitting stand-up set that earned the event’s adults-only status, careening from the street-numbering system of Queens and family quirks to contrasting the pre-and post-cellphone/Internet experience of dating and discovering porn as an adolescent.

Next came a tour of Polynesia, led by the trio T.A.B.U. (The Across Boroughs Ukuleles) and the Lei Pasifika Dancers, who combined low-slung floral sarongs with cowboy boots or socks due to the temperature outside in the 20s. They swayed, shimmied, snapped fingers and gestured beckoningly to songs from Hawaii and Tahiti, introduced and sung by Makalina, a prominent champion of the uke and organizer of the NYC Ukulele Meetup Group. In testament to the act’s charm and allure, when she requested audience participants to join the dancers, no nominee balked.

Bespoke closed the evening with its characteristic penchant for traveling all over time/space: a TV theme opener (past have included Bonanza, It’s About Time and Doctor Who), 60s pop (this time, Bobby Goldsboro’s “Little Things” and The Turtles’ “You Showed Me”), duo-written vignettes about Savoy’s parents and Delaware shore roots, and abundant obscure gems. The Christian-themed children’s series Veggie Tales was the source for their prop and costume number, “Astonishing Wigs,” featuring wigs Savoy built to fit the title and an appearance by your humble reporter. The choice was a nod to special guests from the Charles Lapointe wig studio, but the goofiness, by the audience reaction, had appeal as well to those not in the know.

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A paean to diners ended with the ring of a bell that, in turn, went to the winning answer to the question “How many ukulele players does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer: 12, one to change the bulb and the others to show the 11 different ways he could have fingered it. No one was arguing over fingering, or anything else, at this Rumble, though. It littered the place with laughter, hugs and good vibes, with mingling and trading contact information in its wake.

Watch Bespoke’s online calendar for the announcement of the next Uke Rumble, coming in 2015.

Dr. Sketchy’s Returns Tomorrow: with Sammy Tramp!

Posted in Burlesk, Drag and/or LGBT, PLUGS, VISUAL ART with tags , , on November 21, 2014 by travsd

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100 Directors Who Made Vastly Better Comedies Than Harold Ramis

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History) with tags , on November 21, 2014 by travsd

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In No Particular Order: 

1. Charlie Chaplin

2. Buster Keaton

3. Leo McCarey

4. Preston Sturges

5. Jules White

6. George Stevens

7. Mack Sennett

8. Hal Roach

9. Ernst Lubitsch

10. Jerry Lewis

11. Robert Townsend

12. Blake Edwards

13. Norman Taurog

14. The Coen Brothers

15. Wes Anderson

16. Tim Burton

17. Keenan Ivory Wayans

18. Mel Brooks

19. Gene Wilder

20. Woody Allen

21. Carl Reiner

22. Eddie Sedgwick

23. Eddie Cline

24. Gregory La Cava

25. Paul Parrott

27. Norman McLeod

28. Sidney Lanfield

29. John Hughes

30. Jacques Tati

31. Max Linder

32. Roscoe Arbuckle

33. Frank Tashlin

34. Howard Hawks

35. Wesley Ruggles

36. Eddie Sutherland

37. John Landis

38. Roy Del Ruth

39. Harry Edwards

40. Del Lord

41. George Nichols

42. Clyde Bruckman

43. Sam Taylor

44. Peter Bogdonovich

45. Dell Henderson

46. Rene Clair

47. William A. Seiter

48. Harry Langdon

49. Charley Chase

50. Frank Capra

51. Mal St. Clair

52. Henry Lehrman

53. Tony Richardson

54. Stanley Kubrick

55. Chuck Reisner

56. Victor Fleming

57. Alf Goulding

58. William Beaudine

59. George Marshall

60. Charlie Bowers

61. Al Christie

62. Mabel Normand

63. Jim Jarmusch

64. Judd Apatow

65. Hal Ashby

66. The Farrelly brothers

67. Steve Martin

68. Bobcat Goldthwait

69. Noah Baumbach

70. Whit Stillman

71. Mike Nichols

72. Elaine May

73. Albert Brooks

74. Rickey Gervais

75. Christopher Guest

76. Charlie Kaufman

77. Mike Judge

78. Jake Kasdan

79. Ernie Fosselius

80. Martin Scorsese

81. Spike Lee

82. Howard Morris

83. Eddie Buzzell

84. Jean Yarbrough

85. George Cukor

86. Billy Wilder

87. Garson Kanin

88. Robert Altman

89. Hy Averback

90. Paul Mazursky

91. Fred C. Newmeyer

92. William Asher

93. Charles Lane

94. Ben Stiller

95. Hal Needham

96. S. Sylvan Simon

97. Dan Aykroyd

98. D.W. Griffith

99. John Emerson

100. Steven Spielberg (No, that’s just cruel, we’ll make it 99)

For more on what you don’t know about comedy see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Tomorrow on TCM: Chaplin’s First Talkie

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , on November 21, 2014 by travsd

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Tomorrow at 6:00 am (EST) Turner Classic Movies will be showing one of my favorite films, Charlie Chaplin’s first talkie The Great Dictator (1940). 

By the 1930s there was no avoiding the fact that another buffoon with a toothbrush mustache was vying with Chaplin for the title of most famous man in the world. Chaplin despised Adolf Hitler. That the German tyrant  had spoiled Chaplin’s distinctive brand and banned his films was the least of it. Hitler was against everything Chaplin stood for: humanism, tolerance, sympathy, freedom. He was convincing large numbers of people to hate Jews; the woman Chaplin loved at the time (Paulette Goddard) was half Jewish.

For years Chaplin had been threatening to make a picture about Napoleon, originally with Edna Purviance as his Josephine. It was an easy matter for him to transfer the Napoleon ideas that had been gestating and adapt them into a burlesque on Hitler.  Since his trademark mustache had been stolen, the proposed film would also be his sad farewell to his famous screen character. In this film, The Little Fellow (a barber here) is a Jewish war hero who bears an uncanny resemblance to the national dictator Adenoid Hynkel. In the end, he will have the opportunity to briefly replace him and make his plea for common sense and human decency.

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This was a momentous theme, important enough for Chaplin to drop his decade-long rear guard action against dialogue. This would be a much larger job for him than it had been for any other silent comedian who had gone into talkies. Lloyd, Keaton, Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, all of them were highly collaborative artists. When it came time to talk, writers would write their screenplays, which they would undoubtedly tweak, but that was the extent of it. But, aside from the minor contribution here and there, Chaplin had always been the sole creator of his works. This meant that in addition to the many hats he already wore, he would now have to reinvent himself as a screenwriter in the modern sense: somebody who sits down at a typewriter and writes a playscript, spoken dialogue and all, for the screen. It seems to me he made an amazing adjustment. While Chaplin did hire helpers to assist with early drafts, to anyone who is familiar with his voice there is no doubt that most of what winds up on screen is Chaplin’s.

The thing that most surprises about The Great Dictator is, despite its weighty purpose, how out-and-out funny it is. It may be his most Mack Sennett-like film since his Essanay days, frankly comical in an accessible earthy way. All of the fun with names (Tomainia, Bacteria, Garbitsch, Herring, Napoloni) is straight out of the Ben Turpin playbook. And Chaplin has been careful to balance the introduction of spoken dialogue with copious amounts of slapstick and physical business throughout the entire movie. The World War I flashback that opens the film (evoking Shoulder Arms) showcases the Little Fellow’s misadventures with a ridiculously large gun named Big Bertha, followed by a bit where he and an injured pilot (Reginald Gardiner) fly their bi-plane upside down without noticing it.  Later when we get to the present, there is a great scene where the girl, Hannah (Paulette Goddard, in her second and last Chaplin role), is hitting storm troopers on the head with a frying pan. When she accidentally strikes Charlie, he goes classically goofy with concussion and does a little dance up and down the sidewalk as though soused. Chaplin is amazingly agile in this film. At one point, the fifty-ish comedian leaps into the air and dives head first into a barrel as though he were half his age. But now that it is 1940 and he has sound with which to play, he experiments with the ways in which movement and sound can interplay. The barber shaves a customer in time to a Hungarian dance being played on the radio. A microphone withers when Hynkel yells into it (another Sennett-style gag). And then there is Hynkel’s famously beautiful dance with the globe to the music of Wagner’s Lohengrin, one of Chaplin’s most famous scenes.

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But he also saw that there were ways to make similarly symbolic points without losing the humor, as when Hynkel and Napoloni jack up the adjacent barber chairs in which they’re seated to the height of the ceiling so that they can be taller than one another. Another bit, both funny and dark, reminds me of the tone of The Gold Rush. In a grim contest to see who will go on a suicide mission to kill Hynkel, the Little Fellow and the men from the ghetto are eating cupcakes, one of which has a gold coin in it. Not particularly heroic, the barber weighs each plate that comes his way. Satisfied, he begins to eat, only to have the guy sitting next to him switch cupcakes on him. No matter which cupcake he eats, the Little Fellow seems to get the gold coin.

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A lot of the verbal humor is broad, as well. Much of it is lifted from vaudeville: Jack Oakie’s dialect as Napoloni is straight from the Chico Marx school of Italian impersonation, and Chaplin’s own parodies of Hitler’s speeches is a piece of “Dutch” comedy worthy of Weber and Fields, Baron Munchausen, or for that matter Ford Sterling. The doubletalk business hearkens back to his first onscreen spoken words, the nonsense song from Modern Times.

Some of the ethnic lampoon backfires somewhat. With no awareness of the Holocaust then in progress, Chaplin’s gentle Jewish stereotypes, hearkening back to his own “Sam Cohen” routine on the London burlesque stage, seem out of place and distasteful to say the least. But how could he have known? Conversely, the storm troopers are WAY too gently represented. Here they are painted as mere buffoons and lummoxes in the Keystone Kops mold. It rings uncomfortable and false even in the context of 1940, as the thugs, just like the real ones of the time, are painting “Jew” on storefronts, smashing windows, and beating up women and old men in the street. With hindsight it’s easy to see that the best strategy would have been to treat these characters with no humor whatsoever. There is a way to integrate such serious villains into a comedy without losing the overall humor. Chaplin had done it in films like The Kid and The Gold Rush. It seems like he flinched here.

Surprisingly, despite the fact that America had not yet joined the war, and a large part of the public was either pro-Germany or pro-neutrality, The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s biggest grossing film to date. This no doubt was in part due to curiosity on the part of the public to hear Chaplin speak.  Nowadays, I would venture to say the film is less well-known than his best-known silents The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times. However, it seems to be picking up steam all the time thanks to frequent television airplay and in the long run it may come to match them in popularity.

For more on comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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